A reader of the genealogies of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 is presented with a unique challenge, caused by significant areas of dissimilarity in the texts. Matthew’s genealogy focusses on three sets of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, Solomon to Josiah, and Jeconiah to Jesus Christ. It also includes five named female characters: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
Not only does Luke’s Gospel present a different genealogy by following an exclusively male line through Nathan, son of David, as opposed to Solomon, it also goes back even further than Abraham and recalls Adam, the ‘Son of God’. By doing so, Luke unites Christ with the very origins of humankind.
The clear difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies means that visual interpreters of the subject are faced with a choice: whether to align to a Matthean or Lukan mode of representation.
Because Matthew is the central figure in Caravaggio’s lost Saint Matthew with Angel, and it was originally commissioned for a chapel dedicated to him, we see him inscribing a genealogy that begins with Abraham. And perhaps because of the particular tradition that this Gospel was a ‘Jewish Gospel’, written originally in Hebrew, the artist depicts the evangelist using legible Hebrew script. Both by starting with this Old Testament figure, and taking unusual care to use accurate (not pseudo-) Hebrew, this work reinforces a direct link between Israel’s history and Jesus the Messiah.
In a similar way, the copy of Herrad of Landsberg's illumination shows a genealogical tree centred on God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. This preference for Matthew’s genealogical pattern is further corroborated by the same number of heads in the central trunk as are found in Matthew’s ancestral list.
In contrast, the artist who created the Byzantine mosaic in Chora Church uses the Lukan genealogical pattern. The presence of Adam and Noah in the cycle indicate that the artist wanted to incorporate the farthest reaches of Christ’s ancestry. By maintaining equidistance between each of his ancestors regardless of their position in the chronology, the Christ Pantocrator icon represents the timelessness of Jesus’s divinity, recalling the language of Colossians 1:15–17: ‘the firstborn over all creation … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.
The differences between these three artworks go beyond their historical, geographical, and cultural background. The ways they represent the genealogy of Jesus Christ also reflects a theological disparity that is ultimately guided by their preference for either the Matthean or Lukan lens of interpretation.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy from Abraham. According to Jerome (374–429 CE), Matthew’s Gospel served to support the faith of those who, like the Gospel writer himself, had grown up in the Jewish Law and were entering into a new religious movement. A characteristic of Matthew’s gospel writings is his desire to situate Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is therefore used as a means to communicate his Jewishness. Two of our artists adhere to Matthew’s objective. Caravaggio uses legible Hebrew script to communicate the validity of Christ as Jewish Messiah, and Herrad of Landsberg constructs a tree of Abraham’s descendants that culminates in the figure of Christ who presides over the image.
Alternatively, the Chora Church’s mosaic reflects Luke’s characterization of Christ, as the Saviour of the whole world. The breadth of characters found in Luke’s Gospel—men, women, Pharisees, sinners, criminals, tax collectors—is a means to show Christ as Lord over all, both Gentile and Jew. Luke’s decision to trace the origins of Christ from the beginning of creation shares the inclusivity found in the rest of his Gospel account. The far-reaching descendants who circle Christ Pantocrator in the Chora Church testify to that fact.
The divergences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies serve as precursors for the direction and purpose of the rest of their writings. The value of exploring these genealogical images lies in their capacity to magnify these characterizations, and present the viewer with new ways in which to view and understand the descendants of Jesus Christ.
Brown, Raymond. 1977. The Birth of the Messiah (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Loubser, J. A. 2005. ‘Invoking the Ancestors: Some Socio-Rhetorical Aspects of the Genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke’, Neotestamentica, 39.1: 127–40
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4and Ram the father of Amminʹadab, and Amminʹadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boʹaz by Rahab, and Boʹaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of David the king.
and Solomon the father of Rehoboʹam, and Rehoboʹam the father of Abiʹjah, and Abiʹjah the father of Asa, 8and Asa the father of Jehoshʹaphat, and Jehoshʹaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziʹah, 9and Uzziʹah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiʹah, 10and Hezekiʹah the father of Manasʹseh, and Manasʹseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiʹah, 11and Josiʹah the father of Jechoniʹah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniʹah was the father of She-alʹti-el, and She-alʹti-el the father of Zerubʹbabel, 13and Zerubʹbabel the father of Abiʹud, and Abiʹud the father of Eliʹakim, and Eliʹakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliʹud, 15and Eliʹud the father of Eleaʹzar, and Eleaʹzar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janʹna-i, the son of Joseph, 25the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Nagʹga-i, 26the son of Maʹath, the son of Mattathiʹas, the son of Semʹe-in, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27the son of Jo-anʹan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubʹbabel, the son of She-alʹti-el, the son of Neri, 28the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmaʹdam, the son of Er, 29the son of Joshua, the son of Elieʹzer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliʹakim, 31the son of Meʹle-a, the son of Menna, the son of Matʹtatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boʹaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33the son of Amminʹadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35the son of Serug, the son of Reʹu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36the son of Ca-iʹnan, the son of Arphaʹxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37the son of Methuʹselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahaʹlale-el, the son of Ca-iʹnan, 38the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.