Looking at the state of Christianity, the lack of unity is disconcerting, as “each has a cry of his own, I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ.” Those in favour of ecumenism sometimes go too far, but it’s hard not to sympathise with their goal of fostering more unity among Christians, as long as it can be done without falling into indifferentism. There is, though, one thing regarding the Bible that seems to be universally agreed on, and that’s that the genealogies are the most boring part of Scripture.
Now, the ancients seem to have delighted in this sort of thing; they were probably more patient than we are, but they also had more appreciation for family than we do, and thus had a greater interest in ancestry. Nonetheless, the modern attitude isn’t totally new. St. John Chrysostom said of Christ’s genealogy in Luke 3, “because this part of the Gospel consists of a series of names, men think there is nothing valuable to be derived therefrom.” However, Scripture doesn’t record anything without reason, so he adds, “Lest then we should feel this, let us try to examine every step. For from the mere name we may extract an abundant treasure, for names are indicative of many things.”
Following St. John, then, I thought it may be interesting to include some of the Church Fathers’ comments on that chapter. These, and St. John’s above, are taken from the Catena Aurea.
First, the relevant verses, from Luke 3:23-38.
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph, Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge, Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri, Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er, Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim, Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David, Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson, Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor, Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noah, which was the son of Lamech, Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan, Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.
Now, the commentary. I’m not including everything from the Catena, but you can find the rest at the link above. I’ll also do some light editing, such as expanding the abbreviations of the various commentators’ names, to make it easier to follow. First, Saints Cyril and Ambrose discuss the parenthetical “as was supposed” in that first verse:
CYRIL: Although in truth Christ had no father according to the flesh, yet some fancied he had a father. Hence it follows, As was supposed the son of Joseph. AMBROSE: Rightly as was supposed, since in reality He was not, but was supposed to be so, because Mary who was espoused to Joseph was His mother. But we might doubt why the descent of Joseph is described rather than that of Mary, (seeing that Mary brought forth Christ of the Holy Spirit, while Joseph seemed to be out of the line of our Lord’s descent,) were we not informed of the custom of the Holy Scripture, which always seeks the origin of the husband, and especially in this case, since in Joseph’s descent we also find that of Mary. For Joseph being a just man took a wife really from his own tribe and country, and so at the time of the taxing Joseph went up from the family and country of David to be taxed with Mary his wife. She who gives in the returns from the same family and country, shows herself to be of that family and country. Hence He goes on in the descent of Joseph, and adds, Who was the son of Eli.
After that, they move on to discussing St. Joseph’s ancestry, beginning with an apparent discrepancy from St. Matthew’s account, and moving on from there:
AMBROSE: But let us consider the fact, that St. Matthew makes Jacob, who was the father of Joseph, to be son of Nathan, but Luke says that Joseph (to whom Mary was espoused) was the son of Eli. How then could there be two fathers, (namely, Eli and Jacob,) to one man. GREGORY NAZIANZUS: But some say that there is one succession from David to Joseph, which each Evangelist relates under different names. But this is absurd, since at the beginning of this genealogy, two brothers come in Nathan and Salomon, from whom the lines are carried in different ways. EUSEBIUS: Let us then more carefully explain the meaning of the words themselves. For if when Matthew affirmed Joseph to be the son of Jacob, Luke had in like manner affirmed that Joseph was the son of Eli, there would be some dispute. But seeing the case is that Matthew gives his opinion, Luke repeats the common opinion of many, not his own, saying, as was supposed, I do not think that there is any room for doubt. For since there were among the Jews different opinions of the genealogy of Christ, and yet all traced Him up to David because to him the promises were made, while many affirmed that Christ would come through Solomon and the other kings, some shunned this opinion because of the many crimes related of their kings, and because Jeremiah said of Jechonias that “a man should not rise of his seed to sit on the throne of David.” This last view Luke takes, though conscious that Matthew gives the real truth of the genealogy. This is the first reason. The next is a deeper one. For Matthew when he began to write of the things before the conception of Mary and the birth of Jesus in the flesh, very fitly as in a history commences with the ancestry in the flesh, and descending from thence deduces His generation from those who went before. For when the Word of God became flesh, He descended. But Luke hastens forward to the regeneration which takes place in baptism, and then gives another succession of families, and rising up from the lowest to the highest, keeps out of sight those sinners of whom Matthew makes mention, (because that he who is born again in God is separated from his guilty parents, being made the son of God,) and relates those who have led a virtuous life in the sight of God. For thus it was said to Abraham, You shall set out to your fathers, not fathers in the flesh, but in God, on account of their likeness in virtue. To him therefore who is born in God he ascribes parents who are according to God on account of this resemblance in character.
