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A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus:

A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 1

When I think of Mary the mother of Jesus I think of the forgotten city of Sepphoris. According to tradition she was the firstborn daughter of an older couple named Joachim and Anna who lived there. Few today have heard of Sepphoris. It is not mentioned in the New Testament. Until fairly recently it was not even included on those maps of the Holy Land found in the back of many Bibles. It had become a lost city to us—until very recently.

I first took my students to excavate at Sepphoris in the summer of 1996. We returned in 1999 and 2000 to participate in two more seasons of excavations. We joined one of the teams, led by Professor James Strange of the University of South Florida, who had begun digging there in 1983. After more than two decades of excavations by several teams of archaeologists not even one-tenth of the ancient Roman city has been exposed. Yet enough has been done to begin to offer us a glimpse of the splendor of the place in the time of Mary and her son Jesus.

Balagh Balogh’s depiction of Sepphoris from Nazareth, a City Set in a Hill.

When Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, Sepphoris was the dominant city of the entire region. Built on a hill rising 400 feet above the flat plain below, it is still visible from miles around. Jesus’ well-known saying that a “city set on a hill cannot be hid” surely came to him growing up in Nazareth and looking north at the gleaming city of Sepphoris four miles away. It could not be missed. Nazareth was hardly anything. Nestled in the hills, just to the southeast by a spring, the total population was probably not more than 200. It was one of dozens of small villages that dotted the plain around the huge and impressive capital city.

Today things are reversed. Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of over 60,000, half Christian, half Muslim. It literally fills the hills and valleys around its center with impressive suburbs and magnificent churches. Christian tours invariably include it as a major stop on their itinerary. Sepphoris is merely a bare hill dotted with ancient ruins in the distance. Every day at our excavations we would sit on the southern slopes of the ruins of Sepphoris and eat our lunch, gazing across the valley at the bustling city of Nazareth gleaming in the late morning sun. We tried to imagine how different things must have been in Jesus’ day, with the prominence of the two locations reversed. Though living in a small village, Jesus grew up just outside the urban capital of Galilee. The implications of this geographical fact are enormous as we seek to historically recapture hidden or forgotten aspects of the early life of Jesus.

When Mary was born, around the year 18 BC, the Romans occupied the northern area of Palestine called Galilee. Sepphoris was a Jewish city, but the Romans had made it the administrative center for the entire region. Herod the Great ruled the country. He had been an intimate friend of Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman general Octavian, later to reign as Caesar Augustus, confirmed him as “King of the Jews.” And yet Herod lacked the vital Davidic bloodline that would have entitled him to such a throne.[ii] Herod had a Jewish mother but an Idumean father. He was sensitive about his half-Jewish origins which many Jews considered a disqualification for legitimate rule over Israel. Out of jealousy and fear he ordered the public genealogical records of the leading Israelite families destroyed. He also married Mariamne, a princess of the priestly Hashmonean in a vain effort to placate Jewish opposition to his base origins. The Hashmonean line is the one that produced the Maccabees who had ruled the country for a century before the Romans invaded Palestine. In a fit of rage Herod later murdered her and their two sons. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian tells us that he went so far as to equip the desert fortress Masada as a place to flee should the population depose him and restore a ruler of David’s royal line.[iii]The Roman emperors Vespasian and Domitian would search out and execute members of the royal “house of David” family in the late decades of the 1st century.[iv] In those times power was one thing, but pedigree—particularly that of the native royal family—was quite another. And this matter of pedigree takes us right back to Nazareth.

In 4 BC, when Mary would have been about fourteen, Herod the Great died. Shortly after the death of this “king” a man known as “Judas the Galilean” broke into the royal palace at Sepphoris. After seizing all the arms that were stored there, he and his followers began to rampage throughout Galilee. Pockets of revolt and opposition to Rome broke out all over the country.[v] Josephus wrote that at that time “anyone might make himself king as the head of a band of rebels,” and he named several others who tried.[vi] The Romans reacted quickly and with overwhelming force. The Roman governor of Syria, the infamous Publius Quintilius Varus, led three legions from Syria to brutally crush opposition to Roman rule.[vii] Including auxiliary forces as many as 20,000 troops poured into the country from the north, burnt Sepphoris to the ground, and sent its inhabitants into slavery as punishment for their participation in the outbreaks. Varus rounded up rebels all over the country and crucified 2000 men who had participated in the revolt.[viii] The trauma that gripped Galilee must have been dreadful, with dying men nailed to crosses at intervals up and down the main roads or on hillsides visible to all who passed.

Following the revolt the Romans divided Palestine into three districts, each ruled by a son of Herod the Great. Archaelaus received Judea which was in the south and included the mountainous territory to the north called Samaria. Philip was given charge of the region east of the Jordan, around the Sea of Galilee. Herod Antipas received the territory of Galilee, north of Judea, as well as Perea that lay east of the Jordan River. This was the same Herod that later beheaded John the Baptizer and participated in the trial of Jesus. Herod chose to fortify and rebuild the city of Sepphoris, making it his palatial capital, and he did it in high Greco-Roman style. It occupied a strategic location overlooking the Bet Netofa valley with major roads intersecting. Though it remained a Jewish city it had a 4000-seat theater as impressive as the one his father had built at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, colonnaded streets and markets, elaborate civic buildings, an elaborate water system, and public baths. Josephus, who was eyewitness to its splendor, writes that Sepphoris became the “ornament of all Galilee.”[ix] But as Herod Antipas consolidated his hold over his bequeathed territories, his legitimacy to the throne was suspect. Who was the rightful King of Israel?

Sometime before the conflagration of Sepphoris Mary and her family moved to the little village of Nazareth, just four miles southeast, practically still in the shadow of Sepphoris. We have no record of what happened to her parents, Joachim and Anna, or whether they were still alive at the time, but we do know what became of their daughter.[x]

At the time of the revolt and brutal suppression, Mary, at the age of fourteen or fifteen was already considered a woman and was pledged in marriage to a local artisan named Joseph. It was there in Nazareth at this time that she had her own troubles—she got pregnant before the marriage and Joseph was not the father. Luke says that when the couple went to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus Mary was still his betrothed (Luke 2:5). The Greek word he uses is very clear.[xi] It means they were still only engaged yet she was ready to deliver the child. After the birth of her child in Bethlehem the couple returned to Nazareth, right in the aftermath of the disaster, with the smoke of Sepphoris scarcely cleared.[xii]

When you understand the history of Sepphoris a whole new set of images is added to the “Christmas story”: crucified corpses rotting on crosses, the nearby capital city in flames, and fellow citizens either killed or exiled into slavery. The future of this family and the child that they carried was hardly certain.

