Monday, February 5, 2018

Did Jesus Look Like Joseph?

Before playing the role of pilot Poe Dameron in Episode 7 (and 8, and 9) of the latest Star Wars trilogy, actor Oscar Isaac was playing the role of Joseph of Nazareth (sometimes called “Saint Joseph”) in the 2006 film The Nativity Story. 

One creative liberty that film took in portraying Joseph’s ambivalence about being the social but not biological father of Jesus is a scene I remember well, which the Catholic Register then noted as follows:

“Even after the angelic appearance in his dream, Joseph continues to wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, notably in an affecting moment on the journey to Bethlehem involving an innocent comment from a street vendor.”

Let me fill in some details of this scene.  A street vendor notices a very pregnant Mary traveling with Joseph, and says something like this to the couple (sorry, I am still trying to track down the exact quote on DVD or YouTube): “there is no greater blessing than to see your own face reflected in the face of your child.” This comment leads Joseph to react with stunned silence, and a far-off look in his eyes, since he realizes that he might never have that particular type of experience with this particular baby.

Did Jesus look like Joseph?

You might be wondering why I am asking this question in the first place.

The answer is that I’ve thinking about CRISPR recently. Hold on, let me explain.

I’ve been revisiting questions about the relative importance of genetics in the identity of a human person.

And I’ve been imagining what innovations in applying new genetic technologies within human populations might most push the envelope.

So, naturally, I have been wondering what might happen if someone somehow found an ancient DNA sample from the historical Jesus. And then sought to use it, now, to do some sort of genetic engineering.

You know, harmless stuff like enhancing my “capacity for compassion genes” (if such there be) to be more like the genes Jesus had.  Or creating a genetic replica of Jesus in the lab, to make a genetically ideal human person (this is a twist on the premise behind the comedy Twins, featuring actors Schwarzenegger and Devito).  Or making a Disney-themed fun-park with live genetic replicas of Jesus. (I would call this “Jurassic Jesus” as a nod to the premise of another movie franchise, but blogs and even t-shirts have already taken that label for something different.)

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Anyhow. Imagining such dystopian applications eventually pushed me back to a more basic question: what would the genome of Jesus be like in the first place, and especially in its relationship to the genome of his human (foster) father Joseph?

More precisely, I found myself asking Q1, not Q2:

Q1: Should someone who believes the Apostles Creed—especially the bit “I Jesus...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...”—believe that Jesus bore a family resemblance to Joseph, even though they are not directly genetically/genealogically related in the standard way?

Q2: Should someone who does not believe that bit of the Creed believe that Jesus bore that resemblance?

(Q2 seems uninteresting, unless you think that sons sometimes do not look like their fathers, or that Jesus had a different human father than Joseph.)

Q1, of course, relies on an unstated premise: that the family resemblance between a son and his father is based upon one or more similar phenotypes, which are, in turn, themselves based upon one or more similar genetic structures. 

I know, I know, there are exceptions to this general rule; Jesus could have learned to imitate Joseph’s smile, gait, beard, hair, and handlebar mustache, without there being any genetic similarity between them at all.

Still, that unstated premise is why Q1, a question about phenotypic appearance, is really just a proxy for a question about genotypic similarity:

Q3: Should someone who believes the Creed believe that Jesus was genetically similar to Joseph, in ways like a son is typically genetically similar to his own biological father?

I admit that I do not think I know the answer to Q1 or Q3. But since I am just beginning to think it through, I wanted to ask for suggestions from the readers here.  Any suggestions are welcome.

Relatedly, I have also been reflecting on a different intersection between CRISPR and the incarnation.

This intersection concerns a possible future innovation of adding human genetic sequences to non-human individuals, in larger and larger amounts, so that the eventual individual produced by such alterations is a human person.

The following proposition might be suggested for approaching such a case:

P1. If an individual is a human person at one moment of its existence, then that individual is a human person at every moment of its existence.

Two corollaries (I think) immediately follow from P1:

P1-C1: an individual cannot become a human person and continue to exist.

P1-C2: an individual cannot cease being a human person and continue to exist.

But Richard Swinburne, in his book The Christian God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), says this on pp. 192-193:

“The central doctrine of Christianity is that God intervened in human history in the person of Jesus Christ in a unique way; and that quickly became understood as the doctrine that in Jesus Christ the second person of the Trinity became man, that is, human.  In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon formulated that doctrine in a precise way…Chalcedon assumed that human nature is not (or not invariably) an essential nature.  That is, just occasionally, an individual could become human or cease to be human while remaining the same individual.  It then affirmed that the one individual, the second person of the Trinity, who was eternally divine, became also (at a certain moment of human history, about AD 1) human (i.e. man).” 

In other words, P1-C1 is false.

And that means P1 is false.


Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. I’m not sure what to say in response to Q1 or Q3, so this is all speculation. Should someone who believes the Creed believe that Jesus was genetically similar to Joseph, in ways like a son is typically genetically similar to his own biological father? I would presume so just because the gospels give the impression that people did not question Joseph’s paternity. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?”

    I also would presume so because, if Jesus was begotten of the Father and born of the Virgin Mary, and the Father is not a physical being, he would have received genetic material either from only Mary or from both Mary and Joseph (all miraculously, of course). If we also assume a classical conception of God as a perfect being, it makes sense that, between these two options, God would have chosen genetic material from both Mary and Joseph. This would be more consistent with the gospels (Matthew’s genealogy following Joseph’s lineage and Luke’s genealogy following Mary’s) and preferable (any shadow over Jesus’s paternity may have taken attention away from Jesus’s moral teaching and salvific purpose).

