© Revd Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra
A brief study of the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew, Christmas, and some possible implications, based on Robert Miller’s book ‘Born divine’.
I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and particularly to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.
It was 1997 and I was in ministry in Central West NSW. I was working in my study when the phone rang. The voice on the other end indicated she was about to head off to Sydney. But before she left she wanted to ask me a question.
“I gotta know. I gotta know,” she said agitatedly. “Do you believe
that Jesus was the Son of God. That Jesus was divine”.
No matter what I said I was not able to ease her obvious anxiety. I was not prepared to answer with a simplistic ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ which she demanded.
However, I did get from her what had caused this demand for answers. She had read a newspaper article which had been placed on our church Notice Board. The article quoted David Millikan claiming Uniting Church ministers were no longer required to believe in the historical virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Jesus - to which he was objecting.
The context for her questioning was Millikan’s conservative evangelical theology. Millikan’s context was his opposition to the theology expressed in much of the Jesus Seminar research, especially that by Robert Funk who just happened to be visiting Sydney at the time.
My context for this evening is the forthcoming Festival of Christmas, the birth or infancy stories of both Matthew and Luke we always hear at this time, and the suggestions about these stories and their relationship to the claim: Jesus was divine - depending all the while on comments and suggestions from some scholars of the Jesus Seminar, primarily among them, Robert Miller and his latest book Born divine. The birth of Jesus and other sons of God.
And it is Christmas...
The newspaper editor seemed to say it all.
“Christmas is a Christian feast which replaced the old Roman orgy of the Saturnalia, and some cynics think it has turned full circle. But whether Christians like it or not, Christmas has become a wider observance than a commemoration of Bethlehem and the coming of the Christ Child”
(Editorial, The Australian, 24 December 1997).
The festival called Christmas is a celebration of story, myth, customs and ritual. (Although I think I really like Jack Shea’s comment better: “a mighty mess of experience, tradition, Bible and imagination”(Shea 1993:15).) Since its inception it has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, but more importantly, continually reshaped.
A study of its development suggests it has always been a weaving together of popular culture and religion within each environment where it is acknowledged and celebrated. Contemporary celebrations include mass media, in an intentional way, to this weaving process, resulting in “new stories based on old themes” which have “simplified further the complex issues of Christmas materialism and Christmas spirit” (Restad 1995:164).
However, for our purposes tonight, there is another strand in this festival we need to at least take note of, that:
“several scholars claim the Christian church’s assumed hold over the festival as an exclusive religious event, is, and always has been, rather tenuous” (Nissenbaum 1996:8).
While the Christian ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of the Jewish born Jesus of Nazareth may have provided the fundamental rationale for the festival within the institutional church, for the most part and for most people, they “no longer function as determinative” (Roll 1995:229). For many people Christmas is just that... Christmas! An accepted part of the annual cycle of events and something to be “entered into and enjoyed” (Bennett 1981:5).
Historian Clement Miles observes:
“The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished. Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merry-making...”
As such, Christmas is the most human and loveable and easily the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all the Australian population. While for many Christians, the infancy story in Luke is the real or ‘original’ Christmas story.
Date of ’Christmas’
The decision to celebrate the festival called Christmas on 25 December was not taken until around the years 354 -360 AD, first in Rome, then some years later in Antioch and the East. Opinions differ as to why and how this occurred:
(i) adoption of competing non-Christian cultic beliefs and activities;
(ii) political and theological arguments within the early Christian church; and
(iii) the establishment of organised liturgical feasts.
Old sermons from the first centuries of the Christian church also seem to indicate the customs associated with the rites of sun worship coexisted with the Christian faith “sometimes to the great consternation of bishops” (Lathrop 1982:247). Edward Carpenter (Carpenter 1920/1996) suggests the more general question of religious origins has about it three ‘connecting’ main lines:
(i) connecting religious rites and observance with the movements of the Sun and the planets;
(ii) connecting religion with the changes of the seasons on the earth and the growth of vegetation and food;
(iii) connecting religion with mankind’s own body and the force of sex residing in it.
Carpenter points out that at the time of Jesus of Nazareth the Mediterranean and neighbouring world was the scene of a vast number of pagan creeds and rituals, the general outline of which were remarkably similar.
“The similarity of these ancient pagan legends and beliefs with Christian traditions was indeed so great that it excited the attention and the undisguised wrath of the early Christian fathers” (Carpenter 1920/1996:25).
In her very specific study, Susan Roll has offered three suggestions as to the origin of Christmas. All are located at a time when the Christian church was experiencing shifts in the stability, safety and establishment of the church, such as:
(i) a move from private to public worship;
(ii) the absorption (syncretism) of a number of pagan cultic elements
previously seen as an anathema;
(iii) public, corporate worship becoming clericalised, and
(iv) a framework established for the liturgical year and the implications for the concept of ‘time’.
Roll’s three suggestions as to the origins of Christmas are:
(i) The “calculation” hypothesis - an attempt to calculate the factual date of the birth of Christ - is based on the symbolic number system “which the early church fathers considered so appropriate to the action of God in the world” (Roll 1995: 88), and which permitted only perfect whole numbers.
“If Christ was believed to have suffered and died on the fourth day following the spring equinox, 25 March, his conception should then have taken place on the same day some 30 years before; Christ’s birth date could then be placed a perfect nine months afterwards, 25 December” (Roll 1995:88).
(ii) The “history of religions” hypothesis concerns itself with the influence of the non-Christian cultural context on the church. That is, what was the relationship, if any, between the feast of Christmas in the Roman West and the Roman state feast of Sol Invictus? Was it an alternative or ‘counter-feast’ designed “to ‘immunize’ Christians against the non-Christian festivals or to distract them?” (Roll 1995:256). Or, was it as British anthropologist Daniel Miller observes, a replacement of one festival of a cult that “was probably the main rival to Christianity in its earliest phase”? (Miller 1993:10).
(iii) The “apologetic” or preaching hypothesis, usually express through sermons and teaching, which concentrated on solving disputes within the 4th and 5th Century church on matters of doctrine and ‘heresy’.
While Christmas seemed to have a core concern different from its pre- Christian precursors, Roll’s work shows it is less ‘pure’ than many conservative evangelical Christians today would have us believe. And she suggests that in spite of all the attempts to establish evidence for the origins of Christmas, we appear to be left with an impressive list of “ironies, interspersed with spurious texts, ambiguous evidence, lengthy speculation, trivial dead-ended issues, and a mounting pile of reasonable-sounding good guesses” (Roll 1995:223).
“We don’t know when Christmas started. We don’t know who, individually or collectively, started it. We don’t know exactly where or why, or how they got the date, though our guesses are probably not too far from the mark” (Roll 1995:223).
“...no matter how vehemently preachers, writers and theologians as well as ordinary earnest Christians might decry the fact, Christmas is firmly established in its sociocultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:269).
Christmas was always a syncretism of faith, myth, customs and ritual, and primarily as the result of the expansionist efforts of Christianity. As John Golby has pointed out, the policy of early Christianity, when faced with pagan or other religious activities, was always a politically astute one: “transform these activities and give them Christian significance rather than abolishing them and perhaps causing discontent” (Golby 1981:14).
However, the early work of Clement Miles suggests another important and imaginative reason for the successful syncretism of this festival: the pre Christian folk festivals were essentially life affirming. “They said ‘yes’ to life” while the Christianity of that time, essentially a religion of the monks, preferred a more sober holy joy and “was pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come,” which meant it was a religion of saying ‘no’ to the world (Miles 1912/76:25-26). But in the end old rites lingered. Popular tradition won out.
About the biblical infancy stories
There are three infancy stories in the New Testament gospels. Two tell the story of the birth of Jesus; one tells of the birth of John the Baptiser. These stories which appear in Matthew and Luke were edited late in the first century or early in the second century and contain very little historical information.
In writing them their authors were entering uncharted territory. Each had to create their own story outline. As such both produced very different narratives. For the purposes of this part of the evening’s presentation I will offer Jesus Seminar scholar, Robert Miller’s view of their differences and similarities, and only on the Jesus story.
Differences between Luke and Matthew
Their differences can be divided into four categories:
(i) general shape of the narratives;
(ii) atmosphere of each story;
(iii) how the stories are told, and
(iv) their contents.
(i) General shape
Luke’s story begins and ends in the temple.
Matthew’s story begins with a genealogy and ends with the family’s move from Egypt to Nazareth. (Table 1.1)
Luke’s story is bathed in a sense of happiness and joyful expectation.
Apart from the formal and emotionless structure of the genealogy, Matthew’s story opens on a sombre scene. The rest of his story is dominated by an atmosphere most grim.
As a former theological college professor of mine, Graeme Griffin has written:
“...Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background. The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded. Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale. Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).
(iii) How stories told
There are five major differences as to how the stories are told.
• Luke ‘pairs’ the story of John the Baptiser with that of Jesus of Nazareth. This is basic to his literary and religious purpose. Matthew is silent about John.
• Matthew’s story is told primarily from Joseph’s perspective. In Luke’s story the primary role is taken by Mary.
• Both Matthew and Luke use the Hebrew scriptures as their primary literary source but in different ways:
- Matthew highlights five prophecies around which he shapes his narrative;
- Luke ‘alludes’ to the scriptures rather than quoting from them direct.
• In Matthew the major plot movements are directed by ‘dreams’. There are no dreams in Luke’s story.
• Matthew's narration is at a minimum. There is very little speech. In Luke, speech is the primary means for expressing the message of his story.
The most obvious difference in content is that both narratives do not have a single scene in common.
Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, census called, travel to Bethlehem,
Jesus born in makeshift surrounds, shepherds arrive, after 40 days go to
Jerusalem, return to Nazareth.
Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, Jesus presumably born at home, Magi arrive then depart, Herod orders murder of all baby boys in Bethlehem, family goes to Egypt, family returns to Israel but relocates in Nazareth
Agreement between Luke and Matthew
While there are no scenes in common there are several shared points:
• Mary became pregnant after she and Joseph were betrothed but before they lived together
• Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father
• Jesus was a descendant of King David
• Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great
• Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth
• Both assume that Jesus was the real name of this remarkable person
These agreements are not trivial and most scholars take them to be elements that Luke and Matthew independently inherited from an earlier tradition. Whether any of the points are accurate historical memories is another issue. For example, Robert Funk (Funk 1996, Funk 1998) suggests if there is any history in these stories it may well be limited to very few possibilities:
(i) Jesus may well have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, although that is not certain. Neither is the claim that Herod murdered babies wholesale in the hope of eliminating Jesus as a rival king;
(ii) Jesus’ home was almost certainly Nazareth and he was quite possibly born there, and
(iii) His mother’s name may well have been Mary and we have no reason to doubt that the child was named Jesus.
“These constitute the meager traces of history in the birth stories. Everything else is fiction” (Funk 1996:294).
By way of addition, Robert Miller adds one other possible piece of historical information. Luke says John the Baptiser’s parents were named Zechariah and Elizabeth, and both his grandfathers were priests. That would make John a priest as well. He writes:
“There is nothing implausible about this information and it is not contradicted by any other source. There is no apparent motive for Luke to have made up those details. They just might be true” (Miller 2003/178).
Luke - The story
Luke’s birth story of Jesus has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination. For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story. As Miller suggests:
“It brings together imperial power, lowly shepherds, and angels
from heaven - all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home. The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendor of a chorus of angels both testify to the kind of savior this infant will be”
So Luke’s plot is beginning to be uncovered: Jesus the saviour of the world, is born during a world-wide demonstration of Roman imperial might, under the oppressive authority of the ‘divine saviour’ Augustus.
The structure of Luke’s story can be divided into two sections:
(i) Section 1 - Luke 2:1-20
2:1-3 The census
2:4-5 The journey to Bethlehem
2:6-7 The birth of Jesus
2:8-14 Angels announce the birth to shepherds
2:15-20 Shepherds visit Jesus.
(ii) Section 2 - Luke 2:21-40
2:21 Circumcision of Jesus
2:22-24 Purification and presentation in the temple
2:25-35 Encounter with Simeon
2:36-38 Encounter with Anna
2:39 Return to Nazareth
2:40 Report on Jesus’ growth
Matthew - The story
Matthew’s story does not actually narrate the birth of Jesus. It is implied. Instead, the story focuses on Joseph and his resolution of the delimma he faces over Mary’s pregnancy.
Matthew’s story can be divided into three sections:
(i) Section 1 - Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Mary is pregnant
1:19 Joseph’s delimma
1:20 Angel assures Joseph
1:21 Name of ‘Jesus’
1:22 All this so as to fulfil prophecy
1:23 Emmanuel explained for Greek-speaking readers
1:24 Joseph decides
1:25 Jesus’ birth implied.
(ii) Section 2 - Matthew 2:1-12
2:1-3 The magi arrive
2:4-6 Herod consults with religious leaders
2:7-8 Herod meets with magi
2:9-11 The magi visit Jesus at home
2:12 Magi go home by different route
(iii) Section 3 - Matthew 2:13-23
2:13-15 The family flees to Egypt
2:16-18 Herod massacres the babies
2:19-21 Family returns to Israel
2:22-23 Family relocates to Nazareth
To offer a suggestion from Robert Miller again, he says:
“In Matthew’s theology Jesus’ birth, his ministry of teaching and healing, his saving death, and his resurrection are all signs of God’s eschatological presence with his people... He designed his story of Jesus’ early life, in part, to pre-empt Jewish objections to Jesus’ origins” (Miller 2003:98, 119).
Generally speaking it is impossible to blend the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke into one consistent story. Popular representations, be they church nativity plays or Carols by Candlelight events, ignore the discrepancies and contradictions and, as I have already mentioned, like the media, create a new smoothed out narrative out of elements taken from both.
Why these stories?
John Shelby Spong (Spong 1992), Robert Miller (Miller 2003), Marcus Borg (Borg 1999) and Robert Funk (Funk 1996) have all written on these stories and their function in the unfolding gospel storytelling tradition from the progressive theological position; N T Wright (Wright 1999) from the conservative, evangelical theological position.
For the purposes of this part of the evening’s presentation I will offer Robert Funk’s view of their creation and function, found in his book Honest to Jesus.
Funk suggests there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories:
(i) Retrospective christology
(ii) Comparative study of hellenistic biographies.
1. Retrospective christology
As the title suggests this is one way to observe the role played in the gradual enhancement of the status of Jesus through to his elevation as divine. Funk sees this evolution in three stages.
(i) Stage One: The elevation process begun with the one we call Paul. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, written in the 60s, says:
Christ Jesus, God’s son, descended from David, appointed son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4).
That is, the earliest christology argued Jesus became, or was elevated to son of God by virtue of his resurrection. The words and deeds of Jesus were not needed because they were not seen as essential to his function as a returning Messiah in the near future. When this did not occur immediately a review process was commenced.
(ii) Stage Two: Having already collected some of his sayings (scholars call this document ‘Q’ or Quelle, the German word for ‘source’) the Jesus Movement begun to edit another version of the story of his elevation to son of God: not at his resurrection but at his baptism.
Probably written in the mid to late 70s, the one we call Mark records:
He saw the skies torn open and the spirit coming down toward him like a dove. There was also a voice from the skies:
‘You are my favourite son - I fully approve of you’ (Mark 1:10-11).
That is, the designation of Jesus as son of God was moved backwards from resurrection to the beginning of his public ministry.
The next step in this retrospective christology is seen in the writings of those we call Matthew and Luke.
(iii) Stage Three: We have now moved on to the end of the first century or there abouts. It is here we first encounter the birth narratives and the designation of Jesus as son of God moved again - back to his birth.
Funk says this was a merger of two interests:
(a) to push Jesus’ messianic status back farther and farther into the past to make it all the more credible,
(b) to account for his unusual life and noble death in terms that enhanced his comparison with other famous people. And the lives of these famous people always seemed to be preceded by an unusual birth.
2. Hellenistic biographies
Funk’s second suggestion as a possible way of accounting for the creation of these stories is to compare them with Hellenistic biography. Again the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.
“The story of their lives consisted of tales of wisdom and actions manifesting character that were considered exemplary and worthy of imitation. The biography was thus conceived as a kind of eulogy...” (Funk 1996:281).
Each biography appears to have followed a set structure of at least five elements. Relying on the work of Lane McGaughy (McGaughy 1992), those elements were:
(i) a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,
(ii) an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,
(iii) an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,
(iv) a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and
(v) praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor.
In general terms these five elements can be found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories, suggesting the conclusion, (or is it a beginning point?), that both storytellers were familiar with this narrative style and adopted much of it, even expanding it, for their own particular use. (Table 11 & 13) .
Some issues to note or be explored
There are probably three issues arising out of these stories that could be explored further. I will only briefly note them here. Those issues are:
(ii) Virgin birth/conception
(iii) When did Jesus become Son of God?
And again, for the purposes of this part of the evening’s presentation, I intend to draw primarily, but not exclusively, on Robert Miller’s comments on these issues.
Genealogies were familiar to both Jews and others in the ancient world. They were an accepted part of the oral, rather than the written tradition of a family. Mark the earliest narrative gospel, does not provide Jesus with a family tree.
• The genealogy of Jesus in Luke (Luke 3:23-38) is not at the beginning of his gospel but comes after the story of Jesus’ baptism and before the commencement of his public ministry.
Some features of his genealogy are:
(i) he arranges his list in ‘ascending’ order, from son to father, starting with Jesus and going back to Adam;
(ii) the list contains 77 names, 36 of which are unknown from the Hebrew scriptures and only 15 are in common with Matthew;
(iii) he does not mention brothers or women.
• The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17) is at the beginning of his gospel. Some features of his genealogy are:
(i) he arranges his list in ‘descending’ order, from father to son, beginning with Abraham, with each name mentioned twice;
(ii) his list is structured or divided into three (but not equal) parts, each one opening and closing important chapters in Israel’s history;
(iii) he mentions the names of brothers three times, and four women (if you exclude Mary at this point) all probably gentiles and all with irregular or scandalous sexual histories;
(iv) he traces Jesus’ descent through the father’s ancestral line but is careful to note that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.
For those of you who know your Spong you may well recall his comments about the midrash story tradition and its influence on these last two points:
“In the midrash the clue that linked these women to Mary in Matthew’s mind becomes clear and even obvious. Irregular sexual activity initiated by the action of the Spirit has, in the past, enabled the promise of Israel to move forward. Mary’s pregnancy, Matthew was admitting, also had about it a bit of scandal that cried out to be understood” (Spong 1992:71).
I mention these genealogies, in all their differences, because they act as background and lead into the more controversial issue - virgin birth/virgin conception.
(ii) Virgin birth/conception
With Robert Miller I wish to propose that Luke did believe in a virgin birth/conception. Matthew did not. And neither did Paul. This is despite the fact conservative evangelical Christians today see a virgin birth in Matthew’s story, because Christianity has always used, wrongly I am bold to suggest, Matthew’s text as proof for that doctrine.
The first thing I want to say about virgin birth/conception is there is little historical evidence for it. That is, the evidence for virgin birth/conception is both (i) very meager, and (ii) absent from the earliest parts (Paul and Mark) of the tradition. As Miller suggests:
“The only evidence we have for the virgin birth is evidence that some Christians believed it. That belief is neither early nor wide spread”
Second, while we may feel we know exactly what the word ‘virgin’ means in English, there is no similar term in ancient Hebrew, Greek, or Latin that means precisely what ‘virgin’ means in English. So let’s look briefly at a word or two.
The Greek word in Matthew and Luke is parthenos. I am told in Classical Greek it can mean: a mature young woman, either married or unmarried, and sometimes the unmarried girls could be assumed to be virgins. Our data shows us that in the centuries when the New Testament was produced, the normal sense of parthenos was a young woman of childbearing age who had not yet had a child. That is, she stops being a parthenos after having a baby, not after having intercourse.
In the Hebrew bible the relevant words are betulah and almah. Neither word means virgin. Betulah usually means a young, never-married woman; almah usually means a young woman old enough for marriage. Of importance in this discussion is: in the use of the Isaiah prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) by Matthew in chapter 1:23, is there a virgin in Isaiah?
The Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 refers simply to almah - a young woman. The Greek translation of the Hebrew bible translates the Hebrew almah with the Greek word parthenos. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible that Matthew quotes.
Isaiah 7:14 (Hebrew)
Look, the young woman (almah) is/will be pregnant and will have a son
and she will name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14 (Greek)
Look, the parthenos will conceive and will have a son
and you will name him Emmanuel.
Look, the young woman will conceive and will have a son
and they will name him Emmanuel.
“The Hebrew text clearly has nothing to do with virginity. There is no reason to think that the (Greek translation) does, either” (Miller 2003:95).
But Miller goes on:
“Even if we take parthenos to mean ‘virgin’ the (Greek translated) Isaiah 7:14... means only that a woman who is now a virgin will become pregnant. No miracle is intended. (Every woman who gets pregnant was once a virgin)” (Miller 2003:95).
Miller argues that Christianity has misunderstood Isaiah 7:14. And he goes on to tell this story:
“When in 1952 the Revised Standard Version properly translated Isa. 7:14 with ‘young woman’, many Christians were surprised and misinterpreted this correction to be a denial of Jesus’ virgin birth. Some fundamentalists were so upset that they sponsored public burnings of the RSV. The official Catholic translation, the New American Bible, uses ‘virgin’ in Isa 7:14 because bishops overruled the Catholic scholars and demanded that it be mistranslated” (Miller 2003:95).
Third, when we turn to Luke we note that while he wants his readers to understand that Mary will conceive while a virgin, he is also careful to imply that
“Jesus’ divine begetting did not involve any kind of physical contact between Mary and God... the impression that would come naturally to hellenistic readers familiar with stories about gods that father children with human women...” (Miller 2003:38).
So in Luke 1:35 he talks about “hover over” and “cast a shadow” - neither suggests conception much less sexual activity. In Luke, God’s power enables Mary to conceive without male involvement. However, what is important to note is the parallelism between the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. John is born to a woman long past the age of childbearing - a miracle with biblical precedent. Jesus’ birth had to be bigger and better. He is born to a ‘virgin’ - an unprecedented act of divine power.
Besides the story of the virgin birth of Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures also tell of women who conceived when God miraculously intervened:
Sarah, mother of Isaac
Rebecca, mother of Jacob
Rachel, mother of Joseph
Hannah, mother of Samuel...
just to name some of them.
The most important of these stories is about Sarah who was both infertile and long past the age of childbearing. Miller notes:
“Like all the women in these stories, Sarah conceives a son after intercourse with her husband, but that in no way detracts from the divine miracle. In the Hebrew Bible God frequently acts through a human instrument and those events are no less the acts of God because of it” (Miller 2003:235).
How does the story of the virgin birth of Jesus compare with these stories from the Hebrew Bible?
Those Christians who claim a conception that does not involve a male is a greater display of God’s power than one that does, do so from a limited perspective of both theology and biology. If we think carefully about this argument it becomes more difficult to defend. Again Miller is helpful:
“For an aged woman like Sarah to conceive, God has to make up for a lack of an ovam; for a virgin to conceive, God has to make up for the lack of sperm. It seems arbitrary to regard one as more miraculous than the other”
How is the story of the virgin birth of Jesus told in Islam?
Very briefly, several passages in the Qur’an purge any hint of God and sexuality. God effortlessly brought about the virginal conception of Jesus, just as he had the creation of Adam, by simply giving the command, ‘Be’.
Where are we then?
We can be certain Mary did not conceive Jesus without the assistance of human male sperm. Neither did she conceive by herself. With little historical evidence as well as its absence from the earliest parts of the tradition, Christians who believe in the virgin birth do so because others believed, and because they trust the literal authority of the gospels or the church.
On the other hand, and, “at the risk of sliding down the slippery road of speculation” (Scott 2002/37) to quote Brandon Scott,
(i) it is unclear whether Joseph or some unnamed male was the biological father of Jesus,
(ii) it is possible that Jesus was illegitimate, and
(iii) it may well be that Jesus was a second-born child rather than a first-born child.
But some of that is for another time!
(iii) When did Jesus become Son of God?
We have already heard a partial answer to this question when we looked at Robert Funk’s suggestions as to why the nativity stories were created. Jesus became the son of God:
(a) for Paul and the early traditions - at his resurrection,
(b) for Mark - at his baptism,
(c) for Matthew and Luke - at his conception,
(d) for John - from all eternity.
And after the four gospels were put into a collection the Christian tradition commenced a ‘blending’ process: “God the Son, pre-existent as the Word of God, came to earth in human form through the action of the Holy Spirit on the Virgin Mary” (Miller 2003:233).
So the question: when did Jesus become God’s son? will sound strange to upholders of the traditional orthodox christian doctrine called the Trinity. From that theological perspective the idea of Jesus ‘becoming’ God’s son makes little to no sense. Yet, as Miller continues to points out, in the New Testament, written long before the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, there are passages which state that at a certain point in time God made Jesus his son, bestowing on him a special status he did not have the day before.
“This way of conceptualizing Jesus’ son-ship is known as Adoptionism... (It) was widespread among early Christians and remained a viable christological option for nearly three centuries before it was marginalized... and then suppressed by... both the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire”
And back to the previous section on virgin birth and Luke 1:35... Luke makes it clear Jesus is God’s son because of his divine begetting. However this does not mean that Jesus has a divine nature - a notion that comes easy to Christians familiar with the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity - neither does it make him unique. Luke’s context, it should be remembered, is the Hebrew scriptures, not Christian doctrine.
“For Luke, what Jesus and Adam share, and what sets them apart from the rest of us, is not a divine nature, but a miraculous origin for their human life” (Miller 2003:41).
An “unending conversation” (Borg 2003:18)
Christians who insist that the Bible must be taken literally or not at all, are, according to Miller, committed to a quite different perspective on the meaning of Christian faith. It’s a commitment that views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasises its literal meaning, sees the christian life as centred in believing now for the sake of salvation later, and upholding Christianity as the only true religion. Indeed, they are trying to restore the grand narrative of the age of Christendom in a post-Christian age.
But for an increasing number of people this earlier vision of Christianity makes little or no sense, so they have left and joined what Jack Spong calls the ‘church alumni association’.
On the other hand, as another Jesus Seminar scholar, Brandon Scott has indicated, any theology that does not begin with radical doubt
“is basically dishonest. The tradition does not provide automatic answers for now, and not always for then!” (Scott 2003).
Contemporary biblical literalism is not only an obstacle for many people (and which has caused more people to leave the church than any other issue in recent times), it is religion that is imaginatively dead, because it attempts to fix religion and hold it still - by force, by censorship and by the deliberate exclusion of a great range of opinions (Cupitt 1991).
As Don Cupitt writes:
“... religion lives only while we are making it up, while our imaginations are firing and we are generating new angles, new narratives and new metaphors... because these things are liberating” (Cupitt 1991:129).
Engaging the mind imagining at Christmas, could well be the place to start a new understanding.
Virgin birth, divine sonship, Davidic ancestry, place and date of birth... in reality all these issues come down to whether they fire our imaginations and whether we believe in their meaning: do you see in Jesus’ life the presence and power of God? Or the more basic and personal question: how do you imagine God?
The duty of progressive religious thinkers is
“to imagine the future. It is a noble task. If we do not imagine it, it will never happen. And if we do not re-imagine it, we will forfeit it” (Scott 2003).
Much more could be said about these stories, about the stories in our parallel religious tradition found is such documents as “The Infancy Gospel of James”, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas”, “The history of Joseph the Carpenter”, “The Arabic Infancy Gospel” and “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew”, as well as of ourselves as a bundle of mostly half-finished stories. Indeed we have barely scratched the surface as they say.
This is an “unending conversation” (Borg 2003:18) so I will leave my closing comments once more to (Catholic) Jesus Seminar scholar, Robert Miller.
“Seeing God in the historical Jesus entails a willingness to live within Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. This is what is ultimately at stake in the question about the virgin birth and divine sonship of Jesus. If you say that you see the presence and power of God in the life and teachings of Jesus, then this stance of yours should mean that you are willing, for example, to seek the kingdom of God among the marginalized nobodies of our society. If you aren’t, then it’s just talk, no matter how high-minded” (Miller 2003:257).
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Scott, B. B. 2003. “Father knows best: Where is fundamentalism taking us?”. In private circulation from the author.
Scott, B. B. 2002. “The reappearance of the parables” in (ed). R. W. Hoover. Profiles of Jesus. CAL: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
“Seeking the message of christmas” in The Australian, Wednesday 24 December 1997, Editorial, 10.
Shea, J. 1993. Starlight. Beholding the christmas miracle all year long. NY: New York. Crossroad.
Spong, J. S. 1992. Born of a woman. A bishop rethinks the birth of Jesus. NY: New York. HarperCollins.
Wright, N. T. 1999. “Born of a virgin?” in M. J. Borg; N. T. Wright. The meaning of Jesus. Two visions. NY: New York. HarperCollins.