"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John
Appendix 5: The Birth of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel1
As is well-known, the Gospel of John lacks any stories about Jesus' parentage, birth, or childhood, like the ones in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nor is there any genealogy. Yet John 8.41 apparently refers to a tradition that there was something irregular about Jesus' birth, while Jn 6.41-2 and Jn 7.40-2 both at least suggest that Jesus' ancestry and parentage were not as straightforward as they seemed. If the theory that John was written not only after the other three, but also in full awareness of their contents is correct, this lack could be deliberate. John could be content to allow the others to tell that part of Jesus' story while he focussed on Jesus' teaching in the series of signs and discourses that form the body of his gospel.
Some scholars think that the Johannine community (among other things, the intended audience of John's Gospel) was fairly isolated and inward-looking, having little contact with the rest of early Christianity. According to such thinking, the community thus had little or no knowledge of the written gospels, the Synoptics, that preceded John (though they may have shared some traditions about Jesus' teaching and actions with others). This theory has lost a lot of ground in recent years, and is no longer so widely held. As we have seen, it has been convincingly demonstrated that John the Evangelist assumed a knowledge of and interest in Mark's Gospel on the part of his readers (see Appendix 3, The "Interleaving" of John with Mark. In any case it has never seemed to me very likely that within the closely-knit world of the early Jesus movement churches within the Roman province of Asia would be isolated from one another or even from churches in other provinces. It seems to contradict the impression we receive from the Pauline epistles, Acts, and Revelation of travel patterns and contacts.
If we accept, at least as a likely hypothesis, that early Christians were familiar with one another's communities and writings, then what exactly did John expect his readers to be aware of about Jesus' origins? Clearly more than Mark could have told them. Given the likely dates that the three Synoptics were written, it seems probable that John could have also expected his readers to have read Matthew and Luke. If so, they would have a very clear picture of the birth of Jesus and how it was interpreted.
Matthew and Luke each contain a genealogy and an infancy narrative, that is, a story about the circumstances of Jesus' birth. Both genealogies trace Jesus' lineage through that of Joseph, Mary's husband, but they are otherwise vastly different . The stories are told from different perspectives: Matthew's narrative is told from Joseph's point of view, while Luke's is told from Mary's. These four sections of Matthew and Luke have attracted tremendous scholarly attention. They have been studied both apart from their positions within the gospels of which they are now a part and as sections thematically and textually related to those gospels. They have been dissected in the attempt to discover their sources, whether written or oral/traditional.
But they do tell us what their respective evangelists thought was important about Jesus' origins. Matthew began with a genealogy, actually for Mary's husband, Joseph. It emphasises both the roles of "son of Abraham" and "son of David", the Messiah. By bits of jiggery-pokery with the listing of kings in the royal Davidic line and with the way he counted generations, Matthew managed to give the genealogy a numerological significance: fourteen generations (twice seven) from Abraham to David's kingship, another fourteen from David to the disaster of the Captivity in Babylon, and a final fourteen from the last Davidic king to the birth of Jesus, a total of 42 (6 x 7) generations. But although he presented this genealogy through Joseph, he also made it clear in the story that follows that there was a question about whether Joseph was Jesus' biological, as opposed to legal, father.
Matthew's infancy narrative tells us about Joseph's dream about Mary's pregnancy and their betrothal/marriage. It appears that the couple must have been in the interval between completing the formal arrangements between the couple and their families and the new husband bringing his new wife into their future home. This would not be a good time for it to become known that Mary was going to have a child, and doubly so if Joseph knew that it was not his child (because he knew that he and Mary had not "jumped the gun"). The wording in Matt 1.18 that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" suggests to some scholars that it was not just Joseph who found this out, but probably both families too. It is no wonder Joseph wanted to find a way to stop the marriage before they reached the final irrevocable stage of his bringing Mary home, and to do it quietly! And if anyone had been informed (presumably by Mary herself) that the child to be born was "from the Holy Spirit", they likely did not believe it - certainly Joseph didn't before his dream. But the dream visitation from an angelic messenger was convincing, and Joseph brought Mary home. A question that has implications for our future discussions is how Mary was found to be with child. Did she tell her family or Joseph about her own angelic messenger? Had she start to show between the formal betrothal and the planned time for her home-coming with Joseph? In any case it appears that more people than Mary and Joseph were involved in these events: first-century CE Palestinian Jewish couples no more married in a vacuum than modern couples do, and families were involved at every stage.
