Chapter 1: Jesus’ Ancestry, Birth and Early Life

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 1: Jesus’ Ancestry, Birth and Early Life

The earliest expressions of Christian faith lay much stress on the point that Jesus was the Messiah, the king promised by the prophets. The word Messiah means "anointed." The decisive act in the enthronement of a Hebrew king was anointing his head with oil: therefore "the Lord’s anointed" was a traditional title of the kings from the beginning of the Hebrew monarchy (I Sam 16:6 and often). The Greek equivalent of Messiah is Christ: therefore in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) "the Lord’s anointed" becomes "the Lord’s Christ" (cf. Lk 2:26).

According to the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. the coming king would be a descendant of David (e.g., Is 11:1; Jer 23:5). To call Jesus the Christ, therefore, implied that he was a descendant of David. The New Testament strongly attests his Davidic ancestry. Even the apostle Paul, who shows very little interest in the earthly life of Jesus, says that he "was descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom 1:3). One way to establish this was to trace the line of his descent, with such results as the genealogies given by Matthew and Luke (Mt 1:1-17: Lk 3:23-38). Neither evangelist is content to show merely that Jesus was a descendant of David. The genealogy in Matthew bears the title "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham," and begins with Abraham, the father of the chosen people. Luke, in keeping with his interest in the Gentile mission and the universality of the gospel, treats the Davidic ancestry of Jesus as incidental and emphasizes instead his kinship with all mankind.

The first two chapters of Luke put more stress on Jesus’ Davidic ancestry than the genealogy does (1:27, 32, 69). Joseph is introduced as a man "of the house of David." Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be given "the throne of his father David." And Zechariah praises God for raising up "a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David."

Mark and John say nothing about Jesus ancestry or his birth. Matthew and Luke have accounts of his birth and infancy, covering almost entirely different ground. Luke’s narrative is more extensive and circumstantial than Matthew’s. It begins (1:5-80) with the events leading up to the birth of John the Baptist: the appearance of the angel Gabriel to John’s father Zechariah and to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and John’s birth and circumcision. Luke then continues with the census decreed by Augustus, Joseph’s trip with Mary to Bethlehem to be enrolled, and the birth of Jesus (2:1-7). Matthew has nothing of the parentage and birth of John the Baptist or of the annunciation to Mary. He tells briefly (1:18-25) of Mary’s becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s assurance by an angelic message in a dream that Mary’s conception fulfilled Isaiah 7:14, and the birth of her son.

The virgin birth of Jesus has become for many Christians a touchstone of faith in him and in the Bible. The modern scientific view of the universe, however, has made it a serious problem. One’s position on this question depends inevitably upon the presuppositions he brings to it. One view can no more be demonstrated than another. If Jesus was a unique being, different from any other person ever born, the process of his conception and birth could have been unique also. Not being accessible to scientific observation, it cannot be proved or disproved scientifically.

Those whose understanding of the Bible is accompanied by a modern world-view, however, find it easier to understand how the belief in the virgin birth may have arisen than to accept it as historical fact. Many of the people who encountered Jesus in the flesh were probably convinced that he was no ordinary man. Without attempting to explain or formulate the idea, they may have felt that in meeting him they had somehow met God. It was inevitable that stories and beliefs about him should grow up and multiply, and in the thought-world of that day they might easily include the idea of a miraculous birth.

Equally dedicated Christians differ so widely and feel so strongly on this subject that a closer look at the biblical evidence is advisable. There is no explicit reference to the virgin birth, or even any clear allusion to it. anywhere in the New Testament outside of the first chapter of Matthew, the first chapter of Luke, and the words "betrothed" in Luke 2:5 and "as was supposed" in 3:23. Possibly it was taken for granted; yet even so it would surely have been mentioned somewhere if it had been considered a vital point of Christian faith. It does stand, however, in Matthew and Luke; and the two accounts are so different that they evidently follow independent lines of tradition. In neither Gospel, moreover, can the story be plausibly explained as a later addition to the original text of the Gospel. There are, however, some features of both narratives that call for explanation.

Both Matthew and Luke tell of other marvelous events accompanying Jesus’ birth, but again they are not the same events. Luke’s account (2:8-20) includes the appearance of angels to shepherds in the fields and their visit to the baby born to be "a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Here, as in what goes before, there are echoes of Old Testament phraseology and ideas. The song of the angels (which would have to be sung in Hebrew or Aramaic to be understood by Judean shepherds!) has a distinctly Jewish flavor with its poetic balance of glory to God in the highest and peace among men on earth. The last words of this proclamation are commonly misunderstood because of a slight mistake in the manuscripts used for the KJV. Instead of "peace, good will toward men," the best manuscripts read literally "peace among men of good will" (or "favor"). Even this is often misinterpreted. The meaning is not men who have good will toward others, but men who have God’s favor or approval.

