Jesus’ Illegitimacy and the Gospels

The question of whether Jesus was, or at least had the status of, an illegitimate child is one that has been widely discussed in recent scholarship, including by me (in an article published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus). Today I received an e-mail from someone who had read my article and wanted to ask a follow-up question. Here is the e-mail and my response:

Dear James McGrath,

I have a question on your JSHJ article on the possible illegitimacy of
Jesus’ birth. Would it be accurate to add that those of illegitimate birth were
prohibited from entering the community of the Lord (Deut 23:3) and thus Jesus
going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts in the Temple as he is reported to
have done by the Gospels is inconsistent with him being of illegitimate



Thank you for your interesting question! My initial reaction was that it is hard to imagine the Jerusalem authorities policing such matters. But as I thought about it, it seems to me that any measures that might be taken would be taken by the local community that one was from. Other residents of one’s village or town would, as had traditionally been the case, be responsible for what today we’d call “law enforcement”, and if one did something that was clearly against the Torah, such as bring an illegitimate child up to Jerusalem to enter the Temple, there would surely have been an outbreak of “righteous indignation”, presumably resorting to violence if necessary. Going up to Jerusalem “in secret” would not solve the problem, since travel without reliance on a network of relatives and friends was difficult and rare.

So, in short, I think your hunch is correct – Jesus having the reputation of being illegitimate is incompatible with his having gone up to the Temple, and participated in the life of the synagogue, in the way the Gospels depict.

Best wishes,

James McGrath

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  • Ian

    Not that I have a clue what I’m talking about, but… :)While I find the conclusion of your paper convincing (the scandal caused by Jesus’ association with the marginalized clearly implies that he did not himself fall into that category), I’m not so sure about XXXXXXXXXXXXX’s suggestion. The story of Jesus’ visit to the temple as a child has a lot of the hallmarks of myth. It strikes me as less reliable than the whole Joseph story, and thus, would be rather poor supporting evidence.Am I totally off track here?

  • James F. McGrath

    You’re not off track in the sense that the story of Jesus’ childhood visit, found only in Luke, is not a sound basis for historical conclusions. But all the Gospels depict Jesus going up to Jerusalem for at least one Passover and entering the Temple on that occasion. The Gospel of John may be correct when it depicts Jesus as a more frequent visitor, but that would take a longer discussion to sort out, so I won’t try to do that here. Anyway, it may be that the person who wrote to me (should I just call him ‘Mr. X’?) had the story from Luke in mind, but I assumed the question was intended more generally. I could be wrong about that.Anyway, when you combine the (at least one) visit to Jerusalem and the temple with the several references to participation in the life of one or more synagogues in the region where he grew up, and it becomes pretty difficult to make a compelling case that this was a marginalized individual with the stigma attached to illegitimacy.Thanks for your comment (not to mention for taking the time to read the paper). I wonder how many readers of this blog can access it through libraries or in other ways, and how many get asked to log in and can get no further. Do let me know either way, if you are reading this!

  • Ian

    I see. Knowing almost nothing about Temple custom and first century Judea, I focussed a bit too much on “bring an illegitimate child up to Jerusalem”. It really didn’t cross my mind that an adult, especially one with some following, would be denied entry to the Temple. Of course, I suppose that given the disdain that some of the gospel writers seem to have for the establishment, “righteous indignation” at any attempt by Jesus to enter the Temple would have been used to criticise the establishment. Again, lacking an adequate frame of reference, I didn’t think about the local synagogue issue. Out of curiosity, what do you think of Crossan’s assertion that, as a “tekton” it would be highly unlikely that Jesus would have been able to read? (Again, as an outsider I have no idea how seriously Crossan is taken in academic circles).I read the article a couple weeks ago, when I first found your blog. I then spent a couple hours poking around the journal – it was really interesting, although I only managed to scratch the surface. I couldn’t get access to it through my university’s library/proxy, but I did manage to find another way to access the journal. Still, the abstract is available (and I used that to refresh my memory before I posted the last comment).

  • Christensen

    If a professor of religion can be an attheist, like Avalos at Iowa, Mirecki at KU, and Ehrman at North Carolina why can’t a creationist be a professor of biology?And why are so many atheists in charge of religion departments?I think the answer is clear, but I wonder what you think.

  • James F. McGrath

    Christensen, the reason is that academic methods can be practiced by anyone who has the knowledge and ability to apply the relevant methods to the appropriate field. One can teach about the history of art even if one doesn’t enjoy art personally. To teach about religion – history, texts, etc. – one only needs to know appropriate information.It would be different if we were talking about someone teaching theology in a religiously-affiliated school, where they were expected to train ministers to guide the faithful. But when it comes to the study of religion in a secular institution, there is nothing surprising about the fact that it is done at times by people of faith like myself, and people without religious faith like Avalos. For a creationist to be a biologist, on the other hand, is rare, because to do so one would have to deny many of the most fundamental discoveries in biology.Ian, the question of Jesus’ educational background is unlikely to be solved. It may be that, even though they had a trade, the family had status and were not at the level of peasants engaged in subsistence farming. The notion that Jesus’ family were descendants of David seems to have met with no objections, and so even if it wasn’t historically factual (like many claims to descent from nobility), it may still have carried status.One more clue that is intriguing. Paul wrote that Jesus, although rich, became poor. If (as Dunn, for instance, has argued) Paul did not yet have a concept of Jesus’ literal pre-existence, then this might suggest that, while not ‘rich’ in the sense of the upper crust of society then, his family had a status above the norm.At that point, though, it gets speculative…

  • Christensen

    Interesting double standard, professor.After all, to be a biologist all one as to do is apply the relevant methods appropriately. They certainly don’t have to believe it.After all, Kurt Wise got a Ph.D studying under Stephen Gould.But your answer is what I expected.

  • James F. McGrath

    No double standard. I said that to be a creationist, one has to deny some of the most important aspects of biology. Of course one can play along and teach things one doesn’t believe and use methods one doesn’t subscribe to. Perhaps I did make a mistake, namely to assume your young-earth creationist would be honest. What was I thinking?! Having been one myself once, I should have known better… :)