Jesus, Son of Joseph, Son of David

Theology / Biblical Studies

With Christmas nearly upon us, here’s another foray into the birth of Jesus. How was he the “Son of David” if Joseph, the descendant of David, wasn’t really his father?

Biblical prophecy foretold that a descendant of David would rule on his father’s (David’s) throne and rebuild the fallen tabernacle of David. From the beginning, the Christian movement has claimed that this descendant is Jesus, who was miraculous born to Mary, a young virgin, and her betrothed husband Joseph.

Here is the lineage of Joseph from the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll start with King David, since the issue here is Jesus’ relationship to David:

… And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

And here is the genealogy found in Luke chapter 3, where the writer works backwards starting with Jesus:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28 son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David…

There are numerous differences and a variety of explanations for them, which I am not interested in just now. You can peruse the commentaries to see some of these (or there is some useful discussion over at the Catholic Encyclopedia here).

Right away this may make people worry that the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth is under threat. If Jesus is from the line of David only because Joseph is from the line of David, then that means Joseph must be Jesus’ father…

What is quite clear in both of these lineages is that Jesus’ claim to being the son of David is traced – in Scripture at least – through Joseph. It was not Mary who gave Jesus his descent from David, but Joseph. What does this imply? Either Jesus was not really of the house of David after all (since Joseph was not his biological father) or else Jesus really was the son of David because he was Joseph’s son. And Christians have always held that Jesus is the son of David, so it looks like the second option is the one we’re left with. Right away this may make people worry that the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth is under threat. If Jesus is from the line of David only because Joseph is from the line of David, then that means Joseph must be Jesus’ father, and if that’s true then Mary was lying when she said of her pregnancy “how can this be, since I have not known a man?” Maybe for this reason some people might bend over backwards to trace Mary’s lineage back to David, even when the textual evidence just doesn’t support the claim.

If the early Christians invented the nativity account (and could in theory have written it any way they liked), and if it had been apparent that their fictional Jesus lacked the right sort of relationship to David, then they simply wouldn’t have written their work of fiction this way.

Relax. Nobody is denying the virgin birth of Christ (well OK some people are, but I’m not). One other thing to say is that the supposed difficulty of Jesus’ membership of the house of David cannot possibly be used in support of a “Jesus myth” theory where the historical Jesus simply didn’t exist at all. If the early Christians invented the nativity account (and could in theory have written it any way they liked), and if it had been apparent that their fictional Jesus lacked the right sort of relationship to David, then they simply wouldn’t have written their work of fiction this way. It’s not as though they were forced to connect Jesus to David this way. If they made the whole thing up, they could have just written that it was Mary who was descended from David.1 But they didn’t, which suggests that they saw no difficulty here.

So how can Jesus be of the house of David if he was not Joseph’s biological son, meaning that his only biological parent, Mary, was not a descendant of David? Perhaps this was a case of Joseph adopting Jesus, making him a legal son. But there is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that this happened. In fact there are not many cases of adoption in the Hebrew Scripture, and some dispute whether or not they are clear-cut cases of adoption (see some discussion of these examples over at the Virtual Jewish Library). Later Jewish law (see the previous link) did clearly allow for something that, for all intents and purposes (including inheritance rights), was equivalent to adoption. But the case of Jesus and Joseph would not require legal adoption in any event. It is not as though Jesus was from some other household and Joseph was adopting him into his own household. Jesus was born into Joseph’s household and there was no other family involved from whom to adopt Jesus.

You might be familiar with the concept of a Levirate marriage, which you can read about in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. In Israel there was great importance attached to having an heir. If a married man died without fathering any children (and if his brother lived with him, which was not unheard of), his widow and his brother were supposed to marry, so that his brother could produce an heir for the man who had died. (Let us hear nothing about how this is sexist. The brother was just as obligated as the wife!) That it was not actually his biological child did not seem to matter. Legally speaking, it was the heir of his house that he would have produced had he not died. Strictly speaking then, the fact that your wife’s child was not your biological offspring did not exclude him or her from the legal place of being your child. It’s just that nobody would have expected your wife to get pregnant unless somebody had slept with her, which would mean that you were the biological father, you were dead (in the case of a Levirate marriage), she had been raped or she had been unfaithful. But assuming no foul play and so ruling out the latter two options, a son born to a man’s wife is his child, an heir.

Again, if the Jesus story was simply made up and this way of placing Jesus within the lineage of David was inadequate, the made up story would have been made up differently, and Mary could have been placed in the line of David. But there was no perceived problem here. Jesus, although not Joseph’s biological son, could certainly have been rightly regarded as his son in any legal sense that mattered.

Glenn Peoples

Similar Posts:

If you liked this post, feel free to help support this project.

  1. As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia article linked above, there is a tradition of belief that Mary too was descended from David. All I will say here is that there is no biblical confirmation of this, and the biblical writers evidently thought that the way to demonstrate Jesus’ descent from David was via Joseph. []
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Andrew Gray December 22, 2014, 5:00 pm

    Thanks for that, Glenn, that’s really good work there! I’ve enjoyed your last few post a lot!

