During discourse on religion, nonbelievers generally acknowledge that criticism of character doesn’t prove fictionality.
In other words, showing that the Judeo-Christian god is a monster because he murders innocent people for the crimes of others, commands his followers to commit genocide against women and children, orders the execution of nonbelievers, non-virgins, and homosexuals, or simply lies to people (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible) does not mean he does not exist. Showing God is an evil madman because he crafts a divine plan in which one age calls for followers to destroy their neighbors and the next calls for them to love their neighbors (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New) does not mean he’s complete fiction.
A deity could exist but simply be violent, morally inept, or unpleasant. Or, from the perspective of the religious, God could use violence and oppression out of “love” for his favored creations, wiping out civilizations so the Jews could get their land or destroying sinners so others would be scared straight.
Now, there are many sensible reasons to suppose the Judeo-Christian god, like so many others, is a man-made fiction, but they are not addressed here. Instead, our attention must turn to the common claims that the Bible has never been changed over time by various scribes nor contains internal contradictions.
Showing that it has and does will of course not disprove God either (just as showing changes to or contradictions in Homer’s works will not disprove the Greek gods). It could be a deity exists that does not mind flawed or edited scriptures. Yet showing such common claims are demonstrably false is valuable in itself, because the truth seems important to most people.
The Bible’s internal contradictions vary in their degree of debatability.
Take for example Genesis 6:3, where God says to himself, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Yet in Genesis 9:29, Noah dies at the ripe old age of 950. Other characters live for many centuries after this as well. Though this is strange, perhaps we can say God changed his mind (if that is even possible for a being that knows the future), only meant average people and not special folks like Noah, or was actually speaking of how many years remained before the flood that destroyed humanity.
When God says “And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female” in Genesis 6:19, but then says “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate” in Genesis 7:2-3, was he changing his mind? Or was he simply clarifying, in that all creatures would have at least one pair, but some special ones would have more?
Sometimes reimagining the timing of events can help fix contradictions. (For a deep dive into one such example, see The Nativity Stories in Luke and Matthew Aren’t Contradictory — But the Differences Are Bizarre.) Why would Matthew 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-17, and Luke 22:7-14 explicitly state that Jesus and the 12 ate the Passover the evening before he was killed, but the pharisees in John 18:28, when Jesus is being convicted and murdered, be thinking of eating the Passover that evening — indicating it hasn’t happened yet? John 19:14 stresses the point: the crucifixion occurs on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” — the Passover meal is coming up. (Mark 15:42 mentions a day of preparation, but for the Sabbath, something different that occurs each week.) John 13:1 has a last supper, but it isn’t described as the Passover. So which is it, was Jesus killed after Passover or before? Well, one can imagine Jesus simply broke tradition and ate his own private Passover a day early (on the evening the Day of Preparation begins rather than on the evening it ends, when Jews were supposed to, for those of you who know how Jewish days worked). Jesus knew he would be killed the next day, after all, and wouldn’t get to eat the Passover on the appropriate evening. The first three gospels never indicate this is an early, non-traditional Passover, they simply say it was the Passover meal. The last supper in John is described as “just before” the Passover festival, but isn’t called the Passover at all. Still, the gospels never say it wasn’t an early Passover meal, so why not assume it was to avoid contradiction? People say the Bible has never been changed, but we can change it in our heads.
It has been pointed out, we should note, that placing the crucifixion before the Passover neatly makes Jesus the symbolic, sacrificial lamb — lambs were killed on the Day of Preparation, after noon. John is the only gospel to refer to Jesus as the “lamb of God” and also the gospel that moved up the execution to before Passover (Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman).
