The Importance of Messianic Genealogy
There is no question but that the Old Testament contains ample prophetic testimony regarding the coming, and the identification of, the Messiah. Some scholars have argued there are more than 300 of these prophecies.
Among these are a number that foretell the genealogical lineage of Jesus, as such pertained to David, Israel’s greatest king (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89:3-4; 110:1; Isaiah 9:7; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25; Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:11). The Savior is referred to as the “son [offspring] of David” more than a dozen times in the New Testament. Both Matthew and Luke trace the genealogy of Christ through David—the former legally, through Joseph; the latter biologically, via Mary. This is clear evidence that the lineage of our Lord was employed as a powerful argument for the identification of Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy.
At the time of the Lord’s birth, ample genealogical evidence was available to check a Hebrew’s historical background. Such would be crucial in determining whether Christ had the necessary “genealogical pedigree” to establish his ancestry. If these records were not available, any attempt to argue for the Lord’s messiahship on the ground of Old Testament prophecy—at least pertaining to his ancestry—falls flat. The fact is, however, those genealogical records substantially vanished when the Romans slaughtered and/or dispersed the Hebrew populace in A.D. 70.
Accordingly, no modern Jew could possibly argue that he is the promised Messiah, based upon the prophecies cited above, since he would be unable to establish his lineage from David. This dilemma recently was submitted to a Jewish lady who identifies herself as a formal Hebrew “Rabbi.” This was the core of her claim.
“[G]eneological [sic] records were never kept in the Temple or anywhere else in Jerusalem. Judaism is a religion of orality, and one’s tribal lineage was never maintained on paper—not even today, when Levites and Kohanim [priests] are the only tribal and house affiliation maintained, there are no written records. So, the problem of identifying the messiah would never have been solved by geneological [sic] records.”
The following is a brief response to the Jewish lady’s allegation.
The McClintock & Strong Cyclopedia is quite possibly the most thorough Bible encyclopedia ever published. It took twenty years to produce and contains seventeen million words packed into 12 large volumes, with scores of scholars involved in the project. Therein the following statement is made.
“The [Hebrew] Rabbis affirm that after the [Babylonian] Captivity the Jews were most careful in keeping their pedigrees (Babyl. Gemar. Gloss. fol. xiv, 2). Since, however, the period of their destruction as a nation by the Romans, all their tables of descent seem to be lost, and now they are utterly unable to trace the pedigree of any one who might lay claim to be their promised Messiah” (3.771; emp.WJ).
Consider the following evidence.
- The book of Genesis alone, which contains Moses’ written record (cf. John 5:46-47), contains as least a dozen genealogies. Add to these the records in Chronicles, along with those from post-exilic days recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah, and the lists of names are profuse. No informed person would contend that tribal lineages were never recorded in written form.
- When Luke, an “unsurpassed” historian according to Sir William Ramsay (81), wrote his Gospel account, he recorded a genealogical catalog reaching from Christ back to Adam. Where did he obtain his information? He obviously did not interview the ancients personally! Clearly, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he consulted written documents in existence then (cf. 1:3).
The Purpose of Genealogies
R.K. Harrison observed that: “Records of descent were an extremely important part of Hebrew tradition from the very beginning…” (Bromiley, 2.425). Noted scholar Joachim Jeremias has discussed at length the necessity of preserving the genealogical heritage of the post-exile Jews. Note the following.
- In view of a special lineage that Jehovah had chosen, through whom the promised Messiah would descend, the Hebrews were prohibited from contracting marriages with Gentiles (Deuteronomy 7:1-3; Ezra 10:2)—though there were rare exceptions, e.g., Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba. Due to Israel’s dispersal among the nations, Jews who made pilgrimages back to Jerusalem, and wished to marry, were “required to have the genealogy of their future wife checked according to [the] requirements” (69). How could this be if no written records were available?
- Under the Old Testament law, the offices of the priests and Levites were hereditary. This position could be obtained in no other way than by inheritance. It was extremely important, therefore, that the “purity of the line” remain intact. Accordingly, “great care was taken in tracing genealogy.” “[I]f a priest could not prove his legitimate descent, he lost his rights to priestly office, both for himself and for his descendants, and [also] to priestly revenues” (214). Induction into the priesthood was not a matter of “orality” alone!
- During the time of Christ’s earthly sojourn, certain families of Hebrew nobility were granted the privilege of “carrying wood to the Temple on certain days; this fact shows that the genealogical tradition was well preserved among the lay nobility.” An Israelite woman “who wished to marry into a priest’s family had to produce her genealogy for five generations (p. 216; M. Kidd. iv.4)…” (Jeremias, 276).
When the Hebrews conquered the territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and then likewise that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, by divine edict they were assigned various tribal allotments. Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan (Numbers 32). After the initial victories to the west, Judah, Ephraim, and the other half-tribe of Manasseh were given their regions (Joshua 15-17). Finally, after considerable delay, the remaining tribes, by “lot,” received their portions of the land (Joshua 18-19), with the Levites receiving priestly cities.
Years passed and a gradual apostasy from the faith by Israel resulted. As a divine judgment the entire land eventually was ravaged by foreigners. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of “Israel.” According to Assyrian records, 27,290 souls were taken into captivity—never to return as a body of people. “Judah,” in the south, progressively degenerated spiritually until finally, after three invasions between 606-536 B.C., some 70,000 Hebrews were taken to Babylon as captives, where they were to remain for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:8-11).
Finally, beginning with the reign of Cyrus the Persian (who had conquered Babylon), the Jews, some 125,000 strong by then, were permitted to return to Canaan. Many of their ancestors were now gone—into Assyria, Egypt, and various other places. In the return to Canaan, the problem was this: who should inherit what land assignment? How could any Jew prove his “right” to a certain property inheritance? Was such to be accomplished by verbal jousting? Did one person’s “say so” trump another’s contention? How might a Jew prove his right to settle in a certain tribal territory—if there were no genealogical documents to establish his ancestral history?
The combined historical facts inevitably drive the analytical person to the conclusion that numerous genealogical documents were available in Israel during the days of Christ. In A.D. 70 that changed! After a five-month siege, the Romans broke through the walls of the sacred city and burned it to the ground. The date was September 7, A.D. 70. Josephus, a Jewish historian, claimed that 1,100,000 Hebrews were killed, and that another 97,000 were captured and carried away into slavery (see Wars 5.3.1 fn; 6.9.2-4). It was a divine judgment upon a rebellious people (Matthew 22:7; cf. 23:36). A final episode occurred two years later. Almost a thousand Jews had taken refuge on the high cliffs of “Masada,” just west of the Dead Sea. They were besieged by Roman forces; rather than be captured, all but seven committed suicide. For an account of this episode see, Masada — The Final and Futile Stand.
There is no doubt at all that thousands of Hebrew documents were destroyed at this time in these dark days of Hebrew history (c. A.D. 66-72), thus leaving the scattered Dispersion of Jewish people (cf. 1 Peter 1:1), with virtually no genealogical documentation—should someone appear claiming to have messianic authenticity. The argument in McClintock & Strong thus remains unscathed; and the assertion that the Jews had no use for written genealogical documents stands exposed as a desperate theory, utterly void of support.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey, ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1982.
- Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. London. SCM Press. 1969.
- Josephus, Flavius. Life and Works of Josephus. Philadelphia: John Winston Co. 1957.
- McClintock, John & James Strong. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1969.
- Ramsay, William. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1979.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.