Questions From Readers
● Why do Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ genealogy differ? Matthew 1:1-16 lists Jacob as “the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, who was the mother of Jesus,” while Luke 3:23-38 says Joseph was “the son of Heli.”—J. C., United States.
At least two authorities give as the preferable solution of this the explanation that Luke traces the natural lineage of Jesus through his fleshly mother Mary and her ancestors, while Matthew gives Jesus’ legal lineage, through Joseph and his ancestors. Starting with the oldest entry in each of the genealogical accounts, the understanding above helps us to see why they part company after David, Matthew’s account going through the line of David’s son Solomon, while Luke’s traces instead through David’s son Nathan, and why, though they meet again briefly at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, they then branch off once more and pursue different lines. Matthew ends with Jacob as the father of Joseph and, according to this understanding, Luke ends with Heli, who was actually the father of Jesus’ fleshly mother, Mary.—The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Revised Edition of 1944, page 198, column 1); McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia (1882, Volume III, page 773, column 2).
Why, then, does Luke omit Mary and list Joseph as “the son of Heli”? Says the Cyclopædia above, page 773, column 2: “In constructing their genealogical tables, it is well known that the Jews reckoned wholly by males, rejecting where the blood of the grandfather passed to the grandson through a daughter, the name of the daughter herself, and counting that daughter’s husband for the son of the maternal grandfather (Numbers 26:33; 27:4-7).” In keeping with this rule, Joseph’s name would replace Mary’s in Luke’s account, even though the genealogy there was traced through Mary’s lineage. The Cyclopaedia sees in the very wording of Luke’s account a confirmation of this thought, saying, page 774, column 1: “The evangelist Luke has critically distinguished the REAL from the LEGAL genealogy by a parenthetical remark: ‘Jesus being (as was reputed) the son of Joseph (but in reality) the son of Heli,’ or his grandson by his mother’s side.”—Luke 3:23.
But why have two genealogies, when one would suffice and differences between the two may cause confusion? For one thing, Matthew’s and Luke’s earliest readers would most surely be acquainted with the details above and so would not be confused, no more so than modern readers need be when familiarized with the details. For another, genealogies, while dry and boring to some, often serve a very important and vital purpose. Surely the genealogy of the Messiah or Christ would have special importance, for prophecies about him are very definite on his descent through the favored patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the beloved King David. Testing Jewish Pharisees on this point, Jesus asked them: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They answered: “David’s.” (Matt. 22:42, NW) Jesus’ messiahship had to have genealogical proof!
So it is reasonable to hold that under the direction of Jehovah’s spirit the two writers, Matthew and Luke, would make doubly sure to establish the descent of the Messiah. Matthew showed a zeal for pointing out prophecies fulfilled in Jesus, as will be seen by reading just the few verses from Matthew 2:1 to 18. And when Luke came along and addressed his account to “most excellent Theophilus,” it was not for the purpose of pointless repetition that he did so. Luke took great pains and “traced all things from the start with accuracy, to write them in logical order” so that Theophilus might know fully the certainty of the things that he had been taught orally. (Luke 1:1-4, NW) How could he more fully serve this purpose than by complementing Matthew’s account, which showed Jesus’ legal descent through foster-father Joseph, with another account showing his descent in a natural or fleshly way through the virgin Mary, especially when in both genealogical accounts Jesus’ descent passed through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the all-important David? The two accounts stand as “two witnesses,” making Jesus’ messiahship doubly certain.—Deut. 19:15.
Further reference may be found on this question in The Watchtower of July 1, 1950, page 208, and a side-by-side comparison of the two genealogical accounts may be found in the book “The Kingdom Is at Hand”, pages 39-42.