- Levirate Marriage
Did Jesus Have Too Many Grandfathers?
This question is raised when we compare the genealogy of Jesus provided by Matthew and that provided by Luke and examine who Jesus' grandfather was (see table 4). Indeed, both Matthew and Luke agree in presenting Joseph as the father of Jesus. But who was Joseph's father, and therefore Jesus' grandfather? According to Matthew, his name is Jacob, but according to Luke his name is Eli. How to explain this fact?
One solution was proposed by Julius Africanus (ca. 225) and is based on the law of levirate mentioned in Deut 25:5-10. According to this law, if a man dies without having given a child to his wife, his (usually younger) brother must marry him and give him a posterity. However, the child born of this is legally the child of the deceased man, not of his natural father. Thus Julius Africanus proposes that Luke gives us the legal genealogy of Jesus, while Matthew gives us the natural genealogy: thus, in Luke Eli is the legal father of Joseph, while in Matthew Jacob is the natural father of Joseph. Today, biblical scholars have taken up this proposal but inverting it: Luke proposes the natural genealogy, and Matthew the legal genealogy.
As ingenious as this solution is, it is fraught with serious difficulties.
- For Eli and Jacob to be brothers or half-brothers, they would have to have the same father, i.e. Matthan in Matthew's genealogy is identical to Matthat in Luke's genealogy. But the father of Matthan/Matthat is Eleazar in Matthew, and Levi in Luke. Does this mean that the law of the levirate must be used once again to explain this situation? To solve this problem, some biblical scholars have proposed that Matthat and Matthan were two different people, and therefore that Elijah and Jacob were only half-brothers. But then we are faced with the dubious hypothesis that the mother would have successively married two men with practically the same name.
- It is not known to what extent levirate marriage was actually practiced at the time of Jesus, although Mk 12:18-27 suggests that this custom was known.
- The purpose of the levirate was to give a legal son to the deceased. It would therefore be strange to go to the trouble of producing a natural genealogy, when only the legal filiation was important.
- The levirate hypothesis would at most explain only the differences at the end of the genealogy, without illuminating the other differences in the middle of the genealogy. For example, it does not explain why Matthew traces Jesus' descent to Abiud son of Zerubbabel and Luke to Rhesa son of Zerubbabel. And why does Matthew trace Jesus' descent to David through his son Solomon, and Luke through his son Nathan?
The hypothesis of the levirate solves so few things and involves so many difficulties that it must be abandoned to explain the existence of two different genealogies.
- Davidic Descent
Historically, Was Jesus of the House of David?
While a majority of biblical scholars recognize the historical value of the claim that Jesus was of Davidic lineage, a number see it as a theologoumenon, i.e. the historicization of a theological claim. Thus, according to these biblical scholars, the young Christian community saw in Jesus someone who fulfilled the hopes of Israel, and among these hopes was that of a Messiah, and this is how Jesus received the title of Messiah; but in Jewish thought the Messiah was perceived as being of Davidic descent, and so Jesus became the son of David, and eventually a Davidic genealogy was fabricated.
- The expectation of a Davidic Messiah in the first century
What was the importance of a messiah of Davidic lineage at the time of Jesus? Recall that the royal house of David had not exercised any power since the 6th c. BC, at the time of Zerubbabel, a man of Davidic lineage who had become a governor in Persia (see the note to Mt 1:12). But in the 2nd c., under the Maccabees and Hasmoneans the Jews regained some independence, which resurrected hopes for a return of the monarchy, mainly among the Pharisees and Essenes who began to hope for the restoration of the true royal lineage, the house of David. The phrase "son of David" to refer to the expected king first appears in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21 (late 1st c. BC or early 1st c. CE). The psalm laments that, although the Lord chose David to be king of Israel, it is sinners who are currently on the throne (the Hasmoneans), and so hopes that soon the true king, son of David, will come who will purify Jerusalem and gather a holy people. The same type of hope developed among the Essenes of Qumran. For example, in 4Q Florilegium i 10-13), a commentary on 1 Sam 7:11-14 concerning the Davidic dynasty, one reads, "He is the branch (ṣemaḥ) of David who will rise with the Interpreter of the Law... at the end of time."
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the rebuilding of Judaism around the Pharisees, the phrase "son of David" became the standard way of referring to the Messiah. In the Shemoneh Esreh, the common prayer of the Jews in effect before the end of the first century of the modern era, the fourteenth blessing asks that David's throne be promptly restored in Jerusalem, and the fifteenth asks that David's descendants be exalted and flourish.
Thus, there was an association of the Messiah with a Davidic lineage. However, there are a number of exceptions that prevent this association from being seen as automatic. For example, in the early second century CE Rabbi Aquiba hailed Bar Kochba as a messianic figure even though he was not of Davidic lineage. In Qumran, in addition to a Davidic Messiah, there was an aspiration for an Aaronic messiah, i.e., a high priest of Levitical lineage who would have been anointed. It is a similar perspective that the epistle to the Hebrews presents where Jesus appears as a high priest, and therefore it would have been simpler for the author if Jesus had been of Levitical lineage, not Davidic.
- The weakness of the theologoumenon
The theory of a theologoumenon meets two major objections.
- Jesus' parentage was well known in the early church circles. If the family really was not of Davidic lineage, how could he have accepted the theological claim of a Davidic ancestor? Especially James, the brother of the Lord, a leader of the Jerusalem community until about 60 AD, how could he not have heard of this Davidic claim? Moreover, a false claim to be of Davidic lineage would have offered a great deal of controversy to his enemies; thus, one would expect to find traces of controversy on the part of the Pharisees. But while there were Jewish attacks on his legitimate birth, there was never any controversy about his descent from David. And Hegesippus (2nd c.) informs us that Jude, the brother of Jesus, was put on trial before the emperor Domitian on the grounds that he was of David's descent, and therefore politically dangerous. Julius Africanus, on the other hand, who was born in Palestine and lived there part of his life, reports that there were relatives of Jesus who still lived in Nazareth and were familiar with family genealogies.
- The New Testament evidence for Jesus' Davidic ancestry is widespread and early. The epistle to the Romans (c. 58) states: "(the gospel) is about his Son, who according to the flesh came from the seed of David" (1:3). Yet, Paul was familiar with the Palestinian situation, and had been trained as a Pharisee, so the question of the Davidic lineage was of extreme importance to him, especially during the period when he was persecuting the Christians. So Paul would not have put forward this Davidic ancestry if it had no basis.
- The text of Mark 12: 35-37a
Some biblical scholars have used this text from Mark to argue that Jesus rejected this Davidic origin. Indeed, while teaching in the Temple, Jesus asked the question: "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said, 'The Lord (God) said to my Lord (Messiah)... David himself calls him Lord...'". According to these biblical scholars, Jesus would deny that the Messiah was of Davidic descent. For in admitting the hypothesis that Jesus would have claimed to be the Messiah, he would have wanted to show here that the Messiah did not need to be the son of David, since he himself was not. Such an interpretation meets with serious objections, beginning with the three evangelists who assert elsewhere that Jesus is of Davidic lineage.
Recall that Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, a reign that had already begun to be realized. This proclamation is related to God's promises to Israel, and for many, these promises include a Davidic Messiah who would restore an independent and prosperous kingdom like David's of old. Among those who followed him as disciples, some hailed him as the expected Messiah, although it does not appear that Jesus approved of this title; he would have objected primarily to the way this Messiah was perceived and the implications drawn from it. The distance he took from his family (Mk 3:31-35) was a way of moving away from physical descent to emphasize God's sovereignty in implementing his plans.
Let us return to Mk 12:35-37a. This is a word for the most part that probably goes back to Jesus himself. The question Jesus asks might be an example of a haggada type question that we know from rabbinic writings: the question is aimed at apparent contradictions in different verses of Scripture. In our case, we have on the one hand several passages which in the eyes of the scribes clearly demonstrate that the Messiah will be of David's descent, and on the other hand a passage where the Messiah is called Lord of David. The usual solution in a haggada is that all the passages are right in different contexts, or that they constitute different aspects of the truth. But what is certain is that this passage cannot be used to assert that Jesus would have denied being of Davidic descent and/or being the Messiah.
