The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright. At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God. In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day. He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection. He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).
I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians. Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.
But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event. While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.
- Resurrection/Vindication. The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
- Defeat of the Powers. This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen. God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
- Revelation of the Way. Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God. “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.” In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God. Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
- Revelation of the Love of God. The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son. Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world. It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
- Jesus as sacrifice for sin. Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful. When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.” If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”
What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?” Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical.
Negative: In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God. So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple. “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.
Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance. To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it. Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)
With minor changes, this is reprinted from a blog column I wrote for my old blog, Levellers, in 2006. I will follow this post with 2 more on the theological emphases of the Gospel birth and infancy narratives: 1 for Matthew and1 for Luke.
Today, Christmas Eve in my part of the globe (Louisville, KY), I want to affirm my belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus as an actual historical event and to give a historical critical argument in its favor–an argument that might prove persuasive to those, myself included, who do not hold to biblical “inerrancy.” I don’t think the focus of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is on this point, so, I will alsoblog on the wider themes that I think ARE stressed in the Gospel accounts.
First, some things I DON’T BELIEVE:
- I don’t believe in these Christmas card depictions of Mary having apparently the easiest birth ever in history–no pain, no blood, no sweat, with a smile that seems to say, “Well, that was easy.”
- I don’t believe that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried! If he hadn’t, his parents would have wondered if something was wrong. Jesus was fully human and behaved like any other infant. The docetic heresy that he only seemed human is very popular in our churches.
- I don’t believe Jesus glowed or had a halo. (The punch line of an old Doonesbury had a children’s Christmas pageant in which “the part of baby Jesus is played by a 100 watt light bulb!”)
- I don’t believe in the “swingshift Trinity” of the Modalist heresy which has Jesus keeping the planets in orbit from his crib!
- I don’t believe in shepherds and Magi both showing up on the same night. Matthew clearly has the Magi arrive 2 years after Jesus was born with the Holy Family now living in a house in Bethlehem.
- I don’t believe the Virgin Birth is a “fundamental of the faith.” Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ’s pre-existence. John’s Gospel and some hymns in Paul’s letters indicate Christ’s pre-existence without ever mentioning a virgin birth. We get our very WORD “incarnation” from the prologue to John’s Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus’ sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection–and doesn’t promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.
- Karl Barth said that the Virgin Birth was a necessary doctrine because it was the sign of the Incarnation in the way that the empty tomb was the sign of the Resurrection. But sign to whom? Unlike the empty tomb accounts, no one saw the Virginal conception of Mary. We have her word for it. I am not doubting Mary’s virginity as we will see, but since this is not a public event, it cannot be a sign of the incarnation. Had God chosen to do so, God could have used ordinary biological means for Incarnating the Son. However, Barth is onto something. I do believe that we have these birth narratives to indicate to those of us who already believe in the Incarnation that God initiated everything–that Jesus did not become the Son of God, but that in him God became human!
- As the Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, points out in his massive, The Birth of the Messiah, the term “Virgin Birth” is shorthand. What we really affirm is that the Jewish maiden, Miriam (“Mary”), conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse–that she did not experience sexual intercourse until after Jesus’ birth. This affirmation of her Virginal Conception of Jesus is in contrast to Medieval doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity (claiming that her hymen remained unbroken before, after, and DURING, delivery!!!) or the strange Christology promoted by the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman (and, to the great embarrassment of modern Mennonites, eventually accepted by Menno Simons) that Jesus did not receive any physical characteristics from Mary, passing through her body “like water through a pipe!” I don’t believe any of that!
If it turns out that I am wrong, that, as some ancient documents hold, Jesus was the product of Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) or, alternatively, that Joseph and Mary “jumped the gun” on the wedding ceremony (Jewish betrothals were considered to be already legally binding marriages), nothing central to my faith will have been touched. I may have to make some adjustments in my view of how much of Scripture is historical narrative, but that’s all. If the birth narratives in the Gospels are purely symbolic, as many hold, I can live with it. But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.
But if the Virgin Birth is neither theologically necessary, nor impossible, what case can be made for its historical truth? A fairly strong one, I think, if one is open to the possibility in the first place.
