Between the Magnificat and the Genealogy

Tensions in the Jesus Birth Narrative

by Peter Sandstrom

Despite taxes and angels, inn-keepers and shepherds Jesus is born. The center of the assigned text itself is this finding of a baby. That is the story, and yet. it is not quite the Christmas story. For the first few chapters of Luke are not simply about the birth of Jesus; they, like the Christmas story has become, are an accounting of how that baby came to be. Moreover, the gospel of Luke presents us with two such accounts. The first comes in chapter one and is the account with which the gospel of Luke editorially sides — that of the virgin birth of Jesus. The second account is discovered in Luke 3:23-37, which is the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph to Adam, and represents the view that Jesus was born of human parentage on both hi s mother's and father's side.

The high symbol, both theologically and literarily, of the virgin birth comes in the middle of chapter one — the Magnificat. It is a testimony to Mary' s acceptance of the Holy Spirit's having come over her and of her subsequent conception of a child without the aid of a human male. It is not just a testimony, it is high poetry taken from I Samuel 2:1-10. On the other side of the manger scene is a testimony that incorporates not only a different literary form but a different theology as well. Read the genealogy out loud and it sounds more like a mantra than a poem, more like a chant than a hymn. That it does not rest in high favor with the writer or editor of Luke seems apparent early on: it is placed several stories after the Bethlehem birth and it is removed, chronologically, thirty years from the event itself, showing up after Jesus' baptism and before his wilderness temptation. Even in this remote location Luke does not let the genealogy stand by itself, but inserts an editorial disclaimer through a parenthetical remark in Luke 3:23: "Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat..."

It would seem that at the time of the writing or final editing of Luke's gospel, two different and significant views of Jesus' birth had emerged and were already in tension with each other. That the male genealogy exists in both gospels (Luke and Matthew) in which the virgin birth perspective is presented and given priority speaks to a recognition of the strength and popularity of the human parentage account. The popular acceptance of a virgin birth event is evident, however, by its placement in both Luke and Matthew in the midst of highly elaborate narratives, each including awesome occurrences and stories in addition to the divine conception and birth.

A tension over the birth accounts is present throughout much of the rest of the New Testament as well. The two most central figures of the New Testament, Jesus and Paul, have nothing to say about a virgin birth. The earliest gospel, Mark, and the latest, John, likewise do not present a story or reference concerning Jesus' birth. All of these sources are, however, very much involved with a question, or series of questions, which are germane to the underlying issue, for the phrase, "virgin birth," is itself rather misleading. What is at issue for this account is not only birth, but also, and perhaps primarily, conception. How was Jesus conceived? This is a question which reflects a larger inquiry and theological concern which all sides in this issue face: who is Jesus7 Where does he come from? And, at what point did he become the Christ? The tension among the birth narratives is a struggle over Christology.

I want to pause for a moment and address the matter of why an article is being presented at this time which concerns the birth narratives and the theologies which they represent. A minister friend of Pietisten approached us after our last issue with a complaint that he had found the articles difficult to use as preaching resources. He said t hat something he had appreciated in prior issues was that there were articles that could be used, at times in part and sometimes nearly as a whole piece, in the pulpit. While we had a disagreement as to what constituted preaching resources or preachable material in the last issue, the point was well-taken that one of the uses and expectations of Pietisten for some of its readers has been as a resource for preaching and teaching. While that is not our only priority at Pietisten, it is certainly a particular expectation to which we would like to be faithful as often as we can.

The matter of preaching is one of the reasons for the present discussion. When we either preach or listen to preaching during Advent and Christmas especially when the text is from Luke or Matthew, the birth narratives and the virgin birth, in particular, are major issues. The virgin birth is an issue not only because of its presence in the texts, but also because it is believed by many who hear it, and because it is sot believed by many who hear it. When a minister steps into the pulpit and preaches a sermon concerning a major article of orthodoxy which a significant percentage of his or her congregation no longer believes, that constitutes a preaching issue that must be faced and reflected upon by preacher and listener alike.

