Spontaneous Prayer

I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks Oranssuspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand.  According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart.  I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.

One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine.  He was a well known Christian recording artist.  Because I was a musician too, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith.  As I looked in  his guitar case, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God.  Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully.  Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering.  One minute he was praying.  The next he was thinking about something else entirely.   I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too.  What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.

On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon.  The prayer went something like this:  “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings.  Be with the missionaries in foreign fields.  Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening.  Bless the gift and the giver.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”   This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before.  As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,

let Your name remain holy.

Bring about Your Kingdom,

Manifest Your will here on earth,

as it is manifest in heaven.

Give us each day that day’s bread—

no more, no less—

And forgive us our debts

as we forgive those who owe us something.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)

Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this.  One is scripted.  The other is more spontaneous.

One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does.  Perhaps you will agree.  I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.

Here is a good prayer exercise.  Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer.  It may help to write it down on a piece of paper.  In any case make it your own.   There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.

Locusts and Honey

I want to float an idea but don’t have time to develop it into a full-fledged argument. Still I want to propose a reading for an unusual text we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Since Mark is likely the first Gospel written, I’ll work from there recognizing that what is true for Mark is also true for Matthew and Luke.0417locusts

For years I’ve puzzled over the description of the John the baptizer as eating locust and honey (Mark 1:6).   Translations differ. Some seem to underscore that John’s diet consisted of locust and honey as if that was all he could get in the wilderness (NLT, The Voice). Other versions don’t interpret it at all.   Many commentaries notice the statement but have little to say about it. I’ve wondered why we are given this bit of information in a hard-hitting, fast-moving Gospel like Mark’s. After all we’re not told Jesus’ diet, and he’s the main character in the story. Is the statement about John eating (present participle; Mark 1:6) designed to present him as a desert-dwelling ascetic with odd habits? If so, that seems to fail since locusts are kosher and though most westerners cringe at the thought of biting into one, it would not strike a person of John’s day as strange. Then there is honey, a desirable natural sweetener on everybody’s wish-list.

So what is the point? Well let me suggest a reason. The description of John and his activities (living in the wilderness, preaching, baptizing, and his manner of dress) are part of John’s prophetic message. Where he was, what he was doing and how he did it were key aspects of his person and mission.

Prophets were known not only for speaking a message but also acting it out on occasion. This is uncontroversial. Isaiah (ch. 20) walks naked for two years to portray what would happen to the Assyrian captives of Egypt and Cush. Jeremiah (ch. 32) buys real estate as the barbarians are at the gate to depict a hopeful future after the exile. Ezekiel (ch. 4) famously constructs a small model of Jerusalem, portrays a siege against it, lies down on his left side for 390 days as a sign to Israel of things to come. Then God instructs him to lie on his right side for 40 more days and prophesy against it. Prophetic words were certainly memorable but prophetic actions garnered even more attention.

My proposal is this: John ate locust and honey as part of his message. So we shouldn’t imagine John sitting behind a rock snacking on locust and honey right before a big sermon. Rather, I suggest he makes eating locusts and wild honey part of his sermon.

So what would/could this mean? Well consider the prophetic record and what locusts represent. Joel may be the best place to look. An invasion of locusts offers a sign of things to come when an army invades from the north and strips the land bare. Locusts then are a sign of judgement. God’s people have behaved badly now disaster was going to come upon them. Yet even as judgment is announced there is a conditional promise of salvation. If God’s people will repent, return to God, and plead with God to deliver then, then God will restore to them everything the locusts have stripped away (Joel 2:12-27). Joel 2 ends with a triumphant declaration of God’s salvation when he pours out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). As many will recognize this passage is picked up in Acts 2 as Peter’s interpretation of the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoke of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16).

So what does it mean for the prophet to eat the locust as part of his sermon? Well it dramatizes that God is on the move. The Destroyer is being destroyed. The Consumer is being consumed. And finally, the shame of their long exile is coming to an end when YHWH himself returns to his people (Joel 2:27):

Then you will know that I am the midst of Israel,

And that I am the LORD (YHWH) your God

And there is no other;

And my people will never be put to shame.”

Anyone who heard John in those days would have gotten the idea that the current invaders and consumers (the Roman occupiers) were going to meet their match when enough of God’s people repented and submitted to John’s baptism. The long day of judgement was coming to an end.

