Of All Times and Places, Why Did God Come in 1st Century Palestine? [Questions That Haunt]

Of All Times and Places, Why Did God Come in 1st Century Palestine? [Questions That Haunt] December 18, 2012

There are some really great, beuatiful submissions to the #progGOD Challenge, Why an Incarnation? This week’s Question That Haunts comes from Judy, and it’s also got a Christmasy theme. It comes at the Why? question from a different angle:

I grew up in the church, though I don’t go any more. I’ve always wondered, of all times and all places, why Jesus? Why first century Palestine? I mean, if God was going to incarnate himself in just one human beings of all the billions of human beings who’ve lived, why a first century peasant carpenter. I remember Sunday school teachers giving us some answers for this when I was a kid, but I always found them unsatisfying. Do Christians believe there was something uniquely special about that time and place?

I look forward to reading your responses to Judy. I’ll post a response on Friday.

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  • Stephen Hood

    Damn. I think I’ll be leaving now.

  • Looking forward to seeing what people say, because I’ve wondered that too.

  • Tom

    You could ask that question about other pivotal moments in the Biblical narrative. Why Abraham? Why Paul?

    • Curtis

      This is right. You could ask the why? question about any critical moment in the Christian narrative. Ultimately, the answer is, “because that is our story”. Any Christian must eventually, humbly recognize that the Christian story is not the only way that God interacts with people. The Christian story is one of many. But it is our story.

      God comes in many places besides 1st century Palestine. God comes now, even while I type. God comes always. The 1st century Palestine is a significant event in our Christian connection with God. But it is one event, in one connection. Christianity is not the only narrative that God is involved in.

      • I don’t think many Christians would deny that God comes now or is continually present.

        Rather, the issue is that the Jesus Event is more than just one event in a string of events. It is generally considered the pivotal Event in all of human history. To reduce it to the same level as all other events in which we believe God is working is a mistake, IMO.

        • Curtis

          Christians recognize the Jesus Event as the pivotal event for all of human history, which it is. Others would not recognize or call it such. Whether others are mistaken or not is another question.

          • Curtis, I should have been clearer in my response. I meant what you said, that the Jesus Event is the pivotal Event within Christianity. Still, I think as a Christian, I cannot simply call it a revelation or event equal to all other events in which God reveals Godself. As a Christian (though I don’t know that Rob Davis would feel this way! :)), I feel I am obligated to maintain that God revealing Godself in the human Jesus is the ultimate way God does so. The fullest picture of God is, I believe, found in Jesus. Why or why not? Who the hell knows?

          • Ha! I love this.

        • Chris, I guess my question would be why is “the Jesus Event” “considered the pivotal Event in all of human history”?

          Maybe it doesn’t have to be a “reduction to the same level as all other events in which we believe God is working”… Maybe all “events” are unique and filled with an overflow of meaning – a (seemingly) endless pursuit of potential interpretations.

          I am okay with arbitrariness. I am not okay with the consequences of God choosing to reveal him/her/itself to some people, while withholding that from others – and then condemning those who just happened to not be so “blessed” as to receive that “revelation.” Even if through the Newbigin/Wright lens of “blessed to be a blessing” – if that’s in any way interpreted as the only way to be fully “blessed” or to receive that “revelation.”

          • Rob, I answered Curtis above in a similar fashion, but I’ll repeat what I said. As far as why the Jesus Event is pivotal, it seems to me to be completely a matter of faith (a la Kierkegaard – the Absolute Paradox). As a Christian, I feel obligated to view the Jesus Event as the pivotal Event, though, again, I’m sure you might disagree that this need be the case :).

            As to the condemnation of “those who just happened to not be so ‘blessed,'” I can’t speak to that either. I can say my views on the afterlife are fuzzy at best, and I certainly don’t affirm a literal hell in any sense. All I’m affirming is that God did something particularly unique in Jesus (as opposed to other events in which God is revealed), and I take it as a matter of faith.

          • Maybe my bigger question would be, “Even if we disagree that the Christ Event is THE pivotal event of history, what other meanings can we collectively glean from the story that don’t require his life, death & resurrection to be central?” One reason why I’m continually drawn to “progressive Christian” circles is that I am glad that these kinds of questions are asked and encouraged – where the less convinced among us can still feel we belong.

          • Rob, I think that’s a fair question.

            However, that makes me want to ask (going back to your question to Tony last week) why you would want to consider yourself a Christian at all if the story of Jesus’ life, death, and/or resurrection were not somehow central or pivotal in your own life? Why even talk about Jesus or spend so much time discussing Jesus if his life/death/resurrection were not somehow more important than, say, the sunrise I saw this morning or the joy I get from spending time with my daughter? I’m not saying I didn’t experience “God” in all three events, but why do we keep coming back to Jesus? Why not center myself and my questions on something else?

