The genealogies found in Genesis provide a necessary link between the six days of divine creation, the descendents of Noah after the Flood, and the foundation narratives of Abraham and the Patriarchs. The sacred tale continues through the books of Exodus, Joshua and Judges into the Davidic age. It is a faux history for a prehistoric era.
In a later and less fabulous time genealogies retained their importance. A noble ancestry strengthened the claims of a ruler and was useful to those who aspired to power. A purported ancient lineage legitimized priestly and regal authority, gave justification to vast disparities of wealth, and was the basis on which placement and precedence in political and temple hierarchies were assigned.
The Jews were far from unique in this reverence for bloodlines. Greeks and Romans, too, had noble houses claiming descent from heroic, even divine progenitors. Julius Caesar, for example, claimed descent from the goddess Venus. The priestly aristocracy of the Jews, however, stressed above all else divinely ordained racial purity. Theirs was a religious duty to preserve the bloodline of the chosen people from the pollution of alien seed – and that alien might live only a few miles from Jerusalem. According to Deuteronomy 23.3, Moabites – people on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea – were to be excluded from the community of Israel “even to the tenth generation”, a prescript which, if enforced, would have excluded King David himself, a great-grandchild of the Moabite Ruth!
But if the social and priestly elites jealously guarded and judiciously redacted their ancestral scrolls, the common people had no such heirlooms. Illiterate peasants and artisans, especially those in obscure hamlets far from Jerusalem, had no such genealogies and it’s doubtful if any could recall ancestors farther back than a few generations, assuming they even knew who was their father.
Whence, then, does a lowly carpenter from Galilee, acquire a genealogy tracing his descent from the very beginning of the human race?
A humble carpenter with a 3500-year pedigree?
All the grandees from Adam to Noah lived for several centuries, most of them more than 900 years! Collectively, these fabulous creatures account for 1,500 years of antediluvian “history”. So long-lived were they that Adam and eight subsequent generations were simultaneously alive even into the time of Lamech, the father of Noah.
This unsurpassed nonsense is the earliest part of the genealogy of Jesus – at least according to the gospel known to the world as Luke. Of course, Jesus had no human father in the normal sense of the word. The Hebrew God himself is named as the father, with the Holy Spirit taking on the role of divine semen. We know this because Luke records that the angel Gabriel told Mary “you will conceive in your womb … The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1.31,35).
A divine parentage – a commonplace of ancient mythologies – might be perceived as accolade enough but in the case of the Galilean carpenter a second superlative ancestry was asserted. Jesus was also, it seems, a scion of the royal house of David, the fabled dynasty that established – and lost – an ancient empire, the existence of which none but the Jews noticed.
But what of the time before the evangelist wrote his wondrous tale? Luke built on the work of his predecessors.
Mark – No claim to Davidic descent
The first gospel Mark had nothing to offer in terms of Jesus genealogy – beyond, that is, the generic terms Son of Man and Son of God. Mark does not even record the name of Jesus’ father. For Mark, Jesus was a righteous man, adopted by God at baptism. His human descent was not relevant and his family were discarded (Mark 3.31-35).
A blind man, Bar Timaeus, does appeal to Jesus as a “son of David” (see below) but Mark’s Jesus positively rejects any suggestion that he is of Davidic descent by having his hero quote Psalm 110 (“Jehovah said to my Lord: `Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’ “). Jesus points to the simple logic that an ancestor cannot also be a descendant:
“Then Jesus said … “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David? David himself calls Him ‘Lord’. How then is He his son?” – Mark 12.35-37.
Mark’s Jesus actually denies that the messiah should be of Davidic descent – an idea that had lost ground with the obvious success of the non-Davidic Hasmoneans. JC’s rhetorical jibe is immediately followed by a vitriolic attack on those same scribes and Pharisees for their “love of long clothing”, privileges, and appetite for widows’ houses. Even as the story moves towards its climax, JC remains coy on any regal claims:
“And Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ And he answered him, ‘You have said so.’ “– Mark 15.2.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus never describes himself as a king, even in his frequent references to the imminent Kingdom of God. The accusation of would-be kingship comes from his detractors (Pilate, Roman soldiers, the criminals at the crucifixion). The messiah as a descendant of the “royal house of David” – or of any other ancestry for that matter – was not an element in the original gospel story. It is a later refinement.
Matthew makes Jesus a true Jew
|From Abraham to David|
Matthew is the first to introduce ancestry into the Jesus story and the writer has a Jewish, not a universal, audience in mind. As a preface to his nativity yarn of wise men, infanticide and a star, Matthew ties his Jesus to the Hebrew patriarchs and begins his lineage for Jesus with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation.
For his “generations” down to the 6th century BC Persian client king Zerubbabel, Matthew mines the books of Genesis and Chronicles but he is manifestly using the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of Hebrew scripture. So much for Papias and the supposed “Aramaic original” of Matthew!
Matthew is determined to present his hero as the “fulfillment of Jewish prophecy,” and not as an adored but newfangled guru. A key part of Matthew’s design is to show that Jesus does indeed issue from the royal line of David. The anointing of a king, certainly in the case of David, symbolized the descent upon him of the holy spirit and his “messiahship” (he was the “anointed of God” and hence, in Greek, the christos).
