Hodie Christus Natus Est: Heralding the Dawn of a New Beginning

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” -Luke 1:78-79

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us. As the universal Church ponders the mystery of the Incarnation it is highly appropriate to reflect about what this central focal point of our faith really means. During the past year, my own theological views have undergone considerable revision. Thanks to the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the renowned Fr. Hans Küng I have been exposed to a new understanding of God and a radically new approach to the Christian life.

The richest kernel of wisdom that has been received from these theologians is being able to understand that not all accounts in the Bible can be taken as being historically or scientifically infallible – even those that have been perceived as being foundational to Christianity. To the early Church, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a new and definitive beginning for the human race – as God was communicated in a unique way, for all, in the person of Christ. Conveying this sentiment was accomplished, as most religions of the time did, through mythical tales that employed certain symbols to establish and underline the truth that was being emphasized.

For most Christians, to consider the accounts contained in the Gospels that detail the birth of Jesus as fictional is indeed a revolutionary concept. In the opinions of many it is tantamount to heresy. However, as Scripture is analyzed, it is plain to see that the fantastic birth narratives chronicled in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels never formed the core of the Christian tradition. The first reference to the birth of Christ in the New Testament comes from one of the apostle Paul’s epistles, written around the middle of the first century C.E. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul details of how, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Writing at a time before any of the canonical Gospels had been composed, one of the greatest pillars of the early Church appears to be ignorant of any knowledge of angelic throngs, wise men from the East, mobile stars, or miraculous conceptions that accompanied the birth of Jesus. Paul describes it matter-of-factly, simply stating that He was “born of a woman.” No supernatural phenomena characterized the event. If they had, wouldn’t they have proven worthy of mention?

The oldest of the four Gospels (that of Mark – written twenty years after Paul’s epistles) never mentions the birth of Jesus but begins immediately with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (which were largely based on the material found in Mark) were written at least five to fifteen years after the composition of Mark. The annunciation and birth narratives of Jesus that Christians have become so accustomed to are unique to these two Gospels. Even John’s Gospel, which highlights and emphasizes the divinity of Christ more than any other, fails to mention any incident of a miraculous birth – only stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” -John 1:1,14

If the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke can be considered an independent development within the early Christian tradition, and not a foundational one, how did they come about and what do they mean for the life of the Church today?

First, it must be understood that the concept of a virgin birth need not be as fundamental as it has been for the past two millenia of Christian history. The origins of this belief are usually based on a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promises that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). For centuries, this verse was seen as substantiating the idea that the exact manner and circumstances of the coming of the Messiah had been foretold long ago in Sacred Scripture. However, when the question of translation is examined another picture is painted. The version of Isaiah that the author of Matthew’s Gospel used was a Greek rendering of the original Hebrew text. In Greek, the word “parthenos” does indeed describe a virgin in the sexual sense. But in Hebrew, the word used concerning the woman is “almah” which does not mean a virgin, but rather a “young woman”, married or unmarried. Thus, the assertion that the virgin birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament is completely unfounded.

This tradition probably arose to emphasize God as being the source of the unique and irrevocable call that impelled all that Jesus of Nazareth said and did throughout His life. Portraying Jesus as not being born as the result of human conception placed His very existence not within the fallible limits of frail human beings, but rather among the infinite possibilities of the Divine. As the Gospel of Luke phrased it, a new “Dawn from on high” had broken upon the horizon of human history, that would leave it forever and irreparably changed.

As the early Christian community reflected on this mystery, more and more attention would come to be focused on the biological state of Mary’s virginity rather than what that virginity ultimately represented theologically. Analogies were constructed between the Old and New Testaments that compared Eve’s role in humanity’s fall from grace with Mary’s chosen status as the spotless vessel to bear the One to redeem mankind. From that point on, Mary, the mother of Jesus would ever be attached to the word Virgin. This quality, more than any other, would be what distinguished Mary in Christian theology. Not her courage or the maternal dedication of her faith, but the fact alone that she never took part in sexual intercourse with a man. Seeing sexual expression as a necessary evil that was inaugurated after the dreaded Fall in the Garden of Eden , early Christian theologians frowned upon viewing anything positive about the topic. The virginity of Mary was the perfect way to depict the unrealistic ideal towards which all faithful Christians should aspire – celibacy. Such actions would continue to erect a tradition of theologically denigrating human sexuality. Even worse, such a trend would deny women any positive role models to emulate, aside from those who had chosen the path of clerically endorsed celibacy. If Mary was never a virgin, how enriching or useful is such a doctrine for the women of the twenty-first century?

