Reaffirming the Reality of Jesus
Marc Turnage, the executive director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies, provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, he examines details in Scripture that add weight to the reality of Jesus.
For Christians all over the world, Christmas remembers the miraculous event when God entered into time and space in the baby Jesus. Such a miraculous story unfolded in the most natural way — the birth of a baby. The Gospels provide small details about the family of Jesus. Details often overlooked. Yet, when they are placed within the historical and cultural world of Jesus, they add depth and commonness, which do not make the event any less miraculous, only more real.
Jesus and his parents, like his brothers (Mark 6:3), bore popular Jewish names. Jewish male names in the first century frequently used biblical names. People, however, avoided giving their sons names of preeminent biblical heroes, such as Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, and Elijah. Names of secondary biblical figures such as Jacob, Judah, Joseph, and Joshua (cf. Mark 6:3) appeared frequently. The most popular biblical names were those used by the Hasmoneans, the priestly family that fought the Syrian Seleucids and won Jewish independence in the second century BC (as remembered by the festival of Hanukkah). The biblical Hasmonean names dominated male Jewish names in the first century. The most common Jewish male name was Simon (cf. Matt. 16:17). Jesus’ father, Joseph (Luke 2:4), bore a biblical name of one of Mattathias’ sons (2 Macc. 8:22). The name Joseph is the second most common Jewish male name of this period. The famous first century Jewish historian Josephus shared his name with Jesus’ father.
Jesus, which is the common Greek form of the name Joshua, was the sixth most common name among Jewish men in the first century. Pronounced “Yeshua,” but in the Galilee, the pronunciation of the name would have been “Yeshu.”
Jesus’ mother bore the name Miriam, after the sister of Moses (Num. 26:59). Miriam (or Mariamme) was also the name of the Hasmonean princess, the beloved wife of Herod the Great, whom he had killed. Most women in antiquity were not named, but among the female names we know from the Greco-Roman period, Miriam was the most popular. The names of Jesus and his family underscore the connection of Jesus and his family to the Jewish people, and just how common they were.
When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel and instructed him not to put Mary away, he greeted him, “Joseph, son of David” (Matt. 1:20). Luke also described Joseph as of the line of David (Luke 2:4). Some have questioned Joseph’s (and Jesus’) descent from the Davidic line suggesting that in the first century no one could legitimately trace their lineage to David.
The Mishnah mentions that during the first century the family of David brought the wood-offering to the Temple in Jerusalem (m. Ta’anit 4.2). Genealogy was important to Jews living in the land of Israel during the first century, and several claimed descent from the house of David. The Church father Eusebius says that the Roman Emperors Vespasian, Domitian, and Trajan all persecuted the family of David in order to ensure that no descendent of the kingly line remained (Church History 3,12; 19-20; 32:3-4).
An excavation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat HaMivtar in 1971-1972, uncovered a burial cave used in the first century BC to first century AD. Within the cave, archaeologists discovered an ossuary (a box for collecting bones after a person died and their flesh and tissues decayed) with the Hebrew inscription “belonging to the house of David.” This inscription indicates that certain families in the first century claimed Davidic descent.
The Gospels do not claim Davidic lineage for Jesus alone. Joseph too is identified as a “son of David” (Matt. 1:20). The appearance of other families and figures claiming descent from the royal family of David within the first century demonstrates that the claims of the Gospels concerning Jesus and Joseph’s descent from the line of David emerged from the Jewish world of the first century in the land of Israel.
Read within the cultural setting of Jesus, the Gospels indicate that Jesus grew up in a very devout Jewish home. His parents strictly adhered to the Law of Moses, and without a doubt, they influenced and shaped their son, his faith, his education, and his teachings. The details mentioned in the Gospels about Jesus’ family are often overlooked, but by understanding these details, we realize that Jesus was a part of His world and lived comfortably within the Jewish world in the land of Israel during the first century. They also underscore that the Gospel writers did not invent their stories, but even the stories of the birth of Jesus were firmly grounded in His Jewish world.
 T. Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part 1, Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 91; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 5-8, 56.