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A Christmas Story: The Significance of Jesus' Family

Jesus' family, especially Joseph, had a significant impact on Jesus' young life and future ministry.

Jesus' family ties Him to history, joins Him to humanity, and connects Him with the Jewish people. His family makes the Incarnation real, and His family shaped who He became as a man. Although the New Testament offers little detail about Jesus' family, reading the gospels and being sensitive to issues of language and culture provides a window into the family Jesus grew up in and its influence upon His adult life.


Jesus' parents, like his brothers (Mark 6:3), bore popular Jewish names. The most common Jewish male name in the land of Israel during the first century was Simon. Likewise, Jesus' father, Joseph, bore a biblical name — the second most common Jewish male name of this period.

Jesus, which is the common Greek form of the name Joshua, was the sixth most common name among Jewish men in the Greco-Roman period. In first-century Galilee, the pronunciation of the name would have been "Yeshu."  

Jesus' mother bore the name Miriam, after the sister of Moses (Num. 26:59). Among the female names we know from the Greco-Roman period, Miriam was the most popular.  

These seemingly insignificant details underscore the connection of Jesus and his family to the Jewish people. The depth of Jesus' family's Judaism penetrated beyond their names; the gospels depict his parents as devoted in their observance of the Law of Moses. 


Luke records that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary observed two customs commanded in the Law of Moses: Mary's offering of the sacrifice for her purification (Lev. 12:1-8), and Joseph's ransom payment for his first-born son (Exodus 34:20; Num. 18:14-16). The manner in which Joseph and Mary observed these commandments attests to the strict degree of Jewish piety within Jesus' home. 

According to Leviticus, a mother was impure for 40 days after giving birth to a son. At the conclusion of 40 days, she had to bring a sacrifice of a lamb or young doves to complete her purification. In the first century, women commonly waited until the family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and after bearing several children to offer the sacrifices for her purification. Mary, however, performed this rite at the end of 40 days (Luke 2:22) in strict observance of the commandments.            

The redemption of the first-born son could occur from the thirtieth day after the child’s birth. A father could pay the redemption fee to a priest anywhere within the land of Israel. Some very devout parents read the law of the redemption of the first-born and believed that because the phrase, “And none shall appear before me empty” occurs in Deuteronomy 16:16 and Exodus 34:20, the passages connected the ceremony of the redemption of the first-born son with pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the offering of gifts in the temple. Joseph and Mary apparently read the commandment of Exodus 34:20 in this manner and fulfilled the commandment in Jerusalem at the temple.   


Joseph never appears in the gospels outside of the birth narratives, and likely died prior to Jesus' baptism and public ministry. The New Testament identifies Joseph as from the line of David (Luke 2:4). According to Matthew, Joseph was a carpenter.

In the land of Israel in the first century, a father bore the obligation to provide his son's religious education and teach him a craft. Within first century society, carpenters were artisans, and regarded as particularly learned. If a difficult problem arose, people in the village would ask, "Is there a carpenter among us, or the son of a carpenter, who can solve the problem for us?"  

Matthew describes Joseph as "a righteous man." The Greek term used by Matthew reflects the Hebrew word "tzaddik," which not only identified Joseph as a pious person, but a learned sage. 

This leads to the conclusion that Jesus had an outstanding Jewish education. Underneath Jesus' simple language in the gospels lays a complex current of thought connected to the highest level of academic training.


When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew's gospel, he greeted him, "Joseph, son of David." Some have claimed that in the first century no one could legitimately trace their lineage to David, and the gospel writers sought to connect Jesus with David's line in order to strengthen Jesus' messiahship.

Genealogy was important to Jews living in the land of Israel during the first century, and several claimed descent from the house of David.  

An excavation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat HaMivtar (1971-1972) uncovered a burial cave. Within the cave, archaeologists discovered an ossuary (a box for collecting bones after a person died, used in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.) 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 also identify Joseph 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 linguistic and 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 the Lord, and without a doubt, they influenced and shaped their son, his faith, his education, and his teachings.

In the modern church, perhaps we too can learn from sitting at the feet of Jesus' parents.