On Jesus' Genealogy

In Matthew it says that Jesus’ father was Joseph, and in Luke it says that his father was Eli. How can this be?

The genealogy of Christ is given by both Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38). There are some important differences between them. In Matthew, the genealogy runs from Abraham forward to Jesus, while in Luke it runs from Jesus backward to Adam.

From Abraham to David, the two genealogies agree. But from David, Matthew traces Jesus’ descent from Solomon, while Luke traces it from Nathan. So here is our first question:  How can Jesus be descended from two different sons of David? But more importantly, how can Joseph be the son of Jacob as Matthew asserts, and also the son of Eli as recorded by Luke? Several theories have been advanced to reconcile this apparent discrepancy, but the two most probable ones are as follows:

Some have suggested that Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy, while Luke gives Mary’s. In this case, Eli (Joseph’s father according to Luke), was really Mary’s father. Why then is he said to be Joseph’s father? It may have been the case that Eli had no male heir. According to the law, his inheritance would then pass to his daughter Mary (Num. 27:8), and in turn would be transferred to her husband, Joseph (Num. 36:1-9). Joseph, then, would be the actual, biological son of Jacob (as per Matthew), but a reputed son and legal heir of Eli (as per Luke).

A second possibility is that both Matthew and Luke give Joseph’s genealogy, but that he is said to have two different fathers because of a levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10).

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6)

In a case such as this, the son who is born is the actual biological son of one man (the living man) but is regarded as the legal son and heir of another (the dead man). The son, then, in a sense, has two fathers. This may be the best way to account for the difference in the two genealogies of Christ. This solution was first proposed by a church father named Africanus (c. 200).[1]

It is not uncommon to hear skeptics of the Bible point to the genealogies of Jesus as recorded in Matthew and Luke as a discrepancy, or a contradiction which disproves the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. However, as we have seen, the genealogies are capable of being reconciled with each other.

Whatever the true relationship of the genealogies and the people involved, one thing is clear: the early Jewish opponents of Christianity who had access to the official genealogical records, as well as the Gospel accounts, never raised an objection concerning the Gospel record at this point, which in itself is sufficient evidence that they do not contradict each other.

[1] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 1:7


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