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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

Mary, the Seed of David


Jesus has “come of the seed of David” and “come of a woman”—concepts neatly illustrated by this twelve-century English illumination. Mary is the culmination of the tree that originates with David’s father Jesse, with Christ in heaven above her. (The Tree of Jesse, Lambeth Psalter.)

A recent post by Tim O’Neill on “Paul’s Davidic Jesus in Romans 1:3” has sparked some more thoughts on Paul’s statement about the seed of David. As usually translated, Paul says that Jesus was “born of the seed of David” meaning that he was a descendant of David. As Paul is our earliest witness to the Jesus movement, writing decades before the gospels, this would seem to cause problems for theories in which Jesus is not a real man. And Paul makes two other similar statements in Galatians; that Jesus was “born of a woman” and “born under the law” (again, as customarily translated). Do these statements prove that Jesus must have been a man living in first-century Judea?

Tim O’Neill certainly thinks so. He delights in debunking the various explanations advanced by mythicists to account for these passages. By and large, I agree with his arguments. But I certainly don’t agree with his conclusion.

What particularly intrigued me about the post was the amusing section on Richard Carrier’s theory that David’s sperm was taken up to heaven by God to produce the Messiah. O’Neill ridicules this idea—the “cosmic sperm bank” as he terms it. Now, there is a great deal of animosity between these two and Carrier’s theory is indeed cringe-worthy. But Carrier does bring out the very literal meaning of “seed” as a man’s sperm. In context, there is no doubt that “seed” in Paul means a descendant of David. As O’Neill points out, this is the universal meaning of such statements throughout the bible. Yet it is fascinating that the word for “sperm” and “descendant” is the same.

To appreciate why we must understand ancient beliefs around reproduction. We can then place Paul’s statements in their proper context. If we do this, we will see that they do indeed explode most mythicist positions. But they also explode conventional theories of the historical Jesus and the Jesus of belief as well. The gospel Jesus cannot have been “the seed of David”. And this means that if Jesus were a physical man, he could not be the Christ. Paul’s words lead us directly to the shaman paradigm and prove that the shaman, the founder of Christianity, must have been a woman.

The ancients thought that babies were grown from a man’s sperm.

People in the ancient world had no understanding of modern genetics or reproductive biology. We know that a foetus develops from a woman’s egg which has been fertilised by a man’s sperm. The foetus grows in the womb and is born after about nine months. The child inherits 50% of their genetic material from the mother and 50% from the father. But until a few hundred years ago, people knew very little of this.

The ancients, though, were not stupid. They observed certain facts and came to natural conclusions. They knew that a woman would never become pregnant unless a male had first impregnated her. The baby would follow about nine months afterwards. So they believed that the baby must have grown from the man’s sperm implanted into the woman’s womb. The analogy was a plant seed; it would grow into a new plant if sowed in the right soil. Similarly, a baby was grown from the “seed” of its father. And this explained why children would resemble their fathers. It was true that a child would also resemble their mother, but this would be because the growing foetus absorbed its substance from her. So a person would resemble both father and mother, but through two totally different mechanisms.

What is important here is that a person was the seed of their father but not their mother. So the seed could only be passed down through a continuous male line.

The Messiah, the Christ, would be the seed of King David.

This is Paul’s statement in Romans:

… regarding his son, who came [ginomai] of the seed [sperma] of David according to the flesh, and who through the spirit of holiness was declared to be the son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:3-4)

The Greek word ginomai is generally translated as “born” in this passage. But the English word “born” does not correspond at all to ginomai, as we will see later. I have translated it above as the neutral “came”. The word sperma (seed) means both a plant seed and a man’s semen. The Hebrew equivalent with the same two meanings is zera which occurs in the promise from God given to David through Nathan:

I will set up your seed [zera] after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. (2 Samuel 7:12)

There is no doubt that the “seed … from your own body” was Solomon in the original context of the passage. But after the exile, it was read as a prediction of the Messiah who would restore the house of David.

The Messiah, the Christ, had to be a descendant of David. But not just any descendant. The seed came from the father. So there had to be a continuous male line, with the seed passing from generation to generation, father to son, all the way from David to the Messiah.

Jesus, the man, could not have descended from David through the male line from David. So he could not be the Christ.

Two different gospel genealogies aim to prove that Jesus was the descendant of David, and they both fail miserably. The Matthew genealogy extends from Abraham to Jesus, and the Luke genealogy works back from Jesus all the way to Adam.

Luke starts by saying that Jesus was the “son, as was supposed, of Joseph” (Luke 3:23). The genealogy then shows how Joseph was descended from David, and ultimately Adam, through the male line. However, the credibility of Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah is demolished by that initial phrase—Jesus is only the supposed son of Joseph, not his real son. This makes the genealogy irrelevant. There are two traditional explanations for this problem. The first is that Joseph had adopted or acknowledged Jesus as his son. Jesus would then have been considered Joseph’s legal son and could claim descent through him. But no one would have accepted this as a valid claim to be the Messiah. The seed was a physical concept and came only through the biological father. Jesus could not be the seed of David through adoption.