Now, consider who went to Jesus’ tomb with Mary Magdalene. Is Mary Magdalene seemingly alone (as in John 20:1), with “the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1), with the other Mary and Salome (Mark 16:1-2), or with Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “the other women” (Luke 24:10)? Are these conflicting accounts? Or do some authors just not bother to mention some of the folks with Mary Magdalene? Likewise, it’s interesting that while both Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem and then settle down in Nazareth, the two stories are dramatically different, in that neither mentions the events of the other. King Herod kills children and Jesus flees to Egypt in Matthew, but Luke doesn’t bother mentioning either. Luke has the ludicrous census (everyone in the Roman Empire returning to the city of their distant ancestors, creating mass chaos, when the point of a census is to see where people live currently), the full inn, and the manger, but Matthew doesn’t. The family seems to move to Nazareth from Egypt in Matthew (2:8-23), after Herod dies, but in Luke (2:16-39) the move to Nazareth appears to occur just after the family visit to Jerusalem, which took place after Jesus was thirty-three days old (see Leviticus 12, which outlines the rituals conducted in Luke), no flight to Egypt mentioned. These stories can be jammed together into a mega-narrative successfully, but it takes some work. Other musings should be made concerning who buried Jesus. Was it Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin council, seemingly alone (Mark 15:43-46)? Did Nicodemus, also a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1) help him (John 19:39-40)? Or was it seemingly the Sanhedrin as a whole (Acts 13:27-29), even though “all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death” (Mark 14:55)? Why would they all help bury him if they were the ones who pushed Pilate to kill him?
And what of the incident in the temple-turned-market? While Matthew (21:12-13) and Mark (11:15-17) have Jesus driving the merchants from the temple at the end of his ministry, John has it at the beginning (2:15-16), right after Jesus’ very first miracle! The stories are clearly the same: he overturns the tables of the money changers and dove sellers, then says, “It is written…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers'” (Matthew, Mark) or “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John). Are we to believe the same incident happened twice? And each author ignored one of them? Or does temporal sequence really not matter at all?
Next look at Matthew 16:24-28, when Jesus, after describing returning with his angels and rewarding all according to his or her deeds, says to the people with him, “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (The same is promised in Mark 8:38-9:1 and 13:24-30, with the same context of “after that tribulation” when the “stars will be falling from heaven” with “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”) This very much sounds like the Last Judgement discussed in Revelation, when Jesus will be “coming with the clouds” (1:7), the “armies of heaven” (19:14) with him, but also his “reward,” to “give to each person according to what they have done” (22:12-13).
Yet the people Jesus spoke to are all dead.
They tasted death before the Last Judgement. (The myth of the Wandering Jew, someone from Jesus’ time who is still alive today and will be until Jesus’ return, arose in the Middle Ages to “fix” this problem.) But we shall keep an open mind. Perhaps Jesus changed his mind or was speaking about his crucifixion and resurrection as many believers insist, despite blatant references and similarities to the Last Judgement story.
Consider another example. Although we are assured that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:16-18), we are also assured God can in fact “deceive” people (Ezekiel 14:9, Ezekiel 20:25-26), even that “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11-12). So is it possible for God to “deceive” and “delude” people, but not “lie” to them? Perhaps a believer would insist a lie has to be spoken, whereas a deception or delusion doesn’t, so there is no contradiction. But others would say that because a lie is a deception, and God is capable of deception, that it is possible for God to lie — meaning this is a contradiction.
Excuses become a bit harder to create with other verses.
Mark 15:37-38: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!'”
Matthew 27:50-52: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”
Both describe the same event: the temple curtain is torn in two when Jesus dies.
Now to Luke 23:44-46:
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
In Luke, the temple curtain is torn before Jesus dies. There is even enough time for Jesus to say his final words in between.
Believers may shrug this off (“What difference does it make?”), but this is precisely what nonbelievers mean when we talk about internal contradictions. Both stories cannot be true — unless we suppose the Bible breaks out of chronological patterns at our convenience (so Luke is accurate, and Mark and Matthew align neatly because “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” refers to an event before Jesus breathes his last, even though it’s positioned after, alongside other events that do happen after, such as an earthquake). In this effort, the word “then” is simply ignored as meaningless.
Other contradictions have even less wiggle room.
- Matthew 8:5, Luke 7:3, and Luke 7:6 are confused as whether the centurion found Jesus himself or if he sent elders (or “friends”).
- In Matthew 27:3-8, Judas hangs himself; in Acts 1:16-19 he falls headlong and his body bursts, spewing his bowels on the ground.
- In Matthew 27:3-10, the chief priests buy a field (the Field of Blood) with the blood money Judas returned to them; in Acts 1:16-19, Judas himself bought the Field of Blood with the blood money, which he kept.
- Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26 tell the story of a synagogue leader (named Jairus in Mark) who comes to Jesus begging him to heal his daughter. Jesus goes with the man, but is interrupted by a woman, who has suffered from bleeding for 12 years, touching Jesus’ clothing to heal herself. The woman is magically cured, and Jesus continues on and raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. But in Mark, Jairus says his “daughter is at the point of death” (5:23) to Jesus but is informed when he arrives home that “your daughter is dead” (5:35). But in Matthew, Jairus originally says to Jesus, “My daughter has just died” (9:18). Did Jairus believe his daughter was about to die or already had passed?
