“In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical…His religion has so long been identified with conservatism… that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him.”
Phillip Brooks, American Religious Leader from an 1883 sermon
When I was a child growing up in the church, I believed everything I heard about Jesus, whether from Sunday School class, the New Testament, the creeds, sermons, or hymns. I was taught that he was divine, the only-begotten Son, God in human flesh, the second person of the Trinity and he thought he was all these things. It never occurred to me that such a person could not be human. If Jesus had superhuman knowledge and power, he cannot be a model for ordinary humans.
I agree with the following statement by John Shelby Spong: if Jesus came from heaven to earth by way of a virgin birth and returned to God’s presence by a cosmic ascension, he becomes some kind of celestial visitor from another planet, not unlike Superman or Captain Marvel!
According to Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox, Americans view Jesus as Superman. The gentle, meek and mild Jesus, who actually has secret, more-than-human insides, bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets killed by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute changes into his Easter suit in the empty tomb and with a single bound escapes into Heaven. And he never once romanced Lois Lane.
Who is Jesus?
Iesus is the Latinized transliteration of Yesous, the Greek transliteration of Yeshua, a common Hebrew male name, which was Jesus’ Hebrew name. This Yeshua of Nazareth led a movement that offered a different way of living that led to abundant (eternal) life and wholeness.
What character traits did Jesus exhibit that we should emulate? Jesus not only taught love, he lived it. A few quotes about love attributed to Jesus include:
• “One of the scribes… asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, …soul, …mind, and …strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
• “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? …Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 6:24-25)
• “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:12-17)
Jesus was fair and expected us to be also: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
Jesus said we should be merciful, just as God is merciful (Luke 6:36).
Jesus was compassionate: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34); “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34); and “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke7:13).
A good Christian does God’s will and I believe that Jesus made his will God’s will better than any other human who ever lived. As Philip Gulley wrote, “Jesus accomplished what he did not because of some supernatural power unavailable to the rest of us; he accomplished what he did because of his steadfast dedication to the priorities of God.”
Jesus is important to me, not because he entered or left this world in some supernatural way, but because of what he was, did and said while he was alive and because he gives us our most accurate clue to the nature of God. Every man, to the extent he is good, is a revelation of God. I believe Jesus was truly man but more God-like than any other man or woman who ever lived.
I believe that Jesus was born like all other human babies are born, not through some miraculous virgin birth. Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus was descended through Joseph from David, which is meaningless if Joseph was not his real father. The details of the birth stories as presented in the gospels can’t possibly be historically accurate. None of the gospel writers were present at the birth. How could Luke know that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”? How did Matthew know the content of Joseph’s dreams? Therefore, I do not believe that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, or life for that matter, are literal biographies.
Mark, the earliest gospel writer, never mentions the virgin birth. Neither does Peter or Paul or John or Jesus. How can a doctrine be an essential element of our faith if the founder of that faith never mentioned it or taught his followers to pass it on?
The virgin birth idea probably came from the early Catholic Church whose celibate hierarchy thought sexual intercourse was the devil’s invention and therefore, God’s earthy counterpart could not have been conceived through intercourse. The words in Hebrew (almah) and Greek (parthenos) that were incorrectly translated as “virgin,” simply mean a mature young woman; “virgin” would be “virgo intacta.” The Isaiah prophecy that was translated, “behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” is now most often translated, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14).
Leslie Weatherhead suggests that Mary’s pregnancy was a sacred marriage, in which the high priest, Zachariah, was the divine agent. When a priest cohabited with a maiden, the offspring was regarded as divine and was God incarnate, in other words, the Son of God. Luke tells us that Mary was visited by an angel, who told her she was going to bear a son. When Mary asked, “How can this be, since I have no husband?,” the angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:34-35). “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” and “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” sounds like the Priest will perform the role of the Holy Spirit and the Most High in impregnating this young girl, rather like the “first night” custom – the droit du seigneur (right of the Lord). Luke also tells us that, “Mary arose, and went with haste…and she entered the house of Zachariah” (Luke 1:39), stayed there three months, and then returned to her own house (Luke 1:56). Jewish law required a period of three months to certify the parentage of a child. That would explain why Mary stayed in the home of Zachariah for that period of time before she returned to her own house.
