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Did Jesus have one too many paternal grandfathers?

(Article published in the Dec 28,2004 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Of the four gospels, only two, namely the gospel according to Matthew and the gospel according to Luke, deal with the infancy of Jesus the Christ.  Both of them agree that Mary was Jesus’ mother and that the husband of Mary was Joseph.  But who was the father of Joseph?

Matthew says, in 1:15 that Eliud was the father of Eleazar who was the father of Matthan who was the father of Jacob who was the father of Joseph.  In other words, the paternal grandfather of Jesus, according to Matthew, was a man named Jacob.

       Luke, however, has a different story line.  In 3:23, Luke says that Joseph was the son of Heli who was the son of Matthat.  Thus, according to Luke, the paternal grandfather of Jesus was a man named Heli.

       Over the years, people serious about their bible reading, have tried to offer some explanation for the discrepancy.  A facile theory is that the two writers simply invented the names in their genealogies.  After all, records of birth of people at that time were not kept very well.  That theory is, at the very least plausible to us in the Philippines, since, even at this day and age, our own records of birth, notwithstanding the great effort and achievement of the National Statistics Office, are not as complete as we would want them to be.  But it has nothing else to support it.

       A more scholarly sounding explanation is that the two gospel writers, working independently,  attached Jesus and his  father Joseph to one of many Davidic lists going around at that time.  The prevalent expectation was that the Messiah would come from the House of David and thus, there were many claimants to being of that House.  After all, even in our secular world, it does not harm to be able to trace one’s relation to persons in power.  Conversely, we often hear politicians who are running for national office claiming to be a son or daughter of a particular province or region. If it is desirable to be related to a mortal politician, how much more to be desired is it to be a relative of the coming savior, believed to be a political one at that.

       An intriguing solution to the difference in Jesus’ paternal grandfather is the levirate marriage.  In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, we read of a custom that requires the next of kin of a married man who died childless to marry the deceased’s widow.  The idea is to ensure that the dead man’s lineage is continued, thus maintaining the property within the family, even if nature did not favor him with a natural issue. 

       At the time of Jesus, this custom appears to be still followed, at least by some.  Jesus, for instance, was reported to have been confronted with a question of whose wife the widow will be when she and her seven successive husbands go to heaven (Mark 12:18-27).  Even in those times, people were intrigued with the phenomenon of the femme fatale.

       The theory of the leverite marriage causing Jesus to have two paternal grandparents is somehow buttressed by the fact that Joseph’s grandfather according to Matthew is “Matthan” and according to Luke is “Mattat”.  Assuming that one is a variant of the other, but referring to the same person, then the theory is that Jacob and Heli were brothers and were married in succession to the same woman who was married to Mattan a.k.a. Mattat.  That means Matthew was tracing Joseph by the natural line (or legal line) and Luke was tracing Joseph by the legal line (or natural line).  Whatever line, legal or natural, was attributed to either did not matter.

       One of the more formidable problems of the theory of leverite marriage, however, is that according to Matthew, the father of Matthan is the some of Eleazar.  But, then  according to Luke, the father of Mattat is Levi.  Now, unless “Levi” is the nickname or alias of “Eleazar”, another leverite marriage is needed to explain the different paternal great grandfathers of Jesus.  That meets opposition, of course, because while Jewish women, like their Filipina counterparts, generally outlive their husbands, they would not readily agree that many of them need a succession of husbands to get impregnated.

       Modern exegetes, consequently, throw their hands up and accept that nothing was intended to be said of Jesus’ grandfathers.  What mattered to the Gospel writers was to assert that Jesus was “son of David,” “son of Abraham (Matthew)” and “son of God (Luke)”.

       And that makes us grandfathers the purest of lovers.  Despite all that loving and doting, we do know that our grandchildren will grow up and grow old, living their own lives, most of  it after we have been buried and forgotten. But, despite our eventual irrelevance, we keep on loving and doting, nonetheless.

       Merry Christmas, grandfathers and everyone, too.