Those who desire to read the Bible responsibly must understand that they are reading an ancient book and not one written according to the conventions of the 21st century AD.
A biblical genealogy is “a list of names indicating the ancestors or descendants of an individual or individuals, or simply a registration of the names of people concerned in some situation…” [New Bible Dictionary, 1962, 456, hereafter NBD].
The names in such a list serve as “public records that document history, establish identity and/or legitimate office…such lists may ascend from the individual, using the formula ‘x the son of y, the son of z…or descend from a common ancestor, using the pattern ‘x was the father of y, y the father of z.” [Archaeological Study Bible, 2005, 1559, hereafter ASB].
It should be known too that genealogies of either kind were not intended to be comprehensive but selective (names could be omitted) and may reflect a biological family tree or a legal line of descent [ASB, 1559].
The issue of a genealogy being either biological or legal is of critical importance in a responsible reading of Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew and Luke. As the venerable Catholic scholar Raymond Brown urges “…genealogies serve different purposes and…an individual can be accorded two or more different genealogies according to the purpose for which they were drawn up. Only rather rarely and to a limited depth do ancient Semitic genealogies afford us a list of strictly biological ancestry—a factor that does not necessarily make them inaccurate since the intention of those who preserved them was not strictly biological. Too often the genealogies of Jesus have been read with the same expectations with which one reads the list of grandparents and great-grandparents constituting the frontispiece of the family Bible.” [The Birth of the Messiah, 1979, 65].
Note as well that even the formula ‘the son of’ or ‘the father of’ is not always strictly literal in force as being necessarily ‘son’ or ‘father’ but could also mean ‘grandson/descendant’ and ‘ancestor of’ respectively. The NBD provides an example from an Egyptian text where “…King Tirhakah (c. 670 BC) honours his ‘father’ Sesostris III (c. 1870 BC), who lived 1200 years before him.” .
Though the genealogical list in Matthew differs at points from that in Luke, “…both [lists] make Jesus a descendant of David; His Davidic descent was a matter of common repute during his ministry (Mk. x. 47f) and is attested by the apostolic witness (Rom. i. 3; so Heb. Vii. 14 assumes that everyone knows that Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah). But both lists trace his Davidic descent through Joseph, although they appear in the two Gospels which make it plain that Joseph, while Jesus’ father de iure [by law, legally], was not his father de facto [as a matter of fact, biologically]. The Lucan genealogy acknowledges this by the parenthetic clause ‘as was supposed’ in Lk. iii.23; similarly, the best attested text of Mt. i.16 says that Joseph was ‘the husband of Mary, of whom [feminine construction in Greek] was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” [NBD, 459].
We conclude therefore, that a responsible reading of the genealogies of our Lord in Matthew and Luke affirms that, for these writers, Jesus was indeed of the house of David — a veritable “root of David” (Rev. 5.5), legally understood.
February 17, 2009.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm