Monday, January 4, 2010

To the Jew First: The Throne of David

One Jewish objection to the claims of Christianity has to do with Jesus' ancestry, as it relates to His having been born of Mary, the virgin. First, generally accepted Messianic prophecies include that He would be a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalm 89), and thus qualify to sit upon David's throne. Joseph's lineage was traced through David, but Joseph was not Jesus' biological father, and so Jesus cannot be said to be a descendant of David. Second, the Messiah was to be of the tribe of Judah (Isaiah 11:1, Micah 5:2), and again, though Joseph was affiliated with this tribe, his adopted son, Jesus, would not have been. Therefore, Jesus' lineage does not meet the requirements for holding the throne of David, and thus He is disqualified as the Messiah.

What is the Christian to make of this argument? Should we, in fact, rethink our decision to put our faith in Jesus since the Davidic throne and affiliation with the tribe of Judah could only have been passed on through Joseph, who is not Jesus' biological father?


In Matthew 1:6-16 we're explicitly told Joseph's ancestry, beginning with King David and his father (verse 1) and ending with, "Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah." In Luke 3:23-38 it seems as though Joseph's lineage is repeated since it begins with, "When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph..." However, when one closely examines these genealogies, one discovers that they are quite different.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' grandfather is Jacob; in Luke's, it's Eli. In the former case, Jesus' great grandfather is Matthan; in the latter case, Matthat. Matthew records Jesus' great-great grandfather as Eleazar; Luke records it as Levi. Continuing backward, these genealogies continue to be completely different. It is true that the phrase "the son of" often means "descendant of," and as such one of these two listings may be a subset of the other, but between David and Joseph, few of the names match up.

It is for this reason that Jesus' ancestry as recorded by Luke is likely that of His mother, Mary, not Joseph's. Note that it begins with, " was supposed, the son of Joseph." This hints that it is not truly Joseph's genealogy that Luke intends to communicate. In Matthew Henry's commentary on this passage, he wrote:

Matthew designed to show that Christ was the son of Abraham, in whom all the families of the earth are blessed, and that he was heir to the throne of David; and therefore he begins with Abraham, and brings the genealogy down to Jacob, who was the father of Joseph, and heir-male of the house of David: but Luke, designing to show that Christ was the seed of the woman, that should break the serpent’s head, traces his pedigree upward as high as Adam, and begins it with Ei, or Heli, who was the father, not of Joseph, but of the virgin Mary.

Why, then, did Luke start the listing of Jesus' ancestry by calling Him, "the son of Joseph?" Because according to Jewish rules of genealogies women's names should be excluded. So in place of Mary, Luke lists Joseph to satisfy this rule, but proceeds to trace Jesus' lineage through that of Mary. So while Matthew's record of Jesus' lineage is traced through Joseph, Luke's record is through Mary. And we see from Luke 3:31 that Mary was, in fact, a descendant of David. Thus, Jesus does fulfill prophecies that the Messiah would be of the House of David.


At this point, however, some will object saying that inheritance is passed on only through sons, not daughters. Even if Mary, too, was a descendant of David, his throne could not be passed on to Jesus through Mary; it can only be inherited through the father. Similarly, the Messiah was to be of the tribe of Judah, and tribal affiliation is passed on through sons. Mary was affiliated with the tribe of Judah (1 Samuel 17:12 cf. Luke 3:31-32), but she could not have conferred this affiliation onto Him.

While passages like Numbers 34:14, Numbers 1:18-44 and Leviticus 24:10 do seem to suggest that, as a general rule, inheritance and tribal affiliation is passed on through fathers, this is not always the case. In Numbers 27:1-11, a group of sisters pleads before Moses. Their father has died having had no sons, and they ask, "Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son?" Moses takes their case before God, who tells Moses that yes, "You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father's brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them."

We see, then, that there are cases in which a father's inheritance, and a tribe's affiliation, is passed on to daughters, rather than to sons. Neither history nor the Bible tell us whether or not Mary had brothers. As such, we cannot know for certain that this particular rule applied in her case. However, the point is that it is possible for Jesus, who is not Joseph's biological son, to inherit the throne of David and affiliation with the tribe of Judah through His mother, Mary.


All this evidence, however, that Jesus qualifies as a descendant of David and a member of the tribe of Judah through Mary, is truthfully moot. Legally speaking, Jesus was Joseph's son--plain and simply. Joseph did not separate from Mary during their betrothal; he heeded the words of the angel who visited him and married Mary (Matthew 1:19-24), accepting Jesus, born later, as his legal son. Even if Mary were not a descendant of David, even if Mary were not of the tribe of Judah, Joseph was both, and as such the same is true of his legal son, Jesus.

The Jewish authors of the New Testament, far more familiar with ancient Hebrew thought, language and Scripture than the Jewish rabbis of today, thus recognized Jesus as a legitimate descendant of David, a genuine member of the tribe of Judah. Therefore, they wrote, "it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah" (Hebrews 7:14). "Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome" (Revelation 5:5). Indeed, He has overcome--just like He overcomes this objection to His rule.

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