The Generation of Jesus Christ (aka “What Was Matthew Thinking?”)


geneaological chart
An example of a genealogy chart

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan [his grandson, not his son]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

~ Ge 9:24-27

What is a “couple”?  Serious question.  What pops to mind?  I suppose if you are math oriented, you will think of the number 2.  If you are visual, then perhaps you visualize a pair of objects.  Someone else might also have in mind two people who are “going steady” or even married to one another.

A more rare usage might be to tie, join or connect things together, especially if they are pairs.  If you are an electrician, you might think of joining two circuits together.

However, if I hold up three fingers, can that be a “couple”?  Is it true, other than in relationships, that two is a couple and three a crowd?  Notice what says about “couple“:

Usage note
The phrase a couple of, meaning “a small number of; a few; several,” has been in standard use for centuries, especially with measurements of time and distance and in referring to amounts of money: They walked a couple of miles in silence. Repairs will probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. The phrase is used in all but the most formal speech and writing.

[Emphasis mine]

Language is so precise, isn’t it?


So, what is a generation?  What pops into your mind?  I suspect some might think about kids, parents and/or grandparents.  Perhaps you think of a genealogical chart, as shown above.

What about “the Pepsi generation”?  Or, “the post-war generation”?  These sorts of generations consist of large groups of strangers who would otherwise might have little in common, yet the time period they live in allows them to be grouped together.

There is another interesting definition of “generation“:

2. the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.

There is a similar biblical concept to that last idea.

13 And the Lord‘s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed.

Nu 32:13

Obviously, this should not be treated as a concrete number but rather as a vague concept (for who of us who speak English would insist a generation is exactly 30 years?).  There are, however, some interesting implications.  Still, the length of time of a generation is not a hard and fast concept, which can be attested to in Easton’s Bible Dictionary, which even claims more variability than I’ve already mentioned for Generation in that:

The Hebrews seem to have reckoned time by the generation. In the time of Abraham a generation was an hundred years, thus: Gen 15:16, “In the fourth generation” = in four hundred years (13 and Exd 12:40). In Deu 1:35 and Deu 2:14 a generation is a period of thirty-eight years.

That isn’t the only use of the word, either.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,

~ Ge 2:4

Obviously, we are not talking about a lineage here.  In this passage, a better translation would be “historical account” rather than “generations”.

Speaking of Genesis, it appears that it is the concept of time rather than physical descendancy that Matthew had in mind when he wrote his account.  In fact, the very word he used for “generation” is only used three times in the NT.  Do you know what the word is?  He used the word genesis, Strong’s G1078.  It means “source” or “origin”, most often when speaking of lineage.

Matthew used a different yet related word, however, in Mt 1:17.  The word there is genea, Strong’s G1074, and it normally means “fathered, birth” or can mean “several ranks of natural descent”, i.e., a genealogy (from which obviously the English word is derived).  However, definition #4 is:

an age (i.e. the time ordinarily occupied be each successive generation), a space of 30 – 33 years

Is It a Contradiction?

In verse 17 of Matthew 1, he does something odd (at least to our way of thinking):

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.

Matthew tells us he is writing down 3 different segments of 14 “generations”.  The main problem is that he does not tell us why he is doing this.  It is easy enough to understand that Matthew primarily is writing to a Jewish audience, detailing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is easy enough to understand why he would write a genealogy, for the Christ must come from the line of David.  What is not obvious is why he is forcing it into a 14 + 14 + 14 pattern.

The only real clue we have is that 14 is 2 x 7.  The number 7 has significance throughout Scripture.  Jesus used “seven times seventy” to illustrate that we must be so forgiving that we cannot even keep track.  However, I cannot think of anywhere else where 2 x 7 is significant, let alone 3 x 2 x 7.

I would dearly like to know why, but in the end that is a much more minor matter than the fact that he actually tells us he is doing it.  He isn’t hiding it whatsoever.  While it might seem illogical to us, it cannot be a contradiction when he states that is what he is doing.  He is simply reporting what he knows, and he explains his method of reporting.

If I summarize an event, and I tell you it is a summary, then it isn’t a contradiction if I leave out some details.  Of course, as the story teller, I get to decide what is a detail and what is significant.  Leaving out what I deem extraneous material would be part of the summarization process.

For example, I report on a bank robbery.  I tell the police that the bank robber was about 6′ 3″, and he was a white male, red beard and medium build.  What would you think if the cop said, “That’s a contradiction.  Another eye witness says the bank robber was a white male with red beard, medium build about 6′ 3″ tall, wearing a sky blue shirt, dark blue hoodie, black jeans and sneakers”?  Hopefully, you would think he was nuts.  The other observer was simply more observant than I and added more details.

Generation As Time

Furthermore, by forcing it into such segments, it becomes more obvious that he is viewing “generation” as a span of time rather than the strict sense of grandfather – father – son.

