Beyond Tradition

Vain Genealogies

 by Sean D. Harmon

 
The next series of articles will be based on the controversial virgin birth, but I thought before we plunge into that realm, I needed to address a subject that has been used by a couple of skeptics to support and argument that Paul believed the virgin birth story to be a myth, claiming that he even denounced it as such in one of his letters to Timothy. This won't take long at all, because this obviously is not the case. The suspected passage is the first epistle to Timothy…

 
1 Timothy 1:4 "nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith."

 
Because the two Nativity birth stories in Matthew and Luke are considered influenced myth by skeptics, and since they both contain Jesus' genealogies that trace his lineage back to Abraham through his descendant David in Matthew (1:1-16) and back to Adam through Abraham in Luke (3:23-38), skeptics have jumped to the conclusion that Paul himself, according to the quote above, is criticizing the virgin birth story as myth. When we examine it and break it down, it's actually an embarrassment to think that there are those who would argue this. Ironically, while critics readily question the authenticity of the two letters to Timothy actually being written by Paul,
[1] it seems this is the case until they find something they think suits their purpose in other areas of debunking a Christian subject.

What I also find amusing is the dilemma this presents for them, because most skeptics claim the Nativity birth story, found in only Matthew and Luke's gospel, was an invention that succeeded Paul much later. However, if they assume Paul was denouncing it in the Timothy letter, then they not only have to concede the Timothy letter as an authentic Pauline work, but that it actually postdates the Nativity tradition prior to Paul (60's). With these incongruous arguments aside, we know from other articles we discussed that Paul never had any question in his own belief about the divinity of Christ or his unique and divine origins, using the title Son of God seventeen times (not counting the pastoral letters 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and the Greek title kyrios (Lord) hundreds of times to address Jesus, and these views about Christ is also made plain in other aspects throughout his letters (see the discussions here: The Christology of Paul and The Silent Texts, The virgin birth).

The writer of Timothy, whether Paul or not, certainly didn't question that Christ was God and used the word "Savior" interchangeably between Christ and God…

 
1 Timothy 2:3 "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior…"

 

1 Timothy 4:10 "For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers."

 

2 Timothy 1:10 "but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…"

 
We also know that Paul himself never questioned Jesus' genealogy or the fact that he was a descendant of David from the letters that are viewed as indisputably authentic by even most critics…

 
Romans 1:3 "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh…"

 

Romans 15:8-12 "For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written... 'There shall come the root (descendancy) of Jesse (David's father) and He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope.'"

 
We also know that the Timothy author himself didn't question Jesus' Davidic descendancy...

 
2 Timothy 2:8-9 "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned."

 
Therefore, if Paul never had any doubt about Jesus' Davidic genealogy, never had any doubts about Jesus' divinity as Son of God and kyrios, or that he was brought forth under unique and divine circumstances, what could Paul have been referring to by "myths and endless genealogies?"

Genealogies of the first century

Throughout the centuries, the ancient Jews based their whole existence on God’s covenant with Abraham. God had promised that his seed would become a great nation, and that the whole world through Abraham's descendants would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3); that this great nation would specifically come from Abraham and Sarah's promised son, the miracle son Isaac, who came about when Abraham and Sarah were both too old to have children and Sarah was barren (Genesis 17:15-19); and from Abraham to his descendant David, whom the Messiah himself would eventually come (see Psalm 89:1-4; Jeremiah 30:8-9; Ezekiel 34:22-25; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Hosea 3:4-5).

We first need to point out that there is good evidence genealogical records were kept at least until the end of the first century. First of all, in the lineage of king Zerubbabel listed in Matthew's genealogy (Matthew 1:13-16), Matthew relies on extra-biblical genealogical sources of which we know nothing of today. Skeptics would suppose Matthew was just making this up, but we discussed in another article (here: The She Seed: King Jeconiah's curse) why this is a slipshod and fallacious argument to make, as there were many people exceptionally interested and inquisitive about genealogical claims around this time and would have certainly inquired further about such claims, especially since most would have been privy to the discrepancies against the genealogies listed in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 3).

