By Dr. John Millam
For the updated version of this article, please download the PDF here.
In 1650, James Ussher, the archbishop of Ireland came up with a detailed timeline for all the events in the Bible, going all the way back to the creation of man and the universe. According to Ussher’s chronology, Adam and Eve were created in the year 4,004 BC. In order to date backwards from Abraham to Adam and Eve, he made use of the genealogies given in Genesis 5 and 11. A critical assumption that he made in his interpretation was that these two genealogies were complete (that is, that they contained no gaps or missing names).2 Are these genealogies indeed complete as Ussher assumed?
Biblical genealogies are numerous and yet they are probably the most often ignored and least studied portions of the Bible.
Most people find genealogies to be uninteresting and difficult to apply to current circumstances. The nature and function
of Biblical genealogies is also very different from modern genealogies, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
For example, telescoping (leaving out some names for the sake of brevity) is common in Biblical genealogies but is rare
in modern genealogies. Similarly, the key genealogical terms (such as “son” and “father”)
have much broader meanings then their corresponding English words. An accurate understanding of Biblical genealogies
is difficult, yet it is important for understanding of scripture.3 Having a proper understanding of Biblical genealogies is prerequisite to attempting to address the Genesis
The Nature of Biblical Genealogies
In modern times, genealogies are for the purpose of communicating detailed information about history and family relations.
Our modern conception of genealogies is very different from how genealogies were used and understood in Biblical times.
Some background information on genealogies is helpful in order to properly understand and interpret them. Biblical
genealogies fall into three main categories according to their purpose: familial, legal-political, and religious.4 Familial (or domestic) genealogies were primarily concerned about inheritance and privileges of firstborn
sons. Legal-political genealogies are primarily centered on claims to a hereditary office, but other examples include
establishing ancestry for land organization, territorial groupings, and military service. Religious genealogies were
primarily used to establish membership in the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods. The function of a genealogy largely
determines its structure and organization. In each of these cases, there is little reason or need to give a complete
listing of names since it is ancestry, not the actual number of generations that is important.
Very short genealogies are typically for the purpose of identifying a person’s tribal or genealogical grouping.
The clearest example of this is the division of Israel into tribes according to which of the 12 patriarchs they were descended
from. This tribal division was important for determining traveling arrangements (Numbers 2; 10) and allocation of
land (Joshua 13-21). Each tribe was subdivided into divisions and further subdivided into clans according to which
son and grandson of the patriarchs they were descendent from. For example, the Levites were assigned different duties
according to which Levitical division they belonged to. So, it was usually sufficient to list only a person’s
tribe, division, and clan to identify someone. This interest in genealogical identification is also seen in the time
of King David and again in the time of return from exile. At these later times, genealogies often were given in terms
of other key historical figures (Aaron, Moses, David, etc.) rather than going all the way back to the patriarchs.
For example, Matthew starts his Gospel with “Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). This
very terse genealogy is a prelude to Matthew’s longer genealogy (Matthew 1:3-17). Some examples include:
Moses and Aaron - Exodus 6:16-20, Numbers 26:57-59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13
With the Moses and Aaron playing such central roles in the exodus, it is not surprising that their genealogy is given
four different times in the Old Testament. This genealogy serves as a striking example of telescoping a genealogy
to include only the tribe, division, and clan. The genealogies defining the divisions and clans of the Levites are
given in Numbers 3:17-37; 26:57-59 and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6-23. We see from these passages that Moses and
Aaron were of the tribe of Levi (the Levites), the division of Kohath (the Kohathites), and the clan of Amram (the Amramites).
These genealogies were telescoped to only include the three generations needed to establish this. A more detailed
study of these genealogies is given later.
Korah – Numbers 16:1
In the second census during Israel’s desert wanderings, a few noteworthy individuals are listed along with
each tribe’s genealogy. Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, the son of Levi led a rebellion against Moses during
the desert wandering and was engulfed by the earth along with his followers. This genealogy specifies his clan (Izhar),
division (Kohath), and tribe (Levi) and telescopes out the remaining generations between Korah and Izhar.
Dathan and Abiram – Numbers 16:1; 26:5-9
>Along with Korah, Dathan and Abiram participated in the rebellion against Moses and died with him. Because
of this notoriety, Dathan and Abiram are listed among the Reubenites in the second Israelite census. In this genealogy,
we are given only their clan (Eliab), division (Pallu), and tribe (Reuben).
Zelophehads’ daughters - Numbers 26:28-32; 27:1
Zelophehad and his daughters are listed as noteworthy among the Manassehites in the second census of Israel. Because
he had 5 daughters and no sons, they came to Moses about the issue of inheritance. As a result, it became law that
daughters would receive the inheritance if there were no sons (Numbers 27). This genealogy, Zelophehad, son of Hepher,
son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, son of Joseph is analogous to the preceding examples except that one more
name is included beyond the tribe (Manasseh), division (Machir), and clan (Gilead).
