menu
January 9, 2020

He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces (Is 25:8)

Ben Witherington III, Isaiah Old and New, sees later Isaiah 14-39 coming from the time of the historical Isaiah, the prophet in Judah through the time of Hezekiah, before the fall to Babylon. This section opens with oracles of woe and judgment against the nations and Judah, continues with such oracles interspersed with oracles of redemption and victory, and finishes up with a historical narrative recounting the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib, King Hezekiah’s illness and healing, and his rather foolish display of all his wealth to the envoys from Babylon.

Many (perhaps most) scholars will argue that this section dates from a later time, after the fall of Jerusalem and exile, at least the material in chapters 24-27. Witherington argues that this is  primarily because they see the hope of resurrection in Isaiah 25 and 26 as reflecting ideas from a much later era. Isaiah, the argument goes, would not have spoken of resurrection. Witherington counters that it is hard to pinpoint the emergence of an idea with any accuracy – especially in a time and place with relatively little written record and that the history of ideas shows that they wax and wane. Although later editors may have made some insertions leading to the text we have, there is no strong reason to doubt that these oracles date to the historical Isaiah.

It is to these oracles of hope that we turn. Specifically to Isaiah 25-26, 29, and 35.  Quotes, allusions, and other references to these sections are quite important in the New Testament. Following Isaiah 25:8 quoted at the top of this post, Isaiah 26:19 is quite specific about resurrection:

Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. (26:19)

There is some ambiguity in the translation here, the NIV has “their bodies” and the NASB quoted above has “their corpses” but Witherington in a footnote says it should be “my corpses.” In fact, the Complete Jewish Bible (see Bible Gateway) has  “Your dead will live, my corpses will rise.

About these sections, Witherington writes:

Indeed, the reason phrases and ideas from Isaiah 26 show up on the lips of Jesus in Luke 7 and Isaiah 25 on the lips of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 is precisely because they are taken to enunciate the notion of resurrection from dead even more clearly that what is said in Isaiah 40-66. (p. 127-128)

Here from the mouth of Isaiah we see the seeds of the ultimate victory through resurrection.  Witherington goes on to argue:

Here then we find the notion of death being swallowed up by the Author of Life, God, and in addition we find out that the form this will take is bodily resurrection of “my corpses,” those which belong to God. (p. 128)

The reference to “my corpses” signifies the resurrection of God’s people. The ideas contained in these passages play an important role in the New Testament portrayal of the gospel.

Isaiah 34 and 35 turn to God’s wrath against the nations (34) and to the liberation of God’s people (35). We have here “the themes of judgment on Israel’s foes and redemption for God’s people.” (p. 132) Although chapter 35 starts with the parched land bursting into bloom, the emphasis is on the people and the return of the redeemed.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (vv. 3-6, 8-10)

Witherington emphasizes that God is the redeemer here. There are at least two important aspects to this. First – nowhere in Isaiah is there a call to arms. Rather there is a call to turn to God and to rely on God.

Notice that we do not have a promise here that God will arm his people and teach them to fight. To the contrary, they are being told, “‘vengeance is mine; I will repay’ says the Lord” (cf. Isaiah 24:21-25:5; 34:8; 43:4; 48:20; 49:24, 25; 62:11). This theme is present throughout the book of Isaiah, however many hands may have contributed to it. (p. 133)

The theme is picked up in Revelation. According to Witherington:

Rather than a call to arms, Revelation is a call to say farewell to arms, and to leave justice in the hands of God, and to be prepared to die for one’s faith. This is called conquering. (p. 134)

Second, the healing of the people (blind, deaf, lame) has a spiritual aspect – but it is also a physical healing. There is a complete regeneration of the land and of the people.

Salvation must be seen in its holistic sense involving body and human spirit, involving the individual and the society, involving creation and creatures. … Here we should remember the promise of the shoot that comes out of the root in the dead stump of Jesse. God wants a whole new leadership for God’s people going forward.  (p. 134)

Looking ahead to the topic of our next post – on the use of Isaiah 13-39 in the New Testament – it is worth pointing out with Witherington that when Jesus raised the dead, healed the deaf, blind, and lame, this is a sign that “Isaiah’s new creation is breaking into the midst of the old one, and that the road back from living in the land of disease, decay, and death, a sort of an exile form the land of life, the land oozing with milk and honey, is being paved by Jesus.” (p. 137)


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The links to books above above are paid links. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

January 7, 2020

We are looking at Michael LeFebvre’s recent book The Liturgy of Creation, and his argument that the creation week in Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative designed as a guide for faithful work and sabbath worship. He begins by looking at the calendar of the ancient world.

