Exegesis in the Great Stemma


Two of the four Gospel writers present genealogies of Jesus Christ which trace his ancestry, via Joseph, back to the earliest days of the Old Testament. The evangelists' purpose in laying out ancient family origins for Christ in this way may have been more modest than it appears: not so much to assert Christ's biological ancestry as to merely demonstrate that "all prior history was ordered to lead up to the culminating event in Jesus of Nazareth." [*]Johnson, 254.

1. The two genealogies in Matthew and Luke both describe the male ancestry of Jesus's family. The ostensible, plain meaning of both is that they relate the father-son chain via Joseph, the father. But taken together, they suffer from an obvious defect: they contradict one another as to the identity of several generations of Joseph's ancestors.

This provided ammunition for Jewish (and pagan) critics who ridiculed Christianity as it was spreading through Greek-speaking communities in the Roman Empire. The problem became acute once Matthew and Luke were accepted as canonical sources of Christian doctrine. In an atmosphere of fierce sectarian debate, the inconsistencies within the accounts would have unsettled both potential converts and waverers within the Christian fold.

Some early Christians thus looked for explanations that would enable them to affirm the literal truth of both Gospels.

The Great Stemma attaches to a tradition which probably arose within the first 200 years of the Christian era. This alternative tradition affirms a disarmingly simple solution: the Matthew genealogy should be seen as describing the ancestry of Joseph, whereas the Luke genealogy is to be understood as an ancestry of Mary, terminating at her grandfather. The "Joseph" in Luke is made out to be Mary's grandfather, not her husband. To bridge the gap that this reading of Luke creates, the name of Mary's father, Joachim, was obtained from a non-canonical text, the 2nd-century Protevangelium of James:

L'une des grandes particularités de nos tabulae generationum ... est le rattachement de la généalogie du Christ selon saint Luc à la Vierge. Pour expliciter cette idée on terminait ce lignage de façon apocryphe, en introduisant Joachim, et quelquefois Anne, père et mère supposés de Marie.[*]Zaluska, Stemmata 148-9.

The Great Stemma so alters the Gospel of Luke that the bottom strand is presented as the biological ancestry of Mary, not that of her husband Joseph: ... Levi genuit Ioseph, Ioseph genuit Ioachim, Ioachim genuit Mariam, Maria genuit Christum. The Gospel of Matthew is left unchanged as the upper strand in the Great Stemma: ... Mathan genuit Iacob, Iacob genuit Ioseph, Ioseph desponsavit Mariam virginem. Matthew's "Joseph" is Mary's betrothed. With one genealogy per parent, there is no contradiction. The author of the Liber Genealogus follows this approach exactly in his text version of the Great Stemma.

The setting in which the Joachimite doctrine developed, flowered and faded, and then again gained wide attention in the medieval period, is explored on a separate page.

Reconciling the two ancestries was just one of the many issues with the genealogies which occupied both anti-Christian critics and Christian apologists. We now turn to some of the other issues.

2. One issue, particularly for Jewish writers debating the prophecies about a Messiah and whether Jesus Christ fulfilled the messianic criteria, was whether any member of the House of David could even qualify to become the Messiah. A principal reason for these doubts was that David's great-grandmother, Ruth, wife of Boaz, was a Moabite. A prohibition in Deuteronomy 23 reads: No Ammonite or Moabite is be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh ... and this is for all time. The same taint applied to Naama the Ammonitess, a wife of Solomon and mother of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:21).[*]See Johnson, 246.

This ordnance of Jewish law is a likely context for the Great Stemma's discussion of Lot's incest, which is portrayed in Genesis 19:31-38 as the birth of the entire Ammonite and Moabite peoples. An exegetical gloss in the Great Stemma describes how the two daughters of Lot talked their virtuous father, whose will was to avoid sin, over to the side of wrong, with the outcome that Lot, alcoholized to a state of utter drunkenness, made his first misstep, committing incest with both his own daughters:

Loth cui voluntas non fuit peccare et error appellantur in crimine. Responso Loth: cum filias suas primum incestum per vini nimiam potationem fecit.

