Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve set out the genealogies at the end of this post but I think anyone interested in reading this post will already be aware of the differences between the family trees of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s genealogy looks “right” since it leads to Jesus through David and his son Solomon. But Luke’s looks odd. No Solomon. None of the famous kings of the Old Testament. It’s as if Luke followed the family line of Jesus through the back doors and side alleys or secret closets on the trail of some nobodies. David’s son is named as Nathan. The only Nathan most of us know about is Nathan the prophet who confronted David over his murder of Uriah and adultery with his wife.

An interesting explanation for this oddity in the Gospel of Luke is offered by Marshall D. Johnson in The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies (2nd ed, 2002).

Before we look at that explanation we need to note the evidence for the genealogy being “less than reliable” as a historical record.

[I]s this list a Lukan construction, or was it shaped in some prior tradition which Luke has incorporated? And, if the latter is true, then to what extent can we expect to find here a congruity with Luke’s purpose in writing the history of Jesus and the earliest church? . . . [I]t cannot be assumed that the lists as we have them in Matthew and Luke were taken over without modification or redaction from the Palestinian Jewish-Christian church.

There are two indications which seem to support this view:

(1) Repetition of names in the list after David, some of which appear to be anachronisms, possibly suggesting that this list had its own history. Among these repetitions are: variations of Mattathias (five times), Jesus (twice), Joseph (three times), Simeon (Semein), Levi (twice), and Melchi (twice). The question of anachronism enters the picture here in light of the history of the usage of Jewish personal names. Jeremias points out that the use of the names of the twelve patriarchs of Israel as personal names cannot be traced to pre-exilic times; thus, ‘when Luke, in the early period of the kings, names in succession Joseph, Judah, Simeon, and Levi as the sixth to ninth descendants of David, it is an anachronism which proves the pre-exilic section of the genealogy to be historically worthless’.1

1 Jeremias, Jerusalem, pp. 330-1, notes that the first occurrences of the names Joseph, Judah, and Simeon as personal names among the Israelites or Jews are to be found in Ezra, Nehemiah, and I Chronicles, while the name Levi occurs as a personal name first among the Maccabees and in NT times.

Material since published in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum has tended to confirm the view that these names, together with the name Jesus (Joshua), were not commonly used among the Jews until the Ptolemaic and especially the Roman periods. It appears that there was a steady increase in the use of Hebrew biblical names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman periods, including the names Joseph and Jesus.

Thus, the Lukan list most probably does not derive from an actual genealogy of Joseph or Mary, but should be considered in light of the generally midrashic use of this Gattung in Judaism. This means that it is legitimate to inquire into the purposes for which it was constructed and for its inclusion in this gospel.

(pp. 230f, my formatting)

In the list below I have underlined the repeated names and coloured red the sequence of four anachronisms.

The second indication that the list has been shaped by the author of the gospel is it’s unusual location in between the baptism of Jesus and his temptation in the wilderness:

(2) The genealogy is incorporated into a framework similar to that of Mark, that is, between the account of Jesus’ baptism and his temptation. This is to say that Luke was not led to include the genealogy at this point merely because of a sequence found in his sources. Moreover, the break in the ‘Markan’ sequence at this crucial point would seem to suggest that Luke had some specific purpose in mind for the genealogy as well as for its position. (p. 231)

So why Nathan? 

The reason Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Nathan, Marshall Johnson argues, is to emphasize the prophetic nature of Jesus’ ministry and the prophetic mission of the church arising from his work. Nathan was traditionally known as a prophet of notable significance.

That’s his conclusion. So what is his argument to support it?

Marshall Johnson begins by exploring references to Nathan in early Jewish and Christian traditions. He cites four passages:

1. Zechariah 12:10-14

10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born. 11 On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rim′mon in the plain of Megid′do. 12 The land shall mourn, each family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; 13 the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shim′e-ites by itself, and their wives by themselves; 14 and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves.

All four names appear in the pre-exilic section of Luke’s genealogy of Jesus.

In a later rabbinic Aramaic version of the above Zechariah passage, the Targum on Zechariah, Nathan is identified as both the son of David and the prophet.

But that’s a late document, so is there any evidence that such an identification had an earlier provenance?

