The Most Famous Adopted Person in History?

by Jay Johansen
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No, I'm not about to say that Jesus Christ was adopted. Though now that I think of it, in a sense he was: he was raised as the son of Joseph, but Joseph was not his natural father. But I'm talking here about someone with no such supernatural parentage to complicate the issue.

Christians have long been puzzled by the fact that both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew give detailed geneologies of Jesus, yet the two are different. Matthew says that Joseph's father was a man named Jacob, while Luke says that it was Heli.

The explanation I always heard in Sunday School when I was growing up was that one of the genelogies was that of Mary. This theory has two big problems: One, there is no historical evidence to support it. Two, it does not appear to be consistent with the wording of the text. Luke clearly says, "Joseph, the son of Heli, ..."; Matthew says, "... Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus". There is nothing in the wording of either writer to give any support to the idea that one of these men was really the father of Mary rather than of Joseph.

The ancient historian Eusebius, writing about AD 320, gives a far simpler and more plausible explanation: Joseph was adopted.

He quotes a still earlier historian, Julius Africanus, who lived around AD 200. If we accept Africanus's account, it was an odd sort of adoption. Under Israeli law, if a man married but then died without having children, and his widow remarried, under some circumstances the first child by the second husband would legally be considered the child of the first husband. That is, he would inherit the property, name, and so forth of the first husband.

According to Africanus, the man Luke lists as Joseph's father, Heli, had died childless. Jacob then married the widow and she soon gave birth to Joseph. Thus, Joseph's birth-father was Jacob, but his legal father was Heli. Matthew gives the biological family tree, and Luke the adoptive family tree.

Africanus says he got this information from members of the family. He points out that a subtle point of wording in the text of the gospels bears it out: The text says "Jacob begot Joseph" ("the father of" in the New International) -- the Greek word refers only to natural, biological parenthood. But when it talks about Heli it says "Joseph the son of Heli", and the Greek word translated "son of" can refer to either biological or legal parenthood.

Was Joseph, therefore, the most famous adopted person in history? Africanus himself concedes quite readily, "This may or may not be the truth of the matter; but in my opinion and that of every fair-minded person no one else could give a clearer exposition, and we must content ourselves with it even if unconfirmed, as we are not in a position to suggest a better or a truer one." It is certainly an intriguing possibility.

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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

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