John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John)

The fourth Gospel in our New Testament describes itself quite explicitly as the book of signs which is intended to foster trust in Jesus the anointed one (see John 20:30). Like the other three Gospels in the New Testament, it begins by placing Jesus (the anointed) in relationship with John (the baptizer). This relationship is declared in the selection from the opening chapter which is found in the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

So scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

Nevertheless, it is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John (the baptizer), in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

The account we have in the book of signs dates from many decades after the lifetime of John and Jesus. This section seems to have been written as a defence against any idea that John, who came first, might have been regarded as superior to Jesus. The words and actions of John deflect attention from himself, and place Jesus in the spotlight. And some of his followers leave him, and take up following Jesus!

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

My friend James McGrath is an expert in this relationship; he has blogged about this at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html and he has written a blog which has links to all manner of interesting discussions about the relationship between John and Jesus, at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different form of Judaism on this Gospel.

The early prominence accorded to John the baptizer joins other indications in the book of signs—the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria (John 4), and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus (John 12), for instance—in pointing to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is described as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

This Gospel thus includes indications of the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It is already a sign to what would eventuate after the first century, as the Gospel spread and took hold amongst Gentiles beyond the Jewish homeland.

The image is sourced from peacesojourner.blogspot.com

Reflecting on faith amidst the firestorms

We have been surrounded by images of fire, for some weeks now. The last few weeks have been challenging, confronting us with terrible images of devastated landscapes, burnt native animals and birds, destroyed homes, and the bodies of farm stock unable to escape the fire, alongside of pictures and videos of the still-raging flames of fire, leaping high into air, travelling rapidly across the landscape.

We have watched aghast as our screens take us right into the heart of the firestorm, standing with firefighters in the face of unbeatable odds. And we have breathed the air that is saturated with smoke from the fires, smoke that causes us to gasp, cough, and wheeze. It has been a challenging time. And fire has been the constant theme.

In this context, there is one short verse in the Psalm caught my attention, this week, as I read the lectionary passages and pondered what I would take as a focus for today. I wonder if you noticed the verse that jumped out to me, when we said the psalm together, earlier? “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7).

These fires that rage, these flames that burn … are they really a message from God, to us, a message of punishment? That is how such events have been seen by some—the bushfires now raging, the floods that swamped North Queensland last year, the five severe cyclones that hit Pacific Islands a few years back, the massive tsunami that ravaged Asian countries over a decade ago—each of these have been explained by some zealous preacher or another, as a sign of God’s punishment.

It was not too long ago that a prominent sports star gained publicity by suggesting that the fires early in the season were sent by God to punish us—punishing us for the many sins committed by people in Australia. Others have made claims that God is punishing us for the decisions made by our church in recent times.

And just a few days ago, a breakaway Baptist pastor in Arizona made the audacious claim that the fires are actually punishment from God because he was denied a visa to visit Australia. He said on Facebook that “maybe if Australia wasn’t banning and deporting preachers of the Gospel, they wouldn’t be under the judgement of God”. And, as you can see, he clearly linked this with the bushfires, using the map of blazes and a picture of one of the fires.

We must, of course, distance ourselves from this kind of simplistic and arrogant claim. Simplistic, because this preacher has been banned from over 20 other countries—and they are not ringed with fire at this time. So a simple cause and effect connection is far too simplistic.

And simplistic, also, because making an interpretation of a naturally-occurring event, and attributing that to the intentions of the deity, is far too easy to do. Our scientific knowledge helps us to have insights as to how events in nature—like fires, storms, cyclones, droughts, and so on—how these actually form and manifest within the natural order of things. Our scientific knowledge also helps us to appreciate how the way that human beings live makes a contribution—however small or significant you believe it may be—to these events of nature.

And such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant in its nature. How can any one of us human beings dare to claim that we know, absolutely and definitively, the intentions of God at any one point in time? And that we can unambiguously declare those intentions?—usually, it must be said, in the voice of an angry prophet, making a negative judgement on the morality of the people.

So I don’t want to go down this track. “The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 29:7) can’t be taken at face value, as a literal, simple explanation of the fires as expressions of divine punishment. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. We need to reflect more deeply.

….

How do we make sense of these fires, when we gather, today, as people of faith? We have seen so many images of the fires. Some of us have been close to the fire front. We have all breathed the smoke generated by those fires. What do they mean?

Some of us have seen this kind of destruction at close quarters. Some have memories of the 2003 Canberra fires brought back to prominent attention. Some have been recently in areas that are now devastated, or have been caught in the early stages of the recent forefront activity.

Some have family members or good friends who have had to evacuate in the face of the fire. Some of us know people whose properties, animals, and houses have been impacted by the intensity of the blazes. We are all caught into a sense of anxiety and grief as the fires continue.

