Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Value of Biblical Genealogies

What is the purpose and value of Biblical genealogies? It is certain that substantial portions of the Old Testament and even a part of the New Testament are dedicated to listing genealogical descent. Detractors quickly point out that the genealogies have no practical value. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a unique perspective on both the accuracy and the utility of these genealogies. Here is a quote from part of the Bible Dictionary entry on Genealogy:
Concerned with tracing the line of descent in any given family. Where certain offices or blessings are restricted to particular families, genealogies become of great importance; for example, a priest must be able to show his descent from Aaron, the Messiah from David, while every Jew must be able to show his descent from Abraham. In the Old Testament the genealogies form an important part of the history, such as of the antediluvian patriarchs (Gen. 5; 1 Chr. 1:1–4); of Noah (Gen. 10); of Shem (Gen. 11:10–32; 1 Chr. 1:17–28); of Ham (1 Chr. 1:8–16); of Abraham’s children by Keturah (Gen. 25:1–4; 1 Chr. 1:32); of Ishmael (Gen. 25:12–16; 1 Chr. 1:29–31); of Esau (Gen. 36; 1 Chr. 1:35–54); of Jacob (Gen. 46; Ex. 6:14–25; Num. 26; 1 Chr. 2:2); various (1 Chr. 3–9; Ezra 2:62; Neh. 7:64). 
The New Testament contains two genealogies of Jesus Christ; that in Matt. 1:1–17descends from Abraham to Jesus, being intended for Jewish readers; while that in Luke 3:23–38 ascends from Jesus to Adam, and to God, this Gospel being written for the world in general. We notice also that Luke gives 21 names between David and Zerubbabel, and Matthew gives only 15; Luke gives 17 generations between Zerubbabel and Joseph, and Matthew only 9; moreover, nearly all the names are different. The probable explanation is that the descent may be traced through two different lines. Matthew gives a legal descent and includes several adopted children, such adoption carrying with it legal rights, while Luke gives a natural descent through actual parentage.
 I see no reason to get into a debate about the historicity of the genealogies and I fully realize that there are some who "trace' their lineage "back to Adam" using these genealogies as a basis. The difficulty with those "back to Adam" family trees occurs long before they ever get back to a connection with the Bible.

Our LDS belief in the Bible itself is tempered by the eighth Article of Faith, which reads:
8 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
Although not an "official" position of the Church, The website contains two statements that help clarify the LDS position regarding genealogy per se.
Critics charge that the Bible condemns genealogy, and therefore the Latter-day Saint practice of compiling family histories is anti-Biblical, often citing 1 Timothy 1:4 or Titus 3:9
The Bible does not condemn all genealogy per se. Rather, it rejects the use of genealogy to "prove" one's righteousness, or the truth of one's teachings. It also rejects the apostate uses to which some Christians put genealogy in some varieties of gnosticism.
Latter-day Saints engage in genealogy work so that they can continue the Biblical practice—also endorsed by Paul—of providing vicarious ordinances for the dead, such as baptism (See 1 Corinthians 15:29) so that the atonement of Christ may be available to all who would choose it, living or dead. See: Baptism for the dead
If, as this statement says, the purpose of engaging in genealogy work is to provide vicarious ordinances for the dead, then spending time engaged in adding the Biblical genealogies to your family lines and in adding in the connections serves no purpose at all. Not only are the intervening genealogies notoriously unreliable and familial connection with these families is tenuous at best and very likely unprovable. 

I have cited this quote a few times from the Ensign for February, 1984, but it always bears repeating:
I’ve heard that some people have extended their ancestral lines back to Adam. Is this possible? If so, is it necessary for all of us to extend our pedigrees back to Adam? 
Robert C. Gunderson, Senior Royalty Research Specialist, Church Genealogical Department. The simplest answer to both questions is No. Let me explain. In thirty-five years of genealogical research, I have yet to see a pedigree back to Adam that can be documented. By assignment, I have reviewed hundreds of pedigrees over the years. I have not found one where each connection on the pedigree can be justified by evidence from contemporary documents. In my opinion it is not even possible to verify historically a connected European pedigree earlier than the time of the Merovingian Kings (c. A.D. 450–A.D. 752). 
Every pedigree I have seen which attempts to bridge the gap between that time and the biblical pedigree appears to be based on questionable tradition, or at worst, plain fabrication. Generally these pedigrees offer no evidence as to the origin of the information, or they cite a vague source. 
The question also asks if it is necessary for us to trace our pedigrees back to Adam. I believe that when the true purpose for which we do genealogical research is understood, one will realize that it is not necessary, at this time, to connect our pedigrees back to Adam. In fact an attempt to do so is probably detrimental to the overall goal of genealogical and temple work—to make available the saving ordinances of the gospel for all the dead.
I commend the entire article to any of those who are proud to show me (or anyone else) how they have traced their lineage "back to Adam." But the most important part of the article is the statement in the last paragraph:
The volume of the work is such that there is a need for every member to be engaged in some aspect of it—but at the same time we must learn to work efficiently and effectively. We do not have time for needless projects that sap our time and resources.
It is not so much the accuracy, or lack thereof, but the fact that it is such a monumental waste of time and resources that serves no purpose.

1 comment:

  1. James,

    There do appear to be documented genealogies back to the bible through Jewish lines.

    See my question at Genealogy SE:

    Also there is the site which identifies people legitimately descended from King David with the help of DNA evidence.