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Why are the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke different?

The genealogies of Jesus in Luke and Matthew differ in several points. At first look, these differences seem to present major discrepancies. Fortunately, however, enough is known of ancient Jewish customs and ways of thinking to provide a fully reasonable explanation.  

The Main Differences Between the Two Genealogies

1-Luke lists 41 descendants of David who were ancestors of Jesus; Matthew, 26.

2-With the exception of Salathiel, Zerubbabel, and Joseph the husband of Mary, the two lists are altogether different for David’s descendants.

3-The two genealogies meet briefly, with Salathiel and Zerubbabel, but Matthew identifies Salathiel as the son of Jeconiah; Luke lists him as the son of Neri.

4-Matthew recognizes Joseph as the son of Jacob; Luke, as the son of Heli.

Explanations

1-Matthew assigns 26 generations, averaging about 37 years each, to the time from the death of David to the birth of Christ; Luke has 41 generations, averaging about 24 years each. According to chronology, David died in the year 971 B.C. and Christ was born 5 B.C., a period of about 966 years.

Considering the fact that Matthew has taken out at least four genealogical links during that part of the 966 years where a comparison with OT lists can be made (Matthew 1:8, 11, 17), it is possible that he may have taken out at least 11 from the more unknown time between the two Testaments.  

2-Except for Salathiel, Zerubbabel, and Joseph the husband of Mary, the genealogical lists given by Matthew and Luke clearly track down the ancestry of Jesus back to David through two completely different lines of descent. From David to the Captivity, Matthew follows the ruling line of the royal family, and we suppose that the same is accurate of those listed from the Captivity onward (Matthew 1:17).

Luke follows a non-ruling part of the royal line back to Nathan, another son of David by Bath-sheba (1 Chronicles 3:5; Luke 3:31). Intermarriage within the royal family explains the fact that Christ’s ancestors can be tracked down to David through two nearly fully clear family lines. 

3-Luke calls Zerubbabel the son of Salathiel, and Salathiel the son of Neri. Matthew also calls Zerubbabel the son of Salathiel but calls Salathiel the son of Jeconiah (Matthew 1:12). Some propose that Salathiel was the literal son of Neri, but the “son” of Jeconiah [Jehoiachin; 1 Chronicles 3:16] by adoption. 

As to Zerubbabel’s linage, both Luke and Matthew call him the son of Salathiel (Shealtiel), thus agreeing with Ezra 3:2; 5:2; Nehemiah 12:1; and Haggai 1:1, though the Masoretic text of 1 Chronicles 3:19 calls Zerubbabel the son of Pedaiah (1 Chron. 3:19; Ezra 2:2). However, the LXX of 1 Chronicles 3:19 records Salathiel as the father of Zerubbabel, and it is clear that Luke here follows the LXX whenever it gives information relevant to his genealogical list (Luke 3:36).

4-Matthew recognizes Joseph as the son of Jacob; Luke, as the son of Heli. Clearly, Joseph the husband of Mary could not be the factual son of both Heli, in Luke, and of Jacob, as in Matthew. Two reasonable clarifications have been suggested that are fully in harmony with Jewish customs. One suggests that both lists give the ancestry of Joseph, the one by blood descent and the other by adoption or by levirate marriage. The other suggests Matthew gives the ancestry of Joseph, and Luke gives that of Mary, through her father. 

Those who consider both lists as representing the lineage of Joseph, explain that one list gives his actual blood descent, and the other, his descent by adoption into a related family line. If Joseph was directly the “son of Jacob,” as in Matthew, he must have become the “son of Heli” by adoption. According to the second explanation, Mary was the only child of Heli, and by marrying her, Joseph became the rightful son and heir of Heli in accordance with the levirate marriage law of Moses (Deuteronomy 25:5–9; Matthew 22:24). 

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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