Phyllis' Garden -- Finding Meaning in the Ordinary

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 13 July 2005 0 Comments
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What is the spiritual understanding of the Virgin Birth narrative as opposed to a purely literal interpretation?


My first question is why do you need one? I see nothing about the birth narratives, which appear only in Matthew and Luke that makes me think they are essential to the Church's life and work. I could even argue that there are many things in those narratives that are actually detrimental to the Church's life and work. For example, Paul seems to lack nothing of substance in his understanding of the Gospel, even though he appears never to have heard of the birth narratives.

The same could be said of Mark, the earliest Gospel. He also seems to know nothing of a virgin birth tradition and even goes so far as to show that the mother of Jesus thought him mentally unbalanced in his adulthood and moved to take him away to avoid continued family embarrassment.

John, who draws the picture of the Christ figure at his most divine, neglects to include a birth narrative about which he must certainly have known since he wrote so late. Yet on two occasions, he refers to Jesus simply as "The son of Joseph."

The question that I think is worth pursuing about the birth narratives is not their 'spiritual meaning,' but "what was there about the experience people had with the adult Jesus that caused them to think it appropriate to attribute a divine supernatural birth to him?"

I know of no reputable biblical theologian today, Catholic or Protestant, who treats the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke as history. The only problem is we haven't yet told this to the people in the pews.

— John Shelby Spong

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