Another important difference between ancient and modern genealogies is vocabulary. In modern English, we have a whole
host of words to describe precise familial relationships. For example, we have son, grandson, uncle, father, cousin,
brother, and ancestor. Hebrew has a very small vocabulary, so only a few Hebrew words to carry all of these modern
meanings. For example, the Hebrew words for “son” (
ben, 1121) means son, grandson, great grandson, and descendent. Similarly, “father” (
ab, 1)5 means father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and ancestor. We find in Genesis 28:13 that God tells Jacob,
“I am the LORD, the God of your
ab) Abraham and the God of Isaac,” but Abraham was the
grandfather of Jacob. Similarly, father (
ab) can refer to multiple ancestors as in when Elijah cried, “Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors (
ab)” (1 Kings 19:4). According to
ab “may refer to the first man, a ‘forefather,’ a clan (Jeremiah 35:6), a tribe (Joshua 19:47), a
group with a special calling (1 Chronicles 24:19), a dynasty (1 Kings 15:3), or a nation (Joshua 24:3). Thus
‘father’ does not necessarily mean the man who directly sired a given individual” (
Vine’s “father,” but see also HGKSB, p. 1574). Similar word usage also applies to the New Testament
in Greek, such as the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.
The word “begat” (
yalad, 3205) is another word that is commonly used in Biblical genealogies. (The NIV translates
yalad as “became the father of” or “gave birth to.”) Like father (
ab) and son (
ben), this word has a much broader meaning than the corresponding English usage (Vine’s, “to bear”).
An example of this broader usage is found in Deuteronomy 32:18, where God reminds Israel that He “begat” them.
And similarly in Numbers 11:12, where Moses declares that he hadn’t “begotten” Israel and hence was not
responsible for them.
Numerous examples of the broad use of genealogical terms can be given from scripture but a few clear examples are given here.
Belshazzar is described as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:22) and likewise Nebuchadnezzar is called
his “father” (Daniel 5:2, 11, 18). However, Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus and hence not even biologically
related to Nebuchadnezzar. So, Belshazzar was “son” in the sense of legal heir of Nebuchadnezzar.
At the end of the book of Ruth, Boaz and Ruth have their first son, Obed (Ruth 4:13, 17). In verse 4:17, the
people declare, “there is a son born to Naomi.” Clearly, Naomi was not the actual mother of Obed but
is the mother-in-law of Ruth who is the actual mother of Obed. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, and her two sons
died leaving Elimelech and Naomi without heirs. Boaz married Ruth in fulfillment of the Levirate law, which was enacted
to ensure sons to continue the family line (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The first son of a Levirate marriage was legally
the son of the dead husband. In this case, since Ruth’s father-in-law, Elimelech, was also dead, Obed was also
legally the son of Elimelech and Naomi. So, Obed was the legal son of Naomi but the biological son of Ruth.
Matthew 1:12 and Luke 3:27
In both Matthew and Luke, Zerubbabel is listed as the son of Shealtiel. (Ezra 3:2, 8; 5:2; Nehemiah 12:1; Haggai
1:1, 12; 2:2 also say the same thing.) In 1 Chronicles 3:17-19 we find that Zerubbabel was actually the son of Shealtiel’s
brother, Pedaiah. While it is not stated in the Bible, it is reasonable to assume that Pedaiah died early and that
his uncle, Shealtiel, adopted Zerubbabel. So, Pedaiah was the biological father of Zerubbabel but Shealtiel was his
legal (adoptive) father.6
1 Chronicles 1:36
This verse lists the sons of Eliphaz, the son of Esau. In the Hebrew text, seven names are listed without comment
or connecting words, so it would be easy to assume that all seven people are the male children of Eliphaz. By comparing
these names with Genesis 36:11-12, we see that the sixth name, Timna, was actually the concubine of Eliphaz and the seventh
name, Amalek, was the son of Eliphaz by Timna. The Chronicler omitted this distinction for brevity since the readers
would have been familiar with the listing in Genesis. The NIV inserts the word “by” in front of Timna
and sets it apart from the preceding five names to make this clear to modern readers.
Shortly before Jacob (Israel) died, he adopted both of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own sons.
Jacob told Joseph, “your two sons … will be reckoned as mine” (Genesis 48:5 NIV). So both Manasseh
and Ephraim were the biological sons of Joseph but were legally considered sons of Jacob. (This becomes significant
later, when the Levites are set apart from the other tribes for priestly service. Joseph’s tribe was then split
into two tribes, one for each son, to make up for the absence of the Levites and bringing the number of tribes back to
Telescoping of Genealogies
When names are intentionally left out of a genealogy, it is referred to as “telescoping.” In a telescoped
genealogy only the highlights are given, usually the names of the most important and relevant people. As an example,
if we were to telescope “Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob,” it might read in Hebrew,
“Abraham was the father (
ab) of Jacob” (e.g. Genesis 28:13). In English, this telescoped genealogy would be considered erroneous
and should read “grandfather” instead. In Hebrew (and similarly for Greek), this telescoped genealogy
would be perfectly true and acceptable because there is no separate word for grandfather in Hebrew and the word “father”
ab) includes the meaning grandfather.
