Family tree

Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli… the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse… the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor… the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah… the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. (Luke 3:23, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37, 38. NIV)

As a fan of family history research, when I read a long list of names like this I am excited. There are seventy five generations here and the very fact that the list exists indicates the importance of ancestry in the ancient world. Family history research is a massively popular hobby in our day too, for exactly the same reason – ancestry is important to us. We want to know where we came from, we want to know who we are. There is a popular television programme called “Who do you think you are?” which focusses on this modern pastime – perhaps even more popular today because we live in a world where so many families have been broken up and confused by war and mass migration. The name of the programme succinctly expresses a basic human desire – to know who we are. Our sense of identity is deeply embedded in the stories of our ancestors.

As medical students we are all taught the importance of taking a “family history” when we meet patients. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that many diseases are inherited, and knowing the illnesses that have afflicted a person’s family gives us clues as to what he or she may be suffering. It is important from a preventive point of view too because it may indicate that a person is at a higher risk of being afflicted later in life with one or another disease, so that steps can be taken to avoid the same illness in the next generation. As well as the biological aspects of family history there are important psychosocial aspects that give us clues as to who the patient before us is and what kind of influences they have experienced, which may go a long way to explaining the symptoms they are experiencing. Increasingly, though such ideas are still poorly understood or acknowledged by many doctors, it is recognised that there are even spiritual aspects of a person’s past and family history that are important in understanding the individual’s illness in the present.

A family history of Jesus can therefore conceivably give us an insight into the question which was at the forefront of Luke’s mind when he wrote his book: who is Jesus? Luke was a doctor and though he was not treating Jesus as a patient, he was as interested in Jesus the person as he would have been in any patient he had met in the practice of his profession. He wanted to understand who Jesus was, where he came from, what had made him who he was, why he behaved the way he did. For Luke, as for many of his readers, a glimpse into Jesus’ family history was and is an important part of that process.

There are two genealogical lists for Jesus in the New Testament, one here in Luke’s biography, and the other in Mathew’s gospel. Comparing the two at first sight is confusing because Jesus’ grandfather is different in the two lists. So who got it wrong – Matthew or Luke? This apparent inconsistency has been known since the genealogies were written down, but no effort has been made to either remove or edit the lists as they stand, a conceivable reaction by later editors determined to prove the truth of the gospels to a skeptic world. In our age many claim that the writing and selection of the gospels that make up the New Testament was a political process, aimed at presenting not so much the truth but a view of Jesus that suited those in positions of power in the early church. But surely such editors would have seen the inconsistencies and edited them out, to add weight to the validity of their selection. But no such editorial action was taken, and these days no New Testament scholar seems to see this difference as a reason to cast doubt on the accuracy of the writings concerned; quite the opposite, they see each list as having a different purpose, each list showing a different but equally important aspect of Jesus’ identity. Each list, despite different names, is regarded as true. But how can that be?

The accepted explanation of the different accounts in Matthew and Luke is simple: Jesus had two grandfathers, as we all do. Matthew’s account lists Jesus’ ancestors through his father, Joseph, while the latter lists his ancestors through his mother, Mary: this despite the fact that Mary is actually not mentioned in Luke’s list, and Mary’s father is listed as Joseph’s father (he was really his “father-in-law”). It is believed that a good deal of Luke’s source material came from Mary, though whether he actually knew her personally, or got the information second hand from others who knew her, is uncertain. It is interesting, nevertheless, that both Mary and Joseph could trace their ancestry so far back.

The genealogy listed by Luke contains some familiar names – I have included just a few of them in the excerpt above. David, Jesse, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, Methuselah, Adam – for anyone acquainted with the Bible these names immediately evoke memories of Old Testament stories. Luke traces Jesus’ heritage right back to Adam, the original man, the father of humanity, the first human creation of God. He makes Jesus’ original father God, and his first human father Adam, giving Jesus a dual identity as both Son of God and Son of Man, a concept that he will explore later in his book, and a concept that for Luke is essential in understanding just who Jesus is. The concept is anathema to contemporary secular humanity, which dismisses the existence of God as being unprovable and therefore not true, and likewise dismisses the possibility that a human being could in his flesh and blood contain the divine. Such ideas are regarded by the modern mind as myths common to all human cultures, based on ignorance and developed by early humans as a primitive way of trying to understand their origins. Luke however believes this concept, not because of traditional myths about origins, but because of what he has seen and experienced of the man Jesus, as his book goes on to explain.

Matthew’s genealogy stops at Abraham. Why does Luke go back to Adam? It is generally thought that this is because Matthew was writing for Jews, and Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation. Matthew wanted the Jewish audience he was writing for to see Jesus as one of them, in the same way that Luke wanted his Gentile audience to see Jesus as one of them. Jesus is a man for all, not just a Jew, even if that was the ethnic and cultural context into which he was born.

Mary has already played an important role in Luke’s book. Now he traces Jesus’s identity through her. In a world where women were less valued than God intended, Luke places Jesus as the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph. This may not be immediately obvious to the modern reader but when his original readers saw this list they would have immediately recognised Mary’s line, not Joseph’s. Mary was much better known to the first Christians, presumably because Joseph had died rather young, but also because of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Although the idea of feminism did not exist at the time when Luke wrote, he was clearly showing that Jesus was as much, if not more, the son of a woman, as he was of a man. Joseph was, in some ways Jesus’ adopted father, and perhaps this too is a helpful thought for all those who have grown up with parents who are not biologically their own.

In short, Jesus was equally the son of man and woman, and just as equally the son of God. Not divided into three parts but inherently human and inherently divine. We live in a world where gender identity is constantly questioned. What is a man, and what is a woman? Are we one or the other or neither? Surely every one of us is in a sense both, in the same way that Jesus was. Jesus was biologically male – he could not be biologically male and female at the same time, he had to be one or the other – but psychologically and emotionally and even spiritually he was conceivably both, or neither. Perhaps what we traditionally understand to be male or female characteristics are all just varying aspects of what it is to be human, present in all people in different proportions, but all of which are aspects of God’s nature.

In summary then, the genealogical list of Luke’s writings say much of Jesus. It makes him the son of a woman, for though it describes him as the son of Joseph, the previous chapters of Luke have made clear that Jesus’ human father was not involved in his conception. Luke’s list places Jesus’ identity in the context of all humanity, not just a Jew. Jesus was human, descended from the first human, but he was also directly descended from God, who was the “father” of the first human. Jesus was natural, and he was supernatural, he was both created and creator, both temporal and eternal. There are lots of things here that are confusing, illogical, offensive, foolish, to the modern rationalistic and scientific mind. Luke was Greek and he was a doctor. There must surely have been an element of both the rational and the scientific in his view of the world, even if he lived in a very different time to ours. How did he get taken in by such bizarre ideas?

Luke’s book is what might be called “an apology” of this view of Jesus – an apology in the sense of a defence, a justification. He was very aware that people who read his writings would probably think he was crazy. But Luke had “met” Jesus, and the man became an obsession for him, the centre of his life. He wrote what he wrote so that others would be able to grasp what he had come to understand of Jesus. What did Luke’s first readers make of these outrageous statements about the man Jesus? What are we to make of them?

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