Another staple of the traditional Christmas story is that, spurred on by a census issued by Caesar Augustus, the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travelled over one-hundred miles from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem is the subject of countless sentimental carols, but has anyone ever given any thought to whether it was actually the real birthplace of Jesus?

In terms of historical accuracy, there are no records of any such census being taken in Judea by the Roman Empire that would have forced families to travel back to the towns of their ancestors in order to be accounted for. The Romans kept meticulous records of such undertakings, and an event as unique as this would surely have been found in the annals of some chronological ledger that kept track of the activities of the Empire in its various provinces. Josephus, nor any other contemporary historian ever makes mention of the account. Logistically speaking, such a census would be a civic nightmare! Why order the population of a given region to scatter to numerous different sites to be counted when they all could gather at one central location?

Bethlehem was the legendary King David’s hometown. Making a connection between such a renowned figure in Israel’s history would remove beyond all doubt the legitimacy of Jesus as the Messiah that had been promised generations ago. And what would conveniently place the Holy Family within the City of David? A census. Thus, it must be admitted that the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph, that has characterized part of the charm and timeless appeal of the Christmas story to countless generations of Christians, is most likely not history, but rather, poetic license taken to substantiate the early Christian community’s view that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah. This promised Anointed One had to possess some connection to the legacy of Israel’s most illustrious hero, therefore the fictional census of Luke’s Gospel serves to establish this bond.

If one wishes to consult the guidance of history, it is safe to say that Nazareth was probably the birthplace of Jesus.

In the same way, there can be no historical reference found that documents the slaughter of the innocents under the order of King Herod that is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Just as the author of Luke’s Gospel had a subliminal method behind the creation of his narrative of the birth of Jesus so did the composer of Matthew’s Gospel. The author of Matthew was writing to a largely Jewish audience, so it was imperative to enumerate connections between Old Testament themes and the life of Jesus in his Gospel. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new and definitive fulfillment of Moses – one of the Torah’s most prominent figures. So think, where else in Scripture does a tyrannical king order the slaughter of a small cluster of innocent children? In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story is told of how the Pharaoh of Egypt orders the annihilation of all male Hebrew children under the age of two for fear of an uprising that would topple his reign. The mother of Moses places him in a basket and sets him afloat upon the Nile River. The boy finds his way to the palace of the Pharaoh where he is taken and raised by the king’s daughter. When one puts the two stories side by side, it is obvious that they are almost identical in scope – particularly considering how Jesus avoids detection by the forces of Herod.

If none of these accounts can be taken as factually accurate what does this say about the Christmas story we have all learned as children?

The real question to consider is: what do the traditional Christmas accounts we have all been taught tell us about God?

Christianity has always held that God descended the heights of heaven, and took on flesh, to save mankind from its sinfulness. God was an external being that was completely Other, reigning from another far-off realm of consciousness, Who needed to be placated by humanity’s compliance and subservience.

But what if God is not a being, but rather a Reality, a Force, a Presence that is at the heart of all that pervades the earth and the universe?

If so, then God never had to come down from heaven. The reality of God was never detached from this plane of existence. Realizing this precious truth, we can see what the birth of Jesus really signals – hope is never far away because God can be discovered in the deepest expression of our own humanity. During Midnight Mass, when we kneel to honor the consummation of the Incarnation during the recitation of the Creed, we should do so not in austere humility – taken aghast at the prospect of God deeming humans worthy of enjoying His presence – but rather in sheer joy, adoration, and gratitude at the thought that God can be discovered so intimately within each one of us, and through our actions. This is what the Incarnation is fundamentally about: that the very essence and nature of the Divine was communicated to the world in the life of a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This same Reality, can be discovered within every human person, and in all living things, if we only become aware and appreciative of the grace of the presence of God.

Even if the Christmas stories that mythologically tried to convey this sentiment are not factually true, this does not deprive them of their meaning. Through these intricate and stimulating parables we see that the reality of God is not only destined for the learned or the opulent, but can be cherished and found among the most meager of circumstances – in the company of shepherds or the stark simplicity of a manger. Even if Mary was not a virgin, how much more profound an insight would it be that the Divine can be communicated in all of life’s endeavors, especially during sexual intercourse between two people who are genuinely in love.