The story of the shepherds is perhaps the most beautiful and most cherished part of the nativity stories. As history it is not subject to verification. It may be taken on faith or regarded as a legend embodying the simple trust and adoration of the common people to whom the child of Bethlehem brought assurance of salvation. Either way, it remains a beautiful story, beautifully told.

The chief importance of these first two chapters of Luke lies in the tact that they put the whole story of Jesus’ life in its Palestinian Jewish setting, connecting it with the Old Testament and picturing vividly Israel’s Messianic expectation. The fact that Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth one of the "daughters of Aaron" (1:5) connects this story with the temple and the law. Prophecy is involved also (vv 41, 67).

Matthew has none of this, but tells (2:1-12) of the coming of the wise men from the East and the star that guided them. It is Matthew who tells also (2:13-23) of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, the flight of Joseph and Mary to Egypt with their child, and their return to Palestine and settlement at Nazareth. All these are presented as further instances of the fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew’s way of using prophecy is not what a modern scholar could call historically accurate, but it is in accord with a type of interpretation customary in New Testament times, and for that matter still practiced now. According to this way of thinking, it is assumed that the text refers to events and persons in the present or the immediate past or future.

Sometimes, indeed, one can hardly avoid a suspicion that prophecy, understood in this way, led to imagining events that never occurred. Did Joseph and Mary really take their child to Egypt for a while, or did some early Christian infer that they must have done so because God says in the book of Hosea (11:1), "Out of Egypt I called my son"? Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem, or was it assumed that he must have been because the prophet Micah (5:2) had predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem? More probably, the known fact of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem was felt by his followers to confirm their conviction that he was the Messiah.

How should we understand and judge these familiar narratives? The whole Christmas story, mingled as it is now with Santa Claus and other more or less pagan additions, seems much like a fairy tale for children. Even so, to raise questions about the truth of the record is painful. A good deal of the story, however, is undoubtedly legendary.

Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Matthew, however, says nothing of coming to Bethlehem from anywhere else, and he seems to imply that Joseph would have gone back to Bethlehem from Egypt if he had not been warned in a dream not to return to Judea (2:22-23).

Just where in Bethlehem Jesus was born is not known. Matthew says that when the wise men came to "the place where the child was" they entered the house (vv 9. 11). Luke says that Mary laid her newborn babe in a manger (2:7). Conceivably Joseph found lodging in a house at some time between the visit of the shepherds and the arrival of the wise men. It is also possible that the manger was in a house, for to this day it is quite common to keep domestic animals in the lower part of the house. The traditional birthplace under the Church of the Nativity is in a cave. There is nothing to prove or disprove the authenticity of the site.

When Jesus was born is unknown also. The choice of December 25 for the observance of Christmas was arrived at by faulty calculations and was probably influenced by the fact that the Jewish feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) and the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the winter solstice, came at about that time. Even the year of Jesus’ birth cannot be determined. It would be I AD. if our calendar were based on accurate historical knowledge, but that is not the case. A date within the years 6-4 B.C. seems to be as close as we can get to the time when Jesus was born.

Only Luke has anything to say about Jesus’ early years. After the visit of the shepherds the story continues with the circumcision of the child on the eighth day of his life, as required by the law (Lk 2:21: cf. Gen 17:9-14; Lev 12:3). At this time he was formally given the name Jesus. This was not an uncommon name: It was especially appropriate, however, for the child born to be the Savior of men (Mt 1:21). It means "He will save" or "He saves," or in its full form "Yahweh will save" or "Yahweh saves."

According to Leviticus (12:1-4, 6) the mother of a boy is "unclean" for forty days after his birth, and at the end of that time must present an offering and be "purified." Luke apparently combines the mother’s purification with the presentation and redemption (i.e., buying back) of the first son.

In the temple, Luke goes on to say (2:25-35), Joseph and Mary encountered a righteous and devout man named Simeon. Recognizing in the infant Jesus the Messiah for whom he was waiting, Simeon took him in his arms, praised God, and blessed the parents, but predicted also that division, opposition, and suffering would be involved in the Messianic deliverance. There was also in the temple (vv 36-38) an aged widow named Anna (Hebrew, Hannah), a prophetess. who recognized what the baby was, and with thanksgiving to God "spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." Is all this history or legend? It is not impossible that these incidents took place as recorded; it is equally possible that the stories are popular legends typifying the fervent Messianic hope of Judaism at the time of Jesus’ birth and the fact that there were devout souls in Israel who found in him the answer to their hopes.