          • Likewise, totally fair question.

            I listened to Tony’s interview a few weeks back at no longer Mars Hill Graduate School, and one of his answers has stuck with me since then. He was basically asked, “Why are you a theologian?” His answer? “Because I find it interesting.” Not “because it’s true” or “because God changed my life” or whatever other cliched answer.

            At this point, I guess, that’s all I can say. Beyond the unavoidable cultural influence, I still find the whole thing interesting. My atheist friends would say I’m wasting my time, or there might be some other psychological issue that I need to deal with. That might all be true. But, I guess…interest might be better than indifference.

            And, even though I find Jesus to be infinitely interesting, I still have a problem elevating him too high.

          • While I’m enjoying all of this civil discourse, I can’t help but wonder one thing…

            Where’s Frank?!

          • I am guessing that he didn’t send Tony a legit email address, so he got the boot.

  • Tim Ratzlaff

    The question of the “person” of Jesus in relation to “time and place” are fully wrapped up in the person of Jesus.
    This is a great question because it will always lead back to the belief or disbelief in the divinity of Christ.
    As a Person of faith I believe in the personhood and divinity of Jesus not as two entities separated by flesh and blood or time and space, but as one wholistic Word of God.
    I try to keep from doing injustice to the historical person of Jesus as well as the one in my head bound up in my own time and place.

  • Ric Shewell

    Scandal of particularity. I think an honest answer is similar to the answers of God’s choice of Cain and Abel and of God’s arbitrary choices.

  • Sven

    Funny how people with miraculous powers stopped appearing once the scientific method was developed……

    • Curtis

      Or the scientific method gave us a new way to conceptualize, and deny, the miraculous powers that are still among us?

      • Once the idea came along that stories should be written down, ascribed to certain people and their meaning should be stuck on whatever that person meant, I think we lost the value of story telling. I doubt the gospel writers wanted their words to be fought over for 2,000 years. They assumed people who would eventually adapt them to their time.

        For my Sunday School class once, I created a timeline. It had the Bible story and dates they were probably written, then other things going on around the world, like Buddhism and Mayans. It also had the invention of writing, of papyrus and of paper, then the printing press. I just wanted to put the stories in some context. I didn’t realize it until I did this, but each of these corresponds to a shift in how we (non-fundamentalists) view the Biblical stories, allegorical vs. historical, myth or truth.

        I haven’t had quite the time or inclination, but my guess if you looked into the details of Bibles since the 4th century; their footnotes, when the English Bible came out, translations and edits, you could see further evolution of the cultural relationship to the words.

  • T. Webb


    I don’t know why this question “haunts Christianity”, other than if God came any time anywhere, it would be to the exclusion of all other places and times (thus, the logical argument for natural theology). But a better question would be, based on your comments on the Hebrew Bible before, is why did God come and legitimize the a book of myths and legends? Why not just leave it be and come somewhere else, some time else, to some other people? Especially to “fulfill” the ‘Law’ that was just made up by people anyhow (as you’ve said before)? Now that bothers me.

  • I will channel Tony by quoting Tony and assuming his answer will be similar:

    The bigger question, it seems, is does God have preferences? And if God does, how do we suss those out?

    The Bible is chock full of God’s preferences, but many of those are locked in a primitive narrative, being told by primitive people the best way that they knew how.

    Since ancient, tribal times, human beings have wondered about what God prefers, and how connected God is to the choices that we make. Like many readers here, I’m wrestling with whether God is an interventionist or not. A lot of people seem to find evidence of God’s intervention everywhere. I struggle to see any hints of it.

    But, I would also assume that many people see Jesus’ coming, living, dying and rising as unique among God’s preferential treatment of times and places.

    If God is not an interventionist, I’m not sure what to do with “the incarnation” – at least within anything that could be considered relatively orthodox Christian theology.

    • Curtis

      With the incarnation, God did not do anything that was not already there. Rather, God showed something that has always been true.

      • Showed what?

        • Curtis

          What does God show in the incarnation? Well, that is why people get PhDs in Theology. I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing the answer here!

          I like the way Paul puts it in Phil 2:6-11. Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he empties himself and becomes a slave. In response, God exults Jesus, and gives Jesus the name usually reserved for God, the name above all names, “Lord”. By this action, by Jesus entering into slavery, all people, “every knee”, are shown as equal in stature to God, free to enter into communion with God and to glorify God.

