Friday, December 18, 2015

All in the Family: The Genealogies of Jesus

           So I'm going to take a break from giving a tour of the Bible Library for a bit. So far, we've covered most of the Hebrew Scriptures, which – and I'm sure Jesus won't mind me saying this – I find more interesting than the New Testament anyway. I was going to write about the compilation and canonization of the Bible this week, but I discovered that I needed some more time to research that topic in order to do it justice. Instead, since we are drawing ever nearer to that joyous season of Christmas, I decided to write about the genealogies of Jesus. What!? That (seemingly) boring list of names at the beginning of Matthew and Luke? Aw yisss, that's right... because even though I can't pronounce half of those names, the lists are, in fact, rather significant and interesting pieces of work.

            If you watch much television, I'm sure you've come across commercials for genealogy websites like or There's even a program on TLC called "Who Do You Think You Are?" in which celebrities explore their ancestral past and learn fascinating secrets about their forebears. It is pretty natural for us to want to know where we come from. I can't count the number of times I've been in conversations about family backgrounds. Just yesterday, in fact, someone in the friary was playing German Christmas music, and much to my delight I could exclaim, "That's my people!" Knowing our origins tends to give us a sense of rootedness, belonging, and may even tell us a little about ourselves – or at least give an us an excuse for our idiosyncrasies. I, for one, like to attribute my anxiety about tardiness to my German side and my frugality to my Scottish side.

            Genealogies throughout Scripture function in a somewhat similar fashion. It wasn't so much that they were accurate lists of a biblical figure's ancestors or progeny – because I don't think that any of them actually were historically accurate  – but that they made a symbolic claim about origins and, especially in Genesis, underscored the interconnectedness of the human family.

            Now I must admit, looking at the genealogies in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke opens up a big ol' can of worms. But this is one of the reasons that I wanted to write about the them today anyway. They're a good introduction to the subtle (and oftentimes not so subtle) differences among the evangelists' perspectives and theological emphases. If you haven't noticed, there are four different Gospel accounts, and each one is unique. There would be little reason to have all four in the Bible if they all told the same story in the exact same way.
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            If you have some time right now, peruse through the two genealogies of Jesus: Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 (click the links to find them on You don't have to read them too closely; just get a sense of each one.
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            Great! So if you had a chance to take a look at them, you may have noticed some obvious differences. Matthew's goes from Abraham and works his way down to Jesus. Luke's, on the other hand, starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam. And if that isn't enough, the two lists hardly agree on the names of Jesus' ancestors. They can't even agree on the father of Joseph! What the frankincense is going on? Just remember what I had said earlier; genealogies weren't created to point out historical facts about someone's ancestry. Their purpose was to make a theological – or otherwise symbolic – point about the person to whom they refer.

            This all has to do with differences in the evangelists' communities and theological point of view. Matthew was writing to a Jewish-Christian audience. His Gospel is the most "Jewish" of the four and is constantly making parallels to the Hebrew Scriptures. Since his audience was made up of Jewish followers of Christ, they had to defend the legitimacy of their belief in Christ against fellow Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. Thus, Matthew's Gospel is emphatic; in both verse 16 and 17 he calls Jesus the Messiah. And in the very first line of Matthew's whole Gospel he asserts that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham. The latter roots Jesus in the Jewish heritage, for Abraham is the father of the people of Israel and the father of the promise (Gen 12:1-3). Matthew's Gospel is adamant that Jesus was a good Jewish man; he was born a Jew and died a Jew.

            Matthew's emphasis on Jesus being the son of David legitimizes Jesus' royal lineage, for it was a requirement that the Messiah be part of the Davidic line. In fact, Matthew's Gospel uses the phrase "son of David" 10 times, whereas Mark and Luke use it only three times each, and John doesn't use it at all. Interestingly enough, Matthew seems to go out of his way to craft his genealogy into three periods of 14 generations each. One theory is that the number 14 is the value of David's name. In Hebrew, his name is דוד, and the letter dalet, ד, is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter waw (or vav), ו, is the sixth, thus 4+6+4 = 14. This little numerical word trick is known as gematria, and use of it is made in the Book of Revelation (as in the number 666 equaling Emperor Nero's name). Some have proposed that Matthew's crafting of Jesus' genealogy into three sets of 14 is another way that the evangelist draws a connection between King David and Jesus, almost as if to say that Jesus is the "David-est" or the "most David of persons," and therefore the Messiah par excellence.