All of these points are what the authors of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tried to emphasize, that the Divine can be located within the human sphere of reference, and that Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity. This new beginning for the world that was offered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is sorely needed amidst the challanges, sadness, and uncertanties of today’s world. Whether it be the bleak state of the globe’s economic affairs, war and violence that continue to plague numerous lands, or poverty and injustice that are made manifest even in our own nation, the planet Earth is much in need of a cosmic reboot to revitalize its fortunes. Yet, for anyone who has committed themselves to the cause of Christ, it is possible to bring such hope alive for countless souls. Doing so means not by assenting to doctrinal or dogmatic rubrics, but rather by living out and making evident the message of the One who Christians acclaim as the “Light of the World.”

I extend wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who happen upon this posting! As food for reflection, it seemed appropriate to leave the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose writings have been dominantly instrumental in reshaping my views of Scripture and its meaning for our lives:

“God is not a heavenly judge. God is a life force expanding inside humanity until that humanity becomes barrier-free. This was the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. It was a new God definition that shifted our old view of an external force into something found at the center of life. The being of this God calls us to be; the life of this God calls us to live; the love of this God calls us to love. Jesus lived the life of God. That is why we proclaim that in His life the Source of life was seen. In His love the Source of love was seen. In His courage, which enabled Him to be fully human, the Ground of All Being was seen. That is the experience that the word ‘Incarnation’ was created to communicate. It is not a doctrine to be believed so much as it is a presence to be experienced.” 

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a paralegal student in Baltimore, Maryland and contributing author to “Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics.” Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

11 thoughts on “Hodie Christus Natus Est: Heralding the Dawn of a New Beginning

  1. Pingback: Just Say No To Dissent « Acts Of The Apostasy

  2. Well done! You’ll probably be a target. FWIW, I agree with you. When I give homilies or talk along these lines, the response is very good. Many folks have already reached similar conclusions. Guess I’ll be a target now, too. My army experience should help. Keep it up.

    • I thought about that and you’re right! Even if not by the readers we’d hoped for, still the message is getting out :) Kind of an unexpected Christmas present lol

  3. umm… where do I begin?

    ” in Hebrew, the word used concerning the woman is ”almah” which does not mean a virgin, but rather a “young woman”, married or unmarried. Thus, the assertion that the virgin birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament is completely unfounded.”

    First of all, the word almah is used only seven times in Hebrew Bible and each of those times it refers to unmarried virgin women (in fact, three of those times it refers to the daughters of Jerusalem swooning over the groom in the Song of Songs… this would have been a bad thing if they were not virgins, wouldn’t it?), and more accurately refers to a woman of marriageable age, or in other words, it is similar to the English word “maiden.” In those times a woman of marriageable age was expected to be a virgin (otherwise, she would have been in deep trouble). Second, if the word almah merely referred to any young woman, what kind of sign would that be to the king Ahaz? “A young woman shall give birth…” So? it happens all the time! Now, Mary seems to fulfill the word almah in several accounts, namely in that she was a virgin, but also one of marriageable age (since she was married to Joseph).

    “In terms of historical accuracy, there are no records of any such census being taken in Judea by the Roman Empire that would have forced families to travel back to the towns of their ancestors in order to be accounted for. ”

    Actually, there were two censuses, one around 4 BC, the other around 6 AD . This is actually a topic highly debated by scholars, because Luke seems to suggest that the census was the on 6 AD, but other details in his account attribute it to the one on 4 BC. I myself think that it was the earlier date, based on the complex offices held in Judaea at the time, that the details can be reconciled to that year, and that Luke would have been way to astute and aware of the geopolitical situation in order to make a mistake in this.

    “Christianity has always held that God descended the heights of heaven, and took on flesh, to save mankind from its sinfulness. God was an external being that was completely Other, reigning from another far-off realm of consciousness, Who needed to be placated by humanity’s compliance and subservience.”

    Nothing less than the creeds of old state this. he decended from heaven, and through the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. But the point here is that God reached down to us, he being completely other (since he is… just that fact that he is not created, but we are created by him, is enough to support this… do you know anything else that was uncreated? please enlighten me), became one of us! what greater news is there? And not only that, he decended, that we might ascend. You only have half the story here. The full story is really a quote from the great St. Athanasius, whose very affirmations in his work “on the incarnation” you seem to scorn: “God became man so that men may become gods. now, its seems like you hold this too, in a certain way, but i think you hold it to much a lesser level than traditional Christianity holds it.

