Jesus The Bastard

Reinventing the Human Reality

by Fred Marshall
Robert Funk, in a recent seminar in Hamilton said "Jesus was born in Nazareth not Bethlehem" and went on to dismiss the stories surrounding his birth and the events following the resurrection as fictions. I think he is wrong. So let us pursue the question of Jesus' birth as a constructive critique of this approach to the Jesus stories.{1}
Jesus was illegitimate. The Bible tells us so. (Matt 1, 18-19) "When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child". Did the title of the paper shock you? The fact caused a similar embarrassment to those who loved and followed Jesus. Mark and John make no allusion to his birth, Matthew ascribes his conception to the Holy Spirit and Luke surrounds the fact with the pretty fairy story we all know. It is confirmed again by the cruel test put to Jesus by his enemies over the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7,53). Will he condemn her or call for mercy? If he says 'spare her', they will say it is because of his mother, if he condemns her, he condemns his mother as well. Jesus resolves the test without having to do either:-"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her".
Illegitimacy was harshly dealt with in Jewish law. "No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord." (Deut. 23,2). So was adultery. "If there is a betrothed virgin (Mary's case), and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and stone them to death with stones." If Joseph had not been "unwilling to put her to shame" (Matt.1,19) Mary would have been killed and her baby with her. The fact that stoning was still practised at that time is confirmed by the adultery incident noted above. The fact that no man was cited with her suggests either that she was too ignorant or innocent to know what had been done to her; or that she was the victim of a cruel hoax; or that it was the Holy Spirit who was responsible. You can take your pick! The fact that matters is that Jesus was not sired by Joseph. Jesus himself knew it and so did his contemporaries, friend and foe alike
How valid are our own experiences in interpreting the events of the beginning of this era? Individual behaviour is as unpredictable now as then. But given similar conditions, we can surely assume similar collective behaviour, at least as a hypothesis.
Some of us are old enough to remember a time when a single girl who got pregnant would go to Australia to have her baby and adopt it out, and a couple who conceived before they married would have their child in a different town. In a society where the sanctions against illegitimacy were as strong as they were in Nazareth in Jesus' day, the stigma of illegitimacy would be more damaging if anything than in New Zealand in the 40s and 50s of our century, and every gossip who could count to ten would have an eye to the newly-wed's waist line for the first nine months. So Mary and Joseph would have a very good reason to be out of Nazareth at the end of the pregnancy and to stay away until the child's age indicated less precisely the approximate date of birth. A legal obligation to register in the city of origin would provide a fine excuse to be away at the time of the birth, and a stay in the Gaza Strip (Egypt) "until Herod died" would seem prudent. On the other hand Luke marks the return as only a few weeks after the circumcision and purification, which would reduce the efficacy of the manoeuvre. Either way the social stigma of illegitimacy makes it highly likely that Jesus was NOT born in Nazareth, and if elsewhere, why not Bethlehem? For the newly wedded pair the prime motivation was to be somewhere else when the baby was born. If there were prophecies which later seemed significant that featured Bethlehem, or incidents like a "slaughter of the innocents" which might have threatened the family and which they avoided, by what in retrospect, could be taken as divine guidance, ("being advised in a dream"), then these were simply coincidental. Or the stories may have sprung from a fertile imagination which embroidered the narrative. It doesn't really matter. What does signify is the fact that two accounts put Jesus away from Nazareth at the time of his birth and we have suggested a good reason why that should be.
To this point we have relied on information from the bible to support the framework of reconstruction. But there is no information about Jesus' youth. Here we must resort to reasoned speculation. In a town the size of Nazareth would the stratagem of absence have put an end to gossip? Our modern experience suggests that that is very unlikely. The tongues would wag even though Joseph's humanity made social retribution against Mary impossible. Children are cruel when, in a pack, they make common cause against a loner, an outcast from their group (Cf. Deut. 23,2). As the young Jesus grew and mixed with his contemporaries, would he not experience their jibes, fed by the gossip of their parents: "Who's your father? Who's your father?" What would Jesus do, but take the question back to Mary and Joseph and receive the reply, "Why God is your father; God is a father to us all" ? It may even be that Mary believed it to be literally true, since no male was associated with her pregnancy in the bible story.
"He was despised and rejected" (Isaiah 53, 3) but the Man of Sorrows grows out of the Child of Sorrows. Our thesis is that it was in a childhood scarred by the scorn of children and adults alike that the attitudes of that extraordinary man, Jesus, were formed. It was not the cross and the crown of thorns that made Jesus the paradigm of our humanity, but the experience of a lifetime of rejection because of his birth, of which cross and crown were the ultimate consequence and expression..
In that crucible a coherent series of attitudes were formed which we recognise as characteristic of Jesus.
  • an attitude to his mother.
  • an attitude to the self-righteous and their moral judgements.
  • an attitude to the law.
  • an attitude to social outcasts (publicans and sinners)
All these attitudes are bound up in a lifetime quest, from early childhood to the "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabaccthani" of the cross, to understand what his parents had told the brilliant, sensitive, unhappy child ‘ "God is your father" and his mental query, "How is God my father?"
Athene sprang fully formed and armed from Zeus' head. Was Jesus born in full possession of that wonderful humanity which the gospels record? Or was it formed in him, as our character is formed in us, by the travail of childhood and adolescence? The stigma of illegitimacy, with consequences which we can recreate from comparable situations in our own experience, anchors our intuitions of what Jesus became to a really imaginable human development. It brings home to us the reality of a humanity, not imposed by a divine origin, but forged in the flesh by a recognisable reaction to social conditions which we understand. Here is a topic for many books and a lifetime of meditation. This little study is intended to raise pointers to further exploration.

An attitude to his mother

"his mother said to him, 'Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously'. And he said to them, 'How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?'" (Luke 2,48) Is this the reply of a holier-than-thou child with a sense of destiny, or the satiric rejoinder of a teenager who resents the pain of his birth circumstances and strikes back at his mother for the situation her actions have placed him in and which he is coming to understand? Note that there is a direct opposition in the text between 'your father', ie Joseph, and 'my Father', ie God. The savagery of the retort and its implications for an illegitimacy which the gospel writers, if they mention it, tend to gloss over, attest to the genuineness of this story, as does the phrase "and his mother kept all these things in her heart", even the hurtful memories, or perhaps particularly those.
As an aside, the extraordinary intelligence of the boy is attested here: "all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers". That same intelligence was demonstrated again by the man in his reply to his enemies about the adulterous woman ‘ in fact, in constant verbal skirmishing with a hostile clique who were bested time and again.
In Matthew 12,48 and Mark 3,32ff. there is a similar harshness shown to his family. "His mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak with him. But he replied to the man who told him, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers? etc." The same contrast between his earthly family and the family of God, which was present in the adolescent riposte, is made here: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother". The story is of course the more piquant in that the reason his mother and family were there was because of the malicious rumour that he was mad. See also Mark 10, 29ff. and 13.12ff.
His response to Mary at the wedding in Cana (John 2, 4): O woman, what have you to do with me?" has the same harsh tone about it. But on the cross his concern for her is evident as he puts her into the care of John (Jn 19, 26-27).{2}

An attitude to the self-righteous and their moral judgements.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are filled with dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matt 23,27-28). It is easy to see why Jesus was vehement in criticising self-righteousness, since it was this attitude which condemned his birth, and the persistent and virulent attacks on him by the religious Establishment suggest that the ostracism, directed against him in his youth because of that suspect birth, was still active during his ministry. In the gentler rebuke to Simon the Pharisee, (Luke 7,36ff) it is social prejudice that is exposed, not this time directed against him, but against another victim of discrimination, the woman who washed his feet with her tears. We can all make our own lists of the number of times Jesus criticises those who in their self-righteousness condemn others. But there is in Jesus none of the rancour that might be expected from a victim of social discrimination. The first century church had a polemical interest in focussing on this criticism of the religious Establishment .It seems likely to me, in the light thrown on Jesus' actions by the hypothesis of social ostracism, that what was reported by the gospels was indeed said on one or other occasion by Jesus, but that the motive for saying it got distorted in the report. Here is a topic for further development. What we can say with certainty is that from the cases of social injustice described comes very strongly the lesson, "Judge not!" (Luke 6,37 et alibi). To put into perspective Jesus' attitude, see how Matthew 23, which is a condemnation of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, ends. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"

An attitude to the law

The law was the instrument used by the Establishment to attack him. "One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, 'Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'" Jesus put to them the example of David and the consecrated bread when he and his men were hungry, and concluded "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2 and 3 give a useful representative sample, not of a rejection of the law, but a humanising of it, denying its absolute value. Involved were fasting, work on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath. In Matthew 6 the privacy and sincerity of prayer are taught. In Mark 12,17, the question of taxes arises and in verse 41-42 the widow's mite serves to illustrate the principle of sincere giving. Jesus himself regularly attended the synagogue (Luke 4,16 "he went to the synagogue as his custom was on the Sabbath day" also Jn 18,20 etc). He is not a rebel. The practice of the law from the heart and the emphasis placed on sincerity in obeying it are themes drawn from the prophets, but they go back even more directly to another aspect of the adolescent experience as will be seen in the section on mission.