- Exodus 33:20 and John 1:18 claim no one has ever seen God and lived, forgetting Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 other people (Exodus 24:9-11), Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden, Hagar (who seems amazed to have “stayed alive here after seeing Him,” Genesis 16:13, NLV), and Abraham (Genesis 18:1-13).
- Matthew 21:12-19 and Mark 11:12-17 can’t agree on whether Jesus cursed a fig tree before driving merchants from the temple or the day after.
- 2 Kings 8:26 says Ahaziah was 22 when he began to reign; some versions of 2 Chronicles 22:2 say 42. (Some Biblical scholars, even those at Ken Ham’s ultraconservative Answers in Genesis, admit this may be a copyist’s error!) Biblical footnotes acknowledge this error:
- 2 Kings 24:8 says Jehoiachim was 18 when he became king; 2 Chronicles 36:9 says he was 8. (This difference has likewise been called a copyist error by Christian groups like Third Millennium Ministries.) This is also described as a mistake in Bible footnotes:
- Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 a.m.), after being convicted by Pilate, mocked, beaten, and made to carry his cross; John 19:14-15 says Jesus wasn’t even convicted by Pilate until the sixth hour (noon). Some apologists insist Mark was using Jewish timekeeping (so the third hour was 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise) and John was using Roman timekeeping (so the sixth hour was actually 6 a.m., six hours after midnight — not noon). Yet two dozen translations of John (NIV, NLT, MSG, etc.) say it was “noon.” Only four say it was “six in the morning” (GW, HCSB, ICB, NOG). Which is it?
- 2 Samuel 6:23 says Michal had no children before she died; 2 Samuel 21:8 says she had five (at least, some versions do; as Answers in Genesis explains, some manuscripts have “Michal” but others have “Merab,” Michal’s sister, which is now widely used in modern Bibles).
- Acts 9:7 says the men with Paul on the road to Damascus heard the sound of the Lord; Acts 22:9 says they did not.
- In Matthew 28:2, the stone of Jesus’ tomb is rolled away by an angel in front of the women who come to visit, during an earthquake; in the other gospels, the stone has already been rolled away when they arrive.
- Matthew 28:2-7 and Mark 16:5 say one angel (Mark actually says “man”) appeared to the women; Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 say it was two (Luke actually says “men”).
- Mark 16:8 says the women said nothing of their experience; in the other gospels they report it immediately.
- In Matthew 28:2-9, Mary does not see Jesus before going back from the tomb to the disciples; in John 20:2-14, she does.
- Jesus first appears to all 11 disciples either on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:5-17) or in a room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-39).
- While Matthew 10 and Mark 3 include Thaddeus in the 12 disciples, he is not mentioned in Luke, John, or Acts (instead, there is a Jude/Judas, son of James, who is not in Matthew or Mark). Also, in John chapter 1, it is implied that a Nathanael joins Christ’s 12. He is not mentioned in the other gospels or Acts.
- In John 13-17, the Last Supper scene, Jesus marvels, saying, “Now I am going to the one who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?'” (John 16:5) right after Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” (13:36) and Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going” (14:5).
- As Moses is trying to free his people from Pharaoh, God’s fifth plague is the “plague on livestock,” during which “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6). But during the seventh plague, the hail, the Egyptians have livestock again: “Those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field” (Exodus 9:21-22). After the hail, the firstborn of the livestock then died in the tenth plague (Exodus 12:29)!
- Deuteronomy 5:1-22 makes clear the 10 Commandments we all know were written on the first stone tablets, the ones Moses later smashed apart (Exodus 20 and 31:18 imply the same). Exodus 34:1-27 makes clear that the new, second tablets have a very different 10 Commandments (“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”). A rewrite isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but Exodus 34:1 says God was going to “write on them the words that were on the first tablets,” as does Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Did God change his mind last-minute?
- In Acts 9:17-27, it very much appears that Paul, after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, spends some time in Damascus and then goes to Jerusalem and meets the apostles. But in Galatians 1:15-20, Paul insists he did not go to Jerusalem for years after his conversion and only met one apostle there. In verse 20, he even insists he is not lying — suggesting some controversy around this issue.
