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.