Here I want to deal with the problem of conflicting Genealogies in Luke and Matthew, along with related issues.
To begin, Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ Genealogy from Abraham onwards, and divides it into three periods of theological history: The period of Abraham to David, the period of David to the exile in Babylon, and then from that exile to the Messiah. Here Matthew counts 14 generations in each period to make a theological point, because according to Hebrew Gematria the name David (דּויד) is calculated to have the value of 14, 14, 14 (Hebrew words all, or almost all, have a triconsonantal root, thus, as I understand it, explaining three number values – the same phenomenon applies to Caesar Augustus Nero whose name is 6,6,6 and whose abbreviated name Caesar Nero is 616 – many manuscripts of Revelation have the variant reading 616). Thus, Matthew’s Gospel counts 14 generations for three theological periods in order to point his finger adamantly to Jesus, suggesting that he really is the Messiah, the son of David, and that he has appeared at the culmination of salvation history – what Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4:4-5). However, if one scrupulously counts the generations in the second set, one finds that there are only 13 generations, and not 14. Curiously, another problem (which together with the previous problem actually points the way to an obvious solution) is that Matthew seems to have skipped over a generation in verse 11. Now, while I think that Jewish Genealogies sometimes did skip over generations (such as the Genealogies in Genesis 5 or 11, along with the example of how Ezra 7:3 skips six generations which are enumerated in 1st Chronicles 6:7-10), and thus there is precedence for it in the scriptures, still I feel as though that isn’t what is going on in Matthew 1:11. To note in passing that there is biblical precedence for skipping generations in genealogies is worth exploring for a short moment – this may be because the scriptures were written in such a way that the assumption was they would be read in tandem with oral tradition, and thus genealogies maintained orally were sometimes skipped in the written records. More likely, however, it is because Genealogies were not written to give a biologically accurate and exhaustive lineage, but rather genealogies situated people in relation to salvation history, and also provided them their true identity. The ancient concern for Genealogy was first of all a concern about identity, and not first of all a concern about history. Moreover the word ‘son’ is used rather flexibly in the Jewish scriptures (as is the word ‘brother’, which Catholics always point out to those who think that James was literally the ‘brother’ of Jesus, which he wasn’t). See, for instance:
Son could also be used to describe kinship without sonship. Although Zerubbabel was the nephew of Shealtiel (1st Chronicles 3:17-19), he was called the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2, Nehemiah 12:1, Haggai 1:12). Jair is another example of this principle. He was a distant son-in-law of Manasseh (1 Chronicles 2:21-23 and 7:14-15). Yet, he was called the “son of Manasseh” (Numbers 32:41, Deuteronomy 3:14, 1st Kings 4:13).
~ Genealogical abridgement
However, all of these points seem to be irrelevant, at least as far as Matthew 1:11 goes, given a much more likely answer provided by Adam Clarke in his Biblical Commentary. He points out the following:
Josias begat Jechonias, etc. – There are three considerable difficulties in this verse.
1. Josias was not the father of Jechonias; he was only the grandfather of that prince: 1Ch_3:14-16.
2. Jechonias had no brethren; at least, none are on record.
3. Josias died 20 years before the Babylonish captivity took place, and therefore Jechonias and his brethren could not have been begotten about the time they were carried away to Babylon.
To this may be added a fourth difficulty, viz. there are only thirteen in this 2nd class of generations; or forty-one, instead of forty-two, in the whole. But all these difficulties disappear, by adopting a reading found in many MSS. Ιωσιας δε εγεννησε τον Ιωακειμ· Ιωακειμ δε εγεννησε τον Ιεχονιαν. And Josias begat Jehoiakim, or Joakim, and Joakim begat Jechonias. For this reading, see the authorities in Griesbach. Josiah was the immediate father of Jehoiakim (called also Eliakeim and Joakim) and his brethren, who were Johanan, Zedekiah, and Shallum: see 1Ch_3:15. Joakim was the father of Joachin or Jechonias, about the time of the first Babylonish captivity: for we may reckon three Babylonish captivities. The first happened in the fourth year of Joakim, son of Josiah, about A. M. 3398. In this year, Nebuchadnezzar, having taken Jerusalem, led a great number of captives to Babylon. The second captivity happened under Jechoniah, son of Joakim; who, having reigned three months, was taken prisoner in 3405, and was carried to Babylon, with a great number of the Jewish nobility. The third captivity took place under Zedekiah, A. M. 3416. And thus, says Calmet, Mat_1:11 should be read: Josias begat Joakim and his brethren: and Joakim begat Jechonias about the time of the first Babylonish captivity; and Jechonias begat Salathiel, after they were brought to Babylon. Thus, with the necessary addition of Joakim, the three classes, each containing fourteen generations, are complete. And to make this the more evident, I shall set down each of these three generations in a separate column, with the additional Joakim, that the reader may have them all at one view.
1 Abraham 1 Solomon 1 Jechonias
2 Isaac 2 Rehoboam 2 Salathiel
3 Jacob 3 Abia 3 Zorobabel
4 Judah 4 Asa 4 Abiud
5 Pharez 5 Josaphat 5 Eliakim
6 Esrom 6 Joram 6 Azor
7 Aram 7 Ozias 7 Sadoc
8 Aminadab 8 Joatham 8 Achim
9 Naason 9 Achaz 9 Eliud
10 Salmon 10 Ezekias 10 Eleazar
11 Booz 11 Manasses 11 Matthan
12 Obed 12 Amon 12 Jacob
13 Jesse 13 Josias 13 Joseph
14 david 14 joachim 14 jesus
In all forty-two generations.
However, there is another difficulty in Matthew’s Genealogy: in Matthew 1:8 we find that Matthew skips over three generations from Joram to Ozias, thus rendering the generations, by his count, 14. This can be accounted for in part by citing the reasons I previously mentioned, but I think a deeper reason Matthew does this is that his Gospel wants to begin within the realm of living Jewish tradition. As Adam Clarke’s Biblical commentary goes on to point out:
St. Matthew took up the genealogies just as he found them in the public Jewish records, which, though they were in the main correct, yet were deficient in many particulars. The Jews themselves give us sufficient proof of this. The Talmud, title Kiddushim, mentions ten classes of persons who returned from the Babylonish captivity…
Such was the heterogeneous mass brought up from Babylon to Jerusalem; and although we learn from the Jews, that great care was taken to separate the spurious from the true-born Israelites, and canons were made for that purpose, yet it so happened, that sometimes a spurious family had got into high authority, and therefore must not be meddled with. See several cases in Lightfoot. On this account, a faithful genealogist would insert in his roll such only as were indisputable. “It is therefore easy to guess,” says Dr. Lightfoot, “whence Matthew took the last fourteen generations of this genealogy, and Luke the first forty names of his: namely, from the genealogical rolls, at that time well known, and laid up in the public κειμηλια, repositories…
Thus the people that Matthew skips over are the very people whom the public Genealogies skipped over for fear of including anyone spurious. Matthew is thus appealing to living Jewish tradition to make his point about the Messiah – according to the living Jewish tradition, the public Genealogical scrolls count unimpeachably 14 generations. Far from tampering with the Genealogy for a forced result of 14 generations, Matthew simply drew on the living Jewish tradition, while being aware that some generations were skipped (note again there is precedence for this in Jewish Scripture), in order to obviate a point; namely that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of David.
However, there is one last glaring difficulty theologically with Matthew’s Genealogy. The difficulty comes from a passage in the Old Testament:
As I live, says the Lord, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return.
Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot,
a vessel no one wants?
Why are he and his offspring hurled out
and cast away in a land that they do not know?
O land, land, land,
hear the word of the Lord!
Thus says the Lord:
Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.
This passage is speaking about the same Jechoniah who is listed in the genealogy of Jesus here in Matthew. If Jesus is his descendent, then Jesus should not be eligible to ‘sit on the throne of David’ which is precisely what the Messiah is to do. To this Christians typically give a few responses, but I want to outline as many responses as I can think of before giving the one I find most satisfying. First, one might interpret Jeremiah’s declaration to concern immediate offspring – though this interpretation is not satisfying at all given the wording. Second, one might argue that this prophecy concerned only the mundane political office which Jesus never explicitly took up – but this explanation is again wanting since Christians do maintain that Jesus was, in every sense, the true king of Israel, the true son of David.
Finally, an answer I thought to be satisfying until more recently went something like this: Matthew’s genealogy is clearly the genealogy of Joseph, who was the legal father of Jesus of Nazareth, without being his biological father. In a real sense, Jesus here inherits a kingly lineage, belonging to the same line (note that the Jewish practice of recognizing somebody as truly authentically Jewish by reason of the mother, rather than the father, became a practice only much later when the Jewish people were scattered among the nations in the dispersion after 70 AD – at the time of Jesus, and before hand, one was reckoned authentically Jewish according to their father). However, the prophecy is explicitly concerned with the descendants by blood, which Jesus is not. Moreover, we know that Matthew’s genealogy is Joseph’s from Tradition, from narrative continuity, and also from contrasting it with Luke’s genealogy. Traditionally it has been maintained that the genealogy in Matthew belongs strictly to Joseph, and this would help explain why Matthew makes special mention of the virgin birth, since the virgin birth highlights the special way in which Jesus both legitimately lays claim to the Davidic credentials of his ‘father’, and also avoids falling under the curse pronounced by Jeremiah. Moreover, when reading the Gospel of Matthew it is impossible to miss the attention in the beginning which the narrative gives to Joseph – Joseph, and not Mary, is the principle narrative character in the opening scenes. The Gospel recounts Joseph’s struggle, Joseph’s encounter with an angel, and Joseph’s decision to marry Mary. Thus, it seems a very reasonable assumption that the genealogy belonged to Joseph. Finally, the Gospel of Luke takes Mary to be the central character in the opening of the narrative, and a fine attention to detail has led many scholars to believe that whoever wrote Luke probably also personally knew, and perhaps interviewed, the holy mother herself. The narrative precedence in the Gospel of Luke, along with the apparently very different genealogy makes sense if one recognizes that Luke’s genealogy records Mary’s lineage, and thus the actual blood-lineage of Jesus. This too has its roots in king David. One obvious textual indication that Luke was consciously taking Mary’s genealogy, and not Joseph’s, comes from the fact that Luke writes “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli…” – the fact that Luke writes this short qualifier before he begins his genealogy (though obviously listing the father, since, again, at the time one regularly reckoned genealogy according to the father) indicates that he knew, and wanted to indicate, that his genealogy differed from Matthew’s Gospel, which was written before and with which he was obviously familiar, and yet did not want to be read as challenging Matthew’s genealogy or conflicting with it. Rather, Luke’s aim was to provide an alternative genealogy, not a conflicting one. We can note that Luke also makes a very big deal of the virgin birth, and it is only in Matthew and Luke that one finds mention of this miraculous mode of conception.
One might be willing to think ‘so far so good’, but there remain two residual issues. The first is that if the genealogy records Mary’s genealogy, then why does it record her father as Heli (the father in law to Joseph), when tradition and the proto-evangelion of James say that her father’s name was Joakim? The answer is often suggested that people in the Hellenized world often had two names, one Greek name, and one original or maternal name – the same phenomenon often happens in English speaking countries when foreigners come to settle there and take English names for themselves in addition to their actual or maternal names. The final problem, however, is rather surprising and challenging: Luke’s genealogy includes Shealtiel in Luke 3:27, after skipping over Jeconiah, but Shealtiel is Jeconiah’s son according to 1 Chronicles 3:17.
This problem presented itself as an indissoluble one for me for a long time, until recently I found an extremely satisfying answer. What I’ve recorded up to this point has been, more or less, my train of thought, and what follows from here is a surprising solution.
When one pays attention to the Old Testament genealogies and history, one finds that the son of Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, is prophetically spoken of as fulfilling the role of a king. In fact, in Chronicles he is associated with the Davidic line. It is in the closing words of his book that the prophet Haggai uses language which parrots Jeremiah’s curse:
“‘On that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
The standard interpretation of this passage in Haggai was that God was reversing or lifting the curse placed on Jeconiah. One way this can be read in harmony with Jeremiah is that Jeremiah includes a qualifier: “Record this man as childless, a man who shall not succeed in is days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.” Thus the whole curse is to be applied to Jeconiah and his descendants for as long as he shall live – so he will not live to see any of his sons take the throne.
However, a better interpretation presents itself in Jewish tradition, particularly the early Rabbinic tradition which informed the Talmud; the curse on Jeconiah was reversed entirely when Jeconiah repented. There are various reasons for preferring this interpretation. For instance, notice that the curse says that Jeconiah would be childless, would not prosper, and none of his descendants would ever again be eligible for the throne – yet he wasn’t childless by the end of his life, and he clearly did prosper in his lifetime (2 Kings 25:27-28), and Zerubbabel was at least eligible for the throne at some point (even if after Jeconiah had passed away) according to the prophet Haggai. The best explanation is that Jeconiah repented:
“Notwithstanding the curse that he should be childless and not prosper, after being exiled he was forgiven.”
“R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim kind of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right — note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore — I would pluck thee hence (Jer. 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer. 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture’s reference to The sons of Jeconiah — the same is Assir — Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron. 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day . . . will I take thee, O Zerubbabel . . . the son of Shealtiel . . . and will make thee as a signet(Haggai 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!”
~Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 47 (6th-7th c.)
“”Beginning with thee, Jeconiah, I pluck out the kingship of the house of David.” It is to be noted, however, that the Hebrew for “pluck thee” is not as one would expect ‘tkk, but the fuller and less usual ‘tknk, which may also be rendered “mend thee”–that is, mend thee by thy repentance. Thus in the very place, [the kingship], whence Jeconiah was plucked, amends would be made to him: [his line would be renewed].”
~ Pesikta de-Rab Kahana (5th c.)
Along with numerous other passages which record the effect of Jeconiah’s repentance, it is also worth adding that the Talmud recognizes that the Messiah must descend from Jeconiah:
Scripture alludes here to the verse Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain (Zech. 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David. . . .From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.
~Tanhuma Genesis, Toledot (8th-9th c.)
For more scrupulous citations and numerous references, see the Jews for Jesus website, from which I have taken these shorter citations. Thus, in the end, it was by repentance after the decree that Jeconiah was restored in the eyes of Hashem. This example may help Christians read other such decrees which cause controversy as well, such as those in Hebrews 6 and 10 – all such decrees are implicitly qualified by a covenantal caveat. Thus, this exploration of problems associated with the genealogies in Matthew and Luke has led to a way of reading them in rich harmony, along with provided insight into the scriptures, tradition, and even scriptural language in general.