Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

Examining the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke


Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father or adoptive father? Joseph is a major figure in the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Along with Mary, he is depicted at Jesus’ birth in this 16th-century painting by Lorenzo Lotto. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father? If not, who was Jesus’ biological father?

The annunciation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount that Jesus was conceived without the participation of a human male. Ancient views on the biology of conception—based on Aristotelian theory—differed from our modern understanding of genetics and biology. For Jesus to have been considered fully human by our modern standards—and not a semi-divine or special being—he would have needed complete human DNA. While Mary would have supplied the X chromosome, who supplied the essential Y chromosome? God? Joseph?

Andrew Lincoln of the University of Gloucestershire tackles these questions in his article “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” in the November/December 2014 issue of BAR. Starting with the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, he examines what early Christians thought about conception and explains how views about this subject have changed over time.

Who was Jesus’ biological father? As modern readers, we might wonder how the product of a virginal conception could truly be human—since the Y chromosome did not come from a human father. Andrew Lincoln explains that this issue would not have been troubling to an ancient audience or to the writers of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke:

Their understanding of conception, shaped by a patriarchal culture, would have been some variation of the dominant Aristotelian theory. On this view, the male semen provides the formative principle for life. The female menstrual blood supplies the matter for the fetus, and the womb the medium for the semen’s nurture. The man’s seed transmits his logos (rational cause) and pneuma (vital heat/animating spirit), for which the woman’s body is the receptacle. In this way the male functions as the active, efficient cause of reproduction, and the female functions as the provider of the matter to which the male seed gives definition. In short, the bodily substance necessary for a human fetus comes from the mother, while the life force originates with the father.

Those who heard the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke would have considered Jesus to be fully human since his mother supplied all of his bodily substance. Lincoln clarifies: “In terms of ancient biology, even without a human father, Jesus would have been seen as fully human. His mother, Mary, provided his human substance, and in this case God, through the agency of the divine Spirit, supplied the animating principle instead of a human father.”

In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?

According to the New Testament, was Joseph Jesus’ biological father or just his adoptive father?

The annunciation stories in Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was conceived without a human father, but later in the Gospel of Luke, Joseph is listed as Jesus’ parent and father (Luke 2:27, 33, 48; 4:22). Indeed, through Joseph’s lineage, Jesus is shown to have descended from King David (Luke 3:23–38). Do these accounts contradict the annunciation stories?

The traditional way of reconciling these seemingly incongruous accounts is that Joseph was Jesus’ adoptive father.

In his article, Lincoln offers another way: He posits that knowing the genre of the Gospels helps make sense of this apparent contradiction. As a subset of ancient Greco-Roman biography, the Gospels can be compared to other Greco-Roman biographies, such as Plutarch’s biographies of Theseus, Romulus and Alexander the Great. In these examples, the central character is given two conception stories, one natural and the other supernatural.

Read “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible” by Lawrence Mykytiuk from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR >>

Dual conception stories for the same figure was not uncommon in Greco-Roman biographies, and Lincoln suggests that this was a way of assigning significance and worth to those “who were perceived to have achieved greatness in their later lives.” In this genre, those who accomplished great things in their adult lives deserved an equally great—even supernatural—conception story.

Lincoln’s approach is certainly intriguing—especially when applied to the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. To read Lincoln’s entire treatment of the matter and learn more about what early Christians thought about conception, read the full article “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” by Andrew Lincoln in the November/December 2014 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” by Andrew Lincoln in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 3, 2014.


Learn more about ancient views of conception in the BAS Library:

J. Edward Barrett, “Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?” Bible Review, October 1988.

James E. Crouch, “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” Bible Review, October 1991.

Pieter Willem van der Horst, “Did Sarah Have a Seminal Emission?” Bible Review, February 1992.

Join the BAS Library today.

Is it possible to identify the first-century man named Jesus behind the many stories and traditions about him that developed over 2,000 years in the Gospels and church teachings? Visit the Jesus/Historical Jesus study page to read free articles on Jesus in Bible History Daily.


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  • Okwudili says

    It will bring peace to mankind if all this blindness been shared by deferent religions were treated and cured.

  • NelMac says

    The day that humans wake up and stop practicing ‘Religion’ is the day that the race shall be set free from a hideous idealogical tyranny.
    The ‘Bible’ is a book of politics, created by humans for susceptible minds to be controlled.
    It is the ultimate insult to the species to believe that, in your minds, you are so self important that you must attribute your existence to some ‘divine entity’, simply on the grounds that arriving at any other potential source of your existence is beyond your punile, limited and scarred mind(s).
    The only thing responsible for the divsion of humanity IS RELIGION.
    Disgustig, despicable, incalculable, incomprehensible, unprovable religion.
    LOOK BEYOND THIS SPHERE AND EXPLORE THE UNIVERSE before arriving at absurdity.
    I suppose that given the timescale of your ‘learning’, you may well have self-annihilated before that happens though.

    • Jeremy says

      The bible is far from political. If it were political then it would have a political agenda yet it encourages or rather commands neutrality from all human governments.

      False religion gives the true religion a bad name. There is only one true religion. The rest parade around with an appearance of Godly devotion but prove false to its power.

      Also Jesus said that he came to cause division. Some people, like yourself, do not want to accept the truth or change your false beliefs so you get upset with those of us who have the truth.

  • Julie says

    Thank God there is finally discussion on
    this. You have to be so careful who you confide in with your thought, worried or concerns within the body of Christ for you
    may be looked at in un- believer, instead of a human being with questions

    Thank you. Julie Daniel

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