Who was Joseph’s father, Jacob or Heli?

Posted on Dec.28, 2008. Filed in Matthew, Luke. Average rating: 5.7 / 10 (Rate It).

Both Matthew and Luke give Jesus geneaology, tracing back his lineage through the generations. It is not long, however, before the genealogies diverge. In fact, taking Jesus as the first generation, the genealogies disagree by the third.

In Matthew, the genealogy begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus. As it closes, we are told that the father of Jesus was Joseph, and the father of Joseph was Jacob:

… and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. [Matthew 1:16 (NRSV)]

In Luke, the genealogy is ordered in reverse, beginning with Jesus and running through Abraham all the way to Adam and thence to God. As it opens, we are told that the father of Jesus was Joseph, and the father of Joseph was Heli:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli… [Luke 3:23 (NRSV)]

So who was Joseph’s father, Jacob or Heli?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

: ,
13 Comments Ratings

Inerrantist Responses

To suggest a response to this claim of error, please use the comments section below.

Rate this Claim of Error

How serious a problem for inerrancy do you think this is?

Average rating: 5.7 / 10

You must be logged in to rate errors.


  1. 1

    It seems to me that there are two fairly straightforward harmonizations here:

    1. “Heli” and “Jacob” are two names for the same person.

    2. By the standards of the day, skipping a few generations in a geneology for narrative effect was perfectly acceptable. Thus, to pick an example that ties in with another thread on this blog, Zechariah the son of Berekiah the son of Iddo is sometimes just called Zechariah son of Iddo…Ezra calls him this for example.

    As such, it is conceivable that Matthew skipped Heli on his way from Joseph to Matthat/Matthan, but Luke skipped Jacob.

  2. 2

    This is hardly the only problem with the genealogies. They’re completely different!

    Furthermore, postulating gaps in Matthew is troublesome, since he explicitly states (v. 17) that all the generations are 14 then 14 then 14. I don’t see how he can say this if his genealogy is incomplete. (Which it certainly is: that’s a problem on its own.)

    Anyway, I think an inerrantist is forced to say that Luke’s is really a genealogy of Mary. That just about works: given the virgin birth, a genealogy of Mary seems more interesting than one of Joseph.

  3. 3

    Interesting point about Luke giving the genealogy of Mary. If correct, it would show that Jesus is descended on two lines from David. There are occasional overlaps in the two, so they are not completely different. But I suppose those overlaps might be two people with the same name, or it might involve cases where cousins marry cousins.

    I wish Luke’s genealogy were from Mary to David. It doesn’t quite read that way though. I suppose that the fact that Joseph, rather than Mary is at the top of Luke’s genealogy could be some sort of transmission error.

    But I’m more inclined to think that you have some different names for the same people plus some elisions in both accounts (even Luke’s 41 generations between Jesus and David seem too few.) You might even have a case where Matthew lists the highlights of the genealogy, and Luke deliberately skips a lot of those highlights and completes the picture with some of the less prominent entries.

    Postulating elisions in Matthew’s 14-14-14 genealogy is probably necessary in any case. 28 generations between Jesus and David are probably not going to be enough.

    Bearing in mind that inerrantists try not to judge a 1st century text by 21st century standards, I’ll note again that skipping generations is not and should not be considered erroneous or deceptive.

    Matthew was trying to make a point here, and it was not to fill in all the blanks in Jesus family tree. He was trying to trace the descent of Jesus to David (and thence to Abraham). He was doing this for people who would get to see a copy of his book, maybe once or twice in their entire lives for a couple months at a time. Breaking it into 14s was a very useful mnemonic device for that purpose.

    Perhaps it goes without saying that I also don’t have a problem with Matthew 1:17. I mean, I’m arguing here that there is no error or deceit involved when Matthew skips a generation while _listing_ the generations in Jesus’ ancestry. Wouldn’t it be silly for me to turn around and say that there is error or deceit when Matthew skips a generation while _counting_ the generations in Jesus’ ancestry?

    Now, obviously, if you think Matthew is up to something else, then you might have a different view on both the listing and the counting of the generations. If you think Matthew is trying to shoehorn in some prophecy fulfillment regarding the number of generations between David and the Messiah, or trying to make a numerological point or some such, then there might be a problem. Obviously skipping or doubling generations will completely vitiate that enterprise.

    But as already noted, I don’t think that that’s Matthew’s project at all.

  4. 4

    “Wouldn’t it be silly for me to turn around and say that there is error or deceit when Matthew skips a generation while _counting_ the generations in Jesus’ ancestry?”

    Leaving gaps in a list might be acceptable, but I just don’t see in what way 1:17 is actually true.

  5. 5

    “But I’m more inclined to think that you have some different names for the same people plus some elisions in both accounts”

    By the way, if you you make a list of the two you find there’s basically no overlap between them from David to Jesus, as I recall. You need some way of explaining this.

    “You might even have a case where Matthew lists the highlights of the genealogy, and Luke deliberately skips a lot of those highlights and completes the picture with some of the less prominent entries.”

    I think if he wanted to complete the genealogy he would give the complete genealogy! :)

  6. 6


    On your first point.

    There is some evidence that the Jews had the practice of kings taking coronation names. Just like Joseph Ratzinger took a Papal name: Benedict XVI. The Egyptians and Hittites definitely had the practice. Roland De Vaux has argued that the kings of Judah also had the practice (though the Kings of Israel might not have). See “Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions” which is available on Google books and is still in print. There is a section in it on coronation names.

    I had thought to identify Nathan-through-Joshua on the Luke side with Solomon-through-Jeconiah on the Matthew side by arguing that Luke gave the birth name while Matthew gave the coronation name. But there is a problem with that.

    There is a point of commonality in the middle of both genealogies. Both Matthew and Luke mention a father-son pairing of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. I think these are the same folks. If so, and assuming that Luke’s Joshua is the same as Matthew’s Jeconiah, there are too many generations between Joshua and Shealtiel on Luke’s side.

    But there are elisions in Matthew’s genealogies of the kings. There are at least 19 generations of Kings of Judah from Solomon to Jeconiah, so that Matthew’s Jeconiah would actually be identified with Luke’s Melchi, leaving one generation Neri, between Luke’s Shealtiel and Mathew’s Shealtiel. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Matthew omitted that generation.

    Zerubbabbel would not be skipped because he was the governor of Judah who led the Judah _back_ from the Babylonian captivity.

    That leaves eight names in Matthew’s genealogy with no match in Luke’s genealogy (I’m treating Matthan and Matthat as a match). I think that you can deal with these by imagining either double-names in those eight cases or overlapping genealogical elisions.

    On your second point.

    I will have to admit. The idea that Luke was somehow completing Matthew’s genealogy was probably a dumb one. So I recant that point. Luke _was_ probably trying to be as complete as it was possible to be.

    My initial reticence with the completeness of Luke’s genealogy was that the interval from David (circa 1000 B.C.) to Jesus (circa A.D. 1) was too great to be spanned by 41 generations. But, doing the math, that actually allows an average of 24 years per generation. Since some men might not have gotten married until they were older, that’s not too much to swallow.

    In saying this, I do not intend to affirm that Luke’s genealogy is or was intended by Luke as a perfect genealogical record.

  7. 7


    One correction. You actually made 3 points over your 2 most recent posts. In my last post I was addressing the second and third points that you made, though I said I was addressing the first and second. I had actually not read the first of your most recent posts. Sorry about that.

    With that said, the point you made in your first post also deserves a response. Here was what I was originally saying, Matthew gave his 14-14-14 genealogy for a reason. I speculated that the reason might be to give a general picture of Jesus descent from Abraham and David that could be remembered by people who would only get to see his book sporadically during there lives. 14-14-14 was a good mnemonic for that. Had he given the genealogy as is and called it a 14-20-21 genealogy, that would have tended to undercut this purpose.

    But isn’t this a lie?