    “But what if God is not a being, but rather a Reality, a Force, a Presence that is at the heart of all that pervades the earth and the universe?”

    then consider me depressed at such news. A force is more otherly, impersonal, and far off in my view than a living being who actually cares about what happens to humanity. At least we have some connection and similarity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since he speaks to us, walked with us in the garden, and according to the prophets, has a heart burning for us like a lover for his beloved. I can totally relate to this, all while still seeing God as Other to me. You see, Christianity (and even in a sense Judaism) has the amazing ability to connect two seemingly contradictory ideas into a suprisingly fullfilling paradox. God is uncreated; he does not need us; he is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient; we are nothing without him, a mere speck of dust in the grand universe that is his. And yet, God is merciful and gracious, he seeks us out (just read the prophets, the Song of Songs, the psalms… they reveal a God who is a passionate lover of his people… not a cold impersonal force), he becomes one flesh with us, dies for us, and saves us. What could be more personal than this? What could be more awesome?

    “If so, then God never had to come down from heaven. The reality of God was never detached from this plane of existence. Realizing this precious truth, we can see what the birth of Jesus really signals – hope is never far away because God can be discovered in the deepest expression of our own humanity.”

    If God never came down from heaven, then he could not bring us up to it. We would never state that God was “detached from this plane of existence.” The psalms describe the presence of God throughout all of creation, even though we were wounded in our relationship with him because of sin. however, this type of presence of God is not the kind that saved us. The type of presence was one of communion, which God initiated through the Incarantion, fulfilled throught the Passion, and brought to life in us through the Resurrection. its not him that ascended away from us; it was us that descended through sin! This is why what the creed says is so important. God met us, and this could only be done by descending to our level.

    “During Midnight Mass, when we kneel to honor the consummation of the Incarnation during the recitation of the Creed, we should do so not in austere humility – taken aghast at the prospect of God deeming humans worthy of enjoying His presence – but rather in sheer joy, adoration, and gratitude at the thought that God can be discovered so intimately within each one of us, and through our actions”

    it is because we remain humble that we can have that sheer joy of God’s presence in us. Look, be real here. Why in the world would God consider us worthy of him? is there anything he owes us? the only thing that would make us able to recieve him to some extent was a result of his own doing, not ours. And yet, he did so much more than what he owed us (which is nothing). He loved and loves us, more than we could ever expect him to do so. THAT is why I rejoice. And my joy is all the greater when I am humble. When Christians are humble, they dont take God for granted. When they are humble, they can go to Mass and are constantly aware of the nature of God’s love for them. I know that I need to be humble; otherwise, I would not be so spaced out at Mass sometimes! Again, Christianity has the special ability to take two seemingly contradictory ideas and combine the two into a fulfilling paradox. Do not destroy this paradox.

    “All of these points are what the authors of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tried to emphasize, that the Divine can be located within the human sphere of reference, and that Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity”

    I apologize, but this is also ultimately so so so depressing. Placing the hope upon humanity itself! the oh so frail human species that we are, which as soon as you walk outside the comforts of your first world home you see destroying each other through war, murder, injustice, deception, disregard for the weakest among us, disregard for the earth and its environment. Say this statement to a child living in a third war country who lost his parents because of starvation or gang violence. Trust me, that child will look rather strangely at you, for what he has seen is the destruction of humanity. However, I have talked to children in third world countries where such things have happened to them, but they remain hopeful in God, and not this life force that you state, the personal God who is Christ, and yes, they have hope in humanity too, but only because they have hope in a personal God who truly is being, life, and love. Now, this does not mean that we are not capable of good, but inductively, I predict that no matter what, we will remain where we are with all the baggage we are dealing with if our hope lies in us who have brought about our own destruction. However, if our hope lies in Him who works in us, but primarily on him, then I can rejoice.

    If I came across as antagonistic, I sincerely apologize. This is nothing against you personally. However, I have deep problems with what you have proposed here, and I could not help but write a (possibly harsh) response. Please feel free to respond or refute what I have said. If I have misinterpreted you, tell me where. My response is a bit more emotionally charged than usual only because the traditional (and I believe true and orthodox) Catholic notion of a God who literally became man and saved us from sin so that we may become “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter says, in heaven with him (as well as on earth) really appeals to me, and I think your vision strips from Christianity its core much like stripping a hearty meal with seur loin steak the steak itself. I could not respond to everything; otherwise the post would have been too long, but the parts I responded to are things i consider necessary to respond to.

    Peace.

