Jewish man reading the New Testament in the library

The Genealogy of the Messiah

The New Testament traces Jesus lineage through David and Abraham.

by Rich Robinson | April 20 2018

The New Testament starts with the genealogy of Jesus. It’s a very long list of Jewish names tracing Jesus’ lineage back through David to Abraham. Not all readers have known what to do with this. But for Jewish people, the reason for the New Testament to start there should be obvious.

Family has always been paramount for Jews. We are family focused, and we are invested in knowing about our personal family histories. They help us locate contexts in which to solidify our personal identities.

Among previous generations (and some still today), yichus (a good family lineage) was important to finding a soulmate. If “so-and-so” was the son of “Rabbi This-and-That” and the grandson of “Rabbi Here-and-There,” well then, you had yourself a catch!

Going further back, family trees (genealogies) were important for our ancestors even in the time of the Bible. That’s why the Jewish Bible is full of genealogies, long (sometimes very long) lists of people, their parents, their grandparents, their tribes, their “clans” and so on. For our ancestors of long ago, these genealogies had very practical functions. They established family ties, or rights of rulership, or rights of inheritance, or other things important for the proper functioning of society.

So, it is not surprising that when Matthew sat down to write the life story of the Messiah, he started with Jesus’ genealogy. And if we want to understand the full purpose and meaning of Jesus’ genealogy, we need to find the right keys to unlock our understanding.

Modern Name Lists

The long lists of names in the Bible may actually make more sense if we compare them to modern lists, not necessarily genealogies, but name lists nonetheless:

  • a synagogue’s “Tree of Life” or donor wall honoring those who have given1
  • the list of “Righteous Gentiles” (Righteous Among the Nations) at Yad Vashem2
  • the names of those who gave their lives, inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall3

These are not meant to be interesting reads or tell exciting stories, but they serve several functions. They honor, they commemorate, they remind us of the values and actions of others, and they stimulate us to follow in the footsteps of those named.

These lists also have a cumulative effect as we contemplate the number of names. They cause us to think about our own place among the Jewish people (e.g.: That person has my surname. That family’s name sounds like they came from my grandfather’s country).

The biblical genealogies served a similar purpose. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel might see how Jesus’ family tree was a branch of their own. It’s likely that a few of those first readers would have been close relatives of Jesus and would have therefore shared most of his genealogy. Certainly, the mention of Abraham and David would signal that Jesus was a Jew like many of those who first read Matthew.

The Genealogy of Jesus

The New Testament talks about Jesus’ genealogy first thing out of the gate. The very first sentence reads:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)

(Although most modern English translations read “Jesus Christ,” that is none other than “Yeshua the Messiah,” the Hebrew words for messiah and Jesus’ name as they came into English via Greek. Above, we have substituted “Messiah” for “Christ” to make this clearer.)

Many Jewish people have opened the New Testament with trepidation and have been very surprised at the beginning. For example, Mottel Baleston, raised in a Yiddish-speaking Jewish home in New York City, recounts:

I must have been about twenty when I determined to find out more about this Jewish Jesus and decided to read the New Testament in order to understand if it had anything to do with my Jewish people. I had been warned that it was a book that was against the Jews, and so with surprise I read the very first sentence in this forbidden book: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.”

In the very first sentence of the “Christian” New Testament, there are three people mentioned, and they are all Jewish! As I continued in the Book of Matthew, I came to see that it was a Jewish story, set in a Jewish country, written by Jewish writers about a Jewish man who claimed to be not only the Messiah of Israel but the Savior of the entire world. Everything I read about Rabbi Jesus was attractive.4

After the first sentence (Matthew 1:1), there comes a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, before even getting to his birth.

The point is to tell us that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the hopes of the Jewish people and the beginning of the fulfillment of what the Hebrew Bible says about redemption. Let’s zoom in to Abraham and then David, both prominently mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.


