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Jesus’ Davidic Lineage and the Case for Jewish Adoption

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2020

Caleb T. Friedeman
Ohio Christian University, Department of Religion, 1476 Lancaster Pike, Circleville, Ohio43113-0460, USA. Email:
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By portraying Jesus both as a son of David through Joseph and as virginally conceived, Matthew and Luke suggest that Joseph adopted Jesus into the Davidic line. Most modern interpreters assume that Joseph adopted Jesus through some Jewish law or custom. However, Yigal Levin has argued that adoption did not exist in Judaism and therefore the First and Third Evangelists must have appealed to Roman law (implying a gentile provenance for Matthew and Luke). This article reviews and critiques Levin's study and argues that early Jews did have a concept and practice of adoption and therefore an appeal to Roman law is unnecessary.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I would like to thank Nicholas Perrin, Joel Archer, Isaac W. Oliver, the 2018 IBR Emerging Scholarship on the New Testament research group (chaired by Ruth Anne Reese) and the NTS peer reviewer for offering valuable feedback on drafts of this article.


1 Other less probable solutions include: (1) Davidic lineage through Mary; for a survey of the patristic support for this view, see Bockmuehl, M., ‘The Son of David and his Mother’, JTS 62 (2011) 476–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar; (2) non-lineal Davidic sonship, e.g. Patte, D., The Gospel according to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 21Google Scholar; (3) non-literal virginal conception, e.g. Lincoln, A. T., Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) 123Google Scholar.

2 Levin, Y., ‘Jesus, “Son of God” and “Son of David”: The “Adoption” of Jesus into the Davidic Line’, JSNT 28 (2006) 415–42Google Scholar.

3 Prior to Levin, see Box, G. H., ‘Adoption’, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, vol. i (ed. Hastings, J.; New York: Scribner's, 1924) 114–15Google Scholar; Lyall, F., ‘Roman Law in the Writings of Paul – Adoption’, JBL 88 (1969) 458–66Google Scholar; Tigay, J. H., ‘Adoption: Alleged Cases of Adoption in the Bible’, Encyclopedia Judaica (ed. Roth, C. and Wigoder, G.; Jerusalem: Keter, 1971) ii.298301Google Scholar; Lyall, F., ‘Legal Metaphors in the Epistles’, TynBul 32 (1981) 7995, at 90Google Scholar.

4 For positive assessments of Levin's argument (though not necessarily the gentile provenance of Matthew and Luke), see Downing, F. G., God with Everything: The Divine in the Discourse of the First Christian Century (SWBA 2/2; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2008) 185Google Scholar; A. Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009) 185–9; Bockmuehl, ‘Son of David’, 479; M. Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 185 n. 21, 226 n. 195, 228 n. 19; B. Sargent, David Being a Prophet: The Contingency of Scripture upon History in the New Testament (BZNW 207; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014) 108 n. 292; B. A. Sarma, Hermeneutics of Mission in Matthew: Israel and the Nations in the Interpretative Framework of Matthew's Gospel (Carlisle: Langham, 2015) 33 n. 51; D. R. Catchpole, ‘Born of a Virgin? The Conversation Continues’, Conception, Reception, and the Spirit: Essays in Honor of Andrew T. Lincoln (ed. J. G. McConville and L. K. Pietersen; Cambridge: James Clarke, 2015) 157–72, at 159; M. Bockmuehl, ‘Scriptural Completion in the Infancy Gospel of James’, ProEccl 27 (2018) 180–202, at 192; A. K. Tan, The Rhetoric of Abraham's Faith in Romans 4 (Emory Studies in Early Christianity; Atlanta: SBL, 2018) 239. A few scholars cite Levin positively but affirm that Jews had a concept and practice of adoption by which Joseph could have adopted Jesus, apparently without realising that this controverts Levin's thesis: Lincoln, Born of a Virgin, 32, 73–4; C. R. Moss and J. S. Baden, Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) 153–4, 276. For negative assessments of Levin's argument, see D. K. Lowery, review of ‘Jesus, “Son of God” and “Son of David”: The “Adoption” of Jesus into the Davidic Line’, by Y. Levin, BSac 164 (2007) 101–2); M. Wesley, Son of Mary: The Family of Jesus and the Community of Faith in the Fourth Gospel (Australian College of Theology Monograph Series; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015) 33–4.

5 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 422.

6 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 423.