So what of the honey? Well, when enough Jews repented and turned from their wicked ways, when God himself intervened by destroying the Destroyers and consuming the Consumers, then the land would once again return to its richness for God’s people. Most will recall that when the recently freed Hebrew slaves first peered in from the wilderness, they said of the promised land: “Here is a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I can imagine John lathering his hand in honey, putting it to his mouth and savoring its sweetness as he stood in front of a group of pilgrims from Jerusalem or Judea proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom and warning his detractors of the coming judgment if they persisted in their hypocrisy.   John could have simply spoken the message but by dramatically acting it out, it had a much greater influence on those who came to see him in the desert.

Now this is just a proposal. It is not a full-fledged argument. Still it makes sense to me of a puzzling text. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Is There a Better Word than “Lord”?

Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.”  Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations.  Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ.  On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example. logo_kyrios

One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios.  The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience.  We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.”  We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?

The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status.  Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word.  Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States.  They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit.  For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.

Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it.  I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it.  I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power.   Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something.  Then again, maybe not?!

Teaching the Didache (The Teaching of ‘the Twelve’)

Not long ago I taught a brief series at Christ the King Lutheran Church on the Didache, an early Christian manual on ethics, practices, leadership and eschatology.  Most scholars date it to the end of the first or beginning of the second century AD. A Greek manuscript of it—dating to about 1073 AD—was  discovered by accident in a library in Constantinople by Philotheos Bryennios in 1873 (Have you noticed how some of the best stuff is discovered by accident?  The Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Nag Hammadi library.  Chocolate mixed with peanut butter.)  The Didache was published about a decade later.  Some early church leaders wanted to include it the New Testament but Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.25.1-7) reckons it among the spurious documents.

Christ the King Lutheran Church

There are four essential questions which this early Christian document addresses:

  1. How are we/ Christians to live?
  2. What are our essential practices?
  3. Who is to lead us?
  4. How will all of this end?

The Didache begins with the doctrine of the two ways, a Jewish way of instruction which goes back to Deuteronomy 30.  There are two ways: the way of life and the way of death.  The way of life (according to Deuteronomy) is to know what God says and observe it.  Obedience leads to life, blessing and prosperity.  Disobedience leads to destruction, “curse,” and adversity.  Jesus adopts the same teaching in his parable of the wise and foolish men who built their houses on the rock and sand, respectively.  Didache adopts this Jewish theme and makes it part of its instruction—probably to baptismal candidates.  In fact, there is very little “Christian” about the Didache‘s first six chapters.  It is not until you get to baptism and Eucharist that the true Christian identity of the document emerges.  Some people see it as Jewish ethical instruction slightly Christianized.  That is a fair characterization at least in the first six chapters.

I like this little Christian document for many reasons.  First, as a historian of early Christianity it is primary evidence for how Christ-followers are organizing their common life: what they believe, how they behave, how they conduct their gatherings, and how they deal with traveling and resident leaders.  Second, the Greek of the Didache is easy enough that a second year Greek student can usually translate it with a dictionary in hand.  There are a lot of unique words, especially among the lists of virtues and vices.  Third, and this is related to the first, the Didache and other books of the Apostolic Fathers are some of the first commentators on the New Testament.  They speak the Greek language.  They share a common cultural situation with the later apostles and second to third generation of believers.  So how they read the NT is probably closer than we who read it in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-colonial, post- Holocaust world.  In other words, the fathers have much to teach us if we will just spend some time with them.

There are plenty of versions available, free-online.  A classic translation was done by Kirsopp Lake in the Loeb Classical Series.  He translated it in the early 1910s so it sounds at times like the King James Bible.  The version I use now is a translation of all the Apostolic Fathers by Michael Holmes published by the Society of Biblical Literature.  Over time I hope to come back and comment further on this early Christian document.  In the meantime, why not take some time, look it up and read it.  It is brief.  You can probably read through Didache in 15-20 minutes.   Lake Apostolic Fathers

Thanks to Bob Moore (pastor), Karin Liebster (co-pastor) and Matthias Henze (professor at Rice University) for the opportunity to teach through the text.  I look forward to going back and teaching another of the Apostolic Fathers or coming to teach the Didache at a church near you!

They Come in Pairs (No, this is not about Noah’s Ark)

I’ve been inspired recently by posts from Dr. Creig Marlowe on the site www.hearthevoice.com and some comments I heard recently by N. T. Wright.  There is some new thinking here for me, but as Ecclesiastes reminds us: “there is nothing new under the sun.”

