(Image Credit: iStock/HHakim)
Recently, I was privileged to be invited to participate in a discussion with a group of Christians. At the time I was asked whether my notes were available and I said I would try to write them up so here they are. I will split the notes into several posts. I did not have time to do everything justice so want to cover some of the material in a bit more depth here.
What this talk is not
I began by saying that I am not trying to persuade them of my point of view. I enjoy the discussion and believe it to be important. I am trying to explain why I am not persuaded by their views. If I am wrong, I would love to hear why, though obviously I do not think I am.
I also said that I am not going to discuss all religions. The audience agreed that humans have invented many religions. Scientology was invented in recent times and the extraordinary tales of the Cargo Cults are an amazing testament to humanity’s tendency to canonize events. We see it in other areas too, such as the constitution, which is often analyzed with the same fervor as the Bible or other holy texts with the exact location of a comma written long ago becoming central to an argument of how we ought to behave now.
In a very real sense, most people are atheists when it comes to the vast majority of religions that humanity has had. Usually, I think, people see other religions as primitive inventions. Of course, it is impossible for an outsider to distinguish between a sincere believer, a cynical charlatan, and someone controlled by an evil deity. But this kind of discussion leads us nowhere in a situation where intelligent people have come to the well-reasoned view that the religion of their culture is also the only true religion.
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. – Isaac Asimov
I wanted in my talk to lean into this idea and focus on the claims of Christianity. I have come to the view that the Bible is the most persuasive argument for atheism at least as it pertains to Christianity. I love to discuss this. Someone like Daniel Dennett believes that responding to apologetics is futile, but I disagree. At least in part because I don’t expect to persuade anyone and feel a genuine interest in the layers of argument that people make.
I also did not want to talk about the Old Testament God and the law. The genocide of the Canaanites and the punishment for rape being that the victim is forced to marry the rapist are problematic (to put it mildly), but I wanted to focus my talk on the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
- Was he the Messiah who was prophesied?
- Was he accurate in his prophesies?
- Was he resurrected?
This post and the next will focus on the first of these questions.
Was Jesus the Messiah?
Again, this is a huge topic, which makes it impossible to argue in all its details. But we can touch on a number of issues. What I have found is that the solutions that Christian apologists provide to these issues are (a) diverse (to the point where it is hard to cover them all) and (b) speculative.
To the skeptic, it looks like arguments are made to force the facts to fit the theory rather than the other way around. Bear this in mind as we go through some of this if you find yourself leaping to the defense of Christianity. Consider whether your defense requires an unjustified speculation. That does not mean it is necessarily wrong, but it helps to know where such speculations have been invoked.
The gospels make frequent appeals to the Old Testament, and as I go through them I find them underwhelming. I will only bring up a couple of examples here, but it is well worth looking into as you read the gospels because they are so often ripped out of context. There is a reason that early Jewish people were largely unpersuaded by Christianity’s claims.
Virgin birth or Son of David?
Let me ask a question: What Jesus born of a virgin? Or was he the son of David?
He cannot be both. This is simple logic. If God was the father then David was not and vice versa. Of course, “father” here is being used loosely to mean ancestor, but the argument still holds. All genealogies in the Old and New Testaments show a lineage through the father. Both of the genealogies of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) run through Joseph.
My skeptical view (by no means unique or original) is that the two traditions evolved separately and in different ways. Different versions were then recorded by Matthew and Luke, which explains why the two gospels are irreconcilable on this (as we will see) and why the virgin birth and son of David stories co-exist. The authors did not feel that they could tamper with sacred stories and so put them in regardless of the contradictions.
Let me unpack this and respond to some of the common (though speculative) counter-arguments used by apologists.
Here are some of the most common objections to the “apparent” contradiction of the virgin birth and the Son of David theologies.
Could Jesus be Adopted?
There is a great deal of theology built around this idea, though it is not universally accepted among Christians. The idea here is that Joseph adopted Jesus and therefore Jesus became part of the Davidic line. It is, obviously, speculation that Joseph adopted Jesus as there is no evidence for it, but let us suppose that it is reasonable.
In the apologist’s defense, Romans 9:3-8 culminates in the following:
That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as heirs.
In other words, the lineage is defined by what God says the lineage is, rather than what would naively be indicated by the “children of the flesh”. This appears to give credence to the idea that Joseph could adopt Jesus into the Davidic line. Or, frankly, that Jesus could be in the Davidic line just because God says so.
The Oblates of St. Joseph hold to this view, emphasizing Jesus’s link to David as being through Joseph. Could this be the solution?
