How reliable are lineages back to Adam?
January 1977

“How reliable are lineages back to Adam?” Ensign, Jan. 1977, 73–74

In my family records I found an interesting genealogy that ties us into one line of European royalty going through Charlemagne back to one Antenor, King of the Cimmerians, then to Judah, and thence through Abraham and Noah to Adam. Can you tell me how reliable lineages such as these are?

Val D. Greenwood, temple ordinance specialist for the Genealogical Department of the Church Your observation that this genealogy is interesting is very appropriate. It is indeed interesting. The question is whether this genealogy and others like it are anything more than interesting.

This genealogy obviously does not stand alone. There are others that also purport to go back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. One of these traces through Irish royalty back to one Tamar Tephi, a daughter of King Zedekiah, who was king of Judah when Lehi left Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Another traces back through one Anna, a daughter of Joseph of Arimathea, who was a kinsman of Christ and who provided the Savior’s burial place. A fourth, that of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II of England, goes back through the kings of Wessex to one Sceaf, “a son of Noah born in the Ark,” and thence to father Adam. There are also others.

Many Latter-day Saints have tied into one or more such pedigrees, and many more descend from them unknowingly. Considering the number of ancestral lines that each of us has, it is a strong probability that all of us who have our roots in Britain and continental Europe could tie into at least one of these lines if we could trace back far enough to make the connection. If a person goes back only ten generations (approximately 300 years) he has 1,024 different direct lines of ancestry (barring the possibility that he runs into some of the same lines more than once). Another ten generations (middle fourteenth century) would give him 1,048,576 ancestral lines. The next generation would have 2,097,152, and the one after that 4,194,304. This would take the average pedigree into the last half of the twelfth century—still about seven generations later than William the Conquerer and about fourteen generations later than Charlemagne (born in A.D. 742).

To double the ancestral lines fourteen more times would give us more than 68.7 billion potential lines (34 generations of progenitors). This, of course, is ridiculous, because there have not been that many people in the entire history of the world, let alone in Europe in the eighth century. Obviously we all run into some ancestral lines more than once—some we run into many times—in that many generations, and, with those kinds of odds, it is relatively safe to suppose that if our ancestry is European we are probably descended from Charlemagne and from every other eighth century couple who have living descendants today.

With that background, and with the knowledge that pedigrees such as those cited earlier are interesting, let us return to the question posed: How reliable are such pedigrees? The truth is, we just do not know. If we are to accept them, we must take someone else’s word for them because there is no proof. There are six significant reasons, however, why we might choose to take them with the proverbial “grain of salt”:

1. Modern genealogy in the Western World had its beginning in the 1400s and 1500s with the aristocracy of Europe, directly traceable to the influence of feudalism and hereditary privileges. It was more important in that social climate to have the “right” ancestors than to have the “correct” ancestors. The truth was sometimes bent to suit political and economic ends.

2. Authentic documents by which such genealogies can be proven do not exist. The written documentation of the events in people’s lives by which we trace and prove their genealogies does not exist. Most such records were never made in earlier centuries. Even in the Christian era pedigrees were preserved with the assistance of various mnemonic devices and passed orally from one generation to the next. These were later recorded by scribes, primarily monks. Most of these are just name lists but are considered by the authorities to be quite accurate, quite early. For example, the list of Scottish kings is acclaimed to be reliable as early as the third century A.D. Proof, however, is another matter.

3. There was a total absence of family names until the middle of the eleventh century A.D. and a significant absence even much later than that. This caused excessive repetition of names in the society in general, as evidenced in the few available records. This factor alone makes positive identification difficult, if not impossible, in most situations.

4. The rules of evidence were imperfectly understood by the early genealogists. This imperfect understanding provided these early genealogists with adequate pretext for using conjecture and imagination in compiling pedigrees as if they were reliable evidence.

5. Even the most undisputed biblical genealogies, upon which these pedigrees must of necessity rely, are not altogether reliable. In the first place, the ancient Hebrew phrases implying sonship are not to be interpreted as strictly as we interpret them today. Secondly, the ancient Jews were prone to use symmetrical numbers to manipulate long lists. This was accomplished by dropping, and even by adding, names at will.

6. Some genealogies trace back to pagan deities. Julius Caesar was supposed to have sprung from Venus through Aeneas, and the Saxon rulers of England claimed descent from the god Woden.

Before leaving the question, perhaps two other observations as they relate to these pedigrees are appropriate. The first is suggested by the numbers cited earlier to represent the numbers of ancestral lines in various generations. Even if we could say that these pedigrees are reliable and can be accepted at face value (which we obviously cannot do), having one line traced back to father Adam does not absolve one of further genealogical responsibility. There are still thousands of other lines that require attention, each of which we are told we have responsibility for. How many Latter-day Saints, for example, can say that all of their genealogy is traced back ten generations and all of the temple work is done? (And keep in mind that these are the generations in the time period when our most reliable records for such research are available.) Even this is very difficult.

The second observation has to do with temple work. That is, even if we connect to these Adamic pedigrees, we cannot do temple work for the people on them. The Genealogical Department takes full responsibility for work on all royal lines and no names are accepted for temple work for persons born before A.D. 200.