AUGUSTINE: Or in another way; Matthew descends from David through Salomon to Joseph: but Luke beginning from Eli, who was in the line of our Savior, ascends through the line of; Nathan the son of David, and joins the tribes of Eli and Joseph, showing that they are both of the same family, and thereby that the Savior was not only the Son of Joseph, but also of Eli. For by the same reason by which the Savior is called the son of Joseph, he is also the son of Eli, and of all the rest who are of the same tribe. Hence that which the Apostle says, Of whom are the fathers, and from whom. Christ came according to the flesh. AUGUSTINE: Or there occur three reasons, by one of which the Evangelist was led. For either one Evangelist has mentioned the father by whom Joseph was, begotten, but the other his maternal grandfather, or some one of his ancestors. Or one of the fathers mentioned was the natural father of Joseph, the other his father who had adopted him. Or after the manner of the Jews, when a man has died without children, the next of kin taking his wife ascribes to his dead kinsman the son whom he has himself begotten. AMBROSE: For it is related that Matthas, who was descended from Salomon, begat Jacob as his son, and died leaving his wife living, whom Melchi took unto him as wife, and from her Eli was born. Again, Eli, when his brother Jacob died without children, was joined to his brother’s wife, and begot a son Joseph, who according to law is called the son of Jacob, since Eli raised up seed to his deceased brother, according to the: order of the ancient law. BEDE: Or else, Jacob, taking the wife of his brother Eli who had died without children according to the command of the law, begot Joseph, by natural parentage his own son, but by the ordinance of the law the son of Eli. AUGUSTINE: It is most probable that Luke took the origin by adoption, as not being willing to say that Joseph, was begotten by him whose son he related him to be. For more easily is a man said to be his son by whom he was adopted, than to be begotten by him from whose flesh he was not born. But Matthew saying, “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,” and continuing in the word “begat,” until at last he says, but “Jacob begat Joseph,” has sufficiently expressed that he has carried through the succession of the fathers, to that father by whom Joseph was not adopted, but begotten. Although even supposing that Luke should say that Joseph was begotten by Eli, neither ought that word to perplex us. For it is not absurd to say that a man has begotten not in the flesh but in love the Son whom he has adopted. But rightly has Luke taken the origin by adoption, for by adoption are we made the sons of God, by believing on the Son of God, but by His birth in the flesh, the Son of God has rather for our sakes become the Son of man.
From here, much of the discussion turns to the interpretation of the names included in the genealogy, beginning with St. John Chrysostom’s comment already quoted:
JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: But because this part of the Gospel consists of a series of names, men think there is nothing valuable to be derived therefrom. Lest then we should feel this, let us try to examine every step. For from the mere name we may extract an abundant treasure, for names are indicative of many things. For they savor of the Divine mercy and the offerings of thanks by women, who when they obtained sons gave a name significant of the gift. GLOSS: By interpretation then Eli means, “My God,” or “climbing”; Who was the son of Matthat, i.e. “forgiving sins.” Who was as the son of Levi, i.e. “being added.”AMBROSE: Luke rightly thought, seeing that he could not embrace more of the sons of Jacob, lest he should seem to be wandering from the line of descent in a superfluous course, that the ancient names of the Patriarchs though occurring in others far later, Joseph Judah, Simeon, and Levi, should not be omitted. For we recognize in these four kinds of virtue; in Judah, the mystery of our Lord’s Passion prophesied by figure; in Joseph, an example of chastity going before; in Simeon the punishment of injured modesty; in Levi, the priestly office. Hence it follows, Who was the son of Melchi, i.e. “my King.” Who