This argumentation, that the incest was not a serious sin because Lot's drunkenness had deprived him of the intent which is a necessary element in guilt, recalls the view of Origen, who writes in his Homilies on Genesis 5.3:

Nor again do I think he should be so accused that he ought to become party to such serious incest.... But neither would he have been ensnared by the girls unless he could have been inebriated. Thus he seems to me to be found partly culpable and partly excusable. For indeed he can be excused because ... he is shown neither to have wished nor consented to those wishing. But he is at fault ... because he indulged in wine too much.[*]Translation by Ronald E Heine in Sheridan, Mark. Genesis 12-50, 80.

In its wording, the Great Stemma passage lacks any similarity with Rufinus's Latin translation of Origen, but perhaps the gloss is a paraphrase directly from Origen's Greek or has been altered in the hands an intermediate author. If the "Loth cui voluntas ... " text, which is found in the Alpha, Beta and Delta recensions only, is original (since it could also be argued that it is a later addition), the Great Stemma author may have intended it as a way of retroactively removing the biblical curse from the Ammonites and Moabites, using a recognizably Christian argument that rejects a more primitive biblical notion of defilement.

This answer to the Ruth and Naamah problem could perhaps have been referred to during visual exposition using the Great Stemma, but unfortunately we possess only the diagram's answer, not the corresponding question. The exculpation of Lot does not appear in the Liber Genealogus, but one finds an echo of it in the comment on Lot's grandchildren at the end of section 11 where the Liber author suggests Moab are also God's people because Christ partly descends from them:

Et quare eum plebem meam dixit? Quoniam inde fuit Ruth Moabites, unde Christus Iesus ducit originem secundum carnem.[*]Cf. Mommsen, 250.

A similar gloss on how Ruth removes the stain of being Moabite appears later, in section 24 of the Liber Genealogus, quoting Deuteronomy. Possibly the reference is to Deuteronomy 26:12-13, which requires sharing a tithe or sacred portion with the foreigner, though it is not entirely clear:

Quoniam in ipso perfecit deus, quod in Deuteronomium legimus: et tu Moab decimus mihi adparebis in domo mea, id est per Ruth Moabiten.[*]Cf. Mommsen, 367.

One could also perhaps see a degree of support for this view in Eusebius's discussion of Ruth. Eusebius says she earns her membership in the chosen people "not by the noble extraction of her body, but by the noble extraction of her faith".[*]Broszio, 118 quotes him thus in Quaestiones et responsiones ad Stephanum, XI, 1.

3. A further much-discussed issue was a peculiarity in the Gospel of Matthew: its genealogy simply skips some of the kings who are well attested in the Old Testament Books of Kings and Chronicles.

This period, when Judah was a vassal state, first under the domination of the Egyptians and then of the Babylonians, has a detailed historical record in scripture. Whether Matthew deliberately excised the names for some ulterior purpose or simply made an inadvertent error when copying has been much discussed. Of course the the evangelist could also perhaps be excused for his distinctive interpretation by the muddled account in 2 Kings 23 and 24 which has apparently suffered some corruption in its transmission, including the reduction, in the Septuagint version (4 Reigns) of two Hebrew names, Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, to a single Greek form, Joakim.

In a nutshell, Matthew's text appears to glide over four generations while giving only three names. Here is how Matthew seems to reduce this period to three generations:

Amon was the father of Josiah, Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel

This episode in the history of Judah is difficult to follow, as two additional reigns in the period, by a king's brother and then an uncle, who are not, of course, part of the subsequent line of ancestry, occur during the same period. This is best explained with part of the tabulation from my reconstruction page:

  Ruler Parents The Exegetes Say: Ref
1 Josiah (killed in battle against Egyptians) Amon and Jedidah the person in Mt 1:10 2Ki 23
2 Shallum (personal name) Jehoahaz (throne name) (taken captive to Egypt) Josiah and Hamutal brother of 3 2Ki 23: 30-33
3 Eliakim (personal name) Jehoiakim (throne name) (variant account has him taken to Babylon) Josiah and Zebidah the Jechoniah in Mt 1:11? 2Ki 24:1-3 and 10-12
4 Jehoiachin alias Jechonias (taken to Babylon as vassal) Jehoiakim and Nehushta the Jechoniah in Mt 1:12? 2Ki 24:6
5 Mattaniah (personal name) Zedekiah (throne name) (the uncle of Jehoiachin, blinded and taken captive to Babylon) Josiah and Hamutal brother of 3 2Ki 24:17
6 Shealtiel Jechoniah the person in Mt 1:12  

