Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 5

In case you’re new:

  • Part 1, an introduction.
  • Part 2, in which we found that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, either didn’t know about a virgin birth story or didn’t think it important enough to mention, even obliquely.
  • Part 3, in which we found that Mark, the earliest written gospel, likewise does not know a virgin birth story, and his portrayal of Jesus’ family makes it sound like they didn’t know of one either.
  • Part 4, in which we found that Matthew and Luke, while agreeing on several key details, tell virgin birth stories that are not compatible with each other.

We’re not quite done with Matthew and Luke yet. What do they tell of Jesus’ family life? We found that useful when looking at Mark. Gerd Ludemann’s book Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus will be our guide through these stories.

Given Mark’s place as the first gospel and the basis for both Matthew and Luke, it’s unsurprising to find a version of the Markan story in which Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and brothers?” It honestly makes more sense in Mark, where Jesus’ statement is preceded by the fact that his family thinks he’s crazy and wants to take him away – again, an odd decision for a family who would know of his supernatural origins. Matthew perhaps knows this and excises that introductory narrative in his telling (12:46-50). Ludemann notes that Matthew also changes the circumstances in which Jesus is told of his family’s arrival. Both of these changes help lessen the strain between Jesus and his family portrayed in Mark 3:31-35.

Like Mark, Matthew also tells of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown. Again, he makes some significant alterations, primary of which is the description of Jesus’ family. In Mark 6, the members of the synagogue say: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” But in Matthew 13, it becomes: “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us?”

Matthew’s addition of Joseph into the story is interesting. Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 5

On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson

Last night was a special night.

Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, came to town and spoke about “Transforming the Conversation” between Christians and the GLBT community (LGBT? Does the order matter? Must stop obsessing over minutiae!).

Justin is a captivating, hilarious speaker – easy to listen to and agree with. The thing that struck me most about his talk was how universal his suggestions were. They would certainly lead to better relationships between Christians who disagree on the subject of homosexuality and between the church and non-Christian gays and lesbians, but they would also lead to better relationships, period.

I’ll be honest: I came into this presentation expecting to nod in agreement the whole way through and think thoughts along the lines of, “Yeah! If only (unenlightened person x) were here to finally hear the truth!” So imagine my surprise and disappointment when, on his very first point, Justin pointed the finger, rhetorically speaking, at me.

Continue reading On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson

Crankiness in the Church

Thank God for crayons.

I think this most Sundays. Our 3-year-old daughter doesn’t like going to the in-service Sunday school class, so for the past year or so, she’s been sitting with us all the way through the service. That’s not a good idea. But part of the rules is that if she wants to sit with the grown-ups then she needs to act like one and be quiet – and, in a classic case of proving that sometimes our kids will actually live up to our expectations if we set them high enough, she’s done a great job.

Of course, she’s helped a great deal by a little purse full of toys, two snacks (one for when the singing starts, the other for the sermon) and the Sunday Scribes bags the church provides, each with a pad of paper and baggie of crayons. J quietly sits on the floor and creates page after page of crayon drawings and hands them to me while I worship, pray, take communion and listen to the preaching.

To me, that’s a win-win-win. She’s learning how to be quiet for extended stretches of time when silence would be truly necessary (a funeral or wedding, for example), my wife and I get to fully engage in worship, and the folks around us aren’t distracted by toddler shenanigans.

For others, apparently, this is not the ideal situation.

Continue reading Crankiness in the Church

The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

“We were endowed by our creator with our rights. Not the king, not the state, but our creator.” – Mitt Romney

I heard this quote on the radio last week, and it’s been gnawing at me ever since.

The conservative/libertarian reliance on the Declaration of Independence as all but coequal with the Constitution is annoying from a historical perspective – the two documents have different aims, different authors and a different set of signers. The Declaration was written to abolish the current government, while the Constitution was written to set up a government. As a result, many of the Declaration’s signers, including its author, Thomas Jefferson, and “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry refused to endorse the Constitution. They thought the government it created was too big.

So citing the Declaration of Independence as a relevant document for the current American government is annoying. Citing the deistic Creator formulation Jefferson included as a synonym for “nature” as if he really meant the all-powerful, directly involved God of the universe who is intimately involved in the lives of his children is frustrating.

But what really gets me about that line from Romney is that it’s entirely wrong.

Continue reading The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

Paper Preview

You might have noticed I try to write a new part of my “Was Mary Really a Virgin?” series each Friday. But I just spent four straight nights working on a paper for my New Testament class until 2 a.m. or later. Needless to say, I didn’t have much energy for researching and writing anything this morning.

So instead you get a “special treat:” A preview of the first few paragraphs of my paper. I know, I know, but try to stay in your chairs.

Continue reading Paper Preview

A Thought Experiment on Abortion

A good friend of mine is an ethics professor, and he recently delivered both sides in a debate about whether Christians should push for stricter anti-abortion legislation. Yes, both sides. It’s part of a weekly forum in which a person takes a controversial topic, advocates one side, then walks across the stage to another podium and advocates the other.

Previous topics have included gay marriage is an abomination/gay marriage glorifies God, women should keep silent/women should lead in church and swearing is forbidden/allowed in scripture. Richard Beck has done a couple of them, but this was the first I’d attended, and I wish I had done it sooner.

I think the anti-abortion side would be familiar to most of you; abortion is morally wrong because it deprives an individual – aside from whether or not a fetus is technically a person – the right to a future, and therefore laws should be in place restricting it. But coming back and arguing for the pro-abortion side, my friend began with a thought experiment.

Suppose, he said, a group of people breaks into your house, drugs you and kidnaps you. You wake up in a hospital room, hooked up via machines to an unconscious man next to you. One of the people who kidnapped you comes in and apologizes for the inconvenience but explains the man beside you is a world-famous violinist at death’s door. You are keeping him alive, and they need you to continue to do so for the next nine months, after which he will be well, and you can go on with your life.

The question is: Do you have a moral duty to remain connected to this person?

Continue reading A Thought Experiment on Abortion

The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight

We all know what Paul thinks about salvation, summed up succinctly in verses like Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

James, however, tells a different story in 2:24:

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

So I look down to the commentary in my NIV Life Application Bible, and it says, “James and Paul are not contradicting but complementing each other.”

Oh really?

Now I grew up hearing the arguments that Paul and James both agreed in the need for deeds to be the evidence for faith. But those are pretty weak. Because the whole argument for those who believe we are saved only by grace through faith is that none of us is able to perform enough good works to meet God’s standard. Is that any less true after salvation? And if you read James, he isn’t saying, “You’re saved by faith but you need to have good works, too.” He’s saying, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

Paul and James both use Abraham as an example – Paul says Abraham was justified by faith alone because he believed in God before the Law existed, and James said Abraham was justified by works because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. They both even cite the same Old Testament scripture (Gen. 15:6)!

Now James does believe faith is necessary for salvation, which is what Paul would say, but he also believes works are equally necessary, something I don’t think you can find in Paul’s writing.

So we bend over backward, twisting ourselves into knots trying to reconcile these two early apostles who simply disagreed with each other about how God works his salvation. It’s certainly understandable why: Salvation is a big deal! It’s an even bigger deal when you believe God is going to condemn every last unsaved person to eternal torment in hell. With stakes that high, it’s pretty important to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, and it behooves us to have a Bible that clearly, easily and understandably points the way to salvation.

Except the Bible does not do this.

Continue reading The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Thus far in this series, we’ve looked at what Paul, the earliest Christian writer, knew – or at least cared enough to mention – about the origins of Jesus, and we’ve looked at what Mark, the earliest gospel, says about Jesus’ origins and family background. In short, neither seems to know about a virgin birth, and Mark actually portrays Jesus’ family as if they thought he was crazy, which seems strange.

So now we move to the next two gospels written, Matthew and Luke. Both have birth stories, and we’ve gotten so used to merging them together, it’s probably useful to pull them apart again and look at their individual characteristics.

Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 4

Class, Week 11: Did Paul Write These Letters?

You don’t go through seminary long before you hear the phrase “seven genuine letters.” That would be the seven genuine letters of Paul – the ones that have nearly unanimous support as actually being written by the author they claim, the Apostle Paul.

The seven genuine letters in canonical order are:

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Philemon

That leaves six disputed letters, of which three are truly in dispute; scholars disagree about their authenticity:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians

And three that are almost universally considered inauthentic, written by someone else using Paul’s name:

  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

Hebrews once was considered a Pauline epistle, but it’s written anonymously, and no one anymore thinks Paul was the author (I can say that with confidence because even the ultraconservative tradition in which I was raised taught that Paul didn’t write Hebrews).

The nine letters of Paul to the churches (plus Philemon) are arranged by length, which makes it hard to truly see the evolution of Paul’s style and theology over time. I highly recommend reading them chronologically – starting with the Thessalonians, then moving through Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Romans, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, and ending with the Pastorals. It will be much easier to see why the last five are in such dispute.

Continue reading Class, Week 11: Did Paul Write These Letters?

My Favorite Disciple

Who’s your fave disciple?

People seem to like having one, though I think “favorite” is shorthand for “relates the most to” or “identifies the most with.” Peter usually wins this particular competition. A lot of folks can relate to his think-before-speaking, half-cocked way of doing things, and I certainly can, as well.

We all like to think we have a lot in common with John, who was bosom buddies with Jesus, preached about him fearlessly in Acts and, tradition has it, was so plugged in to the Holy Spirit that he had the mother of all trippy dreams about how the world was going to end (or maybe not, but that’s another conversation). The truth is, John is probably the disciple most of us are least like.

Judas? Well, not many would admit to having him as our favorite, but I think most of us could relate to making a horrible mistake, immediately regretting it, and feeling at a loss about how to make things right.

I relate best to Thomas. The doubter. The guy who, when the other 10 living disciples told him after the first Easter, “We saw Jesus alive!” responded, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Thomas doesn’t get a lot of play in the Jesus narratives – just three speaking parts. But they say a lot.

Continue reading My Favorite Disciple