To Be Continued . . .

 Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, are not named in the New Testament. Our earliest source is the 2nd century AD Gospel called The Protevangelium of James. A reliable 3rdcentury Greek copy, the Bodmer papyrus, was recently discovered. Joachim and Anna became popular figures in Catholic lore and their story was a favorite theme of Renaissance artists. Churches were dedicated to St. Anne as early as the 5th century and are common throughout the world today. The tradition that Mary was born in Sepphoris is much later, and less reliable, first mentioned by the “Piacenza Pilgrim” in 570 AD. He reports being shown the house of Mary. A Crusader church was built to commemorate the site, but there is some evidence of Byzantine remains on the grounds including a 3rdcentury mosaic. Today the “Sisters of St. Anne” maintain a convent there and maintain the tradition of Mary’s family.


[ii] Josephus, Jewish War 1. 386-397 and Jewish Antiquities 15. 194-201.

[iii] Josephus, Jewish War 7. 300. The destruction of the genealogies is reported by Julius Africanus (Eusebius, Church History 1. 7. 11-13.)

[iv] See Eusebius, Church History 3. 12 and 19. These texts will be analyzed extensively in subsequent chapters.

[v] Some have put the death of Herod slightly later but 4 BC is the most commonly accepted date.

[vi] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17. 271-285. Translations from Josephus are by J. St. J. Thackerary in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

[vii] Varus’s rule in Syria was characterized by cruelty and arrogance toward the local population. This is the same Varus responsible for the devastating Roman defeat in the Teutoburger Forest, east of the Rhine, in 9 AD by the German Arminius, changing the course of history. The Romans lost three legions in what became known as the “Varus Disaster” (Clades Variana). Varus was married to the grand-niece of the emperor Augustus and was well connected in aristocratic Roman circles. According to the Roman historian Seutonius when Augustus heard the news of the defeat he knocked his head against the door-post crying out “O Quintilius Varus! Give me back my legions!”

[viii] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17: 285-298 and Jewish War 2. 66-75.

[ix] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18. 27. The Greek word he uses, proschema could be translated in this context as “showplace.”

[x] In Jerusalem, just outside the Garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, there is the “Church of the Tomb of the Virgin,” sometimes called the “Church of the Assumption.” Queen Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, built it in 326 AD. It claims to have the graves of Mary, Joseph, and Mary’s parents Joachim and Anna. We have no independent evidence the deaths of Joseph and Mary’s parents in Jerusalem.

[xi] The Greek verb mnesteuo means one is legally pledged to be married. It is the same verb used of Mary in Luke 1:27 and Matthew 1:18. In Jewish tradition “engagement” is a type of preliminary “marriage,” but without full consummation, and sexual unfaithfulness is regarded as adultery (Sanhedrin 57b).

[xii] This is according to Luke 1:26. Apparently Matthew is unaware of this tradition. He does say that the couple eventually settled in Nazareth, but only after the birth of Jesus (Matt 2: 23). 



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A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 2

As we begin to reconstruct the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus our best and earliest sources are the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, contained in the New Testament. For the past two hundred years scholars have analyzed and compared these texts and their relationship to one another. The results of this painstaking research have allowed us to read them more carefully, and to use them responsibly as we do other ancient historical sources, even though they are included in the New Testament canon as sacred texts of scripture. I often hear the erroneous charge that a critical reading of our gospels sources involves a mere “picking and choosing,” arbitrarily, of what the investigator wishes to keep and what he or she wishes to throw out. This is hardly the case. There is a method involved and all of us who work as critical historians are obligated to make clear how we go about doing our work. See my essay, “Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospels,” for more on this point.

All four New Testament gospels are written in Greek though we have an ancient tradition that the gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic. The names associated with these gospels are traditional and the authors, whoever they might have been, never identify themselves by name. Mark is our earliest gospel, even though it comes second in the New Testament. Mark was written around 70 AD, and it provides us with the basic narrative framework of the career of Jesus. Matthew was written next, likely around 80 AD, and the author uses Mark as his main source but edits it freely, as we will see. The author of Matthew also had access to a collection of the teachings of Jesus that we call Q, which Mark did not have. He incorporates that material into his work as well. Luke was written around 90 AD and the author uses both Mark and the Q source, but he has a considerable amount of his own material with which he supplements his story. These three gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are called the Synoptics, because of the tight literary relationship between them. One simple way of putting this is that Mark provides the basic story line, and both Matthew and Luke use Mark but incorporate Q and some of their own materials. John is our latest gospel, written toward the close of the 1stcentury, and it has no literary connection to the three Synoptic gospels. The author of John offers us an entirely independent tradition focusing on Jesus as a divine and exalted Son of God. In that sense John is more theologically oriented but that is not to say his account is devoid of valuable historical information. As we shall see, without John’s independent record there are many important geographical and chronological details we would lack.

There are other gospels than these four, such as the Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic, that was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, a Hebrew version of Matthew passed down within rabbinic circles, and a half-dozen so-called “Apocryphal” gospels, that were composed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. These will be introduced and discussed as we encounter them in our investigation. But it remains the case that our most reliable sources for reconstructing what we can know about Jesus are the New Testament gospels themselves. As we shall see, when they are read carefully and critically many new and fascinating insights emerge.

I begin our investigation with what we can know about Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of her firstborn son Jesus.

One can try to imagine the stir Mary’s pregnancy must have caused in a village the size of Nazareth. To say that tongues were wagging would be an understatement. Both families were well known. Houses were close together, with married children often living in extensions of the main house of their parents, sharing a common courtyard. Village life was intensely interdependent both economically and socially, a fact driven home to me when I first visited “Nazareth Village.” There, at a site in the modern city of Nazareth, archaeologists are reconstructing an authentic version of a first-century Jewish village.[ii]One can enter the small rooms of the houses, walk in the common courtyards and narrow streets, and sense the unavoidable intertwining that must have involved every aspect of life. There were not many secrets in Nazareth.

Joseph had a serious problem that no fiancé wants even to imagine. He was engaged to Mary, their families had agreed to a marriage, but his bride-to-be “was found to be with child” before the wedding (Matt 1: 18). Joseph was the one who had discovered the pregnancy, for the gospel of Matthew tells us that he resolved to break off plans for the marriage while keeping things quiet so as not to shame her. Perhaps he planned to help her leave town and bear her child in secret. We are not told. One thing he knew for certain: he was not the father of the unborn child. With or without his help Mary left town hastily and went south to the little village of Ein Karim, four miles west of Jerusalem in the hill country of Judea. There Mary stayed for three months with close family relatives, an older couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah.[iii] Elizabeth was pregnant herself at the time, in her sixth month, with the child we know as John the Baptizer. How Mary and Elizabeth were related we don’t know, whether cousins, or perhaps niece and aunt, but given these circumstances the two families were likely very close. And this means that Jesus and John the Baptizer were related as well.

