Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part III

Well, I had the best intentions, but I was ill with whatever was going around the first two weeks of January, so I wasn’t able to post any more installments then, spent about two weeks trying to catch up with work, and then was hit with the news that I need to find a new apartment and move as soon as possible. So this installment has been greatly delayed and I just finished. I think that for now I’ll skip what I was going to write about whether Matthew or Luke was written first. It is interesting and important for the questions I’ve been addressing, but not so much for the material I now want to cover.


A medieval manuscript listing the genealogy of Jesus according to Luke

Bart Ehrman’s 2012 Newsweek article “What do we Know about Jesus?” is a pretty shoddy piece of journalism that is not important or unusual in itself, and is now more than five years old, but I’m using it because it is quite typical of the approach so many secularists take to the Gospel story. Ehrman begins his questioning the of historical nature of the Nativity story with the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. It illustrates perfectly what I have been saying: that what Ehrman writes shows not only his ignorance of the history of Jewish people and Palestine at the time of Christ, but his lack of interest in ancient modes of thought and writing about history. To do this, I’ll look at his specific objections and then answer them.

The evangelists want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs. Neither of them has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task. So they have provided genealogies that have been invented for the purpose.

Here is a good example of Ehrman’s muddled thinking. On one hand, he seems to be claiming that the evangelists used in good faith the genealogical material they had, but unfortunately for them, the material wasn’t reliable. On the other hand, he also suggests that they just “invented for the purpose” the genealogies they had to prove their contention about Jesus’ Davidic descent. He suggests both but never outright states either. He also completely ignores the relevant historical factors that gave rise to genealogies in Israel to begin with, and allow us to understand how they were shaped. None of this, of course, could be done in the single sentence that Ehrman thinks is all that the subject deserves.

In reality, there is no question that the evangelists had abundant data. The ancient Israelites were almost obsessed with compiling genealogies.

Their data began with census lists. The taking of censuses in Israel began with the Exodus, when God told Moses to take censuses of the Israelites; the purpose was to require all male Israelites who were of age to contribute a ransom, or tax, of a half-shekel to the upkeep of the sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant, and later for the temple (Ex 30:11-16). Census were also done to count men who were of age for military service (Num 26:1-4). Census-taking was done “by clans and ancestral houses, registering by name each male individually” (Num 1:2). This was continued throughout Israelite history.

So there was an actual basis for the many genealogies scattered throughout the Old Testament. They were probably compiled from written records of censuses and used to form genealogies, which in turn were used for future censuses. We learn from the Book of Chronicles:

The sons of Gad dwelt over against them in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah: Joel the chief, Shapham the second, Janai, and Shaphat in Bashan. And their kinsmen according to their fathers’ houses [After naming them, the author concludes] All of these were enrolled by genealogies in the days of Jotham king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam king of Israel. (I Chronicles 5:11-17)

Ehrman would no doubt say that the genealogies in Chronicles are unhistorical. (Keep in mind that for him “unhistorical” means they have an error or errors somewhere). Does he have any genealogies of the same people that are without errors to compare them with? We don’t have anything like this, of course. Most of the earlier parts of the genealogies stem from various writings of the Old Testament the compilers would have been familiar with, and while there are some discrepancies between the two that need to be explained, there are clear sources. The latter parts from the exile up to Jesus no doubt come from family traditions. What can we say about the accuracy of these?

Here we have the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who tells us that genealogies were very carefully kept down to his own time. “For anyone who takes a share in the priesthood must father children by a woman of the same nation; he must pay no attention to wealth or other distinctions, but should examine her pedigree, procuring her genealogy from the archives and supplying multiple witnesses.”[1] As he was from the priestly line, he also refers to his own pedigree, “as I find it recorded in the public registers” in Jerusalem.[2] He says that these archives existed until they were burned during the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D.[3]

Though Josephus’ evidence regards only priestly genealogies, the same seems to have been true of the other surviving tribes as well. Other records traceable to the first century reveal that the different families of the tribe of Judah, including “the family of David,” were appointed to bring wood to the Temple altar at different times of the year, implying that all of them were able to give an account of what family they were from.[4] In 1972, Israeli archaeologists discovered an ossuary, or box both, at a burial site in Jerusalem, with an inscription describing the person or persons buried there as “belonging to the family of David.”[5]

Other skeptics say that genealogies like those in Matthew and Luke must be artificial constructions because Matthew obviously does not include all the names and skips generations. (“son” is often used in these genealogies in the sense of “descendant”). He further divides the names into three groups of fourteen generations, because the number 14 in Hebrew can be used to spell out the name “David.” This may look artificial to us, but it is perfectly natural to the mindset of the people of the time. That their data set was interwoven with religious concepts foreign to modern secularist does not at necessarily imply that their data was faulty. Of course, we can’t say that the genealogies were accurate in every detail over a large number of generations, but are we prepared to say that Jesus was not descended in any way from King David?

Why are they giving the line through Joseph when he’s not a relative of Jesus?

It is not only blood descendants that appear in Jewish genealogies of the time. Jewish people readily regarded a man as a legal descendant of someone even when not a direct biological descendant. For instance, if a man had no descendants and died, his brother (or in some cases, another close relative) could marry his widow, and agree to their first-born son being the legal heir of his brother. This known as a levirate marriage. In this way, a man could be considered the son of a man who was dead at the time of his conception, while he was the biological son of another.

Israelites also recognized adopted sons as heirs; among the Judahite ancestors of King David was the son of a slave who had been adopted (e.g. 1 Chron. 2:34-6). Caleb was biologically the son of an Edomite (a non-Jew) named Jephunneh (Num. 32:12), but he was adopted into the tribe of Judah (Numbers 34:12), and his descendants would have been recognized as belonging to that tribe.

