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(Part Two—Luke 3:23-38)
The purpose of Matthew’s genealogy is easy to understand: he showed Jesus is the legal heir to the throne of David, and the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The purpose of Luke’s, however, is not as cut-and-dried.
Oh, and it is way different from Matthew’s.
To put Luke’s genealogy in perspective, let’s consider the opening to his gospel account.
Luke’s Introduction (Luke 1:1-4)
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Whatever we decide about Luke’s genealogy, it must fit into this opening statement. Luke didn’t just make up names. His list was the result of careful investigation. Luke did his research, and expected everything he wrote to stand up to the test of careful historical examination.
An atheist named William Ramsay hated the Bible so much he determined to prove it untrustworthy. He used Luke’s writings (the books of Luke and Acts) and went around to the areas mentioned. He involved himself in archaeological studies and historical records. And by the time he was finished, he declared Luke to be a first-rate historian, and proceeded to write several books defending the accuracy of the Bible.
All that to say, Luke would not have put these specific names in this specific order unless he was absolutely certain of their accuracy. So why doesn’t his list jive with Matthew’s? We’re going to first consider the difficulties, as well as proposed solutions to these two inspired lists.
We can’t call ourselves dedicated Bible students if we aren’t willing to take a look at difficult parts of God’s word. And of all the passages that people use as supposed “contradictions,” these two genealogies pose one of the most challenging to explain.
Difficulty #1: Sure Looks Like Joseph’s Genealogy
If we didn’t have Matthew’s gospel, then any reader of Luke would naturally assume (and with good reason) that this genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage through his foster-father, Joseph. Mary isn’t even named in this list. Look at Luke 3:23-24:
Jesus Himself began to be about thirty years old, being (as it was supposed) the son of Joseph, who was the son of Heli, who was the son of Matthat…
And if this is the case, then either Matthew or Luke (or both) were just dead wrong on their lists.
Difficulty #2: Jesus Isn’t Heir to the Throne
If this is the legitimate genealogy through Joseph (see #1), then Jesus isn’t in line for the kingdom, as that right is passed from father to son. This genealogy goes back to David, but through his son Nathan (Luke 3:31), who did not inherit the throne, nor did his descendants. This poses a rather significant theological issue.
Difficulty #3: What Was Your Dad’s Name?
If we take Luke’s genealogy straightforward as written, then Joseph was the son of Heli (Luke 3:23). But Matthew says his father’s name was Jacob (Matthew 1:16). I know that sometimes people have multiple names in the Bible (Moses’ father-in-law had three different names), but there is not a single name that matches in the two genealogies between Joseph and Zerubbabel. I personally find it difficult to believe that Matthew and Luke listed the same people (or even just some of the same people), but never once used the same name for them.
Difficulty #4: Luke’s Big Fail on Showing Jesus Representing All Mankind
One of the main purposes behind Luke’s genealogy seems to be to show that Jesus is the Savior for all mankind, because He—like everyone else—is part of humanity through Adam. But since Luke appears to trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph (who was not His father), then all Luke can prove is that Jesus was raised by a man who descended from Adam. That raising doesn’t give Jesus His humanity.
Difficulty #5: Shealtiel’s Two Dads
Matthew says Shealtiel’s dad was Jechoniah (1:12). Luke says his dad was Neri (3:27). And no, these aren’t two names for the same person. None of Luke’s line from Shealtiel to David Matches with Matthew’s record of the same gap.
Difficulty #6: The Missing People
Between David and Zerubbabel, Matthew skipped a couple names here and there. But after Zerubbabel, things seem to get crazy. Where Matthew has nine names between Zerubbabel and Joseph, Luke has seventeen—nearly double! Was Matthew just lazy?
I’m sure there are probably more difficulties I am missing, but those are the ones that came to mind as I put this together.
Proposed Solutions to the Genealogical Conundrum
Throughout the centuries, Bible students, commentators, scholars, experts (and whoever else you want to throw in there) have attempted to find ways of harmonizing these two lists. And none of them are without their own difficulties. But we will present some of the more prominent ones here:
Possible Solution #1: The Royal and Priestly Line of Joseph
Ambrose, among others, posited that Jesus was descended from the Kingly line of Solomon (Matthew’s list) and from the priestly line of Nathan (Luke’s list). It is argued that this was necessary because Jesus is both king and priest.
While this sounds interesting from a “let’s make a theological point here” standpoint, this solution fails due to the fact that Nathan—the son of David—wasn’t a priest. He couldn’t be a priest, since his father was David, of the tribe of Judah. That would make Nathan from Judah as well. And the only priests came from the tribe of Levi.
