Jesus Christ, Son of David

by John P. Pratt
15 Feb 2017, 1 Flint (SR), 1 Fulness (Mars), 1 Late Winter (Enoch)

©2017 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

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Early Christians understood the genealogies of Christ by Matthew and Luke to be the biological and legal lines, showing how Christ was both the "Only Begotten" of the Father and yet also the "son of David".

An important qualification of the prophesied Messiah was that He would be the "son of" King David (Mark 12:35). The very first sentence of the New Testament assures us that Jesus Christ was indeed the "son of David" (Matt. 1:1), which appellation was often used to refer to Him. The entire Book of Matthew is an attempt to convince the reader that Jesus was indeed the Messiah by showing how He fulfilled so many prophecies. Matthew began by showing his understanding of how Jesus was the son of King David.

Some confusion arises when the genealogy of Christ in Matthew is compared to that given in Luke. The two genealogies are so diverse that the one in Matthew shows Christ as a descendant of King Solomon, son of David (Matt. 1:6), whereas that in Luke shows Christ as a descendant of Solomon's brother Nathan (Luke 3:31). How is such an apparent discrepancy to be understood?

Many Bible commentaries suggest that one of the two genealogies might be that of the Virgin Mary.[1] That seems speculative because no ancient references are given to support that conjecture. More importantly, both of the genealogies claim to be of her husband Joseph.

How did the early Christians resolve this question? What was their understanding?

How Jesus could be both the "Only Begotten" of the Father yet also the "son of" David.
A clear but complicated answer is provided by the early Church historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. His history dates to about AD 320, but he quotes more ancient sources. In this case his explanation comes partly from Julius Africanus whose history dates back to about AD 220.

The explanation presented by Eusebius is based on the simple concept that Matthew traces the biological line using the word "begat", whereas Luke lists the legal line, using the terminology "son of".[2] That has also been suggested by modern writers, but often without ancient support. When one considers the details provided by Eusebius, the basis of the claim becomes much more compelling.

The split of the ancestral lines to Solomon and Nathan occurs immediately, with two different men being listed as father of Joseph. Eusebius explains that a man named Eli who descended from Nathan died before having any children. He had a half-brother named Jacob who descended from the line of Solomon. Jacob married Eli's widow to raise up seed to Eli according to the law of Moses (Deut. 25:5-6). Thus, the biological father of Joseph was Jacob, but legally Eli was the father of Joseph.

So how did it happen that two half-brothers descended from different sons of David? That question is answered by going back one more generation. Jacob was the son of a descendant of Solomon named Matthan and his wife Estha, according to Eusebius. After Matthan died she remarried Melchi, who was descended from Nathan, and to them was born Eli. Hence, Eli and Jacob were half-brothers, having the same mother, but descended from different sons of David.

The detailed relationships described by Eusebius[3] are shown in the illustration. The red lines show the "begat" biological lines when they differ from the black "son of" legal lines. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, the difference between the words for "begat" and "son of" was probably easily understood, yet the complicated relationships still needed explaining. That explanation resolves the major question about the two genealogies.[4]

One question which often arises is, "What about Mary's genealogy? Jesus wasn't really the offspring of Joseph, so isn't it really her genealogy which must go back to David?"

The strongest answer to that question is probably given by both Matthew and Luke in what they did not say. They both present genealogies of Joseph for proof of Christ being the son of David. They are fully aware that Jesus is the "Only Begotten" of the Father and their books are written to convince readers that Jesus was the Messiah. For example, Luke begins his genealogy with "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23). Clearly by including "as was supposed" Luke is implying that he does not believe that Jesus was really the offspring of Joseph and yet he nevertheless lists Jesus as the "son of Joseph". If Jesus was not the "son of Joseph", wouldn't that nullify everything which follows in the genealogy? Yes, but legally, Jesus was indeed the "son of Joseph" and that is what Luke is listing. Look at the very next entry: he lists Joseph as the son of Eli (Heli in Greek), but Eli died childless according to Eusebius! Luke is apparently only concerned that Jesus was legally a son of David.[5]

Consider also how Luke introduces both Mary and Joseph:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. — Luke 1:26-27.
Note that the first thing we are told about Joseph is that he is of the House of David. That does not imply that Joseph was a direct biological descendant of David, but only that he was legally of the House of David. That prepares the reader to understand what was meant when the angel Gabriel told Mary that her son would be given the throne of David (Luke 1:32). In other words, it was not needed for us to know anything about her genealogy to understand how those words could be fulfilled.

Moreover, we are told absolutely nothing in the gospels about the lineage of Mary except that she is Elizabeth's "cousin" (Luke 1:36), which is probably better translated as "relative". Elizabeth was a "daughter of Aaron" (Luke 1:5), married to the priest Zecharias who was also of Levite descent.[6] It is usually understood that at that time the tribes of Israel married only within their own tribe, which means that Mary would most likely have been of the tribe of Judah. That makes the question of just how she was related to Elizabeth even more interesting.

So if it was not necessarily Mary's role to provide a biological connection to David, then just what was her role? The answer was told her by the angel: she was to be the mother of the "Son of the Highest" (Luke 1:32), the mother of the "Only Begotten" Son of God! Another role was to marry Joseph, making her offspring known officially to be of the House of David. Of course, she may well have also been a direct descendant of David, but that was not required to be known.

In conclusion, there is good authority for the claim that Matthew lists the biological line of descent of Jesus Christ using the terminology "begat" and that Luke presents the legal line using "son of".[7] At the end of his ministry, Jesus silenced his hecklers by posing a riddle: "If David call Him [the Messiah] Lord, how then is He his son?" (Matt. 22:45). Now a likely answer seems clear, having been explained by these genealogies with the help of Eusebius. The two lines together testify that Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophetic requirement that the Messiah would be both the "Only Begotten" of Heavenly Father and yet also the son of Joseph and hence the "son of David"!


  1. For example, James Talmage in Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), p. 86, notes that some scholars regard Luke's genealogy to be that of Mary, citing evidence that Jacob and Eli were brothers and speculating that Joseph and Mary were their children, and hence cousins. There are two problems with that conjecture: both genealogies claim to be that of Joseph and other records cited in this article declare that Eli died childless.
  2. Actually, the English word "son" is only implied in the Greek usage: "Jesus of Joseph". Still, the meaning is clear in Greek so the word "son" was inserted by translators for clarity.
  3. See Boyle, Isaac, trans., The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989). Eusebius states, "Matthan and Melchi, having married in succession the same woman, had children, who were brothers by the same mother, as the law did not prohibit a widow, whether she became such by divorce, or by the death of her husband, to marry again. Matthan, therefore, who traces his lineage from Solomon, first had Jacob by Estha, for this is her name as handed down by tradition. Matthan dying, and Melchi, who traces his descent from Nathan, though he was of the same tribe, but of another family, having, as before said, married her, had a son Eli.... Of these, the one Jacob, on the death of his brother, marrying his widow, became the father of a third, viz., Joseph.... Wherefore it is written Jacob begat Joseph. But according to the law he was the son of Eli" (p.33). Eusebius quotes Africanus thus, "Matthan, whose descent is traced to Solomon, begat Jacob. Matthan dying, Melchi, whose lineage is from Nathan, by marrying the widow of the former, had Eli. Hence Eli and Jacob were brothers by the same mother. Eli dying childless, Jacob raised up seed to him, having Joseph, according to nature belonging to himself, but by the law to Eli." (p. 35).
  4. There still remains at least one discrepancy. The Book of Luke includes two generations between Eli and Melchi, stating that Eli "was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi" (Luke 3:24). Eusebius and Africanus omit Matthat and Levi and offer no explanation. One solution to that problem is that perhaps those two extra names were indeed not in their copies of Luke. If so, then how did they get into later copies? It happens that those exact words "which was the son of Matthat which was the son of Levi" are also found later in Luke's genealogy (Luke 3:29). Perhaps a scribe lost his place and inadvertently inserted them between Eli and Melchi. Another possibility is that Eli was indeed the son of Matthat as listed in Luke and that it was Africanus who lost his place in the list. If so, then the illustration above could be corrected by placing the name "Matthat" in the chart wherever the name "Melchi" now appears. This option seems less likely because it would require that Eusebius, a meticulous historian, did not even check with the Book of Luke to verify the claim of Africanus.
  5. Thus, it now appears that it is Luke's genealogy which really is the one needed for the proof the Jesus is a son of Joseph and hence also a son of David. That does not work for Matthew's because Jesus was not begotten by Joseph, so that breaks the chain of "begats".
  6. The priestly tribe of Levi was separate from Judah. Levites had no land of inheritance but lived among all of the tribes. At this time only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were left in Judea, with Benjamin mostly located in Galilee.
  7. Note that Luke's list continues all the way to assert that Adam was the "son of God" (Luke 3:38), meaning that Adam was legally in the family of God. Thus, Luke shows not only that Jesus is the son of David, but also the son of Abraham, the son of Adam and the son of God.