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In Quest of the Historical Baby Jesus
by James A. Bacon
The Christmas story has been retold so many times in sermons and hymns, in school plays and storybooks, that it has become a part of the national psyche. Every schoolchild knows that Mary and Joseph traveled to the little town of Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn. They sought shelter in a stable where Mary gave birth, and she laid the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by oxen and donkeys. Shepherds came to adore him, and three wise men paid him homage, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Soon after, the wicked king Herod sought to kill the new-born child, and Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt to escape his wrath.
It is a heartwarming tale, and one that few Christians are inclined to question. Yet this story appears in none of the Gospels. It is a composite, a pastiche of clippings from Matthew and snippets from Luke. Anyone who troubles himself to read the nativity narratives of the two evangelists can plainly see that they are incompatible on fundamental points.
Matthew places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great, a tributary to Rome who died in 4 B.C. Luke states that Jesus was born when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, and Palestine was under direct Roman rule -- after Herod's death, around 6 AD.
Saying nothing of a census, Matthew states simply that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that the wise men came to "the house" where he was. The story of the stable and manger comes from Luke.
Matthew speaks of wise men following a star in the east but knows nothing of shepherds; Luke tells of shepherds, saying nothing of wise men.
Where Matthew describes the holy family fleeing from Herod soon after Jesus' birth, Luke states that his parents took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem eight days later for his circumcision.
The discrepancies in Jesus' birth date alone have confounded generations of scholars. Historians have diligently searched the archives for Roman census data and have scoured the records for mention of astrological portents -- comets, supernovas, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn -- that might resemble the mysterious star of the east.
The task of dating Jesus' birth need not detain us here, yet it is vital in our quest to uncover the historical Jesus to understand the family conditions that molded his personality and shaped his world view. If Jesus truly were conceived by God and a virgin mother, as Luke and Matthew maintain, we would have little choice but to accept the Christian version of his life as written in the Gospels: The overriding influence in his development was his divine status. Were Jesus the natural son of Joseph, as many scholars have suggested, we could argue that he absorbed the same aspirations as most other Jews. But if he were the illegitimate son of Mary, as his detractors charged, we might conclude that Jesus was raised as a social outcast -- putting his mission and his life in an entirely new light.
Seed of David?
The logical place to commence our study is to review what Jesus said about himself. Unfortunately, there isn't much to go on. In none of the sayings recorded by the Gospels and Apocryphal writings did Jesus discuss his birth directly. Although he may have referred to himself as the "Son of God" -- a term that suggested a spiritual, not a biological kinship -- he never mentioned his paternity.
The legitimacy of his birth apparently was not an issue during Jesus' lifetime. The hostile Pharisees, whose stronghold was Jerusalem and the southern province of Judaea, apparently knew little about his personal background. "We don't know where he comes from," John quotes them as saying. Understandably so. Their contacts did not extend to the tiny provincial town of Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee. If there had been any tongue wagging in Nazareth about Jesus' birth, the Pharisees would not have been privy to it. But it was general knowledge that Jesus hailed from Galilee -- and it was precisely this point that the Pharisees seized upon. They argued that the Messiah would not come from Galilee: "Hath not the scriptures said that Christ cometh out of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem where David was born?"
Rebutting the popular opinion expressed by the Pharisees, Jesus asserted that the Messiah need not be descended from King David. In the Psalms, he noted, David referred to God as "Lord." If David paid obeisance to God as his superior, Jesus asked, how could God (or his agent, the Messiah) be David's son?
Logical, perhaps. But why did the scribes raise the question and why did Jesus bother to counter it? Because Jesus could not trace his lineage back to David. Had he been able to document a Davidic ancestry, his opponents would not have attacked his humble Galilean origins. Had he been descended from David, he would not have taken issue with the popular belief.
Extrapolating from this exchange - the one instance in which Jesus was recorded commenting upon his ancestry -- we can safely say that he was not descended from David. As a corollary, we can assert that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph who, according to both Luke and Matthew, was of David's lineage. Both evangelists attempted to trace Jesus' Davidic descent through Joseph, and then undercut their own tortuous arguments by denying Joseph's paternity. Matthew put it this way: Joseph was "the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus." Luke was equally awkward, referring to Jesus, who was "as was supposed" the son of Joseph.
