by John F. McCarthy

103. The problem of the genealogies. Lists of the ancestors of Jesus are given in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew and in the third chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Modern interpreters of the school known as “historical criticism” say that these two genealogies contradict one another and are, therefore, unfactual on the level of modern historical standards. Thus, renowned historical-critical scholar Father Raymond Brown (now deceased) concludes that both of these genealogies are merely “theological statements,” and not true historical reports, and that “while the two NT genealogies tell us how to evaluate Jesus, they tell us nothing certain about his grandparents or his great-grandparents.” He means that the message of these two Gospel genealogies “about Jesus, son of Joseph, is not that factually he is also (grand)son of either Jacob (Matthew) or of Eli (Luke) but that theologically he is 'son of David, son of Abraham' (Matthew), and 'Son of God' (Luke). 3 Now, it has been known for nineteen centuries that there is a seeming contradiction between the two genealogies, for the reason that most of the names of the ancestors of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew as far back as King David are different from the names in the Gospel of Luke. Father Brown solves this problem by averring that neither of these evangelists was attempting to write history; rather, they were both simply using defective family lists to make theological statements. On the contrary, traditional Catholic interpreters over the course of history have maintained that the writers of the four Gospels were intending to write and did write true history. How are we to compare and contrast the more traditional view of earlier Catholic interpreters with the opinion of Father Brown and of other modern historical critics?

104. The Gospels as true historical accounts. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that the four Gospels and all of the historical books of the Bible contain true historical accounts. Thus Pope Leo XIII declared: “It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage ofthe sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration or make God the author of such error.” 4 The Second Vatican Council declares the unchanging teaching of the Church that the four Gospels, “whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation,” and that the writers of the four Gospels “have told us the honest truth about Jesus.” 5 While maintaining the absolute historical truth of these two chapters (Matthew 1 and Luke 3), one can propose at least six possible solutions to the problem of the contrasting names in the two genealogies. The first two solutions regard the intention of the two evangelists in presenting the genealogical lists.

105. The first solution: historical reservation of St. Matthew. St. Matthew in chapter one gives a list of ancestors from Abraham to Joseph, but he does not link up the list from Joseph to Jesus. Instead, he simply tells his readers that Joseph was the husband of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and then he goes on to explain that Jesus, in fact, had no human father, because He was conceived supernaturally of the Holy Spirit. In his genealogy, Matthew is clearly speaking of carnal descent, for he uses over and over again the word “begot” (ε̉γεννησεν), but only down to Joseph, thus emphasizing that Joseph was not the carnal father of Jesus. Secondarily, Matthew is pointing out that Joseph was the adoptive father of Jesus, but primarily he is saying that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, and, therefore, that the Matthaean list of ancestors presents, at best, only the legal ancestry of Jesus, and not his physical ancestry. Thus, the possibility is laid open that the names in Matthew's genealogy do not conflict with the names in Luke's genealogy, inasmuch as Luke's genealogy may present the physical ancestry of Jesus through Mary.

Is, then, St. Matthew taking responsibility for the historical truth of the genealogy, at least as the true ancestry of St. Joseph? Probably, but not necessarily. Matthew opens the chapter with the words, “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” The expression, “the book of the generation,” could refer to an actual piece of papyrus on which these names were written and which Matthew had before his eyes. If he is saying that he is copying the names from this “book,” he may thus also be implying that he is not taking responsibility as an historian for the accuracy of these names, especially since he contrasts the names in this “book” with how the generation of Jesus really took place, where he says (verse 18): “Now the generation of Jesus was (that is, really was) in this wise.” So in this sense Matthew may or may not be taking respon­sibility as an historian for the names in his genealogy of Joseph.