It is similar to how I might say “my generation”, which can be a pretty muddy concept actually.  Obviously, “my generation” doesn’t mean we were all born on the same day, so you cannot expect the same precision as if I had stated a year instead.  It’s perhaps a bit stricter of a concept, at least in English, than that of “baby boomer”.  The latter gets thrown around a lot as though it is a precise and known quantity, but it is quite a fuzzy concept in reality.

The term “baby boomer” is also used in a cultural context. Therefore, it is impossible to achieve broad consensus of a precise date definition, even within a given territory. Different groups, organizations, individuals, and scholars may have widely varying opinions on what constitutes a baby boomer, both technically and culturally.

Wikipedia, “Baby boomer

Since Matthew seemed to be writing to a Jewish audience, from all of the references that a mostly Jewish audience would pick up on, it would have been common knowledge that certain kings had certain sons.  If the skipping of anyone in the lineage would have raised Jewish hackles in their day, the early Church had enough enemies that they would have pounced upon it.  In fact, I doubt that the book would have even been included as part of the canon.  Instead, he is obviously appealing to something they would have known in their day.

Matthew has at least one another reference that seems odd in our day.  However, Matthew does not hesitate to use Jewish references they would have been familiar with liberally in order to connect with them.

Whatever thoughts Matthew was evoking or appealing to, he goes to great pains to provide a certain symmetry.  If a generation can be considered to be an average of 40 years, it gets a little more interesting, although admittedly even more speculative.

Scholars disagree on when Abraham lived.  It seems, though, that the estimates mostly range on this side of 2000 BC.  According to Answers In Genesis, in “Abraham and the Chronology of Ancient Mesopotamia“, it could have been as late as 1876 when he arrived in Canaan.

So, if there were 42 generations from Abraham to when Christ was born, that comes to about 1680 years.  That is about 193 years off.

However, if Matthew actually had a sliding scale in mind, fully aware that a generation in Abraham’s day was 100 years, it actually isn’t so far off after all.

Having said that, the population in Matthew’s day weren’t checking the seconds on their wristwatches or smartphones.  Time accuracy would not have been as big of a deal, and “generation” is a rather vague concept to begin with, similar to our concept of “baby boomer”.

Was It a Known Practice?

Of course, even at that, the entire interpretation relies upon that being the common understanding of the day.  Did people really talk to each other in that way?  How did they view lineage, anyhow?

The opening quote tells of Noah cursing what his “younger son” had done to him, yet he cursed Canaan, who was his grandson.  When someone is a “son”, the primary meaning is a male offspring, but it can also mean a descendant, even if it is thousands of years later.

Furthermore, Canaan directly had two sons, but the rest of the descendants are murky in Genesis 10:15-18.  It shows that genealogies were not always precise, but particularly non-Jewish ones.

8 And now ye think to withstand the kingdom of the Lord in the hand of the sons of David; and ye be a great multitude, and there are with your golden calves, which Jeroboam made you for gods.

~ 2Ch 13:8

This is Abijah talking.  David was long dead.  Solomon was long dead.  Even Rehoboam was dead.  Yet, he refers to himself and the Jews as “the sons of David”.  So, the concept was not unknown by any means.

In Genesis 46, we see that the “sons of Leah” along with Dinah were 33.  Did she really have 33 children?  Or 33 descendants?  Likewise, Zilpah had “sixteen souls” attributed to her as “sons of Zilpah”, even though she actually had directly only Gad and Asher.

And, of course, let’s not forget that Jesus was sometimes called the “Son of David”, even though they were hundreds of years apart.

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia states about “Genealogy (in the Bible)“:

1 Chronicles 1-9 is replete with genealogical lists which either repeat, or abbreviate, or again develop the foregoing genealogies, adding at times other documents of an unknown origin. For instance, there is a brief genealogy of Benjamin in 1 Chronicles 7:6-12, a longer one in 1 Chronicles 8:1-40; similarly a brief genealogy of Juda in 1 Chronicles 4:1-23, a more complete one in 1 Chronicles 2:3 and 3:24. The inspired historian makes no effort to harmonize these striking differences, but seems to be only careful to reproduce his sources.

It becomes readily apparent that in genealogies covering a span of thousands of years, strict listings were not always deemed necessary.  They only needed to serve the purpose at hand.

Indeed, most genealogies cannot match, as it depends a lot upon who is recording it, why and through whom they choose to trace the lineage.  Even Jesus has two different lineages listed in the New Testament, as they serve similar yet not completely the same purposes.  Lineages almost by definition are messy, because they are geometric in nature and not linear, as “lineage” would seem to imply.

Why Genealogies?

If it is such a deal, then why even deal with genealogies at all?  What are their purpose?