Let us end with a citation from the Epistle to Barnabas (2nd c.) commenting on Ex 17:14:
Now there is Jesus once more, not as the son of man but as the Son of God... Because they were going to claim that Christ was the son
of David, David himself, foreseeing and fearing this error of sinners, prophesied: "The Lord said to my Lord". (17, 14)
The author of this letter does not deny Davidic descent, but simply states that Davidic descent should not distract us from the fact that Jesus is the son of God.
What to conclude? The evidence for Jesus' Davidic descent outweighs any doubts one might have. But it would not be a direct royal line or that his family would be of ancestral nobility, but rather one of the non-aristocratic side branches of the house of David (see our analysis of genealogical lists).
This being said, it must be agreed that if Jesus had not been of Davidic descent this would have no negative consequences for Christian faith and theology. On the contrary, Davidic messiahship had too much of a nationalistic flavor to occupy the forefront of Christian thought. And in the gospels, there is a warning against perceiving this Davidic lineage too physically or giving it priority. This is what Mk 12:35-37a does.
- Birth at Bethlehem
Historically, Was Jesus Born at Bethlehem?
There is some consensus among biblical scholars that Bethlehem is not the birthplace of Jesus. The infancy narratives that place this birth in Bethlehem would be a historicization of a theological statement: the narrative would have been intended to illustrate the faith that Jesus was the messiah, son of David. But when we examine closely this theory of a historicization of a theological statement, we come up against a number of difficulties.
- This theory presupposes that there was an expectation among the Jews at the time of Jesus that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But the data we have on the subject comes from Christians, not Jews: there is Mt 2:4-5 (the scene of Herod with the chief priests and scribes) and Jn 7:41-42 (it is said that the Messiah must be of David's descent and come from Bethlehem). Among the Jews, the data is much later.
- Even if such an expectation could be proven among the Jews, it would not be sufficient to create a birth in Bethlehem out of thin air. For there was also the expectation of a hidden Messiah who would suddenly appear, as echoed in Jn 7:27. So if Jesus was not in Bethlehem, he could have been presented as the hidden messiah who suddenly appeared at the Jordan to be baptized.
- While Luke insists that Bethlehem is the city of David, Matthew does not make such an insistence, and thus eliminates the need for him to be born there in order to affirm that he is the Messiah.
- Biblical scholars have argued that the Bethlehem birth narrative served as an apologetic argument for Christians against the Jews who ridiculed the fact that a Messiah could come from Nazareth. But the account of a birth in Bethlehem came late in the formation of the gospels, so that Christians could preach and accept Jesus as the Messiah for fifty years without knowing that he was born in Bethlehem.
- Later, in the Jewish polemic against the Christians, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was never questioned.
Thus, one must be careful in asserting that the birth in Bethlehem is a historicization of a theological conviction. But having said that, it must be recognized that there are serious objections to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem being a historical fact.
- The two main accounts (Luke and Matthew) of a birth in Jerusalem do not agree. In Matthew, we learn only indirectly that Jesus' parents lived in Bethlehem (Mt 2:11) and that Judea was his homeland (Mt 2:22), and therefore that this birth in Bethlehem was normal. In Luke, on the other hand, Jesus' parents live in Nazareth of Galilee, and the reason why they would have traveled briefly to Bethlehem, where Jesus would have been born, is not historically supportable, i.e., the census of Quirinius; this census did take place, but on a different date and it did not involve Galilee (see the detail at Appendix VII).
- Apart from the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew, the rest of the gospels completely ignore such a birth in Bethlehem. The data there present Nazareth and Galilee as Jesus' hometown or region, his patris (Mk 6:1, 4; Mt 13:54, 57; Lk 4:23-24). This term patris (homeland, country of origin) is introduced by Mark who ignores this birth in Bethlehem. When Luke and Matthew use this term again in their account of Jesus' ministry, they seem to assume the same meaning of a birth in Galilee. Among Jesus' listeners in Mk 6:2-3, no one seems to know of any birth of Jesus in the city of David in Bethlehem, and all are astonished that he has become an important religious figure; his family situation did not suggest anything extraordinary. And Jn 7:41-42.52 includes a small indication of an origin in Galilee, and a complete absence of knowledge of a birth elsewhere. Finally, in the small village of Nazareth, how could this birth in Bethlehem have been overlooked if the parents had arrived as strangers, according to Matthew, or as returning with a newborn child after a brief stay in Judea, according to Luke?
- Virginal Conception
Historically, Was Jesus Conceived without a Human Father?
It is likely that Matthew and Luke considered the virginal conception to be historical, but the question did not have the same intensity as it does for us today; their interest was primarily theological, and more specifically Christological. But it is worth revisiting this question, knowing that the evidence of the Bible is unlikely to provide a definitive answer for the simple reason that the Bible was not written to answer this question.
Let us begin with the term "virginal conception" which is different from "virginal birth". For the question we ask is not how he came out of the womb, but how he was conceived: was he conceived without the intervention of a human father, i.e. without the male seed impregnating the mother? In the post-biblical Christian world, the belief in a virginal birth developed in parallel with a virginal conception, and thus it was believed that Jesus' delivery was painless and without the hymen being broken. The apocryphal writing Evangelium of James 19-20 alludes to this. But our discussion will be restricted to the virginal conception, avoiding at the same time the implications for the creed of the virgin birth. Indeed, the expression "born of the virgin Mary" contains a certain ambiguity: for if it is clear that the authors of the creed intended to designate the virginal conception, it is less clear that they intended to propose to the Christian faith the way in which Jesus was conceived on the biological level. Let us recall that this creed was proposed to combat the heresy of those who doubted the humanity of Jesus. And so by specifying that Jesus was born like everyone else, that he suffered under Pontius Pilate and that he did die, it was intended to emphasize that Jesus is indeed a historical being. Thus, the emphasis is not on the conception or the virginal birth.
- The Silence of the Rest of the New Testament
No one disagrees that there is no explicit mention of virginal conception in the NT other than the infancy narratives. The point of disagreement is the implicit references. Let us examine the texts mentioned.
- The Pauline Letters
Gal 4:4: "But when the time was fulfilled, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman and subject to the law". Some biblical scholars see this as an indication of a virginal conception, since only the mother is mentioned. Unfortunately, Paul is simply talking about the reality of the birth, not about how Jesus was conceived. And the phrase "born of a woman" is meant to emphasize what Jesus shares with all those he came to save.
Paul's use of the verb ginesthai (to come into existence) to speak of Jesus "being born" (see Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3; Phil 2:7), rather than using a verb like gennan (to beget), as in Gal 4:23,24,29 would imply that he was speaking of virginal conception. Unfortunately, both verbs in the middle or passive form both mean: to be born, to beget, and tell us nothing specific about how to be conceived. For example, Matthew who nevertheless believes in the virginal conception uses the verb gennan at least once with the clear meaning that Jesus was begotten.
- Gospel of Mark
Mark never mentions the name of Joseph, Jesus' father, and in the passages in Matthew and Luke where the residents of Nazareth refer to Jesus as "the carpenter's son" or "Joseph's son," Mark uses "Mary's son" instead (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55; Lk 4:22). For some biblical scholars, this would be a clue that Mark knew that Jesus had no human father. Unfortunately, there is a simpler solution to the absence of Joseph in all the gospels: he would have already died when Jesus was baptized. And the phrase "son of Mary" only accounts for the only living relative at the time Mark portrays Jesus' family. Moreover, it is unlikely that Mark would refer to a virginal conception in the context of Jesus' complaint that he is not welcome in his own country.
A text from Mark clearly rules out the possibility that he knew of the virginal conception. In Mk 3:21-35, "his own" think Jesus has lost his mind and want to seize him, and then Mark tells us that his mother and brothers stand outside, while inside the house stand those who listen to him, a family made up of those who do God's will. This unflattering portrait of Mary's relationship to Jesus is irreconcilable with Mark's knowledge of the virginal conception. So unflattering is this portrayal that Matthew and Luke, who know about the virginal conception, have eliminated the beginning of the scene where Jesus is believed to be insane, and Luke goes so far as to include Jesus' family among those who believe and do the will of God at the end of the scene.
- Johannine Writings
Some biblical scholars have seen an allusion to the virginal conception in a variant of Jn 1:13 which reads: "He who was (instead of 'those who were') begotten, not blood, nor by carnal desire, nor by man's desire, but by God". Unfortunately, no Greek manuscript supports this variant, which seems to be the result of a change made in the Patristic period to enhance the Christological value of the text.
