Are the Two Genealogies of Christ Contradictory?

There is no absolutely irrefutable “contradiction” in the two genealogies.

Rose window on south end of transept arm, St. Denis Cathedral, St. Denis, France. The stained glass depicts the Tree of Jesse (ancestors of Christ from Jesse onwards) in the Art Nouveau style.
Rose window on south end of transept arm, St. Denis Cathedral, St. Denis, France. The stained glass depicts the Tree of Jesse (ancestors of Christ from Jesse onwards) in the Art Nouveau style. (photo: CC-BY-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

Christians have no problem freely admitting that there are “difficulties” to be cleared up as regards the two genealogies. Our view is not to pretend that there are no “problems” to be resolved with Bible scholarship, learning more and more about ancient Near Eastern culture, and further study of various sorts. We welcome that; we love to learn more and more about all the relevant data.

That’s different, however, from the positive (or should I say, “negative”?) assertion of the definite presence of demonstrable “contradiction” in the two genealogies. Christians have offered many possible solutions to the various issues raised and considered.

Of course, atheists will then say (fair and charitable as they always are to Christians): “see how many explanations there are?! Christians can’t agree! Occam’s Razor! Therefore, we conclude that this chaos suggests no explanation and mere special pleading and rationalization.”

As an analogy, take, for example, theories on the origin of life or of the universe. Scientists don’t have any definite solutions to those things (within the “orthodox” materialistic perspective). But they have many proposed explanations.

Atheists think that that means the scientific explanation will one day be nailed down. They don’t assume that a diversity of theories or lack of certainty prove “chaos” or special pleading. They don’t ditch scientific method simply because science doesn’t provide every answer to every “anomaly” in nature.

We might also mention the absence of the vaunted “Grand Unified Theory” in particle physics. Scientists thus far have been unable to synthesize what they believe they know into one unified theory. Wikipedia states that “Several such theories have been proposed, but none is currently universally accepted. . . . There is currently no hard evidence that nature is described by a Grand Unified Theory.” It doesn’t follow, however, that such a theory is either unthinkable, inconceivable, or unattainable.

But when it comes to the Bible and Christian theology, atheists (because of prior hostility) think that multiple theories suggest less likelihood of resolution. But multiple theories are just as likely indications that one theory or a combination are true, rather than that all of them are false.

If Christians didn’t have any theories about the genealogies, atheists would surely be on our backs charging total ignorance, and reiterating their erroneous and uncharitable belief that Christians don’t “think” or speculate about issues: that we are against reason itself.

If we have many, this also proves (in their minds) that we must be wrong: it indicates rationalizing and incoherence and implausible solutions. In other words, we can never “win” no matter what we do.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) starts out its article on the topic by stating:

[R]ationalists have no solid reason for refusing to admit any of the attempted solutions, nor can we agree with those recent writers who have given up all hope of harmonizing the genealogies of Christ found in the First and Third Gospels.

In a long, fascinating article devoted to such alleged “gaps” or “omissions” (filled with many biblical proofs of this casually accepted practice in ancient Hebrew culture), Presbyterian theologian William Henry Green observed:

[T]he genealogies of the Bible . . . are frequently abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names. In fact, abridgment is the general rule, induced by the indisposition of the sacred writers to encumber their pages with more names than were necessary for their immediate purpose. This is so constantly the case, and the reason for it so obvious, that the occurrence of it need create no surprise anywhere, and we are at liberty to suppose it whenever anything in the circumstances of the case favors that belief. . . .

The result of our investigations thus far is sufficient to show that it is precarious to assume that any biblical genealogy is designed to be strictly continuous, unless it can be subjected to some external tests which prove it to be so. 

Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin adds similar information:

Ancient Jewish genealogies often skipped generations, in part because there were no terms for “grandson” and “grandfather.” Any male one was descended from was one’s “father,” regardless of how many generations back he was. Similarly, any male descended from you was your “son,” no matter how many generations down the line he was. This is why the Hebrews were called “the sons of Israel” hundreds of years after the original Israel (Jacob) died.

Akin rejects the apologetic theory of matrilineal descent in one of the genealogies:

[B]oth genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage back to David, but through different sons. Matthew has Christ descending from David through Solomon, while Luke has him descending from David through a different son, Nathan. [Felix Just (source #10) concurs]

This is not itself a puzzlement since David had more than one son, and a later individual can be descended from more than one of them. The question arises when the two lines meet up again. . . .

Luke states that Joseph was the son of Heli, not that Mary was the daughter of Heli, . . .

Conclusion: we observe, I submit, no absolutely irrefutable “contradiction” in the two genealogies. Atheists bring up several other “problems” too. I’ve only barely scratched the surface in this brief article. I agree with the thorough and learned Protestant apologist Glenn Miller:

I do not want to give anyone the impression that there are no difficulties in these genealogies. They are full of issues, ‘surprises’, perplexing items. But, at the same time, we have so many proposed explanations for each of these, that we are simply not in a position to criticize (much less decide against!) the historicity of these accounts. Indeed, we have solid answers for the more difficult and perplexing ones, which gives us a qualified optimism about those that are still somewhat obscure.

For those who want to pursue this topic in much more depth, see my lengthier blog article (including many more relevant and helpful links). Rest assured that atheists can be and have been refuted.