An attitude to social outcasts ("publicans and sinners")

That Jesus was outcast, even from his own family, is reflected in several texts: Luke 9,58 (=Matt.8,20): "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." There was the rejection at Nazareth to which we will return (Luke 4,28) and the ultimate rejection by the people before Pilate. Is it a surprise then to find such a sympathy for outcasts and the oppressed? Again we can all make our own lists:- the sick, lepers, the poor, the foreigner, the tax gatherer, women in general, prostitutes, the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill. The response of Jesus to his own pain was to love those who suffered, to feed, to comfort and to heal. This love for others is one of the hall-marks of his ministry, the more understandable as it springs from his own understanding of rejection. It was for the despised and rejected that he died on the cross.

How is God my father?

Jesus twice made the contrast between his earthly family and his heavenly father:- in the temple in his adolescence and on the occasion reported in three gospels where his family sought to speak to him. (see above) In the first case he clearly considered himself God's son, not Joseph's, and though the context is satiric his later words and conduct confirm that this was his perception. In the later incident his exclusive sonship has been enlarged to include "whoever does the will of my father in heaven[; they are] my brother and sister and mother" (Matt.12,50, Mark 3, 35; Luke 8.21). The text of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew and Luke demonstrates that same inclusivity - "Our Father in heaven" and a further stage is reached in John 14 "No one comes to the Father but by me." The sonship of Jesus is another of those topics to be explored at length. The multiplicity and explicitness of the references leads however to the conclusion that Jesus did regard himself as God's son in a special way, which he desired to share with his followers and which has come down to us in the records. If ideas of "God" are a human creation, and if Jesus is human, then this attitude has a human source and we can, I think, know it.
"Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive (déxjtai) the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Luke 18,16-17). Is not Jesus' own childhood experience reflected in this admonition to the disciples? With the naïvety of a child he took literally what his mother told him: "God is your father" and reached out his little hand to the universe. And the universe took it.
In times of deep distress, in an anguish of doubt, which of us have not reached out in the same way and been filled with an inner peace, a courage to face whatever decision the future will require, an acceptance of the implications of a grievous past? This, as I understand it, is the experience of the mystics and the contemplatives. What explanation can we give? - self-hypnosis? delusion? the in-filling with the Holy Spirit? Whatever explanation we find for the phenomenon, the experience is a reality which has been common to humans for millennia. A harried and unhappy child reaches for comfort in this way throughout his childhood until the relationship with abba , the daddy universe, becomes not a metaphor, but a part of his nature. "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it". The kingdom of God for Jesus is an attitude of mind, the peace that comes when humans place themselves in trust into the hands of the universe as father, literally and not as a metaphor, and accept whatever is given as the will of that father. It is only a child that is capable of such trust. This attitude is Jesus' legacy. "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you" (John 14, 27).
His teaching is full of trust. "What man of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish will give him a serpent. [...] How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?" Jesus is sharing the central experience of his life with his friends.
Out of that visceral trust spring naturally elements of Jesus' ministry which we have tended to regard as symptoms of the divinity within, given rather than made. Jesus was, like us, what his environment and his own nature made him. This new perspective is not to deny his divinity, but to see it as a quality inculcated by the circumstances of his life, which we too may appropriate to ourselves if we are willing to pay the price, and if after his example we are capable of the visceral trust which is the prerequisite.

The Law

The first aspect that emerges from his childhood intimacy with the universe is the attitude to the law which we saw above. The issues are really quite clear. The law is given by Jesus' father; for that reason it is to be obeyed; for the same reason he goes dutifully to the synagogue on the Sabbath because that is God's house. But the intimacy of his understanding of his father's love makes it clear that all the law is for the benefit of humankind and is incorporated within one over-arching law "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matt.22.37-40; cf also Deut 6,5 and Lev. 19,18)
Against this inner understanding of the principle of his father's law is then set the legalism of Scribes and Pharisees which leads to discrimination, ostracism, self-righteousness and judicial murder, which in his case would have seen him killed before ever he was born. This sort of piety has no love in it at all, and is in direct contravention of the spirit of the law. So Jesus attacks it as being against his father's will.