7 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 423–4, quoting Tigay, ‘Adoption’, 300.

8 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 425.

9 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 426.

10 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 429, quoting J. M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 bce–117 Kce) (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996) 381–95.

11 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 429.

12 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 431.

13 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 433.

14 E.g. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988–2007) i.185 (citing m. B. Bat. 8.6; Isa 43.1); R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (rev. edn; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1993) 139 (citing m. B. Bat. 8.6); D. L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994) 108 (citing levirate marriage); G. R. Osborne, Matthew (ZECNT 1; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 80 (citing Isa 43.1).

15 J. M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God (WUNT ii/48; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992) 3–57; S. R. Huebner, ‘Adoption and Fosterage in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean’, The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World (ed. J. E. Grubbs and T. Parkin; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) 510–31.

16 Cf. Wesley, Son of Mary, 33.

17 Lincoln, Born of a Virgin, 74 n. 9.

18 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 423–5.

19 In several cases Levin does not cite the texts but rather the characters involved (e.g. ‘Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob’); for these I have supplied the reference.

20 Levin mentions the adoption of ‘Raguel by his son-in-law Tobias’ (‘Jesus’, 423).  I assume that he means the opposite (the adoption of Tobias by Raguel), for which this is the appropriate reference.

21 Levin cites R. Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961) 40. For the original edition, see E. G. Kraeling, ed., The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century bc from the Jewish Colony at Elephantine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953) 227.

22 W. Horbury and D. Noy, eds., Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt: With an Index of the Jewish Inscriptions of Egypt and Cyrenaica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 118–19.

23 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 424 n. 25, citing Scott, Adoption, 75–88.

24 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 424.

25 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 425 and 429, respectively.

26 See Lincoln, Born of a Virgin, 32, 73–4; Moss and Baden, Reconceiving Infertility, 153–4, 276.

27 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 421, 423, 428, 431, respectively.

28 For previous scholarship in favour of Jewish adoption, see S. Feigin, ‘Some Cases of Adoption in Israel’, JBL 50 (1931) 186–200; W. H. Rossell, ‘New Testament Adoption – Graeco-Roman or Semitic?’, JBL 71 (1952) 233–4; D. J. Theron, ‘“Adoption” in the Pauline Corpus’, EvQ 28 (1956) 6–14; J. I. Cook, ‘The Concept of Adoption in the Theology of Paul’, Saved by Hope: Essays in Honor of Richard C. Oudersluys (ed. J. I. Cook, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 133–44; Scott, Adoption, 61–117; A. Phillips, ‘Some Aspects of Family Law’, Essays on Biblical Law (JSOTSup 344; London: Sheffield, 2002) 111–26, at 120–3; M. B. Álvarez, ‘Levirate Marriage and Adoption in the Old Testament: Socio-Legal Role’, Estudios Bíblicos 75 (2017) 407–19.

29 Huebner, ‘Adoption and Fosterage’, 510–11.

30 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.

31 ירשׁ is also used of Eliezer in Gen 15.4, where YHWH declares that Eliezer will not inherit Abram.

32 Cf. Num. 27.9–11; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (trans. J. McHugh; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961) 54.

33 C. H. Gordon, ‘Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets’, BA 3 (1940) 1–12, at 2–3; Cook, ‘Concept of Adoption’, 135–6; V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 420. For the texts, see J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19693) 219–20.

34 So E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964) 357, 359. H. Donner (‘Adoption oder Legitimation? Erwägungen zur Adoption im Alten Testament auf dem Hintergrund der altorientalischen Rechte’, OrAnt 8 (1969) 87–119, at 108–9) argues that this is not adoption primarily on the grounds that Ephraim and Manasseh are already in Jacob's line. But this misses the point: Ephraim and Manasseh receive lineal status (sons of Jacob) that was not theirs before. For a critique of Donner, see Scott, Adoption, 62–75, esp. 73–4. C. Westermann (Genesis 37–50: A Commentary (trans. J. J. Scullion; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) 185) asserts that Gen 48.5–6 records legitimation rather than adoption since the children remain with their biological parents. However, since Westermann allows that legitimation entails a change in status, this would still count as adoption on my working definition.

