Why Do Matthew and Luke’s Genealogies of Jesus Differ?

Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospels that provide us with a genealogy of Jesus’ birth. They are, for the most part, vastly different. One could argue that the Gospels must be false because the family trees do not sync! Someone could also conclude either Matthew or Luke (or both) were mistaken on Jesus’ true ancestry. This does not have to be the case, however. If we take a closer look, we will see that these conclusions are unfounded.

Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to Joseph, including Mary.  Luke traces Jesus’ lineage in reverse order, starting with Joseph and going all the way back to Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38).   Matthew takes particular interest in naming the line of David that had rights to the throne in Israel (vv. 6-11).  Perhaps he did this because he wanted to make plain that Jesus is the true King of Israel.  In tracing Jesus’ line back from David to Adam, Luke takes particular interest in Jesus’ identity as fully Messiah and fully man. 

Carson and Moo are content to say that Matthew and Luke simply trace two lines of descent as noted above [1].  Lea and Black offer three possible reasons for the discrepancy between Luke and Matthew [2].

  1. Matthew’s Gospel gives the line of Joseph while Luke’s Gospel gives the line of Mary.  The argument for Luke going through Mary is that Luke 3:23 can be translated as “Joseph, the son-in-law of Heli.”  Though the Gospel of Luke does not mention Mary, Luke makes mention of Joseph as the “supposed” father of Jesus.  Though it was not normal to include a genealogy through the mother, Lea and Black write “we do not know just how the genealogy would appear in the absence of a human father.”
  2. Matthew provides Joseph’s genealogy through his biological father Jacob (the half brother of Heli), and Luke gives Joseph’s line through his legal father Heli.  This was suggested by an early Christian leader named Africanus.
  3. Matthew gave the lineage of the legal descendants of David—the men who were in the line of succession to the throne.  Luke listed the descendants of David’s line to which Joseph belonged.  Lea and Black write, “This view assumes that Jacob, the father of Joseph in Matthew, died without offspring, and the line of succession then passed to the descendants of Heli.”

The most probable explanation for the differences is that Matthew traces the line of royal succession while Luke traces Joseph’s actual physical descent. However one would attempt to harmonize both genealogies, it must be understood that they do not need to be identical to both be accepted. Both make it clear that Jesus is the “son of David” that the Messiah was prophesied to be. Ultimately, then, we praise God that Jesus, the Greater David, is the one who will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

[1] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 199.
[2] The following points are adapted from Lea and Black, The New Testament: It’s Background and Message, p. 174.