Genealogy of Jesus: Was He a Son of David?
Key objections to Jesus as a descendent of David
The New Testament claims that Jesus was son of David — a key requirement of the Messiah. This is high on the list of objections to Christianity.
Rabbi Michael Skobac (Jews for Judaism), Rabbi Tovia Singer (Outreach Judaism), and others raise several issues (echoed by atheists) on the genealogy of Jesus:
- Jesus was not from the bloodline of Joseph
- Adoption did not exist in the Bible
- The Messiah could not come from the line of Jeconiah (an ancestor of Joseph)
Differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus will be discussed in the next article in this series.
Son of David in the New Testament
Romans 1:3–4 was the earliest written document stating that Jesus was the son of David — just over 20 years after Jesus’ death. He is also called son of David in the gospels, the book of Acts, and Revelation.
Evidence of any serious debate in the first century — that Jesus was not from the line of David — is lacking. For example, Matthew’s gospel is unconcerned that the genealogy of Jesus is traced through the line of Joseph (his ‘adopted’ father).
First Century Palestine and beyond
Genealogical records were publicly available in first century Palestine. For example, Josephus (c. 37–100 CE) stated:
Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family as I have found it described in the public records, and so bid adieu to those who calumniate me [as of a lower original]. (Life of Flavius Josephus, Chapter 1)
Jews famously took genealogies seriously. The Babylonian Talmud records that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (c. 135–217 CE) consulted his family genealogical records and found he was a descendant of David.
Written records of the Reish Galuta (“exilarch” or “head of the exiles”) continued to the 10th century and beyond. The Reish Galuta were, according to Jewish tradition, direct descendants of Jeconiah and therefore from the line of David.
Given the availability of these records in the first century and beyond— there is little reason to question the historicity of the New Testament claim that Jesus was a son of David. Fake genealogies would be far too easy to discredit.
Tribal affiliation through the father (patrilineal descent)
Therefore, the burden is on critics of the gospels to justify why they doubt Jesus’ descent from David. Rabbi Singer thinks he is equal to the task:
Jesus was born of a virgin and would therefore be unable to claim the rights to the Davidic line because tribal lineage is traced exclusively through a person’s father. This is clearly articulated [in] the Torah:
And on the first day of the second month, they assembled the whole congregation together, who registered themselves by families, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names from twenty years old and upward, head by head. (Numbers 1:18)
Few would disagree that tribal descent in Israel was largely patrilineal. However, Rabbi Singer draws a stronger conclusion: ‘tribal lineage is traced exclusively through a person’s father’ (bold added). Therefore, if this is true, Jesus cannot trace his lineage to David.
To assess this claim, we should consider Numbers 1:18 in its context. Is the main point of the passage to establish the principle of patrilineal descent? No, it is describing a census of fighting men in Israel:
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, יהוה spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:1–3, Contemporary Torah, Jewish Publication Society (JPS))
It is far from certain that we can extrapolate from a military census that tribal identity was exclusively through the father’s line in Biblical times.
Exceptions to patrilineal descent in the Bible?
Exclusive claims are refuted by a single counter example. Caleb Friedeman’s article in New Testament Studies provides several examples from the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature.
The appearance of the Egyptian slave Jarha in the Judahite genealogy is an interesting case (1 Chronicles 2:35–41). He marries Sheshan’s daughter and they have a son (Attai) who is included as a descendant in the tribe of Judah. Presumably either Jarha and/or Attai are adopted into the line of Sheshan.
Ezra 2:61 also speaks of Barzillai “a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name” (NIV). This verse suggests adoption into the line of Barzillai the Gileadite (as his original descent from a priestly line was no longer valid).
A further example is Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Genesis 15:2–3). When Abraham was childless, Eliezer was his heir, despite Lot being a blood relative. It is therefore likely Abraham adopted Eliezer. This is a common Near Eastern practice, where a servant is adopted and remains the heir unless a natural child is born later.
The curse of Jeconiah
Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) was a king of Judah, “who did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” (2 Kings 24:9, NIV) The prophet Jeremiah declared God’s judgment on his line:
As I live — declares the LORD — [Coniah (Jeconiah in 24.1) is identical with Jehoiachin, 2 Kings 24.8 ff.] if you, O King Coniah, son of Jehoiakim, of Judah, were a signet on my right hand, I would tear you off even from there…
Thus said the LORD:
Record this man as without succession,
One who shall never be found acceptable;
For no man of his offspring shall be accepted
To sit on the throne of David
And to rule again in Judah.(Jeremiah 22:24-30, JPS 1985)
Since Jesus is from the line of Jeconiah he cannot ‘sit on the throne of David’ — a phrase commonly used to describe the Messiah.
However, there is good reason to conclude this curse on Jeconiah’s line was reversed (Haggai 2). The prophet Haggai drew an explicit contrast between Jeconiah (the signet ring torn off of God’s hand, Jeremiah 22:24) and Zerubbabel (his grandson):
On that day — declares the LORD of Hosts — I will take you, O My servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel — declares the LORD — and make you as a signet; [I.e., bring you close to Me; contrast Jer. 22.24–30] for I have chosen you — declares the LORD of Hosts. (Haggai 2:23, JPS 1985)
Does the curse remain?
However, Rabbi Singer disputes that this demonstrates the curse of Jeconiah was reversed — since Zerubbabel never became king.
The difficulty for Tovia Singer is that his interpretation contradicts the plain meaning of the text. He makes no reference to the parallel use of signet ring in Haggai 2:23 and Jeremiah 22:24 that contrasts the acceptance of Zerubbabel with the previous rejection of Jeconiah.
Anticipating an objection, is this just an argument made by apologists to defend Jesus’ genealogy? Not at all. This same point is made by Rashi — the most influential and widely read Jewish commentator:
and I will make you as a signet In contrast to what was decreed upon his father Jeconiah (Jer. 22: 24): “As I live, says the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, be a signet on My right hand, from there I will remove you.” [Jeremiah further] states there (ibid. 22:30): “Inscribe this man childless.” We learn that his repentance availed [Jeconiah], and Zerubbabel was born to him, and he was made as a signet.
This view is shared by most leading commentators of Jewish tradition — including RaDaK and Rabbi David Altschuler. For example, according to Metzudad David, Haggai 2:23 stated the seed of Zerubbabel will be King Messiah.
Criticisms raised by Rabbi Singer and others have a surface level appeal. But on closer examination, they lack historical and Biblical warrant.
Jesus’ genealogy — like all Jews of Palestine in the first century — was publicly available to check. To make false claims that Jesus was a son of David (a requirement of the Messiah) would be easy to debunk. Current arguments are therefore insufficient to challenge the historical reliability of Jesus’ genealogy.