Possible Solution #2: Joseph and Shealtiel were Adopted
It has been suggested that an adoption or two could explain all the variances between the two lists. If Joseph was the natural son of Eli (Heli in some translations), but the adopted son of Jacob, then we have an explanation for the two different lists. The same thing would have to be true for Shealtiel: born to Neri, but adopted by Jeconiah.
There are biblical instances of being called “the son of” when it wasn’t talking about a natural parent. In the Jewish way of thinking (and to a large part it is true of us today), “[He] that brings up, not he that begets, is called the father” or parent. Moses was called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Jesus was called the son of Joseph. Joseph was called Pharaoh’s father.
Matthew literally uses the word “begat” (KJV) or “fathered” (SENT), which implies natural fatherhood, Luke says, “was of” for each layer of his genealogy (most translators expand it to “was the son of,” but the Greek just reads “was of”). While this may not seem like a big difference, Luke’s wording opens the possibility of an adopted son, or another option which we will note momentarily.
But there are problems with this one too.
- One of the goals of Luke’s gospel, and thus the genealogy, is to show Jesus’ humanity, that He is not just Son of God, but also Son of man. Showing He was raised by a human who was descended from Adam doesn’t show Jesus’ relationship to the human race.
- Jeconiah was 8 years old when he became king, reigned barely over three months, and was taken captive to Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:9-10). He remained a captive until he was 45 years old, when the king of Babylon elevated him to eat with him (2 Kings 25:27-30). In other words, adoption doesn’t really seem like something he would have had the opportunity to engage in.
Possible Solution #3: This is the Genealogy through Mary
While this has its difficulties (specifically Difficulty #1 above), it is the one which answers most of the difficulties, when certain reasonable explanations are given. We will explain how this could be Mary’s family line after showing how this concept deals with the previously mentioned difficulties.
- If this is Mary’s, then it isn’t Joseph’s, and thus all differences between the two lists are rendered moot (at least from Zerubbabel to Joseph).
- If this is Mary’s, then it has no bearing on the legal, royal line, because that goes through the legal father (Joseph). Thus, this difficulty is overcome.
- See #1 in this list.
- If this is Mary’s, then it shows the physical line from which Jesus came, showing His relationship to the entire human race by tracing Him back to Adam. Thus, difficulty overcome
- We will deal with this difficulty momentarily.
- If this is Mary’s, then the difference in number of people between Joseph and Zerubbabel can rationally be explained (and it may be that Matthew skipped some generations in that section as well, which would also explain part of the difference).
So now, all we really have to do is figure out how this list could possibly refer to Mary’s lineage instead of Joseph’s. There are two main ways I’ve seen this tried. But both of them assume (and there is ancient evidence for it) that Heli/Eli (depending on your translation) is Mary’s father.
The first attempt is a rearranging of the parentheses in Luke 3:23. Before we get into this, know that the parentheses are added by translators, as there was no such thing in Greek. So their placement is a matter of context and opinion. Luke 3:23, in most translations, reads: “Jesus… being (as was supposed) the Son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli.” Instead, it is suggested that it should read: “Jesus… (being as was supposed the Son of Joseph), which was of Heli.” You might say this increases the confusion, calling Jesus “of Heli” or “the Son of Heli.” But since Luke doesn’t mention any women in his genealogy, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for him to connect Jesus and His maternal grandfather this way.
The problem with this is that Luke is extremely detailed and accurate, and doesn’t appear to skip even a single generation. So while it isn’t outside the realm of possibility, it doesn’t seem likely he would skip a generation (Mary) at the beginning, while mentioning the adoptive father. Additionally, pretty much every professional translator agrees (check all the translations you like) that the parentheses are already in the right place, and don’t need to be changed to make it easier to prove a point.
The second attempt takes part of the Old Testament law and applies it to the genealogy. When the Israelites were traveling toward the Promised Land, a group of sisters came to Moses with a problem—their father had no sons, only daughters. What would happen to his inheritance? Moses went to God, who said in these cases, the inheritance would pass to the daughters. These same sisters came back with another question—what happens if they get married to someone outside their tribe? God’s answer was for them to only marry whoever they wanted, but only within their tribe, because the inheritance that had come to the daughter would become also the inheritance of her husband.
How does this apply to the genealogy? This law, when figuring the inheritance, counts the son-in-law as a son. That is why it is called a son in law. Thus, when a man had only daughters, the genealogy would give his son-in-law as his son, which wouldn’t mess up the later lines, because any children born to that union would still be physical descendants.
So, take all that information, then assume Heli was the father of Mary, but he had no sons, only daughters (a legitimate possibility). After his marriage to Mary, Joseph, now Heli’s son-in-law, would be counted as his son.
So when Luke says, “Joseph, which was the son of Heli,” he’s saying Joseph was the son in law of Heli.