It has to do with a series of binaries in Genesis 1.   Here is a list:

1.1       heavens and earth

1.4       light and darkness

1.5       evening and morning

1.9-10  seas and dry land

1.14     sun and moon

1.27     male and female

Now there may be other binaries here in Genesis 1, but these are the ones I want to focus on.  “Formless and void” (tohu wavohu) comes to mind as a distinct possibility.

creation Adam and Eve

These binaries form complementary pairs which are not only created by God but participate with God in the next steps of creation.  In a way they become co-creators with God because they provide the raw materials for the coming days of creation.  There is a logic to the days of creation which you have probably already noticed.  Days 1-3 provide the raw materials and realms into which the creatures of days 4-6 live (I use the term “creature” here not so much as a living thing but a thing which is created):

Realm                                      Inhabitants

Day 1   light                                  Day 4   sun, moon, and stars

Day 2   sky and waters             Day 5   birds and fish

Day 3   dry land Day                Day 6   land creatures and humanity

This structure is intentional at several levels but it does show order coming from chaos, countering the formless and void state described in Genesis 1.2.

Dr. Marlowe is correct that some of these binaries form a hendiadys (literally, one through two). A hendiadys is an expression of a single idea by the use of two words often connected with “and” or some other conjunction.  “His legal case is not black and white” uses a hendiadys.  “Black and white” is not describing the color of the case but essentially that the facts of the case are not clear.  In Genesis 1.1 “heavens and earth” describe not so much two things but one for which there is no Hebrew word “the universe.”  “Heaven” means everything above your head and “earth” means everything below your feet, in a sense then everything.  That is why we translated Gen 1.1 in The Voice: In the beginning God created everthing, the heavens above, the earth below . . . ”

Here again is our list of binaries with a suggestion of how to see the hendiadys.

1.1       heavens and earth = the universe

1.4       light and darkness = the progression of time

1.5       evening and morning = a day

1.9-10  seas and dry land = the earth

1.14     sun and moon = signs and seasons (again, the progression of time)

1.27     male and female = humanity

In each case God, as it were, turns to the created thing to invite it to work with him in the ongoing task of creation.  So, for example, God says to the earth to bring forth vegetation, plants and seeds (1:11-12). He says to the waters/seas and the skies: bring forth fish and birds (1.20-23). Then God says to the land: bring forth land creatures of every kind (1.24-25).  When God says, “let us make humanity . . . ” people have wondered about the “us.”  Is God speaking to and for the Trinity?  Not necessarily.  That certainly is one way Christians have read the text.  Given everything that has gone on so far in Genesis 1, however, I think God is speaking to the created order itself.  The “us” would include God, the sun, moon, stars, waters, seas, dry land, and other land creatures.  Human beings are made up of the same elements as the stars, the earth, and all the critters.  Now, I’m not arguing that we should have a scientific reading of Genesis; what I am suggesting is that there is an internal logic to the creation story of Genesis 1: God creates something and then uses that creation to create the next thing. In this way all things are dependent and related. Genesis 2 reinforces this when it says that God sculpted Adam/humanity from the earth/dust and breathed in him the breath of life (2.7-9).  So Adam is made up of previously created elements along with the divine breath.

The final binary “male and female” deserves special attention.  Male and female make up one thing, humanity, and this humanity reflects the image of God.  But it is in their differences, their complementarities that male and female reflect the imago dei.  Male has no greater claim than female on imaging God.  It is in their union together and distinctions from one another that God’s likeness is on full display. We live at a time when people want to deny or erase the male-female distinction: to do so is to  assault humanity itself and diminish God in the process.  Here is the commentary embedded at Genesis 1:27 in The Voice:

The crown of God’s creation is a new creature, a creature that can sound the heartbeat of its Creator. That creature, made male and female, reflects God’s own relational richness. The human family is to join God in the ongoing work of creation. The earth below and the sky above with all their inhabitants are too beautiful and too good to be left alone. They need the tender care and close attention that only God’s favored creature can give.

In Genesis 1:28ff. God blesses the humans and gives them the prime directive: be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.  In other words, humans are now directed to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation.  God no longer creates ex nihilo.  He uses preexisting elements and persons in order to fashion the next generation. Through the sexual union male and female become one flesh and life as we know it goes on.

Want to read more from this author?  Want to know whether Jesus had a violent streak or whether he sacrificed in the temple?  Want to know more about the Jesus’s wife fragment? Go to his website: www.davidbcapes.com

 

Jesus and Mighty Works

Jesus and Mighty Works

Last week I traveled to Arlington TX to B. H. Carroll Theological Institute (bhcarroll.edu).  Founded in the 1990s, the institution exists to provide graduate-level theological education for men and women who are called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church.  My professor, Dr. Bruce Corley, was founding president and continues in retirement to help direct the effort. I can’t begin to describe how influential he has been on a generation of scholars and church leaders. B. H. Carroll is the second largest seminary in Texas with students around the world in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China.  They have a great model for how to do education in this technological world.  They keep overhead low and are making a difference in the lives of many people.