Seeking more conclusive evidence of Jesus' paternity, scholars have turned to the epistles of the apostle Paul. Around 50 AD, only 15 to 20 years after Jesus' death, Paul wrote numerous letters to the early churches. Although Paul considered Jesus a divine figure in a spiritual sense, his writings assumed an earthly, biological father. Jesus, wrote Paul in Romans, "was made of the seed of David, according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God." In Galatians, he wrote that "God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law." And in Hebrews, he said: "For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah."
Although Paul knew of nothing irregular surrounding the circumstances of Jesus' birth, he did not write with any authority on the subject. Paul had never met Jesus, spent little time in the company of those who knew him, and evinced little interest in the details of his life. There is no evidence that he knew, or cared to know, the names of Jesus' parents, much less how Jesus was conceived. To Paul, Jesus' earthly activities were irrelevant; what mattered was the belief that he had died on the cross for man's salvation and ascended into heaven.
However, thanks to Paul, we can draw two conclusions about the state of Christian thought some 15 years after Jesus' death. First, the issue of Jesus's legitimacy had not yet been called into question and the notion of the virgin birth had not yet materialized. If it had, Paul certainly would have mentioned it, for it supported his picture of Jesus as a divine being. Second, although the Pharisees had called into question Jesus' Davidic descent during his lifetime, Jesus' followers were still making the claim.
Charges of Illegitimacy
Mark, who wrote his Gospel around 70 AD, paid far more attention to the facts surrounding Jesus' life. According to Christian tradition, he assembled the Gospel after Peter's death, basing it largely upon Peter's recollections. Although Mark, like Paul, considered Jesus a divine being, he knew nothing of the virgin birth. To Mark's way of thinking, Jesus received the spirit of God during his baptism by John the Baptist -- not by virtue of his birth. The evangelist never mentioned Jesus' childhood, presumably finding nothing in it of theological importance.
Significantly, a passage in Mark suggests that the early Christians were familiar with stories concerning Jesus' illegitimate birth. The evangelist tells how Jesus visited Nazareth after a long absence and addressed the people of the synagogue. Astounded by his doctrine, they were offended: "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses and of Judah, and Simon?" By calling Jesus the "son of Mary," they were blatantly denying Joseph's paternity. In patriarchal Jewish society, men were referred to as the sons of their fathers, not their mothers. However, Mark never seemed bothered by the scandalous implications. Apparently, Jesus' family history was common knowledge among Peter and his acquaintances, but no one was yet making an issue of it. If no one was making an issue of it, there was no reason to hide it.
The situation would change. Around the time that Mark wrote his Gospel, the Jews rose in revolt against the Romans. The Zealot rebels annihilated the aristocratic Sadducees, and then the Romans crushed the Zealots and their apocalyptic-minded brethren, the Essenes. When the dust settled, the Pharisees were the only organized group left. Rising to preeminence in Palestine under Roman rule, they strove to purify their nation by suppressing the last schism: Christianity. The rabbis sent missionaries to Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world with the purpose of discrediting the sect and attacking its supposed savior. Jesus, they said, was a magician, a false prophet, a blasphemer, a rebel. He was no Messiah. How could he be? He wasn't descended from David. He was born in shame, the bastard son of a Jewish woman and a Roman soldier.
These were no idle accusations. By now, some 40 to 50 years after Jesus' death, the Pharisees had established a commanding presence in Galilee and had enjoyed ample time to collect the scurrilous local gossip about Jesus' birth and his career. We can get a flavor of what the Jews were saying about Jesus in the 70-to-80 AD-era from the writings of Jews and pagans a century or two later. Celsus, a pagan author who quoted extensively from Jewish sources, said that Mary was "turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of having adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera. ... While she was wandering about in a disgraceful way, she secretly gave birth to Jesus." The Panthera story survives also in the rabbinic literature. "Was he not the son of Stada (Mary). Surely he was the son of Pandira (Panthera)?" says one passage attributed to the rabbi Eleazar. "His mother was Stada. But was not his mother Miriam (Mary) the hairdresser? Yes, but she was nicknamed Stada, as we say, 's'tat da': This one has turned away from her husband."
Most scholars have treated the Panthera story as a rhetorical excess typical of ancient writers, who rarely felt constrained by the truth when vilifying one another. Here, the Jews were repeating derogatory stories as uncritically as the Christians passed on laudatory ones.