          That is part of what God showed in Jesus. Probably other stuff too.

          • And that has always been true? If so, then what is unique about Jesus?

          • Curtis

            Christians hear Jesus. God speaks in other ways to other people. I can’t speak for them, because I am a Christian.

        • NateW

          That’s the question right? What is the Word of God spoken in/by/through the incarnation? The bible calls the incarnation/life/death/resurrection of Christ the manifestation of God’s ETERNAL word. Somehow Christ Himself is said to embody what is True about God. I won’t pretend to be able to say what this word is, but I know it. Like a faceted gem, it is solid and unchanging, but the colors and internal reflections never look exactly the same from any two perspectives. From where I stand, right now, the Word spoken in the incarnation of Christ is the same as his last words in the book of Matthew: “And Behold, I am with you always.”

          Throughout all of scripture God’s word is “I am unconditionally with you and I am unconditionally for you,” and all suffering and sin flows out of our failure to believe that this is true. When Adam and Eve “fell” note that God is said to have sought them out, while they hid. We fail to believe this Word (I am with you), we reach and grasp at ways to draw near to God (or happiness or love, or power, or whatever name our “god” goes by). We labor and sacrifice in order to overcome the shame that we have laid upon ourselves.

          We fail to believe in the nearness of god because the god we look for is not God as he really is, but as we want him to be. Like first century Israel, we are still caught up in looking for a god who makes his presence known through exertion of power and authority. We wait for a god who will step in and forcibly overpower our oppressors. We expect an all powerful God to be one who makes himself known in exertion of strength against his enemies. The word of God though, spoken in the incarnation, turns these expectations on their head. God is omnipotent, but his “strength is not to fight” (to borrow a line from Dylan). The incarnation reveals God to be, in his very heart of being, one who steps down from a position of power to be with and for those who are “other” to Himself, even unto death, in order to make them able to really know that they are Loved. In Christ, God “shows us” that Life rises from the ashes of death, that joy is in mourning with others, that Love grants rest to those who give up their own right to demand it from others. Incarnation is the narrow way of life that Christ bids us follow him into.

          Jurgen Moltmann – “It can be summed up by saying that suffering is overcome by suffering, and wounds are healed by wounds. For the suffering in suffering is the lack of love, and the wounds in wounds are the abandonment, and the powerlessness in pain is unbelief. And therefore the suffering of abandonment is overcome by the suffering of love, which is not afraid of what is sick and ugly, but accepts it and takes it to itself in order to heal it.”

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering … Only the suffering God can help … That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”

  • T.S.Gay

    The spirit of God is known. Jesus presented it, as has been said here before, modeled it even under an extraordinary end. It was not presented in the form that Jesus showed in the Old Covenant. And I think God knows how refractory people are to it. I have heard professors at “Christian” universities say the beattitudes are not applicable to life. The Humanist Manifesto III explicitly states that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals, and that this responsibility is ours and ours alone(and this document has been signed by more Nobel laurelates, that is people who have had wreaths placed on their heads, crowning them as the brightest and best of human thought). And yet God knows the spirit that is needed on this planet for it to have meaningful mutual life between people. There are more people alive on this planet today than have been alive in all of the generations before the incarnation and up until now combined. I think God knows how slow we are to come to the realization of how needed the spirit of Christ is to our planet, and how it could be carried on to benefit large numbers. And I think God knew when to live as a man here so that the spirit that is so badly needed would be grasped by only a few, and yet carried foward.
    And I am one who thinks that the churches have been corrupted from this mission when they eventually became an accepted influence in human cultures.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I’m Jewish, so the answer seem fairly plain to me: because Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah was prophesied to be in Jerusalem, so that’s where he had to be. And why the 1st century? Other than it being the first one (ha, ha!) this was the time that the Roman occupation of Judea was reaching the boiling point but not yet boiled over. The Jewish theocracy was still collaborating with the oppressors, and the damage from Herod’s reign was still fresh in people minds. Faith in the priests was plummeting, and the covenant with God could be seen as been broken.

    So the Messiah appears to renew and fulfill the covenant. The Synoptic gospels are clearly underlined with the attempts to demonstrate Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The global and eternal saving of sins and focus on the crucifixion I think was a later Hellenic creation.

    Note: I don’t actually think Jesus was the Messiah, but for me looking at Jesus as the Jewish Messiah instead of the Christian Savior the OP question is barely an issue.

  • LoneWolf

    The Roman Empire. It was a large stable empire that had trade connections deep into Africa and Asia, something that really hadn’t been seen before then. As for after, Christianity had an undeniable impact on history, and history would have been radically different without it.

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