  4. Mary – I’ll leave Phillip to address the specific points you raise in greater detail if he so chooses, but I must admit that I find it depressing that you find his interpretations to be depressing! What could be more joyful than to say that “Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity”? If anything is depressing, it’s your assertion that, because of the misery that human beings have brought upon themselves, we should give up faith in our own ability to do good. Obviously Phillip and I advocate questioning tradition whenever we honestly and in good conscience believe that tradition has led us astray from the simple message preached by Jesus, but the Catholic Church has itself criticized the notion that man is so depraved and corrupted by original sin that the only way to salvation is through faith in God alone. This is a Protestant idea through and through, and to the extent that Catholic tradition has anything to say on the matter, it has been condemned.

    Furthermore, it seems that you place a lot of emphasis on defending the traditional interpretations of the historical details in the Gospels. But even if Philip is wrong on a few points, the fact remains that there *are* historical inconsistencies in the New Testament. Getting hung up on these points distracts us from the deeper themes that the Gospel accounts are trying to articulate. And what does that say of our faith if the only way to protect the doctrines that “really appeal to us” is to defend historically dubious propositions?

    That said, I really do appreciate your efforts to engage in thoughtful dialogue rather than throwing around pithy slogans and insulting nicknames (like the first poster did). It’s good to see Catholics taking the time to listen to each other and consider each other’s arguments in good faith.

    [NOTE TO MODERATOR: PLEASE DELETE THE FIRST VERSION OF THIS COMMENT MADE BY THE ACCOUNT ‘CONSENTISSEXYGUEST’. I FORGOT TO SWITCH OVER BEFORE POSTING IT]

    • “Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity”? If anything is depressing, it’s your assertion that, because of the misery that human beings have brought upon themselves, we should give up faith in our own ability to do good. ”

      I never gave up faith in our ability to do good. What I do not believe is that we can by our own efforts bring complete freedom, fulfillment, perfection, and salvation to ourselves from whatever misery we encounter. This is not a calvinistic thought; it is a corollary of the doctrine of original sin, namely, that though we are not completely depraved, we are wounded in body and soul because of our separation from God due to both original and personal sin. While Calvinistic though in this regard is erronaeous, I think Phillip and you might be veering into the other extreme also condemned by the Church (and for good reason): Pelagianism. Again, I do not think we are incapable of goodness; we definitely are. I just do not think we are capable of our salvation by our own efforts alone. that is, honestly, too great a burden on us, a burden which we as human beings have tried to carry through whatever philosophy of the century we may try to espouse only to be dissapointed

      “Obviously Phillip and I advocate questioning tradition whenever we honestly and in good conscience believe that tradition has led us astray from the simple message preached by Jesus,..”

      I wouldnt say there is anything wrong with questioning tradition per se. However, I think that many in their efforts to do so do not let tradition speak for itself. the Church as pondered about its faith for 2000 years. It has a reason for what it claims, and its reasoning is based on centuries of theoligcal and philosophical thought, biblical reflection, and interior debate. Dont you think that it would have answered your objections by now? And how would tradition have led us astray from the simple message of Jesus? What is the simple message of Jesus that you think she has corrupted?

      Again, I can see that you do this in good conscience. however, what I see is nothing less than stripping the foundation for the truths of Christianity which even you wish to retain. We can talk about the ultimate meaning of the biblical texts, but I do not see them as having much worth, at least any more worth than other philosophical/ theological thought, unless there is a literal foundation and history for such thought. Why the heck should i care about the Christian faith if none of what it claims to have happened really happened? it loses its ground for me, and ultimately becomes no different than some arbitrary moral rules forced upon me based on some myth, much like what the greeks or romans did with the moral lessons of their mythology. strip the history from the message, and what results is the casting away of the message itself into the pool of irrelevance or outdatedness. I am not saying you do this entirely (at least you believe that Jesus existed and enacted his ministry and died, from what I can tell), but I think this tendency is present,

      “Furthermore, it seems that you place a lot of emphasis on defending the traditional interpretations of the historical details in the Gospels. But even if Philip is wrong on a few points, the fact remains that there *are* historical inconsistencies in the New Testament.”

      I cannot answer for all seeming inconsistencies, but I will say three things about my approach to the historicity of the New (and maybe Old) Testament:
      1) Look at the genre. If it claims to be history, then treat it as such. Parts of genesis obviously do not read like literal history, nor does the book of revelation. However, books like 1 & 2 Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, the Gospels and Acts do. They refer to spefic periods of time, to both religious and secular rulers at the time, etc.
      2)Assume historical reliability unlessits very difficult to do so without stretching the meaning of the text. Why must we begin with an air of skepticism that is equally unfounded? If difficulties arrive, then find out what the author is saying that may reconcile the inconsistencies as long as the meaning is not so stretched. We do the same for other historical works; why not for the scriptures? I gave the example of the census as one of this approach. There is historical inconsistency, but only if you read the account in a particular manner, but if you read the account in a different way, a way that also makes sense, then there is no inconsistency. Why then, continue to believe that the Gospel is inconsistent on this issue?
      3) If there is a inconsistency even after #2 is done, then and only then would I read that detail as not so historical but as either expressing a certain truth about Christ as you would claim, or probably because the writers are not so bent on getting every single detail right as modern historians would want. I cant think of any strong examples right now, but I would say that certain differences in the specific details of his sayings are not identical (though I would not say they are contradictory… one may just be more specific than the other), or probably difficulties in dating and numbers (though many of these have differing explanations as well).

      However, I think the cases where #3 actually applies are a lot rarer that both of you may claim. I do not think it applies to miracles or the traditional understanding of Christ’s incarnation, birth, death and resurrection (after all, why should they, if there is nothing that prevents God from doing these things?). I do think it applies to certain few details involved in his ministry, but not in a way that would render his message (or the intention of the gospel writers) altogether unreliable or false.

      ” Getting hung up on these points distracts us from the deeper themes that the Gospel accounts are trying to articulate. And what does that say of our faith if the only way to protect the doctrines that “really appeal to us” is to defend historically dubious propositions?”

      The thing is, the gospel writers WERE hung up on history in the detailing of their accounts (even though they may have not been the most precise). Matthew and Luke both have genealogies of Jesus (yes they differ, but that can easily be reconciled). Luke places the birth of Christ within secular time for his readers, and even John includes seemingly irrelevant details that point to the account as being written from the viewpoint of an eyewitness. Some writers include descriptions of Jewish ritual law and describe the complex dynamics of the differing Jewish schools of thought. In short, the settings of the gospels are not ahistorical, but actually present history as a background for Jesus’ teaching.

      I ultimately hold a more fundamental reason for my approach, and its namely this. the historicity of the gospels testify to a fundmanetal aspect of God’s work, namely that he has entered the realm of human history and altered it from within. I think purely symbolic readings of the gospels (and the scriptures as a whole) diminish this reality if not completely destroy it. Our own creed makes this connection between God and history aware: why the heck would we actually mention Pontius Pilate in it, after all? It is because we testify that God worked in actual history, and involved actual historical events. Paul states this when he refers to eyewitness testimony (400 witnesses in fact) for the resurrection. Why is this more important? Ultimately, it gives more weight to our claim to truth. We not only point to reason or philosophy for the truth of Christianity; we can also point to history. These events actually happened, and while you can debate philosophical and religious claims, you cant debate historical occurances; they either happened or they did not. We can give you dates or pretty close approximations for them. I would be hard pressed to find another religion which is not Judaism (and for Judaism its much more difficult) which can do the same, since our narratives so recent. As a result, because of the involvement of history, Christianity, as far as I can tell, is the only religion that can be historically proven true or false.

      This does not mean that we wont wrestle with the historicity of the NT. After all, I had to actually outline my approach to the historical account (something I wouldnt normally do if there were no difficulties), and I have also had difficulties with certain parts of the gospel accounts. However, I would rather wrestle with said accounts than either assume a fideistic notion of Christianity and take absolutely everything literally, or write the entire accounts as ahistorical, and in an attempt to retain Christian belief, assume a completely symbolic view of the gospels (something which i think would eventually result in my rejection of christian belief as a whole).

      Again, I apologize for such long responses. trust me, I could write a book on each of these topics if it werent for the fact that I am still in college and am a double major

      • Mary – My apologies for the delay in replying. I’ll try to address as many of your points as I can.

        On the point about Pelagianism and Calvinism, I apologize. I misread what you were trying to argue.

        Regarding tradition: I certainly agree that tradition should be given its due, and not dismissed out of hand or without thorough critical reflection. But by no means is it rhetorically sound to claim that tradition must be correct because the Church has existed for long enough that any objections have surely been answered by now. What you’re saying is that, if tradition had ever contained anything untrue, then said untruth has by now been replaced with whatever product emerged from dialectical engagement between tradition and opposing viewpoints. But if you want to argue that no such dialectical engagement is possible, since tradition is true by virtue of its status as tradition, then your claim that there is “nothing wrong with questioning tradition per se” doesn’t make any sense.