Typically when a genealogy is telescoped, the number of names is reduced to an aesthetically pleasing number, usually a multiple
of either 7 or 10 and less important names are omitted until that number is reached. For example, the genealogy of
Genesis 4:17-18 contains 7 names. The genealogies in Genesis 5:3-32; 11:10-26; and Ruth 4:18-22 all have 10 names
each. The genealogy of the nations (Genesis 10:2-29; 1 Chronicles 1:5-23) contains 70 names. Matthew arranged
his genealogy (Matthew 1:2-17) into 3 groups of 14 names each. There are 14 names from Abraham to David, 14 from David
to the exile, and 14 from the exile to Jesus Christ. To get the groups of 14, Matthew omitted at least 4 names (see
below) and counted Jeconiah’s name twice. (See
Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.) Matthew clearly indicates in his gospel that that arrangement was intentional
(Matthew 1:17). Whereas Matthew’s genealogy is broken into sections, Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-28) is
given as a single list. Luke has 14 names from Abraham to David, 21 from David to the exile, and 21 from the exile
to Jesus Christ (in contrast to Matthew’s 14 names each). Luke also has an additional 21 names from Abraham
back to Adam. (See
Luke’s Genealogy on page 17.)7
While modern genealogies are generally intended to be complete, most Biblical genealogies are telescoped. So, while
Biblical genealogies are generally not complete, they are still historically accurate. They correctly communicate
everything that we need to know (ancestry) but not necessarily everything we want to know (absolute genealogical relationships).
It is often very difficult or even impossible to know with certainty whether or not a given genealogy is telescoped.
The genealogies themselves give little or no indication of whether or not they are telescoped. So the only way to
establish the completeness of a genealogy is to compare it with other Biblical genealogies or against history. Such
study is difficult, painstaking, and is often inconclusive. Below are listed a few well-known examples where one can
definitively say that they are telescoped.
Matthew 1:8 compared to 2 Chronicles 21:4-26:23
Matthew 1:8 has Jehoram listed as the father of Uzziah but there were several generations between these men.
The names Ahaziah (2 Chronicles 22:1), Joash (2 Chronicles 22:11), and Amaziah (2 Chronicles 24:27) come between Jehoram
and Uzziah. (See
Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.)
Matthew 1:11 compared to 2 Chronicles 36:1-9
In Matthew 1:11 we read that Josiah is the father of Jeconiah (Jehoiachin). In 2 Chronicles, we see that Josiah
is the father of Jehoiakim (2 Chronicles 36:4) and grandfather of Jehoiachin (2 Chronicles 36:8). (See
Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.)
Luke 3:35-36 compared to Genesis 10:24, 11:12; 1 Chronicles 1:24
Luke contains the name Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad that is missing in Genesis 10:24 and 11:12 and 1 Chronicles
1:24.8 Since all of the genealogies are true and Luke is the one with more names, then Luke must be more complete
and the more rest telescoped. (See
Luke’s Genealogy on page 17.) A more detailed discussion of these genealogies is given in the section on
the Genesis genealogies.
Ezra 7:1-5 compared to 1 Chronicles 6:3-15
The genealogy of 1 Chronicles 6:3-15 lists the descendents of Aaron down to Jehozadak (Jozadak). Ezra 7 lists
Ezra’s own genealogy going back to Aaron. Where the two genealogies overlap, 1 Chronicles contains 22 names
and Ezra contains 16 names, making Ezra’s genealogy no more than 70% complete.9 (See
Priestly Lineage on page 18.) Both genealogies span a time period of about 860 years from the exodus to the fall
of Jerusalem, which suggests that both genealogies are in fact highly telescoped. A thorough search of the Old Testament
reveals that there were many high priests during this time period who are not included in either of these two genealogies,
which provides additional evidence that these genealogies are not complete. The following high priests are known
from the OT but are not included in these genealogies: Jehoiada (2 Kings 12:2), Uriah (2 Kings 16:10-16), possibly
two Azariahs (2 Chronicles 26:17, 20; 31:10-31), Eli (1 Samuel 1:9; 14:3) and Abiathar (2 Samuel 8:17).10
1 Samuel 16:10-13 compared to 1 Chronicles 2:13-15
In the 1 Samuel passage, the prophet Samuel goes to Jesse to anoint one of his sons as the new king of Israel.
Jesse has his seven eldest sons pass before Samuel but each is rejected. Finally, David, the 8
th son is brought in and is anointed by Samuel as king. We find in 1 Chronicles, however, that David is listed
as the 7
th son of Jesse. One of David’s brothers is omitted from the list to allow David to occupy the favored
th position. This may seem a bit odd to modern readers but this was an accepted genealogical practice
Estimating the Degree of Telescoping
Based on the above discussion and Biblical examples, we can see that the telescoping of genealogies was a fairly common practice
in ancient times. Such telescoping is perfectly acceptable and literal (based on Hebrew word usage)—even if
it may be disconcerting to modern readers. We can also see that it is usually impossible to tell from the genealogy
itself whether or not it is complete. For a few genealogies, we can establish specific names that have been omitted
and where they belong in the list. In general, however, the genealogy only establishes a minimum limit to the number
of generations spanned. We have to look at other portions of scripture or history to estimate the degree of telescoping
involved. While the degree of telescoping in a particular genealogy may be uncertain, it is certainly not arbitrary
or unlimited. Upper limits on how far a genealogy might be pushed can be reasonably estimated by looking at Biblical
examples for which we can establish the time span involved. Conservative Bible scholars estimate that genealogies
are generally not less than 10% complete (i.e. including only 1 name in 10) based on such analysis.
Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chronicles 2:5-15; Matthew 1:3-6; and Luke 3:31-33
The genealogy of David given in the book of Ruth lists 10 names from Perez to David. The remaining 3 genealogies
repeat these 10 names but also include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah as the ancestors of Perez to round out the genealogy
to 14 names. The time between Abraham and David spans more than 1,000 years. This time span is too long for
the genealogy to be complete. One can estimate that the genealogy is about 20 to 50% complete.
Heman, Asaph, and Ethan - 1 Chronicles 6:33-47
At the time of David, there were three head temple musicians, one from each of the 3 divisions of the Levites.
There is Heman of the Kohathite division (verses 33-38), Asaph of the Gershonite division (verses 39-42), and Ethan of
the Merarite division (verses 44-47). In each case, the genealogies start with Levi, who was the father of Kohath,
Gershon, and Merari and ancestor of these three men. So, we have three genealogies side-by-side extending from Levi
to the time of King David, yet the genealogies contain 21, 15, and 14 names respectively for exactly the same span of time.
This suggests that at least the latter two genealogies are highly telescoped. (See
Head Temple Musicians on page 19.)
Jeriah (Jerijah) – 1 Chronicles 23:6, 12, 19; 26:31
Jeriah (or Jerijah) was the head of the Hebronites (a Levitical clan) and put in charge of other men by King David.
His genealogy is telescoped to only mention his tribe (Levite), division (Kohathite), and clan (Hebronite). This
four name genealogy covers the same approximately 900-year of history as that of Heman, Asaph, and Ethan (see previous
point and see
Head Temple Musicians on page 19). Since the other three genealogies contain 14 to 21 generations for this same
time span, we can only conclude that this genealogy is no more than 15% complete.
Shebuel (Shubael) – 1 Chronicles 23:15-16; 26:24
Shebuel (or Shubael) was put in charge of the treasury in the time of King David. Both of these genealogies have
Shebuel, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses. Both Moses and Gershom lived during the time of the exodus while Shebuel
lived in the time of King David, some 400 to 500 years later. This is highly telescoped and was only for the purpose
of identifying his ancestry from Moses and Gershom.
In this verse, Ezra lists a number of leading men of his time period according to ancestry. So Gershom was
the son of Phinehas (who was the grandson of Aaron); Daniel was the son of Ithamar (who was the son of Aaron); and Hattush
was the son of David. The first two examples span approximately 1,000 years of time, and the third spans about 500
years. Clearly, these genealogies are highly telescoped!
A Detailed Example: The Mosaic Genealogies
The genealogy of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam illustrates all of the points made above and helps provide a clearer understanding
of Biblical genealogies. Because of the central importance of these three figures, their genealogy is given four different
times in scripture (Exodus 6:16-20; Numbers 26:57-59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13) and a lot of supporting information
can also be gleaned from other scripture references.
Each of the Mosaic genealogies lists the same four generations (Levi to Kohath to Amram to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam).
By cross-referencing with other scripture verses, we can clearly establish that these genealogies are telescoped.
We know that both Levi and his son, Kohath, entered Egypt (Genesis 46:5-27; Exodus 1:1-4), which was 430 years before the
Exodus (Exodus 12:40-41; Acts 7:6). Since Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 7:7), from Kohath
to Amram to Moses spans at least 350 years!!! A typical generation is 20 to 40 years, so one would expect that these
genealogies to span between 10 and 20 generations. We find in 1 Chronicles 7:20-27 the genealogy of Ephraim,
son of Joseph, which covers the same period of history as the Mosaic genealogies. Joseph (brother of Levi) and his
son Ephraim were alive when the Israelites settled in Egypt (Genesis 41:52; 46:27). There are 12 generations listed
from Joseph to Joshua. Since Joshua was alive at the time of the exodus and was a contemporary of Moses, these 12
generations span the 430-year stay in Egypt. This would fit nicely with a generation being about 40 years. Thus,
this genealogy gives (at least) 12 generations that correspond to the same time period as the 4 generations of the Mosaic
The Genealogies of Moses and Joshua on page 18.) Yet, another evidence for telescoping is that Kohath’s
descendents at the time of Moses numbered 8,600 men (Numbers 3:27, 28) of whom 2,750 were between the age of 30 and 50 (Numbers
4:36). This number of descendents is inexplicable if this genealogy is not telescoped and Kohath was Moses’
was grandfather. Based on these arguments, we can conclude that the Mosaic genealogies are perhaps only 20 to 40%
Was Amram the immediate father of Moses and Aaron, or was he their ancestor? A number of evidences show there were quite
a few generations separating Amram and Moses.11 (a) Kohath to Amram to Moses spans 350 years (as discussed above) and hence requires unnamed generations.
(b) Amram and his wife, Jochebed, are mentioned in Exodus 6 as giving rise to Moses. Yet in the account of Exodus
2, the names of Moses parents are conspicuously absent. [They are instead referred to as “a man of the house
of Levi” (vs. 2:1), “a Levite woman” (vs. 2:1), and “the baby’s mother” (vs. 2:8).]
(c) Descendents of Amram are given in 1 Chronicles 24:20 but don’t mention Aaron, Moses, and Miriam neither does
the Exodus account mention additional brothers for Moses. (d) Jochebed, Amram’s wife, is referred to as the
daughter of Levi (Numbers 26:59) and Amram’s father’s sister (Exodus 6:20), which would place Jochebed at the
entrance of the Israelites into Egypt. Thus, she would have to be at least 350 years old when she gave birth to Moses
if there were no gaps in the Mosaic genealogies! Based on this evidence, we recognize that many generations separate
Amram and Jochebed and their children, Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. In Exodus 6:20 and Numbers 26:59, Jochebed is said
to “bear” (“begat,”
yalad) them while in 1 Chronicles 6:3 and 23:13 describes them as “sons” (
ben). Thus, both son (
ben) and “begat” (
yalad) are used synonymously here to refer to a distant descendent in a genealogy.