Paul starts his letter to the Romans making the case that all peoples are aware of God:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas expand on this idea connecting it with the regularity of the calendar:

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17)

In the ancient world the calendar was in the sky, governed by the sun and the moon. Michael LeFebvre argues that the awareness of God Paul refers to in the passages above is written in these days, months, and seasons marked by the motions of the sun and the moon.  As the Psalmist wrote “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (19:1)  The orderly progression of seasons, the cycle of rains and and sun, are essential to produce the food necessary for life.  All ancient peoples recognized the importance of the celestial calendar.

The year ran from equinox to equinox – from harvest to harvest or from planting to planting.  In Canaan, Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt the regular progression of seasons – times to sow and times to reap – are connected with conflicts between deities. Le Febvre points to the Baal Epic in Canaan, in Ur to a contest between Utu and Nanna, in Egypt to a tale involving Osiris, Set, and Horus. LeFebvre uses the term “myth” to refer to these stories of conflict between gods – “a myth is a story that explains present, this-worldly realities through a description of primeval, other-worldly causes such as battles between the gods.” (p. 14) This is a common, although somewhat limiting, definition of the word myth, but it helps LeFebvre make several important points.

The separation of seasons from “myth” (as defined by LeFebvre) is seen in Genesis 1:14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The lights keep the calendar, marking the passage of time. They mark the fixed times for festivals (sacred times) that celebrate the changing seasons. The lights are utilitarian objects, serving the purposes ordained by God. Whether the peoples acknowledge it or not, they are all aware of the eternal nature and divine power of God who provides both rain and crops. Jesus uses this reality in teaching us to love our enemies for … He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:45)

In ancient Israel the festivals were governed by the same seasons of the year as in the rest of the ancient near East, but they are connected to the exodus from Egypt instead of other-worldly battles between gods. Thus, rather than having a “mythical” foundation, they are grounded in the historical redemption of the people from captivity and slavery. The divinely ordained festivals are listed in Leviticus 23: the Sabbath every seventh day; the Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and Offering of the Firstfruits in the month of the spring equinox; the Festival of Weeks in the third month after the spring equinox; the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles in the month of the autumn equinox. Some of these festivals are grounded in specific events of the exodus, while others recognize the providence of God in providing food for the people.

Genesis 1:14 connects the creation work of God with his ordained festivals in Leviticus. The lights do not simply designate seasons as many English bibles translate this verse. The greater light and the lesser light (sun and moon) serve to mark the sacred times – the times of the divinely ordained festivals, the times set aside for worship of the creator.


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

(The link above is a paid referral – try this one if you prefer: The Liturgy of Creation.)

January 2, 2020


Early Isaiah 1-12 contains three significant passages read by the apostles, the evangelists, and the early church as messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. These passages vary in their context in Isaiah. For Isaiah 7:14-16 it is clear in context that the prophet had a contemporary in mind, likely Hezekiah, rather than a future messiah. In retrospect it was applied to Jesus, the prophet proclaimed more than he knew. In 9:6-7 it appears that there is both a contemporary subject in mind as well as space for an eschatological fulfillment. No mere human ruler could live up to the hyperbolic language here.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Isaiah 11 takes us even more clearly into this eschatological perspective.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 11:1-3, 9

Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics) notes that Isaiah 11 is more clearly prophetic pointing to some future event … “the lack of specificity is intentional, as this is more of an eschatological (and messianic) oracle.

[Isaiah 11] serves as a fitting climax to the oracles in Isaiah 6-11, bringing out the further promise of the coming king, but with a correction. G0d must start over with the stump of Jesse, because the Davidic line will fall into darkness, into chaos, into self destruction and exile. The Davidic dynasty will be cut down to a mere stump, but God can bring new life even from an apparently dead stump. (p. 104)

There is judgment and hope in the words recorded by Isaiah. Everything will be put right.

