Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

by Brian Watson

It is often alleged that there are many errors and contradictions in the Bible. In a previous piece (“When Was Jesus Born?”), I addressed the issue of an alleged error in the Bible: the time of Jesus’ birth, particularly with respect to the census conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Here, I will deal with a supposed contradiction: the different genealogies of Jesus, found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38, respectively.

The Nature of Contradictions

Before looking at the text, we should take time to think about what a contradiction actually is. According to philosopher Simon Blackburn, a contradiction is, “The conjunction of a proposition and its negation. The law of non-contradiction provides that no such conjunction can be true: not (p & not-p).”[1] In other words, a contradiction is when one says that something is and is not. It is impossible to be a bachelor and a married man (a not-bachelor, if you will). However, philosophers often allow more nuance into what is called the law of non-contradiction. As Aristotle famously writes, “It is impossible for the same attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same relation.” [2] So, turning our attention to the two genealogies of Jesus found in the Bible, we can say that Joseph is Jesus’ father and not Jesus’ father, and this is not a logical contradiction. How is that possible? The ways that Joseph is father to Jesus and is not-father to Jesus differ in relation, or sense. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is Jesus’ father in the sense that he raised Jesus and served as his human father. We would say he adopted Jesus. Joseph is not Jesus’ father in the sense that he is not his biological father. He is not Jesus’ true father: the Father, the first person of the Trinity.

Differences in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. When looking at the two, there are clearly differences: Matthew starts from Abraham and, going in chronological order, ends with Jesus. There appear to be forty-one different names (if we don’t county any names twice, and if we don’t include Mary). David tells us, in verse 17, that these names represent a total of 42 generations: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from that exile to Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, gives his genealogy in reverse chronological order, starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam. His list contains seventy-seven names, with no discernible set of groupings.

A closer look yields something else: there are different names in these two genealogies. Both lists have some commonalities (such as the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Judah-Perez-Hezron and Boaz-Obed-Jesse-David sections). But between David and Jesus, there are thirty-eight names that differ. It should be obvious that, if both of these genealogies are intended to be true in the same sense, we have a logical contradiction. However, if they are different in sense (or relation, to use Aristotle’s term), then there is no logical contradiction.

The Different Purposes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies

Before we look at a very likely solution to this problem, we must acknowledge that these genealogies serve slightly different functions in these two Gospels. Though there are four Gospels in the Bible, all telling the same general story of Jesus, they differ in details, structure, and themes. These differences do not mean they contradict each other; rather, the four Gospels complement one another. This fourfold depiction of Jesus enriches our understanding of who he is and what he did for us.

Matthew starts his Gospel with this sentence: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Interestingly, the second word in the original Greek is geneseōs, which might intentionally evoke the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, along with its tôledôt formula: “These are the generations…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2).The Gospels of Mark and John also recall the beginning of Genesis.

More clearly, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. In other words, he wants us to know that Jesus is the long-awaited offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; cf. Gal. 3:16) and the long-awaited son of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, and he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with David. This is part of Matthew’s emphasis on fulfillment (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). Matthew is highlighting the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.

Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogy is clearly intentional, for he eliminates some names. In verse 8, he moves from Joram to Uzziah, though we know from 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles that Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned in between Joram and Uzziah. Matthew is clearly doing this for a purpose. (We should note that “was the father of” [egennēsen] can be used of forefathers, such as grandfathers and great-grandfathers.) Perhaps it is to accommodate his three groups of fourteen generations. As Craig Blomberg explains, “Even though the Old Testament mentions several additional ancestors, Matthew arranges his names into three groups of fourteen, with David as the fourteenth. In Hebrew the gematria (the sum of the numerical equivalents of the consonants in a word) for David was 14 (D+V+D = 4+6+4). Given the popularity of various creative uses of gematria in ancient Judaism, Matthew may well have employed this device to stylize his genealogy and stress Jesus as Son of David.”[3]

Vern Poythress observes something else in Matthew’s genealogy: there are some alternate spellings of the names of kings. This is not an error, as it preserves the same referents (the same individuals) and, as anyone who has read the Bible knows, often people have different names by which they are known. But Matthew might have had deeper theological purposes for these spellings:

By spelling “Asa” as “Asaph,” Matthew refers to king Asa, the son of Abijah; at the same time, on top of this main connection, it creates a literary allusion to or reminiscence of Asaph, of the tribe of Levi, the head of the Levitical singers (1 Chron. 25:1). This allusion subtly suggests that Jesus is not only literally the heir to the kingly line of David, through king Asa, but figuratively and spiritually heir to the Levitical line of priestly activity. By spelling “Amon” as “Amos,” Matthew refers to king Amon, the son of Manasseh and at the same time creates a literary allusion to Amos the prophet. It suggests that Jesus is spiritually the heir to the Old Testament prophets.[4]

This may seem odd to us, but we have no right to demand that Matthew or the other biblical authors write history the way that we would. Any written history is shaped by an author for a particular purpose. This is true of modern biographies as well as ancient ones. The writers of the Gospels shaped their stories according to theological purposes. This does not make their writing any less true or historical.