Unfortunately, no, for at least two reasons.
Firstly, Romans 1:3 tells us that Jesus
was born of the offspring of David according to the flesh.
The word translated “offspring” means seed (Greek: sperma). And “according to the flesh” implies more than adoption.
Romans 9:8 (quoted above) is a reference to God allowing the Gentiles into the inheritance. It has never been applied to God allowing Jesus into the Davidic line through adoption.
Galatians 3 argues this in some detail. Paul notes that God’s promise was to the “seed” not the “seeds” and that this singular noun refers to Christ. It ends (verse 29) by saying: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring (seed) and heirs according to promise.” This appears to be affirming that Gentile’s can be Abraham’s seed through Christ, meaning that Christ is the seed of Abraham.
Paul does not mention the virgin birth or Joseph so Romans 1:3 merely asserts a physical birth in David’s line, but Paul’s understanding is that Jesus was born of the offspring of David according to the flesh.
Secondly, the Old Testament makes this somewhat plain. For example, Psalms 132:11-12 states:
Yahweh has sworn to David in truth.
He will not turn from it:
“I will set the fruit of your body on your throne.
12 If your children will keep my covenant,
my testimony that I will teach them,
their children also will sit on your throne forever more.”
It is clear from this that the next generation will be a biological child of David. I suppose the future generations could be adopted children, but again this is speculative, especially since adoption was not a common Hebrew practice. Paul’s usage invoked Roman law while Moses was adopted under Egyptian law.
Another example from 2 Samuel 22:51 (WEB):
He gives great deliverance to his king,
and shows loving kindness to his anointed,
to David and to his offspring, forever more.
Again, the word “offspring” is the Hebrew word for seed which implies direct biological offspring. The word “anointed” is the word that later came to be associated with the Messiah/Christ.
So the adoption of Jesus by Joseph is speculative. It is unsupported by any scripture though it would be theologically important. The Old Testament uses words like “seed” and does not affirm adoption unambiguously as a practice. And Paul explicitly claims that Jesus is a biological descendant of David (Romans 1:3).
Could the Lineage be Through Mary?
Here, the idea is that we should forget Joseph and take the lineage to be through Mary. The appeal is that David’s flesh (Mary) gives birth to Jesus; God is the father; and we can have a virgin birth.
Can seed (Greek: sperma) be used to mean the offspring of a woman? In general, it is not, but Revelation 12:17 does refer to a woman’s offspring this way. No other usage of sperma refers to a female heir, but this one usage tells us that this theory is not implausible. There is a similar exception in Genesis 3:15 which talks about the offspring (seed; Hebrew: H'[.r;z) of Eve.
The most commonly accepted version of this in Protestant circles is that Luke contains the genealogy of Mary.
I want to look into the argument a little closer rather than risk caviling it. It hinges on the repetitive usage of the Greek word τοῦ.
Luke 3:23-24 (WEB) states:
Jesus himself, when he began to teach, was about thirty years old, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,
and continues in this fashion through the other names. Here it is in the Greek:
Καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν Ἰησοῦς ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα, ὢν υἱός, ὡς ἐνομίζετο, Ἰωσὴφ τοῦ Ἠλὶτοῦ Μαθθὰτ τοῦ Λευὶ τοῦ Μελχὶ τοῦ Ἰανναὶ τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ
And here is a table of the Greek alongside the English (adapted from here). Jump down to Joseph and the names that follow:
|Καὶ αὐτὸς||And himself|
|ἦν Ἰησοῦς||be Jesus|
|ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ||began about|
|ἐτῶν τριάκοντα||age thirty|
|ὢν υἱός||being son|
|ὡς ἐνομίζετο||as supposed|
|τοῦ Ἠλὶ||of Heli|
|τοῦ Μαθθὰτ||of Matthat|
|τοῦ Λευὶ||of Levi|
|τοῦ Μελχὶ||of Melchi|
|τοῦ Ἰανναὶ||of Janna|
|τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ||of Joseph|
You will notice that the “τοῦ [name]” formula is repeated for every name after Joseph; this continues all the way to “τοῦ God.” The natural way to read this (adopted by every major English translation) is that it was a parsimonious use of language for a long list. So, removing the extraneous words it would be “Jesus son of Joseph of Heli of Matthat of Levi…” The author specified “son” for Joseph because he was the first father in the list and abbreviated to “τοῦ” for the rest of the ancestors.
