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How to Read Jesus' Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew

  • Andreas J. Kostenberger and Alexander E. Stewart
  • 2015 3 Dec
How to Read Jesus' Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew

The Old Testament ends with the messianic promise unfulfilled, looking ahead to God’s future action of bringing salvation. From what our hypothetical reader sees, the promised offspring of the woman has not (yet) come. The world has not yet been set right. Blessing has not come to the world through Abraham’s descendants. The scepter has departed from the line of Judah. David’s kingdom has been defeated and lost, and no Davidic ruler reigns to mediate God’s blessings to the nations. The Old Testament ends looking to the future for closure and fulfillment. While the Second Temple period is anything but silent, the prophetic voice has ceased. The waiting has begun.


With this background in place, we read the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel with new eyes: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The entire New Testament begins with a verse that declares Jesus to be the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the long-awaited Messiah! Jesus’s descent from David would turn out to be foundational for later New Testament theology.

The Book of the Genealogy
The genealogy proceeds to establish Jesus’s identity—traced back to David, the descendent of Judah, the descendent of Abraham, whom we know from the Old Testament narratives to be the descendent of Eve. Finally, our reader finds resolution to the tension introduced in Genesis. Jesus is the promised seed who will set everything right! The entire Old Testament progressively narrows down the identity of God’s Messiah until the day he finally arrives—the day God comes to his creation to undo the work of the fall, destroy the works of the Devil, and begin to set things right.

Four features of Matthew’s listing of Jesus’s family tree deserve comment. To begin with, the first two Greek words of the New Testament, biblos geneseōs (“The Book of the Genealogy”), mirror the language used to introduce creation itself and the genealogy connected to Adam. The use of this language points the attentive reader back to the creation of the world and links Jesus’s genealogy to God’s original plan for his creation.

Second, the inclusion of four women in the genealogy is unusual, particularly in light of the fact that each of the women was an outsider to Israel with a questionable background. Most ancient genealogies excluded women, particularly women who may have tarnished the family line. Matthew does the opposite. Tamar was a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to seduce Judah. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who lied to protect the Israelite spies and helped overthrow Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite woman who moved to Israel upon the death of her husband. Finally, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite; King David married Bathsheba after fathering a child by her and killing her husband. The inclusion of these non-Israelite women foreshadows the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and bears witness to the grace of God that actively seeks to forgive and restore sinners and to reach out to those who are marginalized and viewed as outsiders.

Third, Mary falls in line with these other women by conceiving a child in an unusual, questionable, or surprising manner. The family tree itself anticipates the virgin birth of Jesus by breaking its normal pattern of presenting information. The chain of generations consistently reads, “[father’s name] was the father of [son’s name].” Matthew repeats this pattern for every single father-son pair until Joseph: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ [Messiah].” The Greek language itself specifies clearly that Jesus is the biological son of Mary but not of Joseph. Thus, although Joseph was Jesus’s legal adoptive parent, he was not his biological father. The alert reader takes note of this curious way of putting things but must wait until the end of the chapter to receive additional details regarding this startling change in the pattern of listing Jesus’s ancestry.

Fourth, by dividing salvation history into three periods of fourteen generations each (Abraham to David, David to the exile, the exile to Jesus), Matthew communicates the theological truth that God was in control throughout even the most difficult periods of Israel’s history—the Babylonian exile—to move history toward this climactic point in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Interestingly, Jewish apocalyptic (end-time) literature commonly divided history into set time periods to indicate God’s control and guidance of history. Such divisions also aided memorization in a primarily oral culture, and the use of the number fourteen may have even emphasized the link to David via gematria (numerology).

The Genealogies in Matthew and Luke
Many have pointed out the differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, as well as how they differ from Old Testament genealogies of Jewish history. We cannot explore the subject in depth here, but scholars have suggested several ways to explain the variations. Some have posited that Matthew traces Joseph’s genealogy while Luke follows Mary’s, perhaps reflected in Matthew’s decision to link Jesus to David through Solomon while Luke runs his lineage through Nathan. This position, while popular, is less convincing because both genealogies seem to run through Joseph and because it would have been very unusual in antiquity to begin a genealogy with the mother.

Scholars have also commonly explained the differences by pointing to levirate marriage. Particularly in the period lacking biblical evidence between the exile and Joseph, we have difficulty identifying when a genealogy focuses on legal or biological fatherhood, since under Jewish law at that time a man could father a son under his deceased brother’s name, a practice called “levirate marriage.” Adoptions could further complicate the picture.

More commonly today, Matthew’s genealogy is described as a dynastic document focused on the royal line while Luke’s is linked more closely with a biological family tree. Craig Keener notes, “modern scholars more frequently argue that Matthew provides the legal line of royal inheritance; but those who wish can connect this lineage with Luke’s physical line by means of two adoptions.”

Other factors contribute to the smaller differences. Matthew and Luke were likely depending on the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which differed in some respects from the Hebrew texts available to us, particularly in the spelling of names. Matthew also evidently skipped some generations by linking a son to a grandfather or great-grandfather. In addition, some extrabiblical Jewish sources for these genealogies that have been lost may have contained variations or corruptions. Synthesizing various available genealogies would have also been a complicated process.

All of these factors likely play a role in explaining the differences between Matthew’s list of Jesus’s ancestry and other available genealogies, but we should also remember that ancient genealogies were often written for specific purposes and were less concerned with scientific exactness than are modern genealogies. Matthew intended his genealogy to show Jesus’s concrete historical and legal connection to David and beyond that to God’s covenant with Abraham. Matthew accomplished this purpose legitimately even if his genealogy skipped, for example, Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah between Joram and Uzziah in order to keep the number to fourteen—a strategy that facilitated memorization and highlighted Jesus’s connection to David by way of gematria.

The Mystery Revealed
With Matthew’s genealogy, God has at last revealed the identity of the hero of his story. We know who the long-awaited deliverer is. In this way, Matthew strikes a note of fulfillment, climax, and consummation. The messianic hope has found its fulfillment in Jesus. The Messiah has come!

[Editor's Note: This content is taken from The First Days of Jesus by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander E. Steward, ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187,]

Andreas J. Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and the author or coauthor of  numerous books, including The Final Days of Jesus (with Justin Taylor).

Alexander E. Stewart (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is academic dean and assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands.

Publication date: December 3, 2015