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Is Jesus Eligible to be the Messiah?

The Genealogies of Jesus

by Jeffrey J. Harrison

There is an objection to Jesus as the Messiah that penetrates right to the heart of Christian teaching. The argument is that Jesus, since he had no earthly father, cannot be a direct male descendant of David, and that he therefore cannot be the Messiah. Is this a valid objection?

View of Bethlehem from the north View of Bethlehem from the north with Church of the Nativity highlighted
Bethlehem. Hover over the image to locate the Church of the Nativity (hidden behind the highlighted building). At the time of Jesus’ birth, the village occupied a small area around the present location of the church.

A version of this objection came to my attention recently in an article explaining Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus by Rabbi Shraga Simmons at Most of the reasons given are familiar objections that can easily be refuted. But there was one point that presents a more serious challenge to Christian belief. Here’s the point as made in the article (the second part of point 2B in the original article together with its footnote). I have added the numbers in bold for easier reference.

[1]“The Messiah must be descended on his father’s side from King David (see Genesis 49:10, Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:17; Ezekiel 34:23-24). According to the Christian claim that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, he had no father and thus could not have possibly fulfilled the messianic requirement of being descended on his father’s side from King David.

[Footnote 1] “In response, it is claimed that Joseph adopted Jesus, and passed on his genealogy via adoption. There are two problems with this claim:

“a) There is no Biblical basis for the idea of a father passing on his tribal line by adoption. A priest who adopts a son from another tribe cannot make him a priest by adoption;

“b) Joseph could never pass on by adoption that which he doesn’t have. Because Joseph descended from Jeconiah (Matthew 1:11) he fell under the curse of that king that none of his descendants could ever sit as king upon the throne of David. (Jeremiah 22:30; 36:30)...

[2]“To answer this difficult problem, apologists claim that Jesus traces himself back to King David through his mother Mary, who allegedly descends from David, as shown in the third chapter of Luke. There are four basic problems with this claim:

“a) There is no evidence that Mary descends from David. The third chapter of Luke traces Joseph’s genealogy, not Mary’s.

“b) Even if Mary can trace herself back to David, that doesn’t help Jesus, since tribal affiliation goes only through the father, not mother. Cf. Numbers 1:18; Ezra 2:59.

“c) Even if family line could go through the mother, Mary was not from a legitimate Messianic family. According to the Bible, the Messiah must be a descendent of David through his son Solomon (2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14, 22:9-10, 28:4-6). The third chapter of Luke is irrelevant to this discussion because it describes the lineage of David’s son Nathan, not Solomon. (Luke 3:31)

“d) Luke 3:27 lists Shealtiel and Zerubbabel in his genealogy. These two also appear in Matthew 1:12 as descendants of the cursed Jeconiah. If Mary descends from them, it would also disqualify her from being a messianic progenitor.”

This objection makes use of the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. As anyone can see that reads through them, these two genealogies match up before the time of King David,* but are quite different after David, giving them the appearance of being the genealogies of two different people, both of whom are descendants of David. Christians have responded to this discrepancy in several different ways, but the most obvious answer is that the genealogy in Matthew is that of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, and the genealogy in Luke is that of Mary.**

* Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry to Adam, Matthew begins with Abraham.

** This approach can be documented back to the 8th cent. AD. Before that (from the 3rd cent.), levirate marriage was used to explain that both genealogies belonged to Joseph, an explanation still accepted by many traditional churches today. The weakness of this approach is that it introduces individuals and marriages about which Scripture is silent.

Evidence to support the view that these are the genealogies of Joseph and Mary are given by the genealogies themselves. The genealogy in Matthew directly claims to be that of Joseph ("...Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary," Matt. 1:16).* But Luke traces Jesus’ lineage through Eli rather than Joseph: Jesus...being a son, as was supposed, of Joseph, [but actually] the son [i.e. the descendant] of Eli (Luke 3:23).** Since Jesus’ actual physical descent was through Mary, his closest male ancestor would be Mary’s father, Eli.*** This makes Luke’s genealogy a record of Mary’s ancestry (versus Simmons’ objection in 2a above).

* Matthew is careful not to say that Joseph was the father of Jesus, as with the other births in his genealogy, but rather that he was the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, the one called Christ (Matt. 1:16).
** The word "son" in Hebrew can be used of multi-generational descent, as in the English word "descendant."
*** That Eli was Mary’s father may also be confirmed by the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud. Here a Mary the daughter of Eli is mentioned in an uncomplimentary setting (Tractate Hagigah 2:2, given as 77d in John Lightfoot, Commentary On the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, 1674, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995, 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. v; vol. 3, p. 55). This may be one of several instances in rabbinical writings in which characters from the New Testament are presented in a negative light, often with veiled names or descriptions. However, the text of modern versions does not match that used by Lightfoot. This may have been an intentional change to obscure the reference, as was done with other controversial Talmudic passages. The traditional names of Joachim and Anna for the parents of Mary come from The Protoevangelium of James (also known as the Gospel of James), a fictitious writing filled with historical inaccuracies (2nd cent.).

According to the objection in point 1 above, if Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, then Joseph was not his physical father, and Joseph’s descent from David is irrelevant to the question of Jesus being the Messiah. Further, and this is the more troubling part (point 1b above), even if we admit the relevance of Joseph’s descent, the Messiah cannot be a product of the genealogy in Matthew because it includes King Jeconiah of Judah, of whom the prophet Jeremiah said that no descendant would ever sit on David’s throne again (Matt. 1:11)!