According to Luke the birth took place in Bethlehem in response to a Roman tax census. Bethlehem, just outside of Jerusalem, in Judea, is in the south of the country, while Nazareth is in the north in Galilee, about a three-day journey apart. Luke tells us that the couple, finding the city overcrowded and all guest rooms booked, lodged in a stable, where Jesus was born. It is common to find cave-like structures from that time hollowed out of the rock and attached to dwellings, used to shelter domestic animals. Since, according to Luke, Joseph and his betrothed Mary are not yet married, we don’t know when the wedding took place, but it had to be after the birth of the child (Luke 2:5). Luke later refers to Jesus as “a son of Joseph” yet he clearly does not believe that Joseph is the father. He implies by this language that the couple married and Joseph became the legal adoptive father of Jesus.[iv] Matthew says that Joseph “took his wife,” but he does not say when. He adds a fascinating note—that the couple only had sexual relations after the birth of the child (Matt 1:25).[v] This would fit with Luke’s implication that the marriage took place after the birth. In Jewish culture the sexual act of “knowing” the woman is what consummated the marriage.[vi]

That is the bare outline presented in the first chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.[vii] The other two gospels, Mark and John, begin their accounts with Jesus as an adult and tell us nothing at all about his birth.[viii]

Matthew and Luke both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless.[ix] He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. As noted earlier, the phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.

Matthew also alludes to an ancient saying of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel,” as if to say that Mary’s pregnancy was a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 7:14).[x] But Isaiah was speaking of a child to be born in his own day, the 8th century BC, whose birth would be a sign for King Ahaz, who ruled at that time. The Hebrew word (“almah) that Matthew puts as “virgin” in his Greek translation means a “young woman” or “maiden” and carries no miraculous implications whatsoever.[xi] The child is given the unusual name of Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” and Isaiah assures King Ahaz that before this special child was old enough to know “right from wrong” the Assyrians who threatened Jerusalem and Judea would be removed from the land. No one would not have long to wait. These prophecies and promises were fulfilled in the birth of Hezekiah, the righteous son of Ahaz, and the rescue of Judah and Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion, see 2 Kings 19, Hezekiah’s prayer and God’s response. Matthew has been interpreted by many to imply that Isaiah’s prophecy was “fulfilled” by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning. What Matthew likely has in mind is something other than a strict notion of prediction and fulfillment. Rather he wants to say that as the birth of a promised child was a sign of deliverance in the time of Ahaz, so it would be in the time of Herod the Great.

In Luke’s account it is Mary who had a dream. The angel Gabriel told her that she would become pregnant, bear a son, and that she will name him Jesus. This child was to be great. He would be called “the son of the Most High” and sit on the throne of his father David, ruling over the nation of Israel forever. Mary responded, “How will this be since I don’t know a man?” This Biblical expression definitely means to have sex. The angel replied that “a holy spirit will come upon you and power of the Most High will overshadow you, so the holy thing begotten will be called the son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Based on these texts the earliest Christian creeds affirm that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”[xii] It is easy to confuse the “immaculate conception” with the “virgin birth.” The Immaculate Conception, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church, refers to the conception of Mary by her mother Anna, not to the conception of Jesus. This teaching holds that Mary was born without “original sin,” inherited by every human being since Adam. This allowed her to give birth to Jesus in a special state of moral purity. The “virgin birth” is a further teaching—that Mary, without a man, became pregnant through the agency of the Holy Spirit. It refers more to the source of the pregnancy than to the “birth” itself.[xiii] One might refer to the idea as the “virginal conception,” since the focus is on the cause of her pregnancy.

A further Catholic dogma holds that Mary remained a perpetual virgin (semper virgine“ever-virgin”) her entire life.[xiv] Even Protestant leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and John Wesley shared this view, though it is less common among Protestants today.[xv] Mary was idealized over time as the divine-like Holy “Mother of God.” She was so far removed from her culture and her time that the very idea that she had sexual relations, bore additional children, and lived a normal life as a married Jewish woman seemed unthinkable for centuries. She was quite literally “exalted to heaven,” and her actual humanity was lost, as was the importance of her forefathers.

To Be Continued . . .


 When Jesus returned home to Nazareth as an adult he was invited to speak in the synagogue and his family was known by name (Luke 4:16; Matt 13:55).

[ii] “Nazareth Village,”

[iii] Luke 1:39.

[iv] Luke 4:22.

[v] Some Roman Catholic scholars have maintained that Matthew’s language: “He took his wife but knew her not until she had given birth to a son,” does not necessarily imply the couple had sexual intercourse thereafter. They point out that the word “until” does not always indicates subsequent change. For example, one might say to another, “Stay sober until I come,” without implying that one is to be drunken thereafter. The argument seems strained and in the interest of dogmatic theology, namely the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. The natural reading of both the Greek and the English seems clear—the couple began a normal sexual relationship after Jesus was born.

[vi] See the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 57b. The revered Catholic theologian Jerome, who lived in the 4th century AD, was so insistent that Mary never had sexual relations that he was willing to say she never married, knowing that marriage within Judaism required sexual consummation. He writes: “But as we do not deny what is written, so we do reject what is not written. We believe that God was born of the Virgin, because we read it. That Mary was married after she brought forth, we do not believe, because we do not read it” (Against Helvidius 21).

[vii] There are New Testament scholars who doubt the historical validity of even this bare outline, particularly the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. They maintain that the Bethlehem story was likely added to provide support for Jesus being the Messiah of the line of David, since Bethlehem was David’s city. There is some indication that the question of the location of Jesus’ birth, whether in Galilee or in Judea, became a point of controversial discussion among Jewish groups (see John 7:40-44).

[viii] I will refer to the four New Testament gospels simply by their traditional names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, though most scholars maintain their actual authors are unknown to us. Accordingly, if I write that Matthew or Mark “say” something I mean the book, not the person. A good readable introduction to these matters is found in Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings(New York: Oxford, 2004).

