We’ve spent a little time over the past couple of Sundays looking at the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We’ve noted that Matthew begins with Abraham and works his way forward to Jesus, while Luke starts with Jesus and works his way backward to Adam. Of course, since the two evangelists were making different points with their respective genealogies, it is to be expected that there may be some stylistic or presentational differences.
But if we look more closely, we find other differences that cannot be explained as stylistic, but appear to be more accurately referred to as discrepancies. Most of these pertain to the generations from David to Jesus. For example, of the generations from David to Jesus, only two of the names match in the respective genealogies – Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. Surprisingly, the two Gospels don’t even agree about who Joseph’s father was – Matthew says it was Jacob, Luke says it was Heli!
This is thought by many skeptics to be the silver bullet destroying the notion of inerrancy. Luke and Matthew cannot both be right, they say. One must be wrong, and if that is so, the Bible contains factual errors.
Well, there are several ways to account for these discrepancies, all of which are plausible, though a couple stand out. No matter which is right, together they add more than enough room to stand on in denying the claims of skeptics.
The first approach has been to argue that Matthew gives Christ’s genealogy through Joseph, while Luke gives the genealogy through Mary. This view is based largely on Luke 3:23 which refers to Jesus as “being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph.” Obviously, with a virgin birth there will be no literal human father. So Luke took Mary’s family line and substituted Jesus’ legal father in the place of Mary, thus showing a typical genealogy, that is, one with all male names. This was the first explanation I ever heard, and I still think it is a plausible one.
A second approach, which happens to be the oldest, was proposed by Julius Africanus in the 3rd century A.D. (and cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 1.7). The view holds that Matthew’s genealogy provides Jesus’ physical line and Luke provides His royal line. The differences in the genealogies between David and Joseph can be explained by the principle of levirate marriage.
Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6: "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. Therefore, the first son born as a result of a levirate marriage was the legal son of the dead brother, while being the literal physical son of the living one.
According to Julius Africanus, Jacob (Matt 1:15) and Heli (Luke 3:23) were “uterine brothers” – born to the same mother by different fathers. Heli died without an heir. So Jacob took Heli’s widow in a levirate marriage to raise up a son in his dead brother’s name. Therefore, Joseph was Jacob’s physical son (Matthew) and Heli’s legal son (Luke).
On problem with this view is that there are two names in Luke’s genealogy between Melchi and Heli – Matthat and Levi. So the generations do not appear to line up exactly with Julius Africanus’ assessment. However, this is not a deal breaker since Matthew omits numerous generations from his genealogy. His repeated wording, “___ was the father of ___” frequently means “was the descendant of”. Matthew’s intent was not to name every link in the chain, but to simply to show a connection between Abraham and Jesus. This is why Matthew only shows 27 names between David and Jesus, while Luke shows 40. With this in mind, Julius Africanus’ suggestion is certainly plausible.
A third view proposed by historians is that Heli (Luke 3:23) was the father of Mary. It is supposed that because Heli had no male heirs, Joseph was adopted by Heli through Joseph’s marriage to Mary. There are occurrences in the Old Testament of the continuation of a family line by such means (Ezra 2:61; Neh 7:63; 1 Chron 2:34-36). By this view, Luke reflects adoption so that his genealogy shows both physical descent (Adam – Heli) and legal descent (Heli – Joseph).
While we may never have enough information to come up with a definitive understanding of the differences between the two genealogies, there are enough plausible explanations that we have absolutely no reason to reject the doctrine of inerrancy.