DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Genealogy

The claims made by many for the Bible are an unending source of difficulty. At one extreme are so-called "fundamentalists" who appear to think that the books of the Bible have been dictated in some way by God to various people of the past. This sort of dictation yields literal truth. That is, if God dictated the Bible is must be true in every detail. There would have been no information loss or distortion of meaning in the communication process from God to his scribes and then into written form. Nor would there have been any errors as copies were made by hand from time-to-time.

Then are those who think that the Bible is the inspired word of God. God speaks to humans through the Bible, having somehow caused its various authors to be more sensitive to God's truth than anyone else. In this sense, the Bible is God's truth as mediated by human beings. That mediation is quite often faulty and obscure - so we today need to interpret the text of the Bible and sometimes look past its errors to discover the actual truth.

At the other end of the spectrum an increasing number of Christians today think that the Bible consists of books written by ordinary people in many times, places  and contexts. These books differ in no essential way from those of modern authors. All literature reflects the inner and outer worlds of authors and can't be understood properly unless these aspects are acknowledged.

There are two genealogies for Jesus in the gospels - Matthew 1.1-17 and Luke 3.23-38. None of the other gospels contain genealogies.

If we consider the genealogy of Jesus in the first of the three ways above, then Abraham and all the others were actual persons in history. Abraham was a distant genetic forefather of Jesus through Joseph. (Mary doesn't come into it at all in this view because Jews thought that women played no part in conception except to bear the fruit of a man's sperm. And anyway, they had relatively few legal rights, being regarded essentially as a man's property like animals or slaves.)

If one accepts that any part of Matthew's genealogy is incorrect, however, then one must logically revert to either the second or the third option. Only one error requires investigation - and it is clear that Matthew and Luke do not agree about Jesus' ancestry.

The first thing to note is that Matthew's genealogy is divided into three sections:

  1. From Abraham to David;
  2. From David to the Exile; and
  3. From the Exile to the Christ.

Luke's version doesn't stop at Abraham, but takes the list back to Adam - who is called "son of God". This title as applied to Jesus was by Luke's time (around the year 80) becoming more and more part of Christian teaching and was probably correspondingly important to the Christian community for which Luke was writing.

Why should Matthew and Luke bother with such lists? Genealogies in New Testament times were nothing like ours - that is, based on research of official records and relating to real people. They were more likely to have been popular conceptions of family history, sometimes written, sometimes oral. The purposes of genealogies in the ancient world might give us a clue to their meaning:

  • A genealogy might give its owner some legal rights such as property inheritance;

  • It could be a passport to social position, which in turn could give access to wealth, privilege and power (a purpose which was continued until recent times in the West and persists in many parts of the world to this day);

  • It proved racial or tribal origins and therefore purity of blood (a popular reason for compiling genealogies among some pseudo-moderns for whom racial purity is important);

  • It was thought to indicate that one had certain personal powers and traits inherited from an illustrious ancestor.

In the West today one's ancestors, though interesting, are not of critical importance. On the contrary, it is a person's abilities as an individual which are noticed. A man or woman who rises above a humble past and uncertain origins tends to be respected and often looked up to. Having been born of a noble family may attract attention, but it does not necessarily provide any degree either of respect or privilege. Indeed, many societies now prevent (in law, if not in practice) discrimination on the grounds of a person's genetic background.

This way of regarding ancestry is, in terms of the vast sweep of history over the ages, highly unusual. Even in the 21st century, most societies still refer in greater or lesser degree to a person's forbears to assess social position and worth. In Jesus' day, one was born into a social stratum and there one stayed. It was unusual to rise above whatever level one was born to. Real social prestige depended almost entirely upon noble parentage. Aristocrats made up a tiny group at the top of the social ladder. Their status and power derived primarily from birth and bloodline.

Those very few who did rise above their natural station would usually invent a suitable genealogy to support their position. The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79) was of such humble origins. He was criticised because he refused to do the expected thing and create a suitably venerable pedigree.

Are the Gospel genealogies history? This question would have meant nothing to the authors of Matthew or Luke. Their purpose in providing a genealogy for Jesus had little or nothing to do with the historical facts of his ancestry. One can assume that they knew very well that Jesus was a peasant. As such he was only a social step or two above the lowest of the low in terms of status and prestige. If he had been at or near the top of the social ladder he might have left some written records of his teachings.

Their purpose in providing a genealogy seems therefore to have been to provide a justification for proclaiming the importance of Jesus in the salvation of the world. The authors of the gospels would have known little or nothing about Jesus' origins. How then to announce that, despite his humble station, he was nevertheless important in the scheme of things? The Hebrew Scriptures (our "Old Testament") provided the needed resource. It was these books that the first Christian teachers mined for the gold of suitable origins for Jesus.

As usual with the authors of the gospels, it's important to realise that they all constantly refer to the authority of the Old Testament. Matthew is no exception. As one commentator remarks: "... he would have said that the historical evidence ... lay in the Old Testament, and that he was describing what must have happened, because this is what the prophets said would happen."

Much of Matthew depends upon Mark's Gospel and another unknown source for what Jesus did and said. He seems to have had access to some independent sayings of Jesus. It's unlikely that he researched this genealogy as a modern historian would. It has some points in common with Luke's genealogy- but most scholars think they were drawn up independently. 

Both genealogies have the same motive, however - to prove to their readers that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus, though a peasant, was actually a king because he was of David's royal line. Most Jews believed that the Messiah would be descended from David. In Genesis 12.3 we find that the son of Abraham will bless "all the families of the earth".

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