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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.
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.
Someone last week accused me of being “judgmental.” My first thought was to respond, “how judgmental of you!” But I thought better of it. Instead I submitted my “questionable” comments to other people whom I trust and they disagreed that my tone was judgmental. I did later tweet the following: “If you accuse someone of being judgmental, are you being . . . judgmental?”
I looked up the word “judgmental” in dictionary.com. Here is what it says: “1. involving the use or exercise of judgment; 2. tending to make moral judgments.” Based on that definition, it seems to me all of us need to be “judgmental.” All of us need to exercise judgment, hopefully good judgment. All of us should be thinking about morals and ethics, pondering the consequences of our actions, and advocating for what is good and true and right. Seems to me we do this all the time.
Generally, Christians who want to accuse others of judging point to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1ff). Here is the King James Version:
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
If you study it carefully, you will notice that Jesus’ teaching has four parts:
(a) an admonition . . . do not judge
(b) a rationale . . . for you will be judged in the same way, by the same standard
(c) an example (in this case a particularly ludicrous example) . . . the log in your eye/ the dust in the other’s eye
(d) a restatement and clarification of the initial admonition . . . take care of your own issue before you try to address someone else’s
Some people have thought Jesus prohibited his followers from ever exercising judgment or expressing an opinion. Not true. If so, then Jesus violates his own principle time and again. In fact in the very next breath Jesus says: “Don’t give precious things to dogs. Don’t cast your pearls before swine. . . . “ (Matthew 7:6). Now Jesus isn’t talking about pets and barnyard animals. He is talking about people. Some people are dogs. Some are swine. In other words some people are like animals, unable to distinguish between one thing or another. You don’t share with them holy and precious things; they will ruin them and then turn on you. Later in Matthew (chapter 23) Jesus criticized the Pharisees for loving attention, keeping people from God, and stealing from the poor. He says, “Woe to you Pharisees, woe to you who teach the law, hypocrites! You traverse hills and mountains and seas to make one convert, and then when he does convert, you make him much more a son of hell than you are. . . Woe to you , teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like a grave that has been whitewashed. You look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside you are full of moldering bones and decaying rot” (Matthew 23:2-39). Seems to me Jesus has made a judgment. Seems to me he has expressed a judgment. Seems to me he is not being very PC. So what do we make of it?
First, let’s recognize that Jesus was a deeply polarizing figure. People either loved him or despised him. He made a lot of people angry, particularly people in power. Ultimately, he was crucified on a Roman cross for sedition. Let’s leave behind the silly, adolescent notion that Jesus walked around spitting out witty aphorisms and telling everybody to get a long. Jesus’ wasn’t crucified for being “nice” and urging everyone to be “nice” too. He came into a world deeply marred and broken. Some powerful people had vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Jesus muddied their water.
So what does Jesus want us to do? Well, he wasn’t saying: “don’t form an opinion.” He wasn’t saying: “don’t express an opinion.” Based on the entire teaching–admonition, rationale, example, and restatement—Jesus was urging his followers to examine themselves first before seeking to correct another brother or sister. In other words, correction is needed in the church. Your friend may have something in her eye. She needs help getting it out. But before you can help her, you must remove the obstruction in your own.
If you are addicted to money and what it can buy, don’t go around correcting others for the same problem. Do they need help? Absolutely. But you are not the best person to offer correction. If you have trouble being faithful to your husband, don’t condemn somebody who is struggling with the same problem. Does she need help? Absolutely. But you are not the best person to offer counsel. If you have a tendency to lash out in anger, don’t be hyper-critical of a brother with an anger-management issue. Does he need help? Absolutely. But you’re not the one to be able to bring correction. At least not until you have dealt with your own issue successfully.
Here is the punchline of Jesus’ teaching: “Remove the plank from your own eye, and then perhaps you will be able to see clearly how to help your brother flush out his sawdust” (Matthew 7:5, The Voice)