Though the human imagination can conjure explanations for why two stories are radically different (“Judas hung himself, but the rope snapped and his body exploded when he hit the ground”), this doesn’t rule out the possibility that one of the stories, or both, are flawed or fictional.
An easy way to begin this topic is to simply consider the names of biblical characters. Christians don’t want to believe that biblical translations over time altered original stories, but one small way they obviously did was by giving characters altered names. Jesus did not consort with John and James. They were in the Middle East, not an English pub. Instead, Yeshua (ישוע) consorted with Yohhanan (יוחנן) and Ya’akov (יעקב). Hebrew and Aramaic names were translated into Greek and then into English (and other tongues), resulting in names of different pronunciation than were actually used. Mattityahu became Matthaios and finally Matthew. (No, English speakers did not independently have a name like “John” and then “translated” Yohhanan [Hebrew] or Ioannes [Greek] to the pre-existing John, as if there was some magical lingual match or a “Hey, this name sounds a bit like one of ours” situation! Study the etymology of these names. The only reason John existed in English is because over centuries the name Yohhanan, thanks to the bible, spread beyond Palestine, through other parts of Europe, and finally to the English-speaking world, changing along the way.) If something as simple as names and their pronunciations could change from actual people to written text, and then translation to translation, could other things have changed, too?
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) was shocked to discover for himself the story of Christ and the adulteress (“Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”) is not in our oldest copy of John. He says:
The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable: this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.
Likewise, the last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark are missing in our earliest manuscripts. They end with Mary Magdalene and two women finding the empty tomb and meeting an angel who says Jesus has risen from the dead. The earliest texts end with verse 16:8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Perhaps we can give these texts the benefit of the doubt, and suppose they were included but were lost over time — even though many New Testament scholars admit this is probably not the case, and Biblical footnotes are quite open about the issue:
In addition, there’s the Comma Johanneum. While later New Testament texts included an explicit mention of a Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8, earlier texts do not. The Latin Vulgate reads:
These are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.
But earlier Greek manuscripts read:
These are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.
Christian sites like Compelling Truth admit:
The evidence for this longer, more direct statement as part of the original text of 1 John, however, is not strong. Its presence was not known in Greek until manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Even then, most versions are found only in Latin translations. The Greek linguist Erasmus did not include this longer ending in his earlier editions of the Greek New Testament, yet included it in later editions (beginning with the third edition) after pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, some Bibles stick with the original Greek, admitting in footnotes that the later Latin Vulgate speaks of the Trinity but that it’s “not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century”:
In addition, as Ian McEwan notes in “The End of the World Blues,” one of the earliest copies we have of Revelations 13:18, the Oxyrhynchus P115, gives the number of the beast as 616, not 666!
The same is true of a few other younger manuscripts (Codex C/04 from the 1500s, for example). So even while Christian writers point out that many more manuscripts contain 666, they must admit that “two equally old papyri have both readings – 666 and 616” — our two oldest papyri, to be specific, both from the 3rd century. A famous bishop named Irenaeus, writing Against Heresies around 175-185 A.D., even had to argue that 666 was the correct number: “I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one.” Whichever number came first is up for debate (perhaps we can trust Irenaeus had seen the original texts or was incapable of error, though we have zero evidence of this), it doesn’t really matter to our purposes here.
What matters is that someone, at some point, changed something. Bibles with errors existed — and still do.
For more of the thousands of changes enacted accidentally (through translation and copy errors) and intentionally (to serve personal preferences and beliefs, and to try to create a consistent doctrine) by Christian scribes and church leaders, see Misquoting Jesus.
When you read the New Testament you may become suspicious right off the bat regarding changes to the stories. The following is more speculative than what we’ve seen thus far, but interesting to think about. Just as the earliest copies of Mark lack the final 12 verses, the book contains no virgin birth story or claim. Jesus first appears as an adult. It may seem odd that Mark, the earliest gospel, did not mention such an incredible, supernatural origin (nor did Paul’s letters, most written even earlier!). That tale isn’t told until several years later, with the Book of Matthew. Believers typically insist that when a gospel doesn’t mention a miracle, speech, or story it’s because it’s covered in another. (When the gospels tell the same stories it’s “evidence” of validity, when they don’t it’s no big deal.) This line only works from the perspective of a later gospel: Luke was written after Matthew, so it’s fine if Luke doesn’t mention the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus from Herod. Matthew already covered that. But from the viewpoint of an earlier text this begins to break down. It becomes: “No need to mention this miracle, someone else will do that eventually.” So whoever wrote Mark ignored one of the biggest miracles in the life of Jesus, proof of his divine origins? Or did the author, supposedly a disciple, not know about it? Or did gospel writers conspire and coordinate: “You cover this, I’ll cover that later.” Is it just one big miracle, with God ensuring that what was unknown or ignored (for whatever reason, maybe the questionable “writing to different audiences” theory) by one author would eventually make it into a gospel? That will satisfy most believers, but an enormous possibility hasn’t been mentioned. Perhaps the story of Jesus was simply being embellished — expanding over time, like so many other tales and legends (see Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist).
Consider a similar example. The last gospel written, John (90-95 AD), is quite different from Mathew, Mark, and Luke (which are called the synoptic gospels because they are more similar in stories and phrasing — scholars suspect plagiarism). Not only does John contain tales and miracles the earlier authors don’t bother to mention, but Jesus is more clear about who he is. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus says he is the messiah (Christ), the Son of Man, and the Son of God (for example, Mark 14:61-62), but nowhere explicitly claims he is God himself. (This is not to say the gospel writers did not believe Jesus to be God himself — Matthew 1:23 gives Jesus a name meaning “God with us” — but rather this is about changes to the words attributed to Jesus, changes to make him more clear about who he was.) As such terms were applied to others who were not believed to be God (angels in Genesis 6:1-2, for example), scholars debate their meaning; one can at best say Jesus only implied oneness or equality with God. Regardless, all agree John is more explicit. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Jesus refers to himself as “I AM,” the name God called himself with Moses. We know such things were bolder and more explicit because in the gospels the Jews only pick up stones to kill Jesus after he says this in John 8:58-59 — it was more blasphemous. All this raises an obvious question. If Jesus said such bold things (in public, to disciples and observers, not just to John), why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke not bother to include them? Jesus clearly calling himself God is a hugely important statement. The most sensible answer is that the story of Christ was growing more embellished — new words were put in his mouth to clarify once and for all who he was. There were in fact various Christian sects at this time that had different ideas of whether Jesus was God, less than God, just a man, etc. The author of John appears to be joining this debate, and taking a side. See How Jesus Became God, Ehrman.
The scriptures are still changing in substantial ways today, from the English Standard Version making it sound like women are the source of marital conflict to the Christian Standard Bible replacing male-centric language with gender-inclusive language (or “political correctness,” as critics put it). There have also been efforts to make the text less explicitly sexist. For example, most translations of Isaiah 19:16 (NLT, KJV, NASB, ESV, etc.) say that Egyptians will become fearful “like women,” accurately using the original Hebrew word nashim (women), the NIV changes it to “weaklings.” It does the precise same thing with Nahum 3:13.
The places where different translations of the bible substantially change the text are indeed too numerous to list here in full, but one common one is 1 Samuel 6:19, where God either kills 70 people or 50,070 people.
Another is 1 Chronicles 20:3. Some translations have David putting captives “to work with saws” (NRSV), others say David “cut them with saws” (KJV). The psalmist is either instructed by his heart (NIV), his kidneys (JUB) or reins (KJV), or his mind (NASB) in Psalm 16:7. God has the strength of wild ox (NIV) or unicorn (KJV) in Numbers 24:8 and 23:22. Isaiah 59:5 speaks of either vipers (NIV) or cockatrices (KJV), a mythical dragon creature with legs, plus the head of a rooster. Isaiah 13:21 features either wild goats (NIV) or satyrs (KJV), the mythological half-man, half-beast creature. Multiple versions of Deuteronomy 32:22 say “poison of dragons” instead of “poison of serpents.” The King James Version is older, more seeped in ancient thought (though Job still describes a dragon in any version of Job 41:12-34).
Finally, does Isaiah 7:14 say a virgin will give birth to a son, to be named Emmanuel? Or a young woman? The NAB Revised Edition switched from virgin to young woman, as did the Revised Standard Version and others, to better reflect what biblical scholars mostly agree on: the Hebrew word almah did not have anything to do with virginity in this context. Even devout Christian scholars argue this, further insisting that Isaiah 7:14 is not a prophesy of the messiah at all. How can anyone believe their bible has never been changed when “Revised” is in fact in the title? The latest NRSV contains 20,000 changes.
