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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Harmony of the Gospels (Augustine) > Book II, Chapter 3

The Harmony of the Gospels, Book II

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Chapter 3. A Statement of the Reason Why Matthew Enumerates One Succession of Ancestors for Christ, and Luke Another.

5. Furthermore, as to those critics who find a difficulty in the circumstance that Matthew enumerates one series of ancestors, beginning with David and travelling downwards to Joseph, while Luke specifies a different succession, tracing it from Joseph upwards as far as to David, they might easily perceive that Joseph may have had two fathers — namely, one by whom he was begotten, and a second by whom he may have been adopted. For it was an ancient custom also among that people to adopt children with the view of making sons for themselves of those whom they had not begotten. For, leaving out of sight the fact that Pharaoh's daughter adopted Moses (as she was a foreigner), Jacob himself adopted his own grandsons, the sons of Joseph, in these very intelligible terms: Now, therefore, your two sons which were born unto you before I came unto you, are mine: Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon: and your issue which you beget after them shall be yours. Whence also it came to pass that there were twelve tribes of Israel, although the tribe of Levi was omitted, which did service in the temple; for along with that one the whole number was thirteen, the sons of Jacob themselves being twelve. Thus, too, we can understand how Luke, in the genealogy contained in his Gospel, has named a father for Joseph, not in the person of the father by whom he was begotten, but in that of the father by whom he was adopted, tracing the list of the progenitors upwards until David is reached. For, seeing that there is a necessity, as both evangelists give a true narrative — to wit, both Matthew and Luke, — that one of them should hold by the line of the father who begot Joseph, and the other by the line of the father who adopted him, whom should we suppose more likely to have preserved the lineage of the adopting father, than that evangelist who has declined to speak of Joseph as begotten by the person whose son he has nevertheless reported him to be? For it is more appropriate that one should have been called the son of the man by whom he was adopted, than that he should be said to have been begotten by the man of whose flesh he was not descended. Now when Matthew, accordingly, used the phrases, Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and so on, keeping steadily by the term begot, until he said at the close, and Jacob begot Joseph, he gave us to know with sufficient clearness, that he had traced out the order of ancestors on to that father by whom Joseph was not adopted, but begotten.

6. But even although Luke had said that Joseph was begotten by Heli, that expression ought not to disturb us to such an extent as to lead us to believe anything else than that by the one evangelist the father begetting was mentioned, and by the other the father adopting. For there is nothing absurd in saying that a person has begotten, not after the flesh, it may be, but in love, one whom he has adopted as a son. Those of us, to wit, to whom God has given power to become His sons, He did not beget of His own nature and substance, as was the case with His only Son; but He did indeed adopt us in His love. And this phrase the apostle is seen repeatedly to employ just in order to distinguish from us the only-begotten Son who is before every creature, by whom all things were made, who alone is begotten of the substance of the Father; who, in accordance with the equality of divinity, is absolutely what the Father is, and who is declared to have been sent with the view of assuming to Himself the flesh proper to that race to which we too belong according to our nature, in order that by His participation in our mortality, through His love for us, He might make us partakers of His own divinity in the way of adoption. For the apostle speaks thus: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And yet we are also said to be born of God — that is to say, in so far as we, who already were men, have received power to be made the sons of God — to be made such, moreover, by grace, and not by nature. For if we were sons by nature, we never could have been anything else. But when John said, To them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe in His name, he proceeded at once to add these words, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. Thus, of the same persons he said, first, that having received power they became the sons of God, which is what is meant by that adoption which Paul mentions; and secondly, that they were born of God. And in order the more plainly to show by what grace this is effected, he continued thus: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, — as if he meant to say, What wonder is it that those should have been made sons of God, although they were flesh, on whose behalf the only Son was made flesh, although He was the Word? Howbeit there is this vast difference between the two cases, that when we are made the sons of God we are changed for the better; but when the Son of God was made the son of man, He was not indeed changed into the worse, but He did certainly assume to Himself what was below Him. James also speaks to this effect: Of His own will begot He us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. And to preclude our supposing, as it might appear from the use of this term begot, that we are made what He is Himself, he here points out very plainly, that what is conceded to us in virtue of this adoption, is a kind of headship among the creatures.

7. It would be no departure from the truth, therefore, even had Luke said that Joseph was begotten by the person by whom he was really adopted. Even in that way he did in fact beget him, not indeed to be a man, but certainly to be a son; just as God has begotten us to be His sons, whom He had previously made to the effect of being men. But He begot only one to be not simply the Son, which the Father is not, but also God, which the Father in like manner is. At the same time, it is evident that if Luke had employed that phraseology, it would be altogether a matter of dubiety as to which of the two writers mentioned the father adopting, and which the father begetting of his own flesh; just as, on the other hand, although neither of them had used the word begot, and although the former evangelist had called him the son of the one person, and the latter the son of the other, it would nevertheless be doubtful which of them named the father by whom he was begotten, and which the father by whom he was adopted. As the case stands now, however — the one evangelist saying that Jacob begot Joseph, and the other speaking of Joseph who was the son of Heli, — by the very distinction which they have made between the expressions, they have elegantly indicated the different objects which they have taken in hand. But surely it might easily suggest itself, as I have said, to a man of piety decided enough to make him consider it right to seek some worthier explanation than that of simply crediting the evangelist with stating what is false; it might, I repeat, readily suggest itself to such a person to examine what reasons there might be for one man being (supposed) capable of having two fathers. This, indeed, might have suggested itself even to those detractors, were it not that they preferred contention to consideration.

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Source. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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