Jesus’ Ancestry: Of Abraham and God
The Gospels of Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38) don’t line up completely in their ancestries of Jesus. Some have devoted hours to trying to get these accounts to line up in a literally-true historical sense. Others, like me, argue that it would be missing the point to focus on the literal historical ancestry.
The authors included these genealogies for specific reasons. One or both or a mixing of the two is quite possibly historically true but dwelling on that just distracts us from the real question: what were the authors trying to say to their readers by including who they included? Ancient authors didn’t write things down if they didn’t consider them really important – it was too expensive, time-consuming, and literacy was not high enough for there to a large return on that investment. The exact historicity doesn’t really affect my life right now as it didn’t for those earlier readers, but stopping and considering what themes are brought forward by claiming Jesus’ origins as they do can matter quite a bit.
In this first part, I’ll look at how far back each genealogy goes and in the next I’ll look at the four women named in Matthew’s list.
Jews and Gentiles
Matthew starts with Abraham and moves forward to Jesus, dividing the ancestry into three sections: Abraham to David, David to the Exile, and the Exile to Jesus. This lines up with a general belief amongst scholars that Matthew was the most Jewish (himself and his audience) of the four writers. He emphasizes how Jesus is in the same line of Abraham as well as David. Abraham was promised to be the father of a great nation that would in turn bless other nations. David was promised that his descendants would rule over Israel. Matthew makes a point throughout his text of showing that Jesus fulfills these promises and the Israelite story in general, but not in the way that they expected. In this process, Matthew goes on to cite prior Scripture (the Old Testament) more than any of the other authors, including some very radical reinterpretations of prophecy.
Luke, on the other hand, starts with Jesus and Joseph and then moves back all the way to Adam and then God. Scholars generally think that Luke was the most Gentile (non-Jew) focused of the Gospel writers and probably the only one who was not himself Jewish. His priority that we see all through Luke as well as its sequel Acts is how God has been acting throughout all of human history for all people, not just Jews. By including those before Abraham, Luke helps broaden our vision by reminding us that all humanity ultimately comes from the same place – God – rather than emphasizing Jewish uniqueness.
While they could seem to be in opposition, they actually complement each other well. It is important to remember that Jesus took on flesh in a particular body (male, Jewish, born of Mary) at a particular time (approx 6-4 BCE to 30 BCE) as part of a particular nation’s (Israel’s) history.
We could debate why each of these particulars were chosen by God as the right time and place. I have my theories as many do:
- As a woman God wouldn’t have had the cultural influence to gain a following
- The time period was able to utilize the expansiveness of the Roman Empire with their revolutionary roads as well as placed him in a political powder keg where many of his teachings were more powerful
- In Judea because it was a continuation of God’s Kingdom establishing through the Israelite/Jewish people (a big theme in Matthew)
Those reasons aren’t really that important, though. More important: particularity is necessary in Jesus’ ability to fully reveal God to us as one of us. There is no race-neutral or gender-neutral or nationality-neutral that could be used – part of being human is having a particular set of characteristics and therefore being different than other humans. Sometimes this is referred to as the “scandal of particularity.”
Luke reminds us, however, that having one particular set or another does not make us better than those who have different ones. Just because I am male like the incarnate Jesus was does not make me better or more god-like than women. Just because I am Canadian and white does not make me less important than Jews/Israelis. Jesus came in that particular setting but he came as the full representative of both who God is and what all of humanity – not just those who share his particulars – should be. God continues the particular story of Israel in order to save the whole world!