Are Luke and Matthew’s genealogies really contradictory? What is the curse of Jeconiah? Does it really undermine Jesus’ claims to fulfil Old Testament prophecy? The answers to these questions may surprise you.
As Christians celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, many in our society continue to deny the reality of that wonderful event. Although many try to undermine the historical truthfulness of the Christmas story, God’s Word is more than up to the challenge.
The Historicity of the Bible
Unlike every other religion, orthodox Christianity stands or falls on its historicity. The events laid out in the Bible are understood to be actual historical events.
If they did not happen, Christianity is false; if they did, it is true.
This is because Christianity is not merely a set of ideas, sayings, guidelines or wisdom. It is all of those things and much more. Ultimately, it is centred on real historical events: the life, death, burial, resurrection and vindicated claims of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is why historians are constantly debating the facts about Jesus’ life and—believe it or not—whether the resurrection is the best historical explanation for the evidence we have from the time.
For example, check out the following debate between Dr Bart Ehrman, perhaps the world’s leading sceptical Bible scholar, and Dr William Lane Craig, a New Testament historian and analytical philosopher from Biola University.
If you have time, I also encourage you to watch this discussion between apologist Cameron Bertuzzi and Professor Gary Habermas—the world’s leading resurrection scholar.
In considering what I should write for Christmas this year, I was inspired by a recent sermon at my local church to take an apologetic and historical approach to the Christmas story. I decided to respond to several perceived contradictions in the Gospel genealogies.
While genealogies can be somewhat dull (unless you are a historical nerd like myself), I trust that the following article will give you a greater appreciation for God’s sovereign orchestration of Christ’s coming.
The Two Genealogies: Matthew versus Luke
One common accusation levelled against Christianity is the fact that the two genealogies (one in Matthew and one in Luke) that trace Jesus’ family line are explicitly contradictory. They appear to clearly refer to two different genealogical lines from Joseph back to King David.
So what is going on here?
Thankfully, a careful comparison of the two genealogies quickly resolves this issue. They are in fact two different genealogies; however, there is no contradiction because only one (Matthew’s) refers to Joseph’s biological lineage.
Let me explain.
The relevant passages both describe ancestry differently.
Matthew uses the term “begotten”, which refers to someone being an ancestor or descendent. Luke, on the other hand, simply uses the term “the son of” (or, more literally, “of”) to describe this relationship.
When we take into account another technical Greek grammatical factor (that I won’t go into now), this evidence strongly indicates that Luke’s Gospel is referring to Mary’s family line rather than Joseph’s.
Hence, the Lukan genealogy could plausibly read that Jesus was “the son of Joseph, the son [in law] of Heli”. It would seem, then, that Heli was Mary’s father (and Joseph’s father-in-law), whereas Jacob (Matthew 1:16) was Joseph’s father.
The fact that Mary is not mentioned in her own genealogy is actually unsurprising considering the fact that women were not typically included in genealogies in patriarchal Jewish culture (Joseph’s genealogy in Matthew, which includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bethsheba, is exceptional).
To summarise, distinguishing between Joseph’s genealogy and Mary’s genealogy easily explains the apparent contradiction between the two passages.
Joseph’s genealogy (recorded in Matthew) uses the more biological term “begot” to describe his relationship with Jacob, whereas Mary’s genealogy (recorded in Luke) uses the more legal term “son of” to describe Joseph’s relationship with Heli.
We could easily leave things here, but there is another deeper apparent contradiction that needs dealing with.
And this one gets really intriguing.
The Curse of Jeconiah: Did Jesus Fail to Fulfil Prophecy?
Although most of us will overlook it, careful students of the Old Testament will notice the significance of the mention of Jeconiah in Joseph’s genealogy. The Matthew-Joseph genealogy traces the kingly line through David, and each eldest son after him (from Solomon onwards).
But we encounter a slight complication regarding Jeconiah.
In Jeremiah 22, God proclaims a chilling curse over Jeconiah:
“Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days; for none of his descendants shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah.” (Jeremiah 22:30 NKJV)
I assume you can see the problem.
Jeconiah’s curse clearly states that none of his descendants will ever sit on David’s throne or rule in Judah. And yet, according to God’s Covenant, King David’s “seed” would reign on David’s throne “forever”.
“When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12–13, 16 NKJV)
How do we resolve this?
On the one hand, Jesus is supposed to be the fulfilment of this promise to King David. He is the seed of David who would establish David’s kingdom forever.
On the other hand, Jeremiah clearly states that no descendent of Jeconiah—who is clearly in Jesus’ lineage—could sit on David’s throne, even though the royal kingly line passed through Jeconiah, who was the eldest son of Josiah (see 1 Chronicles 3:15).
To paraphrase William MacDonald, Jesus could not be a son of Joseph because he would then have come under the curse of Jeconiah.
Simultaneously, though, Jesus had to be the son of Joseph, or else he would not have inherited the rights to the throne of David. So He had to be both the son of Joseph and not the son of Joseph at the same time.
What a dilemma!
Resolving the Issue
You might have guessed by now, but this is where the two genealogies come in.
Because Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph—and hence not his “seed”—Jeconiah’s curse does not transfer to him. It is void.
Because of the miraculous nature of the virgin birth, he is not a biological descendant of Joseph, only of Mary. Luke’s account makes this explicit when it states that Jesus was the son “as was supposed” of Joseph (Luke 3:23).
And yet he is still a legal descendent of Joseph and, consequently, of King David. And, hence, he is a rightful heir to the throne of David.
However, this only solves half of the puzzle.
If we just had Joseph’s genealogy in Matthew, we would have no evidence that Jesus was, in fact, a biological son of David. Yes, he would have avoided the curse of Jeconiah, but at what cost? He would have no longer been a biological son of David, only a legal one.
In this case, He would not have fulfilled the most basic requirement of the Davidic Covenant (“your seed after you, who will come from your body”).
Hence, He could not be the true Messiah and the one to reign on David’s throne forever.
This is why the fact that both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David was critical.
According to the Lukan genealogy, Mary’s lineage also comes from King David, although it is traced via Nathan—a younger son of David—rather than Solomon, who became king. Mary’s line bypassed Solomon—and hence, avoided the curse of Jeconiah. And yet, her lineage can still be traced back to King David (albeit not from the kingly line).
So, Mary’s lineage fulfilled one criterion for Jesus to be the Messiah (biological descent), while Joseph’s lineage fulfilled the other (descent from the kingly line)!
“Jesus was the legal heir to the throne through Joseph. He was the real Son of David through Mary. The curse on Jeconiah did not fall on Mary or her children since she did not descend from Jeconiah.”
Isn’t that amazing?
If either of these genealogies had existed without the other, there would have been serious issues with Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. But as it stands, Jesus was a biological descendent of David through Mary and a kingly descendent of David through Joseph.
Isn’t it awesome how God works all of human history for His purposes? What, at face value, appears to be a problematic contradiction is really an incredible way for God to demonstrate His power and meticulous providence through the Christmas story.
The complementary nature of the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke is a testimony to the accuracy and divinely inspired nature of the Word of God.
Painting: Paolo Veronese, Adoration of the Magi/Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on The Daily Declaration.