When we look at our manuscripts of the Great Stemma, it seems at first glance as if the sequence has been reduced to just three members, Josiah, Jechoniah and Shealtiel (Iosias - Ieconias - Salatiel), as set out by the gospel writer. But closer study reveals that two more kings of the above tabulation, Jehoahaz (2) and Zedekiah (5), are in fact present with roundels of their own (Ioacas and Sedechias), but have been misplaced, having been attached at the very end of another list, the timeline of the kings of Israel.

Moreover all four mothers involved - Jedidah, Hamutal, Zebidah and Nehushta - are named in the Great Stemma, although we must retrieve them as well from false locations. This is discussed in greater detail on my reconstruction page, together with a graphic.

Their indirect inclusion in the surviving manuscripts makes it plain that the author must have somehow taken pains to combine his material in the original version of the Great Stemma so that it set out both (a) a strict, three-stage reproduction of the Matthew sequence (Iosias - Ieconias - Salatiel) and (b) a timeline according to the reigns of the kings of Judah.

The Great Stemma has been damaged in transmission at this point, but its timeline aspects were undoubtedly present thoughout the document, and it seems likely that the document did in fact list every reign in Judah, the southern kingdom and that it synchronized them with the reigns in Israel, the northern kingdom. Whether the periods of activity of each of the prophets were also keyed to both reign sequences is less certain.

To integrate both Matthew's abbreviated sequence and the greater number of steps detailed in the Books of Kings, the author probably arranged all the reigns in sequence, but used connecting lines to leap-frog the periods omitted by Matthew. The reconstruction that I propose looks this, with all six kings in the above tabulation listed in roundels running left to right:

The empty roundel represents Jehoiakim, probably spelled Joachim in the Vetus Latina version used by the Great Stemma author, while the curved blue lines and the verb genuit represent the abbreviated succession given by Matthew. Where the word genuit is not found, and a person is merely described as a filius, that person is not part of Matthew's sequence. The three uxor roundels in the lower row represent the women who gave birth to heirs. To make their roles clearer, I have added thin black lines with black arrowheads to link the mothers to their own sons.

Alternatively, it may have been that the linking lines in the Great Stemma ran Josiah-Jehoiakim, Jehoiakim-Jechoniah, Jechoniah-Salatiel. Unfortunately there seems to be no way of testing this hypothesis.[*]Four patristic exegetes lean to the interpretation that Matthew used the name Jechoniah to denote two different kings, a father and son, that is it say, both numbers 3 and 4 in the table above. Eusebius, Ambrose, Pseudo-Ambrose and Jerome regard the first part of Matthew's text, "Jechoniah and ...", as denoting reign number 3 above (Jehoiakim) while the latter section of Matthew's text "Jechoniah was the ..." is assumed to denote reign number 4. Jehoiakim's "brothers" denote kings 2 and 5 in the above tabulation. This solution had the attraction of fixing the under-weighting in the series from Jechoniah to Christ. The checksum in Matthew 1:17 says it should contain 14 individuals, but only 13 members are found in the established Matthew text. See Eusebius: Quaestiones et responsiones ad Stephanum XIII; Ambrose: Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam III, 46; Pseudo-Ambrose: In Danielem I,1; Jerome: Commentarium in Mattheum libri IV, I; all quoted in Broszio 136-7.

4. We must also consider the meaning of the gloss, Hiechonias qui est Sedechius ductus in Babilonia (Jechoniah is the same as Zedekiah, who was led away to Babylon). We find this gloss in both the Epsilon and the Alpha recensions of the Great Stemma, and it is carried over into the Saint-Sever derivative, but it is not found in Delta and Beta.

This claim attaches to a particular school of patristic interpretation which considered Jehoiakim (3 in the tabulation above) to be the same person as Zedekiah (5 in the tabulation). It is perhaps based on a reading of 2 Chronicles 36:6-7 and Daniel 1:1-2, where we find an assertion that Jehoiakim was compelled to move to Babylon.

