One of today’s fastest growing internet companies is
. With an estimated database of four million members, its’ membership rivals the populations of some of the largest cities in the United States. In the first three months of 2017 alone, it is estimated that its membership grew from three to four million members, a growth in membership that any rector would love!
These figures testify to the high level of interest people have in knowing about their family history. The longing to know more about ourselves by discovering our ancestors seems to be an innate characteristic of human beings. That certainly was the case with the cultures of biblical times.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each give us a “family tree” for Jesus. These two genealogies, however, are quite different. Matthew and Luke did not have the benefit of websites like
and the sophisticated record keeping of our modern information age. They were dependent upon oral history, family stories and lore passed down from one generation to the next. So while there may be some historical accuracy in each of their genealogies, Matthew and Luke include an ancestry of Jesus not primarily as a historical record, but for a greater theological purpose, namely to support their unique evangelical perspective as they proclaim Jesus to be the long awaited Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy comes at the very beginning of his Gospel. In the very first verse, Matthew makes a profound statement of faith by identifying Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God, who is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” [Mt. 1:1] The title “son of David” is a messianic title, and the title “son of Abraham” implies that Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant. These two titles would have been particularly meaningful to the predominantly Jewish Christian communities that Matthew was evangelizing.
The structure of Matthew’s genealogy is symbolically important. There are three groupings of 14 generations each: 14 generations from Abraham to David (a historic high point for the Israelites, as King David united the northern kingdom of Israel with the southern kingdom of Judah), 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile (a historic low point for the Israelites), and 14 generations from the exile to Jesus (the historic high point for all of creation). In ancient Hebrew numerology, the number three symbolized divine protection, help and guidance. The number seven, and all numbers divisible by seven, symbolized perfection. Thus with three groupings of generations, and each grouping containing 14 generations, the structure of Matthew’s genealogy is significant to the evangelist’s proclamation of who Jesus is and what His mission is to be.
Besides its structure, Matthew’s genealogy is rather unique in that it lists five women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary), four of them by name and one (Bathsheba) by description. For years, biblical scholars have attempted to explain this unique feature of Matthew’s genealogy. Today, most scholars agree that the most important reason for including these five women in Jesus’ genealogy is that each played an important role in God’s plan of salvation.
Unlike Matthew, Luke does not place the genealogy of Jesus in the infancy narrative of his Gospel, but instead places it in Chapter Three, immediately following the story of Jesus’ baptism. Although some parts of the lineage are the same in Matthew and Luke (the names in the lineage between David and Amminadab, and the names in the lineage between Hezron and Abraham), many of the names in the lineage are different.
By tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam (the father of all humankind), and not just Abraham, Luke is able to underscore Jesus’ universal mission of salvation. As Luke was evangelizing many communities that were predominantly Gentile Christian, this acknowledgement that Jesus came to save all people is particularly relevant.
One very significant similarity between the two genealogies is that each makes it clear that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. In Matthew’s genealogy, Joseph is identified as the “husband of Mary”[Mt. 1:16] and not the father of Jesus. In Luke’s genealogy, there is the disqualifying phrase, “He was the son,
so it was thought
, of Joseph.” [Lk. 3:23]
The genealogies of Jesus invite us ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation, our belief that the baby born over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem was both truly divine and truly human. This Advent, as we watch with hope, may we find consolation in knowing that Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Mary, shares fully in our humanity, with all of its joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs.