Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 3

So it’s time to bring in the heavy hitters on this series – the scholars who have done a whole lot more studying on this than I have. Part of the reason why that’s necessary is because last time, when I went through all the attributes of Jesus’ life referenced by Paul, I missed arguably the three biggest. Whoops!

But when fulfillment of the time came, God sent his son, born through a woman, and born under the Law. This was so he could redeem those under the Law so that we could be adopted. Galatians 4:4-5

As John Shelby Spong points out in his book, Born of a Woman, Paul also speaks matter-of-factly about Jesus’ brother, James, in Gal. 1:19. Finally, in Romans 1, Paul speaks of God’s son, “descended from David.”

All three of those references describe a very human Jesus. And, so far as the Christian canon is concerned, they – together with what I described last week – were the entirety of the known life of Christ until the Gospel of Mark was written about 15-20 years later.

For a long time, Matthew was considered the first Gospel written, but the grammar of Mark doesn’t really allow for any option other than its being written first. The reason is the style and grammar of Mark is so bad, it doesn’t make any sense for Mark to have copied so extensively from Matthew only to dumb down the language. Rather, it’s hard to see a method of transmission any different from the one now commonly accepted: “Mark” wrote the first story of Jesus, and “Matthew” and “Luke” (the gospels are actually written anonymously) copied extensively from him while adding their own material – either from each other or a third source (scholars call it “Q”). “John” wrote last, although since his work has almost nothing in common with the others, it’s harder to date. Scholars see it being written closer to the end of the first century, though.

So the order is Mark-Matthew-Luke-John.

Only two of those stories of Jesus have birth narratives, however, and Mark – written first – does not.

Here’s how Mark begins the Christ story: The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son …” (1:1). The next seven verses are about John the Baptist, and Jesus first appears in 1:9: “About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.”

That’s it.

But of course Mark has some other clues about Jesus’ origins. Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 3

Poverty: Is the Church on the Wrong Side?

The blog’s gotten pretty political lately, so let me steer the conversation back to something I tackled very early in this site’s life: What role, if any, do Christians have in a secular, often corrupt, never particularly efficient political process?

A USA Today article (h/t Scot McKnight) indicates that Christians are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the hope of using government action to pursue religious objectives.

In a refreshing departure from the culture war mind-set that has come to characterize this and other recent elections, some of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers and spokespeople are trumpeting an important insight: Christians too fixated on politics are bound to end up frustrated and tarnished. And politics is not the only way to create positive change.

I can’t speak much to being tarnished, but certainly anyone who follows politics will become frustrated. Listening to activist Supreme Court justices consider rejecting the two democratic branches of government and overturning 70 years of precedent – and, more importantly, removing the promise of health insurance to tens of millions of people currently without it – over the past three days has not been good for my blood pressure.

But I would argue that, frustration aside, it’s quite possible that religious and political conservatives – i.e., evangelical Christians – are losing interest in political fights for their religious values because the values they pushed were not, in fact, those of Christ, and that is becoming abundantly clear as they hemorrhage congregants among younger generations focused far more on social justice.

After all, what is the overriding message of the Bible?

Continue reading Poverty: Is the Church on the Wrong Side?

When Christians Pray for the Death of Thousands

Yesterday, I touched briefly on groups of Christians whose choices seem out of touch with their pro-life mantra, and wondered why they don’t receive the tough questions pro-abortion or pacifistic Christians would receive. Not to say they wouldn’t have good answers, but to give good answers, one must be asked hard questions.

Minutes after posting that, I heard on my way to work an NPR report from outside of the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments this week on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Sonari Glinton interviewed some of the people protesting and standing in line.

GLINTON: Mike Crowder is a minister from the suburbs of Salt Lake City. He opposes the health care law and he’s come to pray for the justices.

MIKE CROWDER: This whole mandate, regardless of how people have perceived it, it has awakened the people of faith all across this country. People are beginning to see, whoa, wait a minute. Maybe these things that I think aren’t that important, don’t deal with me on a day-to-day – maybe they will come in and deal with me and my church and how I live my life.

Mike Crowder – who I’m sure would identify himself as pro-life – needs to answer some hard questions.

A mix of emotional, hard-hitting and practical questions such as these: Continue reading When Christians Pray for the Death of Thousands

If Trayvon Martin Were a Fetus, Christians Would Be a Whole Lot More Upset

Man still has one belief, one decree that stands alone:

The laying down of arms is like cancer to [his] bones.

— The great philosopher Dave Mustaine

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

— Luke 10:25-29, Common English Bible

Who is my neighbor?

Is my neighbor the unborn child no one will ever meet, killed by her mother before ever seeing God’s sun?

Are my neighbors the parents down the street, struggling to pay bills, postponing doctor’s visits because they cannot afford health insurance, which is not provided by the employers who provide them the part-time jobs with which they can barely stay afloat?

Is my neighbor Trayvon Martin and the thousands of other victims of gun violence, slain in a nation with the highest rate of guns per capita in the world?

To which Jesus replies, “Yes, my child. But the real question is: Are you their neighbor?”

Continue reading If Trayvon Martin Were a Fetus, Christians Would Be a Whole Lot More Upset

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 2

One of the key questions in studying whether the virgin birth was a literal historical occurrence or not is what Paul knew.

In chronological order, Paul is the first person whose writings ended up in the Christian canon. He also, though a contemporary of Christ, was not a follower while Jesus was alive, which means anything Paul knows comes from second-hand sources. In other words, what Paul says about Christ is a good indication of what was widely accepted in the years immediately after Jesus’ death.

So what does Paul say about Jesus’ life? For the sake of the argument, I’ll include all letters traditionally attributed to Paul and note where some disputes occur regarding authorship (and therefore dating).

Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 2

Some Truth Is God’s Truth?

Why do self-identified conservatives have such a seemingly strong aversion to science?

It’s something of a provocative question, I’ll grant, but it sure seems to be the case. These days (though not always), political conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, despite overwhelming evidence of its existence. They object to raising taxes, even to close a deficit they argue is alarmingly large and argue instead that tax cuts bring in revenue, again rejecting the overwhelming evidence (and historical precedent) that indicates otherwise. They propagate stereotypes about the long-term unemployed and the poor who rely on the government’s safety net that statistics indicate are simply untrue.

For religious conservatives, it’s a similar story, except the objection to science is even more strenuous. The rejection of evolution comes with institutes and studies and counterfactuals. Children in Christian schools tend not just to be taught the harmonized creation story of Genesis 1-3 as a literally historical account of the universe’s origins, but also are given arguments against evolution – usually reliant on incomplete, inaccurate or misunderstood information about what evolution actually is and argues for. Similarly, there is the rejection of history and the creation of an alternate reality in which America’s founders were all born-again Christians and the Constitution does not enshrine a separation between church and state.

I’m painting with a broad brush, so I should pause to say that I recognize not all conservatives are this way. Some conservatives identify as such for other reasons. Others hold to the label even though I’d consider them moderates or even liberals. And no person is so monolithic in thought that they can truly fit perfectly into such broad categories as “conservative” or “liberal.” One can be a conservative, in other words, and still believe in evolution, climate change and tax increases (though that last item is becoming increasingly hard to maintain these days).

But in the conservative circles I was raised, that sentence was untrue. Climate change was a hoax, evolution was the devil’s attempt to write God out of our public schools, atheistic historians had distorted and sublimated the history of our country to a secular-humanistic agenda, and government was an insidious, nefarious force that threatened liberty at every turn and enslaved its citizens in a cycle of dependence.

Part of my journey (descent?) into liberalism was based on the fact that science led me there. The evidence that climate change exists, that sometimes tax increases and expansion of social services are exactly what we need to become a better country, that evolution is a plausible and convincing theory for the world’s origins – this evidence led me away from the closed-loop mindset of many political and religious conservatives, who reinforce their own sets of “facts” by simply dismissing anyone outside their groups as biased, wrong or evil. (I’m looking at Fox News and A Beka Books here.)

One of the biggest assumptions with which I was raised was that homosexuality was a choice. Unnatural. An abomination. Gay activists promoted an agenda to dupe our children and win acceptance in society so they could destroy marriage and thus the moral center of our nation and ring in a new era of libertinism.

So when Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennslvania, reviews the current state of research (h/t Justin Lee) on sexual orientation and wonders why evangelical media haven’t reported any of it, my (somewhat snarky) response is: Why would they start now?

Continue reading Some Truth Is God’s Truth?