The underlying concern, as stated before, seems to be one of Christology and, before proceeding to the particulars of a virgin birth account, I want to explore a bit of the background of the struggle over Christology by writers of the New Testament. One of the primary Christological questions is: If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, when did he become so? At his resurrection? At his ascension? At his death? At his baptism? At his temptation? At his transfiguration? At his birth? At his conception? At the beginning of time? Before time itself? Different writers, editors, speakers, texts, and traditions of the New Testament give widely different responses to those questions. Some writers even appear to change their minds over the course of time. Some single books of the New Testament include more than one perspective on the issue. And all this is before the canon is set down! After the canon, it picks up even more with the interpreters of the scriptures as witnessed in letters, commentaries, creeds, and confessions. But for the moment, I want to focus in on the various responses and points of view within the scriptures themselves.

The predominant perspective of the earliest writings of the Christian scriptures (those written before the gospels) is on e t hat associated Jesus' becoming the Son of God with the time of his resurrection. It would be assumed, then, that this perspective existed for several years before the writings themselves. This Christology is reflected in Acts 2:32-36, Acts 13:32-33, Romans 1:3-4 and Philippians 2:8-9. (See The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown, p. 30. Brown gives an excellent review and analysis of the in fancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. He brings textual, historical and theological concerns into conversation with each other. While I disagree with some of his conclusions, I would certainly recommend his work for study and reflection.) The perspectives found in these passages are, to varying degrees, those of the Christology of "adoptionism;" this is a point of view found in the early and also some of the middle letters of Paul.

Years later, with the writing of the gospels, it is noticed that Mark has moved the event of Jesus' becoming the Christ back to his baptism by John the Baptist, while using much the same language that had been used surrounding the resurrection perspective. Matthew's and Luke's gospels push the event even further back — to his birth. The gospel of John takes a major leap and says that the Christ existed at the beginning of time and shared in the creation. Depending on how language is interpreted and on what the philosophical conception of time was, some texts would profess that the Christ existed before time itself. The two latter references would reflect the "pre-existent Christ" perspective.

To say the least, the witness of scripture concerning the coming-to-be and the development of Jesus, the Christ, is diverse and complex. New Testament Christology reflects what I hold as a model for theological process: the movement from experience to language, to further ideas, and, then, back to experience. This is a movement between the immediate and the abstract. In the case of Christology, it is, in part, a progression — from the experience of the twelve with Jesus; to the various names they had for him before and after his death and resurrection (Lord, Christ, son of man, Son of God); to reflection upon the meanings of those names; to consideration of what those ideas might imply about Jesus in regard to other ideas, especially concerning God; and, then, looking back to the life of Jesus again with those ideas in mind.

It is understandable that the longer the early Christian community spoke of Jesus as the Son of God, sooner or later there would be reflection upon what bearing this title and this reality would have had on his development. This was especially so when the Son became more and more associated with God's own self and Christology became increasingly a matter concerned not only with redemption, but with incarnation as well. Just how do you talk about a God-man? What is the interrelationship between the human and the divine in Jesus the Christ? Matthew and Luke, in formulating their responses to these questions, took their cues from the familiar themes the Hebrew scriptures used in portraying the lives of the patriarchs, prophets, and the nation itself. The stories of miraculous births went all the way back to Isaac. Sojourns into Egypt and incredible escapes, instructions given in dreams and through angels all found their way into describing the coming of God's son.

Years later when John reflected upon these things and came to equate the Word with God, the Son with the Father, he found he could no longer accept either the adoptionism of the early church or the birth of the Son as described by Matthew and Luke. If Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, then not even a miraculous birth story was adequate to explain what was going on. Indeed, such a special birth was not even necessary. As time went on, moreover, there was such large fundamental agreement with the direction that John had taken that there grew a sentiment among many that no birth of any kind was necessary. Jesus the Christ was well on his way to being considered a holy ghost who had chalked the face of the planet merely veiled in a human appearance. This perspective, Docetism, took John's pre-existent Christ motif but considered his "Word became flesh" assertion to be contradictory. While unfaithful to John, it was nonetheless one of many logical progressions possible from the assumption of a pre-existent Christ.