            Incredible, right? Yeah, other biblical scholars think so too – that it's too incredible. In his commentary on Matthew, Daniel J. Harrington concludes that this is probably not what is going here with the number 14, and instead suggests that the significance of the number 14 in this case has to do with it being a multiple of the perfect number seven.[1] That's a far more boring explanation, but it may likely be the more accurate one. In his commentary, M. Eugene Boring notes that "dividing history into periods of fourteen appears elsewhere in Jewish tradition," but he doesn't dismiss the connection between 14 and David's name either.[2] Whatever the reasoning behind the number 14, it is clear that Matthew took pains to make sure that that was the number of generations, for he even leaves some names out in the process.

            As for Luke, he is writing to a Gentile audience, so asserting Jesus' Jewishness or his Davidic patrimony, while still important, are not on the top of his priorities. Luke's Gospel still grounds Jesus in the patriarchal lineage – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – but his genealogy goes all the way back to Adam, a common ancestor to all. The theme of universality is typical of Luke's Gospel. In his commentary on Luke, L.T. Johnson notes that "the significance of Jesus is not only for the 'children of Abraham,' but for all the descendants of Adam, all the nations of the earth."[3] Furthermore, Luke's genealogy is situated directly after the narrative of Jesus' baptism, in which the voice from heaven pronounces of Jesus "You are my beloved Son..." This theme is repeated in verse 38 of Luke's genealogy, for we hear Jesus' lineage going all the way back to Adam who is "the son of God."

            This is about all I'll say on Luke's genealogy, because Matthew's is far more interesting. If you've taken a look at Matthew's genealogy, you may have also noticed that he names four women other than Mary in his list. Each of these women is a fascinating character. The first is Tamar. I won't go into her whole story, but you can read it for yourself in Genesis 38. Trust me; it's a good read. Lots of drama, just like a soap opera. What I will say of her is that she broke a sexual taboo in having intercourse with her father-in-law, Judah.  But she is declared righteous in the end, for Judah failed in his duty to give her a son that would give her children in her deceased husband's name. I'm telling you; it's a juicy story, that Genesis 38.

            The next woman, Rahab, is a foreigner – a Canaanite from Jericho who is said to be a "harlot." Yet this woman is also righteous, for she rescued the Israelite spies and thus aided the success of the their campaign against Jericho. Perhaps she was a Benedict Arnold for her own people, but for the Israelites she was a saint. You can read her story in chapter 2 of Joshua.

            And then we have Ruth. For a people who hated the nation of Moab so much, it's impressive that they would have a whole book dedicated to a Moabite woman. Not only that, but this woman is an ancestress of King David... the King David! Her story is one of a widowed foreigner who is faithful to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi (an Israelite woman), and marries Boaz. By doing so he saves Naomi and Ruth from their poverty, since he is a close kinsmen of Naomi's deceased husband. It can be difficult to grasp what all is going on in the narrative, for the cultural context is very remote to modern-day readers. I will say, however, that chapter 3 is resplendent with Hebrew double entendre, and it is unclear whether the interaction between Ruth and Boaz is completely innocent or implying something else. Phrases like "uncover a place at his feet," "Spread the corner of your cloak over me," or even the fact that the couple encountered each other at the "threshing floor" (a place associated with prostitution) all can carry some sexual connotations. That being said, Ruth is the third righteous woman in the list, the second foreigner, and she may or may not have a bit of a sexual taboo associated with her too.