106. The second solution: historical reservation of St. Luke. Luke starts off his genealogy in chapter 3, verse 23, with the words, “And Jesus ... being, as it was supposed, the son of Joseph, who was of Heli (or Eli), who was of Matthat,” etc. It is clear that St. Luke is saying that Jesus was only supposed to be the son of Joseph, and he is, therefore, not affirming this to be historical truth, but it is also possible that St. Luke is actually saying that the whole following list of names is just a supposition, and that he is not guaranteeing the entire list as reflecting historical truth. If this second possible reading is correct, then there is no question of historical error on Luke's part, because, as an historian, he is not necessarily affirming the historical truth of the list. This second solution again solves the problem of seeming historical error in the differing names of the two genealogies without, however, proving that either genealogy is historically unfactual.

107. The third solution: Levirate marriage. Matthew's genealogy says that “Jacob begot Joseph,” whereas Luke's list says that Joseph “was (the son) of Heli (Eli).” The third solution assumes that both of the genealogies are historically accurate. The Law of the Levirate of the Old Testament states: “When brothers dwell together, and one of them dies without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry another, but his brother shall take her and raise up seed for his brother. And the first son he shall have of her he shall call by his name, that his name not be abolished out of Israel” (Deut 25:5-6). According to the earliest version of the third solution, Joseph's grandmother (Estha) bore Jacob to one husband (Matthan) and Eli to a second husband (Matthat). Joseph's mother married Eli, who died without children; then she married Eli's uterine brother Jacob, who raised up Joseph as seed to Eli. Thus Joseph had Eli as his legal father and Jacob as his biological father. The genealogy of Matthew would thus show the biological ancestry of Joseph, and that of Luke the legal ancestry. This solution was recorded by Julius Africanus in the first half of the third century, who claimed that it was handed down to him by relatives of Joseph. St. John Damascene adhered to this explanation. Urban Holzmeister notes as a difficulty of this theory that the two husbands of Estha would not necessarily have borne the same male seed, but Jacques Masson points out that Mathan and Matthat could have been close relatives descended from a common male ancestor and thus would have borne the same male seed.

108. The fourth solution: Marian genealogy. The fourth solution is based on the idea that, while Matthew's genealogy gives the biological ancestry of Joseph, Luke's genealogy gives the ancestry of Mary, and, therefore, the real biological ancestry of Jesus. St. Paul (Rom 1:3) says that Jesus was born “from the seed of David according to the flesh.” St. Peter (Acts 2:30) speaks of Jesus as a biological descendant of David. Many Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Justin Martyr, St. Ignatius Martyr, St. John Damascene, St. Irenaeus, and St. Epiphanius say that Mary was a descendant of David. But, if Luke gives the genealogy of Mary, why does he tie it to Joseph, as he says “the son of Joseph, who was of Heli (Eli)”? And wasn't Mary the daughter of Joachim, as an extra-biblical tradition holds? Cornelius a Lapide explains that Luke is calling Joseph the son-in-law of Eli, which is a shortened form of Eliachim, and that Eliachim is an alternative name for Joachim (cf. 2 Chron 36:4). In opposition to this idea, it has been pointed out (by F.X. Patrizzi) that there is no example in the Bible of the shortening of the name Eliachim (or Eliakim) to Eli, and that Eli comes from a different Hebrew root. But this change could have taken place in the popular shortening of names. What could be concluded here is that Luke's genealogy seems in the plain and simple reading of the text to belong to Joseph, but it could belong to Mary in a deeper historical reading of the text, above all if there are historical reasons to explain why Joseph rather than Mary is mentioned in this genealogy.

One historical reason is that it was not customary to mention women in genealogies. Another reason that can be suggested for the inclusion of St. Joseph in the genealogy of Mary is that, since, in the ancient Near East, men were identified by their genealogical descent, St. Joseph would probably have registered himself and the Baby Jesus at Bethlehem (cf. Luke 2:5) according to his line of descent as recorded in Matthew 1. But when the Holy Family was returning from Egypt after the attack of King Herod on the life of Jesus, it would have been very risky to use this same card of identity. Hence, St. Joseph could have adapted Mary's genealogy for his own use as the adopted son of Mary's father and for the use of Jesus as the true biological grandson of Mary's father.

