With Christmas nearly upon us, here’s another foray into the birth of Jesus. How was he the “Son of David” if Joseph, the descendant of David, wasn’t really his father?
Biblical prophecy foretold that a descendant of David would rule on his father’s (David’s) throne and rebuild the fallen tabernacle of David. From the beginning, the Christian movement has claimed that this descendant is Jesus, who was miraculously born to Mary, a young virgin, and her betrothed husband Joseph.
Here is the lineage of Joseph from the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll start with King David, since the issue here is Jesus’ relationship to David:
… And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
And here is the genealogy found in Luke chapter 3, where the writer works backwards starting with Jesus:
Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28 son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David…
There are numerous differences and a variety of explanations for them, which I am not interested in just now. You can peruse the commentaries to see some of these (or there is some useful discussion over at the Catholic Encyclopedia here).
Right away this may make people worry that the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth is under threat. If Jesus is from the line of David only because Joseph is from the line of David, then that means Joseph must be Jesus’ father…
What is quite clear in both of these lineages is that Jesus’ claim to being the son of David is traced – in Scripture at least – through Joseph. It was not Mary who gave Jesus his descent from David, but Joseph. What does this imply? Either Jesus was not really of the house of David after all (since Joseph was not his biological father) or else Jesus really was the son of David because he was Joseph’s son. And Christians have always held that Jesus is the son of David, so it looks like the second option is the one we’re left with. Right away this may make people worry that the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth is under threat. If Jesus is from the line of David only because Joseph is from the line of David, then that means Joseph must be Jesus’ father, and if that’s true then Mary was lying when she said of her pregnancy “how can this be, since I have not known a man?” Maybe for this reason some people might bend over backwards to trace Mary’s lineage back to David, even when the textual evidence just doesn’t support the claim.
If the early Christians invented the nativity account (and could in theory have written it any way they liked), and if it had been apparent that their fictional Jesus lacked the right sort of relationship to David, then they simply wouldn’t have written their work of fiction this way.
Relax. Nobody is denying the virgin birth of Christ (well OK some people are, but I’m not). One other thing to say is that the supposed difficulty of Jesus’ membership of the house of David cannot possibly be used in support of a “Jesus myth” theory where the historical Jesus simply didn’t exist at all. If the early Christians invented the nativity account (and could in theory have written it any way they liked), and if it had been apparent that their fictional Jesus lacked the right sort of relationship to David, then they simply wouldn’t have written their work of fiction this way. It’s not as though they were forced to connect Jesus to David this way. If they made the whole thing up, they could have just written that it was Mary who was descended from David.1 But they didn’t, which suggests that they saw no difficulty here.
So how can Jesus be of the house of David if he was not Joseph’s biological son, meaning that his only biological parent, Mary, was not a descendant of David? Perhaps this was a case of Joseph adopting Jesus, making him a legal son. But there is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that this happened. In fact there are not many cases of adoption in the Hebrew Scripture, and some dispute whether or not they are clear-cut cases of adoption (see some discussion of these examples over at the Virtual Jewish Library). Later Jewish law (see the previous link) did clearly allow for something that, for all intents and purposes (including inheritance rights), was equivalent to adoption. But the case of Jesus and Joseph would not require legal adoption in any event. It is not as though Jesus was from some other household and Joseph was adopting him into his own household. Jesus was born into Joseph’s household and there was no other family involved from whom to adopt Jesus.
You might be familiar with the concept of a Levirate marriage, which you can read about in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. In Israel there was great importance attached to having an heir. If a married man died without fathering any children (and if his brother lived with him, which was not unheard of), his widow and his brother were supposed to marry, so that his brother could produce an heir for the man who had died. (Let us hear nothing about how this is sexist. The brother was just as obligated as the wife!) That it was not actually his biological child did not seem to matter. Legally speaking, it was the heir of his house that he would have produced had he not died. Strictly speaking then, the fact that your wife’s child was not your biological offspring did not exclude him or her from the legal place of being your child. It’s just that nobody would have expected your wife to get pregnant unless somebody had slept with her, which would mean that you were the biological father, you were dead (in the case of a Levirate marriage), she had been raped or she had been unfaithful. But assuming no foul play and so ruling out the latter two options, a son born to a man’s wife is his child, an heir.
Again, if the Jesus story was simply made up and this way of placing Jesus within the lineage of David was inadequate, the made up story would have been made up differently, and Mary could have been placed in the line of David. But there was no perceived problem here. Jesus, although not Joseph’s biological son, could certainly have been rightly regarded as his son in any legal sense that mattered.
- As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia article linked above, there is a tradition of belief that Mary too was descended from David. All I will say here is that there is no biblical confirmation of this, and the biblical writers evidently thought that the way to demonstrate Jesus’ descent from David was via Joseph. [↩]