The Origins of the New Testament, Part X: Resurrection According to Paul — I Corinthians

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 24 December 2009 0 Comments
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Charles Brittain from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, writes:

I am a progressive Christian, one who follows your scholarship and that of my pastor. In fact, you have visited our church and I have heard you speak in person. It was a wonderful experience for me. The problem I'm having at this present holiday season is that the scholarship and the traditional Christmas music and the visuals are not in agreement with each other. I feel that I abandon my intellectual knowledge when I participate in the traditional forms of Christmas liturgy and imagery. Can you suggest how that I may enjoy both the scholarship and the traditions of Christmas without feeling conflicted?


Dear Charles,

Thank you for your question, which is perfect for the column that goes out on Christmas Eve.
There is no doubt that most people have literalized the images that Matthew and Luke have in their birth stories of Jesus (See Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), but I do believe it is quite clear that neither Matthew nor Luke thought of them as literal events. The great majority of biblical scholars share that perspective.

The facts are that stars do not travel across the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with them; angels do not break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds; and human beings do not follow stars to pay homage to a newborn king of a foreign nation, especially when the same gospel that tells us this story also tells us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. To continue this train of thought, no real head of state, including King Herod, would deputize eastern Magi that he had never seen before to be his CIA to bring him a report of this threat to his throne. That is the stuff of fairy tales.

A star does not lead magi down a wagon track of a road six miles from Jerusalem and then bathe the house in which the baby lies with heavenly light to show these Magi where the child they seek is to be found. Wise men do not bring gifts that symbolize kingship (gold), divinity (frankincense) and suffering (myrrh) that will mark the life of this infant. No one is that prescient.

Virgins do not conceive except in mythology, of which there were many examples in the Mediterranean world. Kings do not order people to return to their ancestral home for enrolling for taxation. There were 1000 years between David and Joseph, or some 50 generations. David had multiple wives and concubines. In 50 generations, the descendants of David would number in the billions. If they had all returned to Bethlehem, there would be no wonder that there was no room at the inn!

A man does not take his wife, who is "great with child," on a 94-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that the expected messiah can be born in David's city. One lay Roman Catholic woman theologian said of that account, "Only a man who had never had a baby could have written that story!"
No king slaughters all the boy babies in a town trying to get rid of a pretender to his throne, especially if everyone in that town would have known exactly which house it was over which the star had stopped and into which the Magi had entered. The whereabouts of the "pretender" to Herod's throne would not have been hard to identify if this were a literal story that really happened.

Certainly, both Matthew and Luke were aware that they were using these stories to try to interpret the power of God experienced in the adult life of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew drew his wise men story out of Isaiah 60, where kings were said to come on camels "to the brightness of God's rising." They came bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. Matthew expanded this story with details drawn from other biblical narratives like the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon and the truckload of spices (myrrh) that she brought with her (see I Kings 10) and the story of Balaam and Balak from Numbers 22-24 in which a star in the East plays a prominent role. Traditional Jewish writings also used a star in the sky to announce the births of its great heroes, Abraham, Isaac and Moses.

Matthew wrapped his interpretation around the well-known story of Moses. That is why he repeated the story of Pharaoh killing the boy babies in Egypt at the time of Moses' birth, transforming it to be a story of Herod killing the boy babies in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth.

What these narratives were designed by the gospel writers to proclaim are:

  1. Human life could not have produced the presence of God that people believed they had met in Jesus.
  2. The importance of his birth was symbolized by having it announced with heavenly signs, a star in Matthew and angels in Luke.
  3. In the life of Jesus, they believed that heaven and earth had come together and that divinity and humanity had merged.
  4. Messiah for the Jews had many facets. Messiah had to be both a new Moses and the heir to the throne of David. The Moses claim was in the story of how Jesus was taken by Joseph down to Egypt so that God could call him as God had called Moses out of Egypt. The heir to David was the reason his birth was located in David's place of birth (Bethlehem) instead of in Nazareth, where Jesus was in all probability born.
  5. This Jesus draws the whole world to himself, even the Gentile world of the Magi as well as the humble lives of the shepherds.

These are the interpretive details of the Christian myths. All of them came into the Christian faith only in the 9th decade. None of them is original to the memory of Jesus. Neither Paul nor Mark had ever heard of them. John, the last gospel to be written, must have known of these birth traditions, but he doesn't include them and, on two occasions, calls Jesus the son of Joseph (see John Chapters 1 and 6).

Given these pieces of data, there is no way the authors of the Christmas stories in the Bible thought they were writing literal history. They were interpreting the meaning they found in Jesus. As long as we understand that, I see no reason why we can't sing, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" or "O, little town of Bethlehem" even if there were no shepherds who attended Jesus' birth and the probability is that he was born in Nazareth, which is what the first gospel Mark assumes.

As far as I know, adults don't believe there is a literal North Pole inhabited by a jolly elf named Santa Claus, who harnesses his toy-laden sled to his reindeer in order to bring gifts to all of the children of the world on Christmas Eve. Yet we still sing, "Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer" and "Santa Claus is coming to town" without twisting our minds into intellectual pretzels.

My suggestion is that you separate fantasy from history and then enter into and enjoy the fantasy of the season. Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being. In that way you will understand the intentions of the gospel writers.

Thanks for writing. Enjoy the holidays, and Merry Christmas.

John Shelby Spong



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