Of the line of David?

After church today, someone asked me why we say that Jesus is “of the line of David” when Joseph was his step-father. It was an insightful question, one that inattentive readers of the Bible often fail to even raise.

The irony, I replied, is that two incompatible genealogies for Jesus are preserved in precisely those Gospels that make Joseph’s lineage irrelevant. In both, it is explicitly Joseph’s lineage that is given, and never Mary’s. Once again, fundamentalist sometimes claim that one of the genealogies belongs to Mary because it is more important to be able to say that the Bible is right than to actually pay attention to what the Bible says.

The easiest explanation (and just one of the ones I mentioned in response to this question) is that Jesus was Joseph’s son, and born into a family with the reputation of being descended from David. The later stories of miraculous conceptions were expressions in the appropriate way for that time of the importance of Jesus, and the conviction that he must be the Son of God in a sense that no one else was.

This is not to say that the conservative explanation, that Joseph’s acceptance of Jesus as his son would have made him legally of the line of David, is necessarily untrue. But it remains the case that Paul did not require such convoluted explanations. He didn’t know stories of Jesus’ miraculous conception. He believed Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh.

My own main point in answering was that the very notion that such questions have a single, simple answer is itself wide of the mark. How would you have answered this question?

  • Andreas

    Curious question. What do we know of Mary’s lineage? I know that I’ve read that she might in fact be related to some of the person’s mentioned in Joseph’s lineage. Then Jesus would be descended from David from both parents. I have no idea if this is just wishful thinking from someone, or “reliable incidents” support such a view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    The idea that Mary was descended from David came about as the church responded to the problem that if Joseph was not Jesus’ father, then he is not literally descended from David via Joseph. But in that time period it was the male lineage that mattered. Matthew makes a statement about women by including several, but they are the exception that proves the rule, not least because we are not told the lineage of any of those women – they are simply added alongside the child’s father.So yes, appeal to descent from David on Mary’s side does indeed involve some “wishful thinking” as well as “clutching at straws”…

  • Andreas

    So basically not even Joseph is really a direct descendant of David then. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I have no idea what I wrote that made you draw that conclusion, but obviously that isn’t a question one can answer without a time machine and some Q-tips.

  • Andreas

    It was just me exaggerating a bit the fact that the females you mentioned, are sometimes used by Matthew as “glue” in the linage, but as you wrote we do not not the full lineage of those women.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    I posted a story or two on this a while ago – but your question raises another possible approach – to what extent does Jesus show us the meaning of the dialogue in covenant of the Psalms? This would make him of David’s line through the eternal promises in this book even if that was all we had.Latest story summary outline and links are here – only missing a few that I have added since but won’t summarize for a while.The issue of ‘perfection’ of the written word is too much for us – perfection for me is in the full perfect and sufficient aspect of Jesus whom I take seriously – Perfection does not lie in my preconceived simplified view of ‘history’.

  • Peter Milloy

    King David had maybe half a dozen wives, right?And his son Solomon reportedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).So eight or nine centuries pass. By the time of Jesus, could there possibly be one person in the middle east who was NOT a descendant of David? (Assuming there was a historical David.)I guess people back then didn’t make such complicated genealogy charts as some of us do nowadays, so they didn’t think through the implications of various monarchs making impressive contributions to the gene pool.By the way, what’s a “direct descendant”? I hear people use this phrase all the time, and it puzzles me. Is there such a thing as an “indirect descendant”?Final comment: in Mark 12:35-37, Jesus seems to discourage people from expecting that the Messiah would be a son of David. Given the widespread notion among Christians by the time Mark writes that Jesus was a son of David, this little pericope seems to pass the sniff test. But if Jesus did say something like this, what do we conclude? That Jesus thought of himself by this time as the Messiah but was not aware of being descended from David?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Peter, for joining in the conversation here on many posts lately!As someone who has a side interest in genealogy, the idea of ‘direct descendent’ is indeed problematic. We tend to think that our lineage is primarily that of the surname we bear, yet we are no less descended from any other ancestor in our family tree…


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