A very different understanding of this is used to demonstrate that this is Mary’s genealogy. We draw attention to the fact that only Joseph is not preceded by “τοῦ” and therefore we should read the entire Joseph part as parenthetical. If we exclude that parenthetical comment, we have “Jesus […] τοῦ Heli τοῦ Matthat…” Then we suppose that Heli was Mary’s father and Jesus’s grandfather and Luke is recording Mary’s genealogy.
In other words, “τοῦ” refers to either father or grandfather, Luke excludes Mary because women should not be in a genealogy, and he adds a parenthetical comment about Joseph to clarify that he is not relevant to the situation. Afterall, why would you give a long genealogy of someone who was not a direct ancestor of Jesus?
If you look no closer than that, it may seem convincing. However, it does not bear scrutiny.
Firstly, all the genealogies in the Bible are through the father. Some Old Testament references that later were viewed as pointing to the Messiah are also explicit about it being a male line. For example, Jeremiah 33:17:
For Yahweh says: David shall never want a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel
So all references to lineage in the Bible are through the father, which accords with the patriarchy that is displayed throughout. It is again speculative to suggest that in this one incident, the most vital incident for Christian claims that Jesus is the Messiah, it suddenly goes through the mother and no Christian of the time thought to make this point clear.
The argument that the author would naturally use the male line because that is how genealogies work seems contrived. If that were how they worked, an author would want to be extra clear that his case was different!
Ah, but I am a twenty-first-century reader who does not understand what the conventions of the time were. Luke would be astonished that I would apply such historiographic standards and analyses to his writings (though apologists can make the “τοῦ” argument with a straight face).
These are the same apologists who tell us that the Gospels are reliable precisely because they portray women going to the tomb in an age where women had no standing.
So we are being asked to believe that the gospel authors accurately portrayed women finding the empty tomb, but felt constrained to pretend that Mary’s genealogy was Joseph’s? Even though this was the only possible way (given the virgin birth) that Jesus could be descended from David and thus a vital link to the Messiah? This strains credulity.
Secondly, the entire idea that Luke’s genealogy belongs to Mary was invented at least 700 years after Christ. Earlier authors viewed it as obvious that both genealogies went through Joseph. We know this because The Gospel of James (about 145 CE) presents Mary’s father as being Joachim, not Heli or Jacob.
The earliest known solution to the problem of the incompatible genealogies comes from a third-century epistle by Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240 CE). He relates an early tradition in which Joseph’s natural father was Jacob (as reported in Matthew) and that the legal father was Heli (as reported in Luke). This tradition, unsupported by any Biblical evidence, tells us that Heli died before he could have children and that his brother Jacob then married his widow and had Joseph on Heli’s behalf (a Levirate marriage: see Deuteronomy 25:5).
It also is a neat but speculative solution. The problem is that it completely undermines the later idea that Luke’s genealogy belongs to Mary. The earliest Christians understood it as being what it appears to be: a genealogy of Joseph.
And it does no good to accept this earlier Levirate marriage solution either: then we are back to the adoption view and Romans 1:3 is left stranded.
So both theories look like what they probably are: contrived but creative speculation to fix a contradiction. I give many examples in my book of how these kinds of challenges create an evolution of the religion. It is seen as acceptable to introduce new facts ex nihilo in order to resolve such problems, and this tendency drives the evolution of Christianity.
Thirdly, given the above, we have no record of Mary’s lineage. In Luke, she is a relative of Elizabeth who is in the house of Aaron. This does not mean that Mary is necessarily in the house of Aaron. But it means that we do not have any evidence that she is in David’s line. This is actually the only hint of Mary’s lineage anywhere and it goes the wrong way.
Thus we have no record of Mary’s lineage and the only hints at her lineage do not support her being an offspring of David. It is at best speculation that Mary is a descendant of David.
These are the common ways around the contradiction and neither of them satisfies me. The result is that the son of David and the virgin birth theologies are in genuine conflict. Or at least require unsupported speculation to reconcile.
It should be clear that a contradiction of this magnitude is a significant issue. For many skeptics, it would be enough already to shrug their shoulders and say that this looks very much like what we have come to expect from religious claims and speculation.
However, I want to press on, because these problems seem to exist on every level and it is fascinating to examine them closely. In fact, neither the son of David nor the virgin birth stories are particularly credible.
If I had to choose, I would take the son of David, since this is explicitly linked to the Messiah in the Old Testament while the virgin birth story is not (more on this later). So let’s put the virgin birth story and the contradiction on ice for now and look at the claim that Jesus is the son of David through Joseph.
Son of David
To begin, why do we think that Jesus ought to be the son of David? Several verses affirm this. For example, in 2 Samuel 7:16 Nathan is told by God to say to David:
Your house and your kingdom will be made sure forever before you. Your throne will be established forever.
