Who Was Jesus’ Grandfather?

Sparked by my post on Mary, earlier this week, and a sermon that I preached several weeks back, I’ve gotten a couple of questions recently on Jesus’ ancestry. Specifically, folks want to know why, given the fact that Joseph is only a surrogate father for Jesus, the Gospels spend so much time outlining his family tree. Isn’t it more important that Jesus is the literal “Son of God” than the many-times-great-grandson of David, or Abraham or Adam?
Well, it depends on what you need to believe.
Let’s first square the facts. Only two of the four canonical (i.e. biblical) Gospels say anything about Jesus’ ancestry. Matthew and Luke both spend several verses each tracking the specific patrilineal descent of Jesus “presumed to be the son of Joseph” to either Abraham or Adam. These are the same two gospels that mention anything about Jesus’ birth and the nature of Mary and Joseph’s marital relations. Mark and John both begin their story with Jesus as an older age and only refer to Jesus’ parents in passing ways if at all.
Interestingly, the Muslim tradition also has some interest in the ancestry of Jesus, but they track it through the parents of Mary, making no mention of Joseph at all, and end up at Abraham through Ishmael. Fascinating, but probably beyond the scope of this post.
Back to Gospel accounts.
So, we can see that the problems brought forth by my readers are not simply ones of a single story being written down in different ways in different gospels.  The challenge of the meaning of Jesus’ being thought to be descended from the ancient Israelite line of blessing (Abraham) and Kingship (David) is juxtaposed, twice, in texts that also seem keen to prove that Jesus is born of an utterly unique union between the Holy Spirit and a virgin mother. Jesus is the “Son of God” in the usual sense of son-ship. And, not inconsequently, the literal manifestation of an ancient prophecy about virgin-born messiahs.
WOW. That’s a lot of meaning. And just a little  bit of conflict. How do we make sense?
Again I think it boils down to what you NEED to believe.
In much of the church, we use a fancy Greek word to talk about those point of doctrine  that are non-essential to the  story of faith. We call them adiaphora  – literally “unimportant,” but I like “negotiable.”
Many labor under the misconception that the faith is a set  time-worn and hardened facts that are both necessary for  salvation and non negotiable. Unfortunately, or perhaps extremely fortunately, this is not the case. Particularly in those cases where the doctrine, or even the Bible itself completely contradicts itself (Jesus son of Joseph or Jesus born of a virgin, Last Supper on Wednesday or Thursday evening), the faithful are allowed, even challenged, to choose an understanding that supports faith: to choose what they need TO BELIEVE.
Is it important to faith that Jesus was literally descended from the line of Davidic kings? Historians say that would have been difficult to track through the Babylonian exile. Perhaps no more of less difficult than crating life from within the womb of the virgin. Or perhaps God did both. rehabs neither. But does any of this lessen the impact of the life death and resurrection of Christ? Maybe the truth is more like John or Mark describes, Jesus simply showing up on the scene at age 30.
Adiaphora provides the opportunity for the less-important tenets of tradition to remain negotiable, to remain flexible, even in the life of a single believer in a way that supports faith. I for one, at this point in my life, am a big believer in the virgin birth. Seems more likely than the notion that God would hold hard and fast to ancient traditions of primogeniture in bringing forth His Messiah. But that’s not always been the case. And it might not always be the case for me, either.
Theology is “faith seeking understanding.” The operative word being SEEKING. Walk around in your theology. Where things seem more flexible, try some different details.  See what changes. See what deepens.

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