Having complied with the requirements of the law, Luke says (2:39), Joseph and Mary went back to Galilee "to their own city, Nazareth." Matthew gives no hint that Joseph and Mary had lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. When they returned from Egypt, he says, they were warned not to go back to Judea, so they went to Galilee (Mt 2:22). The choice of Nazareth seems to have been governed only by the prophecy, "He shall be called a Nazarene" (v 23). But who were "the prophets" who predicted this? The word "Nazarene" does not appear in the Old Testament. The nearest approach to this statement is the angel’s command to the parents of Samson (Judg 13:5, 7), "the boy shall be a Nazirite to God." "Nazirite" and "Nazarene" are not the same word. They are derived from different Hebrew roots, and could only have been confused in the Greek.

The whole tradition of Nazareth as the home of Joseph and Mary could have been derived from Matthew’s elusive prophecy. More probably the fact of their residence in Nazareth came first, and the allusion to prophecy was a result of the general search for prophecies supporting the Messiahship of Jesus. All four Gospels agree that Nazareth was Jesus’ home. Some scholars have been disturbed by the fact that no such town is mentioned in Jewish literature of the period or in the Old Testament. That must be true also, however, of many Palestinian villages that did exist.

Now begin "the hidden years." We really know nothing of Jesus’ youth and early manhood, though much of what appeared later in his brief public life and in his teaching must have been the result of his experience and thinking during those years. Constructive imagination is indispensable in historical research, but a genuine concern for truth demands that the imagination be used with restraint.

Of Joseph we know very little. His fairness, considerate kindness, and quiet integrity are suggested by Matthew (1:19), and his devout observance of the law is repeatedly indicated by Luke (2:22-24, 27, 39, 41). The fact that Jesus so naturally thought of God as the heavenly Father may indicate the kind of fatherhood he had seen exemplified by Joseph. The last we hear of Joseph is at the time of the Passover trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old. It is not unlikely that he died at some time during Jesus’ adolescence, and the responsibility of being head of the family fell upon Jesus.

The personality of Mary has been so overlaid with legend and adoration that a lifelike picture of her as a real woman is hard to come by. Her innocence, faith, and dedication as a girl at Nazareth and her pondering and cherishing in her heart later what she saw or was told about her son are noted by Luke (1:26-38; 2:19, 33, 51). His statements may rest on an authentic tradition going back possibly even to Mary herself. Later there is a suggestion — hardly more than that — of misunderstanding between Mary and Jesus (Mk 3:31-35); but there is no reason to doubt that her faith in him survived the strain. According to John she was present at the crucifixion (19:25-27), and in Acts she appears with the disciples in the upper room at Jerusalem (1:14). That is the last mention of Mary in the Bible.

Luke gives us a glimpse of the boy Jesus at the age of twelve (2:41-51), when his parents took him with them to Jerusalem for the Passover, and apparently left him much to himself in the city. On the way home they discovered after a day’s journey that they had left him behind at Jerusalem. Mary’s reproach when they found him in the temple is very human. She was too relieved to be inhibited by the presence of the learned teachers of the law. Jesus’ reply, too, may be taken as a reproof; but it may equally well be the answer of a lively boy, spoken with twinkling eyes and a smile: "Why, Mother, you know me! You might have known I’d be here." Of course the whole story may be dismissed as a devout legend, told to show how Jesus excelled the rabbis in wisdom. Stories of precocious wisdom are told about founders of other religions. I know of none, however, that is so humanly natural as Luke’s story of the boy in the temple. It has none of the extravagant supernatural coloring characteristic of such legends. It might even be true.

There were other children in the household while Jesus was growing up. Four brothers are named (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55): James, Joses (or Joseph), Judas, and Simon. Sisters are also mentioned, but we are not told their names or how many of them there were. Some interpreters suppose that these brothers and sisters were either Joseph’s children by a previous marriage (in which case Jesus would not have been Joseph’s eldest son) or not really brothers and sisters of Jesus but his cousins. There is nothing in the record to support either of these assumptions.

Clearly the household in which Jesus grew to manhood was a large one, and presumably lively. No doubt there was much for the growing boy to do to help his parents. It was an excellent training for life, very different from that of John the Baptist. If Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (1:36, 39-56) has a factual basis, the two families may also have exchanged visits at other times. If so, we may be sure that the boys would have discussed religious questions together. Quite possibly such spiritual communion during boyhood was the foundation of their later relationship.

