“How do we interpret scriptures in the New Testament that seem to condemn genealogy?” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 49–50
George H. Fudge, former managing director of the Genealogical Department, passed away last month while serving a mission in Great Britain. He prepared this response several months before his death. The Apostle Paul referred to “genealogies” in letters to Timothy and Titus. To Timothy he said, “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister [present] questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.” (1 Tim. 1:4.)
To Titus he said, “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.” (Titus 3:9.)
These passages, taken out of context, could cause misunderstanding. Paul was not condemning genealogy work itself. The importance of genealogy had been well established from the time of Adam down to Paul’s day. The respected Bible scholar Dr. Adam Clarke tells us that “the Jews had scrupulously preserved their genealogical tables till the advent of Christ; and the evangelists had recourse to them, and appealed to them in reference to our Lord’s descent from the house of David; Matthew taking this genealogy in the descending, Luke in the ascending, line. And whatever difficulties we may now find in these genealogies, they were certainly clear to the Jews; nor did the most determined enemies of the Gospel attempt to raise one objection to it from the appeal which the evangelists had made to their own public and accredited tables.”1
Paul himself was aware of the necessity for ordinances for the dead (see 1 Cor. 15:29) and understood the accompanying necessity of genealogical work in this activity. Why, then, would Paul make those remarks about genealogy to Timothy and Titus?
Paul was living in a time of conflict and confusion. False teachers abounded, preaching false doctrines and fables. Two specific problems existed relating to genealogies:
(1) Some apostate teachers recited their genealogies to give credence to their claims as coming with authority. Many Jews had become arrogant because of their illustrious ancestors. Some even flaunted their lineage when opposing the Savior himself: “We be Abraham’s seed” (John 8:33), they said, as if to indicate that they were thereby natural inheritors of the truth.
(2) Some of the apostate Jewish teachers were guilty of manufacturing their own genealogies—creating them in hopes of giving the added weight of authority to their teachings.
Such practices understandably caused a great deal of contention among the Jews, as well as between Jews and Gentiles. No wonder Paul condemned them as “fables and endless genealogies,” “contentions, and strivings about the law,” and “unprofitable and vain.”
Bible commentators agree upon this interpretation. The statement to Timothy, says one authority, “seems to refer to legends and fictitious genealogies of OT [Old Testament] personages.”2 Adam Clarke wrote that these fables were “idle fancies; things of no moment; doctrines and opinions unauthenticated; silly legends, of which no people ever possessed a greater stock than the Jews.”3
Regarding “endless genealogies,” the commentator states that Paul meant “those genealogies which were uncertain—that never could be made out, either in the ascending or descending line. … We are told that Herod destroyed the public registers; he, being an Idumean, was jealous of the noble origin of the Jews; and, that none might be able to reproach him with his descent, he ordered the genealogical tables, which were kept among the archives in the temple, to be burnt. … From this time the Jews could refer to their genealogies only from memory, or from those imperfect tables which had been preserved in private hands; and to make out any regular line from these must have been endless and uncertain. It is probably to this that the apostle refers; I mean the endless and useless labour which the attempts to make out these genealogies must produce, the authentic tables being destroyed.”4
It is clear from these commentaries that the Apostle Paul had no intention of condemning genealogy or the need for maintaining genealogical records. Rather, he was referring to genealogies that caused endless dispute, some of which were fraudulent and not to be accepted.
As an Apostle and student of the scriptures, Paul was undoubtedly aware of the important role legitimate genealogy had played from the beginning:
The Lord commanded Adam to keep a “book of remembrance” and a genealogy, known as “the book of the generations of Adam.” (See Moses 6:5, 8.) Genealogical records were handed down through the fathers from generation to generation to Abraham, who said, “I shall endeavor, hereafter, to delineate the chronology running back from myself to the beginning of the creation, for the records have come into my hands, which I hold unto this present time.” (Abr. 1:28.)
Genealogical records were indispensable to the ancient Israelites. “All Israel were reckoned by genealogies; and, behold, they were written in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah.” (1 Chr. 9:1.) Local genealogical records were also kept, reckoning people “by their genealogy in their villages.” (1 Chr. 9:22.) Through such records, the Israelites were able to establish lineage, and the Levites were able to prove their right to the priesthood.
Genealogies are listed in several places in both the Old and New Testaments. We are all familiar with the long lists of “begats” that record parentage and lineage. For example, Genesis lists the generations following Adam. Later, in the first chapter of 1 Chronicles, we find the genealogy from Adam to Abraham; then in succeeding chapters, the generations following Abraham are given. The Savior’s own genealogy is recorded twice in the New Testament—once in Matthew 1:1–17 [Matt. 1:1–17] and again in Luke 3:23–38.
The Book of Mormon also shows the diligence of the prophets to keep genealogical records. The Lord commanded Lehi to obtain the brass plates, which contained not only a record of the Jews, but also “a genealogy of his fathers.” When he received the plates, he rejoiced, finding them “of great worth unto us.” (See 1 Ne. 5:14, 21.) Later prophets were commanded to preserve the plates “that our genealogy may be kept.” (Jarom 1:1; see also Omni 1:1.)
Obviously, the acts of recording and preserving genealogies are not condemned either by the Lord or by his servants. However, genealogy is not to be used in a self-righteous or self-aggrandizing way. To members of the Church, genealogy should be a means to a very worthy end: By seeking out and preserving our genealogy, we identify our kinsmen, enabling us to perform ordinances of salvation in their behalf.