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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).
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.
Now to be fair neither Matthew nor his audience could have been familiar with the notion of an “egg” as we know it. Not until the invention of the microscope were humans able to see the mico-world. Instead they viewed the woman’s womb as the ground upon which the seed could be planted. They were after all an agricultural people so many of their life images were drawn from agriculture. If the seed found favorable “ground,” then a child would result. If a woman’s womb were “barren,” then the couple remained childless.
Let”s be clear. 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 his 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 or “ground” 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. Once implanted there is a great deal of exchange that takes place from the mother’s body to the baby’s. 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 the way we moderns understand it, that is, in sharing Mary’s DNA? 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.
I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Potts, opening a vein when anyone wrote “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.” She felt there was a war on Christmas and that people who abbreviated the name of the holiday were trying to take Christ out of Christmas. I suppose that is true for some people, but when you look into the real story of “Xmas” you realize that something else is at work.
The story begins with the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments says, “Do not take the name of the LORD in vain.” The name by the way is not “LORD,” that was a respectful translation or substitute for the name. In Hebrew THE NAME is four letters, yodh-he-vav-he. The technical term for the name is the tetragrammaton (literally, “the four letters”). Scholars today think the name may have been pronounced—when it was pronounced—Yahweh or Yahveh. But we aren’t sure. This was the covenant name of God, the name revealed to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai.
Under the influence of the commandment about the misuse of God’s name, the faithful spoke it less and less. By the time of Jesus speaking the name was considered blasphemous in almost every circumstance. The rabbis made their mark by building a hedge about the law. If you never spoke God’s name, you could never be guilty of taking the name in vain. It was a way of safeguarding the name. Even when reading Scripture in the synagogue, a substitute word was used. In Aramaic-speaking synagogues the readers said “Adonai.” In Greek-speaking synagogues they said “kyrios.” Both mean something like “Lord” or “Master.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide good evidence for how the name of God was written in the centuries and decades leading up to the New Testament era. In many of the biblical scrolls the name of God is written in paleo-Hebrew script. That would be like shifting to a Gothic font when writing the name of God. In other scrolls the name is not written at all; it is represented by four, thick dots written in the center of the line. In yet other scrolls where the name of God should be there is a blank in the line just large enough for the tetragrammaton. Scholars theorize that the blank was left by a junior scribe and would have been filled in later by a senior scribe who had permission to write the name. Where there is a blank in the line, we think the senior scholar never got around to writing the divine name in the blank. These were some of the ways the faithful showed respect for the name of God.
Early Christians developed their own way of signaling respect for the names and titles associated with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Copying the New Testament books in Greek, they abbreviated the names (usually first letter and last letter) and placed a line above those letters. You can see this in the picture. Scholars refer to these as nomina sacra (Latin for “sacred names”). Copyists continued to write sacred names this way for centuries. It remains a common practice still among artists who create the icons used in the eastern churches. Many names and titles were written this way including “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Holy Spirit.” For our purposes note the nomina sacra for “Christ;” it was written XC. Now remember these are letters from the Greek alphabet not our Latinized version. It is not “X” (eks) the 24th letter of our English alphabet but the Greek letter “Chi,” the first letter of the title “Christ.”
Earliest versions of writing Christmas as “Xmas” in English go back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (about 1100). This predates the rise of secularism by over 600 years. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the use of “X-“ for “Christ” as early as 1485. In one manuscript (1551) Christmas is written as “X’temmas.” English writers from Lord Byron (1811) to Samuel Coleridge (1801) to Lewis Carroll (1864) used the spelling we are familiar with today, “Xmas.”
The origin of “Xmas” does not lie in secularists who are trying to take Christ out of Christmas, but in ancient scribal practices adopted to safeguard the divine name and signal respect for it. The “X” in “Xmas” is not the English letter (eks) as in “X marks the spot,” but it is the initial Greek letter of the title “Christ.” No doubt some people today use the abbreviated form to disregard the Christian focus of the holy-day, but the background tells a different story, a story of faithful men and women signaling the deep respect they have for Jesus at this time of year.
Here at the beginning of Advent are a few thoughts for you to consider.
