Is “Cainan” in Luke 3:36 a “scribal error?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

Concerning Jesus’ genealogy through His mother Mary, we read in Luke 3:35-36: “[35] Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, [36] Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech,….” Since the name “Cainan” (verse 36) does not appear in Genesis or 1 Chronicles, it is assumed to be a “scribal error.” Is that the Bible-believing position? No! Then, how do we in faith reconcile Luke’s deviation from the Old Testament family trees he was quoting?

Luke is tracing Jesus’ bloodline in reverse, so when we arrange the names chronologically, they are as follows (verses 35-36): Lamech, Noe, Sem, Arphaxad, Cainan, Salah, Heber, Phalec, Ragau, Saruch. Having organized these names to correspond to the Old Testament order, we now compare Luke to the parallel verses:

  • Genesis 10:24: “And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber.”
  • Genesis 11:11-15: “[11] And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. [12] And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah: [13] And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters. [14] And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber: [15] And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.”
  • 1 Chronicles 1:18,24-25: “[18] And Arphaxad begat Shelah, and Shelah begat Eber…. [24] Shem, Arphaxad, Shelah, [25] Eber, Peleg, Reu,….”

The spelling variations can be accounted for as follows: Luke is writing in Greek, whereas Moses (Genesis) and the Chronicler (Chronicles) are writing in Hebrew. Moreover, as you discerned, there is one other discrepancy, and that is the focus of this article. Why does Luke add a “Cainan” between Arphaxad and Salah/Shelah?

Doubtless, the most common explanation is some ancient copyist accidentally looked at “Cainan” of verse 38 and incorrectly inserted it into verse 36. This phenomenon is called “homeoteleuton” (“having the same end”), common with transcriptions. We cannot and do not accept careless duplication as the reason for the “Cainan” of verse 38. It was an intentional addition of the Holy Spirit, and we will outline our reasoning here.

By the way, Luke 3:36 cannot be written off as a “King James” error either, since both the Textus Receptus of the Authorized Version and the Critical Text underlying modern English versions include the name “Cainan” or “Cainam” here. Of all the manuscripts containing Luke 3:36, only two witnesses omit this “Cainan”—papyrus P75 (A.D. 2nd/3rd century) and Codex D/Bezae (A.D 450–550). However, it should be pointed out, textual critics are not entirely sure as to the original reading of P75 here anyway. Thus, only one manuscript is without “Cainan” for certain. Could a transcription error (homeoteleuton) account for nearly all manuscripts but one having it?! Ridiculous!

Genealogies not matching verbatim is not exclusive to Luke. For example, in Matthew 1:8-9, Matthew eliminated three names found in the Old Testament genealogical records—Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah. This was done for two reasons. Firstly, these men were idolaters, which Cainan may have been as well (and thus prompted the Holy Spirit through Moses and the Chronicler to omit him from their records). Secondly, Matthew’s intention was to make three sets of 14 generations (Abraham to David, David to Babylon, and Babylon to Christ). Those three names would have made 17, offsetting Matthew’s symmetry. Also, at verse 11, Matthew stresses Jeconiah but makes no reference to Zedekiah. Plus, there is a question as to who Zerubbabel’s father actually is. (For more information, see our related Matthew studies linked at the end of this article.)

Likewise, Luke is not word-for-word with his Old Testament family trees. In fact, by adding Cainan to verse 36, the Holy Spirit through Luke totals 77 generations from Adam to Christ (thus perfectly divisible by seven, the Bible’s number of perfection or completion). Jesus is the perfect Man, “the son of” appearing 77 times in Luke 3:23-38! Eliminating “Cainan” from verse 36 to make it conform to Moses and the Chronicler, however, we have merely 76 generations in Luke. Then, Jesus therefore was not perfect in His generations. Simply put, “Cainan” is necessary in Luke 3:36; it was Luke’s original writing, and therefore belongs.

Since Matthew skipped some names to provide only three sets of 14 generations in his genealogical records, surely, we can: (1) permit Moses and the Chronicler to intentionally skip one name in their respective Books, and (2) allow Luke to insert that name not found in the Old Testament in order to show Jesus’ perfection. The Holy Spirit superintended all these men, so we need not question the infallibility of their writings. (Unless, our hearts of doubt reveal we never actually believed the Bible in the first place!) Luke only differs from Moses and the Chronicler in the case of one name; there are not dozens of extra names in Luke. The “problem” is overstated and actually imaginary.

Moreover, unfortunately, well-intended young-Earth creationists are reluctant to allow “Cainan” to remain in Luke 3:36. They argue the inclusion suggests Genesis and Chronicles have one “gap”—or more—in their genealogical records. Supposedly, this opens up the possibility for an old Earth. Therefore, they defer to the aforementioned “P75 / scribal error” argument. Again, we need not sacrifice Bible inspiration, infallibility, or preservation. All we need to do is adjust our thinking to better understand Moses’ handling of the family tree in Genesis chapters 10 and 11.

The Hebrew word (“yalad”) does not always imply the birth of immediate children. For example, it can be used more generally or broadly to refer to grandchildren (for example, see the sons Jacob’s wives “bare” [“yalad”] unto him; Genesis 46:15,18,22,25). Likewise, Arphaxad was actually Salah’s grandfather instead of his immediate father. Cainan was Salah’s immediate father. Yet, Arphaxad is still a “father” to Salah because he is Salah’s progenitor or ancestor; he still “begot” Salah through his own son Cainan (which fact only Luke reveals). Remember, Jesus is David’s “son” and David is Jesus’ “father,” but this is in the sense of great-(40X) grandson and great-(40X) grandfather. The sense is forefather and posterity, with a millennium separating them, but still an unbroken bloodline nonetheless (Luke 1:31-33).


“Cainan” belongs in Luke 3:36. It was always part of Luke! The Holy Spirit is responsible, not some thoughtless scribe. Contrary to popular belief, inserting “Cainan” into Genesis and Chronicles in no way introduces extra years into the chronology of Genesis 11:12. Arphaxad was still 35 years old when his son (Cainan) fathered his grandson Salah. We do not make the Bible more favorable to evolutionary theory (old Earth) by letting Luke 3:36 stand as is. However, in our impulsive fervor to refute secular errors, we actually do introduce a mistake into the Bible. Claiming Luke 3:36 has a “scribal error,” thus removing “Cainan,” only discredits the very Book we claim to believe!

A better way to look at Luke 3:36 is simply to see it as progressive revelation. The Holy Spirit caused Moses and the Chronicler to skip Cainan’s generation when recording family information (reason unknown—perhaps idolatry?) but had Luke write it because Luke was focused specifically on Jesus being Israel’s Messiah perfect in His 77 generations. Without Luke, we would have never known a Cainan existed between Arphaxad and Salah.

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Also see:
» Does Matthew 1:8-9 contain errors?
» Does Matthew 1:11 contain errors?
» Does Matthew 1:12 contain an error?
» Does Acts 7:6 have a mistake?
» Does Acts 7:43 have mistakes?
» Does Acts 7:16 have a mistake?
» Does Acts 7:14 have a mistake?