It must strike the thoughtful reader that there is something quite incongruous between the emphasis the churches place upon the so-called “virgin birth” of Jesus and the lack of emphasis on his birth in the New Testament. It is mentioned in only two of the 27 books of the New Testament, the gospels of Mathew and Luke. The other books, including the remaining two gospels, show no interest in the birth of Jesus.
The New Testament writers understood the messiah must be descended from King David of the tribe of Judah, and eligible to sit upon the throne of David. These are the only aspects of Jesus’ descent that were of interest to them. (Luke 1:32, 69, John 1:49, 7:42, Acts 2:29-30, 13:22-23, Romans 1:3, 2Timothy 2:8, Hebrews 7:14, etc)
Throughout Jesus’ life it was commonly supposed he was the son of Joseph. (Luke 3:23, 4:22, John 6:42) It is quite clear from the first chapter of John, when the disciples were first drawn to Jesus they had no trouble declaring: “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”. There was no conflict for the disciples identifying Jesus as the messiah while believing he was the son of Joseph. (John 1:45)
On first appearances it seemed Jesus, as the son of Joseph, had at least fulfilled the requirement of messiahship that he be descended from King David and able to sit upon the throne of David. After all Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. (Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:4)
However Matthew and Luke became aware of certain information of a quite personal nature, but nevertheless information they knew was essential to place on record. It is likely Mary was the source of this information sometime after the deaths of Joseph and Jesus.
The information was that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. Moreover Joseph could not be the father of the messiah, because he was descended from a line God had forever banned from sitting upon the throne of David. The father of Jesus was another man who was a descendant of David through an entitled line.
This article looks at what Matthew and Luke said about Jesus’ family tree, why they said it, and discusses how church scholars have dealt with these passages.
TWO DIFFERENT GENEALOGIES
Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy, Luke that of Jesus
Theologians have usually taken the view that the two genealogies in the New Testament are both of Joseph, even though they are clearly different. (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38) The favourite explanation for the discrepancy between the two genealogies first appeared in the third century. It proposes that the one in Matthew’s gospel gives the biological descent of Joseph, while the one in Luke’s gospel gives his legal descent. According to this proposition, the New Testament gives two different genealogies of Joseph and none of Jesus!
Both genealogies have in common their descent through King David, but from thereon take different paths with different consequences. Put simply, the messiah could come from the ancestry given in Luke, but not from the ancestry in Matthew.
The proposition that these two different genealogies are of the same person is another example of the strained explanations put forward to circumvent information in the New Testament that destroys the virgin birth claims. The reason the two genealogies are different is simple; one is the genealogy of Joseph, the other is that of Jesus.
THE GENEALOGY IN MATTHEW
Why it was necessary to show Joseph was not Jesus’ father
The construction of Matthew’s gospel indicates he considers it important to tell us something about Joseph’s ancestry before starting the story of Jesus. Matthew opens his gospel with the genealogy of Joseph, which serves to introduce, and is directly related to, what he tells us next, that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. (Matthew 1:2-16, 18-19)
Matthew knew that the messiah must be descended from David, and entitled to sit upon David’s throne. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, he was aware that fatherhood by Joseph — who was commonly believed to be Jesus’ biological father — invalidated any claim to messiahship.
Matthew’s Jewish audience would have recognized that the significant figure in Joseph’s genealogy is Jeconiah. (Matthew 1:11) According to the prophet Jeremiah, God declared that no descendant of Jeconiah (Coniah) would ever ascend the Davidic throne:
“Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah.” (Jeremiah 22:30)
Because of this edict, Jeconiah’s relevance to any discussion on the descent and messianic claims of Jesus is obvious. Therefore it may astonish some readers that most New Testament commentaries and bible footnotes avoid mentioning this matter in a meaningful way. The avoidance cannot be other than deliberate, for church scholars have known about the significance of Jeconiah for 1,800 years. Irenaeus (who is called a “Church Father”) wrote in the 2nd century:
“9. But besides, if indeed He had been the son of Joseph, He could not, according to Jeremiah, be either king or heir. For Joseph is shown to be the son of Joachim and Jechoniah, as also Matthew sets forth in his pedigree. But Jechoniah, and all his posterity, were disinherited from the kingdom; Jeremiah thus declaring… "Jechoniah is dishonoured as a useless vessel, for he has been cast into a land which he knew not. Earth, hear the word of the Lord: Write this man a disinherited person; for none of his seed, sitting on the throne of David, shall prosper, or be a prince in Judah.” ”
Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 21
Since Jeconiah’s descendants are unable to fulfil an essential requirement of messiahship, it is not surprising Matthew stated upfront, that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-19, 25)
THE GENEALOGY IN LUKE
Luke names Heli as the father of Jesus
Luke’s gospel was written in Greek. Before discussing the genealogy in Luke, there needs to be some understanding of the Greek language of that time, and associated translation issues.
