In 1930, amid growing tensions within the church over the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen published a short work titled The Virgin Birth of Christ. He sought to defend the biblical account of Christ’s miraculous birth against those who not only questioned its historicity but denied its importance as a “fundamental” Christian doctrine. Machen worked through the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ birth, as recorded in Matthew and Luke, demonstrating their reliability, and rebutting all other theories other than the orthodox position: the account of the virgin birth is historical truth.
Along the way, Machen spends time considering a perennial question that every student of Scripture committed to its historicity must ask: why do Matthew and Luke provide different genealogies of Jesus Christ? The problem is obvious: If one is to believe the birth narratives are true in every respect, then how does one account for these significant differences in Jesus’ ancestry? Put another way, if the genealogical differences are found to be a result of error on the part of either Gospel writer, that puts doubt on the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, and all other claims made in the Gospel accounts. My aim in this article, then, is to summarize in what ways these accounts differ, to provide typical explanations for those differences, and to leave readers asking a more satisfying question about the theological significance of these genealogies.
Two Different Accounts
In comparing the genealogies found in Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38, Darrell Bock highlights six ways in which they differ. They differ in terms of 1) sequence: Matthew begins with Abraham and goes forward in time, while Luke begins with Joseph and goes backward in time; 2) endpoint: Matthew only goes back to Abraham, Luke goes back to Adam; 3) detail: Matthew stops occasionally to explain the significance of certain entries, or to provide extra detail about an individual but Luke never does this; 4) structure: Matthew structures his genealogy around three groups of fourteen, Luke’s structure is ostensibly eleven groups of seven names each, though he does not explicitly bring attention to this structure the way Matthew does. 5) women: Matthew lists four prominent women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and ‘the wife of Uriah’), while Luke surprisingly, regarding his emphasis on women throughout Luke-Acts, lists none; and 6) lineage: from David to Joseph, Matthew and Luke list completely different names (other than two or possibly three).
Of those differences, only the last one presents any possible problems. Why do the lists diverge so significantly after David, even to the point of recording two different fathers of Joseph (In Matthew, Jacob; in Luke, Heli)? The easiest solution is to assert, as did those who denied the virgin birth and the inerrancy of Scripture, that these lists are irreconcilable; they simply contain error. For Machen, and all Christians resolutely asserting an inerrant Bible, this answer is unacceptable. Thankfully, such an assertion is not misplaced as there are better options for explaining these differences.
Let’s begin with the end. Only Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back from Abraham to Adam. His list is (nearly) identical to the genealogies found in Genesis 5:1–32; 11:10–32; and 1 Chronicles 1:1–4, 17–27. Since Matthew does not share this portion of the genealogy, this section poses the reader of the Gospels no problems.
Moving to the portions of overlap (from Abraham to David), Matthew and Luke agree except for one instance. In Matthew, Jesus’ family line goes Hezron-Ram-Amminadab (Matt. 1:4), whereas Luke has Hezron-Arni–Admin-Amminadab (Luke 3:33). Various explanations have been given. It is possible that one of the names in Luke is the same person as Ram in Matthew. It is also possible that the names in Luke are skipped over in Matthew, as in Ruth’s genealogy (Ruth 4:19–20) on which Matthew’s is based. Though uncertainty remains about where this specific divergence originated, it also poses little serious problem.
The real divergence in the genealogies begins with David. In Matthew, David’s son is Solomon; in Luke, Nathan is listed. From there, the lists diverge, then connect again briefly at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, diverging again down to Joseph. There are virtually endless explanations as to why this is the case, and unfortunately there is no conclusive evidence to determine exactly which solution should be preferred. There are two explanations, however, that are the most common, both of which could be considered satisfactory by those of us committed to the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Either Matthew gives Joseph’s line and Luke gives Mary’s line, or both trace Joseph, Matthew tracing the royal line, and Luke tracing the physical/biological line.
Matthew gives Joseph’s line, Luke gives Mary’s line
This first option seems the cleanest. In this explanation, Heli is not Joseph’s father, but Mary’s. Thus Luke is tracing Mary’s biological parents all the way back to Adam, demonstrating how she is the woman who produced the Offspring who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). The parenthetical statement “as was supposed” is an indicator to readers that Luke intends to give Mary’s lineage and not Joseph’s. Further, there is rabbinic tradition that lists a “Miriam” whose father is Heli. Many believe this Miriam/Mary to be Mary, mother of Jesus. This view avoids the problem of accounting for two different fathers to Joseph.