  2. On the second half of your post...

    P1 seems false to me. The person of Jesus, maybe more the Christ of faith rather than the historical Jesus, seems to provide a counterexample to P1 and P1-C1. If we accept this, humanness is not an essential nature, such that, a human person exists at all times as a human. (It is possible, however, to think of Jesus as an exception to P1 as a general rule and the general rule applies to everyone else.)

    The second part of your post also raises an interesting question of what it is to be human. Philosophers throughout history such as Aristotle and Kant assumed a clear demarcation between being human and being other animated beings. Where to draw the demarcation line is less clear now.

    Many non-human animals are already genetically similar to humans. But we can imagine making other genetic modifications so that they would be indistinguishable from humans. What modifications would be necessary to effectuate this change from nonhuman to human?

    If we’re talking about a change from nonhuman animal to a person, some may think that no modification is necessary because the distinction is merely social (or socially constructed).

    But a change from nonhuman to human (homo sapiens) would involve some genetic modifications and maybe something else (this is controversial: genetic modifications to the brain may not be sufficient to reproduce all that it is to be human). Whether a genetically modified cross-species clone is sufficiently human may be something we can test for, but this also raises a further controversial question: whether such experiments should be done (we can imagine all the tragic failures in the wake of one successful attempt).

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  4. I am certainly no expert on either the finer points of genetics or apostolic faith, but it seems that we can say your titular question (and the articulated variants) have only a few possible answers. If we assume the traditional Christ narrative for the sake of discussion, either:

    A1) Jesus had no genetic relationship to Joseph, and hence would have no phenotypic resemblance to him more than any other person would. Or

    A2) God intervened (either genetically or phenotypically) to make Jesus look like Joseph (perhaps to spare Joseph and Mary some awkward questions, or perhaps for 'mysterious' reasons of His own.)

    Of course, if (A2) is the case then it seems, baring special revelation from God, that there is no way we today could know this. And since (A2) is surely possible it seems as though your (Q1) and (Q3) are open questions, potentially unanswerable. (As for (Q2), I suppose it would depend on the persons' reasons for not accepting that part of the Creed.)

    But if we stipulate that Joseph was not genetically Jesus' father, we can rule out:

    A3) Jesus was genetically and phenotypically similar to Joseph the way fathers are to their (genetic) children without any special intervention from God.

    I can't see any way someone could accept the Creed, in whole, and (A3) at the same time.

    (Prior comment copied, deleted, edited and posted due to typos).

  5. “But if we stipulate that Joseph was not genetically Jesus’s father…”. I’m wondering if you meant to include the word “not” in this statement. Even if Joseph was genetically Jesus’s father, he was not genetically Jesus’s father in the typical way without divine intervention?

    Either way, I agree that the Creed and (A3) are incompatible.

    As I mentioned above, I think the Creed is compatible with divine intervention to make Jesus genetically (and phenotypically) related to Joseph, although, granted, this may complicate or at least invite reconsideration of other Christian doctrines (it’s not a bad thing that our modern understanding of genetics may cause us to reconsider and maybe provide better explanations of other Christian doctrines).

  6. Hi gang,

    I'm coming late to this bunfight, sorry!

    Couldn't we say that P1 one could be true and retain the dual nature of Christ as presented in the Nicene Creed?

    Jesus is "...born of the Father before all ages..." That is, Jesus as second person of the Trinity is not a temporal being and so has no temporal properties. Jesus as human being is a human being at every moment of his existence. This satisfies P1.

    P1-C1 is irrelevant to Christian doctrine since Jesus did not become a human person. He is one and the same person, but has two natures - a divine one and a human one.

    A3 does seem to conflict with the Creed.

  7. Tom,

    I think you offer one reasonable way of looking at it. (α) Jesus always had two natures, divine and human. He never became a human person, he was always a human person.

    But it’s also reasonable to think (ω) Jesus is pre-existing and un-created, but that at some moment in time, he became a human person. This may be more consistent with the plain language of the gospel accounts of the incarnation (including the writer of the gospel of John: σὰρξ ἐγένετο (became flesh)).

    (Time is a separate matter. Although I mentioned the classical conception of God earlier, I have some nontraditional views of God with regard to certain properties including temporality. I think an extended body that moves must exist in time and space. At some point, Jesus was an extended body that moved and, consequently, existed in time and space. If this is right, at the very least, the second Trinitarian person was/is a temporal being. Sometimes I wonder if there is a telling of human history from a divine perspective, an atemporal perspective, and a telling of human history from a human perspective. From an atemporal perspective (consistent with (α)), every event has already occurred (like dots on a page—there may be logical priority, but no temporal priority), but, from a human perspective (consistent with (ω)), every event is occurring (like connecting the dots, moving from one dot to the next on a page).)

    Rather than a matter of time, the question may involve a matter of being or existence. I think people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of God because they determine existence based on physical measurements (which is like measuring love with a ruler). I think (α) assumes (α*) being human does not require having a physical body. Jesus was always human, but at some point took on a body (became flesh).

    I tend to think that being human involves having material and immaterial aspects (even if not at all times—we can be out of body, but that is not our natural state), so I’m not sure how I feel about (α*).