Jn 7:42 has also been invoked ("Doesn't the Scripture say that he will be of the lineage of David and that he will come from Bethlehem, the little town from which David came?"), where the evangelist would have been aware of a birth in Bethlehem, and thus of a virginal conception. Unfortunately, this reference to Bethlehem does not prove that the evangelist thought Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let alone that he was born of a virginal conception.
It has also been put forward 1 Jn 5:18 ("We know that whoever is born of God does not sin any more, but being born of God, He protects him") where the second part of the sentence is translated as: but the Begotten of God protects him. Unfortunately, this translation is dubious, and even if we accept it, we do not see how it could be an allusion to the virginal conception, since the same expression "begotten (or born) of God" is applied to Christians in 1 Jn 2:29 39:9; 5:1.4.
In short, none of the implied references are convincing, and there is a real silence on the virginal conception throughout the rest of the New Testament. On the other hand, this does not mean that none of the authors, except Matthew and Luke, knew about the virginal conception. We can only say that its Christological value was not yet perceived to be part of the writings. But this silence makes one thing clear: the theory that the memory of the virginal conception was transmitted by the family of Jesus to the apostolic preachers and that it was universally accepted among Christians as a fundamental element of their faith must be questioned.
- The Origin of the Idea of a Virginal Conception
Only in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke is the virginal conception mentioned. And even in these infancy narratives, there are in fact only two passages: Mt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:26-39, which mention it. In our commentary, we have presented the hypothesis that these accounts represent a combination of different pre-gospel accounts and traditions. There is no clear evidence that the idea of the virginal conception in this pre-gospel material was present anywhere other than in the gospel birth announcement. But the fact that Matthew and Luke agree on the birth announcement as a vehicle for the idea of a virginal conception firmly establishes that a set of three items predate the two gospels:
- the literary form of an evangelical birth annunciation
- the theological message in the annunciation which places in parallel the Davidic descent of the Messiah and the begetting of the son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit
- the setting of the annunciation which features a young girl who has been betrothed but is still a virgin.
How to explain these three items of the pre-Gospel tradition. The first item is well known as a literary structure of the OT (see the table of the stages of a birth annunciation narrative) and was therefore a natural way for a Christian of Jewish origin to reflect on the birth of Jesus. The second item comes from the Christological understanding of Jesus after Easter where God made him Christ and Lord, and which over time was displaced to the moment of his conception, since it was the same person. It is the third item that poses a problem: why place this affirmation of faith that Jesus is the son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the context of a virgin conception of the Messiah? What were the catalysts?
- Non-historical Catalysts
- Virginal Conception in Pagan or World Religions
According to some biblical scholars, the virginal conception was a well-known symbol to explain the divine origin of some beings, as shown by the stories from the world religions. For example, the conception of a number of figures such as Buddha, Krishna, the son of Zoroaster, Perseus, Romulus, the Pharaohs, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana. But the validity of such a comparison depends on three factors:
- Were such legends known to Christians at the time of the New Testament to the point of influencing them in the idea of a virginal conception of Jesus? First of all, there is the problem of dating these legends, so that it is difficult to prove that they existed, or even that they were known in the first century among Christians. Moreover, the virginal conception of Jesus is structured on the model of an OT annunciation story, so one must at least presuppose that one is in the world of Greek-speaking Judaism, which would act as a bridge to the culture of other religions.
- To what extent would such legends be attractive or acceptable to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians? Many of these legends involve vulgar and amoral sexual conduct. Wis 14:26 ("confusion of values, forgetfulness of blessings, defilement of souls, sexual inversion, lawlessness of marriages, adultery and debauchery") and Rom 1:24 ("Therefore God has given them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts, in which they themselves debase their own bodies") give us an idea of the natural reaction of Greek-speaking Jews.
- Can we say that these legends constitute a real parallel with the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described by Matthew and Luke, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity with whom she had a sexual relationship, but this conception is done by the creative power of the Holy Spirit? In short, there is no real parallel.
- Virginal Conception in Judaism
Three parallels were proposed.
- First, there is the Septuagint text of Is 7:14 to which Mt 1:22-23 refers: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel". In our commentary we have shown that the Septuagint's choice to translate the Hebrew word for "young girl" as "virgin" does not mean that the translator intended to speak of the virginal conception of the Messiah, for this conception is clearly placed in the future. All he means is that a woman, who is a virgin at present, will conceive a child naturally on the day she is united to a man. At the most, he means that it will be a firstborn child. It is Christian exegesis that has given a new interpretation to this passage from Isaiah in the light of an existing tradition on the virginal conception. And Matthew simply sought to color his account with this interpretation.
To describe the generation of virtues in the human soul, Philo of Alexandria uses the allegorical accounts of the patriarchs who were begotten by God: "Rebekah, who is perseverance, became pregnant with God". Unfortunately, we are in the world of allegory.
- To try to follow up this idea of patriarchs begotten by God without the intervention of a male, some biblical scholars have turned to Paul who distinguishes the two sons of Abraham, one born according to the flesh, the other according to the promise or spirit (Gal 4:23, 29). But elsewhere (Rom 9:8-10) clearly states that the children of the patriarchs according to the promise were conceived by sexual relations between parents.
Thus, even in the Jewish world one remains without parallels.
- Historical Catalysts
The question that must be asked is: How did the knowledge of the extraordinary way Jesus was conceived come to Christians, and why did it come so late and only in two NT writings? Here are two answers that have been proposed.
- Family Tradition
Let us eliminate at the outset the simplistic thesis that Matthew's infancy narrative came from Joseph and Luke's came from Mary, as well as the thesis that Mary had an annunciation early in her pregnancy and Joseph several months later, which would presuppose that Mary and Joseph never spoke to each other. As we have seen in our commentary, the annunciation narratives are variations developed from a pre-Gospel tradition following the structure of the OT annunciation narratives, and there is no basis for asserting that such a narrative would come from the parents. A more sensible question would be this: did the experiential knowledge that the child would have been conceived without a human father come to the Christian community through Mary, with the corollary that it was all due to God's action?
Some biblical scholars propose a positive answer to this question based on the phrase: "Mary kept with concern all these events, interpreting them in her heart". Unfortunately, Luke's phrase merely repeats Gen 37:11 and Dan 4:28 (LXX), which refer to dreams, and has nothing to do with the preservation of an ocular tradition. The greatest difficulty with Mary's preservation of a family tradition is the fact that this tradition did not appear until the latter part of the first century (about 80 or 85). In addition, there is a strong tradition that Jesus' brothers did not believe in him during his ministry (Jn 7:5; Mk 3:21, followed by 3:31). So how did Mary not communicate her divine origin to them? Didn't the virginal conception have implications for Jesus' identity? In the few scenes in which she appears in the gospels during Jesus' ministry, one would look in vain for clues to a Christological understanding on her part. And when after Passover the proclamation is made that Jesus became Christ, Lord, or son of God by his resurrection, there is never a mention of the virginal conception.
- Public Knowledge of the Early Birth
According to Luke's and Matthew's scenario, Mary became pregnant quite a long time before her cohabitation with her husband. According to this scenario, Jesus would have been born long before the usual time after the cohabitation, and this could not have escaped the public eye. Can we say that this is a historical fact? That this situation is found in Matthew and Luke, with only Matthew making a slightly apologetic use of it, suggests that we are dealing with a tradition that predates these two evangelists. If all this was pure fiction, why create a situation that could only be embarrassing? Moreover, it was one of the accusations coming from the Jewish world that Jesus was an illegitimate child (see Appendix V), an accusation that circulated in the first century.
If it is quite likely, then, that the chronology of Mary's pregnancy is historical, the question becomes: how did the idea of a virginal conception creep into this situation? Opponents of Jesus saw this as evidence of illegitimacy and infidelity on the part of Mary. But Christians could not accept such an explanation, because of their belief that Jesus was totally without sin (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22; Heb 4:15; 1 Jn 3:5) and because Matthew and Luke present his parents as holy and upright (Matt 1:19; Lk 1:42). A positive explanation would then have been sought for this irregular conception. Thus, the idea of the virginal conception would have arisen from the interaction of several factors:
- the affirmation of faith from the first preaching that Jesus was designated or begotten as the son of God by the Holy Spirit
- the theology of a sinless being seeking to clarify the historical fact of Jesus' conception by his mother before the moment of cohabitation with her husband
- and the ingredient of a family tradition may have given substance to the whole mixture
The fact remains that all these arguments remain so tenuous that we must conclude that, in terms of the biblical data that can be scientifically controlled, the question of the historicity of the virginal conception cannot be resolved.
