Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Ancestor's Likely Tale.

LUKE 2.3-4. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

So, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because Joseph was descended from David, who lived about 1000 years earlier.

Obviously it was different for Joseph but I have a father, two grandfathers, four great grandfathers, eight great great grandfathers, 16 great great great grandfathers, etc.

With some four generations a century, forty in a thousand years, that gives me 1,099,511,627,776 (i.e. over 1 trillion) male ancestors who lived about 1000 years ago.

But, isn't that more than the population of the earth now, let alone then?

Okay, allow for a few marriages between cousins, second cousins, etc and say only a billion or so. Still more a than the population of the earth 1000 years ago. Well, let's be generous and say marriage between cousins, second cousins, third cousins, cousins once removed, etc, was common place and say I probably only had about a million, or maybe just a few hundred thousand male ancestors.

And I don't know anything about a single one of them with any certainty. Some of them could have been people we know about. It would be surprising if a few weren't. Apparently, most of us Europeans are descended from Charlemagne I, and a lot of us from Genghis Khan but most of them would have been complete nonentities who left no mark on history other than the genes they passed on and which eventually found themselves in me. (Thank you very much).

With that many ancestors, I could probably pick practically any town or village in England and probably most of Europe and a good deal of Central Asia, and claim it as my ancestral home.

But not so for Joseph, if we're to believe the Bible. Joseph only has ONE male ancestor from 1000 years ago, and he knew who that was and where he lived. He was King David from Bethlehem.

So too did the Roman authorities, it seems. How else would they check that no one had cheated and just popped down to the nearest town? And they knew it for everyone else in Judea, who also knew their (only) remote ancestor's home town. This is record-keeping far above what any modern, bureaucratic state can accomplish.


Can YOU name all the towns all your ancestors from 1000 years ago lived in? Do you know any of those ancestors' names?

A mystery, eh? No doubt Christians can explain this curious puzzle...


  1. Being interested in my family history, and tracing it using facts and evidence (the only way) I reach an impasse as recently as 1817 in my male line. At less than 200 years I came across a problem whereby there are two people born in the same year, with the same name, in the same area. Documentation does not indicate which is my ancestor so I can proceed no further.
    If this is what it is like now with Birth, Marriage and Death records well detailed, how much more difficult must it have been in biblical times?

  2. We want to see the birth certificates.

  3. One possible answer:

    a) People who can trace at least one line of their ancestors back to someone special in history are usually proud of it and make a big thing of it. No doubt I could trace someone in my fam tree if I knew everything about it, but (except for a few threads) I can't get back further than 3 or 4 generations. (The most notable ancestor I can find it William "Circulation of Blood" Harvey, but that's no good because our family only actually married into his.)

    b) Bear in mind that for royal families, records are far more likely to be kept of who parented whom (usually "fathered" in the patriarchal society of that time) so it is more likely that those of royal bloodline can lay their hands on the appropriate records than those who are not.

    c) One can posit the possibility that all those who *could* demonstrate their direct Davidic bloodline would be required to register this in one particular place, i.e. Bethlehem.

    d) I'm not fully up to speed on the density of population of Judaea 2 millennia ago, but I can see that it may be plausible for a requirement to be made for all such mentioned in (a) to all congregate in the same place. However, accommodation would necessarily have been limited.

    e) Because of the pride mentioned in (a), David's descendants would be all too keen to attend, just so as to be able to show their belonging to a possibly exclusive club, so to speak.

    The only remaining point open to question would then be (c) - what evidence do we have that the Roman authorities *did* order this census, and exactly what were the terms of it? From what I understand there *were* censuses around that time, just none matching the specifications as detailed in Matthew / Luke (whichever, I misremember who said what and can't find a Bibblebabble to check).

    In summary: I'm not fully sure of the logical validity of this posting, and suggest that as it stands it's one of the weaker planks of the atheist platform, being straightforward to refute (and therefore, unfortunately, ridicule). Soz.

    1. There is also the problem of explaining how this would work for ALL Judeans, why King David was regarded as Joseph's only ancestor (and why stop with him?) and how the Roman authorities would have all this information so they could check that people had gone to the right town or village.

    2. First off i think this is one of atheism's weakest arguments against christianity and here's why.

      I've also been intererested in my family's history. And as the first reply states even going back 200 years can be very difficult. I have been very fortunate in that i have a relatively recent connection into british aristocracy that leads to british royalty, so there is a lot of information that lets me go back well over 1000 years.

      If Joseph could have traced his lineage back into an aristocratic or royal family he could have gone back 1000 years as well.

      In genealogy though often times a persons lineage refers to a direct male line. So in this pattern a person only has one 'ancestor' per generation. If Joseph were of a direct male line to King David that would be something to be very proud of. Though i imagine a lot of people would have claimed it. David was a legendary king it would like claiming a connection to Alfred the Great. Most likely all of us in britian could be descended from him but proving it is another matter.

    3. So you'll be able to tell me then who each of your ancestors of 1000 years ago were and where they lived. Then you'll be able to do the same for all the people in your town and explain how the Roman authorities would have done this in Judea in 0 BCE to check that they all went to the right village.

      Then you'll be able to explain why just one of the several thousand different towns and villages those hundreds of thousand of ancestors from 1000 years ago had lived in should have been selected as the ancestral town or village, and how the Roman authorities would have arrived at the same conclusion.

      No problem if my argument is a weak one and you can see through it, eh?

      Incidentally, I have traced my ancestry back to 1550. I'm frankly amazed that you can trace yours back to 1012. You must let me in on your secret as we don't seem to have records going back that far in England where parish records were not kept much before about 1500 and many of those have been destroyed, often by mice, mildew or neglect.

  4. There is another problem with the census and travel from the mythical Nazareth in Galilee some 90 miles through another country, Judea, to Bethlehem to pay taxes to that other country. Oops! The authors of that layer of Luke had no idea of the divisions established by the tetrarchy almost 150 years earlier in or just after 6 CE.

  5. I am not a "hater," but would like to point out that the lineage is always through the male. So, Joseph, according to the Jewish way of reckoning it, traces back only on his father's side. So, when he traces his lineage back to the original 12 tribes of Israel, he will only be counting his father's father's father's father's father's (etc. etc.) father. According to this system, each of us only has ONE ancestor 1,000 years ago. In tribal cultures, your "tribe" or "clan" genealogy is important and I don't doubt that Jews at the time could trace their lineage pretty far back (how far back I don't know, I am neither a scholar of the Bible nor of history). To give a modern day example, I thoroughly enjoyed the book "Infidel," by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and although she was born as recently as 1969, she was taught to trace her lineage amazingly far back (also through the male).

    Which tribe of Israel you were from seems to be pretty important in the Bible, so I don't think it's unfair to say that Joseph may have known that he was of the tribe of Judah through David.

    That said, I cannot see how Joseph's Jewish ancestry would've mattered a hill of beans to the Romans.


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