Matthew continued with more stories about Jesus' infancy and childhood, structured around Joseph's dream visions and a series of fulfillment verses, like Matt 1.22-3 [[inset hyperlink]]. But that does not concern us here - we are only interested now in the story of Jesus' conception and birth.
Luke provides more information in his gospel about those events. He structured the opening sections of his gospel by telling the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus in parallel: the announcement of John's birth to his father Zachaeus (Luke 1.5-25) is followed by the announcement of Jesus' birth to Mary (Luke 1.26-38), the birth of John (Lk 1.57-80) is followed by that of Jesus (Lk 2.1-20). In each case, there is an intensity and a theological depth in the narrative about Jesus that excedes that in the narrative about John. Unlike in Matthew, the genealogy in Luke (Lk 3.23-38) is not closely associated with the announcement of Jesus' impending birth. Luke placed it after the story of Jesus' baptism and before the story of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.
If, as seems likely to me, Luke knew Matthew's Gospel, then we could conclude that Luke was filling in what Matthew left uncovered, that is, what led up to Matthew's statement that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit". Luke tells his readers how that happened: Mary received a revelation that, despite the fact that she and Joseph were not yet having relations (the sense of Lk 1.34), she would conceive and give birth to a child who would be the Messiah, and be called Son of God. After hearing this, she goes to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, wife of Zachaeus, soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist, and stays around three months. Perhaps Mary may have started to show by the time she returned from her visit. Some scholars think Mary told Joseph about her angelic messenger, and it was his unbelieving reaction to her story that prompted the dream described in Matthew.
The genealogy is very difficult to reconcile with that in Matthew; in fact it is impossible to do so without making indefensible assumptions. Scholars who have studied biblical genealogies have found that is it not unusual for a man to have genealogies that differ in, for instance, the number of generations (as these two do), because fathers or grandfathers are skipped over, with a link made from son to grandfather or great-grandfather. Unlike modern family trees, the intention was not to provide an exact record of a person's ancestry but to show descent from a particular and significant figure such as David or Moses. But making the most generous allowances possible for the differences between Biblical and modern genealogies, it is still not possible to bridge two difficulties here: Luke and Matthew named different men as Joseph's father, and Luke reckoned Joseph's descent from David via a younger son who was never king of Judah while Matthew reckoned it through the royal line. Either one is right and the other wrong, or neither is right. But they cannot both represent Joseph's descent from David.
Luke constructed his genealogy from Joseph back all the way to Adam, and through him to God. It is no accident that Luke placed his genealogy after the story of the baptism, in which Jesus is named Son of God, as foretold in the angel's message to Mary, for it is designed to show that Jesus is both Son of David, the Messiah, and Son of God. Luke too is constructing a genealogy with numerological significance: there are a total of 77 generations from Adam to Jesus in Luke's genealogy. These can be neatly divided into 11 groups of seven men each, a schema that has ties to apocalyptic literature such as the Book of Enoch.
In the accounts of Jesus' conception and birth in both Matthew and Luke, emphasis is placed on the fact that Joseph is not Jesus' biological father. Joseph's knowledge of that is the whole driver of the story Matthew has to tell. In Matthew, the angelic messenger tells Joseph, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." In Luke's Gospel, the angelic messenger to Mary answered her question, "How can this be?" by saying,"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." What does this mean? How does Mary come to be having a baby at all? The traditional answer over many centuries has been that each of these gospels taught the virgin birth of Jesus, that is, that Mary conceived and bore a child without any involvement by a human father.
Most scholars still argue that the evangelists intended to teach a virgin birth, although there are some who do not. Some think that the evangelist intended (or originally intended) to teach that the birth of Jesus was the result of a natural human biological conception, but that birth fulfilled God's will and providence in a unique way. This way of thinking is a kind of double paternity concept: if Jesus' birth and conception occurred in normal human fashion, that is, if he had both a human father and mother, but at the same time God's sovereign purpose was uniquely the reason for his birth and conception, then it is possible to think of Jesus as having had two fathers, being both the Son of God and the son of a human father.