- Other Influential Factors
Because the NT data are inconclusive, several other factors guided the discussion. These are listed below.
- The data that comes to us from the second century, after the New Testament period, does not help us much. First of all, there are the apocryphal writings where the virginal conception is well attested, an indication of its popularity. But on the other hand, there were groups that denied the virginal conception. First, there were the Gnostic Christians, often influenced by their doctrinal prejudices of the docetism or anti-world heresy: the idea of taking flesh in a womb was repugnant to them. But more importantly for us, there is the rejection of the virginal conception by Jewish Christians who accepted Jesus as the Messiah of strictly human origin; thus there would have been a tradition of a natural conception in Palestine among people of Jewish origin who believed in Jesus.
- The theory of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture has also been invoked to assert that if Matthew and Luke spoke of a virginal conception for Jesus, it must be a historical fact. This is to forget that the evangelists are making a Christological statement about Jesus as the son of God and the son of David. Of course, they assume a biological virginity, but that is not the main point of their statement. Thus, a Christian could not accept biological virginity, but accept the Christological affirmation, and thereby preserve the truth of the Gospel teaching.
- Similarly, the continuity of the Church's teaching on the historicity of the virginal conception has been mentioned, and indeed there is virtual unanimity from 200 to 1800. But it is necessary to recall what we said earlier about the Creed with its expression "virginal birth" not being primarily a biological affirmation, and it is necessary to determine the extent to which the affirmation of the Creed is inextricably bound up with a biological presupposition. It should also be noted that this period of unanimity in the Church corresponds to the period when opponents of the virginal conception of Jesus also denied his divinity. This is no longer the case today. But we must remember two points:
- In the orthodox Christian faith, Jesus would remain the son of God regardless of how he was conceived, since his sonship is eternal and not dependent on the incarnation
- For the ordinary Christian, the virginal conception seems to have been an effective sign of Jesus' divine and eternal filiation.
- For some, the virginal conception would deny the humanity of Jesus, since he was not conceived like any of us. However, if the virginal conception in Matthew and Luke was linked to the affirmation of the divine filiation of Jesus, it did not, for them, vitiate his full humanity. In fact, Matthew associates this conception with a genealogy of his ancestors. Paradoxically, those who denied the virginal conception of Jesus in the history of the Church were those who also denied his humanity.
- In the history of Christian dogma, the virginal conception has been put at the service of theories on concupiscence concerning the transmission of original sin (sin would be transmitted through sexual relations and the sensual appetites aroused by procreation). According to this perspective, Jesus was born without original sin, because he was not conceived through sexual relations. Such a theory has few followers today, and above all it is totally foreign to the evangelists.
- The virginal conception was quickly interwoven into the larger picture of Mary's perpetual virginity. Churches with a strong Marian tradition have seen all questions about the virginal conception as a threat to Mary's position as "mother of God" since the Council of Ephesus (431); it is feared that a natural conception will rob Jesus of his nobility and Mary of her sanctity. Yet the virginal conception originally showed no trace of anti-sexual bias; for the evangelists it was the visible sign of God's gracious intervention, and in no way does this intervention make the natural conception in marriage any less holy.
- In history, the alternative to the virginal conception has unfortunately not been the normal birth in marriage, but an illegitimate birth because of Mary's infidelity (see Appendix V). The only ones to deny the virginal conception while maintaining that Jesus was the natural and legitimate son of Joseph were Jewish Christians of the 2nd century. Unfortunately, Matthew's account excludes this possibility. Nevertheless, some Christians accept the idea that Jesus is an illegitimate son, seeing it as the final phase of the process described in Phil 2:7 where the son has stripped himself of his identity to become a slave, while insisting that an illegitimate birth is not a fault on Jesus' part. Nevertheless, illegitimacy would destroy the atmosphere of holiness and purity that surrounded Jesus' origins in the eyes of Matthew and Luke and would negate the theology that Jesus came from the pious milieu of the Anawim of Israel.
- The virginal conception remains a miracle, even if the gospels do not emphasize its marvelous character. There have been many efforts in history to make it a natural phenomenon: a case of parthenogenesis, or the result of cloning or experimental embryology. All this represents a misunderstanding of what the Christian tradition sought to express by the virginal conception, i.e. an extraordinary action of God's creative power, as unique as the initial creation.
- The Charge of Illegitimacy
Was Jesus considered an illegitimate child during his lifetime by the Jews?
We have seen that one of the possible catalysts for the idea of Jesus' virginal conception was the memory that Jesus was born too soon after his parents began their cohabitation. Christians explained this as a miraculous act of God, while Jesus' opponents saw it as evidence of an illegitimate birth. Let's take a closer look at the charge of illegitimacy, starting with the facts and then examining the various hypotheses.
- The Evidence from the Second Century and Later
The challenge is to find traces of illegitimacy that do not depend on the infancy narratives. The Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi, seems to depend in large part on the gospels, but also contains authentic passages from Jesus' ministry. One such passage reads, "Whoever knows father and mother will be called 'son of a harlot'" (#105). But the meaning of this passage is too obscure to be of any use. The following passage is also found in the Acts of Pilate (2nd c.):
The elders of the Jews answered and said to Jesus, "What should we see? First, that you were born of fornication; second, that your birth meant the death of the children in Bethlehem; third, that your father Joseph and your mother Mary fled into Egypt because they counted for nothing among the people". (2, 3)
Unfortunately, this text clearly seems to depend on Matthew.
The Roman philosopher Celsus, whom we know only from Origen, is said to have written a work (True Word), about the year 178, in which he says this:
It was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin. In fact, however, his mother was a poor country woman who earned her living by spinning. She had been driven out by her carpenter-husband when she was convicted of adultery with a soldier named Panthera. She then wandered about and secreetly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, Jesus hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical pwoeers. Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God. (Origen, Contra Celsus I, 28.32.69).
Such an attack on Jesus' origins was widespread. In North Africa, Tertullian, writing around the year 197, mentions among the accusations against Jesus that he was the son of a prostitute (De spectaculis xxx 3). But all these testimonies come to us from Christian writings that are set in a polemical context, and therefore are not always reliable. But it remains that the expression "son of Panthera" is also found in the mouths of rabbis of the Tannaitic period (the first two centuries of our era), without it being known whether it refers to the illegitimacy of the birth of Jesus. On the other hand, Simeon ben Azzai (early 2nd c.) is said to have found a genealogy in Jerusalem that states, "So-and-so is illegitimate, because born of a married woman" (Mishna, Jebamoth 4:13). Some claim that this phrase would refer to Jesus, unnamed for fear of Christian reprisals. Unfortunately, there is no way to validate that this is a reference to Jesus.
During the Amoraic period of Jewish literature (200-500 AD), the belief in the illegitimacy of Jesus is well established in Jewish circles, while Ben Panthera is identified with Ben Stada, whose mother was Miriam, a hairdresser who was allegedly unfaithful to her husband. Ben Stada is said to have learned the formulas of black magic in Egypt, and was hanged (crucified) on the eve of Passover (Talmud of Babylon, Sabbath 104b; Sanhedrin 67a).
The real question about all these accusations of illegitimacy, attested in the second century by both Christian and Jewish sources, is to what extent they represent a tradition independent of the gospels. When one sees the mention of a stay in Egypt, it is difficult not to see it as a dependence on the Gospel of Matthew. There is the mention of Panthera which cannot be explained by the gospels, but this could simply be an embellishment of an account developed from Matthew's. In short, there is no way to know for sure that the accusations of illegitimacy represent accusations that would have circulated before Matthew composed his account.
- The Evidence from the New Testament
Two passages could refer to the charge of illegitimacy in Jewish circles.