Josephus, a historian from the end of the first century, indicated that officials kept records of the priests that traced back two thousand years, and he himself, who was not a priest, referred to the "public registers" from which he extracted his own genealogical information.[2]

According to D. A. Carson, Rabbi Hillel, a first century Jewish philosopher, was able to prove his Davidic descendancy from a genealogical scroll found in Jerusalem.[3]

The church father Eusebius stated that the Roman Emperor Vespasian hunted down those of the lineage of David. He also stated his son Domitian did the same who ordered all descendants of David slain, which would have only been possible via records they had access to.[4]

Craig Evans points out an ossuary that was recently discovered in Jerusalem, dating to the first century, that had the inscription: “belonging to the house of David," also, according to the Talmud (Ta’anit 4:5), the members of the "family of David, of the house of the tribe of Judah,” brought wood offerings to the second Temple.[5]

Therefore, we have ample evidence that genealogical information was still preserved during the first century. We also know that genealogical records were a crucial factor to the ancient Jews, because throughout the Old testament we see census' being taken, detailing genealogical lists that are displayed ad nauseam (examples: Genesis 4:17-26, chap 5, 10:1-31, 11:10-26, etc.; Exodus 6:14-25; Numbers 1:1-47; Ezra 8:1-14; Nehemiah 7:5-73… and on and on). Therefore, the lineage of Abraham's descendants and the ability to trace this lineage back to Abraham was of the utmost importance to their heritage and a necessary societal function in determining birthright legitimacy among priests and kings, or specific duties and functions that were assigned to certain tribes, and they guarded their lineage with a fierceness (examples: Ezra 10:2-4, 9:1-3; Nehemiah 13:23-25).

 

The stock of Israel

That intermingling with foreigners was considered a serious offense and in some cases a curse, by even God himself, naturally has drawn out all sorts of backwoods half-wit ignoramuses who don't have the intelligence to understand why segregation within these tribes was specifically enforced, and of course use it to justify their own racist views on segregation today. It had nothing to do with race, segregation or God's feelings about other races or interracial marriage in general, but everything to do with the fact that God wanted to show off his ability to keep his promises to Abraham, and the only way to do that was keeping the lineage traceable, thus this exceptional treatment of the Hebrews was exclusive to Abraham's descendants that were picked and chosen as the root genealogical line through which these promises would continue, up to the moment that the Messiah would be revealed. It doesn't take a whole lot of brain power, just a little common sense, to figure out that the ancient Jews intermingling with other lineages would have so muddied the Hebraic line, that tracing Messiah back to Abraham would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. Of course these pea-brained racists ignore the instance in Numbers (Numbers chap12) where Aaron's wife Miriam criticized Moses for marrying an Ethiopian woman (or "kushite", literally an African woman), provoking God strike Miriam with leprosy and kick her out of the camp as a result. But I digress. Of course, this inevitably conditioned the Hebrew ascendants into a superiority complex themselves, believing that their heritage was above and beyond the importance of every other non-Jewish or pagan heritage up to the first century, and this perception permeated well into second Temple Judaism ideology and culture. In fact, Malina and Rohrbaugh state…

 
"The importance of genealogies is easy for modern readers to underestimate. In antiquity, lineage was not only a source of pride, but also a device for self-aggrandizement... It was a claim to authority, to place, to political or civil rights, various social roles, or even the right to speak... It encoded the information people needed to know in order to place themselves and others properly in the social order."[6]

 
Nowhere is this source of ancestral pride seen portrayed any better than throughout the New Testament (see Matthew 3:7-9; John 8:33; Acts 7:1-2). We clearly see discrimination taking place within the earliest formation of the Christian church in Jerusalem between the Hebraic Jews and the Greek Jews (Act 6:1). We also see this entitlement recognized by even Paul, who identified the Jewish nobles with the distinguishable address of "men of Israel" apart from the rest of the congregation he was addressing (Acts 13:16, 13:26). We know that the inclusion of Gentiles into the first century church was a very controversial and thorny issue (see Acts 10:45, 11:1-18) because of this nationalistic identity clash. This gave birth to the argument that Gentiles would have to be forced into Jewish proselytism in order to covert to Christianity. The belief was that Christianity was meant to be exclusively for the "children of Abraham," or the people of the covenant, the Hebraic Jews, and the external affirmation of all this was marked by circumcision. It was through much debate that the church at Jerusalem
officially decreed that Gentiles did not have to submit themselves to Mosaic practices and circumcision to become converted (Acts 15:1-35).

Based on common sense, this undoubtedly did not completely resolve the issue for decades to come, and we know it didn't. Even Paul recognized that it didn't at first, as in the very next chapter of Acts (16:1-3), Paul has Timothy circumcised, his half Gentile disciple, in order to lessen the friction between them and his orthodox colleagues. If Paul wasn't completely absolved of this issue, we know for a fact that other Judeo-Christians were even less liberated from these views. In fact, throughout Paul's letters we obviously see that this problem was not completely resolved, as Paul is constantly on the offensive, emphasizing his point that the Mosaic law was nullified through faith in Christ, all the while battling the die-hard Christian Jews unwilling to accept this radical idea (examples: Romans 2:17-29; Galatians 2:1-5 and chap 3; Philippians 3:1-9). There is no doubt that being a true Hebrew descendant carried some weighty clout in the first century Christian church at Jerusalem. Paul knew this, and used it on a couple occasions when he wanted the attention of his peers (see Acts 21:3922:1-3).

