Will Jesus’ grandpa please stand up?

Dealing with the problem in the genealogies of Matthew 1:16 and Luke 3:23

It is clear from the Bible, Jesus was supernaturally conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34ff) and His earthly, legal father was Joseph. However, sometimes you come across a sticky question from within the Bible where an apparent contradiction appears that there doesn’t seem to have an immediate answer in the text or context. One such sticky question is, who really was Jesus’ grandpa? Heli or Jacob?

Both Matthew 1 and Luke 3 contain genealogies of Jesus. But there is one problem—they are different. Luke’s genealogy starts at Adam and goes to David. Matthew’s genealogy starts at Abraham and goes to David. When the genealogies arrive at David, they split with David’s sons: Nathan (Mary’s side of the family tree) and Solomon (Joseph’s side of the family tree). And the point of contention for some is when Luke says that Joseph is the son of Heli (3:23), while Matthew says that he was the son of Jacob (1:16).

How do you reconcile the two genealogies? Who is right? Is the Bible wrong? How do we handle contradictions in the Bible? What do you say to skeptics who point out contradictions like this and say, “See, here is another reason why we cannot trust the Bible. Christianity is a farce.” We will seek to tackle these questions as we look at the two texts from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.

Why Are Matthew and Luke so Different?

When you compare Matthew’s genealogy with Luke’s between David and Jesus, are they almost completely different. First, for example, all the names but two are different (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel). How are these differences to be explained? The differences between these lists stem from the purposes for which the gospels were compiled and the meanings they were intended to convey to their audience.

Second, Matthew places his genealogy at the very beginning of his Gospel (1:1–17), Luke placed his genealogy between the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and temptation. There is OT precedent for this in Moses’ genealogy (Exodus 6:14–25), which is not recorded at the beginning of His life but just before He started His ministry.

Luke doesn’t stop with Adam but goes on to say that Adam was son of God. Luke does not want his readers to think of Jesus as the Son of God in the same sense that Abraham and David and all the other descendants of Adam were. Luke 1:35 shows that His sonship depends on His unique creation in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. This then calls to mind Paul’s teaching that Christ is a second Adam, the beginner of a new humanity. Paul says,

“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:47–49)

Luke was not ignorant of this idea since he was a companion with Paul. Therefore, like Adam, Jesus was man and uniquely created by God. He is a new and second Adam whose ministry will be to create and assemble a new race of humans who are not marked by Jewishness or Gentileness, but by the character of the Holy Spirit.

Third, Luke’s list is a lot longer than Matthew’s. Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam while Matthew’s stops at Abraham. Why is Luke’s genealogy longer? It might seem that there is some genealogy rivalry going on that Luke has to out do Matthew. It’s plausible, but just silly.

To understand why Matthew only goes to Abraham and Luke goes beyond to Adam, you have to know each gospel writers audience. Matthew is writing for Jews who are interested in Jesus’ connection with father Abraham, but Luke is writing for Gentiles and is more interested in Jesus’ solidarity with all humanity through His descent from Adam. And this runs parallel to Jesus message of coming to bring the gospel to all men. Jesus is not just a son of Abraham—more importantly He is a son of Adam—He is a man. His humanity, not his Jewish ethnicity, is the crucial thing. And that seems to be Luke’s point in connecting Jesus to Adam.

Fourth, the most contested difference between Matthew and Luke is that Luke says that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph is the son of Heli (3:23), while Matthew says that he was the son of Jacob (1:16). There are suggested solutions for this assumed contradiction:

First suggestion: The gospel of Matthew,

“gives the legal descendants of David—the men who would have been legally the heir to the Davidic throne if that throne had continued—while Luke gives the descendants of David in that particular time to which finally Joseph, the husband of Mary, belonged”.[1]

So, for example, Luke says in 3:31 that the son of David was Nathan (2 Samuel 5:14), while Matthew in 1:6 says the son of David was Solomon, who was heir to the throne. The two lines could easily merge whenever one of Nathan’s descendants became the rightful heir to the throne. According to J. Gresham Machen,

“The Lucan genealogy, in other words, starts with the question, ‘Who was Joseph’s “father”?’ the answer to that question is, ‘Heli.’ . . . In the Matthean genealogy, on the other hand, we start with the question, ‘Who was the heir to David’s throne?’ The answer is, “Solomon,’ and so on down to Joseph.”[2]

Jesus’ family tree in Matthew is meant to establish that He was legally a descendant of David (cf. 1:27, 32, 69) through His relationship to Joseph, and also to demonstrate that He was a member of the human race. It is not meant to show that Jesus was the Son of God by descent from Adam, since that would be true of all descendants of Adam.

