Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts on the Genealogy of Jesus

For about a year now, I have been fascinated by the study of ancient religious texts. Specifically, I have been delving into the lost gospels and other non-canonical writings of early Christian groups whose writings were not included in the New Testament due to the influence of the proto-orthodox influence that eventually won by popular vote.

(The conversion of a certain Roman Emperor to the proto-orthodox version of the Jewish sect called Christianity was a major deciding factor there. Imagine if Constantine had, for whatever reason, preferred the Gnostics, the Ebionites, or the Marcionites in place of what eventually became what we today recognize as "orthodox Christianity." Modern-day adherents to Christianity would likely be revering, say, the Gnostic Scriptures or the Nag Hammadi Library as sacred scripture instead of the fragmented and inherently divisive anthology known today as the New Testament. But I digress).

I have also been interested in immersing myself in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, ancient Jewish writings that were not included with the thirty-nine books we know today (I use the term "know" loosely; most people are not even aware of what is in their own Bibles). These apocryphal writings often expand and elaborate on well-known accounts, such as entire books detailing the life and death of Adam and Eve, an extensive life of Enoch, birth narratives of Noah, visions of Moses, etc.

What I definitely did not anticipate, however, was that I would become a full-fledged Bible nerd. That is essentially what I have become, and the realization of this did not strike me until today. The other afternoon I found myself in the large university library, poring over thick scholarly historical criticism commentaries on New Testament genealogies. This brings me to the subject I tackle here.

As you may be aware, two of our four canonical Gospels provide genealogies of Jesus. Matthew's Gospel traces Jesus' line through thirteen generations of Jewish descent, back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke's Gospel traces Jesus' family line all the way back to Adam, the alleged father of the human race according to Jewish mythology (quite the fantastic genealogy!). As it turns out, the genealogies in each become important commentaries on what each author wants to emphasize about who Jesus meant to them. If you are familiar with Matthew's Gospel, you will know that Matthew seeks to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. His gospel strives throughout to drive home the point that Jesus fulfilled a number of important Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout his account one finds numerous references to an Old Testament prophecy that Matthew ties to various sayings and actions of Jesus. Matthew has a distinctly Jewish perspective on who Jesus is.

Luke, on the other hand, has a distinctly different emphasis on who Jesus was and what he was all about. Luke's perspective of Jesus diverges from Matthew's in that Luke seeks to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. Throughout his gospel account, Luke is primarily concerned to portray Jesus as a significant figure to all people, Jew and gentile alike. When reading through Luke's Gospel, one is impressed upon by the author to recognize the ways in which Jesus relates to all of humanity. Therefore, Luke's genealogical family tree of Jesus seeks to connect him to Adam in order to emphasize his relation to all people. This is also why the genealogy of Matthew and the genealogy of Luke have different ending points.

As a side note, both of these genealogies present a rather perplexing situation. Both Matthew and Luke want to insist that Jesus was born of a virgin who conceived not by having intercourse with her husband Joseph but through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit (unlike in Mark's Gospel, where a virgin birth is not even hinted at). This creates an obvious problem that is difficult to resolve. If Matthew and Luke are to be taken seriously when they say that Jesus was immaculately conceived, why is it that both Matthew's and Luke's genealogies trace the bloodline of Jesus precisely through Joseph? This question is not addressed at all in either gospel. According to the text, Jesus' only bloodline is found through the family history of Mary and no one else. Thus, both accounts present the wrong genealogy; neither one of them provides Mary's genealogy.

This is a general problem with the genealogical accounts. But there are two other more specific problems and discrepancies that are revealed when studying and comparing the genealogies in any detail. These problems and discrepancies are quite interesting and thought-provoking indeed. One discrepancy has to do with irreconcilable differences between the two accounts. The other problem that I took note of through my own study is a historical/literary oddity that emerges when one looks back to the Old Testament to read of some of the ancestors mentioned in Jesus' bloodline. This oddity does not represent a contradiction within the New Testament, but rather between the Old and New Testaments (Orthodox Jews, of course, would say there is no contradiction, since they do not consider the New Testament to be sacred scripture).

The easiest way to recognize the first discrepancy for what it is involves asking a simple question: Who, in both the Matthean and Lucan genealogies, is said to be Joseph's father, patrilineal grandfather, and great-grandfather? The two genealogies diverge from the outset, giving contradicting information. According to Matthew 1:15-16: And Eliud begat Eleazar, and Eleazar begat Matthan, and Matthan begat Jacob. And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

The family line is completely different in Luke's account. According to Luke 3:23-24: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph.