In the OT, it is to see from where we come.  We know of many of the millennia old conflicts that started in biblical times.  They explain not just the past but how the world got the way it is today.

However, that is not why they are needed in the NT.  The NT genealogies are to confirm that Jesus is the Christ.  He was prophesied to be a descendant of David.

So, the question is whether or not Matthew’s genealogy fulfills that purpose.  And, the answer is yes … and no.

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

~ Mt 1:18

Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather.  Legally, this would have been the genealogy by Jewish reckoning.  However, Jesus wasn’t a descendant of David through Joseph physically, only legally.  His actual descendancy would have to come through Mary, and that is what Luke establishes.

With this in mind, and the fact that the average Jew would have known that the genealogy was abbreviated, it seems that all of this enabled Matthew to be bold enough to present it the way he did, because in one sense it just didn’t matter.  His emphasis was on something else.  However, the core (legal) lineage back to King David was accomplished regardless of presentation.

Why Were Certain Ones Left Off?

There is an odd pattern as to whom was left off the list as well.  The first part, both Matthew and Luke agree, so that has no issue.  The latter part is intentionally different because Luke traces Mary’s descent.  However, the royal line itself is quite different.

Since we don’t know for certain why Matthew was so interested in sets of 14, we cannot know for certain why he left off whom he did.  We can only speculate.  It isn’t the number of years of reigning, even though most who were left off had less than 20 years reigning.  Not all evil kings were left off, either, although some (perhaps all) of the others were forced to humble themselves during their reign.

EW Bullinger believed it is because their lives ended violently.  Joram died of “sore diseases”, but he is listed.  Yet, his descendants, to the fourth generation incidentally, died violently.  Even Joash, who was the only one left off with 40 years reigning, died because he was killed by his servants.  Ahaziah died at the hands of Jehu after about only 1 year.  Amaziah lasted 29 years before being killed in a conspiracy.  It is an interesting possibility, but it cannot be proven with certainty to be the reason.

The other king left off is Jehoiakim.  He rebelled and was made to serve Babylon.  That’s why the 14 generations end just before his reign.  His son, Jeconiah/Coniah/Jehoiachin picks up the next 14 going from the captivity.

Did Matthew Succeed?

The question of whether or not Matthew contradicted other Scriptures is an important one, but it isn’t proper to judge ancient texts solely upon modern biases.  If Matthew were trying to hide what he was doing or simply didn’t state what he was doing, then there would be a problem.  However, he boldly states he is making three sets of 14 names.

We cannot truly know why he chose to do this.  It may be because 14 is a multiple of 7, but there is no other precedent for that in Scripture.  It could be that it was a memorization pattern, somehow using the value of the letters in David’s name to come up with a pattern.  All of this is speculative, though.

What we do know is that the legal lineage would have been important in the Jewish mind.  Matthew successfully traces Jesus’ ancestry not only back to David but back to Abraham, which would have also been important in the Jewish mind in the first century.  Whatever his reasons for the sets of 14, it introduces one of the main concepts of the book, which is that God was guiding events down through history to culminate them in His Son, Jesus the Christ.  This too would have had an appeal to that audience.

Just as important, there also are precedents for “generations” to represent a vaguely defined period of time or even a simple listing of history.  The latter is not justified by the context, but the first one is because Matthew spells out the number of generations over time.

Matthew did not add any names.  That would have been out of the ordinary, and it would not have been acceptable either in his time or ours.  However, it was acceptable in his day to skip names for reasons hard for us to understand, as long as the chain legitimately still points to significant people.  “The son of” often means “descendant of”, and there is ample biblical precedent for this as well.

As stated in the website article “Is there an error in the counting of the generations in Matthew chapter 1?“:

The purpose of a genealogy is to document the proof of ancestry from the origin of the line to the person under discussion. Every individual need not be included, but only those necessary to establish descending relationship. The author may legitimately abridge a genealogy to establish a point or to make it simpler. Matthew is correct in the factual material for his purpose, which is to document the ancestry of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, from Abraham.

Not only is this important from the standpoint of whether or not certain passages contradict each other, but it also shows that cultural differences cannot be completely ignored.  In particular, time units were not so precise unless the context demands it.  That is why “immediately” in biblical times might seem pretty long to us.  Who are we to uphold our viewpoint of how to express something is “right” in another culture?

It’s also why seeming prohibitions against wearing one’s hair a particular way or even admonishments to cover one’s head have to be dealt with with this in mind.  Is it the details that matter, or is there a larger principle at work?

And, you have to admit that, while this exercise was somewhat interesting, it is trivial on the scale of things to deal with.  I guess that is another lesson, really.  Skeptics seem to naturally zero in on the trivial in order to distract from the larger picture and the things that prove the Bible authentic and true.

It is the postmodern version of “Yeah, hath God said …?”

Comments are closed.