David’s descendants did indeed have a great run of some 420 years. But then the Babylonians disproved the prophecy in 587 BCE. At this point, everyone agreed that they had made a foolish mistake and packed up the religion.
Of course, that is how neither humans nor religions work. Instead, the idea of a Messiah emerged who would be of the seed of David and who would re-establish the throne of Israel.
[Aside: Later, when the term “Son of God” was used about Jesus, it was a reference to Psalm 2:7 meaning Messiah (or anointed one in the Old Testament). This was not a claim of divinity as it is understood today, but a claim to be the anointed King of Israel in the line of David.]
Paul clearly understood that Jesus must be biologically in the line of David, as shown in Romans 1:3 mentioned previously.
The author of the Gospel of John understood it that way also. John 7:40-52 relates the story in which some of the multitudes exclaim that Jesus is the Christ. Others then answer:
“What, does the Christ come out of Galilee? 42 Hasn’t the Scripture said that the Christ comes of the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there arose a division in the multitude because of him.
John does not settle the matter. Had he believed that Jesus was born of the line of David and in Bethlehem, he surely would have rushed to Jesus’s defense? But regardless of this, it indicates that John knew of the scriptures and knew that many of the Jewish people understood them this way.
Mark does not give a genealogy either, but the passage he relates on this is even more extraordinary. Mark 12:35-37 says the following:
Jesus responded, as he taught in the temple, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? For David himself said in the Holy Spirit,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies the footstool of your feet.”’
Therefore David himself calls him Lord, so how can he be his son?”
The implication of this is that Jesus is claiming that the Christ need not be the son of David. I suppose the most common “interpretation” is that Jesus is more than the son of David, but this feels like a stretch to me. Jesus never mentions his supposed Davidic heritage and his family thinks that he is mad.
In any event, let us discuss the notion that Jesus is the son of David through Joseph, whether biologically (in contradiction to the virgin birth) or through adoption (in contradiction to Romans 1:3). There are, then, two genealogies that we can use: Matthew and Luke.
A brief but important note about genealogies. We are used to thinking of ourselves as having an exponentially increasing number of ancestors. I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. Ten generations ago I would have about a thousand ancestors. Twenty generations ago I would have about a million.
We can also look at this the other way. If we pick an ancient figure we can ask about their descendants. It is not as precise as ancestors because everyone has two parents, while not everyone has two children. But a similar idea applies. Some lines might go extinct, others might grow rapidly, but over the space of twenty generations, a person could easily expect to have a million descendants.
Such is not the case for the biblical genealogies.
Firstly, looking at ancestors, the Bible is only interested in the father and the father’s father, and the father’s father’s father, and so on. In this situation, there is only one (apart from the somewhat contrived examples that allow two fathers). Mathematically, instead of having 2ⁿ ancestors, you have 1ⁿ=1 ancestor in a particular generation. So if you are looking at the ancestry of a particular Bible character there is only one legitimate answer.
Secondly, looking at descendants, most often the descendant the Bible is concerned with is the eldest son. In some cases, the eldest dies young or does not have children and so the next one is followed. But, in general, a single thread can be followed from a given point with relatively few exceptions. Again, this is not quite as clean as the ancestry because we know everyone has a single father but not everyone has a single son.
So can we track the ancestry of Joseph?
To begin with, Joseph’s father is Jacob in Matthew, a clear reference back to the Joseph of Genesis. In Luke, Heli is listed as the father. An early workaround, as mentioned above, is that this is the result of a Levirate marriage. In this scenario, Heli and Jacob are brothers.
Another similar solution is that Heli and Jacob are just two names for the same person.
Either way, they would need to have the same father. Jacob’s is Matthan; Heli’s father is Matthat. Similar enough that they just made a typo perhaps? Matthan’s father is Eleazar; Matthat’s father is Levi. Perhaps one of the lists missed a few generations here and there? Afterall, Matthew’s genealogy is much shorter than Luke’s.
You can see how quickly the speculation builds up to hold this all together. And how contrived it needs to be. Apologists tell us that the families of the time fastidiously kept their genealogies, but this does not seem to be the work of two people who tracked down source documents from Joseph and examined them.
The alternative approach mentioned to me later by someone in the audience is to claim that Matthew used the genealogy as a literary device. “I suspect it would not have occurred to him that someone two-thousand years later would see it as an attempt to reproduce the genealogy with the type of exactitude which you seem to require” [private correspondence].