In conclusion, we find that the Mosaic genealogies are highly telescoped (perhaps 20 to 40% complete). Only the critical
names—those corresponding to his tribe (Levi), division (Kohath), and clan (Amram)—are given, and the remaining
names between Amram and Moses are ignored. Both the term “son” (
ben) and “begat” (
yalad) are applied interchangeably to the relationship between Amram and Moses, yet at least 8 generations separate
the two men (i.e.
yalad are being used to mean ancestor rather than the immediate son). This genealogy is highly telescoped yet
the genealogy itself does not tell us if it is complete or where the gaps are. Only by cross-referencing other Scripture
verses or looking at historical sources were we able to determine whether or not it was telescoped.
The Genesis Genealogies
That many or even most Biblical genealogies are telescoped is not very controversial. However, the genealogies of Genesis
5 and 11 differ in at least one respect. We see the repeated formula, “When X had lived Y years, he became the
father of (i.e. ‘begat’,
yalad) Z” (NIV), rather than simply “X was the father of Y” or “X the son of Y” as we
see elsewhere in the Bible. So, some argue that our conclusions about other Biblical genealogies may not apply to
Genesis 5 and 11. Those holding Ussher’s chronology estimate that Adam and Eve were created around 6,000 years
ago on the assumption that the Genesis genealogies are complete (see
Genesis Genealogies on page 20). Nothing in the text, however, requires that these genealogies be complete.
Biblical scholars who hold that the genealogies are telescoped would place the creation of Adam and Eve at around 10 to
30,000 years ago but perhaps as late as 60,000 years ago.12 Some have tried to push the genealogies so far back that they suggest that Adam and Eve might have been Neanderthals
(or Homo erectus or australopithecines); however, this can not be supported and is rejected by the vast majority of Biblical
scholars. But who’s right? What should we conclude about these genealogies?
In the example of the Mosaic genealogies (above), it was possible to be very firm in our conclusions due to the abundance
of Biblical and historical details surrounding these events. The opposite is true for the Genesis genealogies.
From the time of Abraham on there is wide spread consensus regarding dates and chronology. However, for the time period
before Abraham, which is covered by the Genesis genealogies, there is very little Biblical or historical information on
which to build solid chronological details. Without such supporting information, we need to tread lightly and not
be dogmatic in our conclusions. While we can’t be conclusive in regards to the nature of the Genesis genealogies,
there are a number of points that can be made.
- Examining Biblical genealogies show that ancient genealogies are generally telescoped rather than complete. Ancient
readers, unlike modern readers, were concerned with ancestry rather than number of generations and so would generally not
assume that a given genealogy was complete. Therefore, the burden of proof lies on those who hold that the Genesis
genealogies are complete rather than the reverse.
- Many, perhaps most, of the early church fathers held to a recent date for the creation of Adam, and hence held that the
genealogies were complete (or nearly complete). However, their basis for this conclusion had little to do with the
genealogies themselves. There was a wide spread belief that all of human history (from Adam to the return of Christ)
would last exactly 6,000 years and could be used as a basis for predicting Christ’s return. This interpretation
is no longer accepted today, yet it had a strong influence on how the early church fathers interpreted the Genesis genealogies.
Similarly, the dependence of the early church fathers on Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, rather than
the original Hebrew, also led to a faulty understanding of these genealogies. (For more details see
The Genesis Genealogies and the Early Church Fathers on page 12.)
- Henry Morris argues, “The record [of Genesis 5] is
perfectly natural and
straightforward and is
obviously intended to give both the necessary genealogical data to denote the promised lineage and also the only reliable
chronological framework we have for the antediluvian period of history” (emphasis mine).13 As we have observed, Biblical genealogies are certainly not “obvious” or “straightforward”
in the way that Morris and others argue. At the heart of Morris’ argument is the presumption that the Genealogies
should be interpreted through the lens of modern Western culture rather than based on careful exegetical analysis of Biblical
and other ancient genealogies. This is an easy trap to fall into, because we are so immersed in our own culture and
a proper grasp of Biblical genealogies requires a lot of patience and investigation.
If the author of Genesis 5 and 11 was attempting to give a precise genealogical framework as Morris argues, there should
have been a summation of the years following the genealogy, but this doesn't occur. (Contrast this to the numbering
of the Israelites in Numbers 1, where the individual numbers are summed in verse 46.) Nowhere in Genesis 5, 11, or
anywhere else in the entire Bible are these numbers even suggested to be for the purpose of establishing the time frame
between Adam and Abraham.
- If the presence of personal biographical information, specifically the age at fatherhood, is not for the purpose of establishing
a chronological framework (as discussed in the previous point), what then is the purpose of this information? Again,
we have to develop our understanding based on a systematic study of Biblical genealogies. A study on the inclusion
of the age at death in genealogies reveals a distinct trend: it is only included if it is exceptional, specifically
if it is 100 years or more. This trend is not surprising, since old age is a sign of blessedness. Inclusion
of age at fatherhood seems to follow the same trend, i.e. it is included if it is truly exceptional. (A note of caution
must be made here. The age at fatherhood is consistent with the trend, but there are so few examples that we cannot
be conclusive.) Both the age at fatherhood and the age at death are certainly exceptional for all the individuals
included in the Genesis genealogies.
