Genealogy of Christ: What Are the Mysteries Behind the List of 42 Names

This list of more than forty names includes both righteous and sinners. What were these people famous for? Why would a modern Christian want to delve so deeply into the twists and turns of Old Testament times? What mysteries does this seemingly monotonous piece of reading conceal?

Reflecting on the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 1:1-25), Archpriest Oleg Kruchinin, Rector of the Sts. Boris and Gleb Church in Chasov Yar, seeks answers to these questions.

The List of Names and Its Message

“What are allGenealogy  these unfamiliar names?” People opening the New Testament for the first time often ask this question. “Joram begot Uzziah; Uzziah begot Jotham; Jotham begot Ahaz…” Alas, but for most of us, none of these names means anything.

Some of our contemporaries have confessed that at the beginning of their acquaintance with the Gospel, they expected the process of reading this Book of Books to become a sublime and inspiring experience that would give answers to their life questions. Why, then, do the first lines of the New Testament seem so monotonous? “Ram begot Amminadab; Amminadab begot Nahshon; and Nahshon begot Salmon…”

In reality, the mere enumeration of the forty-two names of the Saviour’s relatives in the flesh has its own logic, history and contraversies.

Why does St. Matthew divide his list into three groups of fourteen genera? Why do only men “beget” their ancestors? Why does the genealogy of Christ tell us about the ancestry of Joseph the Betrothed, despite the fact that he was not the father of the Lord? These are only a few of the possible questions. Let us try to answer some of them.

Where do the names come from?

The New Testament contains two genealogical lines of Jesus Christ. The first one is given by St. Matthew (Matthew 1:1-16), and the second — by St. Luke the Evangelist (Luke 3:23-38). Matthew begins with Abraham and ends with Joseph, the husband of Mary, “who bore Jesus, who is called the Christ”. Luke begins with saying that Jesus “was, as they thought, the Son of Joseph,” and further shows that he was really the Son of “Adam, and God”.

Matthew, who was of Jewish origin and wrote the Gospel for Jewish Christians, considered it important to show that Jesus is the same Messiah about whom the prophets spoke: a descendant of King David, and thus a descendant of Abraham.

The more ancient part of the genealogy is taken from the books of the Holy Scriptures, whereas the more recent one is most likely based on the genealogical lists of Joseph and Mary, kept in their families. Let us not forget that on the eve of the Saviour’s birth, a census was announced (Luke 2:1-7). Joseph and Mary went to the city of Bethlehem, carrying with them their ancient genealogies. Without these documents, they would not have been recorded in the lineage of David.

Why is the genealogy divided into groups?

With mathematical precision and the inspiration of an artist, Matthew divides the genealogy of Jesus with more than forty names into three groups of fourteen genera. The first – from Abraham to David – is the period of the patriarchs, the founders of the Jewish people. The second – from David to the Babylonian captivity – the period of the kings. The third – from the Babylon exile to Christ – the era of the high priests.

Was the history of ancient Israel really so “symmetrical”? Not really.

The first group omits the names of the kings Ahaziah, Jehoash and Amaziah, known from the Old Testament. They proved unworthy to be included in the Saviour’s Book of Life. In the third group, if we count carefully, we will find only thirteen genera. The fourteenth was Christ Himself.

According to the Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid, the division into three groups emphasizes that the Jews continued sinning under the rule of patriarchs and judges, as well as under the rule of kings and high priests. They needed therefore the coming of the true Patriarch, Judge, King, and High Priest, which was Jesus Christ.

What does the number 14 signify?

There are different interpretations on this account. First, fourteen is two times seven, and seven is a sacred number, which emphasises the sacred nature of the coming into the world of Jesus Christ.

The second version is connected with the alphabetical notation of numbers in the Hebrew language. Vowels were omitted in writing, so the name David, for example, looked like “DVD”. The letter D (“dalet”) corresponded to the number 4, and the letter V (“vav”) was used for 6. Thus, DVD = 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. Thus, the name of King David is encrypted in the number fourteen. Using it three times, Matthew enhances the impact on the reader, familiar with the prophecies of Holy Scripture.

According to another version, it is convenient to compare the three sets of 14 names with each other. The first group is rounded up by King David, the glorious descendant of Abraham. The second group ends with the Babylonian captivity, after which there was a return to the land of the forefathers. The third group ends with yet another enslavement, this time by the Romans. Both the first and second periods eventually ended with victory, and so will the third one with the coming of Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Reconciler of peoples.

Why do men give birth to their ancestors?

According to the tradition of the Jews, the genealogy was recorded via parental lineage. This is why the Gospel contains mentions of men “begetting” men, which may seem strange for our perception. 

If you think about it, however, a similar principle exists in our culture where we call a person by his first name and patronymic. Mothers give us birth, yet, we mention fathers  in our names. So it turns out that instead of saying, for example, “Oleg Vladimirovich”, one can say in the words of the Gospel, “Vladimir gave birth to Oleg.”

There is also a sacred meaning to this connection between the father and the son. The first man on Earth was created in the image of God, therefore through earthly paternity the heir of the family also inherits heavenly fatherhood.

Whose Are the Five Female Names?

There are five women in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Tamar, after having been widowed early, secretly seduced her father-in-law and gave birth to his two twin sons. 

Rahab is a harlot from Jericho who hid two of Joshua’s spies in her house. This allowed the Israelites to conquer this city in the Holy Land.

Ruth is a pagan Moabite. After the death of her husband, she became so attached to her mother-in-law that she accepted the faith of the Jews. After moving to Bethlehem, she got married, gave birth to a son, and later became the great-grandmother of King David.

The woman referred to as “the wife of Uriah” is Bath-sheba, a very beautiful woman, summoned by King David, who had seen her bathing and lusted after her. Soon she became pregnant. David sent the husband of Bath-sheba, commander Uriah to fight in a battle in which he was killed. The first child born to David and Bath-sheba lived only a few days. David repented and wrote a penitential psalm known today as psalm 51.

St. John Chrysostom explains that Christ granted even vicious people to be his relatives. This gives us hope for the forgiveness of our own sins.

The fifth female name in the genealogy of the Savior is Mary, His Most Pure Mother. Although the genealogy describes the line of kinship of Joseph the Betrothed, readers of the Gospel of Matthew, who were of Jewish descent, well understood that a wife could only be chosen from the same tribe and clan from which the husband was descented. Thus the fact that Joseph descended from the family of David meant that Mary also came from this royal family, and thus the long-awaited Messiah and Son of David was Jesus Christ.

God is with us!

Knowing the lifestyle of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bath-sheba and comparing them with the chaste life of the Most Holy Theotokos, we understand why it was She who became the sacred vessel receiving the Divine Infant Christ.

By replying to the Archangel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38), she made it possible for the prophecy of Isaiah, spoken more than seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, to be fulfilled. St. Matthew quotes these words, “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel…” (Matt. 01:23)

The Son was named Jesus, which means “Savior”. We call Him Christ, that is, the Anointed One and the Messiah. Together with the ancient peoples we solemnly repeat, “God is with us!” These words contain more than just the solemn hymn of the Nativity of Christ. These words should constitute the meaning of our life – with Christ and in Christ.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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  1. I was wondering, just this last week, why the genealogies were for Joseph and not the Theotokos, and this article has answered my question. Thank you!

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