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Jesus' Genealogy Seems Backward
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Q: The Gospel of Matthew gives the family tree of Jesus from Abraham down through Joseph “the husband of Mary.” The text continues, “Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (1:16).

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus “was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli” (3:23). The genealogy is traced back to Adam.

Also, in Judaism, you are considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish.

Why then is it so important to give the family tree of Joseph if he is not biologically Jesus’ father?

A: Although Matthew and Luke knew that Jesus was not biologically the son of Joseph (explained in 1:18-25 and 1:31-35 respectively), they also knew that in the patriarchal society in which Jesus lived, one’s identity, a person’s standing in society, was determined by his or her father.

When Jesus is an adult, he is still identified as Joseph’s son. Joseph probably died before Jesus began his public ministry. Even so, when Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue upsets many people in Nazareth, they ask, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” (Luke 4:22).

The Jews who complained when Jesus taught about the bread of life asked, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” (John 6:42a). Jesus once referred to the Apostle Peter as “son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17).

Jesus is legally considered the son of Joseph because Jesus was born of Mary, Joseph’s wife. Joseph could have officially declared that he was not Jesus’ father, but Joseph chose not to do that—he accepted the unique parenting role entrusted to him.

You are correct that in Judaism one’s religious identity is determined according to one’s mother. There are at least two reasons for that: 1) Although there can be doubt about the identity of a person’s father, there is rarely doubt concerning the identity of someone’s mother, and 2) This rule makes the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile father Jewish. It happened more often that Jewish women married gentile men than that Jewish men married gentile women.

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes four women besides Mary: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother). Each of them entered into Jesus’ family tree in an unusual way. God’s ways are not always our ways; God’s vision is always wider and deeper than ours.

Matthew’s list of Jesus’ ancestors, written for a predominantly Jewish Christian community, emphasizes how Jewish Jesus was. Because Luke wrote mostly for gentile Christians, he stresses that they are related to Jesus through Adam.

Why don’t these genealogies mention more women? In Jesus’ day, people thought that a tiny human being was contained in a man’s sperm. Sexual intercourse and implantation meant that this tiny person was transferred from the man’s body to the woman’s body, the only place where it could grow into a child.

Although Matthew and Luke did not understand human reproduction as well as we do, they certainly understood God’s plan in sending Jesus as our Messiah and Redeemer!

Q: At a recent retreat, someone said that Jesus was born in a cave, not in a stable as we have thought and have depicted in many manger scenes. Which is correct? What is the biblical justification for saying a cave?

A: The actual birth of Jesus is a matter-of-fact half verse (2:1a) in Matthew’s Gospel (“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod...”). Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus was placed in a phatne (Greek word for “manger” or “feeding trough”) but gives no details where that phatne was. In the fourth century, St. Helena had a magnificent church built over the cave said to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Near Bethlehem there are many natural caves. It was easier, safer and more economical to block off a cave’s entrance to shelter animals than to build a freestanding stable.

Jesus was more likely born in a cave rather than in a stable, but it is not possible—or necessary—to prove either one conclusively.

Q: Please help me understand Jesus’ saying, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household’” (Matthew 10:34-36). The wording in Luke 12:51-53 is almost identical.

This saying seems to contradict the meaning of “peace on earth,” which is the meaning of Christmas.

A: Yes, Jesus has come to establish peace, but it is a “peace based on justice”—not a “peace at any price.” No one should be asked to deny his or her conscience in order to “keep peace” in a family. Becoming a follower of Jesus could be a very controversial decision within a family. If the family’s opinion determines everything, then many people would never become followers of Jesus.

That was the case in biblical times. Matthew’s Christian community was still reeling from being excluded from the synagogue after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Family members and friends said that following Jesus meant these Jewish Christians were not good Jews.

Luke’s Christian community included many converts from paganism; some of their family members disapproved of Christianity. The pagan relatives of many new Christians resented their replacing many gods with one God.

In the long run, the Good News of Jesus should be an enormous blessing to family life, but in the short run it can produce significant tensions—in Jesus’ day and in ours.

Q: The Advent wreath has three purple candles and one pink one. During Advent the priest usually wears purple vestments, but on one Sunday he wears a pink one. Why?

A: Purple is considered a penitential color. The color rose (or pink) is considered a slight relief, a reminder that Advent or Lent (when rose is also used) will soon be over. Advent is not a penitential season in the sense that Lent is, but the symbolism is the same in both seasons.

In an Advent wreath, the pink candle is lit during what is usually the last full week of Advent. The fourth week can have a single day (Monday), depending on where December 25 falls that year. The pink candle reminds us that Christmas is almost here.

For years, the Third Sunday of Advent was known as Gaudete Sunday because the Latin word Gaudete (“Be glad!”—Philippians 4:4,5) opens the Entrance Antiphon.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent was called Laetare Sunday because the word Laetare (“Rejoice!”—Isaiah 66:10-11) begins the Entrance Antiphon. Rose vestments may be worn on both Sundays.

Q: Why does the Catholic Church celebrate Christmas with all its pagan beginnings when the Bible does not say that Jesus was born then? Christian Churches are supposed to use the Bible as their foundation and source of information. Isn’t the Catholic Church following man’s will here instead of God’s will?

A: You are correct that the Bible does not say that Jesus was born on December 25. Christians chose that day to counteract the pagan Saturnalia, the celebration of the day when the northern hemisphere has the least amount of sunlight.

Linking Jesus’ birth with sunlight reaffirms that all creation is good and reveals God, that Christians have a right to use whatever will reinforce God’s universal love and desire to share divine life with each person. In choosing December 25, Christians gave a completely new meaning to the pagan expression sol invictus (unconquered sun celebrated during the Saturnalia).

The Bible says that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1). On December 25 we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the light of the world—sent by God’s gracious will.

The fact that something does not appear in the Bible is not proof that it is false. No book of the Bible, for example, contains a list of all the other books of the Bible. That list (canon) was developed through Tradition, the Church’s prayerful reflection on the word of God. Tradition stands under the word of God but is distinct from it. Scripture is most profitably read within the faith community to which it was given.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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