Why do the genealogies, though both evidently of Joseph, show him having different fathers?

There have been a number of different answers to this puzzle. Some suggest that Joseph and Mary were from two different branches of the Davidic line, and that Luke is actually giving Mary’s genealogy. That is, Luke has “Jesus . . . was the son, as was thought, the son of Joseph, the son of Heli . . .” while this interpretation requires awkward reading “the son, as was thought, of Joseph, [but really] the son of Heli” and that Heli was Mary’s father, who had made Joseph his heir. But I find this theory unconvincing for other reasons as well. Being the son of David through Mary would not have been much use in regard to legal descent, which was traced through the father; in addition, what Luke actually tells us about Mary’s family was that she was a sungenis or blood relative of Elizabeth, who was descended from Aaron (1:5, and 1:36); this would mean Mary was from the tribe of Levi, at least on one side of her family.[6] Neither Matthew nor Luke explicitly tells us anywhere that Mary was descended from David, though this was a widespread opinion very early in the Church.[7] This raises the question: If Luke is not concerned at all to tell us about Mary’s Davidic ancestry in his narrative, what reason would he have to put it in his genealogy?

More convincing is the idea that both genealogies are of Joseph, and that a levirate marriage was involved (see above). This is one for which there is actually some historical evidence. Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian writer, born in Israel, who collected traditions from the descendants of Jesus’ family, writes that though Herod had destroyed their genealogies, their reconstructed version said that Joseph was the product of a levirate marriage, one side descended from the Solomonic (or royal) line of Judah, the other side descended from another son of David, Nathan. He writes: “Matthan, descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. When Matthan died, Melchi, descended from Nathan, begat Heli by the same wife [Estha]. Therefore, Heli and Jacob are uterine brothers. Heli dying childless, Jacob raised up seed to him and begat Joseph, his own son by nature, but the son of Heli by law. Thus Joseph was rightly called the son of both.”[8]

Africanus’ report would indeed explain the differences in the line up to Matthan, as well as the difference between Heli and Jacob. In order for this to work, Matthat and Matthan have to refer to the same person; they do seem be two forms of the same name.

Nevertheless, this solution gives rise to another puzzle: the genealogy of Luke, who traces the line from Nathan, does include a Melchi, but makes him Heli’s great-grandfather, not his father. Luke’s line runs Melchi, Levi, Matthat, Heli, Joseph. Matthew’s runs Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, Joseph. Many scholars think that Africanus or his sources confused the names or made some other error. But there is no problem when we look at Matthew’s genealogy and assume that there was a Melchi a couple of generations down, let’s say a nephew of Levi, who married Matthan’s widow, and that Matthew simply doesn’t mention him or the other Melchi because he is tracing descent from Solomon. Since names do tend to run in families, this is a possible solution. But it leaves the question, why, then does Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers (Eleazar/Levi)? We evidently have to suppose that there was a levirate marriage in the previous generation as well. But this is certainly not impossible, given that this was an Israelite custom.

If nothing else, this story does illustrate the enormous effort Jews expended on their genealogies, and how complex the record-keeping was, since they had to keep track of levirate marriages, and recall whether “son of” meant son or grandson in a particular case, and so on. And the reason that it is so difficult for us to reconstruct the genealogies in a way that would satisfy our modern minds is that we don’t have all the information that the ancient Israelites did – which once again tells against Ehrman’s thesis.

One more installment after this, on the census of Quirinius.


[1] Flavius Josephus, Against Apion: 1:32, nos. 126-28, in Against Apion: Translation and Commentary, by John M. G. Barclay (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007), pp. 24-26; see also Midrash, Sifrei Bamidbar, 116.

[2] Josephus, Life, 3-6 in Josephus, Translated by H. St. J. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (New York: Putnam, 1926), vol. I, pp. 4-5.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 2.427; 6.354.

[4] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period; translated from the 3rd German edition (1962) and revised by author in 1967 by F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia, 1969), p. 226. For an argument in favor of the descendant of David keeping genealogical records, see Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London/New York: T & T Clark International), pp. 159-61.

[5] David Flusser, “The House of David on an Ossuary,” in Flusser and R. Stephen Notley, Jesus (3rd edn.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001, repr. 2012), pp. 180-86.

[6] The most compelling reason to consider Mary as a descendant of David is that she would normally have married someone of her own tribe, as this was required by Numbers 36:1-2, to keep a daughter’s inheritance from passing into another tribe; the Fathers of the Church generally believed this is why Mary had to be of David ancestry to marry Joseph. But this is not necessarily true. As time went on, after the exile, preventing intermarriage with Gentiles and securing pure ethnic Israelite ancestry became more of a concern among Jews than tribal identities; according to Jeremias, there were certainly marriages between members of priestly families and those of other tribes in the first century (Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, p. 219). That leaves at least a possibility that Mary was descended from both the tribes of Levi and Judah.

[7] The earliest reference is a Jewish-Christian work probably from before 70 A.D., the Ascension of Isaiah, 11.2 (“a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name [was] Mary”). Some use Luke 1:27: “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David . . .” as evidence, supposing that the words “of the house of David” refer back to Mary rather than Joseph, as some of the Fathers believed. See Marcus Bockmuehl, “The Son of David and His Mother,” Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 62:2 (October 2011): 491-92.

[8] Julius Africanus, Letter to Aristides, the text of which is preserved in Eusebius, Church History, 1.7.1-17.

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