The virgin birth
Had the Christians dismissed the charges as a vulgar libel, we might be justified in paying them no heed. But the Christians responded in a remarkable way: Rather than ignoring the calumnies or asserting Joseph's paternity, they conceded the most damaging facts and tried to explain them away. Worse, the two main Christian apologists -- Luke and Matthew -- contrived totally different accounts of Jesus' divine birth.
The evangelist stories had only a few elements in common: Mary's betrothal to Joseph; her pregnancy before marriage; Jesus' conception by the Holy Ghost; and Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. The betrothal to Joseph and premarital pregnancy were undeniable, for they formed the core of the Jewish accusations. Any story would have to acknowledge these basic facts which, by then, were too notorious to ignore. The intervention of the Holy Ghost and the birth in Bethlehem, the only other two nativity features common to both Gospels, are obviously apologetic.
In Luke, the facts regarding Jesus' birth are sparse, interspersed with lengthy paeans to God and digressions on the birth of John the Baptist. The essential points are as follows. Mary, who lived in the town of Nazareth, was espoused to a man named Joseph. An angel of the Lord told her that the Holy Ghost would come unto her and that she would conceive a son whom she would call Jesus. Later, she visited her cousin Elisabeth in Judea where she discovered that she was pregnant. Lingering for about three months, she returned home. Without a word about Joseph's reaction to this peculiar turn of events, Luke picked up his narrative with Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.
Matthew, by contrast, said that Mary was found to be "with child" while betrothed to Joseph, but did not mention the angel's visit or the three-month trip to Elisabeth's house. Ever mindful of his Jewish critics, the evangelist addressed an obvious question: What was Joseph's reaction? Didn't he feel cuckolded? Well, in fact, he was a little put off, Matthew admitted, but he was a just man and he didn't want to make Mary a public spectacle, so he was of a mind to "put her away privily." Fortunately, an angel of the Lord visited him and explained that Mary had been impregnated by the Holy Ghost. Reassured, Joseph kept her in his household but refrained from having intercourse with her throughout the pregnancy. Joseph, not Mary, named the child Jesus.
The fact that Matthew and Luke pin the pregnancy on the Holy Ghost might be taken as evidence that they took their insight from a common source, perhaps an authentic tradition passed down by those who knew Jesus personally. But it would be a mistake to read too much into that coincidence. The accounts of Matthew and Luke bore certain similarities only because the evangelists held the same theological assumptions, were responding to the same Jewish accusations, and shared the same motive -- to exonerate Jesus. Both took as their starting point the facts that the Jews had publicized widely: that Mary was betrothed to Joseph then became pregnant before the marriage was consummated. Both knew from Mark that Jesus referred to himself as the "Son of God," and both could read in the Old Testament that God often intervened in the births of remarkable individuals. In the days of Genesis, an angel of the Lord had appeared to the wives of Abram and Abraham, promising to "multiply their seed." Another angel spoke to Samson's mother: "Lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son." In the most striking case, God himself visited Hannah, the long-barren mother of the prophet Samuel, "so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters."
We can reconstruct Luke's and Matthew's parallel logic as follows: The evangelists could not deny that Mary got pregnant before she was married. And it was impossible to credit Joseph with the paternity. Mark had spilled the beans by telling how the townsfolk of Nazareth had referred to Jesus as the "son of Mary." Yet neither Matthew nor Luke were willing to concede that a Roman soldier -- nor any other man, for that matter -- was the father. The same logical solution presented itself: God must be the father.
The idea had much to recommend it. Jesus had referred to himself as the "Son of God." And in the Mediterranean world, stories abounded of gods siring human offspring. To make their respective cases, Luke and Matthew each sought scriptural backing. Perusing the books of the Old Testament, they found numerous examples of God's role in procreation. Independently, they struck upon the literary device of modeling Jesus' conception upon that of Samson, in which an angel engaged in lengthy conversations with the father and mother. Unfortunately for the cause of harmony, Luke's angel visited Mary while Matthew's appeared to Joseph.
As Matthew ransacked the scriptures for evidence, he stumbled across Isaiah's prophecy: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God is with us." It bothered Matthew not a whit that Isaiah was speaking to the ancient King Ahaz of Judah about the future birth of his heir. And, as even ancient scholars pointed out, he misconstrued the meaning of the original Hebrew: 'almah. The word stood for a young woman of marriageable age whether a virgin or not. According to Jewish practice, sexual relations were allowed between the betrothed before the marriage was consummated. But describing Mary as a virgin suited Matthew's purposes nicely. If she were a virgin, only a god could have impregnated her. And that excluded Panthera.