[ix] This is a literal translation of the Greek, rather than the more lofty sounding traditional phrasing “from the Holy Spirit” with definite article and capital letters. In the New Testament the term “holy spirit” is referred to twenty-eight times with the definite article and forty-four times without. Although the meaning is essentially the same, that is, a reference to God’s “holy spirit,” the use of the article, as in English, does add specificity or emphasis to the term. Accordingly, one might expect in a passage dealing with the source of Mary’s pregnancy that the definite article would be used but it is not (compare Matt 12:32 where one finds the article). The practice of capitalizing “Holy Spirit” followed by most translations of the Bible is a theologically based attempt to personify the Holy Spirit as part of the Godhead or Trinity.

[x] All translations from the Bible are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[xi] The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint or LXX used the word parthenos in Isaiah 7:14. It does mean “virgin” but the clear meaning in context is not that a woman becomes pregnant without a male but that a virgin girl who has never had sex before becomes pregnant. This special child would not be born of a woman who had already had had children, but of one who was a virgin when she got pregnant. Since Matthew wrote in Greek and is quoting Isaiah he uses the word parthenos as well. When the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament was published in 1952 the translators correctly used the English “young woman” rather than the traditional “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. The translation was denounced by many fundamentalist Christians as a devilish communist attempt to undermine faith in the “virgin birth of Christ.”

[xii] One of the most ancient, the “Apostles’ Creed,” reads as follows: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell and on the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father Almighty, from thence He shall come to judge the quick [living] and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” (Traditional English translation from the Book of Common Prayer).

[xiii] Some early Christians did debate whether Mary remained a virgin (virginitas in partu), with her hymen remaining intact even though she had borne a child. The Protoevangelium of James (chapter 20) is our earliest source for this idea. The text recounts how a midwife, examining Mary after the birth of Jesus, found that she remained physically intact through God’s miraculous power. This idea never became official dogma and the opinion of most of the ancient Christian theologians was that Mary was “virgin in terms of a man, not virgin in terms of giving birth” (Tertullian De carne Christi 23).

[xiv] In Roman Catholic teaching there are four Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception, the Virginal Birth (meaning Conception), Perpetual Virginity, and the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven. The latter was only made official in the 20th century when declared an infallible dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950. See Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd. ed., s.v. “The Blessed Virgin Mary” and “Feast of the Assumption.”

[xv] In 1523 Luther wrote in his treatise “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”: “When Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her,” in Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds. Luther’s Works, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955), 212. In his “Letter to a Roman Catholic” Wesley writes, “I believe he was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin,” in A. C. Coulter, John Wesley (New York: Oxford, 1964), 495.



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A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 3

What about the family tree of Jesus? It is quite a complex question when you begin to look into it.

Matthew calls Jesus a “son of David” in the opening line of his gospel. In Luke the angel predicted to Mary that her son Jesus would “sit on the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). The two concepts are intertwined. Not every descendent of David occupied David’s throne, but no one occupied the throne who was not a descendent of David. King David, reputed author of many of the Psalms and father of King Solomon was the most renowned of Israel’s ancient kings. Shortly before his death God promised him that his “throne” would last forever and that only those of his “seed” could occupy it as rulers over the nation of Israel (2 Samuel 7:16). The Hebrew prophets took up this promise and made it the basis for their prediction that in the “Last Days” the Christ or Messiah would sit on David’s throne as an ideal ruler over Israel. He then, of necessity, had to have the right pedigree.

This promise was seen as an unbreakable “covenant.” In the book of Jeremiah God declares that if you can break the fixed order of the heavens “then I will reject the seed of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his seed to rule over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Jeremiah 33:25-26).” This promise to David, of royal descendants reigning over Israel, was likened to a fixed law of nature.

Others might rule the land of Israel, whether Greeks or Romans, but they were regarded as foreign and illegitimate occupiers whom God would rightfully remove when the true Messiah came. There was a brief period of Jewish independence from 163-63 BC, just before the Romans took over the country. A native Jewish family, known as the Maccabees or the Hashmoneans, ruled the country, establishing a priestly dynasty, but unable to claim Davidic lineage.[ii] As we have noted Herod the Great, despite his title “King of the Jews,” feared that true descendant of David’s ancestry might arise and threaten his power.

So one obvious question is how was Jesus a “son of David”? What do we know of his lineage that might support this claim that he was a part of the royal family of David?

Luke and Matthew give Jesus no human father yet they give different genealogical accounts of his ancestry. Genealogies, or what many Bible readers remember as the lists of “begats,” do not usually make gripping reading, but Jesus’ genealogies are full of surprises.

Matthew begins his book with this genealogy: “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Joseph,” and so forth. Since Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, more than a few eager Bible readers have had good intentions dampened by this technical beginning. But let’s look again. Matthew lists forty names, all the way from Abraham, who lived a thousand years before David, through David, and down to Joseph, husband of Mary. But there are two surprises.

Any standard Jewish genealogy at the time was based solely on the male lineage, which was of primary importance. One’s father was the significant factor in the cultural world in which Jesus was born. Yet in Matthew we find four women mentioned, connected to four of the forty male names listed. This is completely irregular and unexpected. Luke records:

Judah fathered Perez and Zerah from Tamar (v.3)

Salmon fathered Boaz from Rahab (v. 5)

Boaz fathered Obed from Ruth (v. 5)

David fathered Solomon from Uriah’s wife (v. 5)

These are all women’s names, or in the case of Uriah’s wife, an unnamed woman. But even more surprising, each of these four women was a foreigner who had a scandalous sexual reputation in the Old Testament.[iii] The first, Tamar, a widow desperate for a child, purposely got pregnant by dressing up as a roadside prostitute and enticing her own father-in-law. Rahab was a tavern keeper or “prostitute.” Ruth was a Moabite woman, which was bad enough since Israelites were forbidden to have anything to do with Moabites because of their reputation as sexual temptresses. But Ruth crawled into the bed of Boaz, her future husband, after getting him drunk one night, in order to get him to marry her. Uriah’s wife—her name is not even given here for the disgrace of it all—was the infamous Bathsheba. She had an adulterous affair with King David and ended up pregnant, blending his fame with shame ever after. And yet, Matthew is otherwise giving us the revered royal lineage of King David himself! Something very important is going on here. The regular drumming pattern of a list of male names is jarred by mention of these women, each of whom was well known to Jewish readers. They don’t belong in a formal genealogy of the royal family. The stories of these women in the Bible stand out because of their shocking sexual details. It is clear that Matthew is trying to put Jesus’ own potentially scandalous birth into the context of his forefathers—and foremothers. He is preparing the reader for what is to come.

At the end of the list, the very last name in the very last line, the other shoe drops. Matthew surely intends to startle, catching the reader unawares. He writes:

Jacob fathered Joseph, the husband of Mary;

from her was fathered Jesus called Christ.

What one would expect in any standard male genealogy would be:

Jacob fathered Joseph;

Joseph fathered Jesus, called the Christ.

Matthew uses the verb “fathered” or “begot” (Greek gennao) thirty-nine times in the active voice with a masculine subject. But when he comes to Joseph he makes an important shift. He uses the same verb in the passive voice with a feminine object: from her was fathered Jesus. So a fifth woman unexpectedly slips into the list: Mary herself.

And yet this is definitely not Mary’s bloodline. This is Joseph’s genealogy. So why is she included? Matthew is setting the reader up for the story that immediately follows, in which Mary, an engaged woman, is pregnant by a man who is not her husband. It is as if he is silently cautioning any overly pious or judgmental readers not to jump to conclusions. In the most revered genealogy of that culture, the royal line of King David himself, there are stories of sexual immorality involving both men and women that must be accepted.

But there is yet another remarkable feature of this lineage of Joseph that is vital to the story and should not be missed. Joseph’s branch of David’s family, even though it had supplied all the ancient kings of Judah, had been put under a ban or curse by the prophet Jeremiah. In those last dark days just before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, Jeremiah had made a shocking declaration about Jechoniah, the final reigning king of David’s line: “Write this man down as stripped . . . for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling in Judah again” (Jeremiah 22:30).[iv] Joseph was adirect descendant of this ill-reputed Jechoniah (Matt 1:11-12).[v]

In effect, it was as if Jeremiah was declaring the covenant that God made with David null and void. At least it might appear that way. Psalm 89, written in the aftermath of these developments, laments: “You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust” (Psalm 89:39). Or so it seemed. After all Jechoniah was the last Jewish king of the royal family of David to occupy the throne in the land of Israel. Joseph was of this same line, but as the legal father of Jesus, rather than the biologicalfather, Joseph’s ancestry did not disqualify Jesus’ potential claim to the throne if Jesus could claim descent from David through another branch of the Davidic lineage. But how many “branches” of the Davidic family were there?

Luke’s genealogy provides us with the missing key to understand how Jesus could claim Davidic descent with no biological connection to his adoptive father Joseph. Luke records his genealogy of Jesus in his third chapter. Jesus was 30 years old and had just been baptized by John. Whereas Matthew begins with Abraham and follows the line down to Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, Luke begins with Jesus and works backward—all the way back to Adam! Rather than forty names, as in Matthew, we have seventy-six. There are three striking features in this genealogy.

First, it begins with a surprising qualification. Literally translated it says: “And Jesus was about thirty years [old] when he began, being a son as was supposed of Joseph, of Heli (Luke 3:23).” The Greek is quite terse, but what jumps off the page is the phrase “as was supposed.”[vi] Luke is telling his readers two things: that Joseph was only the “supposed” or “legal” father of Jesus and that Jesus had a grandfather named Heli. According to Matthew Joseph’s father was named Jacob. So who was Heli? The most obvious solution is that he was Mary’s father.[vii] One seldom hears anything about the grandparents of Jesus, but Jesus had two grandfathers, one from Joseph and the other from Mary. Two grandfathers mean two separate family trees. What we have in Luke 3:23-38 is the other side of Jesus’ family, traced through his actual bloodline from his mother Mary. The reason Mary is not named is that Luke abides by convention and includes only males in his list. Since Luke acknowledges no biological father for Jesus he begins with Joseph as a “stand-in” but qualifies things with the phrase “as was supposed.” A freely paraphrased translation would go like this: “And Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work, supposedly being a son of Joseph but actually being of the line of Heli.” If Mary’s parents were indeed named Joachim and Anna, as early Christian tradition holds, it is possible that Heli is short for the name Eliakim, which in turn is a form of the traditional name Joachim.

It is unlikely that Luke simply concocted such a detailed record. Jewish families were quite zealous about genealogical records—all the more so if one was descended from the line of David. Josephus, the Jewish historian of that period, traces his own priestly genealogy with obvious pride and mentions archival records that he had consulted.[viii] Julius Africanus, an early 3nd century Jewish-Christian writer who lived in Palestine reports that leading Jewish families kept private genealogical records, since Herod and his successors had sought to destroy those that were public. Africanus specifically notes the practice of keeping clandestine family genealogies as characteristic of Jesus’ descendants.[ix] Since the Davidic lineage of Jesus was so important to the early Christians it is likely that Luke had one of these records available to him.

Luke’s genealogy also reveals another important bit of information. Mary, like her husband Joseph, was of the lineage of King David—but with a vital difference. Her connection to David was not through the cursed lineage running back through Jechoniah to David’s son Solomon. Rather she could trace herself back through another of David’s sons, namelyNathan, the brother of Solomon (Luke 3:31). Nathan, like Solomon, was a son of David’s favored wife Bathsheba, but Nathan never occupied the throne and his genealogy accordingly became obscure. He is listed in the biblical record but no descendants are mentioned, in contrast to his brother Solomon (2 Chronicles 3:5). So, according to Luke, Jesus could claim a direct ancestry back to King David through his mother Mary as well. He did not have the “adoptive” claim through his legal father Joseph alone, but also that of David’s actual bloodline.

The name Nazareth, the town where Mary lived, comes from the Hebrew word netzermeaning “branch” or “shoot.”[x] One could loosely translate Nazareth as “Branch Town.” But why would a town have such a strange name? As we have seen, in the time of Jesus it was a tiny village. Its claim to fame was not size or economic prominence but something potentially even more significant. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, written before Jesus’ lifetime, we regularly find the future Messiah or King of Israel described as the “branch of David.”[xi]The term is taken from Isaiah 11 where the Messiah of David’s lineage is called a “Branch.” The term stuck. The later followers of Jesus were called Nazarenes or “Branchites.”[xii] The little village of Nazareth very likely got its name, or perhaps its nickname, because it was known as the place that members of the royal family had settled and were concentrated. It is no surprise that both Mary and Joseph lived there, as each represented different “branches” of the “Branch of David.” The gospels mention other “relatives” of the family that lived there (Mark 6:4). It is entirely possible that most of the inhabitants of “Branch Town” were members of the same extended “Branch” family. The family’s affinity for this area of Galilee continued for centuries. North of Sepphoris, about twelve miles from Nazareth, was a town called Kokhaba or “Star Town.” The term “Star,” like “Branch” is a coded term for the Messiah that is also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[xiii] Both Nazareth and Kokhaba were noted well into the 2nd century AD as towns in which families related to Jesus, and thus part of the “royal family,” were concentrated.[xiv]

Finally, the names in Luke that run from King David down to Heli, Mary’s father, offer us some very interesting clues that further explain why this particular Davidic line was uniquely important. There are listed no fewer than six instances of the name we know as Matthew: Matthat, Mattathias (twice), Maath, Matthat, and Mattatha. What is striking is that the name Matthew was one invariably associated with a priestly not a kingly or royal lineage. One of Jesus’ twelve apostles was named Matthew, but he was also called Levi.[xv] Two of the six “Matthews” in Jesus’ lineage were sons of fathers named “Levi.” Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, records that his own father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and brother were all named Matthias, and they were all priests of the tribe of Levi from the distinguished priestly family of the Hashmoneans or Maccabees. Ancient Israel was divided into twelve tribes, descendents of the twelve sons of Jacob the grandson of Abraham. The priests of Israel had to be descendents of Aaron, brother of Moses, who was from the tribe of Levi. The kings had to be of the royal lineage of King David, who was of the tribe of Judah. These positions, King and Priest, gave the tribes of Judah and Levi special prominence. But why would there be so many priestly names in a Davidic dynasty?

Remember, when Mary became pregnant and left Nazareth to stay with Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptizer, Luke notes that they were relatives, though he does not say how (Luke 1:36). But he also records that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were of the priestly lineage (Luke 1:5). This is further confirmation of the link between Mary’s Davidic family and the priestly tribe of Levi.

It is inconceivable that such a heavy prevalence of Levite or priestly names would be part of Mary’s genealogy unless there was a significant influence from the tribe of Levi merging into this particular royal line of the tribe of Judah. What appears likely is that Mary was ofmixed lineage. Luke only names the male line from David down to Mary. But the large number of priestly names indicates that there were likely important Levite women marrying into this Davidic line along the way. It is a pattern that goes all the way back to Aaron, brother of Moses, the very first Israelite priest. Aaron of the tribe of Levi married a princess of the tribe of Judah named Elisheva or Elizabeth (Exodus 6:23).

To be continued . . .

Although a few modern scholars have expressed doubt about the historicity of Jesus’ claim to be either a “messiah” or a descent of David, the tradition is early and widespread in all our documents with no one even suggesting otherwise (the earliest texts are Romans 1:3; Mark 10:47; Acts 2:30; 13:23; 15:16; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5; 22:16;Didache 10:6; Ignatius, Ephesians 18:2).

[ii] Josephus says that John Hyrcanus (135-104 BC), though not a descendant of David, declared himself ruler of the nation and high priest—roles ideally intended for two “messiahs,” one priestly and the other Davidic.

[iii] The accounts are found, respectively, in Genesis 38, Joshua 2, Ruth 3 and 2 Samuel 11.

[iv] Jeconiah or “Coniah” is known in the Biblical histories as Jehoiachin (see 2 Kings 17:8-15; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10). He came to the throne at age eighteen and only reigned three months. Nebuchadnezzar carried him away captive to Babylon. He was the grandson of the famous king Josiah.

[v] Jews and Christians of that time were well aware of the problem that Jeremiah’s declaration created for this particular branch of the royal family. Hipppolytus, a 3rd century Christian, even denied that the Jeconiah condemned by Jeremiah was the same one recorded in Matthew’s genealogy. The rabbis, realizing the problem, but revering this royal lineage, speculated that God had later repealed the punishment since Jeconiah had repented in exile—a point not made by the biblical writers (see Babylonian TalmudSanhedrin 37b). Eusebius, the 4th century church historian, realizing the serious potential for objections to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had he come from this line, suggests that Luke’s genealogy traces his actual bloodline (Quaestiones Evangelicae ad Stephanum 3. 2).

[vi] Greek verb nomizo, refers to what was “thought” or even “assumed.”

[vii] There is in fact a “Mariam daughter of Heli” mentioned in an unflattering way in the Jerusalem Talmud (y. Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:2). The translation of her name is disputed and most scholars agree that this Mary, who is in being punished in Gehenna by being hung by her nipples, has no connection to the mother of Jesus.

[viii] Josephus, Life 1. 6: “Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family as I have found described in the public records, and so bid adieu to those who calumniate me.”

[ix] He is quoted by Eusebius, Church History 1. 7. 13-14. Africanus specifically notes that the members of Jesus’ clan were concentrated in Nazareth and nearby Kokhaba.

[x] The spelling of the name of the town Nazareth from the Hebrew netzer has now been confirmed by a broken marble inscription was found at Caesarea in 1962. It was written in Hebrew and lists the towns where families of priests had settled in the 4th century AD (see M. Avi-Yonah, “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesaria,” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962): 137-39).

[xi] For example, 4Q 174, a fragment from Cave 4, quotes 2 Samuel 7:14, the promise made to David and says of the future King, “He is the Branch of David . . . who shall arrive at the end of time.”

[xii] See Acts 24:6 where the term first occurs.

[xiii] See Damascus Document 7:18-21; War Rule (1QM) 11:6-7. This designation for the Messiah was based on a prophecy in Numbers 24:17 about a “star” and a “scepter” arising in Israel. Revelation 22:16 designates Jesus as “the descendent of David, the bright morning star,” clearly linking the two terms.

[xiv] These proud family members called themselves desposynoi which means “belonging to the Master.” Julius Africanus, who lived in Palestine in the early 3rd century, reports that they lived around Nazareth and Kokhaba. There is a another Kokhaba east of the Jordan river that some have identified with Africanus’ statement but it seems much more likely, since he mentions Nazareth as well, that he has in mind the town north of Sepphoris (Eusebius Church History 1. 7. 14).

[xv] Compare Mark 2:14 with Matthew 9:9. Matthew and Levi are the same person.



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 A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 4

Although only Matthew and Luke assert the “virgin birth” of Jesus, and the teaching is found nowhere else in the New Testament, the belief that Mary’s pregnancy resulted from a divine act of God without any male involvement developed into a fundamental theological dogma in early Christianity. For millions of Christians any suggestion that Jesus was conceived through the normal process of human sexual reproduction, even if somehow sanctified by God, is viewed as scandalous if not outright heresy. But history, by its very nature, is an open process of inquiry that cannot be bound by the dogmas of faith. Historians are obligated to examine whatever evidence we have, even if such discoveries might be considered shocking or sacrilegious to some. The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus. Is it possible that a more historical reading of these two birth stories in the light of all our surviving evidence might reveal to us a profoundly human Jesus that dogmatic faith has obscured? Could such a revelation end up being as spiritually meaningful as the belief in the “virgin birth”—a teaching that many sincere Christians have problems accepting literally?

Scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture.[ii] There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god—Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire.[iii] It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.

But there is another possibility; an alternative explanation as to what might be behind these “virgin birth” accounts. And it has some compelling evidence in its favor. When you read the account of Mary’s unsuspected pregnancy, what is particularly notable in both texts is an underlying tone of realism that runs through the narratives. These seem to be real people, living in real times and places. In contrast, the birth stories common in Greco-Roman literature have a decidedly legendary flavor to them. For example, in Plutarch’s account of the birth of Alexander the Great his mother Olympias got pregnant from a snake, announced by a bolt of lightning that sealed her womb so that her husband Phillip could not have sex with her.[iv] Granted, both Matthew and Luke include dreams and visions of angels but the core story itself—that of a man discovering that his bride-to-be is pregnant and knowing he is not the father—has a realistic and thoroughly human quality to it. The narrative, despite its miraculous elements, “rings true.”

What if the virgin birth stories were created, not to present Jesus as a divine Greco-Roman style hero, but to address a shockingly real situation—Mary’s illegitimate pregnancy? All four women that Matthew mentions in his genealogy had sex out of wedlock and at least two of them became pregnant. By naming these particular women Matthew seems to be implicitly addressing Mary’s situation.

There are some indications in our gospels that the charge of illegitimacy was circulating behind the scenes. Mark is our earliest gospel, written around 70 AD. He includes an important scene in which Jesus returned home to Nazareth as an adult. There was a buzz about him among the townsfolk. Notice carefully their language:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? (Mark 6:3)

Matthew uses Mark as a source and includes the same story, but notice how he very cleverly rephrases things:

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? (Matt 13:55)

This subtle but critical shift in wording is absolutely telling:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary (Mark)

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary (Matthew)

Calling Jesus “the son of Mary” indicates an unnamed father. In Judaism children are invariably referred to as sons or daughters of the father—not the mother. Mark never refers to Joseph at all, by name or otherwise. He avoids the paternity issue altogether. There has to be some good reason for this silence. Matthew, in contrast, is quick to reshape Mark’s wording so that the illegitimacy issue is not even hinted at. We even find that later Greek manuscripts of Mark’s gospel try to “fix” the scandal by altering the text to read “the son of Mary and Joseph.” Here we have evidence of a progressive move to mute or play down the scandal that had been familiar in the hometown village of Nazareth decades earlier. Rumors and gossip die hard and seldom completely disappear.

In the Gospel of John things are even more explicit. At one point Jesus was in Jerusalem sparring with his Jewish critics. The conversation became very heated and almost turned violent. One of their responses to Jesus was the startling assertion—“We were not born of fornication,” as if to imply, as you were (John 8:41). Something is clearly going on here. This was a very low blow: an obvious attempt to undermine Jesus’ standing by reference to a rumor about his illegitimate birth. In a 4th century AD Christian text called the Acts of Pilate, which might have origins reaching back to the late 2nd century, there is an account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. One of the charges of his enemies is “you were born of fornication.” No one takes the text as a historical record of the trial, but it does witness to the longevity of the illegitimacy charge. Whoever wrote the text found it necessary to construct a trial scene that addressed the same charge we encounter in the 1st century gospel of John.

John mentions Joseph only twice, and he provides no birth story at all.[v] Why such reluctance to openly refer to someone’s father? In a passage roughly equivalent to Mark’s we read:

Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? (John 6:42).

Once again, there appears to be the slightest hint of something irregular. Why name Joseph—then redundantly add, “Do we not know his father and mother”? Coupled with the other text about being “born of fornication,” the illegitimacy charge is more than implicit.

Surely it is no accident that Mark and John, the two gospels that say nothing about Jesus’ birth, and little or nothing about his father, seem to preserve for us these subtle hints of the charge of illegitimacy. Both Matthew and Luke try to mitigate the issue by claiming Jesus was conceived by the “holy spirit,” but both of them freely admit that Joseph was not the father. And that is the point. The notion of illegitimacy is a consistent element found in all four New Testament gospels. Each seems to agree—Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

This charge of illegitimacy is not limited to these four gospels. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in upper Egypt at a place called Nag Hammadi by an Arab farmer who was digging in the area for fertilizer. It had been sealed in a clay jar and buried in a field, along with a dozen other lost Christian texts, all written on papyri in ancient Coptic. It was likely hidden in the late 4th century to protect it from orthodox Christians who would have destroyed it as “heretical.” Many scholars date it as early as the 2nd century AD. It is clearly the most precious lost Christian document discovered in the last 2000 years. It contains 114 sayings of Jesus. Some have called it a “fifth Gospel” in that it supplies so many missing pieces of Jesus’ teaching—otherwise lost and forgotten. Toward the end of the collection, in Saying 105, Jesus tells his disciples:

One who knows his father and his mother

will be called the son of a whore.[vi]

Many scholars have found in this cryptic saying an echo of the ugly label that Jesus had faced throughout his life—namely that his mother Mary had become pregnant out of wedlock. The Gospel of Thomas has no birth stories or references to Joseph or to the virgin birth but here in this text we appear to have another reference to the illegitimacy story. The implication is that the charge was unjust and that Jesus knew the circumstances of his birth as well as the identity of his unnamed and absent father.

So, if Jesus’ father was not Joseph who might it possibly have been? And what circumstances led to Mary being accused of fornication and labeled a “whore”? In terms of any historical certainty we probably will never know. If we were filling out Jesus’ birth certificate we would have to put down “father unknown,” but there is another possibility that deserves further exploration that I will cover in the next post.

To Be Continued . . .

 The degree to which a literal interpretation might be taken is best illustrated by the claim of the late amateur archaeologist Ron Wyatt to have located the true site of the crucifixion, to have recovered some of the dried blood of Jesus, and by a lab test demonstrated that Jesus had no father. According to Wyatt the cells contained only 24 chromosomes—22 autosomal, one X, and one Y chromosome—rather than the normal 46 ( A anthropology colleague of mine pointed out that although such an idea was a biological absurdity, if one imagined it might be possible the individual would be the most physically deformed creature in the history of the planet—having just half the normal chromosomes needed for normal development.

[ii] For textual examples with some short notes see my UNC Charlotte website:

[iii] Jews were not immune to such ideas, though Jewish texts that relate such stories invariably affirm that the child, though conceived supernaturally, or divinely announced, was the offspring of the husband. Most typically a woman who had not been able to bear children was told she would and her husband had some type of confirming dream. For example, there is a text in the Dead Sea Scrolls where Lamech, the father of Noah, suspected his wife has become pregnant through an angel, but was then convinced by her that he was indeed the father (Genesis Apocryphon 3).

[iv] Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2-3.

[v] John 1:45 and 6:42.

[vi] Translation is my own. The term “whore” (porne) in this context is a term of slander for one guilty of sexual immorality or unfaithfulness.



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A Historical Look at the Birth of Jesus: Part 5 (Conclusion)

There are three basic positions that have been offered in response to the two birth stories we get in Matthew and Luke: 1) Jesus had no human father; 2) Jesus is in fact the biological son of Joseph; 3) Jesus is the biological son of an unnamed male under unknown circumstances.

My own position is that Jesus’ biological father remains unknown but is unlikely Joseph, husband of Mary for the reasons I mention in the previous post. This puts me in an odd position of partial agreement with Christians who take the virgin conception/birth story literally and would likewise hold that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

But then one faces the sensitive question–if not Joseph then whom? Is there anything at all to be said of this matter? Has any alternative tradition regarding Jesus’ father come down to us? And the answer is yes, the name Pantera is found in a number of ancient sources. Rather than dismiss these out of hand as a “shop-worn tale” produced by Jewish opponents of the Christians who wanted to cast aspersions on Jesus’ paternity, I have tried to honestly examine what one might responsibly conclude about the subject. Having examined the “Jesus son of Panthera” textual traditions in their various forms I then turned to my own investigation of the tombstone of the 1st century Roman soldier, one “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera” from Sidon who was buried outside of present day Bingerbrück, Germany. I present the full results of my own study in my book, The Jesus Dynasty. What follows here is a brief summary. You can also find further discussion and updated links in the post “An Unnamed Father of Jesus.”

The earliest textual evidence on Pantera comes from three sources:

1) We have two stories preserved in supplements to the Mishnah called the Tosefta (as well as in other parallel rabbinic texts but primarily see Tosefta Chullin 2:22-24) that refer to “Yeshu ben Pantera” (with alternate spelling variations). The first involves the famous Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who lived in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD. Rabbi Eliezer relates a teaching in the “name of Yeshu ben Pantera” that he heard on the streets of Sepphoris from one Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin. Eliezer himself had been arrested for “heresy” and some have suspected he might have been sympathetic to the Nazarenes. The second story also involves Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin who attempts to heal a certain Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama of a snakebite in the name of “Yeshu ben Pantera.”

Although Maier and a few others have doubted these references are to Jesus of Nazareth, most experts are convinced that they are. Since both of these texts appear to use the designation “Yeshu ben Pantera” in a descriptive rather than a slanderous or polemical way they offer us evidence that Jesus was remembered as “son of Panthera” in the region of Galilee, and even on the streets of Sepphoris, in the early 2nd century. Indeed, Richard Bauckham argues quite persuasively that this Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin might well be James, son (or grandson?) of Jude the brother of Jesus, otherwise known to us as a prominent leader in the Galilean churches (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, pp. 114-119).

2. The Greek philosopher Celsus relates in polemical work against the Christians preserved by the Christian theologian Origen that he had found it “written” that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera (Contra Celsum 1. 69). This text dates to the late 2nd century. Origen replies that the story was concocted by those who refused to believe that Jesus had no human father and was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

3. The 4th century Christian apologist Epiphanius seems to take the designation “Jesus son of Panthera” seriously in that he argues the name is actually a nickname for Jacob, the father of Joseph, husband of Mary. So rather than denying it is part of the family tradition he tries to explain it within that context.

If one begins to read through the literature on “Jesus son of Panthera” the most common explanation one finds is that “Panthera” is not the real name of any individual at all but a play on the Greek word “Parthenos,” or “virgin” that Jewish opponents of the Christians invented to make fun of their enemies. I am amazed at how many of my critics have referred to this idea as a way of dismissing the Panthera stories as references to a specific individual. This explanation is weak on two counts. First, linguistically, the Greek words panthera and parthenos are not even closely related in sound. But more important, none of the earliest sources quoted above, including Origen and Epiphanius, who both believed in the virgin birth, make use of this explanation. Epiphanius in particular recognizes that this is a “real” name and his only defense of it being associated with Jesus is to claim it was already “in the family” before Jesus’ birth. In that sense Jesus could loosely be called “Jesus son of Panthera.”

What Adolf Deissmann contributed to the discussion in his famous 1906 study on “Der Name Panthera” was to remind us all that the Greek name “Pantera” was used by real individuals in the 1st century AD, and furthermore that it was particularly favored by Roman soldiers. He lists six examples which hardly makes the name common, but one of them is the tombstone of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, in Bingerbrück, Germany. This particular soldier was the 1st century archer who was from Sidon in Palestine. His point in Deissmann’s study is not to even remotely imply that this individual was the father of Jesus, but just that the tradition “Jesus son of Pantera” likely referred to some real individual rather than being a concocted term of Jewish polemical slander. The discovery of an ossuary with the name “Pentheros” in a Jewish 1st century tomb in Jerusalem by Clermont-Ganneau in 1891 has given us additional evidence that the name “Pantera” was in use in Palestine by Jews in the 1st century.

When I traveled to Germany in October, 2005 to examine the tombstone of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon found in 1859 along with other Roman officers buried at Bingerbrück my intent was to find out all I could about these individuals. I do not hold the view that this particular individual was the father of Jesus. As far as I can tell that sort of definitive evidence simply does not exist. However I did come back with a thick file of evidence relating to the original excavation and its particulars that to my knowledge has never before been brought into the discussion. Pantera is only one of 10 other tombstones found at this grave site. I was able to photograph a painting that captures the original excavation of the site when it was accidentally discovered during construction of a railway station in 1859. Artifacts from the cemetery are also in various local museums in Germany, including coin and ceramic evidence. By studying the entire site we are in a much better position to say something about Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera and his history. It seems to me those who have dismissed out of hand even the possibility that Pantera of Sidon might relate to the “Yeshua ben Pantera” stories would do well to examine more closely what can be known, and then to draw conclusions.

If we assume that Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father but became her legal husband we are left to our imagination as to how the pregnancy might have come about. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew, in giving Jesus’ genealogy, hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times for sexual improprieties? And if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.

I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine, since we are imagining, Mary and Jesus’ father deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.

How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text–the gospel of Mark. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, as if Jesus’ birth is like that of some Greco-Roman mythological tale of a woman being impregnated by a God–see here for some examples.

Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I would like to think, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.

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