Changing My Mind on Luke's Genealogy

The longer I’m a Christian, the more grace I have...

           The longer I’m a Christian, the more grace I have for people who come to different conclusions than I do about non-salvation issues. The more I learn, the more I am forced to see how much I don’t know, how many ideas I hadn’t heard, and the more I am challenged by encounters with intelligent, well-read, individuals who have good reasons for why they disagree with me.  

           Growing up, I was initially in a denominational church that seemingly had already settled every question someone could have about Scripture. How did the end times play out? They had a chart. How did you interpret Genesis? Again, clear chart available. What did the Bible say about alcohol? The common answer: all that wine was actually just grape juice. (It wasn’t by the way.) Are the gifts of the Spirit still in operation? They had a firm hard line on that answer, too, despite people I loved who fellowshipped up the road disagreeing, and yet still clearly believing all the core doctrines of our faith.

           On one hand, I understand that the initial founders of that, or any, denomination, had possibly really dug in and had good reasons for their positions. I know that since then, we have had greater access to older documents and can now better understand the cultural context in which Scripture was written.  In large part, I agreed with them on what might be called the “secondary” issues — not areas of salvation, but important practical conclusions drawn from the Bible. As I read more though, I encountered other questions, other views, and eventually went to Bible college and seminary where I discovered more and more that not everybody agreed on every issue and that many people just assumed their denomination or favorite teacher was right, without ever actually looking into why. 

I have also grown increasingly disappointed to see some of these secondary issues becoming the focus, rather than serving Jesus and telling others about Him. I enjoy a great debate; I enjoy learning; but how much time should Christians who disagree on what a single Hebrew word can mean, spend on that discussion, given what we know from Scripture that is clearer. We have standing orders to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and to share the Gospel with those who don’t yet follow Jesus, and at some point, we can ignore those clear orders to debate a small disagreement more than we should or even allow that disagreement to keep us from true biblical unity.

While the main teachings of Scripture are clear, some passages are less obvious in meaning or application. Jerome, the 4th century church scholar, and Bible translator, noted that, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom." It’s in some of those matters among the depths that students of Scripture find themselves in the role of a detective. We have a couple of verses here, or a hard to translate word from the original language over there, and we must carefully put the clues together to understand the author’s intention. To be clear, there is only one right interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), but that doesn’t mean we always agree on what that right answer is. We should be able agree to disagree among ourselves on many of these issues, and failure to do so has unfortunately caused many church and even denominational divisions. 

I strive to embrace one of the most beautiful heritages of our fellowship, that is the ability to agree to disagree on these non-salvation issues that are less clear. One of the most convincing reasons to do so?  I’ve changed my mind on several of those issues, from who the Nephilim are, to how to interpret some of the terse early Hebrew in Genesis, to who is being referenced as a council in Psalm 82, and more. I have changed my mind on these issues when presented with Scripture, evidence for its context, and good, logical reasoning. I’m often humbled and amazed by what I realized I was missing.

I recently received another reminder that I don’t know everything, and that I should labor to be a good Berean (Acts 17:11), questioning even my favorite teachers as I pursue the truth.  After confidently teaching through Luke’s genealogy as part of our chapter by chapter, verse by verse, study through Luke, someone asked some good questions about my explanation for why Matthew and Luke record different genealogies.  

I wanted to address the difference in genealogies, because some make the claim that the Bible has “contradictions.” So far, I’ve only found “apparent” contradictions, or things that look contradictory on the surface, but with some extra context, any confusion is cleared up.

I presented what is called the Matrilineal theory. This idea is that the reason Matthew and Luke differ, is that Luke gives Mary’s genealogy, but I was asked, “If that’s the case, then why isn’t Mary mentioned clearly in that portion of the text?” The answer “worked.” It solved what some might see as a contradiction, but was it derived from the text itself, or was it a neat answer just put on top of the text that happened to fit? While I had previously been swayed by Norman L. Geisler’s confidence in the theory, as I responded to the question, I realized it was just one theory of many to make sense of the biblical data.

           Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy has a reputation for being a thorough researcher. While he affirms that there is no Greek word for son-in-law, and holds that the Matrilineal theory is possible, in his research on the subject, he also looked to the earliest known Christian explanation. Church historian, Eusebius, writing in the third century, who quoted an earlier second to third century Christian and historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, as explaining the difference by claiming that a Levirate marriage had occurred.

           A Levirate marriage was a biblical practice, described in Deuteronomy 25:1-5, where the brother of a deceased man who had no children, would marry his brothers’ widow and father a child with her who would be the legal heir of her deceased husband. It might sound bizarre to us, but in their culture a widow depended on the care of her children in her old age as there were no nursing homes or social security payments. If there was no child, an older woman would face hunger and severe poverty once she was unable to work. She would similarly face hardship for simply being a single woman past marriageable age. This explanation is rooted in the culture with more attestation than using a mother’s genealogy. This would fit well with Matthew’s use of the more literal “begot” and Luke’s “son of” language as from a legal standpoint, in their culture, both could be true.

At the bare minimum, we know that Luke had access to Matthew’s writings, he made his choice on purpose, and the early church was not concerned with the seeming “contradiction.” Even after a few hundred years passed, an explanation was given that was thoroughly rooted in their culture. No one saw this as a “gotcha” moment, even if we aren’t entirely sure what they knew to cause them to feel that way. This matches well with how a detective makes a case based on two or more eyewitness accounts. They can see all the hooks that fit together in the accounts even if each account isn’t exhaustive in detail.

           While I’d still recommend Geisler and his co-author Thomas Howe’s book, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, which supports the Matrilineal theory, I’m not troubled that they don’t come to the same conclusion that others do. Both are possible solutions. I now favor Africanus’s explanation, for multiple reasons. While we have more than one potential answer for this “apparent” contradiction, it still can’t be counted as a confirmed contradiction by the Bible’s skeptics, because we have possible explanations. I look forward to learning which of these solutions is the right one when we get to Heaven. In the meantime, I’m fine with knowing there are explanations, even if I can’t be certain which one is correct, especially considering all the archeological and textual evidence we have that supports the New Testament as a reliable historical document.