Reader Questions Answered –
What do we know about the ancestry of Mary?
My sister-in-law converted from Methodism to Roman Catholicism about 40 years ago. We agree to disagree on many things. But she mentioned reading somewhere about Mary’s line going back through a female relative to David. Really?
OK, here’s what I want you to do. Go into your bathroom and look in the mirror. Relax your face so that you have no expression. Now purse your lips very slightly. Raise your eyebrows very slightly; if you can raise one eyebrow, so much the better. Now nod very slightly.
This should give you a Look that says, “I hear the words you are saying. While I respect you as a person, I know that there is no scriptural basis either for or against what you are saying. Therefore I neither disagree nor agree with you, and I’m not going to argue about it.” Practice this Look, and use it the next time your sister-in-law talks about the lineage of Mary. (Note: this Look has wide application in both theological and secular discussions.)
There is no scriptural support for the idea that Mary is descended from David. There is no scriptural support for the idea that Mary is not descended from David. The scripture does not say one way or the other. Neither does the Apocrypha, which is accepted by Catholics (but not by Protestants). The only firm information we have from scripture is that Mary is a relative of Elizabeth (Luke 1:36), and that Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5). Since everybody’s got two parents, that doesn’t rule David in or out.
Now, two lineages are given for Jesus. We are all familiar with the one in Matthew 1:1-17, which says unequivocally that “Jacob begot Joseph.” A second lineage is given in Luke 3:23-38. Both go back to David. A straightforward reading makes it look like both of them are for Joseph. Since Joseph was legally the father of Jesus, Jesus is legally the descendant of David. Jesus himself answered to the title “Son of David” without bothering to give a pedigree chart (e.g., Matthew 9, Matthew 20). Thus endeth the lesson, as far as scripture is concerned. For reasons that are not documented in scripture and that scholars do not completely agree on, the two lineages vary slightly. I will hit the high points of the disagreement below.
Two men have been proposed as Mary’s father, Joachim and Heli. I’ll talk about Joachim first, because he’s a lot easier.
Joachim: Two books held in considerable esteem by parts of the very early Church are The Gospel of Mary and The Protoevangelion, also called The Gospel of James. These books are not scripture, and they are not even included in the Apocrypha. Both of these books say quite clearly, several times, that the parents of Mary were Joachim and Anne. The Gospel of Mary says that she was of the family of David, and that her father was from Nazareth and her mother was from Bethlehem. The Roman Catholic Church considers St. Joachim and St. Anne to be saints because of the ancient tradition that they were the parents of Mary; nevertheless, the official Catholic website says about them,
“We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. Any stories about Mary’s father and mother come to us through legend and tradition.”
Clearly, information in early books can be true even if not canonical, but I think your sister-in-law is on shaky ground, since she is going well beyond the position of the modern Catholic Church in tracing either Joachim or Anne back to David.
Heli: The argument for Heli is more complicated, and we have to learn some Greek and a Law. There are two ways in Greek of describing someone as the son of someone else. The first is to say (in Greek, obviously), “Joe the son of Bill.” The other is to say “Joe of Bill.” This latter form, ”Joseph of Heli,” is used in Luke 3:23-28:
Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph of Heli of Matthat of Levi of Melchi ... of David of Jesse of Obed of Boaz ...
The difficulty is that “of” can also mean “the [any other close relative] of.” So some ancient and not-so-ancient scholars concluded that since the two lineages differ, “Joseph of Heli” in Luke 3:23 means “Joseph the son-in-law of Heli,” and that therefore this is Mary’s lineage. Since Heli descends from David, by this argument, so does Mary. Note that this is the position of John Wesley. (I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, but I’ve done a lot of writing and a ton of editing. For what it’s worth, I find this argument a little hard to swallow. Luke is the best-educated and the most precise of the four Gospel writers. I have trouble believing that he would use “of” to mean two different things in the same sentence.)
Other equally ancient and modern scholars assert that both lineages are for Joseph, and that Jacob is his biological father, while Heli is his legal father (and so on for other differences in the lineage). This gets away from the “of” problem, and it’s perfectly feasible. Under the Law, if a man died without children, his closest male relative was required to marry the widow to produce a child for the dead man. (This is called the Levirate Law.) The child was the legally the child of the dead man, even though he was begotten by someone else. The most familiar example is Obed, who was begotten by Boaz and Ruth, but was legally the heir of Elimelech and Naomi (Ruth 4:5, 17). Unfortunately, there’s no support anywhere in scripture for the idea that this rule is being used in Joseph’s lineage. Personally I think the argument also suffers somewhat from the fact that in Luke, Obed is given as the son of Boaz, which he wasn’t, legally. So why would Luke give the legal father of Joseph and the biological father of Obed?
The argument has even been made that “Joachim” and “Heli” are the same name, because “Heli” is really “Eli,” which is short for “Eliakim,” and “El” and “Joa” are the same (“God”). Come on, folks, give it up. Let’s just admit that we don't know.
My opinion – based on nothing in particular – is that the best argument that the Luke lineage is Mary’s is that of the four Gospel writers, Luke is the most interested in Mary. Usually when Luke seems to have gotten something from Mary, however, he says something like “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” and there’s nothing like that here.
Conclusion: In conclusion, Mary’s lineage is not known for sure. The genesis of the discussion about Mary’s lineage seems to be that many scholars, theologians, clergy, and laity feel strongly that (1) Jesus had only one earthly parent, and (2) he had to be descended in the flesh from David. Jesus’ unquestioned legal descent through Joseph leaves these folks a little cold. Nevertheless, when something is as poorly documented in the scripture as Mary’s lineage, it is not theologically important! The theologically important point is summarized by Paul when he says in Romans 1:3-4 (Contemporary English Version),
“This good news is about his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ!
As a human, he was from the family of David.
But the Holy Spirit proved that Jesus is the powerful Son of God,
because he was raised from death.”
Copyright 2008, 2012 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.
Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the
author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the
Bible-study participants. Thanks to the
Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers
for their support and enthusiasm. All
errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.
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