- The Apppelation "Son of Mary" in Mark 6: 3
For the text of Mark, there are two manuscript traditions. We have underlined the important words.
|Mark 6: 3|
|Mark 6: 3|
(P45, family 13, OL, Bohairic, Armenian)
|Matthew 13: 55||Luke 4: 22||John 6: 42|
|Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Are not his sisters here among us?||Is not this the son of the carpenter and of Mary, etc.||Is not this the son of the carpenter? Is not his mother called Mary, and are not his brothers James and Joseph, Simon and Judas? Are not all his sisters here among us?||Is not this the son of Joseph?||Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?|
The three synoptics put this question in the mouths of the people of Nazareth on the occasion of Jesus' only visit to the town during his ministry to emphasize the contrast between his humble origins and his growing reputation for wonder and preaching. In John the question is put on the lips of "the Jews" on the shore of Lake Tiberias, but it has the same meaning. It is likely that we are dealing with variations on the same ancient tradition.
The weight of the best manuscripts of Mark favors the first reading (column 1), despite the age of Papyrus 45 (early third century). Some biblical scholars consider the second reading to be the original version, arguing that scribes would have seen the expression "son of the carpenter" as a denial of the virginal conception, and would therefore have attributed the trade of carpenter to Jesus and eliminated the mention of the father. To this we must reply that it is doubtful that scribes would have made a change that would have put Mark at odds with Matthew and Luke. Also, it is more likely that the first reading is the original version, and the second reading comes from a copyist who would have modified the text of Mark to synchronize it with that of Matthew and Luke.
So how do we explain the differences between the evangelists? There seem to be two traditions behind these texts, a long tradition (Mark and Matthew) and a short tradition (Luke, John). In the long tradition there are references to the carpenter, Mary, brothers and sisters; in the short tradition Jesus is simply called "son of Joseph. Mark represents the long tradition, which Matthew would have modified slightly to avoid Jesus being called "carpenter" out of reverence for him.
This being said, it is impossible to trace the tradition behind the long and short traditions, and thus it is impossible to know whether according to the earliest tradition Jesus was called "son of Mary" or "son of Joseph" or "son of Joseph and Mary. Nevertheless, let us consider the implications of Jesus being called "carpenter, son of Mary. First, being called a "carpenter" is not negative; it simply places Jesus with the other comparable occupations of the citizens of Nazareth, and thus defines him as an "ordinary man. As for the phrase "son of Mary," there has been much discussion among biblical scholars, some of whom see it as an assertion of the illegitimacy of Jesus' birth according to a principle of late Judaism: A man is illegitimate when he is called by reference to his mother's name, because a bastard has no father. The flaw in this argument is that it is impossible to know if this principle existed at the time of Jesus. Also, the easiest way to explain the expression "son of Mary" is the context where Joseph was dead and Mary, the only surviving relative, was well known to all the villagers. Moreover, the fact that Mark also mentions Jesus' brothers and sisters eliminates the possibility that the phrase "son of Mary" would have a connotation of illegitimacy; rather, the emphasis is that we are dealing with ordinary people.
Thus, Mark 6:3 gives us no real support for the idea that the Jews considered Jesus an illegitimate child during his ministry.
- The Debate over Illegimacy in John 8:11
"'You do the works of your father'. They said to him, 'We were not born illegitimate; we have one father, God,". Let us recall the context. There is a debate between Jesus and "the Jews" about the descent from Abraham (8:31f), whom they call their father. Jesus questions this descent, since they do not do the works of Abraham (v. 39). And in v. 41 he sarcastically refers to their real father, the devil, which leads to the protest of the Jews: "We were not born illegitimate". Some biblical scholars have interpreted this phrase with which begins with an emphatic "we (egō)" as "We (unlike you) were not born illegitimate". Since the context is one of illegitimacy and paternity, a hint of an accusation of illegitimacy has more plausibility than Mark 6:3. But it remains that this accusation is far from certain.
In conclusion of this entire study, we must accept that we do not know whether the Jewish accusation of illegitimacy, which appeared clearly in the second century, comes from a source independent of the infancy narrative tradition, which could have helped us to confirm as historical the chronology of a early birth assumed by Matthew and (implicitly) by Luke.
- Other Jewish Background for Matthew's Narrative
Besides the account of the patriarch Joseph and the young Moses, and the oracle of Balaam, are there any other sources?
In our commentary, we have presented two pre-Gospel sources for Matthew's infancy narrative, first the story of the patriarch Joseph and the young Moses that shaped the angelic appearances, and then the story of Balaam, a magus from the east who saw the star of David rise, a story that shaped the narrative of the magi from the east. But biblical scholars have seen other sources that would have influenced Matthew's account.
- The legend around Abraham
There was a legend in the Jewish world about Abraham. According to this legend, astrologers warned the evil king Nimrod that Terah (Abraham's father) would have a son at the same time as they saw a star rising and devouring all other stars, a sign that the newborn would gain possession of the whole world, so the king had to make sure to kill all male children. Unfortunately, this legend is not attested until quite late in the Christian era and there is no record that it was known in Matthew's time. Moreover, it seems to have been modeled on the story of the birth of Moses.
- The story of the Queen of Sheba
The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in Mt 12:42 ("for she [the southern queen] came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon"), which is taken from Document Q. Some biblical scholars have wondered whether the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, as told in 1 Kings 10:2, might not be the origin of the story of the Magi, who came from Arabia "with camels laden with spices, much gold and precious stones". Unfortunately, another account, that of Is 60:6 ("A flood of camels will cover you... all the people of Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense") offers us a better parallel with the gift of the Magi. Moreover, the figure of Solomon in the story of the Queen of Sheba cannot be compared to that of the wicked Herod in the story of the magi.
- The stay of Jacob/Israel in Egypt
In chapter 2, Matthew takes Jesus through the great moments of Israel's history. Also, some biblical scholars have proposed as background Jacob/Israel's stay in Egypt while being persecuted by Laban. Unfortunately, this background does not have the same force to illuminate Matthew chapter 2 as the story of Joseph who actually lived in Egypt and was associated with Pharaoh and his dreams. Nevertheless, minor influences from the Jacob/Israel story cannot be ruled out, especially the reference to Rachel, Jacob's wife, in Mt 2:17-18.
Linked to this background of the Jacob/Israel story is its development in the form of a midrash as attested by a Passover Haggada, i.e. a popular story of Israel's deliverance told as part of the Passover celebration. In this story, the ancient creed of Deut 25:5-8 ("My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt...") is repeated. But by changing a single vowel in the verb "to wander", the sentence was reinterpreted as follows: "An Aramean sought to destroy my father". A comparison was made with Laban, an Aramean, who sought to destroy Jacob and his family, and with Pharaoh, who sought to destroy the Hebrew male children. The midrash brings together a series of biblical events: the attacks on Jacob and his family by Laban the Aramean, the flight into Egypt as God requested in a dream, and the return to the land under the leadership of Moses. In short, the story of Jacob/Israel cannot be the main background of the pre-Matthean tradition, but it is very possible that some elements of this story were interwoven with the narrative around the patriarch Joseph and the young Moses.
- The Census under Quirinius
Historically, was there a universal census at the time of Jesus' birth?
At that time an edict went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole world (This was the first census under Quirinius as governor of Syria.) And so all went to be inscribes in the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to have himself inscribed in the census with Mary, his betrothed, who was pregnant. (Lk 2: 1-5)
Taken by itself and in isolation, this decree is not chronologically problematic: Augustus reigned from 44/42 BC until 14 AD; Publius Sulicius Quirinius became governor or legate of Syria in 6 AD and conducted a census in Judea (not Galilee) that year. Based on this information, Jesus would have been born in 6 CE. The problem comes from what Luke writes elsewhere, for example in 1:5 ("in the time of Herod, king of Judea") and 3:23 ("Jesus in his early years was about thirty years old"), which creates an irreconcilable conflict.
