It can be intimidating to try to wrap our heads around the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. We should not ignore the differences. But we also should avoid the trap of automatically assuming that such differences are unsolvable contradictions or errors. With various tools or principles in place, plausible explanations are out there.
Several times the New Testament declares Jesus to be the heir of King David and, thus, the descendant of Abraham (e.g., John 7:42; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5). But only twice do we get a lengthy genealogy tracing the steps down to Jesus: Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38.
Without ancestry.com and 23andme.com, it is not surprising that these two genealogies differ. Some differences are mere spelling variations. But sometimes they involve whole sections of names. It may be surprising to learn that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke align for only approximately seventeen names out of one hundred. But do such differences mean that the genealogies contradict each other? Are there errors, or can the genealogies be reconciled?
Skeptics have attacked Scripture on this point since the AD 200s (e.g., Porphyry and Julian the Apostate), and theologians have responded with various solutions (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Ambrose, and Augustine). No comprehensive solution has won the day, but that does not mean there is none. It just means we must keep working at it. To that end, keep in mind four things when navigating the genealogies.
Intention of the Authors
A genealogy is a compact narrative. The names bring with them the stories. If so, then both Matthew and Luke have authorial freedom in how to tell the genealogical story:
- Matthew uses descending order ending with Jesus (A “begat” B), while Luke uses ascending order starting from Jesus (B “son of” A).
- Matthew selects Abraham as the starting point, while Luke starts back at Adam.
- Matthew places his genealogy at the beginning (Matt. 1), while Luke places it after Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3).
- Matthew organizes the names in a 14/14/14 scheme (Matt. 1:17), while Luke may be adopting a subtle 11×7 scheme.
These choices are not contradictions. They simply reflect how the two evangelists have different goals. Matthew, for instance, stresses the Abraham–David–Jesus linkage (Matt. 1:1), while Luke stresses Jesus as “son of God” via Adam (Luke 3:38).