Love Wins

Les and Scott GrantSmith

Over time, it seems we build up notions of how love should work, and we impose those notions with inflexible arguments about natural law, God’s plan or the plain text of an ancient document.

Then sometimes a story comes along that leaves you on the floor, gasping for breath, struggling to realize that perhaps we’ve had it wrong this whole time.

This spring, Les and Scott GrantSmith will mark their 25th wedding anniversary. The couple raised two daughters along the way. But 15 years ago, they hit a crisis that nearly shattered their family. Les was keeping a secret, and that became a problem. But they solved it as a family, in a way that kept them together and happy.

In the weeks leading up to that day back in 1997, Les was certain of two things: She was a mother who loved her daughters — and she was also transgender, the term for someone born in a body of the wrong sex.

Continue reading Love Wins

Class, Week 8: The (Missing) Prepositions of Paul

One of the bedrock phrases of Christian evangelism is “faith in Christ.” Simply have faith in Christ, and you will be saved.

Those phrases are so heavily used, they have been divorced from their definitions, taking on the character whatever our own experiences argue they should. From what are we saved? Hell? Punishment? Enslavement? All of the above? How does one have faith in Christ? Do we need to simply believe that he existed? That he rose from the dead? That he rose from the dead to achieve a certain purpose? That he’s actively at work today? All of the above?

In the year or so that I’ve been turning my faith upside-down, I’ve become acutely aware of how much the “plain meaning” of scripture isn’t so plain. It’s plain to me based on the preconceptions I bring to reading the text. And since everyone I’ve ever known who is a Christian has brought those same general preconceptions, there’s never been any question about certain doctrines, certain methods of reading the Bible or what the various phrases it contains mean. Further, our ideas of what those phrases even are depends heavily on the interpretation of the scholars writing our translations. Which means that if we’re talking about how obvious it is that the Bible says something, we’re filtering that through two sets of preconceptions: the translator’s and our own.

One such example is the phrase “faith in Christ.”  Paul uses this phrase in several different contexts as he writes his letters, and in the Greek that phrase is rendered pistis Christou. The only problem is that pistis Christou  can also be translated “faith of Christ.” Which changes things a bit.

For example, Galatians 2:15-16, translated in the NIV:

We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law … .

And Galatians 2:16 as translated by the Common English Bible:

However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law … .

So how are we justified? By faith in Christ or through Christ’s own faithfulness? That seems like an important distinction. One focuses on our own faith, the other on Christ’s actions.

Continue reading Class, Week 8: The (Missing) Prepositions of Paul

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 1

For a long time now (well, a couple of months, anyway), I’ve wanted to take a hard look at the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth and whether they can withstand the scrutiny.

I think there’s a resistance to doing so among most Christians, even ones who would not argue for a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, because the virgin birth is such a central part of our belief about who Jesus was. Some of this is theological – his being conceived by the Holy Spirit gives us a peg on which to claim that Christ was fully divine – but some of it is cultural, as well. The Christmas story is the first story we’re taught as children, and it’s the ostensible purpose for our biggest holiday of the year. Finally, some of it is convenient. Jesus was the Son of God, and it just makes a lot more sense for him to have been conceived miraculously.

So a lot of people get defensive when someone comes along and says, “Yeah, not so sure about that.” I totally understand that. So in that spirit, let’s try to start with some points on which I think everyone would agree:

Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 1

When Fear and Arrogance Never Meet

Peter Enns has been running a terrific series of guest posts by Carlos Bovell, author of the forthcoming Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

In his first post, Bovell talks about a question he had as he was struggling with his own beliefs on the topic of biblical inerrancy:

Why do believers have to wait for people like [Bart] Ehrman to publish books before we find out about all these problems with scripture, problems that scholars have known about all along?

This has been one of my complaints, as well. Growing up, I heard nothing about the disputed authorship of the Pauline epistles, or the probability of 2 Isaiah, or the paucity of historical, scientific or archaeological evidence in support of pretty much any event described in the Bible before the reign of King David.

In fact, I was taught quite the opposite.

I’m not saying my Sunday school classes should have been a lesson in historical-critical scholarship, but if the curriculum at my Christian high school could take the time to argue apologetically for the historical accuracy of, say, the Genesis flood account, certainly it could have taken the time to present at least the other side of the story.

Continue reading When Fear and Arrogance Never Meet