            Lastly, we have Bathsheba, but the evangelist doesn't even use her name in the genealogy. Instead, he refers to her as "the wife of Uriah," almost as if to emphasize the adulterous relationship that King David had with her. The story of David and Bathsheba can be found in 2 Samuel 11. Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite, which, even if she was originally an Israelite, thus made her a foreigner. David covets her and has relations with her even though he knows she is married. Personally, I do not find Bathsheba very culpable in the whole affair, but there is no indication of her willingness or lack thereof in the narrative. The real schmuck in the story is David, who, upon learning that Bathsheba is pregnant tries to cover up his scandal. When he finds that he can't, he arranges for Bathsheba's husband to die in battle. David eventually marries Bathsheba, and she becomes the mother of Solomon, another well-admired, though not entirely virtuous, king of Israel. Bathsheba thus shares in the characteristics noted in the women discussed so far: somewhat of a foreigner, associated with questionable sexual behavior, but nevertheless honorable – in her case by being the queen mother of King Solomon. As for David, he, like so many other heroes and patriarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures that are included in Jesus' genealogy, is both righteous and flawed.

            So why does Matthew's Gospel go to such lengths to include these women in Jesus' genealogy? Scholars offer several reasons. According to Daniel J. Harrington, "in their own distinctive ways they prepare for and foreshadow the irregular birth of Jesus that will be described in Matt 1:18-25."[4] Luke and Matthew both agree in their infancy narratives that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus. Matthew's audience may very well have received a lot of taunts for believing in the strange circumstances of Jesus' birth – What kind of Messiah is born to a woman who became pregnant before marriage? But the inclusion of these women seems to answer back: Look at the ways God works through people, even the most unlikely. As for Matthew's defense of the virgin birth, both he and Luke treat that in more detail in their infancy narratives.

            So yes, the genealogies can seem boring, and yes, their historical authenticity is rather dubious. We can't even get the two genealogies of Jesus to agree! Don't try it either; it's a futile and unnecessary mission. Nevertheless, to loosely quote my biblical hermeneutics professor, Fr. Stephen Sherwood, the Bible, "is about formation, not information." So we must ask ourselves how are the Scriptures forming me?

            One of the things I think we can take from these genealogies, especially Matthew's, is that Jesus enters into the messiness of humanity. Just look at the people in his family tree! They're not bad people by any means, but Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and many others all had their issues. Even the women mentioned above, although certainly righteous in their own respects, each had a bit of a shadow side. But we cannot pretend that this isn't exactly what humanity is. We all have our faults, our brokenness, our shadow sides, and Jesus enters fully into that. The Jesuit, Fr. James Keenan, defines mercy as "the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,"[5] and this is precisely what Jesus does and one of the things to which Matthew's genealogy points.

            Another message we can reflect upon in the genealogies is that of inclusion. Matthew may have been bent on asserting Jesus' Jewishness, but three of the four women which he lists were outsiders. Just the fact that Matthew includes women at all breaks somewhat from the traditional genealogy schema. Luke doesn't even include women, even though he talks about women more in his Gospel than the other three! Although Matthew is writing to a very Jewish Christian audience, he seems to be declaring that "the messianic story is inclusive, extending to women and men of all nations."[6]

            Oftentimes the ones on the outside – the forgotten, excluded, or despised – are the ones who need to be shown mercy the most, to have someone enter into their pain or problems and include them into that mystery of salvation. I think the theme of mercy, given the chaos and messiness into which Jesus enters, is a perfect point of reflection as we soon enter into the Christmas Season. Not only that, but let us also consider how God uses ordinary and flawed people to be part of a bigger story of salvation history. God is calling each of us to help build up that messianic kingdom – a kingdom of peace, and justice, and mercy. What role do you think you play in that mission? Do you believe that those whom society has cast aside are part of this mission too? How can we reach out in mercy, and what can we learn from those whom others hate, dismiss, disdain, and cast aside?

            My scriptural recommendations for this week as you reflect on these things are simply the genealogies in Matthew and Luke  and, if you get a chance, to also read one or more of the accounts of the four women named in Matthew's genealogy: Genesis 38; Joshua 2; Ruth; and 2 Samuel 11. As always, I welcome comments and questions. You can post something on the Bible Codega page on Facebook if you prefer, or you can also e-mail me at

Until next time, Advent blessings!