In many other religious traditions of the world, the concept of a virgin birth is used to explain the divine origin of heroic figures:
• Gautama Buddah, the ninth Avatar of India, was said to have been born of the virgin Maya about 600 BCE. The Holy Ghost was also portrayed as descending upon her;
• Horus, a god of Egypt, was born of the virgin Isis, it was said, around 1550 BCE. Horus also received gifts from three kings in his infancy;
• Attis was born of a virgin mother named Nama in Phrygia, before 200 BCE;
• Guirrnus, a Roman savior, was born of a virgin in the sixth century BCE. It was reported that his death was accompanied by universal darkness;
• Indra was born of a virgin in Tibet in the eighth century BCE. He was said to have ascended into heaven;
• Adonis, a Babylonian deity, was said to have been born of a virgin mother named Ishtar, who was later to be hailed as Queen of Heaven;
• Mithra, a Persian deity, was also said to have been born of a virgin around 600 BCE;
• Zoroaster likewise made his earthly appearance through a virgin mother;
• Krishna, the eighth Avatar of the Hindu pantheon, was born of the virgin, Devaki, around 1200 BCE.
Couldn’t Christianity have been a little more original?
Only the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth; the rest of the New Testament never mentions it again and bases nothing on it. I agree with Weatherhead, who contends, “If God were the begetter of Jesus in any way in which He is not the begetter of us all, then Jesus was not human, and Christianity – the religion of God-expressed-in-human-terms – falls to the ground.”
According to John Shelby Spong, “the Bethlehem location, the miraculous conception, the heavenly signs, the gifts of the magi, the visit of the shepherds, the slaughter of the male babies, the flight into Egypt, and perhaps even the names of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary are products of midrash.” The Jewish midrash tradition attempts to explain events by connecting them to their past. A contemporary example of a midrash is the tale of Santa Claus which is taught as literal truth to young children.
The familiar gospel birth narratives were most likely written during the ninth decade of the Christian era. However, the first words written describing the birth of Jesus were those of Paul. In Galatians, Paul writes: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5).
People tend to lump the gospel birth stories into one narrative, but they tell different and conflicting accounts of what transpired. The following are several striking differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth stories:
• Their genealogies were significantly different.
• According to Luke, Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, but traveled to Bethlehem for a census where the birth occurs in a stable. They return to Nazareth after the birth. In Matthew, however, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and the birth occurs at home. The family moves to Nazareth after a trip to Egypt.
• In Matthew, wise men from the East follow a star to the place of Jesus’ birth; Luke has neither wise men nor star but instead angels sing in the night sky to shepherds who go to the manger.
• In Matthew, Herod orders all male infants in Bethlehem under the age of two to be killed, so Jesus’ family escapes by fleeing to Egypt; Luke’s birth story does not mention either Herod’s plot or the trip to Egypt. According to Luke, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and was named.
• In Matthew, after Herod dies, in a dream, an angel tells Joseph to return to Nazareth, not Bethlehem; in Luke, they are already in Nazareth.
• Both Matthew and Luke use Hebrew Scriptures, but they use them differently. Matthew uses a prediction-fulfillment formula five times in his birth narrative; Luke uses Hebrew Scriptures without any fulfillment of prophecy ideas.
The point is, all the birth stories can not be accurate.
I believe that the conspicuous absence of the virgin birth story by Paul, in Mark, the earliest gospel, and in John is significant. I believe Matthew and Luke used Hebrew scripture to construct “the facts” of Jesus’ birth. Many scholars regard the birth-narratives as non-historical and think they should only be considered in symbolic, poetic, mythical, or midrashic terms.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book The First Christmas, claim there is a third Jesus birth story that I, for one, had never considered. In Revelation 12:1-17, the author, John of Patmos, describes a vision about a woman who “was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs.” She gave birth to a son “who is to rule all the nations.” An ancient serpent, a great red dragon called the Devil and Satan stands near the woman to devour her child as soon as it is born. Her son, however, was taken away by God to his throne. The New Oxford Annotated Bible explains, as Borg and Crossan also mention, that one version of this story is Apollo’s birth: his pregnant mother, Leto, similarly contends with a dragon named Python. Borg and Crossan think the author of Revelation knew the Apollo birth story and rewrote it to apply to the birth of the messiah. They contend that this vision is a symbolic retelling of the birth of Jesus and the dragon is symbolic of Rome.