109. The fifth solution: legal adoption. According to Urban Holzmeister, if Mary was an only child, it was in keeping with Old Testament law and custom for her father to adopt her husband and transfer to him all of his rights and possessions. If this happened, the genealogy of Luke, while remaining materially the genealogy of Mary, would formally have become the genealogy of Joseph, who had inherited Mary's ancestry from her father by way of adoption. Holzmeister finds a precedent for this kind of special adoption in 1 Chron 2:34. Jacques Masson rejects this theory on the ground that, according to St. John Damascene, Joachim, Mary's father, was the son of Barpanther, son of Panther, son of Levi, and not the son of Eli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, as the Lukan gen­ealogy reads. But F.X. Patrizzi, after studying the same testimony of St. John Damascene, concluded that St. Joseph must have been Blessed Mary's uncle, and, therefore, he would have had the same genealogy as Mary from Levi on backward (even prescinding from the idea that Eli was actually Joachim, which Patrizzi rejects).

110. The sixth solution: consanguinity. Cornelius a Lapide elaborates on the theory of Marian genealogy (solution four above) to speculate that both of the genealogies may actually present the ancestry of Mary. He affirms that, while Eli (of Luke's list) was Joachim, the father of Mary, so Matthan (of Matthew's list) was the biological grandfather of both Joseph and Mary, inasmuch as Jacob (who begot Joseph according to Matthew's list) was the brother of Anne, Mary's mother. Thus, according to this theory, Matthew gives the ancestry of Mary through her mother Anne, but, in keeping with the Hebrew custom of favoring male names in genealogies, Anne's brother Jacob is mentioned instead of Anne, just as Joseph is mentioned instead of Mary. In defense of the idea that Mary and Joseph could have been cousins, a Lapide notes that, according to Num 36:6-10, women who are heiresses of their parents' property are ordered to marry, not only within the same tribe, but also within the same kindred and closely-related family, lest the inheri­tance pass to outsiders. He points out also that authorities such as Ambrose, Jerome, Theodo­retus, Jeremiah, Bernard, and Suarez hold that the Blessed Virgin Mary was also a descendant of David through Solomon, and, therefore, in the line of Matthew's genealogy. Patrizzi reasons that Joseph was the paternal uncle of Mary and the brother of her father Joachim, and that Joachim, Cleophas, and Joseph were the three sons of the last Jacob in Matthew's genealogy. In Jewish law, marriage of an uncle with his niece was sometimes permitted, especially by way of the Law of the Levirate (see solution three above). Masson agrees with a Lapide that St. Anne was the sister of Jacob and the aunt of St. Joseph. Hence, according to Masson, Mary and Joseph were first cousins on her mother's side.

111. Questions.

a. The six solutions listed above are not mutually exclusive. But which of the six theories reconciling the genealogies of Matthew and Luke seems to you to be the most probable?

b. Does the material gathered above suggest that, simply from a casual recognition that the names in the two genealogies do not coincide, it would be superficial and unscholarly to conclude without further research that the two evangelists have erred historically?

c. Do the first two solutions suggest that Father Brown may have been right in concluding that the two genealogies were not intended to be exact historical documents, but that he, nevertheless, was wrong in affirming that these evangelists were not writing history?

d. What is meant by “historical reservation” (solutions one and two)?

e. What was the Law of the Levirate (solution three)?

f. What is meant by “uterine brothers” (solution three)?

g. What is meant by “the popular shortening of names,” and how does this bear upon the theory expressed in solution four? (A clue: Does the popular shortening of names in English, such as William to Bill, Bernard to Bud, Robert to Bob necessarily require the use of the same verbal root?)

h. If, for family reasons, the Blessed Virgin Mary was married to her uncle or her first cousin, as conjectured in solutions five and six, would not this strengthen the belief that there had been a prior agreement never to consummate the marriage?


1 Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157.

2 For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see the article “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,” in Living Tradition, number 11 (May 1987).

3 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1977), pp. 93-94.

4 Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, in Rome and the Study of Scripture (Abbey Press, 1964), p. 25.

5 Dei Verbum, no. 19.