Harmonizing the Gospels: The Lineage of Christ

The lineage of Christ is crucial to Him fulfilling prophecy. Is it possible that the Bible contradicts itself on this fundamental point?
The lineage of Christ is given by Matthewm disciple of Christ, in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke, a contemporary of Paul, in Luke 3:23-38. This is given to us to substaniate Christ's bloodline and prove Him to be a legitimate heir to the throne of David. Not only was this significant from a legal standpoint for the kingdom of Judah, but also a requirement of the Messiah foretold in prophecy (Jeremiah 23:5-6; Isaiah 11:1) Although Luke doesn't start with this information the way Matthew does, both present it early in their writings becuase of it's importance. If either man was presenting a man from the Tribe of Benjamin as a the long awaited Messiah, everyone would know the person was not the Messiah.

Is it a Contradiction?

Unfortunately, Matthew and Luke didn't give us the same lineage. Biblical scholars have been debating since who knows when about why these lineages are not the same. Let's dive into it.

Differences

One difference between Matthew and Luke is that Luke goes all the way back to Adam, while Matthew only goes back to Abraham. This, of course, is merely preference. From David back to Abraham (and in theory to Adam), Matthew and Luke are in 100% aggreement. After David, however, the list is very different. Luke traces the lineage through David's son Nathan, while Matthew traces the lineage through David's son Solomon. There's minor overlap, such as Zerubbabel and Sheatiel, between David and Joseph, but there's definitely more difference than similiarity. One possibility is that one person is presenting a legal lineage, while the other is presenting a blood lineage. For some this may be confusing but I'd like to use my own family to show how this happens in modern day. We'll start with some easy examples and then get to some more complex ones.

One of my cousins' mother died in childbirth. Her father wasn't present so my cousin was raised by her maternal grandparents. Legal custody of the child belonged to the grandmother. Any inheritance my cousin received came straight from her grandparents. If they were royal, the succession would have been grandparent to grandchild with no mention of the mother even though the mother is part of the blood lineage. If we call my cousin Anna, her mother Bonnie, and her mother Connie,[1] a blood based lineage would look like Connie begot Bonnie and Bonnie begat Anna. A legal lineage would look like Connie begot Anna.

Now let's make it a little more complex and use the case of my own mother. When my mother was 12 she went to stay with her aunt and ended up staying there for the rest of her childhood. My great-aunt became her legal guardian and often if you hear me reference my maternal grandmother, I am actually speaking of my great-aunt, not my biological grandmother. My mom became my great-aunt's only daughter, so in turn my mom inherited all her clothes, shoes, jewelry, etc. when my great-aunt passed away. A legal the lineage went from my great-aunt to my mom. Lets call my great grandmother Dorothy, my biological grandmother Elaine, her sister (my great-aunt), Francine, and my mom Gertrude.[1] A legal lineage would look like Dorothy begot Francine and Francine begot Gertrude, while a blood lineage would look like Dorothy begot Elaine and Elaine begot Francine.

It's quite common where I'm from for families to adopt children within the family, but there's also the possibility of adopting a stranger. I have an aunt (by marriage) who was adopted by people completely unrelated to her. In that case you would see no overlap when comparing her legal versus blood lineage. For those with this lived experience, it's easy to see how both David's son Nathan and David's son Solomon could be listed as ancestors. Remember I gave you short examples from my family's modern history, if we tried to track it back centuries, who knows how many times switches like these could have occured? Something my family has in common with the Israelites is surviving captivity. I don't know what turmoil happened during the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman captivities of Israel, but chattel slavery in the United States allowed families to be sold and separated such that there were probably many babies raised by non-blood relatives. I say this to say if you were able to trace down my information and compare the legal record to the blood record, likely it would be just as convouluted.

Paternal vs. Maternal Relatives

Another idea put forth is that Matthew is giving Jesus' paternal lineage while Luke is giving his maternal lineage. There are two Biblical things that support this. First, in Luke 3:23, Luke prefaces the lineage in calling our attention to the fact that Joseph is Jesus' legal father but not His real father by saying it's commonly thought that Joseph is the father of Jesus. When my great-aunt died, my blood aunts and uncles showed up, and many people who grew up with my mom were confused because it was commonly held that my great-aunt was her mother. Second, if we look at Mary's reaction to the angel announcing her pregnancy in Luke 1:26-36, Mary doesn't question the assertion that her son would be of the lineage of David. If an angel came to me and said I was pregnant and my child would be the long lost heir to the throne of France, one of my first questions would be "but the baby isn't French?" It is very possibile that Mary was a descendant of David herself.