35 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 424 (emphasis original). In the corresponding footnote, Levin suggests that the deceased's property would have probably gone to his brother, citing Num 27.8–9. Whether this is true or not, an adoption (i.e. transfer of lineal status) still occurs. Moss and Baden (Reconceiving Infertility, 276 n. 28) assert that ‘levirate marriage was not legal adoption; on the contrary, the first son born was legally the heir of the deceased husband’. This is a non sequitur: the second clause states the argument for, not against, adoption.

36 Tigay, ‘Adoption’, 300. S. Japhet (‘The Israelite Legal and Social Reality as Reflected in Chronicles: A Case Study’, Sha'arei Talmon: Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East presented to Shemaryahu Talmon (ed. M. Fishbane and E. Tov; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992) 79–91) argues that Sheshan uses Jarha precisely because he is a non-Israelite slave and the offspring will therefore belong to him (cf. Lev 25.44–6). Even if Japhet is correct, adoption is still necessary since being owned by Sheshan would not qualify Attai to continue his line.

37 F. C. Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 56; cf. Tigay, ‘Adoption’, 300. Barzillai's descendants are excluded from the priesthood, but because of a lack of genealogical records, not his lineage as such (Ezra 2.62).

38 In addition to the passages noted above, the OT also uses adoption language to describe God's relationship with particular humans (e.g. 2 Sam 7.14; 1 Chron 17.13; 22.10; 28.6; Pss 2.7, 12; 89.26–7), which may imply the existence of adoption in Israel. However, this is difficult to prove, so for the purposes of this argument I rest my case on the stronger evidence presented above.

39 Unless otherwise noted, the versification follows OTP.

40 Numerous passages mention ‘the gods’ (e.g. 94–5, 115), and El (e.g. 107, 154), Shamash (e.g. 92–3) and Shamayn (95) all appear.

41 APOT ii.724–6.

42 Ahiqar Syriac A 1.4–5, 7; Syriac B 1.4 (Harris, APOT); Arabic 1.5 (Lewis, APOT). Contrast the Armenian version (1.4), where Ahiqar prays to three gods. Here I use the APOT versification.

43 Kraeling, Papyri, 227 (brackets and parentheses original, emphasis added).

44 Kraeling, Papyri, 224.

45 Kraeling, Papyri, x, 55, 225; J. J. Rabinowitz, Jewish Law: Its Influence on the Development of Legal Institutions (n.p., 1956) 29 n. 14; R. Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961) 40; Scott, Adoption, 85. Even Peppard (Son of God, 102–3), who doubts that Judaism had a practice or institution of adoption, affirms this text as a clear example of Jewish adoption. This interpretation is further strengthened by the fact that P.Oxy. ix.1206 (ca. 335 ce), a Roman deed of adoption (υἱοθεσία), includes a similar pledge not to enslave the adopted (here the child is free to begin with). For text, see V. Arangio-Ruiz, ed., Fontes iuris Romani antejustiniani, pars tertia (Florence: Barbèra, 19722) 39–41; for translation, J. G. Winter, Life and Letters in the Papyri (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1933) 58.

46 Horbury and Noy, Jewish Inscriptions, 118–19 (emphasis added). ἄτεκος is a variant spelling for ἄτεκνος (ibid., 78).

47 Horbury and Noy, Jewish Inscriptions, 75. For examples of the name Dositheus, see ibid., 142–3, 247; D. Rokeah, ‘Prosopography of the Jews in Egypt’, Corpus papyrorum Judaicarum, vol. iii (ed. V. A. Tcherikover, A. Fuks and M. Stern; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964) 167–96, at 173–4.

48 É. Bernand, Inscriptions métriques de l’Égypte gréco-romaine: recherches sur la poésie épigrammatique des grecs en Égypte (Annales Littéraires de l'Université de Besançon 98; Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1969) 94. θρεπτός could be used of a slave, foster-child or adopted child, but Bernand apparently means slave or foster-child. On θρεπτός, see A. Cameron, ‘ΘΡΕΠΤΟΣ and Related Terms in the Inscriptions of Asia Minor’, Anatolian Studies Presented to William Hepburn Butler (ed. W. M. Calder and J. Keil; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1939) 27–62; M. Ricl, ‘Legal and Social Status of threptoi and Related Categories in Narrative and Documentary Sources’, From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East (ed. R. G. Hoyland, H. M. Cotton, J. J. Price and D. J. Wasserstein; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 93–114.

49 Horbury and Noy, Jewish Inscriptions, 78.

50 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 424.

