Why is There a Difference in the Genealogies in Matthew and Luke?

In the Bible, the gospels of Matthew and Luke present Genealogies of Jesus. They are not the same, for they mention different names. Why? Is this an error?

First, Matthew and Luke were written in the first century. They present many facts which can be independently verified with secular sources outside the Bible. For examples, see books by Gary Habermas and Colin Hemer. (see here, and here, and here). We therefore have two ancient sources which have shown themselves accurate in all the places where we can verify them accurate. Therefore in the places where we cannot independently verify, we are in no position to doubt their accuracy. This answer is similar to the answer about miracles: if the rest of the book is accurate, then there is no logical or reasonable doubt about the first-person eyewitness accounts of the miracles, except for our own personal bias. So since the rest of Matthew and Luke are proven accurate, we have no reason to doubt the genealogies. To make a case disproving the genealogies would require another ancient source that gave information contrary to the two accounts, which we do not have. There is no evidence that we can compare against the genealogies, and since they’ve been proven accurate in other places, we must at least give Matthew and Luke the benefit of the doubt, and not assume they were wrong, which would just show our bias.

Second, the most critical aspect of the genealogies is that they fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, namely that the Messiah would be from Israel and would be a decendant of David. Both genealogies go through David, which is the fulfillment of the prophecies. Matthew opens his gospel and gets right to the point, with the first sentence telling us that Jesus was the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Third, no text is in isolation, it is in a context. To remove a text from its context is to make it a pretext. The context of Matthew is that Matthew was writing to the Jews. He includes Jewish customs while assuming the reader understands them; he gives many Old Testament quotations, showing fulfillment of prophecy; he focuses on the kingship of Jesus, and writes to a Jewish audience. Ancient church fathers corroborate that Matthew wrote to the Jews, allegedly originally writing in Hebrew. A king, especially a Jewish king, would need to show a legal right to claim the throne of David. The legal right came through the father, so Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy back through David. Luke was writing to a Greek-influenced culture, and knew he was writing history. Greeks cared little for conquests (Mark) or royal blood lines (Matthew). Greeks cared what kind of man this was, so Luke focuses on the man, the perfect man. That Luke was emphasizing the humanity of Jesus is shown by his genealogy going back to Adam, while Matthew’s royal emphasis was only valid back to Abraham. A different purpose for a different audience, written by a different author with a different ethinic background, written from a different city in a different year. We should not be surprised when we find some differences. This does not prove or disprove error, but only shows that it would be natural to find the authors emphasizing different things. In fact, we should expect differences in emphasis. Regardless, we cannot interpret isolated passages in the the two gospels outside of their context.

Fourth, the context of Luke shows that he got his information from Mary. The first few chapters of Luke include information that only Mary would know. Matthew would have considered Mary irrelevant, since he was writing to show kingship. Luke was writing history, and tells us that he used sources (1:1-4). The first few chapters of Luke are permeated with Mary’s stories, so the context of the genealogy was in a section giving Mary’s accounts. Luke tells us as much in Luke 2:19. Luke’s style was not to say “According to Mary….” or “Mary said that….’ as a modern writer would, but throughout his writings he gives us clues as to which eyewitness told him the account he is documenting. Therefore Luke’s genealogy is in the “From Mary” section of his gospel. It to put something from Joseph in the Mary section would have been awkward.

Fifth, Luke’s phrasing casts serious doubt that he was speaking about Joseph’s lineage, for  when he mentions Joseph’s name in 3:23, he uses the phrase, “as was supposed, the son of Joseph.” This phrasing shows that Luke was NOT focusing on Joseph, who was not the biological father, but the true biological ancestors. Again, the context of Luke is to show to the Greek world that Jesus was a perfect man. Thus Luke’s phrasing of “as was supposed” shows us that he was focusing on the biological blood line, not the royal line through the father.

Sixth, women had no legal rights in the first century, and no one would ever claim anything as coming from a wife. People in our day forget how much of human history has discriminated against women. Within my own lifetime in the United States, I can recall a time where banks would not give women an account in their own names, nor could women get credit cards in their own names in many places. Women would very often be legally named “Mrs. Henry Jones” or similar. To start a genealogy by naming Mary would be quite unacceptable. Rather, the genealogy, even if it were Mary’s, would have had Joseph’s name on it. This was the natural, common way to present a legal claim, not just in the first centrury but throughout most of human history.

Seventh, even if, for argument’s sake, we claim that the father of Joseph is in question, so what? It proves little, for the true importance was that the line went through David, which both genealogies do.

Eighth, Matthew and Luke were too careful with their facts, as was shown above. For us to claim that either were intentionally lying, or intentionally sloppy with facts is not only disingenuous with history and the Bible, but also shows a gross ignorance of ancient literature. It’s one thing to say that some scribe made a slip of a pen, but quite another to imply that they were intentionally sloppy or lying. As C. S. Lewis so aptly pointed out, the Bible is quite different than all other ancient literature. It’s just not made of that kind of stuff.