As was his practice, Matthew invented events to spice his narrative and counter other Jewish charges. To fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Matthew claimed that Joseph's family lived in the small Judaean town. All other accounts suggest that Joseph and Mary came from Galilee. To magnify the significance of the Messiah's powers, Matthew portrayed wise men -- or Babylonian magi -- paying obeisance to the baby Jesus. He might have taken the idea from accounts of the magi visiting the emperor Nero's court some 20 years previously. To nullify Jewish charges that Jesus learned magic in Egypt, Matthew concocted the story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing the wrath of Herod the Great. Yes, he was admitting, Jesus did spend time in Egypt, but only as a child. He couldn't possibly have learned magic there.
One can't help but admire Matthew's literary deftness in weaving so many apologies together in a coherent story. But he slipped when explaining how the family came back to Nazareth. An angel, he said, informed Joseph that it was safe to return to Palestine because Herod had died. But when the holy family returned, Joseph found that Archelaus, Herod's son, ruled in his stead. Being warned in another dream, he took the family to Galilee. Matthew ignored the fact that Herod Antipas -- also Herod the Great's son -- ruled Galilee. Presumably, Jesus would have been in equal danger there. If one son represented a threat, why would not the other? Dynastic considerations aside, Matthew's story was flawed internally. If the angel appearing to Joseph in Egypt knew that Herod had died, did he not also know that Archelaus had succeeded his father? Why send the family back to Judaea only to dispatch another divine messenger to warn them of the danger? Why not send them straight to Galilee?
Matthew also took care to amend Mark’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the villagers of Nazareth. Where, in Mark, the people had referred to Jesus as “Mary’s son,” in Matthew they sidestepped the insinuation of illegitimacy: "Is this not the carpenter's son?" they said. Matthew’s readers would have known, of course, that Jesus was really the son of God. By this deft rewriting, however, he deprived his foes, the Pharisees, of any evidence that Jesus was illegitimate.
Luke chose a totally different way to explain how Jesus, whose family was known to live in Nazareth, came to be born in Bethlehem. The evangelist bussed up the story of a Roman governor imposing a census on the province with seemingly authentic detail: "There went out a decree from [emperor] Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this tax was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." P. Sculpius Cyrenius was indeed the governor of Syria, but he was appointed in 6 AD. And the census he ordered was merely a provincial one, encompassing Syria and Palestine only. Had Jesus been born then, he would have been only 24 years old in the year that Luke asserts he began his ministry at the age of 30.
The Gospel of John, written around 90 AD, never mentioned the virgin birth, which suggests that the story was not universally accepted in the early church. But the virgin birth exercised a strong appeal among elements of the Christian community, many of whom preferred the beauty of the spirit to the sinfulness of the flesh. Tales abounded in the early Christian literature, for example, of Christian women who risked martyrdom to remain chaste. According to church tradition, several apostles met their deaths at the hands of jealous potentates deprived of conjugal bliss.
One popular story told of the beautiful Drusiana, the wife of Andronicus, who was so virtuous that she stopped sleeping with her husband. Furious, Andronicus shut her in a tomb, but she preferred to die rather than commit the unspeakable act. It so happened that a man named Callimachus also loved her ardently and entered the tomb with the intention of performing "the forbidden thing" upon her body. He stripped away her clothes until only a vest remained, but before he could have his way with her, a serpent appeared, wound himself around Callimachus' feet, and held him there until the apostle John appeared to chastise him.
Other early Christian accounts emphasized Mary's chastity, clearly in response to Jewish stories portraying her as a fallen woman. The Gospel of the Birth of Mary asserted that Jesus' mother was raised as a virgin in the Jerusalem Temple. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he did not want to defame her "by the suspicion of being a whore," proposing instead to end the betrothal discretely. But an angel appeared to him and explained what had happened. "Be not willing to entertain any suspicion of the Virgin's being guilty of fornication," the angel said. In the Birth of Mary, Mary was so pure that even her parents were chaste. They conceived Mary only after an angel told them that they would produce a special child.
The same format appears in the Protoevangelion of James, often ascribed to the apostle James. Not only did Mary reside in the Temple, but she conceived Jesus there. Accusing Joseph of impregnating her, the high priest forced him to undergo a trial by ordeal: drinking bitter water from the temple (a trial actually reserved for women). If he were guilty, he would die, if innocent he would live. In the story, Joseph survived, of course, proving Mary's innocence before all the Jews.