What are we to make of these genealogies which are clearly at odds from David to Joseph? The typical argument is that the genealogy in Matthew is of Joseph and that Luke's genealogy is of Mary. It is a persuasive and attractive attempt at reconciliation, until you read more carefully. In Luke 3:23, it is explicitly stated that the family line provided is that of Joseph, not Mary. Furthermore, Matthew 1:16 is clear on the point that it also speaks of Joseph's family history.

There are several other problems in terms of both consistency and historical accuracy, but I will turn my attention to just one more that I observed through my study. When the careful reader of New Testament genealogies turns to the Old Testament to read about some of the Jewish ancestors mentioned in the genealogies, some very interesting findings result. For example, consider yet another point of conflicting difference between the two genealogies. In Matthew 1:11-12 we read: "And Josias begat Jechoniah and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechoniah begat Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel."

Compare this to Luke 3:27: "Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zerubbabel, which was the son of Shealtiel, which was the son of Neri."

Besides the obvious discrepancy of who Shealtiel's father is (Jechoniah according to Matthew, Neri according to Luke) there is another perplexing situation that arises when one reads about some of these figures in the Old Testament. In his extensive volume of commentary on the Matthean and Lucan infancy narratives, the late scholar of New Testament critical studies Raymond E. Brown writes:

"The whole Lucan picture from David to Jesus is complicated by the fact that, having avoided the direct royal line throughout the monarchy by tracing the genealogy through Nathan rather than through Solomon, Luke rejoins the royal line after fall of the monarchy by listing Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, who appear also in Matthew's list. Some have been impressed that, despite all biblical evidence, Luke makes Shealtiel the son of the otherwise unknown Neri rather than of the last king Jechoniah; but his motivation may have been theological, namely, to avoid having in Jesus' ancestry a figure whom Jeremiah cursed . . ." (Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1977, vol. 1, p. 93).

As it turns out, Matthew's attribution of Jechoniah as Shealtiel's father has biblical support (see 1 Chronicles 3:17). Luke's attribution to Neri as his father is unsupported by any biblical evidence, as there is no mention of such a Neri in the Old Testament. As Brown points out, it is likely Luke's inclusion of Neri in his genealogy has a theological motivation behind it. And this is where an interesting observation comes to bear on a comparison of Matthew and Luke's family lines. As it turns out, the "brethren" of Jechoniah as mentioned in Matthew 1:11 included both Jehoiakim and Coniah, who were also sons of Josias. In Jeremiah 22:13-30, we are given a description of a harsh curse that God places on Jehoiakim, Coniah, and their brethren. Taken in the context of the entire chapter, the prophet is writing of these sons of Josias collectively:

"And I will cast thee out, and thy mother that bare thee, into another country where ye were not born, and there shall ye die. But to the land whereunto they desire to return, thither shall they not return. Is this man Coniah a despised broken idol? Is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure? Wherefore are they cast out, he and his seed, and are cast into a land which they know not? O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:26-30, KJV).

In light of this OT passage, it is easy to understand why Luke would feel motivated to omit Jechoniah from his list, replacing him with the fictional Neri, given the theological implications. This theological motivation to subtly alter the family tree of Jesus renders it inaccurate. On the other hand, Matthew does include Jechoniah in his genealogy, even connecting him with his brothers Jehoiakim and Coniah (Matt. 1:11)! In this instance, Matthew is faithful to the record of history. But in so doing, he is creating another contradiction. It would appear that Matthew is by implication suggesting that the God of the Jews did not stay true to his word. Keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel strives throughout to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, to emphasize that Jesus was in fact the Jewish Messiah to the Jews from the Jewish God as prophecied in the Jewish scriptures. But if Matthew is correct, it turns out that God's curse in Jeremiah 22 was not followed through, that the Lord in fact lied about Josias' children not bearing descendants that would prosper and sit upon the throne of David.

Interestingly enough, this difference between Matthew and Luke reflects on what each author was trying to say about Jesus. One might be inclined to expect that Matthew would have serious qualms about including Jechoniah in his genealogical account, considering that Matthew goes out of his way to uphold the Jewish scriptures throughout the rest of the gospel. Yet he does not omit that which he must have recognized was historically verifiable from the Jewish scriptures he must have known well. For Matthew, it would seem history takes precedence over theology. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned about including the name of a man who was banished from the royal Davidic line, because of the serious implications on his theological perspective. He therefore alters the record however slightly, throwing in the unknown name of Neri.

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