One point to appreciate is that the punctuation that we see in our Bibles, such as brackets, did not appear in the original Greek. The meaning in the original Greek is ascertained from the words and their context, as succinctly pointed out in the following quote:
“The punctuation that you will find in modern editions of the NT is an editorial device intended to make the text easier to read — which it does! But it should always be realized that the text can be divided in other ways which might often change the meaning. Meaning must always be determined from context.”
The punctuation in Luke 3:23, the key verse in the Lucan genealogy, is one such example of an “editorial device” that did not appear in the original Greek. This is interesting, because according to how the “editorial device” is applied, Luke 3:23 can be read in two different ways.
Another point to appreciate is that our Bibles do not always provide a literal translation of the original words, often for reasons that are sound and practical. But this leaves open the possibility that a passage may be interpreted according to a theological mindset, and in doing so corrupt the original meaning.
Until recent times it was difficult, if not impossible, for a layperson to access information about biblical texts in their original language, in order to make an informed decision as to the meaning of those texts. These days it is relatively easy to view versions of the New Testament in Greek and obtain technical information about the language, from the Internet and a variety of published works.
The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures provides a Greek version of the New Testament, with a literal word-for-word translation into English directly below each line. According to the foreword, “The Greek text that we have used as the basis of our New World translation is the widely accepted Westcott and Hort text (1881), by reason of its admitted excellence. But we have taken into consideration other texts...”. This work’s literal translation of the Greek Luke 3:23-4 to English is as follows:
“And he was Jesus commencing as if of years thirty, being son, as it was being opined, of Joseph of the Heli of the Matthat of the Levi of the Melchi of the Jannai of the Joseph”
The point to grasp in the literal translation of this passage is that with the names that follow Jesus, there is a different grammatical treatment of the first-named Joseph compared to all other names. There is no definite article used before the first-named Joseph like there is for every name that follows.
The different grammatical treatment accorded Joseph indicates that he is not part of the genealogy, but rather an aside to it. Also, the words preceding Joseph, as it was being opined, relate to Joseph, and are part of the aside. The best way to show the parenthetical nature of the aside is to put the whole of it in brackets, as follows:
“And he was Jesus commencing as if of years thirty being son (as it was being opined of Joseph) of the Heli of the Matthat of the Levi … ”
This parenthesis removes Joseph from the genealogy altogether. Jesus is now shown to be a descendant of David, through a line qualified to sit upon the Davidic throne. Heli is named as his father.
Although some may be surprised by this interpretation, it is hardly new. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the received Greek text (Erasmus’ 16th century text) used parenthesis in just this way, which effectively eliminated Joseph from the genealogy.
“It is based on the received Greek text, on (os enomizeto ouios Ioseph) tou Heli, “being the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli” ”
Catholic Encyclopedia, Article Genealogy of Christ
The received Greek text clearly states Heli was the father of Jesus. There are others who give a similar rendering. However, unable to accept their own rendering at face value, they imagine the genealogy to be that of Mary — despite the fact her name does not appear in it! Smith’s Bible Dictionary informs us “Godet, Lange and many others take the ground that Luke gives the genealogy of Mary, rendering Luke 3:23 thus: Jesus ”being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, (but in reality) the son of Heli.” ” (Article: Genealogy of Jesus Christ)
The current Bible translations of Luke 3:23 which show Heli as the father of Joseph contradict the genealogy in Matthew which states that Jacob is the father of Joseph. However where parenthesis is applied in Luke 3:23 as in the received Greek text, which shows that Heli is the father of Jesus, there is then no contradiction between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke because they are seen to be genealogies of two different persons.
WHY MARY AND JOSEPH ARE IRRELEVANT TO MESSIAHSHIP CLAIMS
Mary was a Levite, Jesus a Judahite
The New Testament states that Jesus was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh”, and “it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda”. (Romans 1:3, Hebrews 7:14, also see Revelation 5:5, 22:16)
Given this, if the virgin birth story were true, Mary — as the sole physical link between Jesus and his ancestors — would have to be in the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David.