        In discussing the historical reliability of biblical accounts, you say that we should assume they are reliable unless it would be “very difficult to do so without stretching the meaning of the text.” You furthermore ask why we must “begin with an air of skepticism that is equally unfounded.” Why is skepticism unfounded? The historical method operates precisely in reverse of how you describe; one assumes that a text is not historically true until one finds corroborating evidence. In other words, the burden of proof is on the person arguing that the text is factual, not on the one arguing it isn’t.

        You furthermore say that Christianity is the only religion you know of that can be proven true or false on historical grounds. Let’s grant that this is true. But if it is true that the facts are not as you say, and that this “diminishes if not completely destroys” Christian belief and leads you to “reject it as a whole,” then why is it that members of other religious traditions, lacking the same historical grounding for their faith, are not similarly led to abandon it? Why is precise historical veracity necessary to living a meaningful Christian life? Forgive me for putting it like this, but it seems to me that your belief rests on a shakier foundation than Phillip’s. Whereas you see reason to reject Christianity if Phillip’s argument is correct, he sees merely a new way of looking at his faith.

        I love meeting other double majors! I’m one too (math and economics). If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed that both of my posts thus far have featured economic themes. I’ll leave the historical stuff to Phillip.

      • Hey Matt, I will try to be brief.
        “But by no means is it rhetorically sound to claim that tradition must be correct because the Church has existed for long enough that any objections have surely been answered by now.”

        You are right that it is not a sound argument if I say that just because the Church has been around long enough, it correct. What I meant by that is not so much that it makes the Church correct, but that if you search, you will probably find that your questions have already been asked before and answered. I have questioned aspects of the faith, but I prefer to let the Church have its say before rejecting certain aspects of its long-held tradition as I examine and arrive at the truth of the matter. I eventually find that her answers are actually pretty well thought out, based on sound theological and philosophical principles, and have retained the validity of logic. I think it cardinal Bernadin who said that the church’s moral teaching is like a seamless garment woven together. I think this this holds true for all of the Church’s teaching.

        “What you’re saying is that, if tradition had ever contained anything untrue, then said untruth has by now been replaced with whatever product emerged from dialectical engagement between tradition and opposing viewpoints. But if you want to argue that no such dialectical engagement is possible, since tradition is true by virtue of its status as tradition, then your claim that there is “nothing wrong with questioning tradition per se” doesn’t make any sense.”

        I also apologize. maybe you misread me because I myself am not clear. This is not to say that new questions never come up. For example, a lot of the questions today deal more with moral theology, since most objections to the Church today are not so much of the nature “There was a time when the Son was not,” as much as stuff like contraception, gay rights etc. Even then the Church has its position and response, but there are certain things that have yet to be fleshed out through time and further debate that can give it a greater understanding. Its a classic case of development of doctrine. (If you have not yet, I suggest you read Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine. It deals with this matter of change and debate within the Church really well)

        Also, I do not think there is nothing wrong with questioning tradition IF you are sincerely searching for truth AND you allow her to respond. (of course, my belief is that if you do so, you’ll eventually line up with tradition :-D). We are all on our journeys towards God, and sometimes it takes twists and turns that may lead us away only to lead us back. Like I say, I have questioned tradition before. In many ways I still do. I myself have questioned the Church’s stance on homosexuality, contraception, its claim to be the only true Church, papal infallibility, etc. I still sometimes question its discipline on priestly celibacy (though I also understand her wisdom in the matter). But questioning means that, just questioning. It is not the same as rejection, at least not at first.

        “In discussing the historical reliability of biblical accounts, you say that we should assume they are reliable unless it would be “very difficult to do so without stretching the meaning of the text.” You furthermore ask why we must “begin with an air of skepticism that is equally unfounded.” Why is skepticism unfounded? The historical method operates precisely in reverse of how you describe; one assumes that a text is not historically true until one finds corroborating evidence. In other words, the burden of proof is on the person arguing that the text is factual, not on the one arguing it isn’t.”

        Interesting. I will say this in your defense. Upon thought on this matter, I see myself holding something a bit circular here. I guess, for me, the reason I have dealt with it differently is probably because it is not solely a historical text, but also a sacred one that theologically holds true for me. And I guess because I believe in that historicity is essential to Christianity, I would also assume its reliable. The problem is that then I turn around and show that Christianity is true by pointing to the text (not just that, but i have pointed to it). I will have to think about this a little more.

        But, and a big but, the fact that assuming that something is not historically true is also logically unfounded. Let me explain what I mean by this. If one argues that a text is not factual, would he not actually make a case for it? This could be by referring to the genre as non-historical, by showing that there are obvious discrepancies within the text and between it and other sources, etc. I would rather begin with an air of agnosticism rather than skepticism. Is the text historical? I do not know; let’s find out. Let’s look around and see first what other texts near to its time might say about it or things related to it to establish its context, for one, and then look into the text itself. For the NT, that may be early Patristic texts, Josephus, Tacitus etc. Assuming something (either way) before you begin investigation already colors your interpretation of the facts.Claiming that something is false (or even non-factual) simply because there is no evidence for it is a logical fallacy. Such an argument is ultimately based on very limited induction, especially since historical records cover only a fraction of what occurred in the past. If this hermeneutic of doubt is what the historical method is, then I already have a problem it and think it ought to be radically altered.

        What I would have to say is this so far. when it comes to texts like these, you do not necessarily have begin with complete historical credence, but at least, assume the honesty of the person to an extent, unless we have proven that the guy is a maniacal liar. Look at the circumstances around why he would write such a thing, look at references to the work coming from more established reliable sources (and examine what might affect their position on it as well), or at least passing references made by others close in the time period. For example, church fathers such as Irenaeus was a disciple of the disciple of John, and attributed traditional authorship. Such a witness to the text would render the text more or less reliable. But my thoughts are still inconclusive on the matter. I do still think I could make a case for the reliability of the gospels without contradicting what I just said in the earlier paragraphs, but I for now I digress.

        “But if it is true that the facts are not as you say, and that this “diminishes if not completely destroys” Christian belief and leads you to “reject it as a whole,” then why is it that members of other religious traditions, lacking the same historical grounding for their faith, are not similarly led to abandon it?”

        Simple, their religion does not need the historical grounding, so history would not lead them to go against it. Most of their myths, if they actually occurred, would have occurred long before human history was observable (think for example of the Hindu myths, that occurred tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago…) But consider Christianity’s claims. It claims that 2000 years ago (a period in observable human history), God became man and was born of a virgin (an event in observable history). this man was named Jesus Christ, a carpenter who lived in Judaea during the time of the Roman Empire (a historical empire), had his ministry for a few years (occurrences in history), and then was executed by means of Crucifixion (an execution verifiable by history in several ways, such that whether such executions happened, where, etc.) under the watch of Pontius Pilate (a historical figure). And then, he rose again (historical event, or at least a claim, since it happened within the realm of human history), and sent apostles to continue his ministry throughout the world. With a few exceptions (such as the virgin birth… we can’t really determine whether history confirms that using historical methods per se). These events have a context in history.

        “Why is precise historical veracity necessary to living a meaningful Christian life? Forgive me for putting it like this, but it seems to me that your belief rests on a shakier foundation than Phillip’s. Whereas you see reason to reject Christianity if Phillip’s argument is correct, he sees merely a new way of looking at his faith.”

        What I see in Christianity is a religion that makes historical as well as religious claims. Not only do we believe in God, and living the holy, moral life, loving one another, forgiveness, etc. We claim that God was a man named Jesus, a Jew from the Palestinian regions who was crucified around 30-34 AD around the time of the Jewish Passover. We claim that he literally rose from the dead the third day after he died. Now, some precision would not necessary for what I am claiming here. I do not think that the dialogue in the gospels is completely verbatim. I believe that there was probably some embellishment to make certain theological points (how much, I do not know),

        But more importantly, the most central aspects of the Christian faith are not philosophical assumptions, or beliefs, or even observations on life; they are events: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. From these flow everything else, such as the reason for Jesus’ ministry, the reason for the existence of all of Jewish law, agape love, sacraments, the Church, the scriptures, Catholic social teaching, whatever have you.

        What makes Christian life meaningful? What is Philip’s foundation? the thing is, I don’t see any to begin with. Such a Christianity loses its force to me as revelation from God. I mean, it could be meaningful to people, since it involves a certain way of living, but a lot of it would not logically hold and seem arbitrary in the end. After all, why base your entire life on symbolic myth that did not literally happen? Why not simply choose another, even more appealing myth? If the historical claims of Christianity were false, especially the main ones like the Incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, the religion ceases to have any foundation at all, since it centers around these events.

        Math and economics, eh? I major in math and theology. Yes its a strange combination, but I think it works :-)

  5. Will comment later. it seems as though many of the people who commented negatively either learned a lot of biblical history in their youth or have no lives outside of reading biblical history lol

  6. @Mike: lol… For me it is actually the first (though I have much to learn in the field), but some friends of mine would say its the second. Though, it looks like only two people have commented negatively, and the first just linked to his own blog…

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