The identity of Jesus' human father is the point on which double paternity theories tend to divide. Some think that Joseph was Jesus' father, despite the clear statements of Matthew and Luke to the contrary: these are attributed to editorial changes (called 'redactional changes' in the formal parlance of Biblical exegesis) introduced into the gospels or their sources during the process of composition. Some think that the father was some unknown other man, with whom Mary had some kind of relationship or by whom she was seduced or even sexually assaulted. The most extreme example of the latter viewpoint is expressed in Jane Schaberg's study The Illegitimacy of Jesus, in which the theory is advanced that the evangelists were dealing with the knowledge that Mary had conceived as the result of rape.
Raymond Brown rightly points out in The Birth of the Messiah that in the Gospels, unlike the pagan myths of gods begetting children with mortal women, there is no idea expressed that in Jesus' conception and birth God's role was generative. God does not physically impregnate Mary as Zeus physically impregnated Thetis or Leda. Rather God acts creatively: Jesus is the exemplar of a new humanity, created by God. How God created Jesus in Mary's womb is of course a mystery of faith, as is how God created Adam from the dust of the earth or Eve from Adam's rib (though I am quite sure the latter two are myths (in the theological sense) used metaphorically in a way that God's creation of Jesus is not). All that we are really told is that the Holy Spirit will be the moving force behind the birth of Mary's child.
Some scholars object to the virginal conception because it appears that it plays no part in the rest of Matthew's and Luke's Gospel. They argue that because there is no trace of this teaching in the rest of these gospels (or in the other two), it cannot be an authentic primitive tradition, but something added to the primitive tradition, perhaps because it catered to curiosity about Jesus' birth or because it answered speculation or criticism that arose from the timing of Jesus' birth in relation to timing of his parents' marriage. But it seems to me that such an objection is removed when we consider that, as Cantwell points out, "The early life of Jesus was not so much hidden as domestic" (Cantwell 1982, 307). I think this particularly applies to Jesus' conception and birth -- Mary, Joseph, and their extended family knew. Probably Jesus himself and his siblings had been told about it. But it was hardly something likely to be talked about outside the immediate family circle! Especially during Jesus' life, when we consider that for at least a portion of his ministry that his family were convinced he was on the wrong track entirely and perhaps driving himself crazy.
If however we accept the proposals I am putting forward about the relation between Matthew and Luke and the validity of the virginal conception, a picture begins to emerge. By the 80's and 90's CE, the "secret" of Jesus' miraculous birth had become generally known within the Jesus movement, to such a degree that Matthew and Luke each included information about it in his gospel. Although the infancy narratives in the two gospels can be seen to dovetail on some details, each evangelist put forward an independent genealogy for Joseph, Jesus' legal father.
How do the passages to which we have directed our attention in John's Gospel fit here? As we have already observed, John did not contribute anything more to what Matthew and Luke had already said about Jesus' birth and childhood. Instead he has modelled himself more on Mark, as we can see from the discussions in Robinson's essay, 'John for Readers of Mark' (see Appendix 3, The "Interleaving" of John with Mark). But we should not conclude that John had not read Matthew and Luke or expected his readers to be ignorant of the traditions in them because of that. Merely that he thought Mark was the most important of his predecessors.
The three passages at which we need to look more closely are: Jn 6.41-2, Jn 7.40-2, and Jn 8.41 (see cross-references above). All are apparently connected with traditions about Jesus' birth and parentage. Jn 6.41-2 is part of a longer dialogue between Jesus and a group identified only as Judaeans (Iudaioi) which includes discussion of Jesus' claim to a heavenly origin: 'Then the Judaeans grumbled about what he had said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven". And they said, "Isn't this Jesus son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now claim, 'I have come down from Heaven"?' As I have already observed, the dramatic irony here (so beloved by John as a narrative device) is greatly increased if the reader is aware of the Virgin Birth traditions in or behind Matthew and Luke. But it has force even without that extra layer.
Jn 7.40-2 is not about the birth or infancy of Jesus, but it makes explicit that John expected his readers to be familiar with the traditions that placed Jesus' origins in Bethlehem, while his adult home was Nazareth. This in turn strongly suggests that he expected them to be familiar with Matthew and Luke, or with the traditions that underlie those gospels. This makes it more likely that they would know the virginal conception tradition.