The merging of these two characters into a single person was the consistent position of Hippolytus of Rome, who states in his Commentary on Daniel: "Zedekiah ...was also called Jeconiah" (from Tom Schmidt's English translation (PDF)).[*]Commentary 3.5. See also Broszio. He repeats this stance in his Chronicon, which states: Sedechias, qui et Iechonias, and again: Iosias genuit ... Sedeciam, qui et Ieconias dictus est.[*]Hippolytus, and Adolf Bauer and Rudolf Helm. Die Chronik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1955. See entries 678 (which can be translated, "In place of Ioakim, Nabukhodonosor installed his brother Zedekiah, also named Iechonia, and the latter ruled for 11 years") and 718 (Lib.gen. I).

It is perhaps based on an independent tradition in Jewish exegesis, though there is no apparent origin for the error. One conjectures that it might have been part of a strategy to defend the Matthew text from criticism that it was ahistorical. Perhaps the merging is also connected to an inconsistency among three biblical books as to whether and when "Jehoiakim" was deported:

This distinctive identification of Jehoiakim with Zedekiah also shows up in the Liber generationis I, 293, which is based on Hippolytus: Ioachim, cuius nomen Sedecias qui et Iechonias, qui regnavit ann. XI (Mommsen). The Liber generationis is a Latin translation made before 460 from a Greek chronographic work.[*]Zaluska, Stemmata 151; Mommsen also treats Chronic. Alexandrinorum 292 (Ioachim Sedechiam, quem et Iechoniam, fratrem Ioachim iuvenem) as a direct derivative from this. For the dating of the LG I, see Inglebert, 191. Bauer believed the Liber Generationis I was derived from the Chronicon of Hippolytus, a work believed to have been written in 234, but a recent minority view has questioned this link, and indeed whether Hippolytus was the author: see the notes to Inglebert above, Rouse, 227, note 86, and Andrei, Osvalda, "Dalle Chronographiai di Giulio Africano alla Synagoge di 'Ippolito'" in Wallraff, Julius Africanus und die christliche Weltchronik. For another text of the Liber generationis I, see Frick, 52.

The same identification is also adopted by the School Stemma.

But it is notable that this exegesis is not found in the Liber Genealogus, which as I argue elsewhere is a reliable witness to the original content of the Great Stemma. The G recension of the Liber Genealogus identifies the two kings as two different persons (Ioachim autem genuit Iechoniam) and accurately replicates the parentage set out in 2 Kings. Since there are good grounds for regarding the Liber Genealogus as a faithful commentary on an early version of the Great Stemma, it seems unlikely that this gloss goes back to the diagram's original author. I have assumed in my diagram that the gloss is a (false) emendation to a timeline roundel that originally referred to Ioiachim (reign 3).[*]Modern biblical scholarship agrees that these are two separate kings.

It seems to me that the merging of the two kings into a single identity is also inconsistent with the fact that the Great Stemma names the three mothers Hamutal, Zebidah and Nehushta (Amitaal, Zecora, Nasta). If the Great Stemma author had believed Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, to be one person, why would he have distinguished their mothers? The likelier explanation is therefore that the gloss is the work of a later editor and consciously contradicts the original document.

5. Earlier in the Matthew sequence, three other historically attested kings - Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah - are also omitted. This peculiarity in the gospel occasioned discussion by Eusebius and Ambrose (who argued that it was Matthew's choice to reduce the level of detail) and by others (including Hilarius, Pseudo-Ambrose, Jerome and Chromatius) who supposed these kings were too accursed to merit mention.[*]Broszio, 134-6.

Once again, the Great Stemma author seems to have diplomatically sidestepped this problem by creating two sequences. The first is a literal reproduction of Matthew's words (Ioran genuit Ociam = Joram [was] the father of Azariah) which leapfrogs three reigns, or more accurately four, since queen Athaliah's rule must be included. The second is a historical sequence, which places all four reigns in a timeline. Plainly we do not have the actual wording any more, but the Latin names along the timeline would have been: Ioram, *Ochozias, Gotolia, *Ioas, *Amessias, Ocias, probably with the word filius instead of genuit attached to the asterisked names. (I give the Vetus Latina forms from the Liber Genealogus, which is the only guide we can appeal to.)