Let us begin with Lk 1:5 and the mention of King Herod of Judea for the time of the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary. According to the best information we have, Herod the Great died in the year 4 BC. (see note on Mt 2:1). Now, according to Lk 1:36, Mary's pregnancy began six months after Elizabeth's, so Jesus would have been born about 15 or 16 months after the annunciation of John the Baptist's birth. Since this annunciation was during the time of Herod and Herod died in 4 BC, the birth of Jesus must have taken place at the latest in 3 BC (which brings us closer to the date proposed by Matthew which is around 6 BC, i.e. two years before Herod's death). Even then we are at least ten years before the time when Quirinius became governor of Syria (6 CE) and undertook his census. Three solutions have been proposed to solve this problem: 1) Reinterpreting the chronology of Herod to match the census of Quirinius of A.D. 6; 2) Reinterpreting the chronology of Quirinius' census to match the date of Herod (4 BC) in the first chapter of Luke; 3) Recognizing that either or both chronological indications are inaccurate and confusing, and that there is no need or possibility for reconciliation. Basically, it is to this third solution that the analysis in this appendix will lead us.
- Reinterpretating Herod's chronology
A first suggestion is that Luke intended to designate as king not Herod the Great, but his son Archelaus, who ruled in Judea from 4 BC to 6 CE until he was deposed and exiled. Thus, one could imagine that the annunciation of John the Baptist took place around 5 or 6 CE, and that Jesus would have been born after the deposition of Archelaus, when Quirinius became legate of Syria in 6 CE. A variant of this suggestion is to separate the annunciation to Zechariah from the annunciation to Mary (which Luke would have put together for theological reasons): the annunciation to Zechariah did take place under Herod the Great (thus before his death in 4 BC), and the annunciation to Mary took place when Quirinius was about to take his census in 6 BC.
Unfortunately, these suggestions conflict with Matthew's data, which clearly place Jesus' birth before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, specifically two years before his death. They also conflict with Luke's own data in 3:1.23 when he places the beginning of Jesus' ministry in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius (i.e. in 27-28) and adds that Jesus was about 30 years old at that time, implying a birth at the latest around 3 or 4 BC. This has led biblical scholars to look for another solution.
- Reinterpretating the chronology of the census of Quirinius
Could Augustus have issued an edict requiring that the entire Roman Empire be subjected to a census? There is no data to confirm such a fact. Moreover, given the different status of the client provinces and kingdoms, a universal census is implausible. But Luke may have meant not a single census, but Augustus' policy of having regular censuses for statistical purposes, which would include Judea. Indeed, Augustus was interested in censuses for a variety of reasons: during his reign, Roman citizens were counted three times (in 28 and 8 BC, and in 13-14 AD) for statistical purposes, and censuses were also taken for tax and military service purposes for non-Roman citizens.
But could a Roman census have required people to return to the place of their tribe or ancestors as Luke describes for Joseph? We have no clear parallel on the subject. Nevertheless, this possibility cannot be ruled out a priori, since the Romans were accustomed to adapting their administration to local circumstances, and so a census conducted in Galilee would respect the deep attachment of the Jews to their tribe or ancestral relationships. But Luke's account tells us that Quirinius' census affected Galilee, which does not fit the facts about the census of 6 AD, because Galilee was not under the authority of Quirinius, but of the tetrarch Herod Antipas who ruled there. This begs the question: was there a census by Quirinius before Galilee and Judea were governed separately?
Let's start with the question: Could Quirinius have been governor of Syria for the first time during or shortly after the reign of Herod the Great, i.e. around or before 4 BC? The Jewish historian Josephus gives us this list and chronology of the governors of Syria:
|23 - 13 BC||M. Agrippa|
|Circa 10 BC||M. Titius|
|9 - 6 BC||S. Sentius Saturninus|
|6 - 4 BC ou plus tard||Quintilius (ou Quinctilius) Varus|
|1 BC to circa 4 AD||Gaius Caesar|
|4 - 5 AD||L. Volusius Saturninus|
|6 to after 7||P. Sulpicius Quirinius|
For Quirinius to have been governor of Syria twice, i.e. once in year 6 and at another time before, only two possibilities exist according to Josephus' list: either before Titius (i.e. before 10 BC), or between Varus and Gaius Caesar (i.e. year 4 BC to 1 BC). Unfortunately, even if this solution is compatible with Luke's data, it is incompatible with Quirinius' well-documented career; in 12 BC he was consul (Tacitus, Annals III 48) and between 12 and 6 BC he was in Asia Minor leading legions at war against the Homonades, before ending up in Syria as an advisor to Gaius Caesar and then replacing him.
Even assuming that Quirinius would have been governor of Syria for the first time during the period of Herod the Great, how can we explain a census of the governor of Syria on the territory which is under Herod's jurisdiction? Indeed, as a client king Herod, who paid tribute to Rome, levied his own taxes and there is no evidence that Romans levied taxes based on a census in his kingdom. And if there was a census in the year 6 CE, it is precisely because Herod's son Archelaus had just been deposed and the Romans were taking over his territory. Moreover, it is implausible that a Roman census could have taken place either under Herod the Great or under Archelaus, without triggering a revolt among the population. And in fact, this is exactly what happened in the year 6 with the census of Quirinius.
Let us consider for a moment Josephus' description of this census. After the departure of Archelaus, Judea became a Roman province annexed to Syria in the year 6 CE. Quirinius, appointed by Augustus to be governor of Syria, undertook to visit Judea "to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus. At first, the Jews were shocked to hear about having to bring back their property, but they agreed to this request at the urging of the high priest. On the other hand, Judas of Galilee led a rebellion, founding the nationalist movement of the Zealots. All this is a sign of an unusual event. When Luke speaks of "the first census under Quirinius" he is certainly referring to this memorable event.
In an almost desperate effort to salvage the accuracy of Luke, biblical scholars have proposed other solutions. It has been suggested that there has been a corruption of the text of Luke and that instead of reading Quirinius, it should read Saturninus (governor 9-6 BC), even though there is no manuscript to support this reading; this would place the census during the time of Herod. What led to this suggestion was a passage from Tertullian: "In those days there were censuses in Judea under Augustus by Sentius Saturninus, by which the ancestors of Jesus could be inquired into" (Adversus Marcion IV xix 10). Unfortunately, there is no indication that Tertullian is referring here to Lk 2:1-5. Moreover, the context of this sentence is a commentary on Lk 8:19-21 ("My mother and my brother are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice") where he confronts the Docetists who deny the humanity of Jesus and finds himself saying to them: you can verify in the census documents that Jesus did indeed have ancestors. Tertullian assumes that such documents must exist in Palestine.
Another desperate attempt to salvage Luke's accuracy has been to propose a two-stage census, i.e., one that would have begun under Saturninus or Varus (thus in Herod's time), and been completed under Quirinius. Unfortunately, Luke does not tell us that the census was completed with Quirinius, but that it took place (egeneto) under Quirinius. A variant of this proposal has been to place in the time of Saturnius a stage of the census called apographē (the enrollment of taxable goods and persons), and in the time of Quirinius the stage called apotimēsis (the assessment or evaluation of the current tax based on the enrollment). Unfortunately, Luke speaks of an apographē (enrollment) in the time of Quirinius, not an apotimēsis.
- Recognizing the irreconcilable nature of Luc's information
After all this analysis, the weight of evidence prevents us from reconciling chapters 1 and 2 of Luke: there is no serious reason to believe that there was a Roman census in Palestine under Quirinius at the time of Herod the Great. The information in chapter 1 may be accurate: Jesus may have been born during the reign of Herod the Great or at the end. But it is inaccurate to associate this birth with the census conducted in the year 6 under Quirinius. Luke is equally inaccurate in Acts 5:36 about this census, when he puts in the mouth of Gamaliel, shortly after Jesus' death in 30 AD, an allusion to the revolt of Theudas, which in fact did not occur until 10 years later, and to which is added the error of implicitly dating the revolt of Judas the Galilean (around 6 AD) after that of Theudas.
It is worth quoting R. Syme here:
Two striking events in Palestinian history would leave their marks in the minds of men. First, the end of Herod in 4 B.C., second the annexation of Judaea in A.D. 6. Either might serve for approximate dating in a society not given to exact documentation. Each event, so it happened, led to disturbances. More serious were those in 4 B.C., according to Josephus. Varus the legate of Syria had to intervene with the whole of his army. But the cris of A.D. 6 was the more sharply remembered because Roman rule and taxation were imposed. Thus, in Acts 5:37, the speech of the Pharisee Gamaliel: "In the days of the census." (The Titulus Tiburtinus, in Vestigia : Akten des VI Internationalen Kongresses für Griechische und Lateinische Epigraphik, p. 600)
What to conclude? Even if Luke is inaccurate in dating the census of Quirinius and has mistakenly associated it with the birth of Jesus, it must be recognized that this association allowed him to explain why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. And it served his theological interests admirably by giving the nativity a global backdrop and a history of Israel.
