This post is a review of the first three chapters of The Father of Joshua/Jesus by Saul Levin. In case you're wondering about the title, both Joshua and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew. Joshua is the English translation of Yehoshua, while Jesus is based on Iesous which is the Greek version of Yehoshua (Yeshua in Aramiac). The first part of this book sticks to the Hebrew Bible, but he does discuss the New Testament Jesus later on.
The first chapter is really just an introduction in which Levin explains his methodology and gives a summary of the book to come.
"The whole subject, as I approach it, belongs to philology rather than history or theology. In dealing with accounts of divine procreation, it would be chimerical to play the historian, as though I knew what actually happened to certain persons at such-and-such a time in such-and-such a place. [...] The primary evidence consists of texts, mostly but not altogether literary; and I look upon them less as sources of information about the material life of the past than as artifacts of importance and interest in their own right."
The Biblical hero Joshua, who became the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses, is said to be the son of Nun. However, Joshua's patronymic is kind of strange. Hebrew usually uses "ben" to indicate "the son of" (for example Joseph ben Mattathias). However, in Joshua's name, "bin" is used instead. Also, his father's name, Nun, is simply one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It's equivalent to saying he is the son of N. As Joshua's patronymic is used more than any other in the Pentateuch, it was the most liable to be simplied due to frequent use, but being simplified to a single letter is a bit too much.
Also, while the Hebrew versions of the Bible, the Massoretic and Samaritan texts, present Joshua as the son of Nun, the Septuagint, which is written in Greek, presents him as the son of Naue. Josephus, also writing in Greek, renders Joshua's patronymic in a curious way (Antiquities 3.2.3 and 3.14.4), although since I don't know Greek I can't explain why it's curious. Scholars usually just chalk this up to a corruption of the text, but in his book The Father of Joshua/Jesus, Saul Levin uses philology to argue against this. He demonstrates that Naue cannot be the Aramaic form of Nun, it can only be an Aramaism of the divine name. Joshua wasn't originally the son of Nun, but rather the son of the Lord.
Since I don't know Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, I can't vouch for how persuasive his arguments are. While they were a recent discovery when Levin wrote this book (1978) and he therefor does not reference them in detail, the Dead Sea Scrolls do prove that the Septuagint is often closer to the original Hebrew than the Massoretic or Samaritan texts. I don't know whether the DSS strengthen Levin's argument or not.
So if Joshua is the son of the Lord, what does this mean? Was he literally YHWH's son, or was "son of the Lord" simply an honorific title applied to a great man? Odysseus, for example, was called the son of Zeus in an honorific, not a literal, sense (Iliad 2.173). Calling someone the son of a god doesn't fit Jewish culture very well, so its origins are most likely Pagan, although there are vestiges of proof that Samson was originally the son of a sun god.
Sterile couples miraculously having children with the help of God or an angel is a common theme in the Bible. Samson's mother seems to have gotten pregnant by having sex with a stranger who was possibly an angel since the Hebrew phrase for "a man comes to a woman" is most often used euphemistically for sexual intercourse.
A man of God has come to me [had sex with me], and his looks were like the looks of God's messenger [an angel], very awesome; I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name. (Judges 13:6)
The prophet Samuel also had a miraculous birth. Reading between the lines, Levin suggests that it may have been the priests at the temple who got Samuel's mother pregnant.
Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (1 Samuel 2:22)
When a childless woman goes to the temple to pray for offspring and comes back pregnant, is this what's happening? In the ancient world, if you got impregnated by a temple worker, or "hallowed one", the pregnancy was considered a gift from God and the child produced would be called a son of god. Temple prostitution was a common fertility rite in the ancient world, but was it practiced in Israel?
There shall be no hallowed woman from the daughters of Israel; and there shall be no hallowed man from the sons of Israel. You shall not bring a prostitute's hire or the price of a dog (male prostitute?) to the house of the Lord your God for any vow; for both of them are an abomination to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 23:17-18)
Notice how the above passage doesn't condemn temple prostitution outright, it only forbids Israelites from being temple prostitutes. As long as the "hallowed ones" are strangers, the practice seems to have been acceptable.
The three kings of Judah (Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah) all dedicated themselves to eradicating the hallowed ones from the temple.
And he demolished the houses of the hallowed ones [temple prostitutes] that were in the house of the Lord where the women wove coverings [literally "houses"] for the May-pole. (2 Kings 23:7)
So it appears that temple prostitution did occur in Israel, although it became unpopular in later times.
Turning back to Joshua, we find that it was Moses who gave him his current name in the Massoretic text: "And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua" (Numbers 13:16) The Samaritan Pentateuch, on the other hand, does not contain the name Hoshea at all, rendering the passage ridiculous: "And Moses called Joshua the son of Nun, Joshua." This can't just be a scribal error because the Samaritan text removes the name Hoshea everywhere it appears. What's going on here?
Most of the great men in the Bible have miraculous birth narratives, but the Bible tells us nothing about Joshua's parents. In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 35a), Joshua is called "the one with the lopped off head." An eighteenth century rabbinic writing by Abraham ben Elijah, which appears to originate from a much earlier date, explains why.
In a cento (a story mainly constructed from different Biblical passages cobbled together), we are told that Joshua's mother was sterile and miraculously got pregnant. However, Joshua's father learned from heaven that his son would one day cut off his head, so they put him in an ark and sent him down the Nile a la Moses where he was swallowed by a fish a la Jonah. Someone caught the fish and brought it before the king. When they opened up the fish and found a child inside, the king decided to make Joshua an executioner. Joshua ends up chopping off his father's head and sleeping with his mother. However, their marriage bed fills up with milk from her breasts. Joshua is about to kill her for being a witch when she reveals that she's his mother. Joshua is called the son of Nun (which means fish) because he came out of a fish.
This story helps explain why Joshua was called the son of the Lord. Not only is his birth due to divine intervention, but his patronymic "son of a fish" indicates that his human father is either non-existant or utterly insignificant.
In the thirteenth century document called the Zohar, Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Eleazar encounter a divine stranger and ask him the name of his father, to which he replies that his father was a great and ancient fish who swallowed all the other fish in the sea and spit them out again alive. Even though his father is not YHWH, his father is still a god. When pressed for his own name, the stranger says it's Benajahu (The Lord Builds or Son of the Lord) son of Jehoiada (The Lord Knows). If the Zohar intends Jehoiada to be the name of his mother, then "know" could be intended in a sexual sense. She knew the Lord and the stranger is the son of the Lord. Although he isn't named outright, this stranger is most likely meant to be Joshua.