Sometime around 2003 or 2004, I happened upon a book titled “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by a man named Philip Yancey. Reading this book helped me understand the concept of grace, and it began to give me some idea of this Jesus person and his message. Following the logic expressed in this book and reading the bible, I realized that Jesus’ message was that we were all saved – regardless. To quote Yancey, “We need to let it soak in that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more…and nothing we can do to make God love us less.” My first reaction was that all this talk about hell and damnation and sinning meant nothing. The second realization I had was that when I died I was going to find myself not only in the company of people like Mother Theresa and Mr. Rogers, but I was also going to encounter Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden. The whole idea of “justice” and “retribution” went out the window. It didn’t matter that this new belief of mine made portions of the Bible irrelevant. I was convinced that my newfound understanding was correct. The first domino had fallen.
Around this time PBS ran a four-week series on the life of Jesus entitled “From Jesus to Christ.” It covered the life and times of Jesus from the perspective of several well-respected contemporary Jesus scholars, and it was eye-opening for me. This program was my first inkling that portions of the bible story, which I had been related to me as factual history, were improbable and some parts were incorrect. This was my first realization that none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. It appears they were written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus died. This put their historical accuracy in question, but it was before I came to realize that they were not written as historical documents.
As a boy, I could recite portions of Luke’s birth narrative as written in the King James Version of the Bible. What wasn’t explicitly covered in the bible had been incorporated into the story in books and art and movies. Not only was the baby Jesus born in a stable with cattle lowing and wise men appearing on camels from the mysterious East but there was a whole cast of characters from shepherds in the field and even a little drummer boy! Imagine my surprise to learn that Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth. Since there is no record of any tax being levied that would force his parents to have to travel to Bethlehem and even if there had been it made no sense for people to leave their homes and travel for days to go to the village associated with their lineage. Parts of the story, like the location of his birth had been changed for reasons unknown to me at the time. Nonetheless, several more dominoes fell.
I always had a problem with the miracles and stories about healing in the gospels. Walking on water and feeding, multitudes with a few loaves and fishes always seemed implausible to me, but I felt they were not central to the themes of eternal life and unlimited grace. The stories of the healing were more of a problem for me. As a boy, I had come up with a solution. I decided that Jesus was a person from a time in the future – a time when the art of medicine was highly advanced and when people had solved the mystery of time travel! So Jesus traveled back in time from this future time and, with his advanced skills and knowledge, was able to work miracles. I held this idea as a possible solution well into my young adulthood.
As I began reading Borg and Spong, several things began to come together for me. Reading Borg made me thirsty for more knowledge about the origins and history of the gospels. Spong put it all together for me. It seems I had it all backward. Here I thought that people had gone back and altered the Old Testament to make it appear to prophesy things that were covered in the New Testament when actually what happened was very different. The gospels consist of a written record of the stories that 1st century Jews told in the Synagogue to relate Jesus to the attending observant Jews. For them to make the story understandable to their audience, knowledgeable and observant Jews, they told the story as metaphors with references to the Old Testament. To do this, they sometimes changed the times when these things occurred and the location. The stories started simply enough but as time went on people embellished the stories. Eventually, as the audience changed from observant Jews to non-Jewish people who did not have a deep understanding of the Old Testament, the stories shifted from being considered to be metaphorical to be accepted as historical fact. Some of these embellishments are very elaborate and multi-layered.
So why do Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? It was prophesied by Micah that the Jewish Messiah would come from the lineage of David. By placing Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem because of a decree that they return to the place of their lineage, Matthew and Luke solved the problem of tying Jesus to the house of David. Now as for the virgin birth, this is a very interesting story. Mark, when he wrote his gospel which was the first one to be written, wrote it in such a way that it mapped over the Jewish liturgical calendar. He placed the Easter story in Jerusalem during Passover to equate Jesus to the paschal lamb, which was part of the Jewish Passover liturgy.
Passover, you may recall, celebrates the time when the Jews escaped death by placing the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts. Observing Easter during the time of Passover allowed the early followers of Jesus to equate Jesus with this paschal lamb – the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Paul did just that in his letter to the Corinthians, which Mark wrote before he wrote his gospel. But there was a problem. The paschal lamb had to be “without blemish,” but any man born of a woman was blemished due to the concept of original sin. The only way for Jesus to be without blemish was if he was conceived without human intervention. So began the story of the virgin birth.
I find these explanations to be very plausible. As a result of this revelation that the gospels (at least Mark, Matthew, and Luke) map over the Jewish liturgical calendar I am working to construct a calendar for myself that shows the relationships. I hope this will give me more insight and understanding as I continue to read the Bible to better understand Jesus and his “Way.”
The Progressive Christian