51 For a survey of the issues, see F. I. Andersen, ‘2 (Slavonic Apocalypse of) Enoch’, OTP i.91–100, at 94–7. In favour of an early date and Jewish provenance, see C. Böttrich, ‘The Melchizedek Story of 2 (Slavonic) Enoch: A Reaction to A. Orlov’, JSJ 32 (2001) 445–70, esp. 469–70; H. W. Attridge, ‘Melchizedek in some early Christian texts and 2 Enoch’, New Perspectives on 2 Enoch: No Longer Slavonic Only (ed. A. A. Orlov and G. Boccaccini; Studia Judaeoslavica 4; Leiden: Brill, 2012) 387–410, at 394, 405–6.

52 E.g. A. A. Orlov, ‘Melchizedek Legend of 2 (Slavonic) Enoch’, JSJ 31 (2000) 23–38, at 25; Böttrich, ‘Melchizedek Story’, 446–7; Attridge, ‘Melchizedek’, 394.

53 This is the reading of MS J, the longer recension. The shorter recension, MS A, is similar.

54 On this adoption, see in more detail Attridge, ‘Melchizedek’, 395–6. I thank Isaac W. Oliver for alerting me to this text and Attridge's essay.

55 It is true that Lot is referred to as the son of Abraham's brother in 13.1, 18 (cf. Scott, Adoption, 77 n. 76). However, this is to be expected since these notices occur at the outset and termination of Abraham's adoptive relationship with Lot, respectively. Furthermore, on our working definition of adoption, Lot need not cease to be Haran's son; he need only be counted as Abraham's son, and this is the clear intent of 12.30.

56 In addition, the author of Hebrews, who clearly possessed an intimate knowledge of the OT and Judaism and in all likelihood was a Jew, notes that as an adult Moses ‘refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter’ (Heb 11.  24), which suggests the breaking of an adoptive relationship.

57 In both cases, Josephus uses stock language for adoption (Scott, Adoption, 13).

58 Philo also uses human adoption as a metaphor to explain other concepts (Agr. 6; Congr. 23).

59 M. McNamara, ed., Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, Translated, with Apparatus and Notes (ArBib 1a; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992) 212 (emphasis and parentheses original).

60 D. J. Harrington and A. J. Saldarini, Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1987) 199 (emphasis original).

61 H. Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933) 377.

62 For both explanations, see b. B. Bat. 134a–b; P. Blackman, Mishnayoth (6 vols., New York: Judaica, 19902) iv.211. On (1) see J. Neusner, The Philosophical Mishnah, vol. ii:The Tractates’ Agenda: From Abodah Zarah through Moed Qatan (BJS 164; Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1989) 60–1. On (2), see Danby, Mishnah, 377 n. 4; G. Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend (New York: Doubleday, 2006) 63–4.

63 J. Neusner, The Tosefta in English (2 vols.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002) i.881–2.

64 Peppard, Son of God, 100; cf. 218 n. 76.

65 J. Shachter in I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud (35 vols.; London: Soncino, 1935–48) xxvii.102.

66 Although the basic point from Exod 2.10 is simple, the preceding argument from 1 Chron 4.17–18 and Num 13.30 is incredibly complex; see Peppard, Son of God, 100–1 for a possible explanation.

67 Levin, ‘Jesus’, 424 n. 30. For Merab as David's wife, see t. Sotah 11.17–20; b. Sanh. 19b.

68 M. Simon in Epstein, Babylonian Talmud, xiv.74. For a similar principle, see Exod. Rab. 46.5 (on Exod 34.1). See also b. Ketub. 50a and Exod. Rab. 45.6 (on Exod 33.19), which laud raising orphans as a righteous act.

69 For a survey of the issues, see M. Schachter, ‘Various Aspects of Adoption’, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 4 (1982) 93–115.

70 Schachter, ‘Aspects’, 105.

71 M. Gold, ‘Adoption: A New Problem for Jewish Law’, Judaism 36 (1987) 443–50, at 443–4; B.-Z. Schereschewsky, ‘Adoption: Later Jewish Law’, EncJud (22 vols.; ed. F. Skolnik and M. Berenbaum; Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007) ii.417–18; O. Yarden, ‘Adoption in Judaism’, Dialog 51 (2012) 276–83, at 278.

72 Gold, ‘Adoption’, 443; Nizard, S., ‘Histoires juives d'adoption’, Les Cahiers du Judaïsme 33 (2011) 8290Google Scholar, at 83–4.

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