was the son of Janna, i.e. “a right hand”. Who was the son of Joseph, i.e. “growing up,” but this was a different Joseph. Who was the son of Mattathias, i.e. “the gift of God,” or “sometimes.” Who was the son of Amos, i.e. “loading, or he loaded.” Who was the son of Naum i.e. “help me.” Who was the son of Matthat i.e. “desire.” Who was the son of Mattathias, as above. Who was the son of Simei, i.e. “obedient.” Who was the son of Joseph, i.e. “increase.” Who was the son of Judah, i.e. “confessing.” Joanna, “the Lord, his grace,” or “the gracious Lord.” Resa, “merciful.” Zorobabel, “chief or master of Babylon.” Salathiel, “God my petition.” Neri, “my lanthern.” Melchi, “my kingdom.” Addi, “strong or violent.” Cosam, “divining.” Her, “watching, or watch, or of skins.” Who was the son of Jesus i.e. “Savior.” Eliezer, i. e. “God my helper.” Joarim, i.e. “God exalting, or, is exalting.” Matthat, as above. Levi, as above. Simeon, i.e. “He has heard the sadness, or the sign.” Juda, as above. Joseph, as above. Jonah, a dove, or wailing. Eliachim, i.e. “the resurrection of God.” Melchi, i.e. “his king.” Menan, i.e. “my bowels.” Mattathias, i.e. “gift.” Nathan, i.e. “He gave, or, of giving.”AMBROSE: But by Nathan we perceive expressed the dignify of Prophecy, that as Christ Jesus alone fulfilled all things, in each of His ancestors different kinds of virtue might precede Him. It follows, Who was the son of David. ORIGEN: The Lord descending into the world took upon Him the person of all sinners, and was willing to be born of the stock of Solomon, (as Matthew relates,) whose sins have been written down, and of the rest, many of whom did evil in the sight of God. But when He ascended, and is described as being born a second time in baptism, (as Luke relates,) He is not born through Salomon, but Nathan, who reproves the father for the death of Uriah, and the birth of Solomon.
GLOSS: David is interpreted, “with a mighty arm, strong in fight.” Obith, i.e. “slavery.” Booz, i.e. “strong.” Salmon, i.e. “capable of feeling, or peacemaking.” Naasson, i.e. “augury, or belonging to serpents.” Aminadal, “the people being willing.” Aram, i.e. “upright, or lofty.” Esro1n, i.e. “an arrow.” Phares, i.e. “division.” Judah, i.e. “confessing.” Who was the son of Jacob, i.e. “supplanted.” Isaac, i.e. “laughing or joy.” Abraham, i.e. “the father of many nations, or the people.”
Now, St. Luke’s account of Christ’s genealogy is longer than St. Matthew’s, so St. John Chrysostom here explains why, and then we return to the interpretation of names:
JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: Matthew, who wrote as for the Jews, had no further object than to show that Christ proceeded from Abraham and David, for this was most grateful to the Jews. Luke however, as speaking to all men in common, carried his account beyond as far even as Adam. Hence it follows, Who was the son of Thara. GLOSS**:** Which is interpreted, “finding out,” or “wickedness.” Nachor, i.e. “the light rested.” Sarug, i.e. “correction,” or “holding the reins,” or “perfection.” Ragan, i.e. “sick,” or “feeding.” Phares, i.e. “dividing,” or “divided.” Heber, i.e. “passing over.” Sala, i.e. “taking away.” Canuan, i.e. “lamentation,” or “their possession.” BEDE**:** The name and generation of Cainan, according to the Hebrew reading, is found neither in Genesis, nor in the Chronicles, but Arphaxad is states to have begot Sala his son, without any one intervening. Know then that Luke borrowed this generation from the Septuagint, where it is written, that Arphaxad at a hundred and thirty-five years old begot Cainan, but he at a hundred and thirty years begot Sala. It follows, Who was the son of Arphaxad. GLOSS**:** i.e. “healing the laying waste.” Sem, i.e. “a name,” or being “named.” Who was the son of Noah, i.e. “rest.”
AMBROSE: The mention of just Noah ought not to be omitted among our Lord’s generations, that as our Lord was born the builder of His Church, He might seem to have sent Noah beforehand, the author of His race, who had before founded the Church under the type of an ark. Who was the son of Lambech. GLOSS**:** i.e. “humility, or striking, or struck, or humble.” Who was the son of Mathusalem, i.e. “the sending forth of death,” or “he died,” also “he asked.”