Despite a plethora of apologetic Christian literature in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Panthera story did not die. Around 300 AD, the church historian Eusebius suggested that Panthera was a misinterpretation of scripture: Panthera, he noted, was similar to parthenos, the Greek word for virgin. Later, Epiphanius gave Panthera an honored place in the Holy Family as Jesus' "paternal" grandfather. Even then, the debate over the virgin birth raged on. The Jews never relented in their claims that Jesus was fully human. Gnostic Christians also rejected the story of a virgin birth. Even among the orthodox Christians -- or, more precisely, that strain of Christianity that later would become known as orthodox -- a certain Faustus, bishop of a town in Gaul, argued that Jesus was born of ordinary parents and did not become the "son of God" until his baptism.
From our 20th century vantage, we can see that the doctrine of the virgin birth arose years after Jesus' death as an answer to the Jewish counter Gospel. The Jewish charge of Jesus' illegitimate birth was probably accurate. Mark foreshadowed it when he quoted the people of Nazareth describing Jesus as "the son of Mary." Matthew and Luke only added to the Jews' credibility by acknowledging that Mary was empregnated before marrying Joseph.
Paternity lost to history
If Jesus was illegitimate, we must ask, who was his father? It certainly was not Joseph. Jesus eliminated his stepfather from consideration when he argued that the Messiah did not have to be born of David's seed, as Joseph was. According to Mark, the towns people of Nazareth referred to Jesus as "the son of Mary," while Luke and Matthew stated outright that Joseph was not the father. In those rare instances when multiple Christian accounts agree with Jewish, we must assign them a high degree of credibility.
What about Panthera? In the 19th century archaeologists discovered tombstones of nine Roman soldiers in modern-day Bingerbruck, Germany. One of them was enscribed, "Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera from Sidon, aged 62 years, served 40 years, former standard bearer of the first cohort of archers lies here." While the tombstone confirms that the martial sounding name of panthera was in common use among Roman soldiers and that at least one of those soldiers originated from Sidon, a city near (but not in) Palestine at roughly the time of Jesus, it hardly constitutes proof of Jesus' illegitimacy. The fact is, the Panthera story cannot be traced back to a remotely authoritative source and must be dismissed as nothing more than a tale as idle and fabulous as the Christian elaborations of Jesus' birth.
In truth, Jesus' paternity will never be known -- and it was probably unknown to Jesus himself. The only person who probably knew for sure was his mother Mary. And she had every reason, as a member of highly judgmental Galilean society, to bury the past as best she could.
Raised in the household of Joseph
Whatever his paternity, Jesus was raised in Joseph's household in Nazareth. The ancient sources describe Joseph as a carpenter. In the Greek, he was a tekton, a word that ranged in meaning from a lowly artisan for hire to a master craftsman or building contractor. Early Christian sources created conflicting impressions. The Gospel of Thomas, a blatantly fabricated account of Jesus' childhood, portrays Joseph as an amiable buffoon who completed his work only thanks to Jesus' astute assistance. The Protoevangelion of James describes him as a man of some substance, a builder of buildings. Another tradition, found in the History of Joseph the Carpenter, tells of Joseph maintaining a workshop in Nazareth and leaving home to work on projects for months at a time.
All accounts agree that Joseph was an elderly man and that Mary was a young woman, almost a girl. According to the History of Joseph, she was betrothed to Joseph at age 12 and married him at 14. We should regard with some suspicion the stories of Joseph's great age -- the History declares that he was 90 years old when he took Mary into his house -- which, no doubt, were attempts to portray her as a perpetual virgin. But most Jewish brides married soon after puberty, and Joseph was the father of other children from a previous marriage. It does not strain our credulity to suggest that he was considerably older than Mary.
The History states that Joseph was a widower. By his previous marriage, he had four sons and two daughters. The eldest sons, Justus (Joses in Mark's Gospel) and Simon, and the two daughters, Assia and Lydia, were married and had families of their own. The two younger sons, James and Judas, were still living with Joseph when he brought Mary into his house. The History touchingly describes how Mary found James disconsolate at the death of his mother and raised him as her own child. It is tempting to regard the story with some skepticism; Mary could hardly have served as a mother figure for a boy only a few years younger than herself. Yet the fact that James and Judas became leaders of the Jerusalem church after Jesus' death suggests that they had maintained a close association with Jesus and, accordingly, were accorded respect in the early church.