The second theory is that the Luke genealogy is really the genealogy of Mary, even though it does not mention her. This theory was devised to explain away the considerable embarrassment that the Luke genealogy is utterly different from that in Matthew. However, Jesus would still not be the seed of David because the seed does not come from the mother.

Moving to the earlier genealogy in Matthew, we encounter the same problem. Jesus is Mary’s child:

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. (Matthew 1:16)

The Greek is quite explicit that Jesus was born of Mary and not Joseph. It is hard to overstate how odd this would have sounded in the ancient world. Joseph is only the husband of Mary and not the father of Jesus. But Jesus cannot be the seed of David unless fathered by Joseph. It is not good enough for Joseph to have been married to his mother.

There is no good evidence that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph.

There is, of course, one other possibility—that Jesus was actually the biological son of Joseph, and that the authors of both Matthew and Luke suppressed this fact because of the virgin birth story. If Jesus were born in the normal way from Joseph and Mary, would he not be the seed of David through his father? This is the position of many in the historical Jesus school. After all, the virgin birth story is only found in these two gospels and is an addition to the original Mark account. But there is very little evidence for Jesus being the son of Joseph and a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

The first problem is that Joseph is only the seed of David on the evidence of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, the same two gospels which feature the virgin birth story. If we disallow the virgin birth then should we not also disallow the closely connected genealogies? In which case, there is no evidence that Joseph was a descendant of David. And is it not strange that all the evidence for Jesus’ Davidic descent is associated with the virgin birth story in which Jesus does not even have a human father?

Another problem concerns names. If Jesus were the son of Joseph, then he should have been called “Jesus, son of Joseph”. He would have been called this name throughout his life. Yet the name is only found in the Gospel of John (John 1:45; 6:42), the last written of the four gospels, dating from c.100 AD.  John is dependent upon Luke, and the inclusion of the name twice in John can be seen as a development of Luke’s “supposed son of Joseph”. Nor do we find “Jesus, son of Joseph” in other early sources outside the New Testament, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Most telling of all is the silence of Mark, the first written gospel. Joseph is not even mentioned in Mark. In fact, the author of Mark does not seem to know who Jesus’ father was. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is called “Mary’s son” with no mention of his father. We should again stress how odd this would have sounded in the ancient world. Nor does the explanation work that Joseph was dead by this time. A man would still carry his father’s name after the father had died. If anything, it became more important because the father was seen to live on in the son. If Jesus were Joseph’s son, then why is the author of Mark unaware of that fact? We often know the name of a Jewish man’s father, but very rarely the name of his mother. Yet for some reason, with Jesus, it is the other way around in Mark.

Does this point to Jesus being illegitimate? If so, this would not solve the problem either. Jesus cannot claim descent from David through an unknown and unacknowledged father.

The genealogy in Matthew has one missing generation. Mary must actually have been the daughter of Joseph, not his wife.

The solution to these problems can be found in another mystery in the Matthew genealogy. The genealogy is supposedly organised as three groups of fourteen generations:

In all there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ. (Matthew 1:17)

This would give forty-two generations in total. And yet there are only forty-one generations in the genealogy. The explanation sometimes offered, that David is counted twice, can be rejected as contrived. The discrepancy is telling us:

  1. That the author of Matthew has taken the genealogy from a source which already had the pattern of fourteens.
  2. That he made a change which has eliminated one generation.

Why should the author of Matthew make such a change? There can be no motive to change any place other than the end. And it is here that we find the odd wording which is a sign that a change has been made: “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus…”. We have two names, Joseph and Mary, but only one generation. Suppose, however, that they were originally two generations. This would mean that Mary was Joseph’s daughter, not his wife. We would then get the correct number of forty-two generations. The wording would also make more sense: “Jacob was the father of Joseph, Joseph was the father of Mary, of whom was born Jesus…”.

The author of Matthew, however, would have been very unhappy with such an ending—it implied that Jesus was illegitimate. He thinks the genealogy must be wrong and adjusts it to make Joseph the husband of Mary. He has not noticed that the number of generations no longer adds up. Perhaps in his own mind, he continued to think of Joseph as being much older than Mary and so counted them as two generations.

The name “Mary of Joses/Joseph” meant that Mary was the daughter of Joses/Joseph. But in Mark, she becomes his mother, and in Matthew, his wife.

There is a woman called “Mary of Joses” who appears alongside Mary the Magdalene at Mark 15:47. The author of Mark has interpreted this woman as the mother of Joses and also James (Mark 15:40). So he adds Joses to the list of brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3). But if Mary was married to Joseph, Joses could not have been a brother of Jesus because “Joses” and “Joseph” are two forms of the same name; and a Jewish man would never have the same name as his father.

The author of Mark is wrong about “Mary of Joses”. Joses is not the son of Mary, but her father. The mistake is quite understandable. A woman would be named in relation to the man to whose household she belonged. Usually, this would be her husband because Jewish girls married young. If her husband died and she had adult sons, then she would belong to her eldest son’s household and would be named after him. Both the author of Mark and Matthew have applied this common understanding to “Mary of Joses/Joseph” with two different conclusions. In Mark, she becomes Joses’ mother, and in Matthew, she is Joseph’s wife.