- Midrash as a Literary Genre
Are infancy narratives midrashim?
This is important because some biblical scholars refer to infancy narratives as midrash (plural: midrashim). And in some Roman Catholic circles, to call a writing a midrash is to say that it is a fictional writing, a fable, and that the events told never happened.
In biblical Hebrew, the verb dāraš means: to seek, to examine, to investigate, to study, while the noun midraš expresses the product of that research or study. The noun first appears in 2 Chr 13:22 ("The rest of Abiya's deeds, his deeds and actions, are written in the commentary (midraš) of the prophet Iddo"; see also 2 Chr 24:27); unfortunately, this midraš has not been preserved. We have a better idea with Sir 51:23: "Come near to me, you ignorant ones, and establish your dwelling in the house of instruction (paideia)." The reality of the "house of instruction" anticipates the post-biblical use of bêt-ham-midraš or "school." In the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Qflor i 14 uses midraš as the title to a passage that interprets Ps 1:1 using various biblical citations braided together as an interpretation.
In post-Christian Judaism, the midraš refers to works that gather legal statements, stories, and homilies of rabbis around biblical texts. From the 2nd c. modern era onward, rabbinic midrashim were preserved containing line-by-line commentaries on books such as Exodus or Numbers in the style, "Rabbi X said, '...'; and Rabbi Y said, '...'" Midrash of the halakic (halākâ: rule, law) type refers to interpretation in the form of a legal statement, whereas non-legal interpretation is called haggada (haggādâ: story) or haggadic type. Also, when we speak of midrash, we must distinguish between the collection of these various interpretations, and the midrashic process that led to these interpretations. Finally, it should be noted that the link between the Scripture that is commented on and the collection of interpretations that are supposed to illuminate it is sometimes loose, so that midrash has come to designate any free homiletic exposition, with a connotation of fable or floklore to illustrate the Bible in the case of haggadic midrash.
Consider two definitions that have been proposed, the first by Renée Bloch (cited in Wright, Literary Genre, 19).
Rabbinic midrash is a homiletic reflection or meditation on the Bible which seeks to reinterpret or acutalize a given texte of the pas for present circumstances.
R. Wright provides a more detailed definition:
Rabbinic midrash is a literature concerned with the Bible; it is a literature about a literature. A midrash is a work that attempts to make a text of Scripture understandable, useful, and relevant for a later generation. It is the text of Scripture which is the point of departure, and it is for the sake of the text that the midrah exists. The treatment of any given text may be creative or non-creative, but the literature as a whole is predominantly creative in its handling of biblical material. The interpretation is accomplished sometimes by rewriting the biblical material...
Both of these definitions are somewhat anachronistic, in that they are derived from later rabbinic material. Nevertheless, they allow us to identify as midrash certain passages such as Wis 11-19 which is a homily on the plagues of Egypt in Ex 7-12. It is therefore not impossible that the term midrash applies to infancy narratives. Let us make some comments.
- Based on the infancy narratives, midrashim in the strict sense were composed in the Christianity that followed the early Christian communities. A fine example is the Protevangelium of James, which creatively rewrote the biblical material in the 2nd c. This tended to merge the narratives of Matthew and Luke and to add details that they do not mention, such as the magi and camels who meet the shepherds with their ox and donkey in front of the child's cave. The purpose of this imaginative interpretation was to make the Scripture understandable for the next generation. Haggadic midrashim also used these stories to identify the Magi, to describe their subsequent fate, and to recount the adventures of the holy family in Egypt.
- In our commentary, we proposed that Matthew drew on a pre-gospel tradition to compose his infancy narrative. The background of this pre-gospel tradition was inspired by midrashim interpreting the birth of Moses in Ex 1-2. Such midrashim are attested to by Flavius Josephus (Antiquities) and by Philo of Alexandria (Life of Moses). Less clearly, a midrash on Mic 4-5 and Gen 35:19-21 may have exerted influence on Matthew and Luke regarding the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. However, we are not asserting that the infancy narratives are midrashim of the OT, but rather that Matthew and Luke, in addition to using the OT, also used midrashim to interpret the OT with additional detail.
- Can infancy narratives be called midrashim? Taking Wright's definition, they would be midrashim if they were literature about literature, i.e. if they were commentaries on OT texts. This is not the case. For example, Matthew used a tradition influenced by midrashim of the birth of Moses, but he did not write his account to make the story of Moses' birth more intelligible. Similarly, Luke portrays several figures (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna) from OT models (Abraham, Sarah, Samuel's parents, Eli), but his purpose is not to make his OT models more intelligible. In short, Matthew and Luke did not seek to make Scripture more intelligible, but to make Jesus more intelligible.
- Having said that the infancy narratives are not midrashim in the strict sense, it can nevertheless be said that the style of exegesis used in midrashim was also used in the infancy narratives. For although the central subject was Jesus and the Christological understanding of the son of God, an attempt was made to make this Christological understanding intelligible, just as the midrash sought to make OT texts intelligible by adding what was thought to be a historical detail or by exercising its creative imagination. Thus the infancy narratives are a mixture of history and verisimilitude, images from the OT or Jewish tradition, or images that anticipate what will happen in the ministry of Jesus, all woven together to dramatize the conception and birth of the Messiah who was the son of God. In itself, this is also a theological process, using the background of the OT to interpret a Christological understanding, and to demonstrate the continuity between the old and the new. Into which category then should the infancy narratives be placed? Perhaps that of "infancy narratives of famous men". Such a broad classification would allow us to accommodate narratives which, despite the similarity of their Christology in Matthew and Luke and the same tendency to fill in the gaps by resorting to the OT, reveal a very different style and emphasis.
- All this discussion implies that infancy narratives do not belong to the literary genre of fact-based history. This does not mean that we do not recognize the probable presence of elements of historical value. But one cannot support the idea that the two infancy narratives, as we know them today, are completely historical. And even large parts of them are not historical. But none of this undermines the fundamental message of the narratives (that Jesus is the son of God from his conception) and the insight that God guided the composition of Scripture for the education of his people. For it is not only with history that a people can be educated and formed.
- The Fourth Eclogue of Virgil
What influence could Virgil's fourth Eclogue have had?
Translation of the fourth Ecloguea
1 O Muses of Sicily, let me sing on a somewhat loftier note. 2 The theme of orchards and lowly tamarisk shrubs does not please everyone. 3 If we sing of woodlands, let them be worthy of a consul.b.
4 Now there has come the last age of which the Cumaean Sybil sang; 5 a great orderly line of centuries begins anew; 6 now too the Virgin returns; the reign of Saturnc returns; 7 a new human generation descends from the high heavens. 8 Upon the Child now to be born, under whom the race of iron 9 will cease and a golden race will spring up over the whole world, 10 do you, O chaste Lucinad, smile favourably, for your own Apollo is now king.
11 This glorious age will begin in your consulship, 12 O Pollio, as the mighty monthse commence their course. 13 Under your leadership whatever traces of our guilt remainf 14 will disappear, freeing the earth from its perpetual fear. 15 He [the Child] will receive divine life and will see 16 heroes mingling with gods, and will himself be seen by them. 17 And he will rule over a world made peaceful by the virtues of his father.
[The Future Springtime of the Child's Infancy] 18 But first for you, O Child, without cultivation the earth will give as her little gifts 19 vines of ivy everywhere climbing wild and intermingling with rustic nard, 20 and the Egyptian bean-lily mixed together with the smiling acanthus. 21 Without being called, the goats will come home, their udders swollen with milk; 22 and the herds will not be afraid of the mighty lions. 23 For your pleasure your cradle will produce a cornucopia of flowers. 24 the serpent will perish, as will the deceptive poison herb, 25 while the aromatic Assyrian shrub will spring up in every field.
