December 7, 2017
Last week, I issued an invitation to you to participate in our Advent sermon series, and today on the blog I want to talk about one of the questions that’s come up in the course of those conversations: just how reliable is this genealogy anyway?
To recap, this year’s Advent sermon series is called “Not So Picture Perfect.” In it, we’re looking at the people in Jesus’ family tree as recorded in Matthew’s gospel and showing how God worked to bring about something amazing despite their dysfunction.
When you read the genealogy, it doesn’t take long to notice a couple of interesting things. First, some of these names sound really weird to our ears. I’m sure there was a reason to name a kid Ram or Salmon, but I’ll have to just believe that on faith. And wasn’t Zadok the alien from Toy Story? (Note: I know his name is Zurg—I’m just aiming for a laugh).
I know that people like to use biblical names for their kids, but as a public service I would suggest not using those ones.
Beyond the names, though, there’s something else that’s interesting, and it’s Matthew’s use of the number 14. 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and 14 from the exile to the birth of Jesus.
But wait a minute: is that possible?
Here’s something else: when you compare Matthew’s genealogy to Luke’s (cf. Luke 3:23-38) the names are different. And you don’t even have to go that far to see it: even Joseph’s father has a different name in both. It could be that this has something to do with the differences between Greek and Hebrew names, but it’s a pretty striking thing.
What’s going on here? And, more importantly, can we trust that these genealogies are accurate?
The answer to the first question: it’s hard to say exactly.
The answer to the second: yes.
Let me explain both.
First, why are the genealogies different between Matthew and Luke? Let me give you a quick recap of four common theories.
One theory is that Matthew is tracing Joseph’s side of the family whereas Luke is tracing Mary’s. Unfortunately, that theory doesn’t hold up. Luke explicitly goes through Joseph, not Mary; what’s more, ancient Jewish genealogies weren’t, in fact, traced through the mother, despite the occasional reference to mothers in those genealogies.
A second theory is that one or both of these authors just invented the lists, picking names from Israel’s history that sounded good and making connections that weren’t there. But we have to reject this idea as well because (a) it would undermine the trustworthiness of Scripture, and (b) genealogies were simply too important in the ancient world to be made up of whole cloth. Remember, both Matthew and Luke were writing in the first century when their stories could be fact-checked with real, living people, so there’s no way they would have gotten away with inventing things.
A third theory is that Matthew’s use of the number 14 represents a Jewish interpretive technique that (stick with me here) used the numerical value of a person’s name to trace a symbolic genealogy. Matthew was showing how Jesus was David’s descendant in keeping with God’s covenant, and David’s name has three consonants (the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t use vowels), the numerical value of which was 14.
That sounds like an interesting theory, although I admit that I don’t understand it very well because it’s heavily influenced by ancient culture. But it makes sense for Matthew to use something like that because his audience was Jewish, and for Luke not to use it because his audience was Greek. But there’s no way for us to know for sure if that’s what’s going on.
A fourth theory involves the type of genealogy both were presenting, with Matthew’s being focused on royal succession and Luke’s being focused on biological lineage. That’s why, according to this theory, Matthew’s family tree goes through Solomon and Luke’s through a different son of David.
Again, interesting theory, but it’s not entirely compelling. For example, it’s possible but not probable that two different family lines could diverge at David and converge at Zerubbabel.
Getting back to the question I presented earlier, then, we don’t have enough information to know why these two genealogies are different. We simply can’t get close enough culturally to know what would have been important to these authors or the audiences, or what kind of approach Matthew and Luke were taking.
That leads to the second question: how can we say that these genealogies are accurate?
One of the critical concepts in biblical interpretation is to hold the biblical authors to the standards of accuracy that fit the purpose of their writing and the convention of the time in which they were written.
Both Matthew and Luke had a purpose in their writing: to place Jesus into the redemptive-historical story of God’s dealings with his people. We may be vexed by the fact that there were probably more than 14 generations between Abraham and David, but Matthew’s audience wasn’t. And it’s not because they didn’t care about it being accurate: it’s because their standards were different from ours.
We have to resist the temptation to put ourselves in a position of historical superiority, believing that we’re more enlightened than the people who were actually alive at the time of the writing. We may have iPads and cloud computing, but that doesn’t make us better or smarter.
Both genealogies accomplish the purpose of their respective authors, and for whatever reason they diverge. There’s really nothing more to it.
Does that explanation satisfy everyone? Probably not. But if you’re already out to prove that the Bible isn’t reliable, you’ll just find another reason to believe that anyway.
As for me, I’m comfortable enough with the mystery because there’s just too much that I don’t know. Either God is telling the truth or he isn’t, and I choose the former. The onus is on me to prove him wrong, not the other way around.
Speaking of the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel, we’re going to look at yet another name from it this Sunday. I hope to see you there.
Share this blog on our social media and tell us your thoughts!