But there are problems with this solution. First, the rabbinic sources appealed to are difficult to support. The Miriam listed as the daughter of Heli could be any Miriam/Mary; she is not recorded specifically as the mother of Jesus. Second, and more significant, the best grammatical reading of the Greek in Luke is that this is a genealogy of Joseph. If Luke intended to give Mary’s lineage, many assert he would have listed her specifically.
Matthew gives the royal line, Luke gives the physical line
This second solution requires a bit more explanation but is just as plausible. Machen, who defended this view as the most likely, provides this description: “Matthew gives the legal descendants of David—the men who would have been legally the heir to the Davidic throne if that throne had continued—while Luke gives the descendants of David in that particular line to which, finally, Joseph, the husband of Mary, belonged.” In other words, Luke gives the biological bloodline, what one normally considers an account of genealogy or ancestry. Matthew, on the other hand, gives the royal line of succession from David to Joseph. A royal lineage will often follow bloodline, but can be broken when a king does not have an heir of his own and the throne is passed to another family line.
This solution is free from the difficult grammatical and textual maneuvering of the first, but now must account for the two different fathers listed for Joseph. To solve this problem, Matthan (Matt. 1:15) and Matthat (Luke 3:24) must be the same person, making Jacob and Heli brothers. This means Jacob would have died childless, and his brother Heli—through a levirite marriage—would have borne a biological son, Joseph, to be his deceased brother’s legal heir. Thus, both Matthew and Luke are correct. Solving the problem this way, however, only extends the problem back a generation. If Matthan/Matthat are the same person, then one must also account for his two fathers! This is not a deal breaker for Machen, who asserts that Eleazar’s (Matt. 1:15) line must have gone extinct, and Matthan/Matthat, the biological son of Levi (Luke 3:24), was adopted as Eleazar’s heir. In this way, the line of royal succession continued.
Obviously, this explanation is not free of its own shortcomings. Though technically possible, the supposition of at least one levirate marriage (Heli’s) and the adoption of one extinct line (Eleazar’s) is too far a stretch for some commentators. Others have taken the basic principle of this explanation and adjusted various names and degrees of kinship to provide a better solution, though no consensus has been reached.
Making the decision even harder is the support that both options have from well-respected biblical commentators and exegetes. In one form or another, many accept the second option, that Matthew traces the line of royal succession, and Luke traces the physical descendants. As already mentioned, Machen supported this second option, as did Calvin before him, and many conservative commentators today. The explanation that Luke traces Mary’s ancestry, however, still has modern support, including historical support from many (such as Matthew Henry and J. C. Ryle). The possible solutions are virtually endless, and it is unlikely that consensus among scholars will be achieved. Though this specific question will likely remain unresolved, given the two options above it would be wrong to insist that biblical error or outright contradiction is the only explanation for the difference between these Gospel genealogies. Both common solutions are compatible with biblical inerrancy, and one may feel comfortable with either. But more than that, one should feel content leaving behind these questions about names and identities, because there is a better question to ask. A question that moves beyond the technical and historical debate and arrives at the theological intent motivating each author.
A Better Question
Instead of only asking why they are different, one should ask, what purpose does each genealogy serve? Why do Luke and Matthew both record genealogies of Christ? And most pointedly, why do they record them in different places in their Gospel accounts? By asking these questions, the reader begins to see the theological purpose behind each ancestral list. Matthew and Luke both make profound theological statements through their different genealogies, though in different ways. Since Matthew is more direct in his purpose, let’s consider his Gospel first.
Writing to a Jewish audience, Matthew is explicit in his genealogy that Jesus is connected both to the throne of David and to the offspring of Abraham. He communicates this by presenting three successive sets of fourteen generations that connect Abraham to David, David to the exile, and the exile to Jesus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. That makes him the promised Messiah-King, the one for whom the Jewish people have waited through all these generations. It makes sense, then, for Matthew to focus on the royal line of succession. He was answering the question, “Who is the heir to David’s throne?” The answer to that question leads from David’s son Solomon all the way through Joseph to Jesus.