“The Lord said to Samuel … I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons. … And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel … There remained yet the youngest … keeping the sheep … And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he” … And the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.” – 1 Samuel 16.1-13.
In its original form Matthew almost certainly envisaged Jesus as the natural son of Joseph and Mary – an idea certainly favoured by some early Christians.** At least one manuscript preserves what is probably the original wording: “Jacob begat Joseph. Joseph, to whom was espoused Mary the virgin, begat Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1.16, Sinaitic Syriac Palimpsest). The mantle of a Christ was by birthright and the writer identifies that Joseph, before the birth of Jesus, was also a “Son of David” (Matthew 1.20).
After all, if Joseph was not the actual father of Jesus what precisely was the value of the genealogy of Joseph? Did a godman whose descent supposedly passed through all the patriarchs and King David really need a second line by adoption? Only later will conception by the Holy Ghost be intruded into this Jesus story, making the lineage of Joseph redundant.
For Matthew it is Joseph, not Mary, who receives divine guidance. On no fewer than four occasions angels visit Joseph’s dreams. The birth of Jesus itself is almost an aside, the story moving quickly on, with warnings and flights to and from Egypt.
Playing with magic numbers
|From David to Josiah|
1 Chronicles 3
“and Joram begat Uzziah”
Matthew is not overly concerned with “accuracy” in his genealogy but with the religious symbolism of numbers. He organizes his “king list” into three sets of fourteen to derive a total of 42 generations.
But why? The answer is to be found in Hebrew gematria. King David’s name (דוד) equals fourteen (D = four, V= six, D= four) and fourteen itself is double the “spiritual perfection” of seven. Thus the very fabric of Jewish history, read through the lens of magic numbers, can be shown to point towards the coming of Christ.
The first set of fourteen is consummated with the reign of David himself and up to this point Matthew closely follows Chronicles.
The second set of fourteen – the Davidic royal line through Solomon – ends at a low point, with Jeconiah (aka Jehoiachin). This forlorn character is taken into Babylonian exile and remains there for thirty-six years. But in order to maintain his numerical symbolism Matthew has to omit several kings along the way.
Thus, between 9th century king Jehoram and 8th century Uzziah Matthew skips Ahaziah (aka Jehoahaz), Johoash and Amaziah. Having reached number fourteen, Matthew then says:
“… and Josiah begat Jechoniah and his brothers in the time of the Babylonian exile.” – 1.11.
It is an abbreviation. The 7th century king Josiah (639-609 BC) came to the throne as a child. The priesthood, strengthened by emigres from the destroyed northern kingdom of Israel, were in the ascendency. A particularly intolerant monotheism was proclaimed, the Jerusalem temple cult of Yahweh displaced all local sanctuaries, and a reinvented sacred history (Deuteronomy) was “found” justifying the reforms and expansion to the north.
Priests of Josiah invent the Davidic line
” By the word of the Lord he cried out against the altar: “Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.’” – 1 Kings 13.2.
Central to the new mythology was a covenant with the deity and a perpetual “Davidic dynasty” leading back from the young Josiah. Thus, bad king Jeroboam received a warning from an unnamed “man of God” that a son would be born to the “house of David” who would roast the naughty polytheists (1 Kings 13). In this original version of the yarn of the “Davidic line” the prophesied hero is named as Josiah himself. Another motif in this episode includes a divine instruction to the old prophet “not to return by the way he came” – as with the “wise men from the east”!
The “royal line of David” was not remembered history but an invention of the priestly elite at the court of the child king Josiah. Its purpose was to legitimize Judah’s ambition to conquer the north, taken by the Assyrians eighty years earlier. There was no possibility that Josiah could actually trace his lineage back centuries to the legendary ancestor. The genealogy was court propaganda. But though the lineage could never be proved, as a tenet of holy scripture neither could it be contested. Unfortunately, God reneged on the contract: about the age of thirty, Josiah was killed by Necho II of Egypt.
Josiah’s first son was Jehoahaz, who ruled for three months before being deposed by the Egyptians. In his stead, the pharaoh installed his brother Jehoiakim (aka Eliakim) who ruled for eleven years and (according to 2 Kings) died during the first assault on Jerusalem by the Babylonians. It was Jehoiakim’s son and Josiah’s grandson Jeconiah who surrendered the city and went into exile. Thus Matthew has simplified history and made a grandson into a son.
Matthew then goes on to omit a genuine son of Josiah and Jeconiah’s uncle – Zedekiah (aka Mattaniah) – who ruled Judah from 597 to 587. It was Zedekiah’s rebellion against his Babylonian overlord that led to the second assault on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the city and its temple. Brought before the Great King, Zedekiah witnessed the execution of his sons, was blinded and then deported to Babylon.
Thus ended the line of the kings of Judah. Even God added to the woes of the house of David with a curse on Jeconiah (well, at least according to the prophet Jeremiah):
“For no man of his descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah.” – Jeremiah, 22.30.
