Genealogy of Jesus

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The two lists of Jesus' ancestors are given in the Gospels, one in Mt 1.117 and one in Lk 3.2338. The importance of Christ's genealogy and the differences between the two lists will be considered here.

Importance. Besides the importance attached in general to genealogies in the ancient Near East (see genealogies, biblical), the genealogy of Jesus is of particular significance in support of His claim to be the messiah, the son of David. The Old Testament (e.g., Is 11.19; Jer 23.56; Ez 34.2324) foretold that the promised Messiah would be David's descendant, and as such have a legitimate claim to the restored throne of the Davidic dynasty. That the terms "Messiah" and "son of David" were considered synonymous at the time of Christ is clearly shown in Mt 22.4146; Mk 12.3537; and Lk 20.4144. There can be little doubt that the Savior's Davidic descent was part of the primitive kerygma (cf. Acts 13.2223; Rom 1.3), and it was eventually incorporated into the written gospel.

Matthew (1.117) and Luke (3.2338) both give formal genealogies, the primary aim of which is to identify Jesus as Son of David and, secondarily, as Son of Abraham (Mt) or Son of God (Lk).

Differences Between the Lists. It is immediately apparent to anyone who places the two lists side by side that they differ widely in particulars. These difference may signify that one (or perhaps both) of the genealogies is more concerned with something beyond biological lineage, for the genealogical table in antiquity could fulfill more than a single function. It served to legitimate a royal or cultic line and to reveal character, on the assumption that descendants inherit the traits of their ancestors. The differences between the lists may signify, however, no more than the presence of two traditions that may or may not be reconcilable.

First List. Matthew (1.17) makes it clear that the genealogy he gives has been schematically arranged; it is divided into three sections, each of 14 generations. To achieve this, he has omitted four of the kings between Solomon and Jechonias, and other names have also no doubt been dropped. Perhaps the number 14 was chosen because it is twice seven (the perfect number), or possibly because the Hebrew consonants (the letters of the alphabet having numerical value) that make up the name David add up to 14. A major problem posed by this genealogy is that the descendants of Zorobabel whom it enumerates do not apparently correspond to those given in 1 Chr3.1924.

A final observation on this genealogy concerns the mention of four women (five if we include Mary): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. St. Jerome maintained that these "sinful" women were mentioned to remind us that "He who came for the sake of sinners" was born of sinners. This explanation fails. Ruth was in no way a sinner. Although Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes, and Bathsheba was an adulteress, each of these women was honored in later Judaism; Tamar (Gn 38), as a proselyte to Judaism and because she upheld Judah's family line by seducing her father-in-law; Rahab (Jos 2, 6), because she aided Israel's victory at Jericho (cf. Heb 11.31); Bathsheba, because she gave birth to Solomon. A more plausible explanation for the inclusion of women is that what all of them have in common is a foreign background: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, Bathsheba was the widow of a Hittite. Matthew aimed accordingly, to emphasize the universality of Messianic salvation and to appeal to the Gentile members of the community addressed by his gospel

A final explanation for the inclusion of women in Matthew's genealogy makes sense of the biblical texts, on their own historical and literary terms, while offering a perspective compatible with modern convictions. In each case divine intervention occurs, through a woman, by "irregular" or even "scandalous" means (R. Brown), thus foreshadowing Mary's role in Jesus' birth. To become pregnant out of wedlock (Matt 1.18) would have been scandalous at the time, while Jesus' conception by the holy spirit, rather than by natural means, is irregular. Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth may be viewed, moreover, as examples of "higher righteousness" (Amy-Jill Levine). Their distance from positions of social and cultural privilege, and the initiative they take to advance divine purposes, qualifies them as models for a kind of justice inaccessible to their male counterparts (Judah, the king of Jericho, David, Boaz).

Second List. Luke's genealogy is much longer than Matthew's (giving the descent of Abraham from Adam) and is regressive in structure (moving backward from Jesus rather than forward to Him). Between David and Joseph only two names, Zorobabel and Salathiel, correspond to any found in Matthew's table. The descent from David is traced through the line of Nathan, one of his numerous sons (2 Sm 5.14) about whose issue the Bible tells us nothing save that it was extant in the time of Deutero-Zechariah (Zec 12.13).

If this were the only point at issue, we should have no hesitation in accepting one of the two ancient proposals to harmonize the Matthean and Lucan genealogies. Julius Africanus, in his Letter to Aristides, explained that the Jacob of Matthew's genealogy and the Heli of Luke's were uterine brothers, and that upon the death of Heli without any children, Jacob, following the levirate law (Dt 25.510) married his brother's widow and begot Joseph, the legal father of Jesus. This has long been considered the traditional answer to the problem of divergent genealogies, but it is highly doubtful that the levirate law applied to uterine brothers. The alternative suggestion, usually credited to Annius of Viterbo (c. a.d. 1490) but traceable to the 5th century and possibly even to the writings of Justin Martyr (Dial. 100), regards Luke's genealogy as that of Mary. On this supposition we should read Lk 3.23 as follows:"And Jesus Himself, when He began His work, was about thirty years of age, beingas was supposedthe son of Joseph [but in reality the grand-] son of Heli. " Against this hypothesis it is frequently alleged that descent through a woman was of no account to the Jews and that the genealogy of women is never given. This is not true. The lineage of heiresses is recorded (e.g., Nm 26.33; 1 Chr 2.1617) and the lengthy genealogy of Judith (Jdt 8.1), whatever one may choose to make of it, shows that a woman's importance entitled her to the same distinction. The real difficulty with the Marian hypothesis, as with that of Africanus, is that neither explains how Salathiel and Zorobabel appear as descendants of Nathan in Luke's genealogy. It is useless to invoke the solution of a levirate marriage again, for we know the names of all the sons of Jechonias and none of them is called Neri (cf. 1 Chr 3.1718).

Yet the inclusion of Salathiel and Zorobabel in this pedigree may point to its having a wider function than the purely genealogical. Closer study reveals that it consists of 11 sets of seven names each and, more significantly, that the last name in all but the earliest two groupings marks a sort of climax: Jesus, Joseph, Mathathias, Salathiel, Jesus, Joseph, David, Aram, and Thare. These names constitute a kind of historical panorama calling to mind the departure from Ur, the enslavement in Egypt, the first monarchy and the long period of Messianic expectation (the early Joseph and Jesus paralleling the later Joseph and Jesus), the Babylonian exile, the second monarchy, and finally the era of the true Messiah. Some of the other names may have been suggested to the compiler by Zec 12.1213; some may be fragments of an actual genealogy. We cannot say that the Lucan genealogy has yielded up all its secrets, but we are closer to understanding it.

Bibliography: j. obernhumer, "Die menschliche Abstammung Jesu," Iheologisch-praktische Quartalschrift 91 (1938) 524527. r. t. hood, "The Genealogies of Jesus," Early Christian Origins, ed. a. wikgren (Chicago 1961). l. nolle, "Old Testament Laws of Inheritance and St. Luke's Genealogy of Christ," Scripture 2 (194950) 3842. s. sandmel, "Myths, Genealogies and Jewish Myths and the Writing of the Gospels," Hebrew Union College Annual 27 (1956) 201211. r. e. brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY 1977). a.-j. levine, "Matthew," The Women's Bible Commentary, eds. c. a. newsom and s. h. ringe (Louisville, KY 1992) 25354.

[j. e. bruns/

m. stevenson]