Here the apologist does a kind of judo move, conceding the point I have been trying to make and blaming me for looking too closely. At the same time, the virgin birth stories, which I will discuss in the next post, are seen as legitimate history. How do we know that these also are not “a literary device”? I would say that a dry laundry list of names is far less likely to be literary than the fanciful stories of angels and stars and wise men.
So I do not require or expect any exactitude. To me, it is obvious that it is a literary device and that Jesus is therefore not demonstrably a descendant of David. The whole idea evolved as an ostentatious fulfillment of prophecy. As such, he is not the Messiah. In fact, the idea of a Messiah itself seems to be a contrived speculation to deal with the reality that the Babylonians ended the throne of David.
But let’s keep digging. It gets worse.
Matthew makes a big deal about the number of generations (society back then was steeped in numerology). There are meant to be fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17).
N T Wright points out that this is six groups of seven and it culminates with a figurative day of rest when Christ comes to save us. At the same time, it shows how Christ is the Messiah because he is descended from David. And fourteen is the gematria of David (converting letters to numbers). This makes us lean towards the literary interpretation and away from taking this as evidence that Jesus is descended from David.
But are the fourteen convincing?
The first fourteen are copied from the Old Testament and need not concern us anymore.
The second fourteen turns out not to be fourteen at all. Consider this comparison of the names found in 1 Chronicles 3:6-12 and Matthew 1:9-17:
|1 Chronicles 3:4-17||Matthew 1:6-12|
We might be able to excuse Matthew skipping the odd generation, except that he has made such a point about the number of generations being fourteen. Was he careless? Afterall, Ahaziah is very similar to Azariah, so he could have made a simple mistake when copying it out. Did he want the fourteen to work so badly that he was willing to let the details slide? Was he more interested in literary devices than historicity? Perhaps we will never know. But whichever one you choose, it lacks credibility.
The list includes Jehoiachin/Jeconiah, skipping the similarly named father, Jehoiakim. Jeconiah is referred to as Coniah in Jeremiah 22. Jeremiah receives a prophecy about him (verse 30):
Yahweh says, Write you this man childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days; for no more shall a man of his offspring prosper, sitting on David’s throne, and ruling in Judah.
Again, not very compelling ancestry for the supposed Messiah.
So much so that Luke’s list avoids mentioning Jeconiah altogether (Luke 3:27). This too is awkward, however, because Jeconiah’s son Shealtiel is mentioned in both lists (in both cases listed as the father of Zerubbabel). Luke introduces the otherwise unknown Neri as the father of Shealtiel. A skeptic would say that this was done to avoid Jeconiah’s curse.
|1 Chronicles 3||Matthew 1||Luke 3|
|Pedaiah (some versions)|
It is a little bizarre that Shealtiel should make it onto Luke’s genealogy at all, since he traces the descent through David’s son Nathan, rather than Solomon. Little is known about Nathan (not to be confused with the prophet by the same name who was quoted above). In fact, Nathan the prophet indicates that it is Solomon who is to be part of the Messianic line (or at least that is how it is usually interpreted). 2 Samuel 7:12-13 has God telling David through Nathan:
When your days are fulfilled, and you sleep with your fathers, I will set up your offspring after you, who will proceed out of your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
It was Solomon who built the temple and was on the throne of David, not Nathan, so Luke also has items that make Jesus ineligible to be the Messiah.
Matthew’s third fourteen is a little rushed. Luke has twenty-three generations from the exile to Jesus which is a little more realistic. Matthew has only thirteen unless you count Jeconiah twice or perhaps include his father Jehoiakim in the reckoning. Either way, it is over forty years per generation and diverges from the 1 Chronicles 3 account almost immediately. Some speculate that Abiud is Obadiah. Eliakim is the great-grandson of Shealtiel in Matthew and great-great-…-great-grandfather of Shealtiel in Luke. None of the rest corresponds with anything.
In summary, I am not persuaded that Jesus was the son of David at all.
- Paul gives us no wriggle room, saying in Romans 1:3 that he must be a biological descendant of David.
- Matthew and Luke trace the ancestry through Joseph unconvincingly in both cases.
- Mary’s ancestry is never given, though it is said that she has family in the house of Aaron.
- Jesus never mentions his ancestry other than to imply that the Messiah need not be the son of David (Mark 12:35-37 and parallels).
- Jesus’s family never mention their ancestry and think that Jesus is mad. This is even more of a problem when we contemplate the supposed events around Jesus’s birth.
Call me skeptical, but I do not think that the evidence supports the claim that Jesus was the son of David. It, therefore, cannot be claimed that he fulfills the prophecies that make him the Messiah.
In the next post, I will discuss the virgin birth in more detail.