To Joseph's grown-up children, however, Jesus would not have been a welcome addition to the family. It was bad enough that their father had taken a young wife so soon after their mother's death. That she would have born an illegitimate child would have been a source of tremendous embarassment. As a nation, the Jews were heartless in their treatment of bastard children: Fatherless children were, by definition, social pariahs. Worse yet for Jesus, he would have been an outcast in his own family.
One episode in the Gospels conveys a touching picture of parental neglect. According to Luke, Jesus' family regularly attended the Passover festival in Jerusalem. One year, when Jesus was 12, he lingered behind in the great city while his family joined the throng of Galilean pilgrims on their three-day trek home. Incredibly, Joseph and Mary, "supposing him to have been in the company," did not even miss him. Only after a day's travel did they seek him among their kin and acquaintances in the group. Luke used the story to introduce a scene in which Jesus discoursed intelligently with the rabbis on matters of the law. Jesus was, no doubt, precocious. This incident invites speculation that Joseph had other concerns than watching after Mary’s illegitimate child. Even more interestingly, it raises issues of Mary’s priorities. Attending to her husband, apparently, was more important in the patriarchal Galilean culture than caring for her own son.
Strained family relations
The Gospels say nothing else of Jesus' childhood, and stories in the Apocryphal writings, with their grotesquely implausible miracles, are worthless as factual histories. But hints of a severely strained relationship between Jesus and his family crop up frequently in the Gospels.
About the time he began achieving notoriety in Galilee, Jesus was about 30 years old. Joseph was dead, and, by the standards of the era, Mary was approaching old age. Although the Ten Commandments exhorted all Jews to honor their parents, Jesus showed little patience with her.
According to Mark, Jesus treated Mary and his brothers quite shabbily. While Jesus was teaching in Capernaum, Mary and "his brethren" stood on the fringe of the crowd and called to him. When the people told Jesus that his relatives were trying to contact him, he disowned them: "Who is my mother, or my brethren? Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and my brother."
John confirms the impression of a tattered relationship between Jesus and his brothers. "Neither did his brethren believe in him," the evangelist says. In turn, Jesus seemed none too fond of them. He urged them to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, telling them he planned to remain in Galilee. When his brothers left, he departed also, "not openly, but as it were in secret." Remarkably, the Gospels never offer so much as a hint that Jesus may have reconciled with his siblings.
Christian commentators perform scholastic somersaults to explain the hostility: By denigrating transient earthly ties, they say, Jesus was demonstrating the importance of his relationship with God. One can hardly blame theologians for interpreting Jesus' actions in the most favorable light. But their efforts only underscore the fact that the contrast between Jesus' deeds and his injunction to "turn the other cheek" and "love thy neighbor" are too obvious to ignore.
It's not that Jesus was incapable of warm, loving feelings. Poignantly, John notes that Jesus "loved his friend Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. He also loved an unnamed disciple who, during the Last Supper, "leaned on Jesus' bosom." And, though Jesus was childless, he enjoyed the company of little children. On one occasion, he took them into his arms and blessed them with his hands. In stark contrast, the evangelists never say that Jesus loved his mother or his brethren. They cite not a single instance of warm or conciliatory feelings towards any of them -- until the day he died.
According to John the evangelist, Jesus' mother Mary and his beloved disciple stood before Jesus as he hung, suffering, on the cross. "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home." Jesus "loved" his friend and addressed his mother as "woman" -- hardly a scene of touching filial devotion. But at least Jesus besought his friend to assume the obligations to his mother that he himself had neglected.
The conflict between Jesus and his family made a deep impression on his teaching. Occasionally, Jesus gave lip service to God's commandment enjoining all Jews to "honor thy father and thy mother." He even denounced a Pharisee interpretation of the law that enabled people to avoid obligations to care for their parents by placing financial assets in a trust dedicated to God. Yet Jesus consistently undermined the fifth commandment by demanding that his disciples abandon all familial responsibilities to follow him. When a disciple asked if he could leave to bury his father, Jesus replied, "Follow me and let the dead bury their dead." Luke quotes him as saying, "If anyone ... does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and himself, too, he cannot be my disciple."
In Matthew, Jesus is downright brutal: "think not that I am come to send peace on earth. ... I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
Some scholars regard this last uncompromising passage as a prophecy concerning the early church: Conversions would cause families to split asunder. But Jesus was not looking 50 years down the road. He was anticipating the imminent coming of God's kingdom. He envisioned a realm in which all earthly ties of affection were obliterated, in which men would be like angels in heaven, all worshiping God. In Jesus' vision of paradise, there was no room for the family.
Angry young man
The Victorian-era vision of a "gentle Jesus meek and mild" has absolutely no foundation in the scriptures. Jesus was an angry young man incensed by life's injustices, and he was perfectly willing to call upon the Almighty to destroy his enemies. "I have come to cast fire upon the earth," he thundered. Mark describes Jesus "looking around him with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts." But nowhere does Jesus fulminate against the Pharisees more furiously than in Matthew: "Woe unto you ... for ye devour the widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayer. ... Ye pay the tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith. ... Ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess. ... Ye outwardly appear righteous to men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. ... Ye serpents, ye vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"
Jesus railed against all those who refused to heed his message. "Woe unto thee Chorazin! Woe unto thee Bethsaida!" If he had performed his mighty works in the gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, the people would have repented with sackcloth and ashes. But it would be more tolerable for the gentile cities on the day of judgment, he said, than for those two little Galilean towns. "It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee."
When Jesus preached against those who valued legalisms over the spirit of mercy and forgiveness, it is hard to avoid that conclusion that he was hurling fire and brimstone against those who branded him a bastard and his mother an adulteress. He was consigning to eternal damnation those who made his childhood a living torment. At the same time, he promised heavenly comfort to those who, like him, had known the earthly pain of scorn and rejection: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. ... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
In God's kingdom, said Jesus, the tables would be turned. "The first shall come last and the last shall come first. ... Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased. And he who humbleth himself shall be exalted." In parable after parable, he told how salvation would be given to the poor, the dispossessed, the sinners. The father welcomed back the prodigal son. The rich man invited beggars to the banquet. Angels carried the beggar Lazarus to heaven into the bosom of Abraham, while devils tormented the rich man in hell. "Judge not, that ye be not judged," warned Jesus. "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged. And with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
When Jesus preached forgiveness for sinners -- harlots, publicans and adulterous women -- surely his words were inspired by the pain he experienced in his childhood. It is no coincidence that the one time in which Jesus actually put into practice what he so fervently preached struck close to his own childhood predicament: He showed compassion for a woman accused of adultery. According to John, the Pharisees brought unto Jesus a woman accused of breaking the eighth commandment. The law said that she should be stoned. "But what sayest thou?" they asked him.
Jesus said nothing at first, but the Pharisees persisted. At length, he lifted himself from the ground where he squatted, and he said: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
Pricked by their consciences, the Jews departed one by one until they left Jesus with the woman. He spoke to her: "Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?"
"No man, Lord."
"Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more."
How much more powerful would the example have been if Jesus had forgiven not a stranger but his own estranged brothers and sisters.
In summary, several points are manifestly evident. As an illegitimate child, Jesus was at the bottom of the pecking order of the small Galilean town where he grew up. His sense of persecution strained his relations with his family members and fed his sense of grievance against those -- the scribes and Pharisees -- who symbolized the unforgiving Jewish law. As an outcast, he felt a special kinship with others on the fringes of respectable society.
Although Joseph took Mary and her infant son into his family, there is no indication that a special bond ever developed between Jesus and his stepfather. Mark implies that Jesus knew some carpentry, which he would have learned from Joseph, but the stepfather would have passed on his practice and his workshop to his real sons. In addition, he never gave Jesus the benefit of a formal education. Accordingly, the Jews marveled at his knowledge of the law: "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?"
Jesus must have left Nazareth, the confining little town that would not let him forget his shameful origins, as soon as he was able. When the Gospels describe him reappearing many years later, it is apparent that he had been gone a long time. The villagers recognized him, but there was uncertainty in their words: "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary? ... Are not his sisters here with us?"
Thus, from Jesus' shame arose his great gift to the world, his piquant doctrine of forgiveness, that has etched such a deep impression up the morality and culture of Western civilization. Were it not for the painful circumstances of Jesus' paternity and birth, the world would be a far harsher and unforgiving place. We owe far more to the baby Jesus than we ever imagined.
This essay was adopted from an unpublished manuscript, "The Sorcerer of Nazareth."