- Comparing the genealogy of Genesis 11 with Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3, we find that Luke contains the name Cainan
between Shelah and Arphaxad (as noted earlier in this paper). The inerrancy of scripture, therefore, demands that
there is at least one name missing in Genesis 11, and so at least one of the two Genesis genealogies is telescoped.
Despite this direct Biblical evidence, some still hold to the belief that Genesis genealogies are complete, and hence that
the inclusion of the name Cainan in Luke 3:36 is incorrect. One scenario would be that Luke based his genealogies
on late copies of the Septuagint containing Cainan and so mistakenly added it to his genealogy.14 This scenario obviously contradicts Biblical inerrancy and so must be rejected. Henry Morris argues
for an alternative scenario, where the name Cainan is mistakenly added by those copying Luke’s gospel rather than
by Luke himself, thus avoiding problems with Biblical inerrancy. He argues that those first copying Luke’s
gospel added the name Cainan because they were either influenced by their familiarity with the Septuagint or miscopied
it from Luke 3:37.15 There is, however, no Biblical, historical, or manuscript evidence to support this claim, and therefore
we should take Luke to be correct and the Genesis genealogies as telescoped.
- The Mosaic genealogies share a large number of similarities with the Genesis genealogies, yet they contain a large gap between
Amram and Moses. Points of similarity include: a) the genealogy bridging a large span of time between important
Biblical figures; b) using “begat” (
yalad) to connect generations; and c) inclusion of personal details, such as age at death. So none of these features
of the Genesis genealogy can be used to argue for the genealogies being complete.
- Both Genesis 5 and 11 use the verb “begat” to connect one generation to the next. In Exodus 6:20 and Numbers
26:59, this same verb connects Amram and his wife Jochebed to Moses even though there are many generations in between them.
These verses demonstrate that “begat” can be genuinely used in precisely the way suggested for the Genesis
Understanding the Genesis genealogies requires a systematic understanding of the nature, style, and purpose of genealogies
in the Bible. Even a cursory study of Biblical genealogies shows that Biblical genealogies are very different from
their modern counterparts. Looking closer, we find that Biblical genealogies are commonly telescoped by leaving out
less important names and that it is usually impossible to tell if a genealogy is complete simply by looking at it.
While genealogies are typically skimmed over or ignored by most people, the Genesis genealogies have generated controversy
because of their supposed connection to the age of the universe and the creation of man. The interpretation that the
Genesis genealogies are telescoped and that Adam and Eve were created a few tens of thousands of years ago is no less a
literal interpretation of scripture than Ussher’s interpretation. Many prominent conservative theologians (see
below) support this position.
Prominent Conservative Theologians Who Hold That The Genesis Genealogies Are Telescoped:
- William Henry Green, “Primeval Creation,”
Bibliotheca Sacra, April 1890, pp. 285-303.
- B. B. Warfield, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” reprinted in
Biblical and Theological Studies (P & R, 1968), pp. 238-261.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 40-41.
- James Oliver Buswell,
A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Part II, Chapter IV.
- R. K. Harrison,
Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 147-52.
- Francis Schaeffer,
Genesis in Space and Time.
- NIV = New International Version of the Holy Bible.
- Vine’s = W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger, W. White, Jr.,
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.
- HGKSB =
Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible by S. Zodhiates, World Bible Publishers, Inc, 1984.
- Word references in parenthesis are keyed to
The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
For Further Reference:
NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1985, “Introduction to 1 Chronicles:
Genealogies” and footnotes on Genesis 4:17-18, 5:5, 11:10-26; 1 Chronicles 6:4-15, 7:20-29; Daniel 5:1; Matthew
1:5, 8, 11, 12, 17; Acts 7:6.
- Norman Geisler and Norman Howe,
When Critics Ask, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL 1992, p. 38-39.
- Hugh Ross,
Fingerprint of God, 2
nd Ed., Promise Publishing Co., Orange, CA, 1989, p. 159.
- Hugh Ross,
Creation and Time, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1994, p 26-27.
- Hugh Ross,
Genesis Question, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1999, p. 54-55, 107-110.
The Genesis Genealogies and the Early Church Fathers
Those holding to the view that the Genesis genealogies must be complete (or very nearly complete) may be tempted to look
to the early church leaders in order to garner support for their view. In examining the writings of the early church
fathers, we must be careful to avoid the pitfall of trying to recruit them to support our personal views but instead we
should focus on simply trying to understand what they taught and why. An excellent starting point in this regard is
Robert Bradshaw’s extensive survey of the writings of the early church fathers (up to the death of Augustine in 430
AD) on how they interpreted various issues in Genesis 1-11.16
Bradshaw notes that during the formative years of the church, there was an almost universal belief that human history (from
Adam to the return of Christ) would encompass exactly 6,000 years.17 This was based on the idea that God’s plan for human history paralleled God’s creation of the
world. That is, human history would span six “days” just as creation took place in six “days.”
While the early church leaders held differing views of the length of the “days” of creation, the “days”
of human history were believed to be 1,000 years each (based on Psalms 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). Some further divided
this history into three ages of 2,000 years (2 “days”) each: an age of chaos; the age of the Law, and
the age of the Messiah.18 These six “days” were then to be followed by Christ’s triumphal return and the inauguration
of the millennial kingdom (Revelations 20). Thus the millennial kingdom (seventh “day”) paralleled God’s
rest on the seventh “day” of creation.19 It is this millennial view of human history that more than any other factor led many in the early church
to hold that the Genesis genealogies were complete, because this interpretation required that the genealogies were complete
(or nearly complete).
