Did you know what one of the biggest challenges to Christianity is? It is centered on who Jesus’ family was.
In our day when people challenge us about who Christ was, they sometimes argue against Jesus’ divinity. They might say that Jesus was a good teacher, or a holy person, or a talented teacher, but he wasn’t God in human flesh. Yet in the days which immediately followed Jesus people didn’t doubt his divinity, they doubted his humanity. This is because in Jesus’ day many people believed in gods and goddess’s, but no one believed that a god would become human flesh and be fully human and do so permanently. This was part of why John the apostle wrote I John. Look at what John says in I John 4:2-3:
“Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
Today’s challenge is a little different. It goes straight to scripture in Matthew and Luke, specifically, the two genealogies showing the line of Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph. Matthew has one genealogy and Luke has a completely different one. To the person who hasn’t studied the scriptures much these two genealogies are contradictory and proof that the Bible is not to be trusted. But would it surprise you to learn that, in fact, both genealogies are completely true and both genealogies lead directly to Joseph, and thus to Jesus? Allow me to show you why.
There is an argument to defend these scriptures that says that Matthew’s genealogy was the genealogy of Joseph and Luke’s genealogy was that of Mary. Some people make this case because Luke, being a gentile researching the life of Jesus, must have interviewed Mary, Jesus’ mother. Luke has far more references in his Gospel to Mary and her experiences whereas Matthew focuses more on Joseph. They say that the Luke Genealogy is really Mary’s genealogy, but Joseph is noted as her husband. There is only one problem with this view. The Jews, in the time of Mary and Joseph, did not trace lineage through women, but only through men. The line of a tribe was not considered through the mother, but only through the father. There is even some Ancient Near East evidence for this in the book of Genesis. Genesis 46:15 refers to multiple daughters of Jacob though we are only told the name of one, Dina. Yet, when the tribal lines of Israel are counted, they are only counted through Jacob’s sons. The children of his daughters were not considered as part of the tribe of Israel. They would marry and be part of tribes elsewhere, outside of Israel.
How does this apply to our look at the genealogies of Matthew and Luke? To put it simply, Mary’s line didn’t count for relationships back through the ages to the kingship of David. Hers was not the royal line. But Joseph’s was. So, that leaves us with the question, “How can both genealogies be Joseph’s? It’s a little complex but follow me along this trail and you’ll see that both genealogies are true and accurate lines of Joseph, stepfather to Jesus. It all has to do with something called, “Levirate Marriage.”
Different Rules for a Different Day
What is Levirate Marriage? In the Ancient Near East it was customary for a man with a deceased brother to marry his brother’s widow and raise up children in his brother’s name. This was even codified in the Mosaic Law. Look at 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.”
Now, this kind of marital arrangement is completely foreign to us in the modern age. No one would think of marrying his dead brother’s wife to fulfill some esoteric tradition. But this was not the case in ancient times. In fact, to fail to fulfill one’s obligation this way was to bring shame on his family. Moses goes on,
“And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house’” (Deuteronomy 25:7-9).
What is interesting to note about this arrangement is that it was not simply a part of ancient traditions, but it was codified in the Mosaic Law, made a requirement for Israel to follow. Now, move ahead in time many centuries to the time just before Jesus and see how the law of Levirate Marriage made it possible for Joseph to have two family trees.
Joseph has two genealogies because Joseph had a genetic line to David, and he had a Levirate line to David. This is possible when we go back to an ancestor of Joseph’s named Mattan (Matthew 1:15). Here’s how a Levirate arrangement worked.
Mattan married a woman and the two of them had a son named Jacob. But at some point, after Jacob was born, Mattan died. Since Mattan had a son, the law of Levirate Marriage did not apply to him and his widow was free to marry someone else outside the family line. After a time, she married a man named Matthat who we find in Luke’s genealogy in Luke 3:24. The two of them have a son named Heli, found in Luke 3:23. This makes Jacob and Heli half-brothers. Then Heli died without having any sons. Jacob then steps up to fulfill his brotherly obligations as found in Deuteronomy and he and Heli’s widow have a son named Joseph. Therefore, Joseph is the son of Jacob in the royal line from Matthew’s account and he is the son of Heli through the law of Levirate Marriage. Thus, both genealogies are true according to the laws under which their culture lived at the time. In this explanation, in this cultural practice of the day, there is no contradiction, and all is considered legal and honorable.
I should mention that you are not going to find a set of passages that spell this out in the New Testament. In the day in which the scriptures were written, these kinds of relationships were normal and taken for granted. One would not need to explain the details as we’ve just done here, because such arrangements, though perhaps rare, were normal and a part of the culture handed down in Israel for many centuries. But you and I, not being a part of that time or culture, need to do a little digging to learn of possible solutions to what seem to us to be apparent difficulties. This is why the study of scripture is so important. The scripture is not simple in some ways, it is sophisticated and deep, and we must plum those depths to arrive at the truths we need to discover.
This is not the only interpretation you may encounter regarding the genealogy of Jesus, but it would seem to fit the facts as laid out in the Gospel accounts. Ultimately, you will decide for yourself if you lean toward this explanation or another.