The oracles of the historical Isaiah found in Isaiah 7-12 regularly and repeatedly refer to the coming of a human king to deal with the malaise recounted in Isaiah 1-6. … There can be little doubt that Isaiah in Isaiah 7 and to some extent in Isaiah 9, has in mind a king who would arise in his own era, perhaps Hezekiah, and set various things right by ruling wisely and justly. But already in Isaiah 7, and even more in Isaiah 9, and finally very clearly in Isaiah 11 our prophets speaks not only of the near horizon but of a more distant one where an ideal or eschatological ruler with divine attributes and the very character of Yahweh will come and set things right once and for all. The interim near horizon solutions are presented only as a foreshadowing and preview of coming attractions, and not just by the later NT writers, but already by Isaiah himself. (p. 111)

Witherington argues (convincingly) that the either-or mentality, either Isaiah was referring to a contemporary event or he was pointing to the distant future, is the wrong way to pose the question. Clearly there is an immediate context at play and a contemporary king in view in some cases – but there is also a measure of forward looking to the time when God will rule with his Spirit resting on a branch from the stump of Jesse. The historical Isaiah knew that no contemporary king could fulfill the role outlined in Isaiah 11.

The New Testament authors used the book of Isaiah in a variety of ways … as “a resource, a font of images and ideas,” a transference of ideas about Yahweh to Jesus, as well as “homiletical use … for purposes other than those Isaiah had.” (p. 114) Isaiah was a part of the common consciousness and it was used in this manner. However, in the case of these three passages in particular (Isaiah 7, 9, 11) the early church saw Jesus clearly standing as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision – especially as the coming ruler of Isaiah 11.

Does the either-or mentality affect your reading of Isaiah?

What does it mean to read Jesus as the fulfillment of these three Isaianic oracles?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The links to books above above are paid links. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

December 31, 2019

There are a number of places in the Bible where apparently contradictory accounts are recorded. The crucifixion accounts in John (on Passover day when the lambs were sacrificed) and the Synoptics (the day after the Passover meal), the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, the withering fig tree in Matthew 21 and Mark 11,  the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, Chronicles compared with Samuel-Kings, and this is only touches on the issues. In the face of these issues we are left with four choices (1) ignore them, (2) harmonize them, (3) dismiss the Bible as a merely human ancient book, or (4) face the differences, explore the ancient Near Eastern conventions at play in the text, and look for the intended message of the text.

It is better to face the differences. Many attempts at harmonization become rather convoluted and unpersuasive. The cock crowed six times … for example (The Battle for the Bible) … inventing a scenario not recorded in any Gospel to preserve a specific vision of the nature of Scripture.

Let the Bible be the Bible and study it for the intended message.

This extends to the way dates and times are used in the Gospels and throughout Scripture. Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation, writes:

It is better to face the differences and consider why the authors used their descriptive latitude to record the events as they did. The journalistic way we expect timestamps to function today is not a reliable standard by which to assess timestamps in the Bible. Furthermore, imposing anachronistic expectations about calendars could hinder our full appreciation of a biblical author’s reason for drawing our particular date alignments. (p. 5)

Although not an internal inconsistency, many Christians today invent rather incredible scenarios unrecorded in Scripture or elsewhere to preserve a young earth view consistent with their understanding of Genesis. Observations of the natural world (creation) are harmonized with the favored interpretation of Scripture, (e.g. rapid post flood differentiation in a few hundred years to account for the present diversity of life). While these constructions are comforting to some, many of us find them decidedly unpersuasive. They can be a stumbling block to faith for those both outside and inside the church. If they are unnecessary (as I believe), this is rather unfortunate.  But are they unnecessary?

Rather than fight to protect a particular vision of Scripture, in The Liturgy of Creation Michael LeFebvre focuses on the way dates and calendars are used in the Pentateuch. This leads, he argues, to a better understanding of the form and message of Genesis 1.

