Who is Right? Matthew or Luke?

For the past two weeks at Riverview we have examined the genealogical records presented in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Both genealogies serve to prove to the reader that Jesus is indeed qualified to bear the title of Messiah and be the representative Savior of all those who will trust in him.  You can listen to the sermon on the genealogy in Matthew here, and the genealogy in Luke here.  

It doesn’t take a very close reading, however, before one realizes that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are quite different at points.  Some skeptics would use this as evidence that the Bible is contradictory, saying that the gospel authors can’t even agree on the members of Jesus’ own family.  Such a conclusion is very flawed, however, as there are numerous ways to resolve discrepancies of genealogical origin, and there have been several theories proposed by scholars and researchers that propose ways of reconciling these differences, all of which are possible.  These theories should negate almost any objection a skeptic of scripture has regarding the differences in Matthew and Luke’s genealogical data of Jesus.  In what follows I will briefly outline three possible reasons for the differences in the genealogies, and explain why the differences do not present a problem for those who believe the Bible.

1. First, the genealogical records can differ simply because of the way we communicate lineage in written discourse.  For instance, you could say that I am the “son of” my great-great grandfather, John Detlefsen, born in 1847.  I am not his direct son, but I am his “son” in a broader sense, in that I come from his line.  It could be that Matthew and Luke are focusing on different “sons” of Abraham (and Adam, in Luke’s case), and so they mention different names from different generations of Jesus’ genealogy.  This kind of selective genealogy was, and is, common in genealogical records.  This is probably the best explanation for the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogical records.

2. Closely related to the explanation above is that it is possible that, in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew’s desire was to report Jesus’ direct lineage.  In other words, Matthew literally wanted to show Joseph’s (Jesus’ earthly father) direct line to Abraham.  This would mean that Matthew’s lineage of Jesus literally included Jesus’ direct (earthly) father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on.  It is also possible that Luke’s purpose in his genealogy of Jesus is to communicate Jesus’ royal line.  This would mean that Luke is more concerned with noting Jesus’ ancestors who are official representatives of the throne of David.  Thus, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus represents his royal heritage, whereas Matthew’s represents his familial heritage.  Careful readers will note that Luke and Matthew even have different names listed for the man representing Jesus’ grandfather.  This explanation quickly resolves the apparent contradiction: the name listed in Matthew’s genealogy is Jesus’ actual grandfather, whereas the name listed in Luke’s genealogy is Jesus’ “royal” grandfather.  

3. A third option is entirely unrelated to the previous two, and asserts that the genealogy found in Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage, whereas the genealogy in Luke traces Mary’s.  This explanation would account for the differences between the two genealogies.  While unprecedented, I find this to be a very possible and realistic interpretation of Luke’s genealogy.  In first century Jewish culture, it would have been unheard of for a woman’s genealogical records to be officially recorded, as it was a patriarchal culture that centered mostly around the actions and lives of males.  However, one of Luke’s main points in his gospel is that this new kingdom that Jesus is building is a kingdom of equality between genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and so on.  In fact, Luke’s gospel records some very counter-cultural interactions between Jesus and women (see Luke 8.1-3, for example).  It is therefore not too much of a stretch to think that Luke is furthering this kingdom ideal to include the genealogy of Mary in his report of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Furthermore, Luke notes in his introduction that he has used eyewitnesses to formulate his account of Jesus life, and many scholars agree that most of the material in chapters 1-2 probably came from an interview that Luke conducted with Mary herself (Luke 1.2).  Thus, it is not unreasonable to presume that part of the information Luke gleaned from Mary was a detailed record of her lineage.  

On this side of heaven we will never know with certainty why the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are different.  In answering the question of which one is accurate, we can affirm that they both are, although we can’t definitively say how.  But we can be confident that there is a good reason for the differences, and a reason that does not call their (or the Bible’s) accuracy into question.  The three theories I listed here are only some of the dozen or so possibilities for the differences between the genealogies in the gospels.  Even in light of their differences, we can have confidence that they communicate the entrance of the Savior into the world and accurately express the continuation of God’s plan of redemption for all creation.