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 believe...in 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.
Department of Philosophy