I want to propose in this book that the Genesis 1:1-2:3 creation week is most fruitfully read as a “calendar narrative.” It is a special kind of historical narrative in which historical events are given the dates of a festival observance (sabbath observance in the case of the creation week), without regard for the timing of the original occurrence.  To establish this argument, it will be important to examine how the Pentateuch as a whole uses dates in other calendar narratives. (p. 6)

And later:

I want to show in this book that the creation week was designed as a guide for faithful work and sabbath worship, and that we rob the text of its intended force when we instead deploy it in disputes about physics, cosmology, and natural history. (p. 7)

We honor Scripture as the word of God when we seek to understand the intended message. This will become clearer when we understand the conventions behind the construction of the text. LeFebvre’s ideas are worth careful consideration – as we dig into them in the upcoming posts.

Is the date discrepancy between the crucifixion in John and the Synoptics a problem to be solved?

How should we approach such contradictions?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

We will dig into more of LeFebvre’s book over the coming months. Join us if you’d like.

(The links above are paid referrals – try this one if you prefer: The Liturgy of Creation.)

December 26, 2019

I will finish out this Christmas season with a link to a recent issue of CBE’s Mutuality Magazine: Rediscovering Mary.  The issue features a series of articles exploring Mary the mother of Jesus from a range of different angles. Mary is an interesting character – and a brave young woman. The best article in the issue (although I am not an unbiased reader) digs into this aspect of Mary in a little more detail: Mary the Brave: Neither Meek nor Superhuman by Katie McEachern.

One Sunday, about a year ago, I was visiting a new church. It was December, and the pastor was preaching about Mary. I was surprised by how well he positioned Mary as an equal to the congregation—neither meek nor superhuman. He presented Mary to us as if she was someone whose experience was worth trying to empathize with, whether we were male or female. As he presented Mary to us this way, I tried to put myself in Mary’s shoes, remembering what it was like to be a teenage girl. In this exercise, I realized something I never had before about Mary: she was brave.

That day in church, the image of Mary I’d unconsciously inherited—the one that held her up as meek, quiet, and submissive, the one that had made her different from me and other women—shattered. Instead, I saw Mary for who I think she was: faithfully courageous, strong, brave, but also, a human woman. Yes, Mary was right when she said, “from now on, everyone will consider me highly favored” (Luke 1:48, CEB), but let’s not allow the privilege of hindsight to overlook the grit of her lived experience. Most importantly, let us not ignore what her experience says about her and about God. Instead, let us allow Mary’s story to teach us never to twist faithful bravery from underestimated people into meekness and submission. And may her story inspire us to be faithfully brave, too.

Mary is an excellent model for all of us, male and female as we seek to follow God. Take a look at the article and the full issue.


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

Scot McKnight’s book The Real Mary: : Why Protestant Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (sponsored link) is also a good read on Mary.

December 24, 2019

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jn 8:12

I recently began to read a new book, The Liturgy of Creation by Michael LeFebvre. The central premise of this book is that we will best understand Genesis 1 when we first understand how calendars work in the Old and New Testament. Michael LeFebvre is a pastor (and an adjunct professor of Old Testament). C. John Collins provides a forward for the book while Old Testament Scholars John Walton, Tremper Longman III, and Ken Turner provide “blurbs” for the book. The purpose of the book is not to reconcile science with Genesis, but to understand how the biblical authors used the calendar to convey a memorable message.

Appropriate for the day, the Pentateuch uses dates in a manner that conflicts with modern sensibilities.

This method of assigning dates would be like telling the Christmas story and stating that “Mary laid her baby in a manger on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month.” That was not the date on which Jesus was actually born, but the date would associate memory with the timing of its actual observance (December 25). For certain, modern historical conventions would regard such a saying as inaccurate, hence the sentiment of many scholars that either the Synoptics or John must be “inaccurate” when giving contradictory dates for the crucifixion. But the problem lies not in inaccurate texts, but rather our anachronistic expectations for the purpose for an author’s giving a date to an event. (p. 61)

LeFebvre notes that John places the crucifixion on the day when the lambs are sacrificed for the Passover meal while the Synoptics place the crucifixion on the day following the Passover meal. Efforts to harmonize these two accounts miss the point that is being made in the telling of the story. Although our date for celebrating Christmas at the winter solstice (essentially) is not biblical, it does carry meaning. In a footnote LeFebvre quotes from Augustine:

The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not known. December 25th was adopted to align commemoration of his birth with the winter solstice, the date when night is at its longest and from whence the days begin to overtake the night in length. Augustine preached, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (p. 61 – “For the Feast of Nativity” in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons. p. 34″)

The symbolism is significant whether the day is accurate or not (and it is highly unlikely that it is accurate given the shepherds in the field).  It also doesn’t matter that the European winter solstice is not the shortest day in the southern hemisphere. Irrespective of the historical calendar, we celebrate the incarnation when the light of the world became human. In the northern hemisphere at least, the winter solstice gives us insight into what this means.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

We will dig into more of LeFebvre’s book over the coming months.  Join us if you’d like.