[The Future Summer of the child's Education] 26 As soon as you can read about the praises heaped on heroes and the accomplishments of your parents, 27 and can know what valor consists in, 28 the plain will slowly become golden with waving grain, 29 and the ripening grape will hang from the wild briers, 30 and the stern oaks will yield dewy drops of honey. 31 However, some traces of the sin of old will perdure, 32 causing men to attempt the sea in ships, to build walls around 33 cities, and to plow the earth with furrows. 34 There will then be a second Argo with a second Tiphys to pilot it, 35 carrying chosen heroes; there will be a second series of wars, 36 and once more a great Achilles will be sent to Troy.g.
[The Future Manhood of the Child] 37 Next, when the years have made you a strong man, 38 even the merchant will leave the sea, and the ship built with pine 39 will cease its merchant journeysh. Every land will be fruitful; 40 yet the earth will not feel the rake, nor the vine feel the pruning hook. 41 Indeed the sturdy plowman will set his oxen loose from the yoke. 42 No longer will one learn to dye wool various colors; 43 for by himself the ram in the meadows will change his fleece, 44 at time a sweetly blushing shade of purple, at time saffron yellow; 45 and spontaneously the grazing lambs will be clothed in vermillion.
46 The Fates cried to the spinning wheels of destiny: "Let such times come soon," 47 voicing in unison the fixed divine will.
[The Triumph of the Child] 48 Enter into your high honors - the time if virtually at hand - 49 O dear Descendant of the gods, O mighty Ally of Jove! 50 Behold the world trembles in homage with its massive dome; 51 the expanse of earth and sea and the reaches of the sky! 52 Behold how all things rejoice at this age to come! 53 Now I wish that in a long enough life the last part 54 and sufficient inspiration allow me to tell of your deeds. 55 Then will I not be outdone in song either by Thracian Orpheus, 56 even if his mother Calliope assists him, 57 nor by Linus, even if fair Apollo, his father, helps him. 58 Indeed were Pan himself to vie with me in the presence of a judge from his native Arcadia, 59 he would judge himself defeated.
60 Come forth, O Baby Boy, and recognize your mother with a smilei, 61 whom ten long months have brought to the weariness of labor. 62 Come forth, O Baby Boy, on whom parents have not yet smiled, 63 whom no god has honored at his table, and no goddess in her bed.
a The first three lines are a transition from the bucolic theme of the previous Eglogue, which was inspired by the Greek pastoral poet of Sicily, Theocritus. The lines are numbered in the translation, the overall pattern being three lines at the beginning and four at the end (a total of seven), and 56 lines in between, sometimes in patterns seven.
b It is a reference to Asinius Pollion (see line 12) who was consul in 40 BC.
c The subsequent lines refer to the theory of ages designated by four metals, in the sequence gold, silver, bronze, iron. The warlike iron age is almost over, and the first age of gold is returning. Virgil associates the golden age with Saturn; for others, it was the age of Cronos.
d Lucina is the goddess of childbirth; she is often identified with Diana or Artemis, the sister of Apollo mentioned in the next line. Apollo will be king because the prophecy he uttered through the Sibyl will be fulfilled.
e The months are the ten months of pregnancy that will give birth to the Child (line 61).
f The "traces of guilt" and "traces of of the sin of old" in line 31 are the remaining effects of the Roman civil wars.
g Lines 31 to 36 admit that there will be an intervening period in which war will still occur, but now this will be a foreign war, as that of Achilles against Troy, and no longer a war of Roman against Roman.
h Since the earth of every country will be fruitful, there will be no need to buy products from other countries.
i It is not clear whether the Child is to smile on the mother, or vice versa.
Virgil (70 to 19 BC) composed this poem in the year 40 BC. The poem speaks of a virgin (line 6) and of a child of divine descent (49) before whom all the earth will tremble in homage (50) in a golden age of peace (9, 17) when "the traces of guilt" will have disappeared (13, 14). It is easy to imagine that Christians saw in this fourth Eclogue the pagan prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus the Messiah who took away original sin, so that Virgil was put in the ranks of the prophets. Unfortunately, Virgil does not say that the Child was conceived by the virgin, and the divine parentage of the child is purely an image.
Nevertheless, this Eclogue is worth considering for two reasons: first, it gives us the setting within which Christians from pagan backgrounds might have heard the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, and second, it has often been thought that this Eclogue might reflect some indirect knowledge of Isa 7-11 in the pagan world.
- The context of the Eclogue
In 40 BC, through the mediation of the consul Asinius Pollion, Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony, heirs to Julius Caesar who was assassinated in 44 BC, established the Peace of Brundisium, ending more than a hundred years of savage civil war that had ravaged Italy. Virgil refers to this as the "iron race" (8), traces of "guilt" and "sin". Virgil is relieved not only by the end of the war, but by the return of his domain, which had been confiscated like those of all the others to pay the victorious soldiers at the battle of Philippi in the year 42 BC, thanks to the clemency of Octavian through the intercession of Asinius Pollion. He has the impression that the so much awaited golden age is about to arrive. Let us remember that according to the Etruscan calendar, there was a cycle of ten periods in the history, beginning with Saturn and ending with Saturn; now one returned precisely to the reign of Saturn.
To express his hope for the future in an enthusiastic way, Virgil uses the symbolism of a Child whose life corresponds to the coming of peace in the world. Note that it is not the Child who brings peace, but he will reign in a peaceful world where perfect harmony will exist in nature, symbolized by the fertility of fields and flocks. The symbolism of the Child may have been suggested to him by an actual birth at the time he wrote his poem, that of a child of Mark Antony or Octavian. Either way, this Child could fulfill Virgil's hopes and personify the new spirit of peace that has come into the world.
All this helps us to imagine the reaction of a reader of Virgil when he heard the stories of Jesus' birth. Would he not have drawn a parallel between the child placed in a manger, honored by the shepherds, and the dream Child whose cradle is "a cornucopia of flowers" and whose coming frees the flocks from fear?
- The influence of the images of Isaiah 7 - 11
Is it possible that Virgil's images come, at least indirectly, from the images found in Isaiah 7-11? Let us first draw a parallel.
|(27) prosperity will come when the child knows "what valor consists in"||(7: 16)
the victory will take place just before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good|
|(60) the child learns to recognize his mother||(8: 4) the child knows to call out "my father" or "my mother"|
|(22) "the herds will not be afraid of the mighty lions"||(11: 6)
"The leopard will lie down next to the kid. The calf and the young lion will be fed together, a little boy will lead them.|
|(24) "the serpent will perish"||(11: 8)
"The infant will have fun on the cobra's nest"|
|(30) "the stern oaks will yield dewy drops of honey"||(7: 22)
"yes, it is cream and honey that will feed those who remain in the country".|
Of course, the resemblance is indirect. But the possible influence of Near Eastern imagery on Virgil is supported by the mention of flora that is from that region: rustic nard or baccar (19), the Egyptian bean-lily or colocasia (20), the aromatic shrub from Assyria or Assyrium amomum (25). The image of lions threatening the flock of sheep (22) is more appropriate to the Near East than to Italy. It has also been proposed that the sequence of the happy arrival of the Child (18-30), followed by the return of war with the other nations (31-36) and the final triumph (37-45) parallels the usual sequence in Jewish apocalypse: the coming of the Messiah, the eschatological war and the reign of peace.
But how could Jewish ideas have reached Virgil? It seems that the answer lies in the Sibylline Oracles, since the poet refers to the Sibyl of Cumae. A copy of the book was in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, but was destroyed by fire in 83-82 BC. In order to replace this book, a search was made for all the private copies throughout the Roman world, so that a collection of prophecies of Semitic origin was gathered. Among these is Book III of the Sibylline Oracles which is dated to the 2nd century BC. Lines 367f speak of an era of peace coming over Europe and Asia, lines 652f speak of God sending a king who will free each country from the scourge of war, but then follow the sequence of a war that returns before the final victory. In this final victory succulent honey will come from heaven, the trees will bear abundant fruit, fountains of milk will flow and the fields will be fruitful. Lines 788-795 are clearly influenced by passages in Isaiah 7-11 that speak of lambs and goats that are not intimidated by wild animals, lions that eat hay like oxen, snakes and cobras that sleep with babies and do not harm them.
What to conclude? As we have pointed out, the resemblance to Virgil's Fourth Eclogue is only indirect. But it still supports the idea that the Sibylline Oracles may have been the vehicle by which the expectation in the Jewish prophecies reached the world of non-Jewish Christians. From then on, in such a setting, the infancy narratives could only be acceptable.