Once again, we are able to prove that the original layout must have been structured in this fashion from the fact that the spouses of the three missing kings continue to be mentioned, though they are now in false positions on the page. Coboda/Chobodda (Zibiah, LXX: Abia/Sabia) and Ioade (Jehoadan, LXX: Ioadin/Ioaden) appear in all recensions, while Iecelia (Jecholiah, LXX: Chalia, LG: Ieccelia) has only been preserved in a single recension, Delta.

This reconstruction is demonstrated in greater detail on a separate page of this website.

6. A widespread opinion in both Jewish and early Christian writing maintained that Nathan, the obscure son of King David who begins the Gospel of Luke's distinctive fork in the genealogy (Luke 3:31), is the same person as Nathan the prophet in David's royal court (2 Samuel 7:2).

This is largely based on the homonymy. Johnson says this merging of the Nathans into a single person was a "minority view" in Jewish tradition, but goes on to argue that Luke believed in this himself.[*]Johnson, 246:

The explanation which best accounts for the evidence is that Luke was aware of the Jewish tradition which identified the two Nathans of 2 Samuel and constructed (or edited) his genealogy in accordance with his view of the importance of prophecy in the Old Testament and also in the ministry of Jesus. .[*]Johnson, 252.

Origen, writing in the 240s, accepts that the two must be a single person when he writes that Luke attaches Jesus not to Solomon but to the prophet Nathan who had excoriated his own father over the murder of Uriah and the birth of Solomon:

Quando vero de lavacro conscendit et secundo ortus describitur, non per Salomonem, sed per Nathan nascitur, qui eius arguit patrem super Uriae morte ortuque Salomonis.[*]In Lucam Homiliae, XXVIII.

Julius Africanus entertains the same possibility in his Letter to Aristides, but appears to try to soften it:

If Nathan was a prophet, so also was Solomon, and so too the father of both of them...[*]Translation: Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers. For a detailed discussion of this from a different perspective, see Guignard.

It is not until we reach Augustine that the identification of the two Nathans begins to separate.[*]In Retractionum libri II, I,26 and II,16, Augustine suggests Nathan the son was especially worthy because he was named after Nathan the prophet.

The Great Stemma goes to some trouble to reject the notion that the two Nathans are a single person. Nathan the Prophet is given his own distinct roundel (Nathan propheta) and this is placed as close as possible to the son's roundel (Nathan filius David) to make the distinction between the two persons explicit. In addition, the prophet's roundel is given some priestly company,with Zadok (Sadoch sacerdos filius Iacitob), one of the Davidic kingdom's two high priests (2 Samuel 8:17), being detached from his own father Ahitub to act instead as an escort to Nathan the prophet.

Copyists plainly found this deliberate distortion of the chart, with two interlopers placed among David's family, rather puzzling, and in the Epsilon recension the two Nathans have been placed in direct proximity, as the Stemma author no doubt intended them to be, but the copyist has joined them together by a meaningless line. In Alpha, there is no such connecting line, but the prophet and the priest have been banished as unexplained leftovers to the bottom left corner of the David page. In Beta, the prophet and priest are presented as an isolated axis of their own at mid-page, looking rather like a binary star system amid the galaxy of David's many wives and sons. This is at least in the spirit of the author's intentions, although the Beta page as a whole has been badly misarranged graphically.

7. Early writers were also preoccupied with the possibility that Christ might not only be of hereditary royal blood, but also of priestly blood as well. To argue this, they pointed to Luke's account of Mary visiting her "kinswoman" Elizabeth (Luke 1:36) who is descended from Aaron (the ur-priest of the Old Testament) and is herself married to a priest, Zechariah (both statements in Luke 1:5). Although the degree of kinship between Mary and Elizabeth is never explained, many thought this indicated Mary must be of partly priestly blood herself.

Jewish priests in the Biblical period were a hereditary caste, and exegetical authors assume that no male could become a priest unless he was descended from the patriarch Levi in the male line.

Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) stated baldly that not only was Mary a direct descendant of Aaron, but that intermingling by marriage between the priestly tribe of Levi and the royal tribe of Juda was a constant fact in Old Testament history.[*]Carmina dogmatica XVIII, quoted by Broszio, 86, and further commented on my page with an overview. Augustine concurred in 417:

Inasmuch as Luke inserts the statement that Elisabeth, whom he records to be of the daughters of Aaron, was her cousin, we ought most firmly to hold by the fact that the flesh of Christ sprang from both lines; to wit, from the line of the kings, and from that of the priests.[*]Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, Schaf translation, ch.

The hypothesis that a kingly and priestly line were mingled in Christ has recently been identified by Christophe Guignard as the theory that Julius Africanus was attempting to negate. I have laid out an overview of this and five other competing solutions to the Gospel contradictions on a separate page.[*]Guignard, Christophe. La Lettre de Julius Africanus à Aristide sur la Généalogie du Christ. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Altchristlichen Literatur. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011.

A varation of this view was that Nathan, the son of David, enjoyed priestly status. Perhaps this derives from a single puzzling statement at 2 Samuel 8:18 that David's sons were priests. Ambrose is one of the writers who insists that Nathan belonged to the priestly caste and that Luke's account is therefore of Christ's priestly ancestry.[*]Broszio, 93 refers to Ambrose, De benedictionibus Patriarchum, Caput III,14 (PL 14, 678) and Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam III.

In rabbinical circles there appears to have been a parallel debate going on, based on Psalm 110, about how the Messiah could be both a king and a priest. One late 1st-century midrash suggests this could be so if David had been descended from Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron.[*]Johnson, 132.

While the Great Stemma author does not explicitly discuss the issue, he does seem, in his final, core statement, to reject this mixed-ancestry theory and affirm that Christ is affiliated with one tribe only:

id est ex tribu Iuda, ut apparet eos de una tribu exire

As we have seen above, the Great Stemma theory of Christ's ancestry needs to overcome a difficulty which was raised by Augustine: if Joachim was a priest, how could he have been descended from David in the male line? One assumes that the Great Stemma author therefore wants to play down or even deny Joachim's priestly status.

The prevalence of these debates is perhaps the grounds for the otherwise puzzling inclusion in the timeline of the Great Stemma of a major excursus dealing with the genealogy of Aaron, his wife Elisheba (whose name is spelled Elisabeth, providing a further hook to Mary's kinswoman), and his sister Miriam. Only Aaron's lifespan was important for the chronology, but one supposes that his wife, sister and descendants were deliberately presented in some detail with a negative purpose: to demonstrate that it is a "dead end" which is not a part of Jesus' family heritage.

8. There is a series of chronological issues, which I discuss in detail in a separate article on the chronographic elements in the Great Stemma. These include:

9. Caution is necessary when discussing what appear to be the Great Stemma's exegetical choices, since some of the material has plainly been altered by later editors of the document. One of the most obvious cases of a dispute between editors is over the "Problem of Abiathar."

In Mark 2:25-26, Jesus is reported as saying, “Haven't you ever read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread..." Jesus appears to misquote an incident at 1 Samuel 21:1-7 where the priest at Nob is named not as Abiathar, but as Ahimelech: his son Abiathar (1 Samuel 22:20) could not have become high priest until after this incident. This contradiction was discussed by both John Chrysostom (who thought Abiathar must have had two names) and Jerome (who said literal accuracy should not be demanded from the evangelist).[*]Evans, Craig A. 'Patristic Interpretation of Mark 2:26 "When Abiathar Was High Priest"', Vigiliae Christianae, 1986, 183-6.

The Epsilon, Delta and Alpha recensions offer an odd solution. They:

Perhaps the author is contending here that the Ahimelech at Nob was a junior priest and that a higher priest named Abiathar was in office elsewhere at the time. But there is no explanatory text. The editor of the Beta recension was apparently convinced this was a mistake, since he has emended it, but only to create another oddity:

This solution is ultimately just as muddled as the first one. On balance it does not help, since it does not seem to untangle the core of the "problem of Abiathar", which is the concern among Christians that Christ might have spoken in error and thus demonstrated his own fallibility.

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