In the evacuation centres, chaplains from a number of different denominations have been present, offering comfort and support to people who have been forced to leave their homes in the face of the fires. A number of my colleagues have been there, for days on end, over recent times, in the midst of people in turmoil, helping them to go gently in the midst of the upheaval and anxiety.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/09/pastoral-letter-from-canberra-region-presbytery/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/06/what-are-the-churches-doing-during-the-bushfire-crisis/)

For us, at some distance from the fires, we too need to be gentle with each other. We need to hold each other in the comfort of friendship, offer supportive words, provide practical assistance, and sit with each other in the uncomfortable spaces of waiting, wondering, worrying. We need to make sure that we don’t expose ourselves, unnecessarily, to risks to our own health. These fires call us to care, deeply, lovingly.

And yet, there is a question that recurs in situations like I have just described—situations of need, of loss, of intense grief and despair. That is this simple question: where is God? The simple answer—God sent this to you, God is punishing you—does not satisfy. We need another take.

The Adelaide theologian, Dr Norman Habel, wrote a hymn reflecting on just this question, in the context of bushfires that occurred on Black Saturday in 2009. (It goes to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace.) It begins like this:

Amazing flames that scorch the sky, like hurricanes of fire,

Alive with eucalyptus oil are roaring higher and higher.

These swirling balls of oil ablaze that leap o’er trees at will,

Descend on fields and flock and homes, explode and burn and kill.

And then, he asks the question:

Where’s God in all this swirling ash? Where’s God in all this pain?

Awaiting somewhere in the sky to one day send some rain?

The answer comes in striking imagery, in confronting declaration:

The face of God is burnt and black; the hands of God are red!

The God we know in Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead.

The answer which Norman Habel offers is this: God is here. God is right in the middle of all this mess. God is not remote. God is not the one pulling the strings, away up in heaven, ready to send rain when enough prayers have been sent up to him.

No: God is here, in our midst, incarnate, one with us, suffering alongside us. God is crying as the house burns, weeping as the birds and animals flee, sobbing as the stock die, grieving as the firefighters are overwhelmed and their truck is overturned. God is here, with us. Jesus Christ is bleeding with the dead, grieving with us, mourning with creation.

The last verse of the hymn, then, is this:

Christ, show us now your hands and feet, the burns across your side,

and how you suffer with the Earth, by fires crucified!

And this reminds me of the poem that I shared with you some months back, about how we encounter God, and where we encounter God. The poem by Lisa Jacobson expresses the clear notion that God is not up there in the heavens, as the priest might claim, but down here in the land, as the black fella would say. To find God, we need to look for God; but not look up, to the heavens; rather, look down, look at your feet, look past your feet, to the stones—hear them singing? and the rivers—feel them vibrating? And sense how the earth is yearning, groaning.

Stones singing and rivers vibrating; that twofold expression of the inner life of the earth is also the key that unlocks a different understanding of God—as a being not remote and removed from humans on earth, but as a being beside us, around us, underneath us, in the earth, in the stones, in the rivers, in our very being.

And this, of course, is rightly acknowledged in this poem, as the insight of black fellas—the centre of spirituality for the First Peoples of this ancient continent, the heart of life and spirit for the Ngunnawal people, the people who have cared for the land in this general region from time beyond what we can measure, and for the Ngambri and Ngarigo people more locally, and for the Wiradjuri to our west, and for the first peoples of every city and region across this continent. God is in the land, God is in amongst us.

This understanding of where we find God, how we enter the depths of spirituality, is set forth very clearly in a clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, which clearly affirms:

So we have adopted an affirmation that when we hear the stones sing, when we feel the rivers vibrating, we are connecting in a new way, with God, who is here, and has long been here, in this land, the land which God created at the first.

This claim arises from a different way of thinking about God, pondering the claims of scripture and engaging us on a journey of reflection and prayer, exploration and discovery, at the edges of our faith. Both the Australian poem and indigenous Australian spirituality have taken hold of this insight, that God is in our midst, amongst us, within us.

That is the same claim that the Gospel writer makes, when he writes that the angel told Joseph that he was to name his child Emanuel—God with us (Matt 1). That is what that child, grown to be an adult, taught about the reign of God—that it was here, in our midst—the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17).

That is what the ancient Hebrew psalmist affirmed, about the whole of creation—humans, animals, insects, birds, mountains and valleys, trees and forests—that when God created this whole creation, it was the spirit of God that was breathed into every living creature (Ps 104:30).

And the psalm we have read today affirms that God is active and at work in the creation. He is not an absentee, uninterested, disconnected God. God is active, over the oceans, in the desert, through the forests, in thunder and flames. God is here, with us.

And this, after all, is the story that we tell, and retell, each year, each Sunday: the story of God, come to us in the human being Jesus, friend of sinners and advocate for the outcast, Jesus arrested and condemned as a criminal, Jesus, despised, crucified, hanging on the cross. That is where God was to be found, most profoundly, most assuredly—in the very midst of our life.

And as Jesus suffers and dies, so God suffers, and feels the sharpness of the moment we call death. For that is where God is. Here, in our midst, amongst us.

Just as God is with us, in the midst of our lives, in the midst of this creation, present in the animals and humans, the ecosystems and great forests, so also God suffers with the earth, as part of the earth. So, for me, the psalm does, indeed, speak a truth—a confronting, challenging, disturbing truth.

For the fires we are experiencing now are the result of the way that human beings, collectively, have been living, not just this year, or for a few years, but for many years—for centuries. The clear observations of science are, that as we have industrialised our societies and pumped more CO2 into the atmosphere, we have developed an environment that is drier, and hotter; more vulnerable to firestorms and more liable to flooding; for the creation is groaning, it is out of order.

And in the processes of nature that are at work, that we have intensified and exacerbated, we see tragic results in the multiple fire fronts that have surged in recent weeks—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and other observable events around the world.

And in the midst of those cyclones, and meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways. So, yes, I think that the psalmist does speak truth. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

God has not singled out a nation, or a people, or particular individuals for punishment. God, indeed, is not manipulating what occurs, intervening whenever and however God wills. God is in the systems, in the processes of our natural environment, and as the fires rage, God is indeed speaking to us through those flames of fire. The challenge, for us, is to pause … to listen … to understand … and to act in response.

Thanks to Dr Byron Smith for this prayer in response: https://www.commongrace.org.au/prayer_for_bushfires, to Dr Sarah Agnew for this lament: http://sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com/2020/01/choking.html, and to the Rev. Jennie Gordon for this blessing: https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/about/

For my other blogs on the environment, see

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/25/873/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/05/to-care-for-honour-and-respect-the-creation-we-need-to-stopadani-k/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-4/

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…

and

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2012/06/musing-on-ecological-economy-why.html

and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/setting-sail-on-ss-low-impact.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2013/10/rubbish-to-left-of-me-and-rubbish-to.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/07/planet-at-risk-sorry-for-inconvenience.html

http://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2014/10/hygenically-sealed-in-plastic-for-your.html

and a lot more at https://elementcityblog.com (follow the links on the right of the page)

Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

A young woman? A virgin? Pregnant? About to give birth? (Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23)

The passages set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday place alongside each other a prophetic oracle spoken by Isaiah, and an angelic announcement delivered to Joseph. The two passages seem to sit side-by-side very comfortably. The Gospel selection from the book of origins recounts how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. The prophetic selection from Isaiah declares that the Lord himself will give you a sign and looks to the conception, birth, and naming of a child.

The oracle of the prophet speaks about a child to be born to a young woman. The message of the angel announces a child to be born to a young woman who was a virgin. The author of the book of origins (whom I refer to, following tradition, as Matthew) quotes the prophetic oracle about the birth of a child and claims that it has been fulfilled in the angelic announcement about the birth of a child to Mary and Joseph. The angel follows the prophet in affirming that child to be born would be a sign to the people, that God was still with them, in the midst of their difficulties. But the status of the young mother is a question that has long vexed interpreters.

The Hebrew word found in the original oracle of the prophet, almah, refers simply to a young woman of childbearing age; it had no connotation at all relating to virginity. It occurs in eight other places in Hebrew scripture—with reference to Rebekah and Miriam, in three references to female musicians, and in wisdom texts relating simply to young women. In none of those places does it have any reference to the virginity of the young woman.

There is also, in Hebrew, the word bethulah, which refers specifically to a young woman who was a virgin; but it is important to note that this word was not employed by the prophet Isaiah. He clearly was referring to a young woman aged around puberty, who was now able to bear a child. He was not referring to a young woman who had never had sexual intercourse, who was still a virgin.

The Greek translation of these Hebrew texts was made some centuries before Jesus. The translation is known as the Septuagint, attributed to seventy wise scholars. In this translation, the Hebrew word bethulah is usually rendered in Greek as parthenos. This Greek word can refer quite generally to a young woman, but it can have a more specific reference to the virginity of the young woman.

Now, on two occasions in the Septuagint, the word almah is rendered as parthenos: Gen 34:3 and Isa 7:14. The first refers to Dinah. It occurs in the story at the point where the powerful prince Schechem rapes the young woman. The point is being made that her state of virginity has at that point been lost, so the Greek word is appropriate.