Notice that the Virgin Birth causes problems for the theologies of both Matthew and Luke. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah: A Davidic figure. His genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is designed to prove (a) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David (as well as Abraham) and (b ()using some fuzzy math) show that God has prepared exactly the time for Jesus to appear as Messiah. But there is a problem. For Matthew’s genealogical point to work perfectly, it should conclude, ” and Jacob begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Jesus.” But it doesn’t! It says, “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.” But that undermines Matthew’s entire case. Why would Matthew create problems for himself and his theological point? With Mark as a guide, he could have skipped even having a birth narrative. There is no compelling reason for Matthew to include a virgin birth apologetically and every reason for him to leave it out. But he doesn’t. The tradition of such a birth must be firmly entrenched in the sources (other than Mark and “Q,” the hypothetical source of much of Jesus’ sayings) that Matthew is using. He MUST include it even though it hurts the case he is trying to make for Jesus as Davidic Messiah.
So, Matthew makes the best of things: He includes women in his genealogy who all have scandal attached to them to prepare readers for the scandal that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He relates the Virgin Birth indirectly through the angelic dream to Joseph and connects it with Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about a young woman (Hebrew almah, “a young woman of marriageable age”) already pregnant. (Originally, the sign was probably a reference to the prophet’s wife or the king’s since Isaiah said that before the child would know right from wrong, the Assyrian threat would be removed.) Matthew does “creative exegesis” to turn this into a prediction of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth. Then, he makes sure that the readers know that Joseph has gone through the Jewish form of adoption (“and he called his name ‘Jesus’”) in order, once more, to validate his genealogical case for Jesus’ messiahship.
Luke also has theological problems because of the Virgin Birth. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke is most at pains to stress Jesus’ full humanity–e.g., 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans.” That is, Jesus developed normally–intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. Luke’s Jesus, even more than Mark’s or Matthew’s (and FAR more than John’s), gets tired, hungry, careworn, etc. Luke isn’t denying Jesus’ divinity (he uses the label “Son of God” more than the other Synoptics), but stressing that this divinity is only shown through the very real humanity of Jesus. So, why would Luke start his Gospel with a Virgin Birth–something that points out Jesus’ difference from other humans? Again, it is very unlikely that Luke would create such problems for himself. He could only include this if it was indelibly part of the sources he was using–he had to be convinced it was true. Again, Luke uses this for his own purposes: comparing Jesus’ birth with John the Baptizer’s; emphasizing liberation themes and peacemaking themes, and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginalized. (More on this in the posts that follow.) But, surely, it would have helped Luke’s theological stress on Jesus’ complete humanity if he could have ignored the Virgin Birth.
The principle of the “harder reading,” in text criticism is that copyists do not change things to make matters more difficult. So, deciding between different variants otherwise well attested, textual critics tend to go with the “harder reading.” Similarly, authors do not introduce elements that weaken their very purposes for writing–unless they have no choice. I argue that Matthew and Luke HAD to include the Virgin Birth because their sources were absolutely convinced of its truth–and so were they.
The two accounts are very different and not wholly harmonizable: Luke’s narrative, which has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ circumcision and dedication in the Temple (Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem when there aren’t roadblocks between the two as there are currently!) eight days after birth, doesn’t seem to have room for Matthew’s narrative in which the Holy Family is still living in Bethlehem two years later when the Magi come and they need to escape to Egypt. One account is of forced travel by a Roman census, birth in a stable, visitation by shepherds (the lowest of the low; like contemporary migrant workers in status), angelic announcements and evangelizing shepherds; the other is of visitation by wealthy foreign astrologers, mysterious dreams and stars, death squads sent out by Herod, and a refugee flight to the Jewish colony in Egypt. Nor are the 2 genealogies easily harmonized. Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown notes, there are 11 points of commonality between these two different traditions:
- Both Infancy Narratives indicate that the parents are to be Mary and Joseph, legally betrothed, but who have not yet begun to live together or have sexual relations (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1: 27, 34).
- Joseph is a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).
- There is an angelic announcement of the future miracle birth ( Matt. 1: 20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
- Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through human intercourse (Matt. 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).
- The conception is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1: 18,20; Luke 1:35).