How much formal education Jesus had, if any, is not known. We do not know whether there was a school attached to the synagogue at Nazareth during his lifetime, or, if so, whether he attended it. According to Luke he read the Scripture lesson in the synagogue service when he visited Nazareth later (Lk 4:16-20). In his teaching he sometimes assumed that his hearers had read or should have read texts in the Bible. "Have you not read . . .?" he would ask (Mk 2:25; 12:10, 36; Mt 12:5; 19:4; 21:16, 42). The keen and active mind exhibited later by his sayings and parables must have absorbed the Bible stories and the teachings of the lawgivers and prophets, and with characteristic penetration and independence he combined and interpreted them in his own way. That he could both read and write is thoroughly probable, but of no consequence for history because he did not commit his words to writing.

Certainly during his boyhood and youth he learned much by observation of the life around him. When he spoke to his disciples later (Mt 6:26, 28: Lk 12:24, 27) about the lilies of the field, clothed more gloriously than Solomon, and the birds that lived by God’s loving care and did not store up goods for the future, it was surely not the first time that these thoughts had come to him. He knew also that birds fell to the ground, but he did not doubt that God knew and cared. He saw that sunshine and rain were not distributed according to what men deserved. God treated friends and foes alike, and men should do the same.

That is about all we know — indeed more than we know — about Jesus’ boyhood and youth. The eighteen vitally important years between the ages of twelve and thirty are completely blank in the record. A few hints may be found in the accounts of later events. According to Mark, when Jesus spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth, the townsfolk said (6:3), "Is not this the carpenter?" In Matthew the people say (13:55), "Is not this the carpenter s son?" In Luke they say (4:22), "Is not this Joseph’s son?" As the son of a carpenter, Jesus probably learned his father’s trade. Serving the common daily needs of his neighbors would give him an understanding of human nature and of the concerns and problems of the people.

Among the subjects discussed in the streets and shops of Nazareth, current events must have played a part. During Jesus’ boyhood, and not far from his home, there was a tragic demonstration of the futility of rebelling against Rome. The insurrection of Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) occurred when Jesus was about twelve years old. In order to prevent the registration of the Jews by the Romans. Judas seized control of the city of Sepphoris, only about six miles north of Nazareth. The revolt was quickly put down, Sepphoris was destroyed, Judas was killed, and his followers were dispersed. A few years later Herod Antipas. then ruler of Galilee, rebuilt Sepphoris and made it his capital. These events help to explain Jesus’ subsequent attitude toward "that fox" Antipas (Lk 13:32), and to the Roman rulers whose vassal he was.

What else may have happened to Jesus and what he did during these years we do not know. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that speculation has run wild concerning his activity during these hidden years. Legends in the apocryphal Gospels, for example, tend to exalt displays of miraculous power in ways quite inconsistent with his character. Medieval legends took him as far from Palestine as Britain. Such naive stories are more easily condoned than the outright impostures of modern times. Of these, perhaps the most notorious was the Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, published in French in 1894. It was ostensibly a translation of an ancient manuscript discovered in a monastery in Tibet, telling of travel, study, and preaching by Jesus in India and Persia.

Somewhat more plausible are the many attempts to make Jesus in his youth a member of the Essenes, a Jewish monastic order that had its center near the Dead Sea, with local chapters in other places in Palestine. This theory has at least the advantage of keeping Jesus nearer home. It has also some objective basis in striking similarities between the New Testament and the documents commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls. I can only summarize here what seem to me the most essential points in this matter. The question is not as important as it seems to some. No thoughtful Christian would suppose that Jesus’ gospel had no connection with the spiritual heritage of his people. According to Matthew, he said (5:17) that he had come not to destroy but to fulfill the law and the prophets. The whole history of the revelation of God in the Old Testament was a preparation for the gospel. What we call the Old Testament was the Bible of the Jews, and Jesus accepted it as such.

After the completion of the Old Testament, various parties and schools of thought arose among the Jews. It should not be surprising that Jesus shared beliefs with one or more of them. On several points he agreed with the Pharisees against the Sadducees. If he also agreed with the Essenes on some points, why should that be disturbing? Whether he learned these ideas from the Essenes is a question of historical fact, without theological implications unless one assumes that the validity of the gospel depends on its being wholly new. There are in fact points of agreement between Jesus and the Essenes, both in ideas and in language. There are also important differences; indeed, the disagreements are greater than the agreements. So far as I can see, there is no evidence at all of any direct contact between Jesus and the Essenes.