But the oracle of Isaiah 7 refers simply to a woman who, at an early stage in her capacity to bear a child, is indeed pregnant. So there appears to be no reference at all to her lack of sexual activity prior to this pregnancy. This much is clear in the Hebrew. But the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word parthenos.

We must wonder: is the choice of parthenos when translating Isa 7:14 from Hebrew a strategic move by the seventy wise scholars? Is it an inspired insight into the meaning of the Hebrew text? Or is it an unguarded moment, a slip of concentration, amongst the translators?

I incline to the latter view. I don’t think the intention of the Septuagint translators was to insist that we know more than what the original prophet knew—that is, the precise sexual status of the young woman in question, not just young, but still a virgin.

Nevertheless, Matthew uses the version of the prophet’s oracle that includes this Greek word. He quotes the Greek version of the Septuagint, since he is writing in Greek. Mind you, Matthew regularly and consistently quotes the Septuagint translation, rather than other options that would have been available to him. So this is not really a surprise.

Whatever identity we accord the author of this book of origins, it is quite clear that he was an educated Jewish male. As such, he would have known and used the scriptures of the people of Israel, in Hebrew. And yet, he is writing his account of Jesus in Greek—so he makes use, on a regular basis, of this version.

And this version places a focus on the virginal status of the young woman, who was to give birth to Jesus of Nazareth. So Matthew has deliberately chosen to include this in his story.

Why? That is a good question! Why?

Rather than seeing Matthew as trying to prove the historical veracity of the virginal status of Mary, however, I incline to the view that the primary purpose, as Matthew tells the origins of Jesus, is for him to prove Jesus’ legal status as the stepson of Joseph, as a legal heir of David. Whilst the infancy narrative in Luke places Mary at the centre of the story—and the angel makes his announcement directly to her—in Matthew’s version it is Joseph who is centre-stage—and the angel speaks to him, and only him, in this version.

This passage in Matthew 1 is the one and only time in the book of origins when the virginal status of the mother of Jesus is noted. By contrast, the Davidic lineage of Jesus, through Joseph, is a concern which is both in view here at the start of the whole story, and which returns at various points through the ensuing story. (See https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/)

And as if to reinforce this lineage through Joseph, the book of origins takes pains to establish that Joseph, a descendant of David, was “a righteous man”, as befits a Davidic descendant (1:19; David is declared as righteous at 1 Sam 24:17).

Although, it is worth noting one way by which Joseph exemplifies the questionable moral character of his ancestor—initially he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to dismiss Mary (1:19). Nevertheless, after hearing the announcement of the angel, he remained faithful and “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (1:24).

And whilst he took Mary as his wife, Matthew maintains that, as a righteous man, Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (1:25). At which point, we may presume, Joseph functions as the de facto father of the newborn child. So this is part of the pro-Davidic apologetic of this book, not the basis for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Joseph, descendant of David, takes on the legal role of father of the child. (Indeed, we are never told that he refrained from relations when they were engaged, before Mary conceived; rather, might we infer that the shame that Joseph expresses incriminates him?)

Certainly, in Christian tradition the fathering of the child is attributed to the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the virgin to produce the child (see Luke 1:35). That developing tradition was presumably already known in early Christian communities of the first century. But how early, we do not know.

In the earliest decades of the movement that Jesus initiated, Paul makes no reference to this claim in any of his letters. He knows the Jewish origins of Jesus, but says nothing even hinting at Mary’s virginal status (see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/)

The letter of James, if it was authored by the brother of Jesus, is an early witness that shows no concern for this doctrine. Mark, the earliest extant Gospel, makes no reference at all to the virginal status of Mary. Early witnesses make no reference to the doctrine which emerged much later, they provide no hints or clues upon which this dogma can be founded.

What we do know is that this claim was articulated in the later part of the first century in the orderly account attributed to Luke, as well as in this book of origins, attributed to Matthew, who includes the prophetic oracle as a foundation for the angelic announcement and to refer directly to this claim (1:18, 20).

And so the tradition of the virginal conception of Mary arose, eventually leading to the (less accurate) claim about the birth of Jesus having been a Virgin Birth, now strongly cemented in traditional Christian dogma. But I don’t think that this particular book of origins was really concerned, either to establish this claim, or to utilise it as a foundation for a whole developed dogma about Jesus, as would subsequently occur in Christian tradition.

And thus, I don’t think we need to hold to a notion that the mother of Jesus was still a virgin when he was born. She was, quite simply, young, at the beginning of her childbearing years, around 14 or 15 years of age. What sexual activity she engaged in at that time can never be known. But she was, in due course, married to a descendant of David; and that is what mattered for Matthew.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/