Contradictions in the New Testament: The Genealogies in Matthew and Luke

Introduction

The Gospels are full with contradictions, one of my favourites being the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Christians have thought of several ways to solve the issues, but none hold up to scrutiny as we will see in this post.


Jesus: Born out of a Virgin

The first thing I want to address isn’t directly related to the genealogies but it’s still interesting nonetheless. Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospels that tell us that Jesus is born out of a virgin and both give different reasons for it. Matthew tells us:

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”Matthew 1:18/23

Jesus is born here out of a virgin so that it’s fulfilling a prophecy in the Old Testament. Matthew focusses a lot on fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Matthew goes out of his way showing us that Jesus is the new Moses. His whole portrait of Jesus bares close resemblances to the life of Moses. The only problem here is, is that Matthew based this so called prophecy of the messiah, on a mistranslation. The Hebrew bible got translated to Greek to fulfil the need of none Hebrew speaking Jews living outside of Palestine. The Greek translation of this bible is known to us as the Septuagint or the LXX. Unfortunately for Matthew, the translation wasn’t without err.

Matthew is referring to a prophecy in Isaiah:

“Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”Isaiah 7:13/14

If you look at the Hebrew text of the passage and not the Greek translation, the text uses the word “almah” which just means “young woman” and doesn’t mean sexual virgin. The Hebrew word “almah” got translated to the Greek word “parthenos”. Parthenos meaning a woman who was a sexual virgin. Hence the mistake by Matthew.

So if the passage is about a young woman, then it most probably isn’t about Jesus. Yale University Biblical scholar Christine Hayes explains what the passage is actually about when read in context:

“Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign of the truth of his prophecy, namely that a young woman who is pregnant will bear a son and call him Immanuel meaning “El is with us” (Isaiah 7:14). Although Christians read this passage out of context as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus, in context the verse most likely refers to the king’s wife, who would soon bear Hezekiah. Hezekiah was a celebrated king who kept Judah intact through the Assyrian Crisis and about whom it is said “El was with him” (2 Kings 18:7). The famous verses in Isaiah 9 announcing: “for unto us a child is born” – a wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace (again verse utilised in Christian liturgies to this day as a reference to to the birth of Jesus) – are understood by most scholars as a praise for King Hezekiah.”Christine Hayes – Introduction to the Bible (p. 272)

Now over to Luke. What has Luke got to say about the virgin birth of Jesus?

“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”Luke 1:26/35

Luke makes no mention of a prophecy. Bart Ehrman tells us the following about Luke reasons:

“Luke generally thought to have been writing to a Christian community that was largely Gentile. It may be that he has molded his portrayal of Jesus for these converts from other Greco-Roman religions. He presents the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that would make sense to a pagan reader who was conversant with tales of other divine beings who walked the face of the earth, other heroes and demi-gods who were born of the union of a mortal with a god.” Bart Ehrman – The New Testament (p. 155)


Matthew’s Genealogy

Both genealogies in Matthew and Luke are meant to make a case for Jesus as the messiah. The ancient Jews thought the promised messiah would be a descendant from King David. Since Jesus was born out of a virgin, that meant Joseph never had sex with Mary. God impregnated Mary. This, of course, is a problem. So Christians had stories going ’round at the time that Joseph was a descendant of King David. This was to make the case for Jesus as the promised messiah more plausible.

Matthew starts out his Gospel with Jesus’ genealogy:

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.”Matthew 1:1/17

Matthew deliberately left out names found in the Old Testament in his genealogy. (we know for instance that Jehoram wasn’t the father of Uzziah like Matthew 1:8 tells us. 1 Chronicles 3:10/12 tells us Jehoram was Uzziah’s great-great-grandfather.) in order to have something of major significance happen every fourteen generations. He wanted to have 14 generations every sequence (even though the last sequence contains only thirteen names). Why? There are different theories going ’round amongst scholars. One of them being that the number 14 is two times 7. With 7 being the perfect number and associated with the divine, Matthew goes to show that 14 is doubly perfect.


Luke’s Genealogy

Luke doesn’t start off with a genealogy of Jesus but places it several chapters later. Most probably because Luke wanted to make a connection between Jesus’ baptism (for Luke, Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism, see Luke 3:21/22). So for Luke, Jesus’ genealogy became relevant form that point. Luke’s genealogy goes as follows:

“Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”Luke 3:23/38

As you can read for yourselves, it’s completely different from Matthew’s, they’re nothing alike. Christians have come up with all sorts of explanations why (we will get to those later), but scholars have a far more plausible explanation for the differences; both Matthew and Luke had different sources to their disposal. Both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a template but also provide us with information not found in any other Gospel. When Matthew and Luke share the same information but it’s not found in Mark, scholars say this information comes from the “Q” source (Q stands for Quelle, German for well). Unfortunately the Q source no longer survives, but we can get an idea of what it may have contained when we study Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke both also present us with information not found in any other Gospel and only found in Matthew or Luke. These sources are called “M” (Matthew’s special source) and “L” (Luke’s special source). Whether or not these sources are written or oral (or both) is unknown to us. Scholars think both Mathew and Luke got their genealogies from the M and L source, hence the differences.


Apologetic Responses to the Contradiction

Since the genealogies are so different, one can ask the historical question: Who was Jesus’ (non-biological) grandfather? Was it Jakob or was it Heli? How can it be both? It was either one or the other, or none of the above.

Christians often make the fatal error of harmonising the Gospels. We should read the Gospels as individual texts written for their own distinct audiences. None of the authors ever wrote their Gospel with the idea that it would someday end up in something called the Bible, there was no bible or New Testament 2,000 years ago!

An argument often used is that Matthew traces back Jesus’ bloodline through Joseph and Luke traces back Jesus’ bloodline through Mary. There is absolutely no foundation for this argument whatsoever. As you can read for yourself, Luke mentions showing Mary’s bloodline nowhere. Also, Luke clearly says the following in the beginning of his Gospel:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”Luke 1:1/4

Many have tried to make an account of what happened, but according to Luke, they weren’t sufficient so he decided t write an orderly account himself. Now why would he leave out such an important fact as Mary’s bloodline? It doesn’t make sense. What Christians are doing in this case is adding information to the Gospel that isn’t there so that they can work away any contradictions. Nowhere does Luke say he is following back Mary’s bloodline.

Sometimes apologists say that there is no Greek word for son-in-law. Whether or not this is true, is irrelevant. Christians are reading something into the text that isn’t there simply to suit their needs. Jews (Jesus was a Jew after all) always followed back the lineage of someone through the father. This argument stems from the idea that the Gospels must all converge unto the same message and that there can be no errors in in the Bible. Remember that none of the authors of the Gospels thought their books would end up in something called the Bible someday and the arguments presented by Christians to harmonise this contradiction don’t take this fact into consideration. Both Matthew and Luke were simply writing down what they thought was the story about Jesus.


Conclusion

As I have mentioned before, the Bible is riddled with contradictions but this doesn’t need to be a problem. It is only a problem when believers try to harmonise things and think the Bible is the infallible word of God. Of course this blog entry isn’t going to change any believers mind, because they will cling on to every bad argument they can make, but perhaps it can inform some of you out there of the other side of the argument and show you why scholars find these kind of apologetic arguments unconvincing.

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