Like a lot of people I tried reading the Bible through one year. I was in my teens and was working my way through the King James Bible. When I came to Matthew 1, often called “the Begat” chapter, I remember my eyes glazing over and skipping ahead. You see the first part of Matthew 1 is a carefully-crafted geneaology of Jesus. Here is how the beginning reads in the KJV:
1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;
4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;
The “begats” continue through three ranks of fourteen generations. I found the list of names terribly uninteresting and irrelevant so I scooted ahead. I knew little to nothing about these people and the whole thing seemed to be TMI–too much information.
Well, now I have a different perspective. I find the Begat chapter one of the most interesting and provocative chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. Let me give you a few reasons why. First, in a day when geneaologies did not include the names of women–despite their obvious importance in “begetting” children–Matthew includes the names of several key women to signal that in the Kingdom of God women will have a new and important role. Second, Matthew also included allusions to people with scandalous pasts. Tamar, for example, played the harlot and was impregnanted by her father-in-law. David fathered Solomon through the wife of another man, Uriah. Remember Bathsheba? Matthew could have ignored those embarrassing moments, instead he highlighted them and brought them front and center in order to show that Jesus would be a friend of sinners: an important theme in several of the Gospels. Third, Matthew underscores how Jesus’ family line includes non-Jews like Ruth the Moabite, grandmother to King David. She had converted to Judaism (see Ruth 1) and ultimately married into what would be a royal line. If the blood of the nations is already flowing in the family of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense that magi from the east would hurry to greet and worship the new born king and Matthew would end his account with the Great Commission. Go and make disciples of the nations.
There is more to the geneaology than this, but these are a few of the highlights. These may be just a list of names to us, but to Matthew and his first hearers they were their spiritual and physical ancestors. For him it was like opening up a family photo album and telling a few stories. And the best story was yet to come.
Recently, Professor Richard Bauckham gave a lecture at Houston Baptist University which considered the descriptions of geographic locations around the sea of Galilee as part of a “mental map” of a Galilean fisherman. It was an interesting lecture that was well attended. The substance of the lecture will be included in a new book written as a sequel to Richard’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
I don’t normally do this but I read a blog post from Larry Hurtado (larryhurtado.wordpress.com) in which Richard Bauckham clarifies what he means by “eyewitnesses.” It is to the point and offers a helpful handle on some of Richard’s ideas. I include a link to Larry’s blog here:
There are many words found in most Bible translations that aren’t translations at all. They are transliterations. Let’s consider some key words in the New Testament. Words like “Christ,” “baptism,” “angel,” and “apostle” are not translations from Greek to English but transliterations, that is, replicating the sounds made by the words.
When scholars began to translate the Old and New Testaments into the English language, they faced enormous challenges. Not only were powerful people opposed to rendering the sublime texts of Scriptures in a common language such as English, but the English language itself did not have all the words needed to reproduce meaningfully what the original languages were saying. The solution was to invent words which did not exist in English. One example is the word passover .
In the fourteenth century when Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English, the word “Passover” did not exist in the English language. So when he came to those New Testament passages that referred to the Jewish Passover, Wycliffe transliterated the Latin word pascha—which is itself a transliteration of the Greek word pascha—into English as “pask” or “paske.” As you see, transliteration involves representing the characters of one alphabet in another alphabet; it has nothing to do with translating the meaning of the word, only the sound of it. How readers and hearers may have reacted to this new word we do not know. Did they understand what it meant, or was some further explanation needed?
In 1535 when Tyndale translated the Old Testament into English, he decided to invent a new word in English to communicate the meaning behind the Hebrew root pesach:
When your children ask you, “What does this ritual mean to you?” you will answer them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites when we were slaves in Egypt. And although He struck the Egyptians, He spared our lives and our houses” (Exodus 12:26–27).
The Hebrew root of the name of the Jewish festival alludes to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites on his way to judging the cruelty of the Egyptian slave owners. Tyndale combined the two English words—“pass” with “over”—to create a single, new word which carefully and accurately reproduced the meaning of the Hebrew word. Transliteration, at its best, can only reproduce the sounds made in another language not their meaning. What Tyndale did by creating the word passover. The Voice translation has done for other key words which, until now, have not been accessible to a modern audience.