The Miracles

The most difficult aspect to discuss in the 20th century is that of Jesus' miracles which stem from his intimate experience of the divine. It would be useful to distinguish three categories of miracle.
The bible gives ample and credible testimony to Jesus' charisma, if only by the crowds that followed him during his ministry. That sense of inner power creates a context in which psychosomatic healing could occur, as it does in our day. So, given a misdiagnosis of psoriasis as leprosy, and a few other conditions of similar ambiguity, we can credit the possibility of the healing events. But there is one element of them that must give us pause:- they were not without effect on the healer also. They cost Jesus something. Take the case of the haemorrhaging woman which is attested in Matthew (9,20), Mark (5,25) and Luke (8.43). "Jesus said 'Someone touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me." Here the question of healing is taken into another dimension from a process confined entirely to the psyche of the victim.
When Jesus returned to Nazareth (Matt.13,53-58, Mark 6,1-6 and Luke 4,16-30) "he did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief"; the scientific attitudes of the 20th C create in us the same climate of disbelief as Jesus found among those who knew him (and his history!). "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?"
Jesus' adolescence was not handicapped by preconceptions of what was or was not possible. His belief in God's fatherhood opened his psyche to the greatest extension a human mind is capable of accessing. There is no doubt that he had experienced extraordinary consequences of his childlike trust. "If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, 'be rooted up and planted in the sea' and it would obey you" (Luke 16,6);Cf also Matt.17.21. "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours" (Mark 11, 24). Statements of this kind have on them the stamp of assurance that comes from experience. His mother too knew he was capable of unusual acts. In the marriage at Cana, Mary was firmly put in her place by Jesus as we have seen, but she did not take no for an answer "[She] said to the servants 'Do whatever he tells you'", clearly expecting an outcome to her request. That same assurance suggests that Jesus was himself conscious that he possessed special talents - the necessary consequence of his being the son of God - and that he could pass them on to those who would do the will of his father. The episode of the temptations in the wilderness was perhaps the meditation on how he might use these powers.
In Gifts of Unknown Things Lyall Watson reports all sorts of curious phenomena culled from the study of cultures where the fabric of belief does not impede them. Something happened at Cana which we cannot explain. To me it would seem imprudent to dismiss out of hand the whole incident and others like it, until we are sure we know the full ambit of the capacities of the human psyche.
There is another set of "miracles" susceptible of an explanation of a different order but stemming from that same charisma. In Nazareth the crowd turned nasty when this fellow that they knew all about started making preposterous claims. "All in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away". How did he manage that? Here is perhaps a lesson from the harassments of his childhood. A crowd is in its essence a collection of single individuals. Jesus, by presenting himself to each in turn, constrained each in turn, by the force of his personality to give way. It is just what was done in the scene with the adulterous woman. "Let him who has not sinned" brings the action down to every individual in the sight of the others. The feeding of the crowd, 4,000 or 5,000 as it may be, can be analysed in the same way. By dividing up the child's meal and offering it successively to individuals he shamed each into producing what each had brought but not produced for fear of having to share.

The Mission

Being God's son, if it has its privileges, has its responsibilities too. As we grow through adolescence we are forming our perception of who we are, and as a consequence, of what our place in the scheme of things is to be. So you can envisage the developing boy, Jesus, who believed with complete conviction the God was his father and that he was unique, meditating on the implications of sonship. That development is a study in itself, like other aspects, beyond the scope of this essay. There is ample evidence for it from the "my father's business" of the Jerusalem escapade to "my time is not yet come" at Cana. The so-called Temptations, the baptism, the transfiguration, the Syro-phoenician woman, the progressively hostile reaction of the Establishment, which drove him further and further into a challenge mode, all shaped his concept of sonship. Even on the cross the cry "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabaccthani?" can be seen as a desperate question flung out to an uncharacteristically silent universe.
The mission, viewed from the perspective of unique sonship is threefold:
  1. To teach the trust in a father God which he himself had learned and the reciprocal responsibilities which that trust carried - "Forgive, love, serve etc". His disciples were the vehicles of that lesson.
  2. To show by teaching (parables) and example the love of God which he himself had proved and which he extended so generously to the poor, the sick, the victims of society, the bereaved and the ostracised.
  3. To do the will of his father. This is the key to the 'kingdom of heaven'- inner peace - which he preached by teaching and example. This is the precondition for disciples, if they wish to enter that kingdom with its powers and its privileges:- "Not every one who says to me 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven" (Matt.7,21 and passim). Doing the will of God means to love and to trust. It follows necessarily that those who do not do so must have their errors exposed, their piety shown to be a sham, their coldness of heart uncovered. This in turn will lead to hostility, and the ultimate confrontation between love and trust on one hand and prejudice and self-righteousness on the other, seen through to the end. "Not my will but yours be done". The place of the old scriptures in this progression, the idealism of youth becoming hard-headed realism, the growing perception that death was a necessary outcome, provide a fascinating ground of further study.

