Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon?
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by Neil Godfrey
Filed under: Biblical Studies, New Testament
Tags: Gospel of Luke
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?