(The links above are paid referrals – try this one if you prefer: The Liturgy of Creation.)

December 19, 2019

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

Taken up again in the Gospel of Matthew

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (1:22-23)

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – the virgin birth is high on the list. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take this seriously?

Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. Dr. Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, an expert and creative theoretical physicist involved in the discovery of quarks. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously. Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

The Gospels record a reliable history. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. Dr. Polkinghorne works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. One of the most interesting, though, is the one he leaves for last.

I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi. … Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68)

As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

A Virgin Conceived. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

The very idea that a virgin conceived and bore a son raises an eyebrow or two in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. At the risk of being a little too earthy – conception in humans requires input from two sources. After all, we all know that an egg from the woman requires the DNA from the sperm provided by a man to make it whole, capable of producing a new individual. One might, perhaps conceive of a clone of some sort using only Mary’s DNA – but this could only make a female, not a male. No Y Chromosome in Mary. If a virgin gave birth to a son it was a truly miraculous conception. The DNA had to come from somewhere. Did God just produce a a unique set of chromosomes to join with Mary’s? Was it Joseph’s DNA? Some other descendant of David? Was this a divine artificial insemination?

How and can an intelligent, educated, experienced person believe in a virgin birth?

Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:

Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69, emphasis added)

Interaction not Intervention. One of the most important criteria for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.

It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense and are truly miracles. Separate from this they will never make sense.

This is also a place where it is wise to avoid asking too many questions. Especially as there is no way these questions will ever find answers. I rather expect that the conception (insemination) was miraculous – but that a modern DNA test would have confirmed descent from the house and lineage of David in some manner. But this is really beside the point and unimportant. The point is the one that Dr. Polkinghorne emphasizes … Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose but he was part of that purpose from the start. This was God’s plan and God’s doing.

What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense?

What arguments are persuasive on this, or any other “difficult to believe” event?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

(This is an edited repost, always appropriate this time of year. The links above are paid referrals – try this one if you prefer: Testing Scripture.)

December 17, 2019

This time of year we can’t look at the book of Isaiah without considering the messianic prophecies in chapters 7 and 9.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 7:14-16

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. 9:2, 6-7

We skip ahead a little in Ben Witherington III’s recent book Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics to consider these two passages. Matthew quotes the first, likely from a Greek version: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Mt 1:22-23) There are a number of issues with this quote. First, it is likely that the Hebrew text of Isaiah referred to a young woman of child bearing age, not explicitly to a virgin, although the Septuagint does make the reference to a virgin. There is also ambiguity in the phrase “and will call him Immanuel.”  The term Immanuel is not always a proper name, it can just be a reference or a throne name “God with us.”  The word is used in a slightly different context in 8:8 and 8:10. Finally, it is fairly clear in context that Isaiah had in mind a contemporary (perhaps Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son) rather than a future messiah. Hezekiah was, after all, a righteous king.

So was Matthew wrong? Ben Witherington has a rather different take on the question:

Surely, Isaiah did not have a full understanding of how these prophecies would later, and legitimately, be used by Christians. A prophet, in a poetic oracle, can say more than he realizes and it be part of the original meaning of the text, even though the prophet may not have realized the full significance of what he said.