The New Testament tells us nothing about Mary’s lineage, but it does give information about her tribal affiliation. According to Luke, Mary is a kinswoman (suggenes) of Elizabeth, who in turn is of the daughters of Aaron, that is a Levite. This establishes Mary as a blood relation of Elizabeth, and both as daughters of Aaron. (Luke 1:5, 36. Appendix 1 for meaning of suggenes)
This is what the author of Encyclopaedia Biblica: Article Mary had to say about Mary’s tribal affiliation (on the basis of the aforesaid “daughters of Aaron” and “suggenes” references):
“We are not in a position to say to what tribe it was that Mary really belonged; but that the author of Lk. 1 held her to be a Levite is certain.”
Mary being a Levite is an insurmountable obstacle for the virgin birth doctrine. After all, how is it possible for a virgin mother from the tribe of Levi to bear a son who “sprang out of (the tribe of) Juda”?
Theologians attempt to escape their dilemma by proclaiming we must believe Mary is descended from David. They cannot point to one New Testament text that says this — or that Mary was in the tribe of Judah. Instead they are reduced to postulating various sets of circumstances which they suggest would demonstrate Mary’s Davidic descent. All that needs to be said about such musings is that the theologians find it necessary to imagine things not in the New Testament in order to explain away the information Luke gives about Mary.
The following quotations from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas illustrate this difficulty theologians have always had with the New Testament treatment of Mary. Both know that the virgin birth story cannot be sustained if Mary is not of Davidic descent.
“Thus, too, even if one were able to demonstrate that no descent, according to the laws of blood, could be claimed from David for Mary, we should have warrant enough to hold Christ to be the son of David, on the ground of that same mode of reckoning by which also Joseph is called His father. But seeing that the Apostle Paul unmistakably tells us that "Christ was of the seed of David according to the flesh," how much more ought we to accept without any hesitation the position that Mary herself also was descended in some way, according to the laws of blood, from the lineage of David? ”
Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, Book 2 chapter 2
“It is therefore possible that Elizabeth’s father married a wife of the family of David, through whom the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was of the family of David, would be a cousin of Elizabeth or conversely, and with greater likelihood, that the Blessed Mary’s father, who was of the family of David, married a wife of the family of Aaron.
“Again, it may be said with Augustine (Contra Faust. xxii) that if Joachim, Mary’s father, was of the family of Aaron (as the heretic Faustus pretended to prove from certain apocryphal writings), then we must believe that Joachim’s mother, or else his wife, was of the family of David, so long as we say that Mary was in some way descended from David.”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, TP Q31 A2
Augustine and Aquinas insist that we must believe Mary was descended from David “in some way”, for the obvious reason that if this were not so their virgin birth doctrine would collapse. However, neither can quote a single New Testament text that actually says this.
Joseph is irrelevant to proving Jesus’ Davidic descent
Well aware that Mary’s descent is a weak link in the virgin birth story, many church commentators attempt to find another way of demonstrating Jesus’ Davidic descent. They do this by asserting, incredibly, that Jesus’ descent and claim to the Davidic throne is established through his “foster-father” Joseph. This claim runs contrary to what the Old and New Testaments tell us. But before we proceed further, here is an example of this claim. It is an extract from a popular Bible Commentary of the last century. (Note: the author’s comments on Lk 1.32 and 1.69 are predicated on the assumption that no man was involved in the conception of Mary’s child.)
“The two genealogies… In both, the descent of Jesus is traced through Joseph, not Mary, partly because the claim of Jesus to the throne of David could only be established through His foster-father Joseph… Their accuracy or inaccuracy does not affect the main point at issue, our Lord’s descent, through His legal father Joseph, from David. Joseph’s family certainly claimed descent from David, and even the enemies of Jesus admitted the claim… our Lord’s Davidic descent through Joseph may be regarded as established. His Davidic descent through Mary is more doubtful, but, on the whole, probable. Lk 1.36, taken alone, might suggest that she belonged to the tribe of Levi, but Lk 1.32 and 1.69 lose much of their point, unless it is supposed that Mary herself was descended from David.” (Commentary on Matthew 1, pages 622-3)
A Commentary on The Holy Bible, edited by The Rev. J. R. Dummelow, M.A, 1946 (18th reprint), First edition 1909
It has already been pointed out that God debarred any descendant (“seed”) of Jeconiah, and consequently any son (“seed”) of Joseph, from ever ascending the throne of David. Therefore the assertion that Jesus’ claim to the throne was established through Joseph flies in the face of God’s injunction.
There is also the blatantly obvious reason why Jesus’ descent cannot be traced through Joseph, and it is that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Suggestions that Joseph’s legal relationship to Jesus is relevant to this claim are misleading and false. Based on Old Testament texts, Jesus had to be a physical descendant of David in order to fulfil a prerequisite for messiahship.
Certainly the Jews in Jesus’ time believed the foretold messiah must be descended from David. This is evident from many references in the New Testament, such as when people were amazed at Jesus’ works, and said “Is not this the son of David?” or when others said, “Hath not scripture said, that Christ cometh out of the seed of David?” (Matthew 12:23, John 7:40-42)
Followers of Jesus had the same understanding. In John’s prophetic book, it is written, “I Jesus… am the root and the offspring of David”. (Revelation 22.16, also see 5:5) Elsewhere New Testament writers refer to Jesus as the “son of David”, the “seed of David”, and the “fruit of his (David’s) loins”. (Matthew 1:1, 2Timothy 2:8, Acts 2:30, etc)
These terms leave little or no doubt that they understood Jesus to be a direct, physical descendant of David. If there is any doubt on this point, then Paul removes it where he writes:
“Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David, according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3)
Thus, according to Paul, the relationship between Jesus and David is “of the flesh”. This altogether rules out the participation of a “foster-father” in the linkage between Jesus and David. Joseph has no role to play in establishing that Jesus is “of the seed of David”.
TRUTH VERSUS THE THEOLOGIANS
Responsibility for the ambiguities that surround the two accounts of the birth of Jesus can be traced back to the Greeks and Latins.
With the passing of the original followers of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the missionary activities of Paul and others, custody of the New Testament soon passed to peoples in the Roman Empire. In succeeding centuries it was their interpretations of scripture that laid the theological foundations of all the churches of christendom.
Those prominent in the theological ferment of the early centuries were largely from the eastern Greek half of the Empire, and Greek speaking. Between 325 AD and 869 AD there were eight “ecumenical councils” that defined the nature of God. All were held in the Greek east. Latin representation at these councils was numerically insignificant.
From the start the Greeks had a cultural and religious heritage that made them ill equipped to understand the Old and New Testaments, which were written from a Hebrew and Jewish perspective. Their religion, with its multiplicity of gods, among whom was the Virgin Goddess Athena, gods acting like humans, gods impregnating mortal women, and so on, was nothing like the Hebrew religion with its concept of one God, a god of spirit and truth, who at times intervened in human affairs and “anointed” individuals to carry out certain functions.
Much the same can be said about the Latins. Several of the Roman emperors were deified by decree of the Senate. The Vestal Virgins undertook duties of their office in the temple of the goddess Vesta. And so on. The Latins borrowed a great deal from the Greek religion, often adopting its gods although applying to them different names.
When the Greeks and Latins looked into the New Testament they saw what was written there through the prism of their own culture, and applied their own scale of values. These values were those of the world in general, where self-righteous delusions and status consciousness all too often prevail over truth and humility.
Thus to these interpreters of the New Testament, Jesus became “God the son” which was far different to the Hebrew concept of “son of God”, where the Old Testament and Jesus spoke of one God they came to see a trinity, “Jesus anointed” became to them the name “Jesus Christ”, and so on. As part of this process, they upgraded Jesus’ birth, reading a “virgin birth” into the two accounts that spoke only of normal conception.
What the Greeks and Latins read into the Bible is far different from what the Bible actually says. Nevertheless there have been armies of theologians through the ages who have willingly provided the most fanciful exegesis to protect the churches’ established theological positions. This is particularly evident for the doctrine of virgin birth.
Other articles on this website about virgin birth show that the theologians give the most strained, convoluted, and intellectually dishonest expositions to explain away what the Bible actually says about Jesus’ birth. In this article, which has examined what is said about Jesus’ family tree, it is seen the theologians continue in the same vein; a blind eye is turned to the significance of Jeconiah; two different genealogies are said to be of the same person; the New Testament allegedly has two genealogies of Joseph and none of Jesus; attempts are made to explain away what Luke says about the tribal affiliation of Mary; a pretence is made that Jesus’ foster-father is significant in establishing Jesus’ descent and eligibility for the Davidic throne. All this to avoid what the New Testament says, which is that Jesus was the son of someone other than the person his mother married.
The more the theologians tried to explain away what is written in the Bible the more they became tied to untenable propositions. Their situation is aptly summed up by the words of Sir Walter Scott:
Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!