Descended From David
A reader writes:
Jimmy, I have been bothered by the question of Jesus' geneology. A lot of scripture refers to Him as son of David, descended from David's line etc., and I think it traces the geneology down through Joseph, who was not Jesus' natural father. Can you help me here?
A lot of folks have this question, and it's natural to wonder about this.
It's true that Jesus was not physically descended from Joseph and thus could not have been physically descended from David via Joseph. However, physical descent is not the only form of descent there is.
There's also adoptive descent or legal descent.
This occurred in a variety of contexts in ancient Hebrew society. As members of a patriarchical society, everybody in Israel needed to be related to somebody in order to know their place in the world, and this led to a lot of adoptions, including adoptions that were done posthumously–after the death of the person "doing" the adoption.
That's essentially what's going on in the case of the levirate marriage. If a man died childless, his brother was expected to marry the widow in order to produce a son who would legally be the son of the dead man. That's a kind of posthumous "adoption" of the son by his deceased legal father, who happens not to be the same individual as his biological father.
Yet this didn't stop the son's sons from being reckoned as the dead man's grandsons. Legal descent was counted as descent in a real and binding way. In fact, in the case of the levirite marriage, legal descent was more important than biological descent, for producing a legal heir to the dead man was the whole reason for the levirite marriage to being with.
There is some evidence that levirite marriages occurred in the genealogies of Christ.
So if legal descent of that kind doesn't interrupt the descent of Christ from David then Christ being legally but not biologically the son of Joseph wouldn't either.
This, then, may be how we are to understand Christ's descent from David: He was a legal heir of David and so he was a son of David. Period. The biology doesn't matter.
Or it may be that there is more to it.
St. Paul says in Romans 1:3 that Christ was "descended from David according to the flesh." There's a question here about how literally he means the word "flesh." He may just mean it to mean "humanly," in which case he could just be thinking of Christ's legal descent from David via Joseph.
But he may mean the term more literally than that. If he does then . . . well . . . Christ got flesh from Mary, so perhaps Mary was also a descendant of David and Christ received biological descent from David in that fashion.