Docetism, one of the first great heresies of the church, continued in popularity to such an extent that when the church councils were putting the finishing touches on what would be known as the Apostles' Creed, they considered it necessary to do something to counter the docetics' image of a disembodied Christ. The means that they chose was to place a reference to Jesus' actual birth as a human being into the creed. For this they relied on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus formally became a part of the Apostles' Creed.

In my own reflection in this area, I have tended to side against the virgin birth perspective in favor of the human parentage account. My thinking is influenced by some of the issues discussed above which relate to scripture texts and to church history, but it is also affected by other concerns as well. One of those questions is: If Jesus were born of a virgin, without normal sexual processes, is he really one of us? It is a question which pertains to a central matter of orthodoxy which is the affirmation that Jesus the Christ was fully human. If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, with a human mother but no human father, just what kind of human is he? Did Mary contribute through her egg fifty percent of the child's genetic material? Was the other half divinely and instantaneously created? Since much more than sexual traits are contributed with each party's contribution of genes, what would be the characteristics which did not come from a human source: elements of personality, physical appearance, inherent skills , aptitude, racial identity, blood type, IQ? If a virgin birth view is put forth which accepts a split gene pool, then the questions regarding those characteristics and others should be asked.

If another view of virgin birth is taken, one which says that no human contribution was made to the Christ child — not even through Mary — and that, instead, the entire fetus was a divine construct implanted by the Holy Spirit and grown in Mary's womb, then some additional issues have to be faced. This view makes Mary out to be the ultimate surrogate-mother. This and any virgin birth perspective also deprives Mary and Joseph of any sexual pleasure in the creation of their first born. Not even the miraculous and divinely assisted births of the patriarchs were presumed to be nonsexual and a barrier to the affections between wife and husband. Another question is how can Jesus be a full human being without an inheritance that goes back through all the generations to the first humans? This was something which those who proclaimed Jesus' genealogy insisted upon for their Christology.

My complaints toward the virgin birth are informed by elements of rationalism, science, and human experience. But, I want to conclude my critique with what may be my strongest objection and a matter which is of great importance to this journal. An orthodox acceptance of a virgin birth for Jesus presumes to conclude a conversation which scripture itself does not finish. The tension in the New Testament among the adoptionist, virgin birth, and pre-existent Christ perspectives is not resolved there. At issue here are two concerns which not only are related to the argument at hand, but also are of central importance to pietism.

The first is a regard for the complete scriptures as Word of God. This certainly means a respect for what is going on in the texts themselves. The conversational character of much of scripture is evident through the use of the midrashic style, which is it self conversational. Dialogue is also present when two or more perspectives on a matter are presented in different places — in the same books or in texts that were centuries apart in their writing. The assumption in reading scriptural texts that are in conversation with each other is not that the latest word is necessarily the most correct one. In the Old Testament, prime examples of this would be the ongoing struggle over whether the establishing and maintaining of a kingship was really God's intention or not, and, related to this, whether or not the Temple itself should ever have been built. The differences of opinion among the various writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible on these matters were never resolved in the canon. The earlier critiques of both kingship and Temple still stood during and after other theologies developed in scripture texts which were very supportive of those forms of government and worship.

In a similar manner, the discussion about Jesus' origins, his becoming the Christ, and other issues in Christology in the New Testament was not stopped by the addition of differing views in the later books of the canon. While all books or passages in scripture may not have been created equal, the mere passage of time does not give greater ~eight to the texts which were written last. To say that one and only one account of Jesus becoming the Christ is scriptural and orthodox is not an assertion backed up by the texts themselves. It is my understanding of pietism that it stands as a protest not against creeds and doctrines themselves or the processes which develop them, but rather against the use of them for quashing the conversation of scriptural texts among themselves and for closing off our own entry into and continuation of that dialogue. Even more so, Pietisten protests the use of those creeds and of doctrine as a means for determining norms or boundaries of membership within the family of faith, especially when the dynamics of scripture have not done so.

In closing I would ask those who read the scriptures during Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, whether it be in worship, in study, or in devotions, to read aloud both the account of the virgin birth and the genealogies to keep them together for their good and for ours. In doing so we may end up being more faithful to the early church and to the scriptures themselves. Further, since for some reading the virgin birth accounts is a hindrance to faith and not very good news, a more complete reading might help these people of our fellowship to feel included.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom