After Zerubbabel, Matthew and Luke once again diverge before they both end with Joseph. How are we to understand the biblical accounts of Jesus’ most immediate natural and legal ancestors?
The “Marian” Interpretation of Luke 3
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the divergence between Matthew and Luke’s record of Jesus’ immediate ancestors is the theory that Matthew reports Joseph’s bloodline and Luke reports Mary’s. Raymond Brown rejects this possibility outright:
What influences this suggestion is the centrality of Joseph in Matthew’s infancy narrative, as compared with the spotlighting of Mary in Luke’s. Even at first glance, however, this solution cannot be taken seriously: a genealogy traced through the mother is not normal in Judaism, and Luke makes it clear that he is tracing Jesus’ descent through Joseph. Moreover, Luke’s genealogy traces Davidic descent and despite later Christian speculation, we really do not know that Mary was a Davidid. (The Birth of the Messiah, rev. ed. [Anchor, 1999] 89)
It is questionable whether the New Testament writers would be quite so agnostic about Mary’s Davidic lineage (see Acts 2:30; Rom 1:3, etc.), and Augustine—and many other early church fathers—reasoned from the New Testament that Mary must have been a descendant of David. The first clear statement of the view that Luke’s genealogy is that of Mary is found in Hilary of Poitiers (4th cent.):
Many are of the opinion that the genealogy which Matthew lists is to be ascribed to Joseph and the genealogy listed by Luke is to be ascribed to Mary, in that, since the man is called the head of the woman, her generation is also named for the man. But this does not fit the rule or the question treated above, namely where the character of the genealogies is demonstrated and most truthfully solved.
Thus, Hilary disputes the “Marian” interpretation of the Luke 3 genealogy. Regrettably, the documentation of his evidence against it is lost. In On the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus sees Mary’s ancestry in the Lukan genealogy—though not in a straightforward manner, as we shall see below.
The Line of Joseph
The popularity of the “Marian” theory is actually a relatively recent development, owing largely to Annius de Viterbo (1502). Most of the early Fathers claimed that the Bible was silent about Mary’s lineage and that both Matthew and Luke traced the ancestry of Joseph. This is certainly the most straightforward reading of the biblical text. If not for the contradictory report in Matthew 1, I suspect most readers would naturally assume that Luke 3 gives the genealogy of Joseph.
One creative theory to make sense of these divergent accounts is that of Julius Africanus (Epistle to Aristides, c. 200-225), who claimed to have received his information from descendants of James “the Lord’s brother.” By this account, a woman named Estha married Matthan, a descendant of Solomon (Mt 1) and became the mother of Jacob. After Matthan’s death Estha took Matthat, a descendant of Nathan as her second husband (Lk 3) and by him became the mother of Heli. Thus, Jacob and Heli were half-brothers, having the same mother. Heli later married, but died without offspring. His widow then became the levirate wife of Jacob and gave birth to Joseph. Joseph was thus the son of Jacob biologically, but the son of Heli legally—thus combining in his person two lineages of David’s descendants.
This is plausible generally, but there is a problem. In Jewish reckoning, the levirate son would presumably be listed in a genealogy as if he were the natural son of the deceased father and would not likely appear in the genealogy of his natural father. It is unlikely that someone as well-versed in Jewish thought as the author of the First Gospel would make the error of including Joseph in his genealogy if in fact he were in fact the levirate (legal) son of Heli. In other words, for this theory to work, Matthew would have to reproduce the genealogy in Luke. But there is no reason why the direction of the levirate relationships could not be reversed, i.e., that Joseph was the natural son of Heli and the levirate son of Jacob. If this is in fact the correct theory, then somehow the information must have become garbled, either in Julius’ understanding or in the subsequent textual tradition.
By switching places between Heli and Jacob, Jesus is legally established within the royal bloodline from Solomon. Luke, a non-Jew writing for a non-Jewish audience, may not have been as concerned about such matters. The point of the genealogy for Luke seems to be that Jesus was a descendant of Adam and thus identified with all of humanity. Luke therefore simply traced Joseph’s natural bloodline from Nathan. (Friedrich Schleiermacher suggested that Luke may have had access to the genealogy of Clopas, by tradition Joseph’s younger brother and the father of at least two of the apostles. Clopas would have been listed as a son of Heli in any genealogy, and Luke may not have known or cared about the technicalities of the levirate custom.)
The Line of Mary
Mary’s Paternal Line. The early church Fathers insisted that Mary was herself a descendant of David, and thus that Jesus was a “son of David” not just legally through adoption by Joseph, but naturally through Mary (see Rom 1:3). From 150 at the latest, tradition establishes the names of Mary’s parents as Joachim and Anna. According to a tradition known to John of Damascus (On the Orthodox Faith, c. 750), Mary’s great grandfather was named Panther (in one source called Levi; Panther or Panthera was a byname of Greek origin), a brother of Matthat (Lk 3). Her grandfather was bar-Panther, a cousin of Heli. Following the modified theory of Julius Africanus, her father Joachim was thus a cousin of Joseph, the (biological) son of Heli. (The text used by John, Julius Africanus, Irenaeus, Ambrose, and Gregory of Nazianzus has Melchi, not Matthat; the two generations separating Heli from Melchi being omitted. The correct name, however, would be Matthat.) It is difficult to have much confidence in such a late tradition, but it does not contradict any biblical data or any earlier line of tradition.
At any rate, this tradition presents Mary as descending from David through Nathan on her father’s side. Thus, Luke’s genealogy does represent a large portion of Mary’s ancestry after all.
Tradition further has it that Joachim was a shepherd from Nazareth who by custom gave away much of his flock every year to the Temple and to the poor. One tradition known to the Coptic Church has Mary born after Joachim and Anna had been married six years. The prevalent tradition, however, asserts that Joachim and Anna were quite old and had all but given up on ever having children. Mary was conceived in answer to their prayers for a child. If Joachim and Anna were in their fifties when Mary was born, their own birth dates would fall ca. 78–68 BC.
There is a much less reliable tradition that makes Joseph of Arimathea a paternal uncle of Mary. This would make him a son of bar-Panther and a brother of Joachim. According to this tradition, Joseph was an early missionary to the British Isles, where his daughter Enygeus (or Anna) married into a British royal family. As appealing as this theory might be especially for those with British roots, it is highly unlikely. In fact, I feel confident in flatly rejecting the very possibility. There is no attestation for this genealogy before the Dark Ages. And if, as tradition states, Joachim was an old man when Mary was born, even a younger brother would have been extremely old by the earliest years of the Christian movement.
Mary’s Maternal Line. The Protevangelium of James (ca. 150), a document granted great authority in the Eastern churches, names Mary’s mother Anna. Other early traditions depict Mary as of priestly lineage through her mother. The lines of David and Aaron occasionally intermarried even in biblical times. Jehosheba, a daughter of King Jehoram of Judah, married Jehoiada the high priest (2 Kgs 11:2-4). Their daughter, Jehoadda, married King Joash of Judah (2 Kgs 14:2). King Uzziah of Judah was married to Jerushah, daughter of High Priest Zadok II (2 Kgs 15:33).
In later Coptic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary’s grandfather was a priest named Nathan (or perhaps Matthan, but this may be the result of confusion with the Matthat in Luke’s genealogy). Nathan had three daughters: Mary, who became the mother of Salome (Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25), Soba (or Sovin, or Sophia, or Zoia), who became the mother of Elizabeth, and Anna who became the mother of Mary.
This tradition, if true, would explain how Mary’s relative Elizabeth can be a descendant of Aaron (Lk 1:5). Furthermore, if Salome (Mk 15:40) is equated with “[Jesus'] mother’s sister” (Jn 19:25), and “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:56), it provides an explanation for the curious fact that John, seemingly an obscure fisherman from Galilee, was “known to the high priest” (Jn 19:15): his mother came from a priestly family and his uncle was the priest Zechariah!