The Health Care Debate: Is It Possible to Reach Conclusions That Are Satisfactory?

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 5 April 2012 0 Comments
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You have said that there is no mention of the Virgin Birth prior until the ninth decade when Matthew wrote the first account of the miraculous Nativity.  You also say that there is no reference to a miracle associated with Jesus prior to the gospel of Mark.  How can you make these statements since they violate Lutheran doctrine of the Word?


Dear Chris,

I admire many things about Martin Luther, but I have a contemporary understanding of biblical scholarship, so seeing Luther as a scripture scholar is not one of them.

In Luther’s time, there was a general assumption that the gospels were eyewitness accounts and that they reflected the things that happened in Jesus’ life accurately.  Today we know that is not so.  The gospels were not written until 40-70 years after the crucifixion.  The material included in the gospels circulated in oral transmissions, probably in the life of the synagogue for two to three generations before being written down.  In that time, the memory of Jesus was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures, which were applied to him in an interpretive fashion as if these were predictions fulfilled by Jesus.  Actually, it was the other way around.  The memory of Jesus was altered to fit his life into these scriptural and messianic expectations.  Even the earliest story of the crucifixion found in Mark 14:17-15:47 is not an eye witness account, but a story that interpreted the crucifixion according to the Hebrew Scriptures that were written 400-600 years earlier than the life of Jesus.  Mark’s story of the crucifixion is based primarily on Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

Second, the gospels were originally written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote.  It is simply not so to suggest that these second and third generation people were writing remembered history.  They were developing interpretive models for understanding Jesus based on their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.

We also now know the approximate dates of the writings of Paul and the various gospels. Luther did not have that knowledge available to him or to his generation.  We can line the various books of the New Testament up in the order of their writing and see how the story grew from Paul, who wrote between 51-64 to John who wrote between 95-100.

When you search Paul, you find no hint of a miraculous birth story.  He says of Jesus, he was born of a woman (like every human being) and he was born under the law (like every Jew).

Mark, the first gospel written in the early 70’s CE, says that God entered Jesus at his baptism and he portrays the mother of Jesus as thinking he was mentally disturbed and seeking to have him taken away (see Mark chapters 3 and 6).  There is no way Mark could have written that if he had heard or accepted virgin birth myths.

The Virgin Birth story is introduced by Matthew about 82-85 CE.  He bases it on a text from Isaiah (7:14) which he mistranslates either by ignorance or by design.  Matthew says that Isaiah writes, “Behold, a virgin will conceive” but what Isaiah really says is, “Behold, a woman is with child.”  That is quite a difference. Luke writing in the late 80’s or early 90’s (88-92) tells a story of the miraculous birth of Jesus, but it disagrees substantially with many things in Matthew’s version.  The Fourth Gospel drops the Virgin Birth completely, replacing it with a hymn to the Word and on two occasions this gospel simply refers to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.”  (See chapters one and six).  These are simply facts.

In regard to miracles, Paul never refers to a miracle that Jesus performed.  The Q source, which is regarded by some scholars as earlier than Mark (I am not one who agrees with this, but that is not germane to this issue), makes no mention of any miracles.  The gospel of Thomas that some biblical scholars date earlier than Mark (I do not), but I include it to complete the survey of the data since there are no miracles in Thomas.

When the miracles do appear in Mark, they fall into three categories, nature miracles, healing miracles and raising the dead miracles.  They tend to reflect three Old Testament sources. The Moses-Joshua cycles where nature miracles were plentiful; the Elijah-Elisha cycle that features nature miracles but adds one healing miracle and two raising of the dead narratives.  These accounts find significant echoes in the miracles associated with Jesus. Matthew and Luke copy Mark and expand Mark including adding some new miracle stories.  When John writes he turns the miracles into interpretive signs and none of the “signs” in John seem to be the retelling of things that actually happened.

The third Old Testament source of the miracles is in Isaiah 35 where the prophet describes the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  It will be accompanied, Isaiah says, by having the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the mute sing. Jesus, interpreted as the life in whom the Kingdom of God breaks into human history, is made to perform all these signs.

No, neither miracles nor the Virgin Birth are original parts of the Jesus tradition and a simple study of scriptures makes that obvious.

Thanks for your question and best wishes in your ministry.

~John Shelby Spong




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