Baker Academic

Sunday, November 16, 2014

'Son of Mary': Evidence of Jesus' Illegitimacy?

Clearly, Joseph and Aseneth is not really code for Jesus and Mary Magdalene and there has been much convincing debunking carried out (on TJB too). However, flip side to debunking these sorts of sensationalist claims can be to allow less controversial ideas to get though which are not necessarily as clear cut as some people might think. One such argument is the claim that the matronymic Jesus 'the son of Mary’ (Mark 6.3) is evidence of a stigma attached to Jesus. Such an argument is found in Christian Today in their reporting of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene story:
The truly honest answer is that we don't know whether he was married or not. It would have been unusual for someone capable of supporting a wife not to have been married by the age of 30. It has been convincingly argued that Paul was married (though widowed) as it was a requirement for rabbis. However, against this is the question of Jesus' parentage; some scholars argue that he carried a stigma of illegitimacy (in Mark 6:3 he is called “the son of Mary", not Joseph) that would have meant he was an undesirable match.
Leaving the question of Jesus’ marital status aside (on which see, of course, Anthony Le Donne, and not on which see Mark 6.1-6), the idea that Jesus didn’t have a patronymic label implies that he was deemed illegitimate, a mamzer, etc. is indeed common enough, as Christian Today suggest. Or, on a more conservative reading, Mark 6.3 has even been used as indirect evidence for Jesus being born of a virgin.
Some form of this argument has longevity and, for all I know, maybe Jesus was deemed illegitimate. But Mark 6.3 is not necessarily strong evidence because, as has been noted plenty of times before but also often ignored, matronymic labels are found in some relevant sources. For example:
  • Joab, son of Zeruiah (2 Sam. 2.13), the sister of David (1 Chron. 2.15-16)
  • Antipater, son of Salome (Ant. 17.230)
  • The High Priest, Simon, son of Camithus [/Qimhith] (Ant. 18.34)
In this context, is Jesus ‘son of Mary’ really an indication of some sort of stigma? Might we not reverse the argument and suggest that ‘son of Mary’ reflects the idea that some had a more heightened view of Mary? Might it simply be that Joseph would have been, or understood to have been, long dead?
Whatever the best answer, Mark 6.3 might not be particularly strong evidence for the idea that Jesus was deemed illegitimate.


  1. About the other matronymic labels:

    It doesn't seem likely that the Antipater reference (Ant. 17.230) is the same kind of figure of speech as "Jesus, son of Mary; Joab, son of Zeruiah; Simon, son of Camithus." Whereas these latter are properly giving lineage, the Antipater usage in Ant. 17.230 seems to be for purposes of distinction, as in "Salome's son, Antipater, [not Herod's son, Antipater]," this latter of which is intended to be implied. Salome and Herod are siblings and they both have sons named Antipater.

    Moreover, is it clear that "Camithus" is a woman? The noun is masculine in the Greek if I am not mistaken. I wasn't able to find any reference to the sex of this Camithus. If a reference for this being a woman could be provided that would be appreciated.

    Also, certainly the reason Joab and his brothers are identified as sons of Zeruiah, and not of their father is precisely because she's the sister of David, no, and the father is lesser known? In other words, this is one of those unusual cases where naming the father would be to take away from the fame of the sons, who are, and ought to be, associated with David the king.

    At any rate, I wonder if there are other cases where there are relatively unknown men (who we know are married to women who are sisters of major figures), where the name of their son is still associated with the unknown man and not the woman.


  2. Good points, James. Matronymic identification was not unknown in the broader Greco-Roman world also. Lars Hartmann, "Mk 6,3a in Lichte einiger griechischer Texte," ZNW 95 (2004): 276-9.

  3. The other evidence though is interesting. Including: 1) the constant joking/asking about who Jesus' father was; 2) the claim that Mary was with child before being married to Joseph; 3) the to-some suspect claim that she had a child without sex, by God. And 4) Jewish tradition that Jesus was a "mamzer."

    Sometimes narrowing the scope of inquiry too far, produces misleading results or larger implications. In such cases, I find it useful to at least indicate briefly the larger context ... and its very, very different results.

  4. In an article on this topic I pointed out that in the Hebrew Bible matronymics are used (as in the case of Joab) when a man had children by more than one wife.