It is suggested that this is also the situation Shealtiel was in, being the son-in-law of Neri, who (according to this understanding) had no sons. Thus, Shealtiel would have been counted as his son in this genealogy.
I get that this isn’t the easiest, most cut-and-dried explanation we could want, but it is reasonable, fits with Jewish practice and custom of the time, and does away with all the difficulties between Matthew and Luke’s accounts. Because of this, even though it takes some thinking to get there, I am satisfied that this is the best explanation for the differences between the two genealogies.
Luke’s Purposes for His Genealogy
We already mentioned above that one of Luke’s purposes seems to be to show the humanity of Jesus—that is, Jesus was a human, born from a human, descended from Adam like every other human. In other words, Jesus is one of us. This makes Jesus relatable. He had to grow, to learn, to suffer, to eat, to sleep just like the rest of us.
Another purpose may have been to explain to the Greeks (who had myriads of theories and traditions about where man came from) the origin of mankind. He traces Jesus back to the beginning of humanity (Adam), and then says Adam was “of God,” meaning God was his source.
Both these two reasons help explain why Luke ran his genealogy backwards from Jesus to Adam instead of forward like Matthew did.
Luke may have also intended by this to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Zerubbabel. Whether he intended it or not, it does have that effect.
The Genealogy of Luke
Outside of Joseph, all the names between him and Zerubbabel are people only mentioned here. We know nothing about anyone on this portion of the list except that they are descended from Zerubbabel, and are in the ancestry of Jesus.
Since we discussed Zerubbabel (whose name literally means “Born in Babel [Babylon]”) and Shealtiel in the previous lesson, we won’t go into them here.
From Shealtiel, we encounter another list of people whose names only appear here. In other words, we know nothing about any of these men from Neri (verse 27) to Mattatha (verse 31), except that they are in this genealogy.
Nathan (father of Mattatha) was a son of David and Bathsheba, and was born in Jerusalem. He almost certainly was named after Nathan the prophet, a friend of David who called out David’s horrid sinfulness to his face.
David through Abraham
We covered these men in the previous lesson.
Abraham’s father Terah traveled with him when they left Ur of the Chaldees, and died in Haran, a city Terah may have named after his own dead son.
Nahor, Sereg, Reu
Outside of their appearance in genealogical records, nothing is known about these men.
I would have included Peleg’s name in the previous list, except that in Genesis 10:25, we are told he was called Peleg, “for in his days the earth was divided.” What exactly that means isn’t clear. It could mean his father was involved in some dividing up of land (the word “land” and the word “earth” are the same word in Hebrew). It could mean the family divided into different parts of the earth at the time Peleg was born. Or it could mean the earth was a giant land mass (frequently referred to in later literature as Pangea) that God divided into continents around this time.
Heber was the well-known head of the family, which gave rise to his descendants being called Hebrews. The first person called a Hebrew is Abram (who God later renamed Abraham). When Moses went to Egypt to free the Israelites, he went proclaiming “the LORD God of the Hebrews” had sent him. In fact, the Israelites aren’t called Israelites until Exodus 9:7—before that they are called Hebrews.
Outside of his appearance in genealogies, we know nothing about him, but he must have been of some importance to have people generations down the line still being called by his name.
Shelah, Cainan, Arphaxad
Like so many others in Luke’s list, nothing is known about these men outside of genealogical facts. But God used them.
Possibly the oldest of Noah’s three sons, Shem was given the blessing by his father. It is from Shem that we get the word Semitic, which can be used to describe a wide variety of languages, but when applied to people (at least in modern times) it only refers to Jews.
In a time of rampant sinfulness, where “every imagination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only on evil continually,” Noah stood out like a bright light. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” By faith, Noah built an ark at the command of God, to keep them safe from the rain and floods that would come. This is even more impressive when you consider it had never rained before. So Noah was building an ark, preparing for something that no one had seen or heard of before. Imagine the heckling he would have gotten from those he warned: Water from the sky? Noah have you lost your mind? You’re nuts! But Noah kept working and working for over 100 years, staying faithful to God throughout it all.
Outside of his appearance in genealogies, nothing is known of Lamech.
His name literally means, “When he goes, it comes.” Methuselah lived longer than anyone in recorded history at 969 years. And his name seems to be prophetic—because he died the same year the flood came.
This man “walked with God.” God thought it was so important that He had Moses record that fact twice in three verses. Genesis 5:22 seems to indicate he began walking with God after Methuselah was born. And since Methuselah’s name appears to foretell the flood, it may be that Enoch started taking God seriously at that point.
Enoch is called a prophet of God. He prophesied the flood (through Methuselah’s name), and another of his prophesies was quoted by Jude to apply to false teachers in the first century.