Mary, though, was a special case; a virgin dedicated to God. Because she was unmarried, she would have retained her father’s name as a young woman and been known as “Mary of Joses/Joseph”. Later, her father died, and she took several adopted sons, the chief of whom was James. So her name then became “Mary of James” or “Mary, mother of James” both of which we also find in the gospels.

The original genealogy showed that Mary was the seed of David.

If Joseph is really the father of Mary, then the problems with the Matthew genealogy are resolved. The genealogy, as we find it in Matthew, is not that of Jesus. But if Mary was Joseph’s daughter, then Jesus, if a man, would have been his grandson. Even so, Jesus would not be the seed of David, but the seed of his (unknown) biological father.

There is, however, another person who is the seed of David, and that is Mary. We have not mentioned women so far. They play no role in passing down the seed, but they can themselves be the seed. A girl is no less her father’s seed than a boy. In fact, Mary is the last person in the corrected genealogy to be the seed of David. And this tells us the original purpose; it was Mary’s genealogy. It aimed to prove her descent from David and Abraham.

All of which brings us to the shaman paradigm. Jesus was not a man, and he was not Mary’s physical son. But he was believed to have been spiritually reborn through her at the time of his resurrection. Mary was the physical seed of both David and Abraham. So Christ, inhabiting the same body, would have been their spiritual seed. Which is just what Paul tells us.

Paul says that Jesus came or appeared through the seed of David.

Paul says that Jesus “came [ginomai] of the seed of David”. The word that Paul uses here and in the parallel statement in Galatians is ginomai, frequently translated as “born” in these passages. But ginomai is a very common word, appearing 671 times in the New Testament, with a wide range of meanings relating to a change of state; to come into existence/to become/to happen/to appear. The word that Paul would have used had he meant normal physical birth is gennao. This odd choice of word was pointed out by Earl Doherty, and O’Neill addresses it in his article, presenting it as a misunderstanding by “amateur” mythicists. He gives several examples where ginomai was used to mean physical birth. But this handful of cases are derived from the enormous corpus of ancient Greek writings! To cast some objective light on this issue, we can look at the frequency of usage in the New Testament. How often is ginomai used to mean physical birth anywhere other than Paul’s two statements? Not once. And how often is gennao used for birth? The answer is 97 times.

None of this is to say that ginomai could not possibly mean physical birth. It is all matter of probability. Had Paul intended physical birth, there is something like a 99% probability that he would have used gennao. The fact that he chose ginomai is evidence that he intended some other meaning. This conclusion is reinforced because Paul made this same unusual choice of word both times he mentions the “birth” of Jesus—in Romans and Galatians—in passages written years apart.

Further evidence comes from the early copyists who changed ginomai to gennao. They did so because some contemporaries were using ginomai to prove that Jesus had come spiritually and not materially. O’Neill acknowledges this fact, but then immediately dismisses it as a response to the heresy of Docetism. He does not seem to understand that it shows that early proto-orthodox Christians were unhappy with that word ginomai precisely because it suggested to them that Jesus had not been physically born. As for Docetism, that is a name given by later Christians for a widespread first-century belief that Jesus had come in spiritual form. Just giving it a name and calling it a heresy does not explain away this phenomenon.

Paul does not say that Jesus was the seed of David, but that he “came of the seed of David”.

With this understanding, we can go back to Paul’s statement in Romans and notice something else odd. Paul does not say the Jesus is the seed of David. He says that he “came of the seed of David”. Why use this indirect and convoluted expression? Why not just say that Jesus is the seed? The parallel statement is in Galatians:

But when the time had fully come, God sent his son, come [ginomai] of a woman, come [ginomai] under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive our adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:3-5)

This is often taken as proving that Jesus was a man. He was “born of a woman” and “born under the law”, meaning that the woman was Jewish. But Paul actually uses that word ginomai again. And there is something else which is very strange, something that never seems to occur to traditional commentators. Why would anyone say of a real person that they were “born of a woman”? (Imagine a conversation in everyday life – “Do you know Brian? He goes to the bar every Friday, works in Accounts, was born of a woman.”)

Everyone who has ever lived was “born of a woman” so it would be absurd to say this. But then Paul does not say it. His actual words mean that Jesus “came/appeared of a woman”. And that is very different. In the places he uses ginomai he is giving the justification for Jesus being the spiritual seed of (i) David and (ii) Abraham.

In Romans, Paul gives Jesus’ qualifications for being the Christ. According to the flesh, he had come through the person who was the seed of David, meaning Mary. According to the spirit, he demonstrated that he was the Christ through his resurrection from the dead, at which time he appeared to Mary.

In Galatians, Paul says that Christ was the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). This may be a reference to the distant time when Christ was crucified on earth. The Galatians, who are gentiles, are also the seed of Abraham through Christ. So Paul is giving the concept of “seed” here a spiritual meaning. Now that the time had come, Christ had appeared through a woman “under the law”, meaning she was a descendant of Abraham. This woman was Mary. His rebirth through Mary was the same as his resurrection. It was not a literal birth but a spiritual appearance.

Further reading: for more detail on this topic, see The Rock and the Tower.