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Few aspects of the Bible seem less relevant to daily life than genealogies. Yet for Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, they were absolutely essential for understanding Jesus.

Genealogies fulfilled multiple purposes in the ancient world. Society was organized around kinship patterns, so every family needed lists that described their ancestral pedigree. Such family trees determined a person's social relationships. For instance, two families planning the marriage of their children would compare family lines to check kinship ties to ensure the two were "compatible." And rulers used genealogies to justify their power, rank, and status.

So why are the genealogical trees in Matthew and Luke so different? Matthew begins his Gospel with Jesus' genealogy, while Luke places it, strangely, between Jesus' baptism and temptation. Matthew has an ascending list, moving from Abraham up to Jesus, while Luke has a descending list, moving from Jesus down to Adam. Matthew's list is partial; Luke's is complete. And most significantly, while the two lists are virtually identical from Abraham to David, they diverge greatly from David to Jesus.

Several solutions have been proposed to explain the differences. Martin Luther said that Matthew gives Joseph's line and Luke Mary's line. Others, such as Tertullian, reversed this. Yet the explanation fails in both directions, because the Gospels clearly state that they are listing Joseph's line (Matt. 1:16; Luke 3:23). Julius Africanus proposed that Matthew follows Jesus' natural descent and Luke his legal descent. Neither Gospel indicates such an approach, though, and it is best to allow the authors to speak for themselves.

A Closer Look

Examining each ...

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