The Most Interesting Contradiction of All
Finally, a closer look at one of the most fascinating contradictions in the Bible.
The lineages of the Hebrews offered in 1 Chronicles 1-3, Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-38 are radically different, in the number of generations between certain people, and the people included. All use the “son of” or “father of” line, and all go back at least to Abraham, winding their way to David and later Joseph along different routes.
Matthew has 28 generations from David and Jesus, whereas Luke has 44. Only a few names in these lists are the same, and different people are given for Joseph’s father (Jacob v. Heli), grandfather (Matthan v. Mathat), great-grandfather (Eleazar v. Levi), and more. 1 Chronicles obviously doesn’t go all the way to Jesus, but after David it includes 5 people Matthew leaves out, and has only 3 people Luke mentions. (We’ll put aside the fact that Jesus, not being Joseph’s biological son, wouldn’t actually be part of David’s bloodline — not through his father’s side of the family, anyway.)
Believers think each list was recording something different. Perhaps Matthew was documenting the passing of the rightful title of king (not always biological descendants, some adopted, nor always direct between generations, as some were not worthy of the title and denied it), Luke was documenting Mary’s lineage (using the males, likewise adopted at times), and Chronicles the direct, biological descendants of Adam.
Plausible enough. After David, the royal line goes one way with one of his sons, Solomon, Mary’s ancestors another way with an unlucky son, Nathan. Different lists, different people. Some people could end up on both lists, like Shealtiel and Zerubabbel, through adoption, marriage, remarriage, incest — the typical shuffling around of family in ancient times. Zerubabbel is called Shealtiel’s son in Matthew, Luke, and elsewhere, but in Chronicles it’s his nephew; believers speculate that Shealtiel adopted Zerubabbel. There is no problem imagining an adopted son, a nephew, would be called “son” in a lineage.
Believers speculate, further, that a son-in-law would be called a son, so while in Luke it says Joseph was Heli’s son, perhaps he was Heli’s son-in-law, and the actual son of Jacob. They conclude Heli was Mary’s father, and though the Bible doesn’t say this anywhere, it is possible. And again, Christians claim part of the reason why Matthew has so few generations from David to Jesus is because the royal line could be disrupted or delayed, with the crown, literal or figurative, denied.
But questions persist. If you study the lineages closely, you will notice two interesting things:
First, Matthew leaves out 5 kings from Chronicles. Why doesn’t really matter. Believers claim it was no human error (because that’s impossible when it comes to the Bible), that there were valid reasons: 3 of the kings were evil and thus stripped of or denied their royal title, for example.
But perhaps it was on purpose for a different reason. By leaving out names, Matthew is able to say (Matthew 1:17): “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Implied in this is some sort of divine significance.
Perhaps it was indeed a miracle that the royal line was disrupted in such a way that led to numerical balance between major events in Jewish history. But it’s possible the author created the pattern, by leaving out people from the Chronicles lineage. It could easily be man’s miracle, not God’s.
Second, Matthew 1:17 essentially speaks of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus: if you include Abraham’s generation and Jesus’ generation, that’s 14 individual generations in 3 eras, 14 x 3 being 42. Yet he only mentions 41 names, including Abraham and Jesus, in 1:1-16. It’s a mathematical contradiction. If you included Abraham and Jesus and everyone in between in your total time period in Matthew 1:17 (42 generations in all), you should list 42 specific names to match. The names don’t align with the generations.
- Abraham to David: Verse 1:17 says 14 generations. The name list confirms: Abraham to David, including David, is 14 people.
- David to Exile (which begins in Josiah’s generation): 1:17 says 14 generations, but you shouldn’t count David twice, in two generations. It must mean after David. So we don’t include David. The list says Solomon to Josiah is 13 people.
- Exile to Jesus: 1:17 says 14 generations. Obviously, we can’t count Josiah again. Leave him out. Jechoniah to Christ is 14 people.
41 people total.
The only way to get to 42 names between Abraham and Christ (including Abraham and Christ) is to count someone twice. You can count anyone twice, but it’s usually David, since he is mentioned by name in 1:17. One has to say, “David counts for one person, but two generations” to make it all fit. That doesn’t make sense.
More reasonable? The author left someone out accidentally. A human error, dropping his name count to 41. Or perhaps it was a simple miscount of his total. Intentionality, positioning David back-to-back in 1:17 and hoping no one noticed there weren’t actually 42 generations, is possible as well, if less likely.