The Big Question 40: Was Jesus Illegitimate?
Mar 18, 2019 1152
Was Jesus illegitimate?
We don’t hear the term “illegitimate” much today, because it unfairly stigmatises children, but in the past the word “illegitimate” was applied to children born outside of marriage. It was a big deal, especially in traditional cultures like the one Joseph and Mary lived in. When Joseph married Mary, it was inevitable that he was afraid of what people would say about the son that was to be born to her, the son that was clearly not his.
So it was that the history of early Christianity is actually peppered with the accusations that Jesus had been born out of an adulterous relationship. These accusations include the worst thing that the Jews could think of: that Jesus was the result of Mary’s sexual relationship with a Roman centurion, called “Pantera.” This last rumour went on to become fertile ground for many of the myths and conspiracy theories about Jesus that still do the rounds from time to time, along with the one about how Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
Concerns about the illegitimacy of Jesus followed him throughout his ministry. In Mark 6:3 (CEB), you have the people of Nazareth saying,
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him…
The issue is that a person was always named according to who the father was, and not the mother. That is, of course, unless you were illegitimate, as was the accusation against Jesus.
In John 8 and 9 this issue is highlighted even more, and you can see Jesus and his opponents arguing about his legitimacy. They asked him the pointed question:
Where is your father? (John 8:19, NIV).
A little later in this discussion, they say to Jesus,
Our ancestry isn’t in question! (John 8:41, CEB).
By implication, his was.
This is even clearer, when referring to Jesus, they say,
…as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from (John 9:29, NIV).
Could they have been any more pointed?
On the question of Christ’s legitimacy hangs every other issue of importance in this life. We live in a culture that rejects the legitimacy of Jesus in a million ways. Hardly anyone denies that Jesus lived, but they dethrone him by taking away the legitimacy of who he is, and of his complete claim on their lives.
The way I see the world, my legitimacy is based on Jesus, because when I accept him, I become a son of God, part of his family. And for me, that’s a great way to live.