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The Mamzer Jesus and His Birth


[1] See my essay, "Biblical Authority, Canonical Criticism, and Generative Exegesis," The Quest for Context and Meaning. Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders: Biblical Interpretation Series 28 (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 343-355.

[2] This is well expressed in Mishnah Qiddushin 3:12: "And in any situation in which a woman has no right to enter betrothal with this man but has the right to enter into betrothal with others, the offspring is a mamzer."

[3] Here the exclusion is as explicit as one could ask: "The male Ammonite and Moabite are prohibited [from entering the congregation of the Lord], and the prohibition concerning them is forever….Mamzerim and Netin are prohibited, and the prohibition concerning them is forever, all the same being males and females."

[4] See the now classic treatment of Jacob Neusner, Introduction to Rabbinic Literature: The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

[5] See the translations of Philip Blackman, Mishnayoth (Gateshead: Judaica, 1983) and Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah. A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), which I have here adapted.

[6] This text states, "He who says, This, my son, is a mamzer is not believed. And even if both parties say concerning the foetus in the mother's womb, He is a mamzer, they are not believed. Rabbi Judah says, They are believed." Although it may seem odd to wish the status of mamzerut upon one’s son, that attests the evolution of its meaning, as explored below.

[7] So that relatively speaking the status of mamzerut lifted (hence the apparently odd stance of Mishnah Qiddushin 4:8, cited above.

[8] Cf. Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness. Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 273-307.

[9] Cf. H. Freedman, Kiddushin : The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1936); Jacob Neusner, Bavli Tractate Qiddushin:: The Talmud of Babylonia (Atlanta: Scholars, 1996); Qiddushin min Talmud Bavli (Jerusalem: Vagshal, 1980).

[10] I owe this formulation to William Horbury, during discussions in the seminar on the Gospels and Rabbinic Literature which I chaired for the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (August 2000 in Tel Aviv). I am grateful for the encouraging, engaged discussion that took place; my presentation there is available as "Jésus, le mamzer (Mt 1.18)," New Testament Studies 46 (2001) 222-227.

[11] Dismissed by Johann Maier in Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Überlieferung: Erträge der Forschung 82 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1978), this legend which Celsus circulated c. 178 CE had recently been championed by John J. Rousseau and Rami Arav, Jesus and His World. An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 223-225. They maintain that an epitaph in Bingerbück, probably from the time of Germanicus and bearing the name of a soldier whose sobriquet was "Panther," attests the identity of Jesus’ real father. But if "Panther" was a common cognomen, that better explains the phraseology of the Talmudic legend than anything about Jesus’ paternity. Otherwise, why not ask whether Milne’s Tigger might be the true progenitor of Tiger Woods?

[12] See Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee. Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 171-173; Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus. A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).

[13] See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, 276-280. But he goes too far when he says on p. 276, "M. Yevamot 7:5 states that the offspring of a Jewish mother and a gentile or slave father is a mamzer." This text in fact relates to a woman of priestly descent: "An Israelite girl married to a priest, a priestly girl married an Israelite, when she produced a daughter with him, and the daughter went and married a slave or a gentile and produced a son from him, this son is a mamzer." This may well have been a precedent for the later, broader rule, but the two should not be confused. The pertinent text, which Cohen cites and explains on pp. 277-280, is Talmudic, b. Yebamot 45b.

[14] Sotah 2:6 establishes by consensus that this only applied between the time of betrothal and divorce, not before of after.

[15] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (London: Chapman, 1993) 124, "According to later Jewish commentary [sic] (Mishnah Ketuboth 1:5; TalBab Ketuboth 9b, 12a), in parts of Judea it was not unusual for the husband to be alone with his wife on at least one occasion in the interval between exchange of consent and the move to the home (and so interim marital relations were not absolutely condemned). But in Galilee no such leniency was tolerated and the wife had to be taken to her husband’s home as a virgin."

[16] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991) 245-246.