Enoch is in rare company, being one of only four righteous people in the entire Bible whose earthly end was orchestrated and carried out by God. The other three are Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
Jared, Mahalaleel, Cainan, Enosh
Jared is the second-oldest person in recorded history. But other than their ages at death and their places in the genealogy, nothing is known of these men. It may be assumed that these men were righteous. It is from this family that men were born who are called “sons of God.” Unfortunately, most of these offspring married unfaithful spouses, “daughters of men,” and went badly astray.
Seth is the third son that we know about from Adam and Eve. He certainly wasn’t their third child. Adam and Eve were commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” Seth wasn’t born until at least nine months after Cain killed Abel. How old was Cain when that happened? Most seem to guess at least twenty years old. So were Adam and Eve “fruitful” and “multiplying” if they only had two children, waited twenty years, and then had a third?
It was after Seth fathered Enos that “men began to call upon the name of the LORD.” Seth and his descendants appear to have dedicated themselves to following God.
Adam was the first sinless man, who then became the first sinner. Eve was deceived by the serpent, but Adam was there with her and said nothing. Instead, he joined in. When God came to Adam (who was the head of the family), asking what was going on, Adam threw Eve under the proverbial bus. But Paul makes it quite clear that Adam is the one to blame.
There is actually surprisingly little good said about Adam in the Bible. He was the first human, created in the image of God. He worked the ground. He named Eve and he named the animals. And he had children with his wife. That pretty much summarizes the non-bad things (which are: knowingly disobeying a direct command of God, hiding from God, lying to God, blaming Eve, blaming God).
We can’t miss the fact that Luke traces all of humanity back to God. It was God’s plan to create man. It was God who formed Adam and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. It was God who created a garden paradise for Adam and Eve to live in. It was God’s plan to save mankind from their sin by sending His Son to be a perfect example, a perfect teacher, and a perfect sacrifice for them and us. He put that plan into motion by creating Adam.
When we look at the genealogies, we often get lost in the names and human-ness of the list, and sometimes we forget that God is the one behind it all. Luke reminds us not to forget where we came from. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).
What Does This Mean for Us Today?
Behind it all, there is God. The bookends of Luke’s genealogy are Jesus and the Father, God. How are you doing at remembering God in your life? Do you pray enough? Do you thank Him enough? Do you read His word enough?
Jesus knows what it is like to suffer, to face temptation, to be tired, to be hungry, to be betrayed. And because of these things, He is able to identify with us, to help us.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Difficulties in the Bible can be figured out, or at least given a reasonable explanation if we are willing to dig a little and think a little. The world is quick to label anything a bit different in the Bible as a contradiction, but all of them have rational, reasonable explanations if we are willing to look for them.
We can’t back away from difficulties. We should be willing, as Christians who trust in God and His word, to admit difficulties and try to find reasonable answers.
 See previous lesson for far more detail.
 He was called Reuel (Exodus 2:18), Jerthro (Exodus 18:12), and Hobab (Judges 4:11).
 Just, Arthur Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke (Thomas C. Oden, editor). E-Sword edition.
 John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible on Luke 3:23. E-Sword edition.
 Exodus 2:10; Acts 7:21
 Luke 2:48; John 6:42.
 Genesis 45:8.
 The Spoken English New Testament.
 See John Gill’s Exposition on this verse for more information.
 McGarvey, J.W., and Pendleton, Philip Y., The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, FIND YEAR) page 7.
 Numbers 27:1-11.
 Numbers 36.
 McGarvey and Pendleton, Fourfold Gospel, page 7.
 1 Chronicles 3:5.
 Genesis 11:31-32.
 While I like this option best for the coolness factor, I tend to think if the Pangea hypothesis is real, it would have happened during the flood.
 Genesis 14:13.
 Exodus 3:18; 9:1.
 Genesis 6:5
 Genesis 6:8.
 Genesis 5:22-24.
 Jude 14-16.
 Deuteronomy 34:5-7.
 2 Kings 2:1-11.
 John 3:16; Acts 2:22-24.
 Genesis 6:1-3. The idea that “sons of God” in this passage refers to angels who fell is highly imaginative fiction which, unfortunately, has been allowed to be believed as truth. Jesus said angels neither marry nor are given in marriage (Mark 12:15). They are sexless beings. After describing the “sons of God” marrying the “daughters of men,” we are given God’s thoughts: “My spirit shall not always strive with man…” (Genesis 6:3). The sinners of verse 2 are humans, otherwise God is confused about who He is talking about.
 This doesn’t even get into the fact that Cain had to get a wife from somewhere—it was either his sister or a niece.
 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 5:12-14.