2. Africanus’ Letter to Aristides

For Africanus (ca 160 – ca 240), see his Wikipedia entry. For the letter to Aristides, see the translation on the New Advent page. In the first paragraph we see the author assuming that his readers well understood the Nathan in Luke’s genealogy was the prophet:

And for this reason the one traced the pedigree of Jacob the father of Joseph from David through Solomon; the other traced that of Heli also, though in a different way, the father of Joseph, from Nathan the son of David. And they ought not indeed to have been ignorant that both orders of the ancestors enumerated are the generation of David, the royal tribe of Juda. For if Nathan was a prophet, so also was Solomon, and so too the father of both of them . . .

Nathan’s prophetic status is taken for granted; the author is writing with the assumption that his readers took this identity as a given.

This passage indicates to us that as early as the second century the Nathan in Luke’s genealogy was acknowledged to have been the prophet.

3. Eusebius’ Questiones Evangelicae ad Stephanum, III.2

Marshall Johnson’s translation:

For differing opinions concerning the Messiah prevail among the Jews though all agree in leading [the pedigree] up to David, because of the promise of God to David. But yet some are persuaded that the Messiah will come from David and Solomon and the royal line while others eschew this opinion because serious accusation was levelled against the kings and because Jeconiah was denounced by the prophet Jeremiah and because it was said that no seed from him [Jeconiah] should arise to sit on the throne of David. For these reasons, therefore, they go another way, agreeing [with the descent] from David; not however, through Solomon but rather through Nathan, who was a child (παῖς) of David (they say that Nathan also prophesied, according to what is said in the books of Kings). They are certain that the Messiah would come forth from the successors of Nathan and trace the ancestry of Joseph from that point. Therefore, Luke, necessarily taking account of their opinion — though it was not his own — added to his account the ὡς ἐνομίζετο [=as was supposed]. In doing this he allowed Matthew to relate [the matter], not on the basis of supposition but as having the truth in the matters of genealogy. This, then, is the first reply [to Stephanus]. (p. 244)

Once again Nathan’s prophetic role “is introduced as a more or less traditional point of view in some circles.” (Eusebius is saying that Luke merely recorded the opinion of some others concerning Jesus’ line of descent from David and that it was not his own view. The dispute of some arose over the curse on the royal line in the time of Jeremiah when it was said Jeconiah was to have no more heirs.)

4. The Apocalypse of Zerubbabel

Once again we meet the Book of Zerubbabel (previous discussion here). It’s a late work, but we’ll be patient with Johnson and continue to follow his argument.

As we saw earlier, the book claims that the messiah was born at the time of David but remains hidden (disguised as a destitute vagabond) until the time comes for him to be revealed to the world. This messiah’s name was Menaham son of Amiel, but the interesting detail for our purposes is that his mother was Hephzibah, ‘the wife of Nathan the prophet’. The two passages are:

Hephzibah, the wife of Nathan the prophet, the mother of Menahem son of Amiel, will go out with the staff that the Lord God of Israel gave her. . . . 

On the sixth of the week Hephzibah, the wife of Nathan the prophet, who was born in Hebron, will come and kill the two kings Nof and Esrogan.  In that year Menahem son of Amiel, the root of Jesse, will come forth. . . . 

Marshall Johnson clarifies the relationship with the following diagram:

Once again, the identification of David’s son Nathan with the prophet of the same name is not labored or supported by argument but rather assumed. (p. 245)

How could such a tradition arise in the first place?

Indications are, then, that there was a Jewish tradition (at least among a minority of Jewish scribes) that David’s son Nathan was a prophet and that the messiah was to descend through his family line.

But in order to accept the existence of such a Jewish tradition it would help if we could find an explanation for the origin of such a viewpoint.

At 2000 words this post is long enough so I’ll continue with that explanation in the next post.


Matthew 1:6-16
— from David to Jesus
Luke 3:23-31
— from Jesus back to David
And David was the father of Solomon …
and Solomon the father of Rehobo′am, and Rehobo′am the father of Abi′jah,

and Abi′jah the father of Asa,

and Asa the father of Jehosh′aphat,

and Jehosh′aphat the father of Joram,

and Joram the father of Uzzi′ah,

and Uzzi′ah the father of Jotham,

and Jotham the father of Ahaz,

and Ahaz the father of Hezeki′ah,

and Hezeki′ah the father of Manas′seh,

and Manas′seh the father of Amos,

and Amos the father of Josi′ah,

and Josi′ah the father of Jechoni′ah

. . . Jechoni′ah was the father of She-al′ti-el,

and She-al′ti-el the father of Zerub′babel,

and Zerub′babel the father of Abi′ud,

and Abi′ud the father of Eli′akim,

and Eli′akim the father of Azor,

and Azor the father of Zadok,

and Zadok the father of Achim,

and Achim the father of Eli′ud,

and Eli′ud the father of Elea′zar,

and Elea′zar the father of Matthan,

and Matthan the father of Jacob,

and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus . . .

Jesus, . . . being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph,

the son of Heli,

the son of Matthat,

the son of Levi,

the son of Melchi,

the son of Jan′na-i,

the son of Joseph,

the son of Mattathi′as,

the son of Amos,

the son of Nahum,

the son of Esli,

the son of Nag′ga-i,

the son of Ma′ath,

the son of Mattathi′as,

the son of Sem′e-in,

the son of Josech,

the son of Joda,

the son of Jo-an′an,

the son of Rhesa,

the son of Zerub′babel,

the son of She-al′ti-el,

the son of Neri,

the son of Melchi,

the son of Addi,

the son of Cosam,

the son of Elma′dam,

the son of Er,

the son of Joshua,

the son of Elie′zer,

the son of Jorim,

the son of Matthat,

the son of Levi,

the son of Simeon,

the son of Judah,

the son of Joseph,

the son of Jonam,

the son of Eli′akim,

the son of Me′le-a,

the son of Menna,

the son of Mat′tatha,

the son of Nathan, the son of David,


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?”

  1. I believe the book of Jeremiah states that the messiah will not/cannot come from the line of Solomon. Could be the book of Ezekiel, though. It has been awhile since I read or thought about it.

    1. You are thinking of the curse on Jeconiah in Jeremiah 22:

      24 “As I live, says the Lord, though Coni′ah the son of Jehoi′akim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hand of Nebuchadrez′zar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chalde′ans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return.

      28 Is this man Coni′ah a despised, broken pot,
      a vessel no one cares for?
      Why are he and his children hurled and cast
      into a land which they do not know?
      29 O land, land, land,
      hear the word of the Lord!
      30 Thus says the Lord:
      “Write this man down as childless,
      a man who shall not succeed in his days;
      for none of his offspring shall succeed
      in sitting on the throne of David,
      and ruling again in Judah.”

      Yes, that this passage, standing in apparent opposition to the promise that David’s line was to continue forever, prompted some debate among the literate classes is part of the argument.

    1. Marshall Johnson also addresses far more than the Nathan element of the genealogy in Luke. But I decided to limit my focus to just one point and cover that one point in depth.

  2. “Material since published in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum has tended to confirm the view that these names, together with the name Jesus (Joshua), were not commonly used among the Jews until the Ptolemaic and especially the Roman periods. It appears that there was a steady increase in the use of Hebrew biblical names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman periods, including the names Joseph and Jesus.”

    That is interesting. A similar thing crops up in sub-Roman Britain, two bursts of people being called ‘Arthur’. The first burst argued to be the legendary king or his prototype and the second from a later sixth century local leader. This increasing proliferation of ‘Biblical’ names from the Ptolemaic period on rather supports Russel Gmirkin’s theory of the Tanakh’s origins. Has this come up in his work, do you know?

  3. The Messiah is to come by seed of the woman the genealogy of Luke is Mary s Genesis 3:15 . The genealogy in Mathew is Joseph’s . Mary’s from Nathan David’s son .Joseph’s from Solomon David’s son

    1. the genealogy of Luke is Mary s Genesis 3:15 . The genealogy in Mathew is Joseph’s .

      That’s the claim that apologists have been trying to convince themselves to believe ever since Tertullian, but it’s not what the Bible itself says. Gotta read the Word, not what “man says” the word says.

        1. While we’re at it, has anyone seriously suggested that Joseph was a human chimera? It’s an insanely wild reach, of course, but it would also totally resolve the contradiction.

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