Now, things get really interesting. Technically speaking, Israel was a patriarchal society. Usually the first born son is who inherited glory from the father. Notable exceptions include Seth, Isaac, Jacob, and Solomon, who were not the first born sons, however they were still sons. With that line of thinking, many would ask how can Jesus be a legitimate heir to the throne of David when He doesn't have an earthly father? Just as people do today, men could legally adopt a heir and leave their inheritance to the son they've chosen, which would still allow Joseph to pass an inheritance down to Jesus. However, what's more interesting is that though rarely discussed, women could pass on inheritances too. In Numbers 26, we learn of Zelophehad who only had daughters, and in Numbers 27 they are given the right to inherit their father's property. In these verses, it is declared that a woman with no brothers who marries into her own tribe, is able to inherit from her father. When Jesus is crucified, Mary has a sister present with her (John 19:25), but the Bible never mentions Mary having a brother. It is very possible the Mary is descended from David, married into her own tribe, and inherited the lineage of David to pass to her first born son. This would also explain the need to prove Davidian descent on both sides.

What do I Believe?

What do I believe? I actually think both scenarios are true. I think Luke is providing us with Jesus' lineage through Mary while Matthew is providing it through Joseph. I think there is still some interplay of legal versus blood lineage as seen in the overlap of Shealtiel in both lineages. Matthew says Jeconiah is the father of Shealtiel, but Luke says Neri is the father of Shealtiel. Both Shealtiels have a son named Zerubbabel, making it seem as though this is the same person. In this regard, it's seems that one person is telling us who legally was the father of Sheatiel (whether like scenario 1 that I gave above or like scenario 2), while the other person is telling us who is the blood father of Sheatiel. Judging by the fact that all the kings of Judah are listed as descendants, it seems like the most likely candidate to be the legal lineage of Christ.

The Obvious Discrepancy

One thing I want to point out for skeptics, or for those who often engage in conversation with skeptics, is the logical problem of this being an actual contradiction. Archeologists have found many scrolls containing the story of Christ, some even claim to be the work of disciples such as Peter and Thomas. Beyond that there is the Apochrypa, a set of books deemed cannon by some and uninspired by others. There are even modern texts (I refuse to call them Bibles) that have been rewritten by translators (example: The Passion Bible, The Story, etc.). Knowing the importance of lineage, why would they leave a contradicting lineage in the Bible for 2,000 years. Most likely, the early Christians understood the lineages for what they are. Peter, Paul, etc., must not have had any concerns with the lineage. Otherwise they would have condemned the Gospel of Luke. When the text was translated to English in the dark ages, the book still could have been dropped or they could have forced the lineages to be the same; it's not like Google was around to let anyone know what happened. In those early days, if the intent had been to start a new religion, doesn't it make sense that those rising to power would eleminate anything that discredits them? During the dark ages, the Catholic Church had unrestrained power, wouldn't they have censored the blood line? It would have been so easy to fix!

Is Christ a Levite?

I've also heard people say Christ is actually a Levite, that He is both from the tribe of Levi and the tribe of Judah. Those who argue this then assert that by birth He has right to both the throne and the crown. The only way I surmise people make this assumption is through the connection of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Mary. In Luke 1, Elizabeth is described as a daughter of Aaron, which makes her a Levite. However, Elizabeth is only described as a relative or cousin of Mary. There's no information on whether this a maternal or paternal relative. Why does that matter? Because tribal affiliation generally passed through the father. This is why a woman with no brother could only inherit if she married into the same tribe; this kept the inheritance within the tribe.

Elizabeth would have inherited her status as a daughter of Aaron from her father. So Elizabeth's father would need to be one related to Mary and he would need to be related to her through her father. If other generations exist between them, male relatives would need to connect them all the way for the assumption to hold. However, we aren't given the precise relationship Elizabeth has to Mary. There's a 50/50 chance it's her father that relates to Mary, but then there's another 50/50 chance that it's Mary's father that is related to Elizabeth. For just those two things to hold, there's only a 25% chance.

I admit its not impossible, but if Mary is a Levite, then the lineage in Luke can't be that of Mary. This would mean you would have to revist that idea of legal versus blood lineages. To me, there aren't enough overlaping names for me to believe that the only difference in the lineages presented are who actually raised a person. For that reason, I don't think there's much to the theory that Christ is also a Levite even though the theology of Levite + descendant of David = Priest + King is very compelling.

References and Footnotes

  1. None of the names given in these scenarios are real (if you couldn't tell by the alphabetical pattern)
  2. E. Earle Ellis. "St. Luke". Encyclopedia Britannica; visited June 2021
  3. Erik Manning. "A Hopeless Bible Contradiction? Why do Matthew and Luke Give Us Two Different Geneaolgies For Jesus?" .Is Jesus Alive?. June 25, 2019

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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