- The angel commands the child to be named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
- An angel states that Jesus is to be “savior” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11).
- The birth (not the conception) of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together(Matt. 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
- The birthplace is Bethlehem (although Matthew gives no explanation for why the couple is there–and they appear to have moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem!) (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
- The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5).
- The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39).
That’s an impressive list of commonalities for two such divergent narratives and argues strongly for a historical core.
Does this “prove” the Virgin Birth? No. In the nature of the case, it CAN’T be proven. And, as I said, I do not believe this is a core or “fundamental” doctrine and I do believe that the focus of the Gospels is elsewhere. But these considerations, coupled with my firm belief that God is quite capable of such a miracle, lead me to affirm that, in all probability, the virgin birth of Jesus is historically true.
Next: the deeper meaning of the Gospel Infancy Narratives.
I have sometimes been driven close to despair over the state of the Church Universal–and especially over the U.S. churches. Last year, a Pew study showed that those who attended church in the U.S. twice or more per week were more than twice as likely to approve of the torture of suspected terrorists than the population as a whole! Instead of Christians leading the nation to opposIt’e the immorality of torture, too many were cheerleading for torture! In contradiction to the clear commands and practices in both Testaments to show hospitality and equal treatment to strangers and resident aliens, far too many U.S. Christians have joined (or even led) the wave of anti-immigrant hatred sweeping the nation. A church in Florida wants to have a “Let’s Burn a Qu’ran Day.” Church groups are opposing the building of mosques throughout the nation (especially in Manhattan anywhere near “Ground Zero”) and claiming that religious liberty applies only to Christians, not Muslims! When I try to share the gospel with college students, the biggest obstacle is their perception that Christians are hatemongers–hating gays and lesbians, hating Muslims, hating feminists, etc., etc.
It’s easy to get discouraged and I often do. But sometimes there are reasons to hope. One phenomenon that has renewed my hope for the U.S. churches has been the changes that have happened in the denomination currently known as The Community of Christ. Never heard of them? Until about two decades ago, they were known as The Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints. Yes, they are related to the Mormons. Now, like most mainstream Christians, I consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to be a cult, a heretical movement, rather than a true branch of Christianity. Dialogue with mainstream Mormons is like interfaith dialogue (e. g., Christian-Muslim dialogue ) rather than ecumenical Christian conversation. But the Community of Christ branch of the Latter-Day Saints’ movement has been moving steadily in a more orthodox Christian direction–and becoming a self-declared peace church at the same time!
Some historical background: As you may know the Latter-Day Saints/Mormons began in 19th C. America when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel gave him a book of golden plates and a special pair of glasses to translate those plates. (The translation is known today as The Book of Mormon.) The book claims to be the record of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel being led by God to build a ship and travel to the continent we know as North America where they set up a kingdom similar to Israel-Judah. The claim is made that after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he descended from the clouds on this continent and preached the Good News to the people of God here before ascending again to heaven. (This is VERY quick exposition and I am bypassing the huge number of problems with all these claims.)
The group that gathered around Smith (who was called a prophet) became the Mormons and, facing persecution, they trekked to the sparsely settled Southwest, especially in what is today Salt Lake City, Utah. Less well known is that the group split as Smith died. (He was assassinated.) The majority followed Brigham Young as the new prophet to Utah, but a largish group, including many of Smith’s relatives, refused to acknowledge Young’s leadership or follow after him. They set-up headquarters in Independence, MO as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have always claimed to be the true followers of Smith–and from the beginning they rejected the polygamy promoted by Brigham Young (until outlawed by the U. S. government)–even claiming (somewhat dubiously) that Smith himself never promoted polygamy.
Well, both the majority Mormons based in Utah and the Reorganized ones based in Missouri had a number of other beliefs that most Christians would consider heretical: A bizarre view of the Trinity in which both Father and Son have bodies, belief that Christ dwells on another planet, a docetic view of the Incarnation and other heresies. But, little noticed by most mainstream Christians, the Missouri-based (Reorganized) Latter-Day Saints have slowly-but-surely, been moving in a more orthodox Christian direction–as most evidenced in their official confession of faith. (The continued use of The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as recognized Scriptures alongside the Holy Bible remains troubling, even though the Bible is given priority. One could argue, however, that this is not much different from the arguments over the canon between Catholics and Protestants.) The name change reflects a desire to identify more closely with mainstream Christianity and to stop having their identity focused on fights with the Utah-based Mormons. The decision to allow all historical records to be examined by all, including historians without membership in the Community of Christ is another such move.