From this, we can assume that the Hebraic Christians were undoubtedly using their ancestry as clout to persuade non-proselyte Gentiles to adhere to the Mosaic law, that they were the "true" descendants of the Messiah, the promised children, the VIP's who had a leg up on outsiders who wanted in. How do we know this for sure? Let's look at some of Paul's arguments…

 
Galatians 3:25-29 "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise."

 
Paul's message throughout his letters was that faith in Christ replaced keeping the law and the old covenant (see Romans 3:27-28; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 3:9), and the passage above is Paul declaring that the Galatians, who were probably predominantly Gentile, were in fact just as much Abraham's descendants, children of the promise, and had just as much clout as the Hebraic Christians who were apparently trying to persuade them to follow Judaic practices of circumcision (Galatians 3:1-5). These Hebraic Christians were those of whom Paul had denounced in the previous chapter of his Galatians letter (2:1-5). Let's look at a passage Paul wrote to the Corinthian church…

 
2 Corinthians 11:22 "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I" (click here to read the whole discourse).

 
This was in context of Paul once again warning the Corinthians against a certain band of Judaizers (Hebrew Christians) who were undoubtedly trying to lead them astray and into Judaic practices, contrary to what Paul had taught about faith in Christ. So, Paul displayed some of his own authoritative grandstanding to counter what the Judaizers were apparently also doing. Now let's look at that passage in Timothy once again…

 
1 Timothy 1:4 "nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith."

 
It should be noted here that the Greek word for "myths" is mythos and can mean a "fictional narrative" or "speech" or "saying." Let's look at an interesting passage in the Titus epistle where this word mythos, in its context, clearly denotes "sayings" (all three of these letters -- 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus -- are known as the pastoral letters and considered a unit)…[7]

 
Titus 1:10-14 "For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths [sayings or speech] and commandments of men who turn away from the truth."

 
Interesting how the word myths is used in the same context as the phrase "commandments of men" and "those of  the circumcision," so it becomes apparent that the writer is correlating Jewish myths with the Judaizers that were giving Paul problems about the same issue, ordering congregates to get circumcised as part of the law they believed was necessary for salvation. The Greek word for "commandments" is entole and is always used in the New Testament to specifically refer to the Mosaic law and its ordinances. This clearly denotes that there were Jews arguing that the Mosaic law was a necessary requirement of the Christian faith of which the writer of Titus clearly identified as "Jewish myths." Now these passages are beginning to come into proper perspective. Let's look at another interesting passage in Titus…

 
Titus 3:9 "But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless."

 
Notice how this puts "genealogies" and "law" directly in the same context. There was never any controversy about Jesus' Davidic descendancy (one of the earliest Christian traditions there was), nor any strife about his virgin birth (which we will discuss in our next article), even with Paul, but plenty of disputes and contentions between Jewish Christians and the Mosaic law, which we see in Acts and throughout Paul's letters. Thus the passage above clearly places the word "genealogies" into the crux of this argument, which coincides with what we've been discussing thus far; that the contentions revolved around Hebraic Christians throwing their genealogical weight around as authority and arguing that Judaic practice was a necessary requisite of joining the Christian faith. Now let's look at the initial passage in Timothy once again in the context of some subsequent verses…

 
1 Timothy 1:4-7 ..."nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions."

 
See what a little unveiled investigating can do? It is more than apparent that the writer here (likely Paul) had no such dispute or disagreement with the Nativity story or Jesus' genealogical descendancy. When putting the Timothy passage into proper context, he was obviously not talking about the Nativity birth "myth" or Jesus' genealogy, but was denouncing the Christian Judaizers who were using their Hebraic descendancy as authoritative clout to get the Gentile Christian newcomers to comply with the Mosaic law and practice, which clouded Paul's message of faith and grace.

There is no doubt that had Paul believed the virgin birth to be a fallacy, along with Jesus' Davidic genealogy tied into that story, he would have had a whole lot more to say about it to his whole congregation and all the other churches he had founded than this little passage buried in a letter that was initially addressed to just Timothy.

Did John discriminate against the Nativity story?

 
Click here for that discussion, or here to go home

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Source References

1. Daniel B. Wallace, 1 Timothy: Introduction, Argument, Outline (www.bible.org).

    Also see First Epistle to Timothy: The Challenge to Pauline Authorship.

2. Josephus, Against Apion, book 1, section 7:7; The Life of Josephus, section 1 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

3. D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, p.63; 1995.

4. Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 12, 19-20 (www.newadvent.org).

5. Craig A. Evans, The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary, p.49; 2003. 

6. Bruce J. Malina, Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p.24; 2003.

7. See Pastoral Epistles.