Why, did Matthew turn to a text like Isaiah 7:14 LXX to explain the special and miraculous nature of Jesus’s origins since we have no evidence that prior or even later Jewish interpretation of this text thought it referred to a virginal conception? (p. 79)

While Isaiah was probably not referring to a miraculous conception in this sign for Ahaz, Matthew certainly was.  Ben continues:

Here I think we have clear evidence that it is an event in the life of Mary that prompted a searching of the Scriptures to see if such a thing was presaged in the sacred texts. Put another way, since Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew or even in the LXX does not necessarily imply a miraculous conception, it must have been the miraculous conception in the life of Mary that prompted the rereading of the OT text in this way. In other words, this is not an example of a fictional story about Mary generated by a previous prophecy about a miracle. To the contrary, it is a reinterpretation of a multivalent prophecy in light of what actually happened to Mary. (p. 79)

Turning to the other passage quoted above, Isaiah 9:6-7 is not much cited in the New Testament, but it clearly played an important role in the understanding of the early church. While Matthew doesn’t quote these passages he does portray Jesus applying the opening of the oracle to himself at the beginning of his ministry (Mt. 4:13-16). John prepared the way of the Lord, but Jesus is the light, the Lord.

Again, Isaiah was likely referring to contemporary events, quite likely to Hezekiah, but he was also pointing beyond Hezekiah (who was after all a righteous king, but not a perfect king, and most definitely mortal).  The vision is of an eschatological ruler who will do away with oppression and warfare. He is not a movie hero who shows up to save the day, but a vulnerable child who grows into the role. It is clear, Ben argues, that this is no ordinary human ruler even if Hezekiah is a foretaste, “the actual fulfillment of the promise comes in a later divinely appointed and divinely endowed ruler.” (p. 96) It is this ruler for whom the throne names Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace will ring true.

These titles are not mere rhetorical hyperbole if they refer to the future final eschatological king of Davidic ancestry. He will be the king of all kings, and the king to end all kings bringing the kingdom that will supplant all merely earthly kingdoms. (p. 97)

The hyperbolic language is a clue that this is not simply or only a prophecy about Hezekiah, even in Isaiah’s understanding. Isaiah knew that no human king would live up to the language. Isaiah “left the door open quite deliberately to look for eschatological fulfillment later.” (p. 100) Ben  quotes J. J. M. Roberts from his commentary First Isaiah:

One cannot object that the Christian claims for Jesus grew out of a misconstrual of the original meaning of such prophetic oracles, because such an objection represents a serious misapprehension of the relationship between prophecy and Christian faith. A misreading of Old Testament prophecy did not lead the early disciples to belief in Jesus; rather it was the encounter with Jesus, with his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection that led them to read the Old Testament prophecies in a new way. (p. 100)

The oracles of Isaiah spoke in their own day with multiple layers of meaning, many of them likely intended and anticipated by Isaiah (e.g. 9:6-7) but others less so (e.g. Isaiah 7:14-16).  The church rightly understood these passages afresh in the light of Mary’s experience and of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Does prophecy require an explicit intent for the final meaning?

How does Isaiah foretell the coming King?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The links to books above above are paid links. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

December 12, 2019

Jonathan Moo in Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (chapter 5) argues that Israel’s relationship with the land teaches us how to approach God’s good creation.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Gen. 1:28

The command to fill, subdue and rule is not a call to consume abundantly, as though the world is our private playground. Rather it is a call to act as stewards, respecting both life and land, being mindful of our place in the world.

The relationship between God, humans, animals and land runs through the Old Testament, and especially the redemption of Israel from Egypt as related in Exodus to Deuteronomy. Ultimately God controls both abundance and lack, prosperity and want. As Moses told the people (Deut. 28):

If you fully obey the Lord your God … The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. (v. 11-12)

However, if you do not obey the Lord your God …The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed. (v. 22-24)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his listeners:

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt. 5:44-45)

There is a covenant of care, but no promise of abundance apart from the providence of God – who is responsible for sun and rain for all.

Moo argues that  sacrificial system itself is a testament to the connections and value of all life. The animals must have intrinsic value to serve as an atonement for human sin. Their lifeblood is to be treated with respect, buried and not consumed (a prohibition retained in the Gentile church Acts 15: 19-20,29)

Our point here is simply that the respect that the Israelites were to afford to the life of the animals they killed for food and sacrifice served in part to remind them of their kinship with other creatures and of the gift of life and breath that they shared with them. (p. 93)

The laws of Sabbath and Jubilee years in Leviticus 25 establish a precedent

‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Moo summarizes:

The land belongs to God, and it is only by his grace and goodness that Israel resides there. The Israelite farmer is thus a tenant farmer whose life is finally in the service of God himself as owner and Lord. (p. 96)

Israel’s relationship to the land must reflect God’s purposes for it, as he is its true owner and ruler. God’s people are to live in ongoing awareness of their dependence upon God to treat the land as a gift, to exercise restraint in their use of the land’s resources and in their treatment of other living creatures, and to honor the land and its life as of value to God. … Above all it is in the practice of Sabbath rest and Jubilee that Israelites are called to entrust themselves to God’s good keeping and to reveal by their actions the reality of what they claim to believe about their Creator and Redeemer God. (p. 97)

While Sabbath and Jubilee years are not a continuing command for the church, the reality that we are but ‘tenant farmers’ remains. Everything we have and use belongs to God.