Contemporary audiences will likely find this understanding of human history a bit surprising, since it is no longer held
in the church today. One of the primary driving forces for the acceptance of this 6,000 year interpretation of history
was eschatological—an attempt to date Christ’s return. (This is despite a scriptural injunction against
doing so.) Using the Genesis genealogies (if one assumes that they are truly complete) one could work backward in
time from Abraham to the creation of Adam and then from there leap forward 6,000 years to determine when Christ would return
and set up his millennial kingdom. Some specific dates given by early church fathers for the creation of Adam include
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 AD) at 5,592 BC; Julius Africanus (c. 160–240 AD) and Hippolytus of Rome
(170-236 AD) at 5,500 BC; and finally Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD) at 5,228 BC.20 (See
Specific Statements Made by Early Church Fathers Concerning the Age of the Earth on page 21.) The three earliest
dates would have placed Christ’s return at around the 5
th to 6
th century AD while Eusebius’ date placed Christ’s return at around the 9
th century AD. It is this prediction that Jesus Christ would come back soon (only hundreds, not thousands of
years) that fueled apocalyptic expectations, which insured the rapid and widespread acceptance of this interpretation of
human history. Bradshaw notes the trend toward later and later estimates for Christ’s return (based on the estimated
dates for Adam’s creation) and speculates that this may have been intentional on the part of the church in order cool
apocalyptic fervor over the nearness of Christ’s return.
Before moving on, it should be noted that the estimates given for when Adam was created (and correspondingly for when Christ
was to return) were actually in error (off by more than 1,000 years) because these early church fathers based their calculation
on the Greek Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew. (Their dependence on Greek and Latin translations of the
Old Testament will be discussed in more detail below.) The Hebrew text, the Greek Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch
all have different values for the ages used in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and correspondingly give different estimates
for when Adam was created. The accepted Hebrew text has the correct values for the ages while the Septuagint tends
to give larger values and the Samaritan Pentateuch tends to give smaller values (relative to the Hebrew text).21 (Specific ages are given in
Variation in the Age at Fatherhood between Different Translations on page 21.) Later estimates by Archbishop James
Ussher and John Lightfoot in 1650 using the ages given in the Hebrew text produced a date for the creation of Adam at 4,004
BC (corresponding to Christ returning around the year 1998 AD). Had the early church used this (corrected) estimation,
the interpretation of human history in 6,000 years would have been much less appealing to the early church because Christ’s
return would have been viewed as very distant (almost 2,000 years away) rather than just a few hundred years away and in
turn this would have lessoned the impetus to force an interpretation of the Genesis genealogies as being complete.
Another reason for the widespread acceptance of the millennial “day” interpretation of human history was an attempt
to resolve a difficulty in Genesis 2:17. This verse reads, “for in the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil] you shall die” (NRSV) yet Genesis 5:5 tells us that Adam lived 930 years. So by arguing that
the “day” referred to in Genesis 2:17 was a millennium (using Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8), then Adam would
have (physically) died just short of the end of the first (millennial) “day” of human history. For example,
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 160 AD) wrote:
“Now we have understood that the expression used among these words, ‘According to the days of the tree [of life]
shall be the days of my people; the works of their toil shall abound, obscurely predicts a thousand years. For as
Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years.
We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, “The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ is connected
with this subject.”22
Irenaeus (c. 115-202 AD) likewise wrote:
“And there are some again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since ‘a day of the Lord
is as a thousand years,’ he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence
of his sin. Whether, therefore, with respect to disobedience, which is death; whether [we consider] that, on account
of that, they were delivered over to death, and made debtors to it; whether with respect to [the fact that on] one and the
same day on which they ate they also died (for it is one day of the creation); whether [we regard this point] that with
respect to this cycle of days, they died on the day in which they did also eat, that is, the day of the preparation, which
is termed ‘the pure supper,’ that is, the sixth day of the feast, which the Lord also exhibited when He suffered
on that day; or whether [we reflect] that he (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit…”23
Bradshaw gives an extended discussion of these quotes and demonstrates that the thousand years refers to the millennial “days”
interpretation of human history, not to the “days” of creation in Genesis 1.24 This use of millennial “days” to explain Genesis 2:17, which helped support the millennial interpretation
of human history, is no longer accepted in the church today.
Another critical factor that shaped the early church’s understanding of the book of Genesis was their reliance upon
Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, rather than the original Hebrew manuscripts. According to Bradshaw’s
research, out of 23 early church fathers studied, only two (Jerome and Theodore of Mopsuestia) were fluent in Hebrew and
both lived in the fourth/fifth century AD.25 This means that for the first three to four centuries, the early church labored under a Greek and Latin influenced
understanding of the Genesis genealogies. The Septuagint was the primary Greek translation available to the early
Christians and was composed by Jewish theologians at around 250-300 BC. While the Septuagint was generally a reliable
translation, the earliest Latin translations (prior to Jerome’s Latin
Vulgate) varied considerably in their degree of accuracy. Many in the early church held that these translations
were inspired and of higher authority than the Hebrew text and so often failed to question the translated text even when
it led to obvious problems.26 By the time that Jerome came around near the beginning of the 5
th century AD and produced a new and authoritative vernacular Latin translation—the
Vulgate—using both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, interpretations based on reading Greek or Latin texts were
well entrenched.27 Bradshaw is clear in noting that modern scholars have a distinct edge over the early church fathers in regard
to using the original Hebrew. Today, there exist Hebrew-English Bibles, Hebrew word dictionaries, as well as newer
English translations based directly on the Hebrew manuscripts.
