Saturday, September 7, 2013

More Thoughts on Matthew

Exilarch Huna Receives the Elder,
displayed at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv (Wikipedia)
Often Christians read things into the Bible that just aren’t there. One example is the claim that Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus’s mother, was “in line for the throne of David.” Accepting the genealogies recorded in Genesis, Ruth, 1 Chronicles, and Matthew, we can say that Joseph was a member of the tribe of Judah and a descendant of the house of David. But does that actually make him heir apparent? The assumption Christians make is that Joseph would’ve been recognized as king in the event of a restored monarchy.

It doesn’t take much effort to realize that, in absence of such a claim being made in the New Testament, this is rather absurd. There are literally hundreds of millions of people whose legitimate descent from one or more of the kings of England can be proven today with some help from a genealogist.* But you’d laugh if the guy living next door tried to claim a right to dethrone Queen Elizabeth.

In the same way, all we have about Joseph is a claim of Davidic descent. Yet, we allow Matthew 1:1-17 to be truncated into a fanciful statement about his political and social position; one, I might add, that doesn’t really fit his role as a Nazarene tradesman. If first-century Jews were really looking for a military leader to restore the throne of David, we’d expect Christ’s hometown to be looking to him, the rightful king, for direction rather than dismissing his teaching and miracles as unbefitting a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:53-58). The circumstances around Joseph give the impression that, during the same time, there were plenty of other individuals with stronger claims to the throne.

There’s another problem when the official line of David is considered. Matthew’s genealogy diverts from this record at Zerubbabel, listing Abiud as his son (Matthew 1:12) rather than any descendant mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19-24. Since Matthew’s genealogy is known to be truncated elsewhere, this doesn’t necessarily imply an error. It merely shows who the author thought to be the most important. Oddly enough, however, that apparently doesn’t include names after Zerubbabel that we might see as vital for presenting Jesus as a royal claimant.

This unfortunately opens up the possibility that Joseph didn’t descend from Zerubbabel’s recognized male offspring. Instead it suggests a line traced a female (such as a daughter), through the son of a minor wife or concubine, or through an illegitimate child. However, any of these would seriously weaken or completely eliminate any claim for political headship.

I think the most likely explanation as to why Matthew’s line doesn’t match the official chronicles is that he might have had incomplete information about Joseph’s descent from Zerubbabel. This might have even been due to records lost during the Babylonian captivity, as was known to have happened (Ezra 2:59-63). Perhaps the family of Abiud was accepted as part of the Davidic house by their clansmen, yet it wasn’t in a position to actually prove the relationship. That happens in families today that accept certain members as relatives, all the while not remembering exactly how they’re related after a few generations have gone by.

Now, contrast this situation with the claims used to support the office of exilarch over Babylonian Jewish communities during the Parthian and Sasanian empires and the Islamic caliphates. The exilarchate was traced back through, at minimum, one individual per generation recorded after Zerubbabel in the Davidic genealogy (the position not going strictly from father to son). In addition, the Jewish community recognized the exilarchs’ paternal descent and certain rabbis’ paternal and maternal descent from David, supplying some credence to their lineage claims. That doesn’t prove that these second to eleventh century “kings in exile” were actually the rightful heirs to the Kingdom of Judah. However, it does show that, at least on paper, the claims of the exilarchs make for a stronger case than that pressed upon Jesus’ earthly father.

The big question is why, in the face of little evidence, Christians continue to repeat the story about Joseph having a claim to David’s throne. Perhaps we like hearing about princes living among commoners. (Weren’t we entirely taken in by Anna Anderson’s impersonation of the Grand Duchess Anastasia?) And it gives more earthly prestige to our humbled Lord incarnate. We kid ourselves into thinking that an adoption presents a loophole in God’s curse on King Jeconiah’s line (Jeremiah 22:24-30), even though a non-existent kingdom can’t be passed down to anyone. We replace “seed” or “offspring” with “royal line” when discussing passages about the Jews’ expectations concerning the Messiah (e.g., John 7:42) because it sounds more grandiose. Instead, we should take seriously that Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). In no way does He need to follow any earthly rule of succession to claim it.

* This is true for royal houses throughout history for two simple reasons: First, after a few generations, not all descendants of a king will have titles, inherited money, or invitations to royal marriages. If the family is large enough, it will continually feed the rung of commoners. Second, royalty, nobility, and gentry eat better than the common people and enjoy better prenatal care, thus insuring their offspring a better chance at survival in the long run. So the perk of being of royal descent is the greater probability of being alive today.