Right from the beginning of the New Testament, Jesus is situated as a descendant of David and of Abraham. Abraham, as we know, was the father of the Jewish people. Though to be more exact, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the fathers of the Jewish people, since Abraham and Isaac had other sons who fathered non-Jewish people. Those familiar with Jewish liturgy and/or the Bible will know the phrase, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Abraham was the one who God told to leave his home in Mesopotamia, roughly today’s Iraq, and travel to an unknown land that God would show him. Some credit Abraham with “inventing” monotheism, or at least recognizing that God was the only true God. According to a midrash that some of us grew up hearing, Abraham’s father, Terah, made his living as an idol-maker. One day, Abraham destroyed all the idols in his father’s factory (or was it a showroom?) and proclaimed idolatry to be narriskeit (Yiddish for “foolishness.” Note, however, that Abraham did not actually speak Yiddish!).

Midrashim like that can be a lot of fun, but it’s not a story you’ll find in the Bible. What you will find is God’s famous promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Who are “all the families of the earth”? They are the Gentiles, the non-Jews! And what does it mean by “in you”? It means through Abraham’s descendants. Many centuries later in the New Testament, we read that God “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”5 That could only be said because of God’s promise to the patriarch Abraham.

Jesus would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to the patriarch.

The prominence of Abraham in the genealogy of Jesus comes to show us that Jesus, as a descendant of Abraham, would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to the patriarch. That is obviously meaningful for our people for several reasons. But it also explains why so many non-Jews from many nations of the world have followed Jesus.


David, the famous king of Israel, is also prominent in Jesus’ genealogy. He is the subject of the Jewish song, “David, Melech Yisrael” (David, King of Israel). The website “My Jewish Learning” says:

Jewish tradition says David never died. David’s mortal death is described in the Bible. But by long tradition in both Judaism and Christianity, he will live forever, both in the bloodline of the Messiah as he is imagined in Jewish tradition and the bloodline of Jesus of Nazareth as it is given in the New Testament. That’s why the much-celebrated Jewish song “David, Melech Yisrael,” is actually a messianic celebration of David’s persistence in history. “David, Melech Yisrael, Ch’ai, Ch’ai, Vi’kai-yom” means: “David, King of Israel, is alive today.”6

In other words, King David was the prototype of the Messiah. Kings were anointed with oil, and the word messiah simply means, “anointed person.” The hope was for a future greater David, and this hoped-for individual became known as simply the Anointed, or the Messiah. King David was Messiah version 1.0.

The Purpose of Jesus’ Genealogy

Not only was Jesus a descendant of Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob), making him Jewish, but he was also a descendant of David, making him “eligible” to be the Messiah or the greater King David. And the long lists of names that follow situate him in Jewish history.

Consider the reasons stated above for modern name lists and think about how Jesus’ genealogy fits into the picture. Name lists can do the following:

  • They can honor. By presenting us with Jesus’ ancestry over many generations, Matthew tells us that Jesus is worthy to be honored—as a Jew, as a descendant of David, as a person. Though all people are of value, not all are worthy of being honored. Seeing this genealogy, we can ask, “What did Jesus do so that he was worthy of being honored?”
  • They can commemorate. Name lists bring to our mind who others were and what they have done. As we look over Jesus’ genealogy, we can ask, “What did Jesus accomplish that he should be remembered in this way?”
  • They get us to reflect on the past—which helps us know how to live in the present. As we see this “wall” of names in the first chapter of Matthew, we can reflect, What could the significance of Jesus be for my own life as a Jew?

Martin Buber once called Jesus “my brother,” in some way placing himself within the same family as Jesus.

From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavor to understand…. My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, and today I see him more strongly and clearly than ever before. I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith and that this place cannot be described by any of the usual categories.7

Jesus is Jewish. What meaning does that hold for you?


1 If you’ve never seen one of these, a good selection is at W&E Baum.

2Yad Vashem.

4 Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

4 Christiane Jurik, ed., What We Have Seen and Heard: Twenty-Three Jews Speak about Their Faith in Messiah, 2nd ed. (San Antonio: Ariel Ministries, 2015).

5 Revelation 5:9.

6 Jonathan Kirsch, “Fourteen Things You Need to Know About King David,” My Jewish Learning, accessed March 22, 2024.

7 Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003).