    I don’t think so. Suppose that I give you directions to Paris, you follow them and end up in Texas. I don’t think that the fact that you aren’t in France makes me a liar. I always intended to give you directions to Paris, Texas, not Paris, France.

    Similarly, Matthew is not trying to give an exact and detailed description of Jesus’ ancestry. He’s trying to trace his lineage to the throne of David in a memorable way. So we can’t really complain about error or deceit when we don’t get from Matthew what he was never trying to give.

  8. 8

    “14-14-14 was a good mnemonic for that.”

    Of course, the genealogy really is 14-14-13…

    (Or one can say it’s 14-15-14, but there’s no consistent way to call it 14-14-14.)

  9. 9

    Matthew’s genealogy:

    The Fathers:

    01. Abraham
    02. Isaac
    03. Jacob
    04. Judah
    05. Perez
    06. Hezron
    07. Ram
    08. Amminadab
    09. Nahshon
    10. Salmon
    11. Boaz
    12. Obed
    13. Jesse
    14. David

    The Kings:

    01. Solomon
    02. Rehoboam
    03. Abijah
    04. Asa
    05. Jehoshaphat
    06. Joram
    07. Uzziah
    08. Jotham
    09. Ahaz
    10. Hezekiah
    11. Manasseh
    12. Amon
    13. Josiah
    14. Jeconiah*

    The Captives and their Descendents:

    01. Jeconiah
    02. Shealtiel
    03. Zerubbabel
    04. Abihud
    05. Eliakim
    06. Azor
    07. Zadok
    08. Achim
    09. Eliud
    10. Eleazar
    11. Matthan
    12. Jacob
    13. Joseph
    14. Jesus

    But Jeconiah is mentioned twice right? That must be an error.

    Well, yes, but it’s probably a copyist’s error.

    The king who served for a few months before the beginning of the Babylonian captivity was Jehoichin or Jeconiah.

    The last King to serve a full term (and the king that was the son of Josiah) was Jehoiakim. That probably got mangled to Jeconiah also, and the apparently duplicated generation was eliminated. That’s why I put an asterisk by the ‘first Jeconiah’ above. That’s not Jeconiah at all but Jehoiakim.

    But shouldn’t Matthew have included Jehoichin/Jeconiah as the last king?

    No. Jehoichin/Jeconiah is the cursed King. The LORD cursed him by sending him into captivity. He belongs with the Captives, not the Kings.

    Also, like David, Jehoichin/Jeconiah is a transitional figure. He takes us from the Kings to the Captives. Likewise David takes us from the Fathers to the Kings. Matthew puts the transitional figures with the earlier sequences.

  10. 10

    Wow! What started out as simple answer to a fairly focused question has turned into a major dissertation. I hope I’m not boring anyone.

    I’m now going to concede a big point to Amtiskaw based on further research of both ends of Luke’s genealogy from David to Jesus:

    You are probably right about Luke giving Mary’s genealogy, not Joseph’s.

    First of all, I did what I should have done when you first posted the point, I went back and checked I Chronicles 3:5. It says there that David and Bathsheba had 4 sons and it gives four names. Two of the names given are Solomon and Nathan. The only way I could continue with my hypothesis that Nathan was Solomon’s birth name, and not the name of a brother, would be to suppose that one of the 4 sons referred to had no name. But the passage doesn’t read that way. Though it may be true that David and Bathsheba had a son who had no name (the child of their adultery that died at 7 days) it still seems like a big stretch.

    At the other end of Luke’s genealogy. The term “son” (or “descendant”) actually only occurs at the head of the list. The delimiting term for the members of the list first occurs before Heli’s name, not Joseph’s. Joseph is essentially relegated to a parenthetical remark. The list contains only males and so begins with Mary’s father, Jesus’ grandfather.

    That is, it may be possible to read:

    “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of…”

    As something like:

    “He was the descendant (though seemingly of Joseph) of Heli, of Mathat, of…”

    It seems like much less of a stretch to accept this than to read David’s unnamed son into I Chronicles 3.

    None of this, of course, invalidates my arguments defending Matthew’s elisions for the sake of memorability.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site: