A birth certificate for Jesus

A Birth Certificate for Jesus

This is a pre-publication extract from Gregory C. Jenks,  Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves. (Melbourne: Mosaic Press, 2014) Pages 118–22.

For people researching their family history, the birth certificate of an ancestor is a key document. It preserves valuable information with a presumed degree of accuracy about the person whose birth is being documented, and various relatives of that person at the time of their birth.

How might we imagine a birth certificate for Jesus? Before we attempt that exercise in holy imagination, a comment about the sources for our information is needed.

There are a number of items in the Jesus Database that relate to the traditions around the birth of Jesus: 007 Of Davids Lineage; 026 Jesus Virginally Conceived; 367 Birth of Jesus; 368 Genealogy of Jesus; 369 Star of Revelation; 431 Conception of John; and 432 Birth of John.[1] I include the last two items relating to John the Baptist since they are integral parts of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus.

As we have already seen, the NT offers confusing and contradictory information about the family of Jesus. This is not surprising, as such information is not the reason for the Gospels being composed. The data is simply transmitted by the tradition without any desire to coordinate with other documents.[2] In brief, the information in the NT can be summarized as follows.

In the letters of Paul there is just a single reference to the birth of Jesus (Gal 4:4). Jesus is simply described as having been “born of a woman, born under the Law.” Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that have survived, and they offer no hint of any special circumstances attending the conception and childhood of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Mark not much has changed. As we have already seen, Jesus is described as the son of Mary, and a brother to several siblings. This suggests a typical Jewish family, except that there is no mention of his father in Mark. On the basis of this early Christian Gospel we would never imagine anything unusual about the birth of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Matthew things begin to change. Now a stepfather appears on the scene in the infancy narratives, along with an explicit denial of any natural paternity. Despite this, Jesus is called “son of the carpenter” in Matthew’s revised version of Mark’s episode from the village of Nazareth. In my view, Matthew is the source for the virginal conception idea, and his Joseph character is surely shaped to evoke the legacy of Joseph the dreamer from Genesis.

As we have seen already, in the Gospel of John the identity of Jesus’ parents is not a mystery. The crowds claim to know both his parents (John 6:42) and Jesus is explicitly called the “son of Joseph” (John 1:45; 7:40–44). His mother is mentioned several times, but never named. This natural biological conception sits alongside the most sophisticated Christology to be found in the NT, as John celebrates Jesus as the “only begotten Son” of the Father, and the incarnation of the divine Logos (John 1:1–18). This should reassure people who worry that taking Jesus as the natural child of Joseph and Mary will necessarily result in a ‘low’ Christology.

Finally, in the Gospel of Luke we find our early second-century author reviewing the earlier accounts about Jesus. In Luke 1:1–4 he claims to be familiar with their work and sets himself the task of providing a more accurate account. It is possible that Luke understood his version as correcting and replacing these earlier versions that he considered inadequate to the task. He begins that revisionist task with his version of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus has a more complete family context, including two relatives of his mother, Elizabeth and her priestly husband, Zechariah. Indeed, Luke’s story of Jesus’ conception and birth is closely entwined with the story of the conception and birth of his cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–2:52).

As a matter of critical method I give no historical weight to any of the traditions in the infancy narratives, including the motif of an irregular conception of Jesus. Rather, I see these traditions—and especially those in Matthew and Luke—as late additions, and expressing the developing devotion to Jesus around the end of the first century. They provide no additional historical information about the childhood of Jesus or the circumstances of his conception.

In any case, why would we give any credibility to the idea that Jesus was conceived in anything other than a perfectly normal way for his time and culture? The idea seems only to be derived from the infancy legends in Matthew and Luke, and specifically Matthew.[3] Indeed, we find no hint of anything irregular about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth in Paul, Mark, John or any part of the NT except for Luke and Matthew.

One possible exception is the comment in John 8:41.

[Jesus said to them,] “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”

This turn in the dispute between Jesus and the Jewish crowd is sometimes understood as an allusion to there being something irregular about Jesus’ conception.[4] Such an irregularity—whether arising from his parents not being married when he was conceived, or his father being someone other than his mother’s husband—would result in him having the status of a ‘mamzer’ (a social outcast).’ I think it is a stretch to connect this verse from the Gospel of John with traditions of Jesus’ alleged status as a mamzer. I also note that the gospels nowhere reflect any sense that Jesus was excluded from full participation in the religious life of his community.[5]

Most critical scholars reject the miraculous elements of the story, but some would suggest that there was some historical core to the tradition. The idea that the gospels preserve a memory of something irregular or shameful about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth seems to me to be a survival of traditional beliefs rather than a natural interpretation of the biblical texts. While we know very little about Jesus as an adult, and even less about him as a child, it seems clear that the biblical texts themselves do not require a supernatural conception for Jesus.

In light of the most natural reading of the biblical material, a naturalistic explanation along the following lines seems most probable. Stories about a miraculous conception are best understood as Christological statements rather than reports on Mary’s reproductive history. Indeed, I wonder if we would ever have wondered about the paternity of Jesus were it not for the Gospel of Matthew? It seems that we only contemplate the circumstances around Jesus’ conception, including the mamzer theory, because of the influence of the virginal conception motif introduced by Matthew.

Matthew represents Isaiah as predicting that a virgin (Greek, parthenos) will conceive and bear a son.[6] This is the term found in the Greek versions of the Jewish Scriptures, but the Hebrew text has ‘almah (maiden, young woman). Most likely, Matthew was working with a testimonium, a list of biblical verses extracted for convenience, as scrolls were not easy documents to consult. The genre is known from examples discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, but Matthew’s list of proof texts seems to have drawn from the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures.

Matthew may have been quite unaware that the Hebrew tradition did not use the word for “virgin” but rather a more generic term that describes a young woman eligible for sexual relations.[7] The term does not occur often in the Tanakh, but this example is typical, and hardly suggests a sexual virgin.

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a girl (‘almah). (Prov 30:18–19)

People shaped by our contemporary secular and scientific worldview are generally not disposed to accept stories about a virginal conception as historical, and we therefore consider various alternatives. There are just three options. In the first place, there is the default option of normal conception within a first-century Jewish family system with its traditional patterns of betrothal, marriage, etc. Secondly, there is the option of a normal conception through consensual sexual activity outside of such cultural norms. In addition, there is the possibility of a normal conception as a result of non-consensual sexual violence.[8]

Either option two or three could have resulted in the child suffering some form of discrimination and loss of social status. This seems to be the core of the mamzer hypothesis. However, there is also the broader question of what evidence we have for the mamzer status in the first few decades of the first century CE—and especially in a remote and extremely small village such as Nazareth must have been. For example, would Mary have been the first or only young woman in that social system to become pregnant before she was in a recognized relationship with her male partner?

In any case, Luke is certainly unaware of such a tradition. Rather than portray Jesus as a social outcast, Luke has Jesus circumcised according to Jewish tradition (Luke 2:21), presented in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22–24), and even engaging deeply in the religious life of the temple as a twelve year old boy (Luke 2:41–49). In Luke’s imagination, Jesus also has a regular custom of attending prayers at his local synagogue where he even reads from the Scriptures before offering a sermon (Luke 4:16–21). We do not have to take any of these episodes as historical in order to see that Luke entertained no concept of Jesus as a mamzer. For Luke, Jesus is an insider rather than an outsider, and he participates actively in the religious life of his community, as do his followers in the Acts of the Apostles.

For the record, I think Jesus was probably born in Nazareth as a result of normal sexual relations between his parents. Joseph and Mary subsequently had other children. Joseph does not feature in the tradition outside of the infancy legends even though his name and his paternity are preserved in the Gospel of John. Given the mortality rates at the time, an early demise for Joseph is unremarkable, although Mary seems to have done surprisingly well to survive several pregnancies despite the risks of childbirth in such a society.

Perhaps we can now attempt to complete the birth certificate for Jesus?

Parents: Joseph of Nazareth, also known as Joseph son of Jacob (Matt 1:16) and Joseph son of Heli (Luke 3:23); Mary of Nazareth.

Place of birth: Nazareth.

Date of birth: unknown, but most likely late in the reign of Herod the Great (37–4 BCE) and certainly not 25 December.

Siblings: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, plus at least two sisters.

 


 

[1]For details see Appendix 3, The Birth of Jesus in the Jesus Database.

[2] For representative scholarship around these Gospel narratives, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke  (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977); John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 1. The Roots of the Problem and the Person, ABRL (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1991); Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003); Jane Schaberg, Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Traditions. Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition, 2nd ed., Biblical Seminar (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

[3] A close reading of Luke suggests no lack of human paternity, just a providential blessing of the child that Mary will bear once she is married to the man with whom she is already betrothed.

[4]For one example of this interpretation, see Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Anchor Bible 29. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966), I, 357. For an opposing view, see Miller, Born Divine, 213–15.

[5] For a different view, with which I disagree, see Bruce D. Chilton, Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography  (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000).

[6] See http://www.jesusdatabase.org/index.php?title=026_Jesus_Virginally_Conceived

[7] For a more detailed discussion of Isaiah 7:14 in Christian interpretation, see Gregory C. Jenks, The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). 100-03.

[8] It is also possible that the mother of Jesus may have conceived him as a result of an involuntary sex act, such as rape by a Roman soldier. However, we have absolutely no evidence for that and we can therefore set it aside as baseless speculation, as Robert Miller also does in Born Divine, 215–16. Roman soldiers would not normally have been present in the territory ruled by Herod and his sons, although Miller (ibid., 220–21) notes that Roman forces were in the vicinity of Nazareth to suppress the rebellion at Sepphoris following the death of Herod in 4 BCE.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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