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The Genealogy of Jesus 1

Biblical genealogies have come up recently at JesusCreed and Exploring our Matrix. At both blogs, the focus is on Bible-and-science type questions. Namely, what (if anything) does the presence of Adam or Noah in the genealogies of Jesus imply about the historicity of those biblical characters? (Some would no doubt ask the same question about Abraham or David. That’s the point: is there some kind of line after which we’re in reasonably solid history and before which we’re in the realm of myth and legend?)

That is certainly a valid discussion, but what I’d like to do over the next several days is look a bit more closely at the later parts of Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38). In the section between David and Jesus himself there are a number of interesting interpretive issues. For example, Matthew has Zerubbabel as a descendant of Jeconiah and the line of Solomon; Luke has his lineage through Neri and the line of Nathan. Similarly, at the end of the list Joseph’s own father is stated as either Jacob (in Mt) or Heli (in Lk).

I’d also like to dig around a little bit into the importance of genealogies in Judaism generally, especially that of key figures such as priests and members of the “house of David.” I’ll also have a little bit to say about what membership in the Davidic family may have meant in the Second Temple period.

The Importance of a Davidic Pedigree

Genealogy was serious business to the ancient Hebrews. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah there were even certain priests who lost their office because they could not produce proof of their priestly lineage (Ezr 2:61-63; Neh 7:63-65). Long before this, the Promised Land was allotted according to tribes and inheritance demanded knowledge of one’s ancestry. It was generally forbidden for Israelites to marry outside their tribe.

For ordinary Jews, failure to comply with these standards was generally tolerated. There are instances of Jewish intermarriage even with Gentiles recorded in the Bible itself (Acts 16:1). Purity of the priestly lineage was serious business, however. During the reign of the Hasmonean priest-king John Hyrcanus, a certain Pharisee named Eleazar said Hyrcanus should give up the high priesthood because his mother had been captured in war (in accordance with Lev 21:14), thus insinuating that he was illegitimate (see Josephus, War 1:67-68; Ant. 13:288-299; b.Qidd 66a; b. Ber 29a). This obviously infuriated Hyrcanus, who thereafter switched his allegiance from the Pharisees to the Sadducees. It isn’t hard to imagine the same sort of challenge to a claim about Davidic ancestry.

In the Gospels, Jesus never explicitly claims to be a descendant of David, but the Evangelists do. Jesus was hailed as the “son of David” throughout the New Testament, and not just in the genealogies. For example, he was recognized as such in the Song of Zechariah (Lk 1:69), by the blind man of Jericho (Mt 9:27; Mk 10:47), and by the massive crowd who greeted his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:15; cf. Mt 12:23). Matthew can even place the Davidic claim on the lips of a foreigner (the Canaanite woman, Mt 15:22). Jesus’ Davidic lineage was an integral part of the early apostolic preaching not only in the Synoptic tradition but in Acts (Acts 2:25-30; 13:22-23), Pauline Christianity (Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8), and the book of Revelation (Rev 5:5; 22:16).

Thus, whenever the New Testament writers mention Jesus’ pedigree, they trace it back to David. One can probably make a case that language like “son of David” can be figurative as well as literal, that the important thing (for Jesus’ earliest followers) is that he is the Messiah, and that “son of David” is merely an honorific that comes with the job regardless of what any ancient DNA test might confirm. It is worth nothing, however, that a claim to Davidic pedigree does not seem to have been absolutely necessary in making messianic claims.

Jews in this period were not unanimous in expecting a specifically Davidic Messiah:

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls describe two messiahs, both a kingly “Messiah of Israel” and a priestly “Messiah of Aaron,” who seem to reign concurrently (CD 12:12–13:1; 14:18-19; 19:9-11; 1Q28a 2:1-21). The idea of both a kingly and a priestly ruler was not unique to Qumran; is also attested from second-century BC sources such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Qumranians, however, seem to have been the first to apply the title “Messiah” to both these figures.
  • Many ancient rabbis saw in the biblical figure of Joseph a foreshadowing of the Messiah. In some theories, a “Messiah son of Joseph” would first come as a suffering messiah, and only later “Messiah son of David” would come to reign as king. A marginal reading in the Codex Reuchlinianus Targum of Zechariah 12:10 states: “And I shall cause to rest upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of prophecy and true prayer. And afterward the Messiah son of Ephraim [i.e., Joseph] will go out to do battle with Gog, and Gog will slay him in front of the gate of Jerusalem. And they shall look to me and shall inquire of me why the nations pierced the Messiah son of Ephraim.” (See also b. Sukkah 52a; Rashi commentary in loc.; Ibn Ezra; Abrabanel; Moses Alshekh).
  • There was some speculation about whether John the Baptist was making messianic claims about himself (Jn 1:19-24). Given that the only genealogical data we have on John traces his priestly lineage (Lk 1:5), on what basis might such a claim even be taken seriously?
  • Many Jews—most notably the highly respected Rabbi Akiba—accepted the messiahship of Simon bar Kosiba in the early second century. It is possible, but not proven, that Simon was recognized as the kingly “Messiah of Israel” and his collaborator Eleazar of Modein as the priestly “Messiah of Aaron” as in the Qumranian scheme. There is no evidence, however, that Simon was or even claimed to be of Davidic lineage.

At any rate, God’s covenant with David and his royal dynasty might be seen as conditional. Note the conditional nature of the promise in Psalm 132:11-12: “If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” It might well be argued that the kings of the Davidic dynasty failed to keep God’s covenant and decrees (see, for example, 1 Kgs 2:4; 1 Chr 28:5-7, 9; Jer 22:24-30; 36:30; Ezek 21:25-27). In such circumstances, might not God look elsewhere for a viable messianic candidate—either to a secondary Davidic line or outside that line entirely?

Jesus as “Son of David”

Messianic thinking in Second Temple Judaism gave the early followers of Jesus a number of workarounds if there were insufficient evidence of Jesus’ Davidic lineage. They might instead have contended he was the “Messiah of Joseph” or some such, but they didn’t. And apparently nobody in the first several centuries of Christian history ever bothered to dispute Jesus’ messiahship on the grounds of invalid lineage. With so many of his followers claiming Jesus was the son of David, one would think a formal legal refutation of the claim (by the Sanhedrin, or perhaps later by the rabbis of the Tannaitic era) would have been in order. We may assume that, at least when it became clear the early Jesus-movement wasn’t going away, someone would have challenged the Davidic claim just as Eleazar the Pharisee challenged John Hyrcanus. In fact, there is little in the New Testament or the earliest rabbinic writings to suggest that anyone ever demanded documentation of Jesus’ pedigree. The Jewish charges against Jesus were limited to blasphemy and possibly idolatry and/or sorcery (depending on the interpretation of certain passages in the Talmud). The issue of being genealogically disqualified seems never to have come up. (On one occasion Jesus’ opponents possibly make an oblique accusation of illegitimacy [Jn 8:41], but is this disputing a Davidic claim or mere calling Jesus a bastard?)

Of course, it’s possible detractors of the early Jesus-movement knew these workarounds existed and therefore didn’t bother, since even a successful challenge to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry would be only a minor victory. The more leeway one assumes existed with respect to messianic claims in the first century, the less convincing it is to argue that Jesus’ opponents should have challenged his Davidic credentials. Conversely, if such leeway existed, we are forced to ask why Jesus’ followers made Davidic claims on his behalf when they didn’t technically have to.

Next: The House of David

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