Was Jesus Illegitimate? by Robert J. Miller

The Gospel of Luke’s story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) assumes that Jesus had no biological father. Matthew’s Gospel asserts that Joseph did not father Jesus (Matt 1:18-25), but it is far from clear that Matthew believed in the virgin birth (despite the nearly universal use of “virgin” to translate, accurately or not, Matt 1:23). Whatever Matthew thought he knew about Jesus’ biological origins, he is careful to narrate that Joseph obeys the angel’s directives to go through with his marriage to Mary and to name Jesus (Matt 1:24-25). By doing so, Joseph accepts Jesus as his legal son, thus enabling him to inherit Joseph’s genealogy and to be rightfully considered a descendant of King David. Luke, like Matthew, asserts Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (Luke 1:32) and traces it through Joseph, albeit via a genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) that contradicts Matthew’s. Unlike Matthew, Luke has no explanation for how Joseph’s genealogy can apply to Jesus, who is not his biological son.

Mark’s Gospel has no interest in the birth of Jesus. Neither does the Gospel of John, which has the disciple Philip describe Jesus as the son of Joseph (John 1:45), with no hint from the author that this description is mistaken or inadequate.

Of the four Gospels then, only Matthew shows any interest in the question of whether Jesus was legitimate, and Matthew is quick to clarify that Joseph “adopted” Jesus and so made him his legitimate heir.

A Gospel passage that might seem to reflect accusations of Jesus’ illegitimacy is Mark 6:3, in which the people of Nazareth refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” Is this their insinuation that his father is unknown, or does it imply only that Jesus was the son of a widow? We just don’t know whether “son of Mary” would have been derogatory in first-century usage. In the context of Mark 6:1-6, however, no insult seems intended. The upshot of the six rhetorical questions in Mark 6:2-3 is to contrast Jesus’ new fame with his ordinary roots. Therefore, the way Mark uses “son of Mary” does not indicate that he understands it as a slur on Jesus’ legitimacy.

In an especially rancorous exchange in the Gospel of John, “the Jews” retort to Jesus, “We’re not bastards!” (John 8:41). (“Bastards” captures the insulting tone better than the more polite translation, “illegitimate.”) The syntax of the assertion puts the emphasis on the “we,” and thus implies, “We’re not bastards—you are.” This does not necessarily indicate that John knew that Jesus was accused of being illegitimate. For example, later in this verbal slugfest, Jesus calls “the Jews” “children of the devil,” and they call him a Samaritan. Neither of those insults is meant literally, and so we have little reason to think that the insinuation in John 8:41 reflects actual rumors about Jesus’ birth.

The second-century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus relays a story that Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Panthera. The Talmud contains a few cryptic allegations that Jesus was illegitimate, and a medieval Jewish story characterizes him as a child of adultery. For reasons that cannot be considered here, it is best to consider all of these as fabricated responses to the Christian claim that Jesus was born to a virgin.

The notion that Jesus was illegitimate is unsupported by solid historical evidence. While we cannot rule it out completely, we cannot responsibly treat this as anything more than speculative. So, was Jesus fathered by someone other than Joseph? The appropriate answer is that, historically, we have no good reason to think so. Luke’s story of the virgin birth answers that question differently. But stories about miraculous births announced by angels are, of course, not admissible as historical evidence. (Those who believe in the virgin birth do so for religious, not historical, reasons.) Historically, therefore, we should accept the default presumption that Jesus was legitimately fathered by Joseph.


Robert J. Miller, "Was Jesus Illegitimate?", n.p. [cited 22 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/was-jesus-illegitimate

Contributors

Robert J. Miller

Robert J. Miller
Professor, Juniata College

Robert J. Miller is professor of religious studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. He is the editor of The Complete Gospels (4th ed., Polebridge Press, 2010) and the author of Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Polebridge Press, 2003).

 

The angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would become Jesus' mother. Celebrated as a Christian holiday, often around March 25.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

Luke 1:26-38

The Birth of Jesus Foretold


26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

27to a virgin engaged to a man whose nam ... View more

Matt 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah


18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they liv ... View more

Matt 1:23

23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,


and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.”

Matt 1:24-25

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

25but had no marital relations with her until she had bor ... View more

Luke 1:32

32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

Luke 3:23-38

The Ancestors of Jesus


23Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,

24son of Matthat, son of ... View more

John 1:45

45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Mark 6:3

3Is 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?” And they took offense at ... View more

Mark 6:1-6

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth


1He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagog ... View more

Mark 6:2-3

2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that ... View more

John 8:41

41You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”

John 8:41

41You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”

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