Biblical genealogies must be entirely factual? The Japanese counter-example

I have occasionally mentioned this here before, but since today and tomorrow bring us a rare event - the succession of one emperor by another in Japan - I thought it would be timely to bring this up again.

Sometimes the claim is made that, because the biblical genealogies come with specific names and ages, this demonstrates their historicity. The underlying assumption seems to be that genealogies with specific names and ages (or dates) must therefore be intended to be historical and must function historically; and that if they are falsified by critical study, their function is eviscerated and whatever purpose they serve is therefore fatally undermined. A close corollary to this seems to be the assumption that a genealogy with a verified historical referent at one end, must therefore be equally historical throughout - or else errancy and evisceration follow.

To demonstrate this is not universally the case, though, and therefore might not necessarily be the case with the biblical genealogies, we only need to look at the genealogy of the Japanese Imperial House. This genealogy terminates with the very-much-historical Akihito (now Naruhito), in the present day, preceded by a succession of equally historical emperors and dates going back many generations. But if you go back far enough, the genealogy gradually encompasses figures for which no historical referent can be found - and eventually the figures become quite mythological. Jimmu, the first emperor in the line, is entirely legendary and in turn descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Yet the genealogy is maintained and respected by the Imperial House and the Japanese people to this day, despite its ahistoricity. Why? Perhaps because its function is not just as a ledger of recent emperors, but as a national statement about the unity of the Japanese people and the legitimacy of their sovereign: one people and one island nation, under one line of heads-of-state, founded and blessed by heaven, since time eternal.

So too, then, could not something similar be the case with the biblical genealogies? At the very least, the idea that the historical falsification of a genealogy renders the genealogy errant and hence worthless, is falsified by this example. After all, I don’t see anyone saying that the Japanese imperial genealogy is false and therefore it cheapens, weakens or undermines Japanese imperial tradition, legitimacy, etc. Nor on the other side do I see Japanese imperial apologists rising-up to defend the historicity of Jimmu and the other emperors. The whole thing is a non-controversy, it seems, so why need it be a controversy for Christians?

PS: The Japanese imperial genealogy:


Thank you Scott for the bring this down to Earth for us. the Bible has one other complication and that it is not intended to be a genealogy but a spiritual document. So, when the Bible says that " And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. (Genesis 5:17), it does not say that Adam’s spirit lived in the same human body for 930 years, but that his spirit resided as a human for a total of 930 years.

In addition, we also have evidence of the famine in Egypt, therefore placing Joseph in Egypt in 1623 BC when the ash from the eruption of Santorini fell on Africa. This, together with the dating of Abraham to the 23rd/22nd century BC[i], creates a 400-year hole in this ancestor’s lineage. This has helped to correct the interpretation of the text! When Jacob lays his head on the stone and dreams of taking a ladder to heaven, this wasn’t a dream, it was literal. This Jacob died and 400 years later the story continues with Jacob (Israel). Again, the Bible tells a spiritual story.

[i] Hinz, Walther. “Wann hat Abraham gelebt.” Museion 2000, 3/1991, 15. Print


One difference I can see is that while the Japanese genealogy begins with Gods, the Biblical genealogy begins with a mortal created couple. There is no claim that Adam and Eve were gods or demigods.

Hi Chris, thanks for the reply. I’m not sure why that makes a difference, but in any case, the first human in the imperial genealogy (Emperor Jimmu, analogous here to Adam) is also a figure with no historical verification, associated with fantastical events (for example, Jimmu is guided in the journey that leads him to the throne by a giant three-legged crow sent from heaven) and extended age (126 years).

And I should also add that, like Adam, Jimmu is associated with mythic themes that explain to the people of Japan who they are and why they are. For example, in his journey Jimmu and his companions must do battle with many foes, and they are losing badly. But Jimmu realizes this is because they have been trying to advance eastward - against the rising sun. So when he sails around the peninsula to land and advance westward - with the rising sun - he finds victory. And so to this day the Japanese are the land and the people of the Rising Sun. Likewise we find mythic themes at work in the Adam story, particularly in the Eden narrative - an Everyman parable about what sin is, why and how we sin, and what spiritual consequences it brings to us.