Last is John 8.41. In this section of the gospel, an already tense confrontation turns nasty, when Jesus' interlocutors (a group of Judaeans or Jerusalemites who had apparently put their trust in him) are angered by his insistence that only those who act like Abraham are Abraham's children and his sarcastic remark that they are doing their father's work. So they hit back at what is clearly a sore point, saying to Jesus: 'We weren't born from illicit sex! We have one Father, God.' It is hard to see what point they could possibly have here if there were not rumours that Jesus' birth was irregular, that he was in fact born of 'porneia' (the word I have translated as 'illicit sex'. I have already speculated that rumours of that kind would likely have circulated because Jesus was likely born uncomfortably soon after Mary and Joseph were married. Some scholars have speculated that the virginal conception narrative was shared outside the circle of Jesus' family precisely because of such rumours.
But does this show a likely awareness by John's readers of Matthew and Luke or the traditions behind them? Of the traditions, possibly. Of the gospels, it is hard to tell. If we put the three passages together, however, it seems to me that they acquire greater depth if the evangelist supposed that his readers knew what Matthew and Luke had to teach, or at least, what the traditions known to Matthew and Luke had to say. The case to be made is not as strong by any means as the case made that there was an assumption that John's readers were familiar with Mark. But given the chronology of the gospels it is certainly possible both that John's readers (or some of them) knew Matthew and Luke and that the evangelist was aware that he could add a dimension of greater depth for those readers in such passages.
Alexander, T. Desmond . 'From Adam to Judah: The Significance of the Family Tree in Genesis'. The Evangelical Quarterly 61.1 (1989), 5-19.
Blomberg, Craig L. 'The Liberation of Illegitimacy: Women and Rulers in Matthew 1-2'. Biblical Theology Bulletin 21 (1991) 145-50.
Bockmuehl, Markus. 'The Son of David and his Mother'. JTS 62.2 (2011) 476-93.
Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah. Updated edition. The Anchor Yale Bible (New York, 1993).
---. 'The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus'. Theological Studies 33.1 (1972) 3-34.
Cantwell, L. 'The Parentage of Jesus Mt 1:18-21'. Novum Testamentum. 24.4 (1982) 304-15.
Johnson, Marshall. The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies. 2nd edn (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2002).
Jones, John Mark. 'Subverting the Textuality of Davidic Messianism: Matthew's Presentation of the Genealogy and the Davidic Title'. CBQ 56.2 (1994) 256-72.
Kochenash, Michael. '"Adam, Son of God" (Luke 3.38): Another Jesus–Augustus Parallel in Luke’s Gospel'. NTS 64 (2018) 307-25.
Kuhn, Karl A. 'The Point of the Step-Parallelism in Luke 1-2'. NTS 47 (2001) 38-49.
Landry, David T. 'Narrative Logic in the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1.26-38)'. JBL 114 (1995) 65-79.
Leaney, R. 'The Birth Narratives in St Luke and St Matthew'. NTS 8. (1962) 158-66.
Lincoln, Andrew T. 'Luke and Jesus’ Conception: A Case of Double Paternity?' JBL 132.3 (2013), 639-658.
Nineham, D.E. 'The Genealogy in St. Matthew's Gospel and its Significance for the Study of the Gospels'. Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 58.2 (1976) 421-44.
Nolland, John. 'The Four (Five) Women and Other Annotations in Matthew's Genealogy'. NTS 43 (1997) 527-39.
Robinson, J.A.T. 'Hosea and the Virgin Birth' Theology 51.340 (1948) 373-5.
---. The Human Face of God (SCM, London 1973).
Schaberg, Jane. The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Crossroads, New York, 1990).
Smit, Peter-Ben. 'Something about Mary? Remarks about the Five Women in the Matthean Genealogy'. NTS 56 (2010) 191-207.
Tatum, W. Barnes. '"The Origin of Jesus Messiah" (Matt 1:1, 18a): Matthew's Use of the Infancy Traditions'. JBL 96.4 (1977), 523-535.
Weren, Wim J.C. 'The Five Women in Matthew's Genealogy'. CBQ 59 (1997) 288-305.
1 Because the works consulted for this appendix are specialised and focus on this topic, they are listed at the end of the appendix and not found in the Select Bibliography.
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