23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38 the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. – Luke 3:23-38 ESV
Both Luke and Matthew include a genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts, but there are distinct differences between the two. Most obviously, Matthew chose to place his version of Jesus’ genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, while Luke reserved his until later in the story, when Jesus began His public ministry. But upon closer examination, there are other glaring differences that appear and that have caused no end of speculation and explanation.
The first major difference is that Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham, while Luke provides evidence of Jesus’ descent from Adam. Obviously, Matthew is attempting to prove that Jesus was of the seed of Abraham, a descendant of the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. But Luke wanted to reveal that Jesus was also a direct descendant of the first man created by God: Adam.
But if you were to place these two genealogies side by side, you would find further discrepancies. In fact, you would discover that they appear to be two completely different genealogies altogether. For instance, Matthew states that the name of Joseph’s father was Jacob (Matthew 1:16), while Luke records that it was Heli (Luke 3:23). In Matthew’s version, he traces the hereditary line of Jesus through David’s son Solomon (Matthew 1:6), while Luke has Jesus descending through David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:31). If you look closely, you will find that the two genealogies only share two names in common: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. Yet even these appear to be different individuals who just happen to share the same names.
So, which genealogy is the right one? Is this proof of a contradiction in the Word of God? Is it evidence of an error? There has been much debate about the seeming discrepancies found in these two genealogical lists. But the most common explanation among conservative Bible scholars has been that each man was tracing a different genealogy for Jesus. Luke was recording the genealogy of Mary, while Matthew was recording that of Joseph. Each man had a different purpose in mind. Matthew was tracing the line of Joseph through David’s son Solomon. He was attempting to show that while Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was his adoptive and, therefore, legal father.
Luke followed the line of Mary through David’s son Nathan. In Koine Greek, there was no word for “son-in-law,” so Luke listed Joseph as the “son of Heli” because he was married to Mary, Heli’s daughter. The belief is that these two distinct genealogies provide evidence that Jesus is a descendant of David, whether you trace His line through Mary or Joseph. As Joseph’s legally adoptive son, Jesus was an heir of David. But because He was born to Mary, Jesus was also the rightful heir of David through blood. Luke seems to hint at the key difference in his genealogy when he writes that Jesus was the son of Joseph, “as was supposed” (Luke 3:23 ESV).
Another explanation is that both genealogies are tracing the line of Joseph, but that Luke’s version takes into account a case of levirate marriage. Thomas L. Constable explains it this way:
One solution to this problem is that the custom of levirate marriage in the ancient Near East permitted the widow of a childless man to marry his (unmarried) brother. It was common to consider a child of the second marriage as the legal son of the deceased man to perpetuate that man’s name. In genealogies, the ancients sometimes listed such a child as the son of his real father but at other times as the son of his legal father. This may be the solution to the problem of Joseph’s fathers. It is a very old explanation that the third-century church father Africanus advocated. Evidently either Jacob or Eli (Heli) was Joseph’s real father, and the other man was his legal father. This may also be the solution to the problem of Shealtiel’s two fathers (Matt. 1:12; Luke 3:27). This is only an adequate explanation, however, if Jacob and Eli were half-brothers, specifically the sons of the same mother but not the same father. Jacob’s father was Matthan and his grandfather was Eleazar whereas Eli’s father was Matthat and his grandfather was Levi. – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Luke: 2010 Edition
Regardless of which explanation you choose to believe, it is important to recognize that the Jews were meticulous when it came to maintaining their genealogical records. Proof of legal heritage was vital because of inheritance laws regarding the land. Detailed records were maintained to provide evidence of tribal affiliation and legal proof of Hebrew citizenship. For Matthew, tracing the line of Jesus back to Abraham was vital in order to prove that Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the promises made in the Abrahamic covenant. Yet Luke wanted to provide evidence that Jesus’ lineage went all the way back to the very beginning, to the creation account. Jesus was the son of Adam and, therefore, a Son of God.
Both Matthew and Luke were out to prove that Jesus was a man.
“That the genealogy is recorded at all shows Him to be a real man, not a demi-god like those in Greek and Roman mythology. That it goes back to David points to an essential element in His messianic qualifications. That it goes back to Adam brings out His kinship not only with Israel but with the whole human race. That it goes back to God relates Him to the Creator of all. He was the Son of God.” – Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to St. Luke. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.
In both genealogies, it is clear that Jesus is a legal descendant of King David. He is the rightful heir to the Davidic throne and the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to David.
“Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 NLT
But Jesus could also be traced all the way back to Abraham, making Him a fulfillment of the promise God had made centuries earlier.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed…To your offspring I will give this land.” – Genesis 12:1-3, 7 ESV
And the apostle Paul would later clarify and explain how Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant promise.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV
So, as Jesus prepared to begin His earthly ministry, He did so as the son of Adam, the son of Abraham, the son of David, and most importantly, the Son of God. He checked all the boxes. He was the legitimate and bonafide Messiah of Israel.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.