How Can Jesus Be Heir to the Throne of David?
If Mary, a virgin, miraculously conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, how then can Jesus of Nazareth have a legal claim to the royal inheritance rights of the House of David without a biological father? The answer lies in the legalities of the Jewish laws of family and priest hereditary rights.
“… he who comes first in the order of hereditary succession transmits that right to his descendants, and that the father comes before all his descendants in hereditary succession…” – Jewish Encyclopedia
Mary’s unique circumstances were anything but normal and the freewill of Joseph was a wild card. In a normal situation, betrothal and marriage would have provided the legal means for Joseph to pass to Jesus his rights of inheritance to the lineage of David.
Knowing he was not responsible for Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph had the legal recourse of a divorce during their betrothal. For him, it was a legitimate escape avenue for Mary’s seemingly obvious indiscretion and Jewish law favored his position – he only had to make the accusation of adultery.
Very strong circumstantial evidence supported such a charge. All Joseph needed to do was point to Mary’s state of pregnancy that began while she was out-of-town on a 3-month trip without him to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.
Divorce was an option Joseph actively considered. Playing the divorce card would also have immediately ended the royal inheritance rights of the unborn Jesus.
Matthew reported that before Joseph acted on the divorce option, he had a visitation by the “angel of the LORD.” The 3-fold message delivered from God was very clear: Mary’s conception of a son was by the Holy Spirit; his birth was a fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy and furthermore they were to name him Jesus.
Joseph had a big decision to make. In a very conservative culture, whether he was the father or not, to continue with his betrothal meant he would have to endure family embarrassment, public humiliation, scorn and other repercussions. On the other side of the equation, he just had a very rare encounter with the angel of the LORD who delivered a message to him from none other than God.
Something most profound occurred as evidenced by Joseph’s immediate change of behavior – he suddenly stopped considering a divorce. Moreover, he made a full commitment to Mary and her future son in-spite-of the inevitable adverse consequences by proceeding to wed Mary without a consummation before Jesus was born.
With the divorce option off the table, lineage inheritance rights of the son and paternity by the father also relied on other Jewish laws and customs. Even for the highest purity lineage requirements of a priest, the law favored the rights of the unborn son who had no control over the circumstances of his own conception.
“Doubtful paternity involves not only the right of inheritance, but also, if the father be a kohen, the claim of priesthood with all its privileges and restrictions, including those regarding incest and prohibited marriage. Biblical chronology ignores the mother in the lineal descent of generations. The father was considered the stem of the family tree. The census was conducted “after their families, by the house of their fathers” (Num. §, 2). The father’s priesthood descended to his issue only by legal (with kedushlu) and lawful (not incestuous) marriage.” – Jewish Encyclopedia
Marriage preserved the lineage inheritance rights for Jesus from his father, regardless of Mary’s source of conception. For a child impregnated by someone other than the husband, paternity rights were also addressed by other Jewish legalities.
“Acts of adultery by a wife living with her husband do not affect his paternity of her children, as the maxim is “The issue follows the majority of cohabitations by the husband” – Talmud Sotah 27a
“Paternity can not be claimed for a child begotten out of wedlock when the alleged father disclaims it, even though the mother was his mistress and the child be born after he has married her.” The mother’s own claim, when denied by the man, is not accepted. But a man may establish his paternity of a son born out of wedlock, to entitle the son to the right of inheritance and of priesthood. A man may also disclaim the paternity of a child born to his legal wife; but he may not do so after that child has had a child (Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, 4, 29).” – Jewish Encyclopedia
Conception outside of marriage was not a disqualifying factor for the inheritance and lineage rights to the priesthood. Paternity by Joseph, the wild card factor, was a different matter – he still had the option to disclaim paternity.
Further action was required – Joseph had to establish that he accepted the child as his own. One definition of “establish” by Merriam-Webster is: “to cause (someone or something) to be widely known and accepted.”
As parents, Joseph and Mary had their 8-day old son circumcised. At that time, they officially named him “Jesus” as each had been independently instructed by an angel:
LK 2:21 And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. (NKJV)
At the 30-day mark from the birth of Jesus, two more separate events took place as required by the Law – the purification of Mary after childbirth and the Redemption of the Firstborn, each with different requirements:
LK 2:22-24 “Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”” (NKJV)
Every mother was required to forego a purification ceremony. The law required that 30 days after childbirth of a son, 60 days for a daughter, the mother was to offer a purification sacrifice.
A father of a mother’s firstborn had responsibilities known as the Redemption of Firstborn ceremony when every firstborn son was to be presented to a priest. Redeeming a first-born required no sacrifice, only a nominal payment to the priest.
Jewish custom expected the father to pronounce a blessing on his son to be followed by a feast. A priest attended the feast and had a dialog with the father to make an impression upon the attendees. One of the purposes of the Redemption of Firstborn ceremony was to affirm the right of inheritance of the firstborn:
“Any doubt regarding the primogeniture of a child is decided in favor of the father.” – Jewish Encyclopedia
“Primogeniture” has two definitions according to Merriam Webster. The first, “the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents.” The second relates to the first: “an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.”
Joseph publicly established paternity affirming the lineage and inheritance rights of Jesus through marriage and the Redemption of the Firstborn ceremony sanctioned by a priest. As a father, Joseph presented Jesus to the Lord and gave him a first-born blessing.
Jewish leaders never challenged that Jesus was born in the royal lineage of the House of David. Prophecies by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zachariah, concurred by Rabbi sages, set forth the one commonly held requirement that the Messiah must be born in the House of David. What is the probability that the birth of Jesus fulfilled this Messiah requirement?
Updated March 15, 2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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