This reliance upon Greek and Latin translations did have an impact upon a wide variety of interpretations made by the early
church leaders, and some faulty interpretations continued to be passed on even long after the time of the early church leaders.28 Translations can affect interpretations in several different ways. First, translations may contain
genuine mistakes or errors. This is rather rare but the aforementioned differences in the ages at fatherhood and its
corresponding impact on the perceptions of the early church fathers illustrates this problem. Secondly, translators
may subtly interject their own interpretation into the translation of the passage. As an example, Bradshaw mentions
that the Greek Septuagint translated the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 as “angels,” thus
impacting the debate as to whether this passage was referring to fallen angels or descents of Seth. The third and
most significant effect of using translations is that it is impossible to exactly translate words and phrases from one language
to another. Whereas the first two problems can often be caught by comparing different manuscripts or translations,
the subtle differences between languages are often much more difficult to quantify and correct. Hebrew is a Semitic
language and so is very different from Greek, Latin, and English. One important difference is that verbs in ancient
Hebrew do not express verb tense as in Greek, Latin, and English, which means that translations can subtly introduce assumptions
about the duration and time ordering of verbal actions.29 Hebrew also has a very small vocabulary compared to most modern languages, so that Hebrew words often have
many more meanings than their modern counterparts.30 This is particularly important, when we consider genealogical words, such as “son,” “father,”
and “begat,” which have a much more flexible usage in Hebrew than in Greek or Latin.
In examining the writings of the early church fathers, we see that they wrestled with the very same issues that concern us
today. Many look to their works as an authoritative guide for Christian belief, while others look to them because
they are free from modern biases (such as naturalism and rationalism). While these writings cannot and should not
be ignored, we must be guarded in our acceptance of their interpretations. Being free from modern biases does not
mean that they were completely objective in their interpretations. Clearly, eschatological concerns (human history
in 6,000 years to date Christ’s return) and theological concerns (explaining Genesis 2:17) shaped much of the early
church’s understanding of the Genesis genealogies rather than the genealogies themselves. The early church’s
dependence upon the Greek and Latin translations rather than the original Hebrew manuscripts exerted an additional influence
over the thinking of the early church in regard to the Genesis genealogies. Given these factors, our understanding
of the Genesis genealogies should be based primarily on a careful study of the role and function of Biblical genealogies
throughout the Bible, rather than focusing upon the writings of the early church fathers.
Matthew’s Genealogy (Matthew 1:3-17)
Abraham to David (14 names)
David to the Exile (14 names)
Exile to Jesus Christ (14 names)
Luke’s Genealogy (Luke 3:23-38)
From Adam to Abraham (21 names)
Abraham to David (14 names)
David to the Exile (21 names)
Exile to Jesus Christ (21 names)
The Genealogies of Moses and Joshua
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all play critical roles in the exodus, and their genealogy appears four times in the Bible (Exodus
6:16-20; Numbers 26:57-59; 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13). Joshua, son of Nun, was also a part of the exodus and
has his own genealogy (Numbers 13:8, 16; 1 Chronicles 7:20-27). Both sets of genealogies span the same 430-year period
(Exodus 12:40-41; Acts 7:6) from the sojourn to Egypt till the exodus from Egypt, yet one lists 4 generations and the other
|Amram (and Jochebed39)
|Moses, Aaron, and Miriam
1 Chronicles 6:3-15 and Ezra 7:1-5
The genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:3-15 lists 22 names extending from Aaron to Seraiah. Ezra’s genealogy (Ezra 7:1-5)
overlaps the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6 but only includes 16 names. The italicized names are the 6 names found in
1 Chronicles 6 but absent in Ezra.
Head Temple Musicians
1 Chronicles 6:33-47
This passage contains three genealogies, one for each head temple musician according the Levitical division that they belonged
to. All three men (Heman of the Kohathites, Asaph of the Gershomites, and Ethan of the Merarites) were contemporary
with one another and served in the time of King David (1 Chronicles 6:31). All of the genealogies start with Levi
in the time of the patriarchs and conclude in the time of King David and so span the same approximately 900-year period.
It is important to note that very different numbers of generations are shown for the exact same time span, which strongly
suggests that at least two of the genealogies were telescoped.
1 Chronicles 6:33-38
1 Chronicles 6:39-43
1 Chronicles 6:44-47
(21 names total)42
(15 names total)1
(14 names total)1
Genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5)
||Age at Fatherhood44
||Age at Death
||Year of Birth
||Year of Death
Genealogy from Noah to Abraham (Genesis 11:10-32)
||Age at Fatherhood2
||Age at Death
||Year of Birth
||Year of Death
Specific Statements Made by Early Church Fathers Concerning the Age of the Earth50
||Date of Creation of Adam (BC)
|Clement of Alexandria
||c. 150- c. 215
|Hippolytus of Rome
|Eusebius of Caesarea
|Augustine of Hippo
Variation in the Age at Fatherhood between Different Translations51
Genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5)
||167 or 18752