Every spring BHCTI holds a colloquy for its PhD students.  There have been many times I have wanted to attend but final exams and grading have typically interfered.  But this time I got a special dispensation to turn my grades in just a wee bit late.  Thanks to my dean.

In addition to sharing with these pastors and church leaders about The Voice Bible project, I had the privilege of listening and responding to Dr. Craig Keener, professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. 

The topic for the colloquy was “Jesus and Mighty Works.”  Much of the discussion has centered around Dr. Keener’s two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).  It is the best book available on miracles as a modern phenomenon.  Dr. Keener brought together a staggering number of accounts from the modern world about miracles that are taking place now in order to help us understand the miracles in the Bible.  Keener said that these two volumes (1100 pages) began as a footnote in his Acts commentary regarding eyewitness accounts of miracles. Some people (known as cessationists) have claimed that miracles stopped centuries ago when the Bible was complete. Dr. Keener offers ample evidence to the contrary.  Others are skeptical about miracles because they have never seen one, but Keener finds easily over 200,000,000 people who claim to have had direct experience with ‘extranormal’ events. He interviewed scientists, doctors, and eyewitnesses from several continents.

 In the 18th century David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that miracles are impossible because they violate natural law and are only testified among uncivilized and uneducated folks.  Keener does a masterful job at deconstructing Hume’s argument and showing that his perspective is based on an ethnocentric bias against non-whites.  Essentially, Hume rejected the testimony of the majority of people in the world because they were not educated in western culture.  He then declared that “uniform human experience” tells us that miracles do not occur.  Apparently, the “us” Hume was referring to were Scottish professors living in the 18th century. “Uniform human experience” only applied to Hume and his friends.  

If you are curious whether miracles are still happening today, you will be amazed at the evidence Keener produces.  Not only are miracles still happening but they are more common than you think.

 Image

The “Big Idea” behind N. T. Wright’s Big Book on Paul

Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.  I asked him a variety of questions regarding his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).

David Capes:

Professor Wright, I tell my students that every good book, every important book has a “big idea.” What is the “big idea” behind your book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013)?Paul and Faithfulness of God

Tom Wright:

The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology.  Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology?  Well, they did and they didn’t.  Didn’t the pagans have theology?  Well, not really.  They talked about the gods, but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis.  Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God from the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors.  So if you are going to have a  single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation.   If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world.  So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology.  In Paul and the Faithfulness of God  I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.

They way I put it is this.  You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.”  He does that and that will help for a while.  What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.”  So Paul is concerned to teach people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology.   That is the heart of it.

Putting Off . . . putting on

A new friend of mine—let’s call him HB—is an accomplished legal mind and great Bible teacher.  Recently, he started using The Voice in some of his teaching.  He posed a question to another friend—let’s call him ML (another accomplished legal mind and amazing Bible teacher)—about how to read Ephesians 4:22-24.  Paul uses two aorist infinitives for “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self.  Most Bible commentaries describe the aorist as a one time act.  It is often called punctilliar aspect.  That’s probably telling you a lot more than you want to know.  But the idea would be that we decide once and for all to put off the old self and put on the new.  In other words it refers to a person’s salvation.  But Klyne Snodgrass, a distinguished professor at North Park Theological Seminary, has this to say: “The aorist tense is used for undefined action. Not necessarily ‘point action,’ as has been the traditional way of looking at the aorist tense!”

Now here is how we translated the passage in The Voice.baptismal font

22 then you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust— 23 to take a fresh breath and to let God renew your attitude and spirit. 24 Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

You may notice words in both regular font and italic font.  The regular font is more of a straight line translation from the original Greek.  The italic is “explanatory paraphrase;” this expresses the idea of the Greek because often it takes more than one word in English to express the nuance and artistry of the original language.

Eventually HB and ML kicked the question to me and here is what I said to them late Saturday night.

You are correct that Paul uses aorist infinitives for “putting off” (the old) and” putting on” (the new).  In between however, he employs a present infinitive to describe ongoing renewal by the Spirit which is to typify the Christian life.

There are times when the aorist points to a one-time event (punctilliar) and times when it is undefined.  After all Greek only has a few tenses to draw from. and it is probably unwise to pound the pulpit every time you see an aorist.  On this occasion, however, I think the punctilliar is warranted because most scholars are convinced that Paul is making use of baptismal language when he talks about putting off and putting on.  Since baptism was supposed to be a one-time act, these aorist forms are appropriate.  Christian baptism–widely understood as initiation into the Christian life–was seen as the decisive turning point when a person denied the old nature once and for all and took on (intentionally) the new nature.  This language about Christian baptism was taken so literally in the first part of the second century AD that the baptismal candidates took off their old clothes, went down into the water naked, and came up from the water to put on a new set of clothes.  That was one reason why the church needed women deacons, to superintend the baptism of women candidates.

That said, however, I think Paul would also agree that we are to always be working out our baptismal vows.  That means we are continually in the process of renewal, which means setting aside/repenting of the old and appropriating the newness of the Spirit. This is why we translated the passage in The Voice the way we did.

Perhaps you’ve gone to a church and noticed a water font at the entrance to the sanctuary.  They are usually small and off to one side.  The purpose of the font is to remind you of your baptism.  You may see people dip their finger in the water and make the sign of the cross.

The Virgin Birth: what did Mary provide?

Now that the 12 days of Christmas are in full swing, I want to propose what I think will be a controversial reading of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth.  Consider it a theological thought experiment if you like, but it is an attempt to take seriously Matthew 1:20.  The first Gospel says no more about the topic but what he does say is clearly suggestive:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)

Now immediately, we must set aside any modern notions of conception, for though Matthew and his audience would have been aware generally of how babies were made, they were not versed fully in the biology of it.   The Greek word translated “conceived” in most modern translations does not mean what moderns mean when they think scientifically regarding conception.  So we must not insist that it carry the full freight of our biological knowledge.  The word simply means “to bring forth.”  The same word was used earlier in the chapter dozens of times to refer to how fathers bring forth children: e.g., “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob” (Matthew 1:2a,b).  The King James read: “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob” (Mat 1:2 KJV).virgin-mary-and-jesus

If we assume for a moment that Matthew was aware of at least some of the biological processes involved, would he have thought that Mary provided the ovum or was Mary for him more like a surrogate mother, a vessel in whom the Christ-child, Emmanuel, was destined to grow?  If Mary provided the ovum, who or what supplied the seed?  I suggest Matthew’s account should be interpreted as making Mary Jesus’ surrogate mother not his biological mother.

First, it is clear that Matthew does not see her pregnancy as a sexual act.  In fact, the way he tells the story it is obvious he is trying to distance this account from any notion of sexual intercourse.  Perhaps that is because during his days charges were being made by Jesus’ opponents about his legitimacy; or more likely in my view, Matthew had a theological and apologetic purpose.

According to the first evangelist, Mary is a virgin and stays a virgin up to the time of Jesus’ birth (Catholics and many other faithful believers say forever).  Furthermore, the child which will come forth from her is “from the Holy Spirit” (likely a genitive of source governed by the Greek preposition ek).  Matthew must have been aware of Greek myths and pagan stories of gods coming down and having sexual relations with women and giving birth to semi-divine beings (e.g., Hercules).  His account of Jesus’ miraculous birth is meant to distance Jesus’ origins as far as possible from these pagan notions.  That which is in Mary is from the Holy Spirit.  Full stop.  It is the work of God in her from start to finish.

Reading Matthew’s account in this way makes it possible to view Jesus as a new Adam in line with other NT writers (e.g., Paul in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15 and the Gospel of Luke in particular).  The genealogy of the third Gospel (Luke 3) begins with Jesus and traces his lineage all the way back to Adam (cf. Matthew’s geneaology which begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus: Matthew 1).  Jesus is therefore the Son of Adam, who is none other than the Son of God..  The God who said, “Let there be light” and light “became” can surely say, “Let there be a child in the womb of my loyal servant, Mary,” and make it so.  Adam was the product of adamah (Hebrew for “earth”) and the breath (Spirit) of God (Genesis 1-3).  Jesus, son of Mary, was the product of the Holy Spirit, according to Matthew.  Mary did not provide the biological raw materials. What she did provide–by common agreement with God–was a nurturing place for the Christ child to grow and develop.  Natalogists can explain to us all that the woman’s body provides a child that grows within her.  Needless to say, “we are wonderfully made.”

Now some may wonder whether reading Matthew’s account in the way I propose detracts from Jesus’ full humanity.  How could Jesus be fully human if he did not have a biological mother?  Well was Adam “fully human”?  He had no mother.  His wife was to become the mother of all the living.  God sculpted Adam from the earth and breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul, fully human.  The analogy I suggest we consider here is new creation and new Adam.  What was in Mary was “from the Holy Spirit” start to finish.

Now if we take Mary’s role as surrogate rather than biological mother, we do not detract one bit from her ultimate significance in the story of salvation.  She remains the virgin mother in whom a miracle has taken place to bring forth a son who is properly called “Emmanuel” (God with us).  All of the honor due Mary as theotokos (“the Mother of God”) is not set aside by this reading of Matthew.

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