Ninth, the critic tries to put the Bible into an impossible paradox. If every single data bit aligns perfectly, we’re told that the accounts were copied from a source and that the eyewitness accounts are invalid. If every single data bit does not align perfectly, we’re told that there are errors. These two criticisms cannot both be true; either one of these options is untrue, or they both are. In Luke’s case, he claimed to have started with sources and investigated them carefully. We have no grounds to sit here 20 centuries later and question his methods or phrasing of his sentences.

Tenth, in support of points above, Matthew traces his genealogy back through Solomon, the kingly line. The throne of David had to come through the kings, so Matthew traces Joseph’s line back through king Solomon. Luke’s purpose was to show that Jesus was fully human, partly to disprove Gnostic heresies that had already started to crop up, which said that Jesus was a type of demi-god, not fully human. So Luke needed to show biological ancestry, that Jesus was fully human, and therefore traced Jesus through his actual biological mother, back through Nathan (not the king), back through David to Adam.

So in conclusion, I have belabored the point to show that there is reasonable evidence to show that Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph, Luke’s through Mary, a natural conclusion based on the text and the social context of the day. At the very least, all the evidence adds up to enough to give Luke and Matthew the benefit of the doubt. It is not seeking truth if we take the genealogical differences in these two gospels and use them to make a claim to disprove large sections of scripture.  Again, as shown in the first point above, to disprove the genealogies one would have to find another ancient source showing a different genealogy. Short of that, a reasonable person must accept the text as written. In reality, the gospels show themselves to be perfectly historically accurate.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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2 Responses to Why is There a Difference in the Genealogies in Matthew and Luke?

  1. Realistic says:

    “I have belabored the point to show that there is reasonable evidence to show that Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph, Luke’s through Mary”
    The second chapter of both Mathew and Luke gives a description of the first individuals who first heard and worshipped the infant Jesus.
    Mathew tells us that it is astrologers and not “shepherds” who, because of a star which they interpreted as signifying the birth of a divine entity, were the first to have worshipped the baby Jesus.
    Luke tells us that, on the contrary, it was shepherds and not some wealth “easterners” who were the first humans to have set eyes on the baby Jesus.
    Both Mathew and Luke all explain that both Joseph and Mary were present when these individuals first came to worship Jesus, but somehow Joseph totally forgot about the “shepherds” while Mary “forgot” about the wealthy easterners.
    I have actually asked married couples whether a husband and wife, both present at the time when the first visitors came to their home to have a look at their first-born child, would give different accounts of who these first individuals were, and they’ve all told me that it is absolutely impossible.
    I explained to them about your “reasonable evidence” showing “that Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph, Luke’s through Mary” and they all laughed it off.
    This is all I needed to disprove your theory and I haven’t even expressed my opinion which, to say the least, would have been more brutal than simply “laughing it off”.

    • humblesmith says:

      First, Joseph cannot be said to have forgotten anything, for he is not quoted anywhere in the Bible. That Matthew’s gospel includes Joseph’s genealogy merely means Matthew wrote it, not Joseph. After all, the book is called Matthew, not Joseph. Likewise in Luke….Luke seems to have used Mary as a source, but neither Matthew nor Luke quote Joseph or hint of him as a source.

      Second, neither Matthew nor Luke say who was first to see the baby Jesus; they merely tell the story of two groups who saw them. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4) and the shepherds were in “the same region”(2:8). The angels told the shepherds that they would find the baby in a manger (2:12), which means Jesus was still in the stable. With shepherds generally being poor, and from the same region, and seeing the baby in a manger, it would be likely that the shepherds saw Jesus on the same night he was born, or at least very soon after he was born.

      Matthew, by contrast, tells of magi who were not from the same region but were “from the east”(cf. Gen 25:6; 1 Kings 4:30). They first went to Jerusalem (Matt 2:1-2), then Herod assembled all the priests (2:4), then the magi (2:7). After the magi left Herod, they went to see Jesus, who was by this time in “the house” (2:11). Herod, ascertaining the approximate time of Jesus birth, killed children of two years old (2:16). Given that the magi travelled some distance, talked to people in Jerusalem, then to Herod, then left, then went to Jesus, who was by this time moved from the stable into a house, and with so many people in town that the inn was full, it would be virtually impossible for the magi to be the first to see Jesus. With all the traveling and moving around of people described in Luke, and with Herod killing two-year-olds based on the time of the birth, Jesus must have been months old by the time the magi saw him.

      Matthew’s gospel is very focused on Jewish history, as evidenced by the many quotes from the Old Testament. This is why Matthew gives the the legal genealogy of Joseph, as heir to the throne of David (Matthew 1:1). Matthew focuses on Jesus as king; hence it makes sense that he mentions important foreign visitors who spoke to Herod.

      As always, if we merely take the Bible for what it says, rather than reading things into it, we come to very straightforward and resonable answers. But again, Matthew is providing Joseph’s genealogy, not quoting Joseph, so your characterization of Joseph forgetting is quite misguided. If you were indeed searching for the truth, you would go back to the parents that you spoke to, and confess to them that you mischaracterized the Bible.

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