“I have heard preachers say that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. If so, how could Jesus be from the tribe of Judah, if John was from the tribe of Levi?”
Though the question appears fairly innocuous, the answer is one that gives us some interesting insights into the Bible and the family of Jesus.
Because of the deification of Jesus, and the understanding that He was God in the flesh, there is a temptation to sometimes forget that Jesus was also fully man, and that, like any other person, He grew up in a family, surrounded by brothers and sisters (probably at least 7 siblings!), cousins, aunts, uncles and the like. Furthermore, each of those individuals had personalities and histories of their own. Jesus did not grow up in a vacuum.
The Bible does not tell us a lot of the details about Jesus’ family life. Though written in and from a historic context, the purpose of the books of the Bible is theological. It is a book meant for the saving of souls, and for training men how to be servants of God. (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17) Therefore many things that might have been written in order to satisfy curiosity were left out as being unimportant.
But there are sometimes glimpses into this part of Jesus’ life, reminders that all of these people had lives beyond what was recorded.
One of these glimpses does indeed inform us that Jesus and John the Baptist were related, though they did belong to different tribes.
The legal genealogy of Jesus is given in Matthew 1, and traces the family of Joseph, the adopted father of Jesus. Joseph was a descendant of King David through David’s son Solomon. Luke 3 gives a slightly different genealogy, one which is understood to be the biological heritage of Jesus through His mother Mary, and her father, Heli, who was a descendant of King David through David’s son Nathan. This double lineage placed Jesus firmly in the tribe of Judah through both his mother, and through his adopted father.
John the Baptist, on the other hand was the son of a priest, Zechariah and Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth. The priests of Israel, without exception were of the tribe of Levi, and were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. (cf. Exodus 28:1). John’s mother, Elizabeth, we are told, was also a descendant of Aaron, being called one of the daughters of Aaron (Luke 1:5).
But, in Luke 1, when God spoke to Mary about the coming birth of Jesus, He gave Mary a sign, saying, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son.” (Luke 1:36; ESV) Mary, we are being told, was related to Elizabeth, though we are not told the nature of the relationship. We might note, that though the King James Version uses the word “cousin” here, the usage is archaic. The Greek word being used is ambiguous, and merely means a relative of one degree or another.
Some might question how Mary could be a descendant of Judah and Elizabeth a descendant of Levi, and they both still be related, but the answer is actually quite simple. Family lines were traced by the Jews through the father, not the mother, and, so long as tribal inheritances were not affected, Jewish women could freely marry outside of their tribe. Thus Mary’s mother, or Elizabeth’s mother, or both (or even a grandmother) could have been sisters to one or the other families. Mary’s mother, for instance, could have been Elizabeth’s sister, or Elizabeth’s aunt. This would make Mary either a niece to, or a first cousin of Elizabeth. Granted, the relationship might have been more distant, but Luke 1 does show a certain familiarity between the two family lines.
Through this link, Jesus would have been related to John, albeit a step further removed on the genealogical tree. That Jesus and John knew each other fairly well seems demonstrated by their conversation in Matthew 3:13-15, where John recognizes Jesus as being his moral superior.
So what lesson can we learn from this brief genealogical insight into the family of Jesus?
One simple lesson is simply this: God did not send Jesus into the world without providing Him with a full family; and a devout, godly family at that. Mary was a good woman in the sight of God (cf. Luke 1:28). Joseph, her betrothed husband, was a just and loving man (cf. Matthew 1:19). Likewise, there was an extended family, many of equally good character, such as Zechariah and Elizabeth. If God thought that a good family was important for His son, how important is it to us to try and provide our own children with the same?
One of the best ways to provide that environment our children need is by ourselves being faithful to God. If that is a need in your life, the church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions, please share them with us through our website chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.