All this, Matthew subsumes under the simple phrase “the time of the Babylonian exile“.
|From Josiah to Salathiel|
(3 mths only)
(3 mths before exile)
Zedekiah (=Mattanyahu)Matthew 127. Josias
“And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon.”
“And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel.”Luke 351.Elmodam
53. Addi 54. Melchi
Salathiel29. Salathiel56. Salathiel (Shealtiel)
After the Kings of Judah
The last set of fourteen names in the Jesus pedigree is the most problematic – and arguably the most pertinent for the veracity of the “historical Jesus”. It covers five hundred years of wars, conquests and destructions from which even the Jewish prophets cannot assemble a cogent chronology.
Matthew needs to pick up the Davidic trail from Babylon. It is a time of Judean subjugation by the new superpower Persia. But Matthew’s sources are conflicting. According to the book of Ezra the “Prince of Judah” was now Sheshbazzar:
“Cyrus king of Persia had them [articles taken from the Jerusalem temple] brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.” – Ezra 1.8.
However, the book of Haggai, describing the same occasion, names “Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel” as the governor of Judah (Haggai 1.1).
Is Sheshbazzar an alternative name for Zerubbabel? Not according to Ezra 5 which makes clear they are distinct characters. Is Sheshbazzar, perhaps, a son of Jechonias, the last king of independent Judah? According to Chronicles the descendants of “Jehoiachin the captive”(Jechonias) were “Shealtiel (Salathiel) his son, Malkiram, Pedaiah, Shenazzar, Jekamiah, Hoshama and Nedabiah”.
But the same text goes on to list Zerubbabel not as the son of Shealtiel but of Pedaiah, his brother. (1 Chronicles 3.17-18).
Thus we have three possible routes for the “Davidic line”: Jechonias through Sheshbazzar; Jechonias through Shealtiel then Zerubbabel; and Jechonias through his brother Pedaiah then Zerubbabel. Ezra provides yet a fourth option. The scribe lists the families that had returned from exile:
“This is the genealogy of those who went up with me from Babylon, in the reign of King Artaxerxes … of the sons of David, Hattush” – Ezra 8.2.
This Hattush is a co-signatory of a “binding agreement” with Nehemiah the governor (Nehemiah 10.4) but neither he nor his descendents are heard of again.
Luke will later add yet another twist: Shealtiel’s father was not Jechonias after all but an unknown man named Neri!
Matthew again simplifies all this in the interests of his holy master plan.
“And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel.”
– Matthew 1.12.
But it gets worse!
Who’s the Daddy?
|From Salathiel to Joseph1 Chronicles 3Matthew 1Luke 3Salathiel|
With the naming of seven sons of Elioenai, the Davidic line written by the “Chronicler” (4th century BC?) ceases at this point.
39. Jacob“And Jacob begat Joseph … “Matthew 1.16.40. Joseph
75. Heli“… Joseph, which was the son of Heli.” – Luke 3.23.76. Joseph
Matthew agrees with Chronicles that Salathiel was the father of Zerubbabel but has different ideas as to where the sacred bloodline goes next. Chronicles rather fully details:
“The sons of Zerubbabel: Meshullam and Hananiah. Shelomith was their sister. There were also five others: Hashubah, Ohel, Berekiah, Hasadiah and Jushab-Hesed.”
– 1 Chronicles 3.19,20
How curious that with seven brothers to choose from, instead of choosing one of them, Matthew lists the son of Zerubbabel as an unheard of Abiud (1.13). Adding to the fun, at this same point Luke says Zerubbabel’s son was not Abiud but Rhesa, another unknown figure (3.27)!
But it gets worse!
Ahead lies a five-hundred year period of Persian, Greek, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Hasmonaean, Herodian and Roman rule. Yet aside from the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah set in the 5th century BC, until the 2nd century BC nothing is known of the “Davidic line”. The changes of regime during this half millennium are seismic and include the rise of two non-Davidic dynasties – the Maccabees and the Herodians.
Because of the frequent revolutions there are serious gaps in the historical record. Temple scrolls, even the temple itself, were destroyed more than once. Clearly, this obliges the evangelist to rely on “divine inspiration” and in Matthew’s gospel, descent from Zerubbabel, through Abiud, to Joseph now passes through a series of otherwise unknown names. But for such a long period of time – with its multiple devastations – a mere fourteen names is woefully inadequate, less than three names per century!
But there is a further difficulty Matthew says there are fourteen generations from the Babylonian exile until the Christ but, bizarrely, the writer has lost count: he lists only thirteen names. Matthew’s genealogy of 42 generations, in the event, turns out to be only 41 generations!
At length we arrive at “And Jacob begat Joseph … “
A later writer, Luke, found the efforts of Matthew less than adequate to the noble purpose and set about a drastic revision.
Eusebius Pamphilius, The History of the Church, c.324 AD (Digiread, 2005)
Keith Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel (Routedge. 1997)
John Rogerson, Chronicle of the Old Testament Kings (Thames and Hudson,1999)
James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (HarperElement, 2006)
Robert Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (Prometheus, 2003)
Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (Weidendfeld & Nicolson, 1996)
Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, Kings, Joshua, Ruth, Chronicles.