    Would love to hear more from you about the differences in the lineages though. Many skeptics think that if you allow the possibility that one or both of them are wrong, then it’s obvious that the simplest explanation is one or both IS wrong (eg maybe it’s a mistake since neither were eye-witnesses). So how do you resolve that Matthew says Joseph’s father was Jacob but Luke says it was Heli (or so the skeptics assert). I’ve come across a few possible explanations, but skeptics always say that we’re just trying to wriggle out of the obvious conclusion that one or both accounts is wrong. What’s the definitive answer on this? Anyway, I’ll check out the article you linked.

  • bethyada December 22, 2014, 11:32 pm

    Luke’s genealogy is thru Mary, not Joseph.

  • Glenn December 23, 2014, 12:27 am

    Bethyada, that’s a theory that came into existence in the fifteenth century or so. Prior to then, there isn’t a single witness in its favour, according to the article I linked to at the Catholic Encyclopedia. And anyway, Luke didn’t write it that way: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat [etc].”

  • Glenn December 23, 2014, 3:54 pm

    Andrew, it’s certainly not an area of expertise of mine and there is a fair bit written on it out there. But I’ll consider it. 🙂

  • bethyada December 23, 2014, 7:23 pm

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

    which can be read,

    Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph (but was in fact the) son of Heli, son of Matthat [etc].”

    The fact that it was not read that way from 400 to 1400 doesn’t mean that we don’t understand better (at times) how Greek can be constructed (cf. 400 AD). The realisation that the NT was in koine for example made some previous theories redundant. And Foh’s theory on Genesis 3 was written in the 1970s yet is almost certainly true, and though not as clearly understood in the last 1500 years, would have been understood ante- and peri-Christ.

    Luke’s genealogy is clearly distinct from Matthew’s back to David apart from inconsequential overlap pre-Exile. If they don’t appear to be the same genealogy (they don’t), and every person has 2 genealogies (1 thru each parent), and the Greek can be easily read that way (which it can in Luke); then that seems to be the solution.

  • Glenn December 23, 2014, 10:17 pm

    It is not natural to insert “but was in fact the.” For every other sequence of names, X, son of Y, it means that X was the son of Y. This would be a case of making one exception. There is no basis on which to make this exception other than to reach an easy solution.

    It’s also not just a matter of 400 to 1400. It’s a matter of no sources at all from *any* date until the 1400s. This is not the kind of situation where we can just wing our way to a theory. Yes the conflicting genealogies are a problem, but there’s no good evidence that this is Mary’s genealogy. I know that some apologetics ministries assert that this is the case, but they do not produce good evidence for the claim. It’s stated to be Joseph’s in both cases, and that makes things difficult. I lack expertise in this particular matter, and I recognise that.

    An earlier explanation offered by Eusebius (fourth century) is that there are two different methods of tracing lineage at play, one of which traces physical lineage, the other of which traces legal lineage, where the biological father may not always be the legal father (due to a Levirate marriage). You can read about that here: http://marshallgenealogy.org/bible/matthew-luke.htm

    It’s possible. It has the advantage of accounting for all the facts without making awkward insertions. But I do not consider the “it must be Mary’s lineage” option to be a serious one.

  • John Watson April 10, 2015, 9:37 am

    I enjoyed the article, and this is a truth that many have been deceived about. Do you have any articles which reveal who the Hebrews are today and their importance in these last times? The Hebrews of course are those who are suffering the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15-68, which includes the Transatlantic Slave trade, and other items that refer to the Northern kingdom, that arrived in the West (Arsareth) around 722BCE.

    Without properly identifying who these people actually are today, then it’s impossible to understand the Bible, especially prophecy. They are the primary subject of restoration, and Christ is coming to liberate them in Jeremiah 30:7-11. I rarely see this truth presented, which is of salvational importance.

  • Glenn April 11, 2015, 10:05 pm

    John, that has nothing to do with anything here as far as I can tell. Write a blog about it. 🙂

  • Deborah Rodriguez-Castinado December 15, 2016, 4:27 am

    Mary’s comment to the angel, grammatically, was not in reference to not knowing “Joseph”. If you carefully re-read the text, Mary shows no sign of shock when told she is going to get pregnant. As she remained silent to this news, the angel went on to change the subject from her getting pregnant, to “a man”… Jesus… who will do some seemingly impossible things. Not the least of which is live forever. To the which, Mary responds, “How shall this be seeing I know not a man?” Grammatically, Mary is referring to Jesus, and not to Joseph, since “the man” the angel was just discussing was JESUS. NOT JOSEPH. I can’t speak for you, but if I were a young, child bearing, engaged Jewish woman, I’d be more shocked that my son was going to live forever (and save the whole world) than that I was going to get pregnant soon. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Remember: All comments should conform to the blog policy and you must use your real name. Comments that do not conform may be removed in whole or in part. You can review the blog policy here.

 Characters remaining