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of  Matthew, Sacra Pagina 1. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 30.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in vol. VIII of The New Interpreter's Bible,  ed. by Leander E. Keck. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 129.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of  Luke, Sacra Pagina 3. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 72.
[4] Harrington. 32.
[5] James Keenan & Daniel J. Harrington, "Paul and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges Between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology," (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 126.
[6] Boring, 132.


  1. So I get the significance of the ancestry of Jesus from both Luke's and Matthew's perspectives, but I wonder why they even thought to do it in the first place. It seems like anyone can make up any lineage to any person and claim they are the Messiah. I can't quite find the words to ask my question, but I just can't stop wondering how history came to believe in Jesus as God's son if his ancestry is more symbolic than fact. I know the truth lies in there but where is it and what is it?

    1. Good question. I don't know if this will sufficiently answer it, but I'll try anyway. I think the first thing is that genealogies were already a popular tradition in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Greek-speaking world for establishing an important person or hero's pedigree. The Gospel writers seem to make use of a familiar genre to say what they already believed about Jesus. This brings me to a second point, and that is that faith in who Jesus is preceded the written Word. Typically we hear the Word first and come to believe. We have faith because we've encountered the Word from our parents, or friends, or a religious leader. In other words, we come to believe because we have been evangelized. The written Word of God, however, was composed by persons who already were evangelized and believed in who Jesus was and is.They believed Jesus was the son of David because they believed he was the Messiah... whether or not he was really the biological son of David. In fact, they must have known that he couldn't really have been the biological son of David because both genealogies are traced through Joseph's ancestry, but neither Gospel writer seems to believe that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. This apparently didn't concern them though. It wasn't so much that they believed Jesus was the literal son of David and therefore the Messiah. Rather just the opposite, they believed Jesus was the Messiah and therefore deserved the messianic title Son of David. And they demonstrated this by using the literary genre of a genealogy. To answer your second question, yes. You're correct. Anyone can make up any lineage to any person and claim they are the Messiah. No doubt people did back then, and probably some ill-guided cult leaders do today. In fact, many Greek heroes have genealogies about them that trace their lineage all the way back to divine origins. This shouldn't concern us though, because 1.) as the Pharisee, Gamaliel, counsels the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:34-39, "if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-39). In other words, one of the things that sets Jesus and the stories surrounding him apart from anyone else who has claimed to be the Messiah is that those other movements failed and died out, but Christ and his words remain forever, and (blessedly, though at times surprisingly) Christ's Body, the Church, has never faded. I believe that this is because it is the Truth (with a capital "T") that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, the Son of God. That, I think, is the kind of Truth that the evangelists are trying to get across in the Gospels which they have written. (Sometimes, I think, they even write Truth without realizing just how True what they're saying actually is). Other such genealogies about heroes or false messiahs throughout history may have been trying to do the same thing, but theirs lacked Truth. Their movements were, as Gamaliel states, "of human origin."

    2. So this brings me to the second reason, and that is that our faith in the Truth of who Jesus is already proclaims that he is the Messiah. The genealogies are not historical or scientific proofs of Jesus' origins, but rather artistic literary devices that speak of the Truth we believe about Jesus: That he is the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of God, that he enters into our messy and faulted humanity, that the Christ event is Good News for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike, etc. Did the evangelists have to include genealogies in their Gospels? No. Two of the other Gospel writers did not include a genealogy, and, in fact, most Christians today find them boring and ignore them anyway. But, much to the benefit of the Christian message, Matthew and Luke did include genealogies, and I believe that what we can glean from them as people of faith is not a scientific or historical account of Jesus' ancestry, but a revelation of Truth that transcends what we can know from our senses. I know this was a long answer, but I hope it clarifies rather than muddies the waters. Peace and all good!

  2. Thank you! This really helps. I guess this shows how much my faith has strayed an how much help I need. I feel like I ask you the same question in different ways, so be patient with me. Thanks for your insight Ian ☺️