What ways can and should we today acknowledge that we are but ‘tenant farmers?’

What does this mean for the way we live in the world?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The link to the book above is a paid link. Go with this one if you prefer: Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

 

December 10, 2019

The book of Isaiah is long and complex. General consensus holds that it was compiled over time. The historical prophet Isaiah of the late 8th century BC, possibly a court prophet, was followed by others who added in the theme of his work – in the exile and post-exile. Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics) emphasizes that this doesn’t question the prophetic nature of the book – there is predictive prophecy in all parts of the text. However, different parts of the book reflect different cultural situations. While it is wise to be cautious, unwilling to follow every whim of historical criticism, or to attach a great deal of significance to the various reconstructions proposed – there is nothing unfaithful in the suggestion that more than one ‘Isaiah’ contributed to the prophetic work recorded and compiled in this book. Nor should we find it troublesome that the whole has been woven together from pieces with scribes playing a role. The scribal community “collected, compiled, edited, and augmented all kinds of Hebrew texts including prophetic, wisdom, and legal texts.”

It seems reasonably clear that the book known as Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic texts and traditions from over several hundred years of Hebrew history, with a later prophet or prophets following in the footsteps of the historical Isaiah and drawing on various of his terms, themes, and phraseology. In other words, the later portions of the book draw on the earlier portions and amplify and augment what was said in earlier eras. (p. 44)

This doesn’t diminish or degrade the text – but it may add to our understanding of the message of the text. This is, after all, the point of reading it in the first place – as Scripture.

Witherington also points out that while Jesus read Isaiah, the people didn’t. The book of Isaiah was of unparalleled importance in the  early church, but it is important to remember that most of the population was illiterate or only functionally literate. (Literacy rates were probably around 15% – but are hard to quantify). Most of the population did not have access to scrolls or the ability, time, and desire to read and study them.

Some of the Jewish Christians may have been familiar with significant passages of the Hebrew Scriptures through regular public reading in the synagogues (something Witherington doesn’t seem to consider). Certainly I was familiar with many Biblical allusions and echoes long before I began to read the Bible seriously – from sermons and public readings. I expect the same was true in Jewish communities in the first century. Nonetheless, they did not read extensively and did not have large passages memorized. More importantly, most  Gentile Christians would have very little familiarity with the OT – the Hebrew Scriptures.

While there are many echoes of Isaiah in the Gospels, most of these would likely have gone over the head of the congregation in general. “The Gospels were written for the more literate and learned members of the congregation to read out and explain to the majority of the audience where needed.” (p. 53)  Later he writes about the Gospels “They are teaching and preaching tools for those not only literate, but well familiar with the OT.” (p. 54)

The net result is that the Gospels are sophisticated books designed to be read by literate readers, not by the general population of the day. Some of the echoes of the OT in the NT are subtle – not readily apparent to the casual reader. This isn’t surprising given the nature and purpose of the book. They are intended for the church as a whole, but through teachers, preachers, and readers who can answer questions and offer more detailed explanations when necessary.The primary audience was educated – and through them the broader audience of the Church heard and understood the Gospels.

We need to read Scripture in community, with specialists who study carefully and are able to explain some of the details.

But this also means that as careful readers in a 21st century literate society, we should not be surprised to find subtle allusions and echoes to the OT in the Gospels.

The Bible is a complex text … Isaiah, a community of successors, scribes and editors … down to the Gospel writers who used the OT in sophisticated ways to communicate the story of Jesus, his birth, life, death, and resurrection. There is always more to learn.

Who was the primary audience of the Gospels?

What does this mean for the way we read the texts?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

The link to the book above is a paid link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.




Browse Our Archives