AMBROSE: His years are numbered beyond the deluge that since Christ is the only one whose life experiences no age, in His ancestors also He might seem to have felt not the deluge. Who was the son of Enoch. And here is a manifest declaration of our Lord’s piety and divinity, since our Lord neither experienced death, and returned to heaven, the founder of whose race was taken up into heaven. Whence it is plain that Christ could not die, but was willing that His death should profit us. And Enoch indeed was taken, that his heart might not change by wickedness, but the Lord, whom the wickedness of the world could not change, returned to that place whence He had come by the greatness of His own nature. BEDE**:** But rightly rising up from the baptized Son of God to God the Father, he places Enoch in the seventy seventh step, who, having put off death, was translated unto Paradise, that he might signify that those, who by the grace of adoption of sons are born again of water and the Holy Spirit, are in the mean time (after the dissolution of the body) to be received into eternal rest, for the number seventy, because of the seventh of the sabbath, signifies the rest of those who, the grace of God assisting them, have fulfilled the decalogue of the law. GLOSS**:** Enoch is interpreted “dedication.” Jared, i.e. descending or “holding together.” Malaleleel, i.e. “the praised of God,” or “praising God.” Cainan, as above. Enos, i.e. “man,” or “despairing,” or “violent.” Seth, i.e. “placing,” “settling,” “he has placed.” Seth, the last son of Adam, is not omitted, that as there were two generations of people, it might be signified under a figure that Christ was to be reckoned rather in the last than the first.
It follows, Who was the son of Adam. GLOSS: Which is “man,” or “of the earth,” or “needy.”
Finally, the commentators address why St. Luke takes the genealogy all the way to Adam, and why he calls Adam the “son of God.”
AMBROSE: What could better agree than that the holy generation should commence from the Son of God, and be carried up even to the Son of God; and that he who was created should precede in a figure, in order that he who was born might follow in substance, so that he who was made after the image of God might go before, for whose sake the image of God was to descend. For Luke thought that the origin of Christ should be referred to God, because God is the true progenitor of Christ, or the Father according to the true birth, or the Author of the mystical gift according to baptism and regeneration, and therefore he did not from the first begin to describe His generation, but not till after he had unfolded His baptism, that both by nature and by grace he might declare Him to be the Son of God. But what more evident sign of His divine generation than that when about to speak of it St. Luke introduces first the Father, saying, You are my beloved Son?
AUGUSTINE: He sufficiently declared by this that he called not Joseph the son of Eli because he was begotten by him, but rather because he was adopted by him, for he has called also Adam himself son, since though made by God, yet by grace (which he forfeited by sin) he was placed as a son in paradise. THEOPHYLACT: For this reason he closes the generations in God, that we may learn that those fathers who intervene, Christ will raise up to God, and make them sons of God, and that it might be believed also that the birth of Christ was without seed; as if he said, If you believes” not that the second Adam was made without seed, you must come to the first Adam, and you will find that he was made by God without seed. AUGUSTINE: Matthew indeed wished to set forth God descending to our mortality; accordingly at the beginning of the Gospel he recounted the generations from Abraham to the birth of Christ in a descending scale. But Luke, not at the beginning, but after the baptism of Christ, relates the generation not descending but ascending, as if marking out rather the high priest in the expiation of sins, of whom John bore testimony, saying, Behold, who takes away the sins of the world. But by ascending he comes to God, to whom we are reconciled, being cleansed and expiated. AMBROSE: Nor do the Evangelists seem so to differ who have followed the old order, nor can you wonder if from Abraham down to Christ there are more successions according to Luke, fewer according to Matthew, since you must admit the line to have been traced through different persons. But it might be that some men have passed a very long life, but the men of the next generation have died at an early age, since we see how many old men live to see their grandchildren, while others depart as soon as they have sons born to them. AUGUSTINE: But most fitly with regard to our baptized Lord does Luke reckon the generations through seventy-seven persons. For both the ascent to God is expressed, to whom we are reconciled by the abolition of sins, and by baptism is brought to man the remission of all his sins, which are signified by that number. For eleven times seven are seventy-seven. But by the tenth number is meant perfect happiness. Hence it is plain that the going beyond the tenth marks the sin of one through pride coveting to have more. But this is said to be seven times to signify that the transgression was caused by the moving of man. For by the third number the immortal part of man is represented, but by the fourth the body. But motion is not expressed in numbers, as when we say, one, two, three; but when we say, once, twice, thrice. And so by seven times eleven, is signified a transgression wrought by man’s action.
So, there you have it. If you still can’t get enough, there’s also a lot more material in the commentaries on St. Matthew’s Gospel. This may still not be exciting, exactly, but I hope you do have some more appreciation for why the Evangelists and the authors of the Old Testament included these genealogies, even if you don’t necessarily enjoy them.