The Genealogy of Jesus Christ: A Tale of Two Trees

Compare key differences in the two accounts

Genealogy of Jesus
Genealogy of Jesus Christ From the Book of Kells. Print Collector / Contributor / Getty Images

There are two records in the Bible of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. One is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1; the other is in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3 (Both are listed below). Matthew's account traces the line of descent from Abraham to Jesus, while Luke's account follows the ancestry from Adam to Jesus. Quite a few differences and discrepancy exist between the two records. Most startling is that from King David to Jesus, the lineages are entirely different.

Key Differences

  • Matthew's account traces the lineage from Abraham to Jesus (41 generations), while Luke records the ancestry from Adam to Jesus (76 generations).
  • Matthew's genealogy is condensed and divided into three groups of 14, representing a movement through three time periods. The first group lists the patriarchs, the second names the kings, and the third contains private citizens. The intent was not to give a strict record, but rather, present the historical progression. It begins by highlighting the family origin, then the rise to power through the Davidic throne, and eventually the decline from royalty to the humble birth of the promised Messiah.
  • Luke's account is unusual in that it begins with Jesus and progresses backward through history, rather than following the order of chronological succession. Some suggest that Luke's purpose in presenting a "regression" was to magnify attention on Jesus.
  • Though nearly identical from Abraham to David, the two accounts are entirely different from David to Jesus. After David, only the names of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel appear on both lists.

Throughout the ages, scholars have pondered and argued the reasons for the conflicting genealogies of Matthew and Luke, particularly since Jewish scribes were known for their precise and detailed record keeping.

Skeptics are usually quick to attribute these differences to biblical errors.

Theories for the Differing Accounts

According to one of the oldest theories, some scholars assign the differences in genealogies to the "Levirate marriage" tradition. This custom said that if a man died without bearing any sons, his brother could then marry his widow, and their sons would carry on the dead man's name. For this theory to hold up, it would mean that Joseph, the father of Jesus, had both a legal father (Heli) and a biological father (Jacob), through a Levirate marriage. The theory suggests that Joseph's grandfathers (Matthan according to Matthew; Matthat according to Luke) were brothers, both married to the same woman, one after the other. This would make Matthan's son (Jacob) Joseph's biological father, and Matthat's son (Heli) Joseph's legal father. Matthew's account would trace Jesus' primary (biological) lineage, and Luke's record would follow Jesus' legal lineage.

An alternative theory with very little acceptance among theologians and historians alike proposes that Jacob and Heli are actually one and the same.

One of the most widely held theories suggests that Matthew's account follows the lineage of Joseph, while Luke's genealogy is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

This interpretation would mean that Jacob was Joseph's biological father, and Heli (Mary's biological father) became Joseph's surrogate father, thus making Joseph Heli's heir through his marriage to Mary. If Heli had no sons, this would have been the normal custom. Also, if Mary and Joseph lived under the same roof with Heli, his "son-in-law" would have been called "son" and considered a descendant. Although it would have been unusual to trace a genealogy from the maternal side, there was nothing usual about the virgin birth. Additionally, if Mary (Jesus' blood relative) were indeed a direct descendant of David, this would make her son "the seed of David" in keeping with Messianic prophecies.

There are other more complicated theories, and with each, there seems to remain an unresolvable problem.

However, in both genealogies we do see that Jesus is a descendant of King David, qualifying him, according to Messianic prophecies, as the Messiah.

One interesting commentary points out that by beginning with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, Matthew's genealogy shows the relationship of Jesus to all Jews—he is their Messiah. This coincides with the overarching theme and purpose of the book of Matthew—to prove that Jesus is the Messiah.

On the other hand, the overriding purpose of the book of Luke is to give a precise record of the life of Christ as the perfect human Savior. Therefore, the genealogy of Luke traces all the way back to Adam, demonstrating the relationship of Jesus to all of mankind—he is the Savior of the world.

Women in the Genealogy of Jesus

Five noteworthy women are included in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Their inclusion has been a source of continuous debate. Jerome suggested that these women were included because they were sinners, foreshadowing Jesus as the Savior of sinful humans. Martin Luther thought they were included because they were Gentiles, showing that the Messiah extended his blessings beyond Israel. Their unique, controversial, and unexpected stories could explain another possibility for their inclusion. Or it may have been to counter Jewish criticism regarding the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth. Irregular unions did not disqualify the Messiah’s legal ancestry.

Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus

Matthew 1:1-17: From Abraham to Jesus

  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Judah
  • Perez (whose mother was Tamar)
  • Hezron
  • Ram
  • Amminadab
  • Nahshon
  • Salmon
  • Boaz (whose mother was Rahab)
  • Obed (whose mother was Ruth)
  • Jesse
  • David
  • Solomon (whose mother was Bathsheba)
  • Rehoboam
  • Abijah
  • Asa
  • Jehoshaphat
  • Johoram
  • Uzziah
  • Jotham
  • Ahaz
  • Hezekiah
  • Manasseh
  • Amon
  • Josiah
  • Jeconiah
  • Shealtiel
  • Zerubbabel
  • Abiud
  • Eliakim
  • Azor
  • Zadok
  • Achim
  • Eliud
  • Eleazer
  • Matthan
  • Jacob
  • Joseph (the husband of Mary)
  • Jesus

Luke's Genealogy of Jesus

Luke 3:23-37: From Adam to Jesus*

*Although listed here in chronological succession, the actual account appears in reverse order.
**Some manuscripts differ here, omitting Ram, listing Amminadab as the son of Admin, the son of Arni.

  • Adam
  • Seth
  • Enosh
  • Kenan
  • Mahalaleel
  • Jared
  • Enoch
  • Methuselah
  • Lamech
  • Noah
  • Shem
  • Arphaxad
  • Cainan
  • Shelah
  • Eber
  • Peleg
  • Reu
  • Serug
  • Nahor
  • Terah
  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Judah
  • Perez
  • Hezron
  • Ram**
  • Amminadab
  • Nahshon
  • Salmon
  • Boaz
  • Obed
  • Jesse
  • David
  • Nathan
  • Mattatha
  • Menna
  • Melea
  • Eliakim
  • Jonam
  • Joseph
  • Judah
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Matthat
  • Jorim
  • Eliezer
  • Joshua
  • Er
  • Elmadam
  • Cosam
  • Addi
  • Melki
  • Neri
  • Shealtiel
  • Zerubbabel
  • Rhesa
  • Joanan
  • Joda
  • Josech
  • Semein
  • Mattathias
  • Maath
  • Naggai
  • Esli
  • Nahum
  • Amos
  • Mattathias
  • Joseph
  • Jannai
  • Melki
  • Levi
  • Matthat
  • Heli
  • Joseph
  • Jesus

Key Takeaways

  • Matthew's genealogy traced Jesus' royal pedigree because the Gospel's central purpose was to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
  • Luke's genealogy traced Jesus' relationship to all of humankind because the Gospel's central purpose was to prove that Jesus was the Savior of the world.