Luke, on the other hand, does not begin his Gospel with a genealogy. He places his genealogy between two important events in Jesus’ life: his baptism and his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized to identify himself with sinful humanity, which originated with Adam and Eve and their original sin. This event may also recall the beginning of Jesus: the three persons of the Trinity are present (the Father, the Word [=Jesus], the Spirit). Jesus is, in various ways, depicted in the New Testament as the inauguration of a new creation, one without sin. So, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), he descends on Jesus while he is in the water of baptism. Just as God declares his creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), the Father says of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

After his genealogy, Luke writes of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). Israel gave into temptation many times in their wilderness wanderings, between the time of the exodus out of Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land (see the book of Numbers, in particular). Jesus, however, as the true Son of God, did not sin when tempted. It seems that Luke is showing that Jesus is not only the hope of Israel, but the hope of the world. Jesus is the one who will crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; cr. Rom. 16:20).

According to I. Howard Marshall, “the point of the genealogy is rather to show that Jesus has his place in the human race created by God. The fact that the genealogy is carried back to Adam, as the son of God, may perhaps point a contrast between this disobedient son of God and the obedient Son of God, Jesus.” [5]

A Solution to an Alleged Contradiction

Some theologians have claimed that Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy, whereas Luke presents Mary’s. This explanation is unconvincing, however, since both genealogies lead to Joseph. The more likely explanation, one that suits both the Gospel writers’ respective purposes, is that Matthew is presenting a genealogy of the royal heritage of Jesus and Luke is presenting Jesus’ biological genealogy. (Actually, it’s Joseph’s biological genealogy. As Darrell Bock observes, “In the first century, legal status depended on the father, so the most natural way to take the reference to Joseph is as a genealogical reference.” [6]) If Jesus is the true Son of David, the true King, he would be the rightful heir to the throne. So, Matthew indicates this with his genealogy. If Jesus is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and the offspring of Abraham, he must be a legal descendant. So, Luke indicates that.

How can these genealogies diverge? How can Jesus be related to Adam, Abraham, and David, on the hand, while the royal accession genealogy found in Matthew have different names from that of Luke? Shouldn’t these genealogies be one and the same?

Gerald Bray, a British theologian, demonstrates how this could work by using an example from his homeland:

To understand just how complex genealogies can be, we need look no further than that of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back more or less directly to the accession of George I in 1714, but there is not a straightforward succession from father to son. When we go back to the Tudors (1485-1603) and Stuarts (1603-1714), we find that of the twelve rulers they produced between them, the present queen is descended from only two—Henry VII (1485-1509) and James I (1603-1625). Ironically, although she cannot claim the first Elizabeth as her ancestor, she can include Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I executed for her pretensions to the throne of England! Legal and physical descent are very different, and if we do not know the details, we might easily think that one (or both ) of the competing genealogies had been made up. We do not have the background information we need to decide what the different genealogies of Jesus mean, but the British example is a warning that we must be careful not to draw conclusions that may seem obvious on the surface but that are actually quite mistaken. [7]

Bray includes a footnote to that passage: “Of the eleven monarchs since 1714, George II was succeeded by his grandson (1760), George IV by his brother (1830), William IV by his niece (1837), and Edward VIII by his brother (1936).”[8] The point Bray is making is that biological and royal ancestry are not always one and the same. This historical example demonstrates that the suggestion that Matthew and Luke are using two different genealogies—both true in their own senses—is possible.

If this solution is true, then the royal and biological genealogies converge upon Joseph because the one with the royal heritage (Jacob, listed as Joseph’s father in Matt. 1:16) died childless, and his next of kin would be Joseph. It is possible that Jacob and Heli (Joseph’s actual father, according to Luke 3:23) were related or otherwise very close. Perhaps if Heli had died, Joseph would have become Jacob’s heir. An alternate view here is that Matthan, the father of Jacob, father of Joseph (Matt. 1:15-16) is the same person as Matthat, father of Heli, father of Joseph (Luke 3:23-24). Perhaps Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers listed (Eleazar in Matthew; Levi in Luke) because of a levirate marriage,[9] in which case Eleazar, heir to the royal throne, died with child. Eleazar’s brother Levi then married his widow, and they had Matthan/Matthat as a son, who was the biological child of Levi and the royal heir of Eleazar. Given that scenario, then if Jacob, son of Matthan/Matthat, died without child, his nephew, Joseph, son of Heli, would become his heir. These are but two possible (albeit complicated) ways that these genealogies could converge.[10]

We may ever know exactly why Matthew and Luke use differing genealogies. There may be another proposal that makes better sense of the evidence, or more evidence may come to light in the future. However, there is no reason to assume that we have found a real contradiction here. As is so often the case, the Gospels present different information that complements, not contradicts.

A final thought: if these genealogies are so problematic, if one of them is wrong, or one or both are fabricated, would not the earliest Christians have edited one genealogy to match the other? Wouldn’t those who gathered the Gospels together have made them to match? If you assume that things in the Bible are simply made up, why wouldn’t Christians make things up so that they harmonize more easily? The fact that these genealogies are, on the surface, at odds is evidence against the claim that the Gospels are legends or fabrications.

Notes:

[1] Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. rev. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78.

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b 19-20, in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 233.

[4] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 70-71.

[5] I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 161.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 352. I. Howard Marshall adds, “From the legal point of view, Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus, and there was no other way of reckoning his descent” (The Gospel of Luke, 157).

[7] Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 565.

[8] Ibid., 565 n. 26.

[9] Details of a levirate marriage are found in Deut. 25:5-10. Vv. 6-7 state, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” This way, the inheritance and legacy of the man who died without a son could continue.

[10] For more information, see D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 9:88-94.

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