The relevant verse here is Jeremiah 22:30, which in speaking of King Jeconiah (or Coniah, also known as Jehoiachin), says: This is what the Lord has said: Write this man down stripped of male children [i.e. record him as being without male heirs]. He will not prosper in his days, for no man of his seed will prosper sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah. A similar idea appears in Jeremiah 36:30, where the prophet says of King Jehoiakim, Jeconiah’s father, He will not have anyone sitting on the throne of David.

The simplest way to dismiss this problem is to understand these prophecies to apply only to the lifetime of Jeconiah (in his days in Jer. 22:30) or to some other limited period of time (he will not have in Jer. 36:30 does not necessarily mean forever). And in this sense they certainly were fulfilled in Jeconiah’s lifetime: Zedekiah, the uncle of Jeconiah and brother of Jehoiakim, who reigned as the last king of Judah, was a descendant of neither of them (2 Kings 24:17-25:7).

But there was also a sense in which Jeconiah was the last legitimate king of Judah, and that the Davidic line had ended with him. This can be seen in the nostalgic closing verses of 2 Kings that mention Jeconiah as a prisoner in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30; Zedekiah is not mentioned). It can also be seen in the ancestry of Zerubbabel, the leader of the Jewish people when they returned from exile. His ancestry is traced to Jeconiah (by way of Jeconiah’s son Shealtiel, Ezra 3:2, Hag. 1:1; though Zerubbabel himself did not rule as king). This extends the significance of the prophecy of Jeremiah over a much longer period of time.

On its own, this doesn’t threaten the Christian understanding of Jesus as Messiah. Because as Rabbi Simmons correctly mentions, we can fall back on the genealogy of Mary in Luke, which also traces Jesus’ ancestry from David, although not through the ruling line of Solomon that led to Jeconiah, but rather through Solomon’s brother Nathan.

He objects, though, to using the genealogy in Luke because the Messiah must be descended on his father’s side from King David (point 1). But the verses he provides to support this claim say nothing about this requirement. Genesis 49:10 says only that the Messiah will be of the tribe of Judah (The scepter will not depart from Judah...until he whose it is [the Messiah] comes.* Isaiah says only that he will be a descendant of Jesse (who was the father of King David, Isa. 11:1). Jeremiah says only that he will be a descendant of David himself (Jer. 23:5, 33:17). And Ezekiel calls the Messiah my servant David, which tells us nothing at all about his descent (Eze. 34:23,24). So there is no valid Biblical reason why the Messiah cannot be descended from David on his mother’s side.

* Shiloh that appears here in some translations means literally he whose it is in Hebrew.

But there is a second, more serious, level to this objection: that the Messianic promises given to David were through his son, Solomon (point 2c). It’s true that this is explicitly stated in 1 Chronicles 22:9-10 (his name will be Solomon...and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever; also 1 Chron. 28:4-6). But the prophecy was given with a condition: if you are careful to observe the statutes and the legal decisions that the Lord commanded (1 Chron. 22:13, 28:7). Since Solomon later fell away from the Lord and died in disgrace, it’s obvious that this promise was withdrawn and the promises to David were fulfilled through someone else. That’s why later prophets were looking for a Davidic and not a Solomonic Messiah. So in fact there is no reason why we cannot rely on the genealogy in Luke through Mary and her father to establish Jesus’ descent from David.

The objection that tribal affiliation is only through the father (point 2b) is not always true. In 1 Chron. 2:34-35, an Israelite man with no sons (Sheshan) gave his daughter to an Egyptian slave—who obviously had no tribal affiliation with Israel. Yet their descendants are counted as being descendants of their grandfather Sheshan and members of his tribe. In the same way, since Mary was still living at home and Joseph was not the father of her child, there would be no one else to trace Jesus’ heritage through other than Mary and her father. This is exactly the implication of Luke 3:23: that Jesus was a descendant of Eli.*

* Tribal inheritance could also be passed through daughters (Num. 27:7ff, 36:6-8). This is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who received a hereditary possession among their father’s brothers, and you will transfer the inheritance of their father to them (Num. 27:7). This might well have been the case with Mary, since only her sister is mentioned, and not a brother (John 19:25).

The additional objection that Mary’s lineage also traces through King Jeconiah (point 2d) is easily overturned: the Shealtiel and Zerubbabel of Luke 3:27 have different ancestors and children than the Shealtiel and Zerubbabel of the royal line in Matt. 1:12ff. Anyone who has spent any time doing genealogy knows the danger of similar name combinations when other details don’t match up. There is no evidence that the Shealtiel and Zerubbabel of Luke are the same as those mentioned in Matthew. In fact, the genealogies themselves clearly show they are not.

So there is no serious objection to accepting Luke’s genealogy as the actual physical genealogy of Jesus through his grandfather Eli and his mother Mary. He was a physical descendant of King David, and therefore eligible to fulfill the prophecies pointing to the Messiah.

So what, then, is the purpose of Matthew’s genealogy? Jesus was born into the betrothed relationship of Joseph and Mary, which was legally a family unit (Matt. 1:18; among the Jewish people, betrothal [kiddushin] established a legal marriage, though not yet consummated). If accepted by the husband, the child became legally part of the family, which Joseph did when he took Mary as his wife (Matt. 1:24-25; that he took her means that they proceeded to the second stage of marriage [nissuin] in which they began living together). In this way, Jesus could also legally restore the royal line from Solomon through Jeconiah without being a physical descendant of Jeconiah and running afoul of Jeremiah’s prophecy. In other words, a miraculous birth was exactly what was needed both to fulfill prophecy and to reestablish the royal line of David. As Amos prophesied: In that day, I will raise up the booth of David which is fallen and I will close up their breaches and his ruins I will raise up; and I will build it as in the days of old (Amos 9:11).

Updated 6/1/20. Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2020 by Jeffrey J. Harrison. Towers near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem courtesy of Camilo Novaes.
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