Luke, unlike Matthew, provides no explicit statement on the theological purpose of his genealogy. That does not mean he has no such purpose, but his approach requires a more thorough examination. Because he is writing to a Gentile audience, Luke desires to connect Jesus not only to his Jewish heritage but to all mankind. This purpose leads Luke to ask the question, “Who, ultimately, was Joseph’s (or Mary’s, if the first option above is preferred) father?” The answer to that question is Heli, and from there back through Nathan to David, then to Abraham, and all the way to Adam. When viewing it from this perspective, one begins to understand the theological significance of Luke’s genealogy and why it differs from Matthew’s.
Rather than placing his genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel, like Matthew, or placing it somewhere closer to Jesus’ actual birth—which might make more sense chronologically—Luke places Jesus’ genealogy right between the account of his baptism (Luke 3:21–22) and his temptation (Luke 4:1–13). Why does he do this? In Jesus’ baptism, the Triune God is seen acting in time and space. The Son is praying, the Spirit descends upon him, and the Father calls from heaven, “You are my beloved Son.” In this verse, the divine Sonship of the man Jesus is declared. He is the Son of God. The next verse begins the genealogy, and it turns out that the Son of God is also the Son of Man, having his lineage traced all the way back to the first man, Adam. Surprisingly, this Adam is also called the son of God, indicating the intimate relationship that God shared with this creature who was fashioned by his own hands and given the breath of life. But it was not long after that moment, remember, when this original human son rebelled against his heavenly Father. In the fall, Adam plunged himself, his posterity, and all creation into sin and corruption. But instead of Adam dying that day and perishing, God once again sought his son and gave him the promise of the gospel: that one of his offspring, the seed of the woman, would crush the serpent’s head and undo the curse (Gen 3:15).
From that moment on, the story of redemptive history revealed in Holy Scripture has been the story of the search for this promised son, the offspring and seed. We move on in Luke’s genealogy (in reverse chronology) from Adam to the Patriarchs. God called Abraham and gave him the promise that through his offspring all nations would be blessed. Yet the son born to him, Isaac, was not the son, but followed in his father’s disobedient footsteps. Perhaps Isaac’s son Jacob, who would be named Israel, would be the true son. Yet this son, who eventually became the nation of Israel (Hos. 11:1), grumbled against his Father and fell in the wilderness. He did not pass the test. The search—and the genealogy—continues to David and his sons.
After the nation rejected God as king over them and suffered under king Saul, God raised up king David, a man after his own heart. Yet even David sinned against the Lord, most prominently through his affair with Bathsheba. Even so, God made a covenant with him, that a son of David would be raised up, his kingdom established forever, and God himself would be a Father to him (2 Sam. 7:11–16). Was king Solomon, then, the son? It seemed possible for a time at the height of his kingdom, until Solomon the wise abandoned his own wisdom, sinned against God, and the kingdom split in two and both were eventually destroyed.
And now, many generations later, at the end of Luke’s genealogy, there is a new son. Could he be the one? He is both a physical descendant of David and a successor to his throne. He is the offspring of Abraham. In his baptism he was declared to be the Son of God, and through his ancestry shown also to be the Son of Man. And now, as Luke moves from Jesus’ baptism and his genealogy to his temptation, he presents his readers with the question, “Will this New Man succeed where all the others have failed?” “Will this Son treasure wisdom and serve only the Lord?” “Rather than murmuring against God in the wilderness, will this Son pass the test?” “Will this Son of God succeed in place of his father Adam, submitting to His Father’s Word and resisting the serpent’s temptations?”
Rather than spending countless hours struggling to find answers to the presence and order of every name on these two lists, these theological questions are the better questions to ask. Matthew’s genealogy shows that Jesus is the promised Messiah-King, and every verse afterward proves Matthew’s claim to be true. Luke, by putting his genealogy between Jesus’ baptism and temptation, leads his readers to ponder, “Is this Jesus truly the Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, the only one who is able to seek and save the lost?” One need only read on to find the answer.
Levi Bakerink is the Assistant Pastor at All Saints Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Richmond, VA. He and his wife Jessica enjoy playing pickle-ball together and watching (mostly Levi) the St. Louis Cardinals.
 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 918-919.
 For Luke’s inclusion of the name Cainan between Arphaxad (Arpachshad) and Shelah, contra to Genesis and 1 Chronicles, many scholars believe Luke was working from the LXX, which included this name, rather than the original Hebrew of Genesis and 1 Chronicles.
 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 919.
 J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (London: James Clarke, 1958), p. 204.