About two (2) decades ago, the Community of Christ highlighted peacemaking and nonviolence as central to the practices of their movement. They have created an international peacemaking award–awarded to anyone, member or no, that is an alternative to the politically-motivated Nobel Peace Prize. They promote daily prayers for peace and annual peace colloquies. They work on teaching conflict resolution in their churches. They have reached out to Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers to learn more about historic Christian pacifism and, although they still allow members to join the military, work now to discourage military service (especially combatant military service) and to encourage careers which promote peace and justice–quite the reversal from most of their history.
The Community of Christ came out against the death penalty beginning in 1995 and with a stronger statement in 2000. The Community of Christ allows, but discourages, members from owning firearms. It has taken a strong stand for compassionate and just immigration reform. It opposes torture and promotes the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It has begun to work on prison ministries that promote restorative justice instead of either retribution or leniency.
The Community of Christ is a small body (approx. 250,000 members globally), but very diverse and found in over 50 nations.
I have no desire to join the Community of Christ, and have enough reservations about their orthodoxy that I would not sponsor them as members of the National or World Councils of Churches–yet. But I find this massive reform and renewal heartening. It is both doctrinal and ethical reform and renewal–and too many more orthodox bodies have had either one or the other, rather than both. There is something hopeful about seeing a group (sect?) that surely began as a cult make peace and justice more central to their spirituality and discipleship as they become more Christocentric, more classically Trinitarian, and more orthodox in proclaiming the Good News of salvation by grace.
Can “mainstream” and “evangelical” churches learn from this witness? May it be so.
Thom Stark’s series debating the orthodox view of Jesus’ divinity, “O My God-Man” is finished after 16 parts. It’s meticulously researched and I urge full engagement. Some of Thom’s points are very strong, but others are weaker–such as his view of Col. and Philippians, in my view.
This series took much work and demands careful response. Here’s a link to the full indexed series.
If you’ve ever wanted to read a very good argument that Nicea and Chalcedon were wrong, that Jesus is not divine (at least, in the usual sense that the majority of Christians would understand that term) and that the Scriptures which seem to teach that he was/is divine have been misinterpreted, don’t look to ME to provide it, because I actually think that Nicea and Chalcedon were basically on track–although if the Fathers not lived within the framework of Hellenistic metaphysics, they would probably have phrased things differently at points. I don’t know whether the Council Fathers at Nicea or Chalcedon would judge me orthodox or not, but I basically affirm all the affirmations of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed–with a few mental footnotes. 🙂 (Now, as a Baptist, I generally don’t like creeds AS creeds–that is, I don’t ascribe to human confessions of faith the same kind of authority that creedalist Christians do–but I do think that the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed are fairly good “rough summaries” of what all this Christian stuff is about–with those mental footnotes.)
But if you WERE looking for a very good argument for what appears to me to be a contemporary form of Arianism, then my friend Thom Stark has provided it in 10 parts over on his blog, ThomStark.net, in a series he calls, “Oh My God-Man!” I think Thom can be answered, but my current writing efforts are elsewhere–and he cannot be answered casually. It will take close reading of all 10 of his posts and careful answers, point by point. Thom is smart, reads widely, and has put quite a bit of work into this and it deserves equally careful response–which I cannot give at this time. (Even if I could, I don’t really WANT that kind of argument on that subject just now.) Also, just because I believe Thom’s overall conclusions are mistaken, doesn’t mean he’s wrong at all points. He’s not. Some of his sections are spot-on, such as the fact that the title, “Son of God,” does not, by itself, mean that Jesus is the 2nd Person of the Trinity! It was used, both in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture for kings and others as a way of ascribing majesty, honor, and power to the monarch. So, don’t attempt any Sunday School level response. Bring your best biblical scholarship and your best skills as a theologian to the debate–Thom’s hard work deserves no less.