How Were Mary and Elizabeth Related?
The New Testament contains two genealogies of Christ. Matthew recorded the genealogy of Christ from Abraham to Jesus (1:1-16), while Luke recorded Christ’s genealogy from Jesus all the way back to Adam (3:23-38). The differences in the genealogies result from the fact that Matthew gives the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, while Luke presents the genealogy of Jesus through Mary (see Miller, 2003; cf. Luke 1:30-32). [NOTE: Luke followed the strict Hebrew tradition of mentioning only the names of males. Therefore, in Luke 3, Mary is designated by her husband’s name (see Lyons, 2003, pp. 157-159).] Still, some wonder how Mary could be a descendant of David. Skeptic Dennis McKinsey, for example, asked in his journal, Biblical Errancy, “If, using the genealogy in Luke, Jesus’s claim to descent [sic] from David, of the tribe of Judah, is through Mary rather than Joseph, then how can it be that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, was descended from the house of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi?” (1998, emp. added). Does Luke 1:5,36 imply that Mary could not have been a blood descendant of King David?
First, the King James translation of the term syngenis as “cousin” (Luke 1:36) is unwarranted and somewhat misleading to those who normally interpret the word to mean “first cousin.” The Greek term syngenis simply means “relative” (NKJV, NASB, NIV) or “kinswoman” (ASV, RSV). It is “a general term, meaning ‘of the same family’” (Vincent, 1997). Thus, Mary and Elizabeth may have been first cousins, or they may have been fourth cousins. All we know for sure is that they were kin.
Second, Mary and Elizabeth could have been from different tribes and still have been first cousins. It may be that their mothers were sisters. Their mothers could have been from the tribe of Judah or Levi. As commentator Matthew Henry noted: “Though Elisabeth was, on the father’s side, of the daughters of Aaron (v. 5), yet on the mother’s side she might be of the house of David, for those two families often intermarried, as an earnest of the uniting of the royalty and the priesthood of the Messiah” (1997).
However Mary and Elizabeth were related, tribal heritage among the descendants of Jacob was passed down through fathers, not mothers (cf. Ruth 4:18-22); children were always of their father’s tribe, not their mother’s. Thus, Elizabeth and Mary were descendants of Aaron and David, respectively, by way of their fathers’ ancestry, and not necessarily of their mothers’.
Henry, Matthew (1997), Commentary on the Whole Bible (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Lyons, Eric (2003), The Anvil Rings (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
McKinsey, Dennis (1998), “Tough Questions for the Christian Church,” Biblical Errancy, October, [On-line], URL: http://home.comcast.net/~errancy/issues/iss190.htm.
Miller, Dave (2003), “The Genealogies of Matthew and Luke,” [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/articles/1834.
Vincent, Marvin R. (1997), Word Studies in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).