Considerable ink has been spilled regarding Matthew’s selection of the individuals in his genealogy (including three women – Tamar, Rahab and Ruth), and the differences between his list that of Luke 3:23-38. Our attention is drawn, on the other hand, to the underlying structures of the two lists and what they were intended to tell us about the message of the Evangelists concerning the time in which Christ was born.
Matthew summarizes the chronological structure in the final verse of his genealogy of Christ:
Matthew 1:17 Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ ἀπὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.
Therefore, all of the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, from David until the exile to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the exile to Babylon until Christ fourteen generations.
J. T. Milik in his masterful work, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford, 1976), has commented on these two genealogies in his preliminary study of 4Q180-181 (4Q Pesher on the Periods). He has drawn clear comparisons between this Qumran work and other known chronographic works. According to Milik:
“Thus this chronological work presented the sacred history divided into seventy ages corresponding approximately to seventy generations, from Adam to Noah ten generation-weeks, from Noah to Abraham ten weeks, etc., up to the advent of the eschatological era” (p. 252).
The seventy generation-weeks structure clearly belongs to similar chronological speculation heard in Daniel 9:24-27 and Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10. In it seventy weeks-years is equivalent to ten jubilees (70 x 7=10 x 49).
Yet, an alternate chronological structure is heard in the Greek Testament of Levi 16:1 and 17:1-11 where the division is not according to a patriarchal genealogy but according to the generations of priests:
In each jubilee there shall be a priesthood: In the first jubilee the first person to be anointed to the priesthood will be great, and he shall speak to God as father (17:2)…[until the final generation] in the seventh week there will come priests: idolators, adulterers, money lovers, arrogant, lawless, voluptuaries, pederasts, those who practice bestiality (17:11).
This dark time is followed immediately by the advent of the priestly redeemer:
…And then the Lord will raise up a new priest (18:2).
The jubilee structure of the Greek Testament of Levi then represents a chronology of seven jubilees rather than the ten jubilees of 4Q180-181, Daniel and Jeremiah. In another work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13-Melchizedek) we find a combination of these two systems of thought. The priestly redeemer is identified with the biblical Melchizedek, but his advent is marked at the conclusion of ten jubilees rather than seven: “the first Week of the jubilee, after nine jubilees…the end of the tenth jubilee” (2:7).
So, we hear in various Jewish works of the pre-Christian era two alternating chronological expectations for redemption presented within a jubilee framework. One describes the advent of the redeemer in the tenth jubilee and the other in the seventh jubilee. These two opinions assist us to discern the varying genealogies of Matthew and Luke.
As Milik observed on the genealogy of Luke 3:23-28, we find seventy-six names.
“If one deducts the first six patriarchs, one finds again in the era of the patriarch Enoch the beginning of a computation of seventy generations—exactly the same, therefore, as Enoch 10:12…In Matthew 1:1-17 the reckoning begins with Abraham, and the series of ancestors of Christ is divided into three great ages, each one embracing fourteen generations. In other words, the sacred history from Abraham up to the birth of Jesus is looked upon as the cycle of six weeks (3 x 14=6 x7) which will be completed by the seventh—eschatological—Week ushered in by Jesus Christ” (p. 257).
In addition, Milik noted that in 4Q180-181 the significant biblical events remembered were marked by the intervention of angels, “messengers of God who is the special protector of Israel (Deut 32:9 ff.)” (p. 252). Should we understand a similar understanding in both Matthew and Luke where we find angelic intervention in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus?
What we witness, therefore, in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is neither haphazard nor accidental. They reflect diverging Jewish opinions about the time for the advent of the redeemer. The Evangelists intended for us to understand that the birth of Jesus inaugurated the era of redemption—expressed by way of a jubilee chronological framework.
While unnoticed by most modern readers, both Matthew and Luke have gone to great effort to underscore the importance of the very time in which Jesus was born. His birth is presented as the fulfillment of the hope for a jubilee redemption. Against this background Jesus’ first public words in Luke’s Gospel take on added poignancy as he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of Nazareth: “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19; Isa 61:2).