Who Was Joseph’s Father in Jesus’ Genealogy?
In his book The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, skeptic Dennis McKinsey confidently asserts that the “contradictory” genealogies found in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 open up “a Pandora’s box that apologists would just as soon remained closed forever.”1 One “contradiction” he cited revolves around the father of Joseph.2 Whereas Matthew 1:16 states that “Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ,” Luke 3:23 says, “Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli.” How is it that Joseph could be the son of both Jacob and Heli? Is this a contradiction that Christian apologists prefer to keep under lock and key as McKinsey suggests? Not at all.
Admittedly, on the surface, the two statements may appear contradictory. However, there actually is a very simple explanation for the differences in the two verses: Matthew gives the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, while Luke presents the genealogy of Jesus through His mother, Mary. Thus, Jacob is Joseph’s father (in Matthew 1:16), while Heli is Mary’s (in Luke 3:23).
But how can this be? Luke does not say that Mary is the offspring of Heli; rather, “Joseph” is “the son of Heli.” What logical, biblically sound explanation leads to the rational conclusion that Luke 3 is the genealogy of Jesus through His mother, Mary? Consider the following seven points.
First, the two genealogies are totally different from the time of David to Jesus. It’s not merely that two different “grandfathers” of Jesus are listed—all the names given for the preceding 1,000 years before Christ are different (except in the case of Zerubbabel and Shealtiel, where there likely was intermarriage among the two families, or else they were different people who wore the same names). Joseph descended from David’s son, Solomon (Matthew 1:6-7), while Mary descended from David’s son, Nathan (Luke 3:31).
Second, Matthew and Luke were writing to different audiences: Matthew to the Jews and Luke to the Greeks. From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel account, he focused on Jesus’ connection to Abraham and David, from whom the Old Testament repeatedly prophesied that the Messiah would come. Luke, on the other hand, writing to a broader audience, took the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam (the father of all mankind) and to God (the Creator of all mankind).
Third, though writing to a wider audience, Luke follows the Jewish tradition of only mentioning males in a line of descent. David Roper noted: “Women might be mentioned incidentally (Mt. 1:3,5), but the lines of descent were through men…. [A]s a rule, Jews did not include women in genealogies.”3 What’s more, according to Adam Clarke, “whenever a family happened to end with a daughter, instead of naming her in the genealogy, they inserted her husband, as the son of him who was, in reality, but his father-in-law.”4 Thus, Luke gives a fleshly genealogy of the virgin-born Jesus (Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-7) through His mother, Mary, though designated by her husband’s name.
Fourth, the terms “son” and “daughter” are used in Scripture in a wide variety of ways. “Son” may mean (among other things) son by actual birth, grandson (Genesis 29:5; cf. 24:24,29), descendant (Matthew 1:1), step son (Matthew 13:55; Luke 4:22), as well as son-in-law (1 Samuel 18:27; cf. 24:16).5 Likewise, in addition to the ordinary usage of the word, Bible writers used the term “daughter” to designate daughter-in-law (Ruth 2:2), female descendant (Luke 1:5; 13:16), the women of a particular place taken collectively (Luke 23:28), women in general (Proverbs 31:29), etc.6 In short, in different senses, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were all “of Heli.”
Fifth, Matthew tells of the coming and arrival of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke writes from Mary’s point of view. Give serious attention to the following narratives of Matthew and Luke and consider how different their overall frame of references are:
- From Matthew (1:18-2:1a):
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king….
- From Luke (1:26-49,56; 2:7,17b-19):
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name….” And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house….
And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths….
[T]hey [the shepherds] made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Given the Gospel writers’ stark differences in perspectives of the accounts of the coming and arrival of Jesus—with Matthew’s clear focus on Joseph and Luke’s heavy attention on Mary—it was perfectly natural for Matthew to give the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph and Luke through Mary.
Sixth, the Greek article tou (“the”) is absent before Joseph’s name in Luke’s genealogy of Christ. Yet, as Frederic Godet correctly highlighted, the word occurs before every one of the other names in the genealogy (e.g., the Heli, the Matthat…the Adam, the God).7 Godet also noted: “In the genealogy of Matthew, the article ton8 is put in the same way before each proper name, which clearly proves that it was the ordinary form in vogue in this kind of document.”9 Thus,
“[t]his want of the article [in Luke’s genealogy—EL] puts the name Joseph outside the genealogical series properly so called, and assigns to it a peculiar position.”10 Perhaps such peculiarity is a heavy hint of this genealogy being through Jesus’ maternal grandfather (Heli), and not Joseph.
Finally, “If Luke were presenting Joseph’s genealogy,” Lenski logically argues, “it would according to his own statement be the genealogy only of the supposed father of Jesus, and of what value would such a genealogy be? No man could find a reference to the legal relation of Joseph to Jesus in hos enomizeto”11 (“as was supposed”).12 Furthermore, Roper suggests, “The phrase ‘being, as supposed, the son of Joseph’ should probably be thought of as parenthetical, with the words son of Eli [or Heli—EL] referring to Jesus, not Joseph.”13 Thus, as A.T. Robertson concluded, “Jesus would…be Heli’s grandson, an allowable meaning of ‘son.’”14 In fact, not only should
[t]he parenthesis in our versions…be extended to include the name Joseph: “(as was supposed of Joseph).” To shorten it as is done in our versions makes the entire list up to “of God” (v. 38) dependent on “as was supposed,” for there is no way to restrict this clause except by including “of Joseph” in it as a part of the parenthesis.15
The New Testament Greek manuscripts lack parentheses in Luke 3:23, just as they lack parentheses and all other sorts of punctation throughout (which English Bible translators have added in attempts at greater clarity). Though “as was supposed” is undoubtedly a parenthetical expression, it makes better sense if such includes Joseph [“(as was supposed of Joseph)”]. Had this fuller expression been made parenthetical long ago, fewer individuals might have had difficulties seeing Mary’s ancestry in Luke’s genealogy of Christ.
In conclusion, it is perfectly logical to argue that Luke did not trace Jesus’ legal lineage from Joseph back to David and Abraham (as did Matthew). Rather, he traced the physical bloodline of His virgin mother (not his stepfather) back to David, Abraham, and Adam. Such a logically possible explanation exonerates Luke and Matthew of any error in their penning of Jesus’ genealogies.
5 In fact, as Dave Miller explained, “[T]he Jews had no word to express this concept [of a son-in-law—EL] and so just used ‘son’” [Dave Miller (2003), “The Genealogies of Matthew and Luke,” https://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?article=932].
8 “The Definite Article ‘the’ has various endings (e.g., u and n—EL), which show the function of the word it describes in the sentence” (see “Grammar: The Definite Article,” in Shirley’s Greek Courses, http://www.drshirley.org/greek/grammar/g_def-art.pdf).
12 Joel Green noted in his commentary on Luke that “[o]ther appearances of the verb [nomizo—EL] ‘to think’ or ‘to assume’ [translated ‘as was supposed’ in Luke 3:23—EL] in Luke-Acts show that Luke has in mind an assumption, wrongly made, that leads to persons acting as if it were true” [Joel Green (1997), The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 189, emp. added]. Though obviously assumed to be, Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son.
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