Sometime before 180 CE a Greek philosopher named Celsus wrote a critique of Christianity called On the True Doctrine in which he imagines what a Jewish opponent of Christianity might have asked Jesus about his conception and birth:
“Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumors about the true and unsavory circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in royal David’s city of Bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town and of a woman who earned her living by spinning? Is it not the case that when her deceit was discovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panthera she was driven away by her husband – the carpenter – and convicted of adultery? Indeed, is it not so that in her disgrace, wandering far from home, she gave birth to a male child in silence and humiliation?”
When Was Jesus Born?
Scholarly research has shown that the dating system employed in the biblical birth stories does not work. Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born when Herod was the king of Judea (Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5). Luke contends that the birth occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-8). From secular records, however, we know that Herod died in 4 BCE and that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 or 7 CE, by which time Jesus would have been as old as ten or eleven.
We do not have the slightest idea of the specific day of Jesus’ birth. The Christian church did not celebrate his birth until 354 CE when December 25 was chosen as his birthday, but that date came, unfortunately, from a pagan source – it was the last day of the pagan Saturnalia midwinter festival (called the “birthday of the unconquered”) which celebrated the sun’s new birth from its solstice.
The Puritans were so revolted that the Catholic Church had chosen a pagan observance for Jesus’ birthday that in 1647 they led the British Parliament to outlaw Christmas. For many years if a person celebrated Christmas in England they were jailed and could be punished even more severely. When some of those Puritans came to America, they continued to disapprove of the celebration of Christmas – it was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
Did a Star Announce His Birth?
Most of us who grew up in the church have heard Jesus’ birth story every year since we were very young and the birth star has always been part of it, but nobody ever pointed out that the star is only found in Matthew (Matthew 2:1-2). Did Mark, Luke and John not agree with Matthew or did they simply decide that the birth-announcing-star was not important? If a modern news reporter gets a news tip, he or she tries to validate the story before it is printed by checking the information through multiple sources. Since there is only one mention of it in the four gospels, the star, what is often referred to as the “Star of Bethlehem,” is questionable (if he was born in Nazareth that presents another problem). So was there in fact an astronomical event associated with Jesus’ birth? We must, at least, ponder if Matthew inserted the birth star to make Jesus appear to be greater than Moses and Elijah. Nick Strobel’s Astronomy Notes admits that those who hope to prove the historical veracity of Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem star are on shaky ground. Modern astronomy and astrophysics can not prove the star event at Jesus’ birth.
Perhaps Matthew was us midrash to make a correlation between Jesus’ and Abraham’s births. Abraham’s birth had been read in the stars by the wicked King Nimrod and he divined that a man would be born who would rise up against him and prove that his religion was false. Nimrod’s astrologers told him that a son had been born to Terah because they had seen a rising star in the heavens. They advised Nimrod to order the midwives to kill all the males when they were born.
There is more evidence available on the subject of the “Bethlehem star” in books and on the internet, but I chose not to present it here. However, if you want more information, simply Google “Star of Bethlehem.”
Where Was Jesus Born?
What is termed the “Star of Bethlehem” is very difficult to validate, but it is also most likely an inaccurate reference to Jesus’ birth place. The only way any Jew would have believed that Jesus was the anticipated Messiah was if he was descended from David and was born is David’s city – Bethlehem. Chances are, however, since his family lived in Nazareth, he was born there, which also means, of course, that the story of Joseph’s trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife was necessary to arrange for the birth to take place in the appropriate location. The problem now is that we cannot rewrite the Christmas carols – “O Little Town of Nazareth” just does npt sound right.
To add an authoritative quote to backup my contention that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, Spong writes, “the location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was shaped not by a fact of history but by an expectation, planted in the Jewish tradition by the prophet Micah, of a Davidic savior who was to hail from Bethlehem, like King David of old.”