Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

Mark Goodacre posted today on the “orthodox redaction of Mark.” While I certainly agree that we find later redactors transforming their sources to be more in line with their own convictions (whether about “orthodoxy” or other matters), I am not persuaded that the first example Mark offers represents such a case.

Mark (Goodacre, not the other one) writes:

Take, for example, the question of Jesus’ father. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does not have a human father. He is “the craftsman, the son of Mary” (Mark 6.3); his father is in heaven and addresses Jesus directly as his son (Mark 1.11, 9.7) and Jesus calls him “Abba” (Mark 14.36). Other supernatural beings know that he is God’s son too (3.11). The unwary reader of Mark might easily assume that Mark’s Jesus, who simply appears on the scene as an adult in Mark 1, is some kind of god, perhaps the product of a union between a god and Mary. Matthew sees the problem. He gives Jesus a father, named Joseph; indeed, he begins the book with him (Matt. 1). In redacting the Rejection and Nazareth story, he makes Jesus “the son of the craftsman” (Matt. 13.55) so that there can be no doubt about the matter.

It seems to me that, on the one hand, to suggest that Mark’s readers would have thought he did not have a human father is to make too much of silences. As a rule, we assume that people have fathers, even when we don’t mention them, and it seems to me that an exception to that rule would have required an explicit claim rather than silence. And while it is common for commentators to suggest that “son of Mary” reflected rumors that Jesus was illegitimate and his father unknown, that too seems to be reading too much into Mark’s language, which is not followed by any defence of Jesus’ legitimacy. [In my article “Was Jesus Illegitimate?” I discuss this topic in more detail.]

On the other hand, Matthew seems to be moving the tradition away from Jesus having had a human father, if the infancy story is anything to go by. And given the infancy story, we should indeed be puzzled by Matthew 13:55. Perhaps the reader is supposed to detect irony and answer the question which the people of his home town ask in the negative: this isn’t Joseph’s son, this is God’s son. But that would mean that Matthew is here emphasizing rather than downplaying the view that Jesus is God’s son, and in my view, he is taking that belief further than Mark does by actually denying that Jesus had a human father.

Since Luke 4:22 agrees with Matthew against Mark in mentioning Jesus’ father here, this could also provide a basis for discussing Synoptic interrelations – another interest that Mark Goodacre and I share. :-)

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  • Dan Batovici

    Unrelated to the post, this is just to say I added you to our blogroll.

  • Stephen C. Carlson

    "It seems to me that, on the one hand, to suggest that Mark's readers would have thought he did not have a human father is to make too much of silences."I don't think this quite what Mark (Goodacre) is suggesting. He is suggesting a concern for what "the unwary reader of Mark might easily assume," which is different. As Bart Ehrman had pointed in his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, later scribes did exactly this to the text, to prevent possibly naive and potentially unorthodox misreadings of the text.

  • James F. McGrath

    Dan, thanks – and I've returned the favor!Stephen, I did consider that Mark might be referring to a concern for possible understandings of Mark, but his language seemed to be suggesting something stronger. Since I myself have worded things imprecisely on my blog, I'll just leave it for Mark to clarify his meaning.But I still don't think that Matthew is moving away from an understanding of Jesus as "God's son" in a more literal sense. He seems to be moving even further in that direction.

  • Arianne A.G.

    "As a rule, we assume that people have fathers, even when we don't mention them, and it seems to me that an exception to that rule would have required an explicit claim rather than silence."In the first century, it was NOT taken for granted that heroes had human fathers. In fact, many prominent figures of Greco-Roman mythology (like Perseus and Hercules) were conceived through the sexual relations between mortal women and male deities. I think Mark Goodacre's point is that many potential gentile converts, many of whom came from polytheistic backgrounds, would have heard such stories and assumed that Jesus's situation was similar. Remember, the Gospel of Mark does not remain silent on Jesus' father, but says his father is God. Plus, as Mark G. said, Jesus' sudden appearance in the text without any regard for his earthy origins makes matters even more mysterious. How the Evangelist intended for his gospel to be read is aside the point. Luke and Matthew may very well have been aware of such (mis)readings of the text and decided to make revisions to emphasize that A) Mary was a virgin in order to distance the story from Pagan mythological motifs, and B) despite his conception, Jesus was raised in a proper legitimate human family (i.e. he didn't just descend to earth after being raised on Mt. Olympus or wherever).

  • Richard Godijn

    I don't quite understand. How can Matthew be moving the tradition away from Jesus having had a human father if Mark doesn't mention a human father? Making to much of silences is one thing, but filling in the silence with assumptions is no better (after all, Jesus is no regular 'person' even in Mark). The fact that Jesus is identified as the son of Mary is very significant as it goes against the standard practice of identifying a person as the son of the father. This is more than just silence and needs to be explained (and I really can't imagine this having anything to do with illegitimate son rumors).

  • Nathan

    I know this is slightly off-topic, but do you think 2 Cor 8:9 has any relevance to the issues discussed in your paper, Was Jesus Illegitimate?

  • James F. McGrath

    Arianne, I don't disagree that Mark could be misunderstood in a new context in the way that you suggest, although I still don't think that Matthew's changes would have corrected such a misperception.Richard, I can't tell whether I disagree with you since I'm not sure what you mean by "no regular 'person'". But the scare quotes around 'person' makes me think that you may be reading later Christology into Mark. :) I do address the phrase "son of Mary" in the article I mentioned.Nathan, I think that 2 Corinthians 8:9 definitely is relevant. My article is about the fact that Jesus had social status that was felt to be compromised by his interaction with the marginalized. If he were himself such an individual, there would have been no contravention of social mores.

  • Richard Godijn

    James,I used the scare quotes because I think Mark's Christology is complex and ambiguous. Jesus heals, exorcises and forgives sins on his own authority and nowhere does God instruct him. The son of man may well allude to the Danielic or even the Enochian figure, which is hardly a regular human being. Jesus is transfigured just after Peter identifies him as Christ and this timing of the transfiguration gives us a glimpse of his nature.With regards to the human elements of Jesus in Mark, I think this has much to do with Mark's literary influences. I find it plausible that Mark has used the travelling hero motif from Greek sources and has also been influenced by the Elijah-Elisha cycle in his portrayal of Jesus. I also don't think early Christology is necessarily low. Where in any of our pre-Markan texts (not hypothetical sources) do we find a low Christology? Do you think Paul's Christology is low? If so, what about Phillipians 2:6-8? I sometimes feel that scholars read their own view of the historical Jesus back into the Gospels and assume this is what Mark meant. I don't know, to me Mark is more ambiguous.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the clarification, Richard! I am reluctant to use "low" and "high" since I'm not sure those are helpful terms or ones that do justice to the kinds of Christology we encounter in the New Testament. If, as Paul says in Philippians 2:6-11, God hyper-exalted Jesus to such a high status that he becomes the focus and instrument of God's rule, even being bestowed the divine name, that is scarcely a "low" Christology! :) But it also isn't clear from Paul's letters that he thought of Jesus as pre-existent in any kind of literal sense – there too, I think, one has to read later ideas into Paul's silences. And even in his most exalted statements, he views Christ as subordinate to God. Be that as it may, I certainly agree that there is ambiguity in Mark – hence our conversations trying to puzzle out what it means! :)

  • Matthew Larsen

    James, thanks for this post. I am most appreciative of this thought provoking conversation. I have given some thought to some other texts where Matthew redacts Mark and the potential Sitz im Leben behind both Gospels over on my blog.