None of this is to say that the imperial and biblical genealogies are the same thing in all or even most respects. But it is to point out that primeval genealogies emerging from pre-modern, pre-Western societies can be anchored firmly in history at one end, and at the other end in mythic figures and themes that explain to the people who they are, and function just fine. And so seeing a biblical genealogy anchored in Adam at the one end is by no means proof that Adam is necessarily a historical figure and the events associated with him are real space-time events in history.

I would second Chris’s observation. I would concur that any genealogy that literally has one’s ancestors descending from a god unquestionably has a purpose other than historical record. Whoever first claimed that someone was descended from a God, I would propose

And Japanese culture has a way of combining the secular and mystic even to this day would give me not a little cognitive dissonance. They are proud of their mythic traditions and embrace them with little regard for questions of objective truth in almost any context. There is a significant contrast in the entire religious landscape there against the Christian reliance on historical reality of miracles, Christ’s life and genealogy, etc.

So seconding Chris’s observation… this doesn’t seem exactly analogous to the biblical genealogies… either of the Old but especially of the New Testament.

And one last observation… I don’t doubt that the genealogies that trace to Adam are as you suggest trying to communicate something more than simply historical,details… they do say something about who we are, why we are as we are, etc. in that limited way, I’d concur there is similarity with the Japanese one you mention.

But to say that the Bible’s genealogies are intended as more than historical accounts need not imply they were intended as less. This reminds me of Lewis and Tolkien’s discussions about myth and religion… Lewis was objecting to Christianity on the grounds that much of it was so similar to all the other myths… Tolkien concurred that it was in that sense mythical… but countered that just because it was mythical it didn’t follow that it could not also be true and historic. Rather, this was the one true myth among many other unreal myths.

I came across a detailed write-up on Biblical genealogies at The Genesis Genealogies: Are They Complete?.

Hi Daniel. Yes, one account has its first ancestor “literally” descended from the gods, but the other has its first ancestor “literally” formed from the soil/dust of the earth by a walking-and-talking god, who breathes life into his mouth. On what account can the first be said to be markedly different in form from the other? Of course they’re not exactly parallel; but what two independent traditions are?

Second, that’s well-noted about traditional Japanese culture. I’d extend that further as an observation about traditional/pre-modern cultures in general, including the ANE that produced the Adamic genealogy in the first place in pre-classical Greco-Roman times. Early Christians, while being much more classical in their outlook, of course just adopted the Adamic genealogy. Why wouldn’t they, with Jesus having arisen from the Jewish tradition, which in turn had its cultural roots in the ANE.

I’ve no doubt that some people in Israel/Palestine and Japan took these genealogies literally. That’s OK. The question is rather whether their historicity is essential to their function and authority; and hence whether, seeing such a genealogy produced from such a pre-modern culture, one must either accept its historicity or reject its function and authority. The example from Japan says otherwise, and that’s as far as it goes, which is far enough.

It depends on the genealogy. Luke’s genealogy begins with Jesus being the supposed son of Joseph and ends with Adam being the son of God. If you take the links of Luke’s chain as genealogical, that would seem to make a claim that Adam is God’s descendant. That doesn’t have to mean that Adam is a demigod, but it does mean that biblical genealogies also can have a list that moves from humans to a divine being.

…son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Luke 3:38)


An interesting point @Marshall. Although Luke and his readers had the creation story in Genesis for context so the knew Adam wasn’t literally the son of God in the biological sense.

Right. If they were able to read that story in Hebrew, they probably knew how Adam was God’s name for all humanity and not just the name of an individual man:

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created Adam, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Adam’ when they were created. (Genesis 5:1-2, NRSV, “Adam” left transliterated)

The Lord saw that the wickedness of Adam was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Adam on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the Adam I have created—Adam together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ (Genesis 6:5-7)

For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from Adam, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for Adam. Whoever sheds the blood of Adam, by Adam shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made Adam. (Genesis 9:5-6)

So Luke’s genealogy ultimately connects Jesus to humanity, and humanity to God: “Jesus … the son of … Joseph … the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” But we can only see that if we allow some blurriness in how the links change from individual to collective, and from creature to Creator. As the Japanese Imperial House genealogy shows, that is something more effortlessly done in other cultures than in our own.

1 Like
1 Like

Can you please tell me what point you are trying to make with this video. I do not see how it relates to my post.

This topic was automatically closed 3 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.