Every year around Christmas and Easter the major newsweeklies are prone to run feature articles about the historical Jesus, often written by prominent liberal scholars who claim to know what really happened 2,000 years ago. This year is no exception, and in the current issue of Newsweek we are treated to an article by Dr. Bart D. Ehrman entitled "The Myths of Jesus." Dr. Ehrman is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several best-selling books. At one time he was an evangelical Christian. We understand that he currently considers himself to be an agnostic.
Dr. Ehrman begins his article by mentioning several stories about the birth of Jesus that are not in the Bible, but then goes on to question the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives themselves. He discusses two alleged discrepancies in particular.
The first surrounds the genealogy of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke contain a geneaology; the problem is that the two genealogies are different from each other. According to Matthew, "Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ" (Matt. 1:16). Luke, on the other hand, says that Jesus was "(as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli" (Luke 3:23). So, then, who was Joseph's father, Jacob or Heli?
Dr. Ehrman tries to tell us that neither Matthew nor Luke "has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose and that, as a result, are necessarily at odds with each other."
But how does Dr. Ehrman know this? The fact of the matter is that the ancient Jews kept meticulous genealogies. Josephus, for example, the ancient Jewish-Roman historian, could trace his own lineage, and he pointed out that the Jews were especially careful to document the lineage of the priests. The reason was obvious. The priesthood was a hereditary office; it was of critical importance to know who had the proper lineage. This would have been no less true for those who of the royal lineage of David.
Why, then, do we have two different genealogies for Jesus? The answer should be readily apparent to a biblical scholar of Dr. Ehrman's caliber. There was undoubtedly a "levirate" marriage involved. Under Jewish law if a man died childless, leaving no heirs, a close male relative was expected to take the widow and father a child by her. The child thus conceived would be considered the heir of the deceased husband (Deut. 25:5-10). In this particular case we have it on the authority of an ancient church historian, Julius Africanus, that is what actually happened. To make a long story short, Jacob was Joseph's biological father, while Heli was the previously deceased legal father. Both genealogies are, in fact, correct.