Luke’s family tree compared to Luke’s is in reverse order, and it goes back beyond Abraham to Adam, and thus places Jesus in a wider context than does Matthew.

“Many have suggested that the regressive order in the genealogy is probably Luke’s instrument to focus attention on Jesus. The fact that Luke traced Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, “the son of God,” was probably due to the fact that he wrote for Romans and Greeks. By tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, he shows Jesus to be related to the whole human race. In Luke’s genealogy Jesus and Adam are both “sons of God”; Jesus, of course, is the son of God by nature; Adam, the son of God by having been created in God’s image. Jesus is a member of the race to which all people belong.”[3]

Second suggestion: Luke gives Mary’s genealogy and Matthew gives Joseph’s as Jesus’ legal father. The key to this interpretation is extending the parenthesis of verse 23 to include Joseph. So it would read, “Jesus was about 30 years old, being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Heli.” By including “of Joseph” in the parenthesis the point is made that Jesus is really the son of Mary, not Joseph, and Heli is his grandfather (Mary’s father). D.A. Carson says,

Both lists give the descent of Jesus through his supposed father Joseph (so it was thought; 23). The theory that Luke really gives us the family tree of Mary rather than of Joseph is improbable. The theory with least difficulties is that Matthew gives the descendants of David down the royal line (i.e. who was heir to the throne at any given time), but Luke gives the particular line to which Joseph belonged. Even so there are still problems, and in the absence of fuller information the problems of explanation and harmonization with Matthew remain insoluble.[4]

There are a few other suggestions,[5] and both of these solutions are possible; the first is more probable; but neither can be completely proven. It is beyond human reach to discover for certain the full solution to the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus, or the actual relationship of Jesus to them. Enough has been said to show that they are reconcilable, and the purposes of each, suggested here, indicate that either of the ways outlined above does full justice to the Davidic descent of Jesus, as rightful heir to His ancestor’s covenanted throne, and also to His virgin birth by Mary.

Why is it so important to dig into such questions like this related to the family tree of Jesus? Perhaps the best lesson one can gather from  sticky questions is simply that apparent contradictions in the Bible do have plausible and possible solutions and we should be slow to throw out a book that has proved itself over and over for thousands of years as the mighty, saving, transforming word of God.

[1] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, New York: Harper Brothers, 1930, 204

[2] Ibid. 207

[3] Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale reference library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 520-21.

[4] D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Lk 3:23–38.

[5] I.e., Luke followed the Davidic line through Nathan (cf. Zech 12:12–13), whereas Matthew (cf. 1 Chr 1–3) followed the line through Solomon. The Matthean genealogy thus gives the legal line of descent from David, whereas the Lukan genealogy gives the actual physical line of descent. Or both Jacob and Heli were in some sense Jesus’ grandfathers. Variations of this explanation include: (a) Jacob (Matt 1:16) and Heli (Luke 3:23) were brothers, and upon Jacob’s death Heli assumed the role of husband via a Levirate marriage (cf. Deut 25:5–10) and fathered Joseph. Heli was thus Joseph’s natural father, whereas Jacob was the legal father. According to Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 1.7.1–15), Julius Africanus (ca. 225) claimed that he knew this from information that came from the descendants of James, the brother of Jesus. However, whereas the father of Joseph and Heli for both Matthew and Luke was Matthat/ Matthan, the father of Matthan in Matthew is Eleazar, while in Luke, it was Levi. (See R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah [Garden City: Doubleday, 1979], 503–04.) (b) Matthew’s genealogy was that of Joseph, whereas Luke’s genealogy was that of Mary. This depends upon how one reads “so it was thought, of Joseph” (Luke 3:23). The phrase can be interpreted in two ways: “Jesus was the son (supposedly) of Joseph, who was the son of Matthat” or “Jesus was the son (supposedly of Joseph but really) of Matthat,” who is then identified as the father of Mary. The major problem with this explanation is that in 1:27 Jesus’ Davidic descent via Joseph is stressed. (c) Heli was Mary’s father, but due to lack of a male heir, he adopted Joseph as his son in order to maintain the family line. Thus the Matthean genealogy was Joseph’s actual lineage, whereas the Lukan genealogy was his adopted lineage. This latter explanation lacks any evidence and can neither be proven nor disproven.