[17] Hermann L. Strack et Paul Billerbeck, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus erläutert aus Talmud und Midrasch: Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch I (München: Beck, 1922). W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel according to Saint Matthew 1: The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: Clark, 1988) 199-200 cite comparable texts (m.Yeb. 4.10; m. Ketub. 1.5; 4.12; b. Ketub. 12a), and draw the same distinction between Galilean and Judean custom. See also Craig S. Keener in A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 92; he makes reference to S. Safrai, "Home and Family," The Jewish People in the First Century 2: Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (eds S, Safrai and M. Stern; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1976)728-792, 756-757 and to Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith 1 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962) 45. These citations support Billerbeck’s observation, but Tosefta remains crucial to any discussion of regional difference. Davies and Allison are less speculative when they observe: "To judge from the rabbinic sources (which may be late), betrothal or engagement (‘erusin or qiddushim ) in ancient Judaism took place at a very early age, usually at twelve to twelve and a half years (b. Yeb. 62b; SB 2, p. 274). Following courtship and the completion of the marriage contract (Tob 7:14), the marriage was considered established: the woman had passed from her father’s authority to that of her husband. But about a year typically passed before the woman moved from her parents’ house to her husband’s house (m. Ket. 5.2; m. Ned. 10.5; b. Ket. 57b). During that time, although marriage was not yet consummated, the woman was ‘wife’ (Deut 20.7; 28.30; Judg 14.15; 15.1; 2 Sam 3.14), and she could become a widow (m. Yeb. 4.10; 6.4; Ket. 1.2) or be punished for adultery (Deut 22:23-4; 11QTemple 61). Thus betrothal was the legal equivalent of marriage, and its cancellation divorce (m. Ket. 1.2; 4.2; m. Yeb. 2.6; m. Git. 6.2)."

[18] But the formulation is actually that of Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith 1 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962) 45.

[19] See Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), Richard A.Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996), James F. Strange, "First Century Galilee from Archaeology and from the Texts," Archaeology and the Galilee. Texts and Contexts in the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods: South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 143 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 39-48, Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee; Jonathan L. Reed, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus. A Re-examination of the Evidence (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000).

[20] Évangile selon Saint Matthieu: Études Bibliques (Paris: Gabalda, 1941) 10.

[21] Bible Review 16.1 (2000) 31-51.

[22] See Adolf Neubauer, La Géographie du Talmud (Paris, 1868) 189-191, discussed in Chilton, God in Strength. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom: Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt 1 (Freistadt: Plöchl, 1979), reprinted in "The Biblical Seminar" (Sheffield: JSOT, 1987) 311-313. For a recent, critical treatment of Bethlehem of Galilee in relation to other Jewish settlements, see James F. Strange, "First Century Galilee from Archaeology and from the Texts," Archaeology and the Galilee. Texts and Contexts in the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine Periods: South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 143 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 39-48.

[23] Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

[24] See Mishnah Qiddushin 3:13: "Rabbi Tarfon says, Mamzerim can be purified. How so? A mamzer who married a slave girl -- the offspring is a slave. [If] freed, the son turns out to be a free man. Rabbi Eliezer says, This is a slave who also is in the status of a mamzer."

[25] See Scot McKnight, "Calling Jesus Mamzer," Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 1.1 (2003) 73-103.

[26] See Charles Quarles, "Jesus as Mamzer: A Response to Bruce Chilton’s Reconstruction of the Circumstances Surrounding Jesus’ Birth in Rabbi Jesus," Bulletin for Biblical Research 14.2 (2004) 243-255.

[27] Since I identified Jesus as a mamzer in Rabbi Jesus, 3-23, a considerable literature on this subject has emerged: Meir Bar Ilan, "The attitude toward mamzerim in Jewish society in late antiquity," Jewish History 14.2 (2000) 125-170; Shaye D. Cohen, "Some thoughts on ‘The attitude toward mamzerim in Jewish society in late antiquity,’" Jewish History 14.2 (2000) 171-174; Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee, 171-173; Andries van Aarde, Fatherless in Galilee. Jesus as child of God (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International 2001); Chilton, "Jésus, le mamzer (Mt 1.18)," New Testament Studies 46 (2001) 222-227; Chilton, "Recovering Jesus’ Mamzerut," Ancient Israel, Judaism, and Christianity in Contemporary Perspective: Essays in Memory of Karl-Johan Illman (ed. J. Neusner: Lanham: University Press of America, 2005).

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