The Ancestors of Jesus: A Contradiction?

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One of the most common contradictions that skeptics claim that exists in the Gospels is the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus. Matthew (1:2-16) begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus by tracing his ancestors back to King David (c. 1000 BC) and Abraham (c. 2000 BC). He also traces it through the kings of Ancient Israel (c. 1000-586 BC) and their descendants from that time through Jesus (verses 7-16). The genealogy teaches that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was a descendant of the kings of Israel. Matthew 1:16 says, “And Jacob begot [was the father of] Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.”

However, when we turn to Luke 3:23-37, we find a different genealogy. Luke’s genealogy records Jesus’ ancestors back to King David and Abraham like Matthew’s, however, Luke goes all the way back to Adam whereas Matthew stops at Abraham. However, this is not the problem; between David and Joseph (about a thousand years) we are given a completely different list of names.

Luke’s genealogy begins with saying “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23). Notice that it gives a different man as the father of Joseph. Is this a contradiction? It seems so. However, when we study the lists in-depth we will find out that there is a very possible solution to the problem.

The Solution

The most common explanation is that Matthew’s genealogy is giving Jesus’ legal parents through Joseph.[1] The Bible teaches that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Matthew says, “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom [feminine] was born Jesus.” Notice that the Greek in Matthew gives us the feminine word indicating that Jesus was the son of Mary, not Joseph. Luke also confirms this when he says, “being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph.”

What is interesting about Matthew’s genealogy is that he records the kings of Israel and their descendants between David to Joseph. In this list is King Jeconiah (verse 11). God prophesied that none of Jeconiah’s descendants would become king of Israel. However, Jesus is to be king of Israel (and the world) forever, so Jesus could not be the biological descendant of King Jeconiah. Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy simply to provide his readers with the legal ancestors of Jesus to show his connection to the Israelite kings.

Since Jesus was only the biological son of Mary, then it would make perfect sense for Luke to record Jesus’ genealogy back through Mary. Luke proceeds all the way back to Adam, thus using Mary’s ancestry to show that Jesus was the blood descendant of Adam. This is important since mankind’s savior had to be a blood descendant of Adam, who brought sin into the world (Romans 5:12-19).

But why does Luke say that Joseph was the son of Heli, when Heli would have been Joseph’s father-in-law? We know that Heli had two daughters: Mary and Zebedee’s wife who is unnamed (Matthew 27:56; John 19:25). This is important because this could very well explain why Luke says that Joseph was the son of Heli.

According to the Law of Moses (Numbers 27:1-11, 36:1-12) when a man had no sons to preserve his inheritance, the husband of the daughter of the man would become the son upon marriage to keep up the family name. Therefore, when Joseph married Mary, he became the son of Heli and could legally be included in Heli’s genealogy.[2]

We also must realize that Luke’s genealogy is different in form from Matthew’s. Matthew gives the father and the son they begot (Greek gennao). In Luke, it is different as he uses the formula “X is the son of Y.” Also of interest is the fact that the word son is not in the Greek. It is only in English translations to help us understand the genealogy better. Son is only used in Luke 3:23. Jesus was the son of Joseph, who was of Heli.[3]

Although the Bible does not specifically say that Heli had no sons, the inheritance explanation makes perfect sense in the context of ancient Judaism. This shows us that the contradiction between Matthew and Luke does not exist. Matthew simply recorded Jesus’ legal line, while Luke gives us Mary’s line with Joseph as the “son” of Heli because of Old Testament inheritance laws.


[1] Gleason L. Archer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982. Pg. 316. Bodie Hodge, “What’s in a Father’s Name?” In Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions. Volume 1. Ken Ham ed. Green Forest: Master Books, 2010. Pg. 106-107.

[2] Hodge, 107.

[3] Ibid. 107-108.

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