Monday, December 08, 2014

Evidence For Jesus' Family Background

The gospels, Acts, and other early sources agree in presenting an unusual family background for Jesus, one that the early Christians are unlikely to have fabricated. I've discussed some of the details in another post. Why do multiple sources suggest that Mary's conception of Jesus occurred prior to marriage, that the family lived in Nazareth, that Joseph had died prior to Jesus' public ministry, that his siblings were unbelievers until around the time of Jesus' death, etc.? They probably reported that scenario because it's true.

If the gospels and other early sources were independently making up stories, it's highly unlikely that they would be so harmonious. (For many examples of the agreements between two of the sources, Matthew and Luke, see here.) And arguing that they all depended on the same unreliable tradition is problematic. For one thing, there's no reason to begin with such a view as our default position. Secondly, given factors like the general reliability of human memory and the general trustworthiness of human testimony, it makes more sense to trust the consensus of the early sources than to distrust it. Third, we have many reasons to trust the particular sources involved in this case, such as the gospels, as we've argued in many previous posts on this blog. Fourth, the early Christians are unlikely to have fabricated a family background for Jesus that's so difficult for Christianity (e.g., Mary's premarital pregnancy, the long term unbelief of Jesus' siblings).

One passage in the New Testament that comes to mind, which I haven't discussed much in the past, is John 19:26-7. There are a few significant implications of the passage that we can easily miss, since John doesn't explicitly draw them out for us.

Why does Mary need somebody to care for her to begin with? Probably because Joseph is dead at that point. John is thereby agreeing with the other sources who likewise suggest that Joseph was dead by that time. And why is Jesus responsible for making arrangements for Mary's care? Probably because he was her firstborn, which, once again, agrees with what other early sources report. Why does Jesus entrust Mary to John rather than to his younger siblings? Probably because those siblings were unbelievers at the time, which, yet again, agrees with what other early sources report. At least some of those siblings would soon become believers (implied by Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:7, for example), but they weren't believers yet. And keep in mind that belief isn't the only issue here. There's also the matter of maturity in the faith. If James became a believer, say, several days after John 19, it doesn't follow that Jesus would want him caring for Mary at that point. (By the way, what I'm addressing here is relevant to Tim Staples' recent book on Mary. In that book, he argues that Jesus wouldn't have entrusted Mary to John because of the unbelief of Jesus' siblings, since that unbelief wouldn't last much longer. But that's a bad argument, for reasons I've just explained.) These subtle agreements between John and other early sources should remind us not only that the early sources agree more than critics often suggest, but also that we ought to be careful to pay attention to the details of what the early sources report. The implications of a passage like John 19 can easily be missed if we aren't thinking about the passage in depth.

I want to reinforce a point I've made before about the significance of Jesus' being older than his siblings. People often cite parallels between the life of Jesus and the lives of Old Testament figures, sometimes suggesting that details about Jesus' life were fabricated in order to create such a parallel. It's often suggested that Jesus' life is meant to parallel the lives of Moses and David, for example. Yet, both of those men had older siblings who played a significant role in their lives (Exodus 2:4, 7:7, 1 Samuel 16:11). So, why do the early Christian sources agree in portraying Jesus as older than his siblings? Arguing that they did it to allow for a virgin birth doesn't make much sense. For one thing, there wasn't any widespread expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. And a virgin birth wouldn't disallow older siblings, as later Christian sources illustrate (e.g., the Protevangelium Of James). Most likely, the reason why the early sources agree in portraying Jesus as older than his siblings is because he was older, even though that fact undermined a potential parallel with Moses and David.

Notice, also, how consistent John's comments in John 19 are with the virgin birth. Jesus' firstborn status doesn't imply a virgin birth, but it is consistent with the concept. John could easily have contradicted the virgin birth, but instead is consistent with it. (An indirect argument that John believed in the virgin birth can be made from his relationship with other sources. See here for a discussion of how widespread belief in the virgin birth was early on, including among sources who were geographically and/or relationally close to John. As early as the second century, we see sources implying or stating that the virgin birth was one of the core beliefs held by Christians throughout the world. Under those circumstances, it's more likely that John held the belief than that he didn't, especially given how much influence he had on second-century Christianity. He lived until the late first or early second century, and traces of his influence are widespread in the second-century literature. For a response to arguments that John was unfamiliar with the material in the infancy narratives or disagreed with that material, see here and here.)


  1. Jason: You posted, "Secondly, given factors like the general reliability of human memory and the general trustworthiness of human testimony, it makes more sense to trust the consensus of the early sources than to distrust it." Can you elaborate on this or provide any links for information on this? I have been dialoguing with an atheist who states one reason he does not trust the Bible is because of the unreliability of human memory and testimony. He has given me several articles and videos about it. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Andrew,

      We've written a lot about the subject. See here, here, and here for a few examples. You can find others by searching the archives.