The Mistakes?

God the father is a metaphor isn't he? Jesus' literal belief in his sonship opened avenues of service and an unprecedented realisation of human capacity. But on the flipside of the coin did this na‹ve belief lead him into thinking of himself as Messiah; into drawing unwarranted assumptions about his role as intermediary between humanity and God, into making unrealistic promises to his followers? The comforting words to the bereaved in John 14 are perhaps evidence of the distorting lens of literalism. Here is another major launching point for further study.
Jesus' ideas about himself and the world, if they derive from a recognisable human origin allow us to trace their passage, marking the insights which he has given us to the benefit of the human species and also defining areas where they, like other ideas about God, bear the stigmata of our human fallibility. Consider the possibility that messiahship for example may spring from Jesus' mistaken perception of his role and not, as some hold, from the later distortions of a church trying to justify a polemical position. In those circumstances the biblical record of his sayings may be more accurate than some current scholarship allows.
In a gospel story there are three elements:
  1. an event,
  2. the understanding of what happened during that event in the minds of contemporaries
  3. the metaphysical interpretation of it by the first century church.
So Jesus heals, temporarily or permanently a schizophrenic who calls himself Legion (Luke 8,26ff); his contemporaries believe he has driven out demons; the Church takes the incident as a sign of his divine power over the spirits of darkness. Jesus is confronted with a hungry crowd and persuades them to share their food; the contemporaries describe it as Jesus feeding the crowd; the Church records it as a manifestation of Jesus' divine power over the material world.

The Jesus Seminar

I do not know enough about the Jesus Seminar to criticise their approach. Many of us would agree to discount as superstition the attribution of superhuman powers to Jesus; there are some stories - the changing of the water to wine for example - for which the contemporary explanations seem incredible, and others, like the healing events, in which we can substitute a different and acceptable understanding, particularly in cases where psycho-somatic effects are possible. So we can agree to discount the interpretation and the contemporary understanding of such events and yet preserve the integrity of the event itself. But there are some stories, like the walking on the water, which defy belief. Do we simply remove them from consideration, erasing the event itself as well as the other two layers of significance? If we do so, we erase from the record the memories encapsulated in it. If for example we say "Jesus was born in Nazareth, then gone is a vital clue to the first consequences of his illegitimacy, which has taken us into a new perspective on his life. Let me conclude with the miracle of converting the water into wine. The medieval exegetists had a field day with this. The water was the water of baptism, the wine was the baptism of the Holy Spirit; the water was the law/the Old Testament, the wine was the Spirit/the New Testament and so on, metaphors which develop an understanding of the significance of Jesus' life without necessarily raising the issue of what the liquid was that was drunk at the wedding. The first century church saw the miracle as a testimony of Jesus divine power over the natural order which we cannot accept. The contemporaries understood what happened as the conversion of water into wine. What did happen? Was it a collective delusion perhaps? We cannot know, but something did happen there. The sign is the utterly credible interchange between Jesus and his mother, which of course would disappear if the story itself is discounted. This leads to the suggestion that a conservative approach to the gospel text is called for, suspending belief in those instances where what is reported is incredible, but preserving the story intact because of the real memories which it conserves.
Fred Marshall
21 October 1998


1 Some twenty years ago I gave an address to the Hamilton Baptist Church on "This man Jesus". I have blown the dust off it and it forms the substance of this little study.
2 I have been told that the ti emoì kai soí, construction and the term gúnai do not necessarily carry pejorative overtones in Greek, but here the context seems clearly a put-down.



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