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A critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth

Introduction

In carrying out a critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth, it is expedient that one first of all consider the concept of authorial intent or authorial intention.

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author’s intent as it is encoded in their work. In an extract from her article published in 2010, entitled: Authorial Intention, Mitchell noted that:

Arguments over authorial intention — and the relevance of this to the interpretation of a text — go back many centuries, having a notable force and currency in the discussion of religious texts. However, contemporary debates about authorial intention in the literary sphere can be quite precisely dated to the publication of a seminal article, entitled “The intentional fallacy,” by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, which first appeared in 1946 in the Sewanee Review. In that article, Wimsatt and Beardsley, who are generally associated with the school of literary criticism known as new criticism, argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art” (1962[1946]: 92).

Staying on this topic, and using Luke’s narrative as an example, we notice the story of Samuel anointing David as king (1 Samuel 16:1–13), in his telling of the story of John the Baptist (JTB). So, JTB is the prophet that baptised Jesus, just as Samuel anointed David as king of Israel. Sander & Davies (1989) noted that, “Although scholar sometimes suggest that the genre ‘gospel’ was something new, they also admit that literature always draws on what went before, combining, transforming, dividing motifs and genres already familiar to listeners, readers and writers” (p. 252).

There are also elements of syncretism in Luke’s version of events, in the sense that there are comparisons between Jesus and JTB, so one learns about John through Jesus and vice versa. This was perhaps because JTB was seen by some as the messiah, owing to his ancestry, events leading to his birth, popularity, ministry, baptism of Christ and death by the hands of Herod. Sadly, we miss this vital point because we are reading the gospel over 2000 years after they were written. Perhaps this goes to show the quality of their literary work.

With this in mind this essay will focus on the virgin birth and dates as mentioned in the birth narrative.


 

Dates in the birth narrative

Matthew and Luke tell a different story. Matthew’s lenses are on events unfolding in Bethlehem, while Luke starts from Nazareth. The dates in both narratives do not synchronise either, so even though they highlight the reign of Herod the Great, a Roman King; the differences between their dates amount to up to 10years in some calculations.

Luke gives us a snippet into Jesus’ life when he was twelve (Luke 2:41–52), and then mentions that Jesus was around thirty years old when he started preaching, which would take his birth year back to 1 BCE. But according to recent calculations, it seems more likely that Luke slightly miscalculated the death of Herod, as such Jesus would have been born around 4 BCE, approximately bout 2,019 years ago.

Also in Luke’s account, the dates in chapter 3 with regards to the public ministry of John and Jesus was noted as to be in the era of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and Herod. However Sanders and Davies (1989) noted that, “The high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (see also Acts 4:6) causes some historically difficulty because Annas became high priest in CE 6 but was deposed in CE 15, whereas Caiaphas from CE 18–36” (p.277). Sanders and Davies (1989) also noted that the dates in Luke 1:5 and Luke 2:1–5, are irreconcilable historically, and that the idea of everyone having to go to their ancestral cities to be counted would have caused much chaos and thereby counterproductive for the Romans (p.277).

But Stanton (1993) argues that, “even though the ancient biographers did not trace character development and rarely summed up their subject’s character in their own words, they were interested in the character of a person and knew how to portray it by using an indirect method of characterization” (p.18).


 

The virgin birth in the birth narrative

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. Both Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:35) attribute the birth to the creative power of the Holy Spirit (Ladd, 1994, p.323). And they make no link to the virgin birth with Jesus’ ministry as the story progresses.

It is also important to note that there were other miraculous births in the Bible, for example in the Old Testament, we have the accounts of Samson and Samuel, while in Greek mythology, Heracles, and Alexander the Great as told by Plutarch.

On this point, it is vitally important to note that some theologians argue that verses in Jesus’ conversation with the authorities in John 8, highlight the fact that there were disputes over Jesus’ origins: “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children [born out of fornication]; we have one father, God himself.” (8:19, 41). For example, Tabor (2006) argue that Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC — AD 40), a Roman soldier whose tombstone was found in Bingerbrück, Germany, in 1859, was the father of Jesus. He based his arguments on the accounts of a Greek philosopher named Celsus, who attested that some Jews claimed Jesus was the result of an affair between his Mary and Tiberius Pantera who was serving in the region at the time of Jesus’s conception, stating that she was “convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera” (The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 64–72).

Matthew models the story of Moses in his telling of Jesus’ birth, emphasising to his readers that Jesus fulfils Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”; especially at a time when they were seeking deliverance from the scourge of Roman occupation. This style of writing is known as mimesis, which can be defined as the imitative representation of the real world in art and literature. Matthew focuses on the big picture: history, big figures — Herod, Caesar etc., while Mary and Joseph have a very small part to play in the grand scheme of the narrative. God is sovereign, while Jesus plays the role of the nation Israel as he fulfils prophecies.

According to Stanton (1993), “Matthew’s Prologue falls into two parts: the infancy narratives in chapters 1 and 2 (which do not have parallels elsewhere), and the accounts of preaching of John the Baptist and the temptations of Jesus in 3:1–4:11 (which are taken from Mark and from Q)” (p. 65). Matthew also recognises Jesus as the Son of David (2 Sam 7:12–15), and Son of God in reference to royalty as in Psalm 2.2. In fact Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1–16 is built around David, with three sets of fourteen generations at the centre is David. The first set — Abraham to David, second set — the exile, the third — the birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:17). On the issue of the Virgin Birth, I believe it is also noteworthy to emphasise the presence of gentile women such as Bathsheba, Rahab, and Ruth, with scandalous past, in a strange contrast to Mary the virgin mother of Jesus. In fact the first worshippers (the wise men from the East) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12 were also gentiles.

 

 

Sanders and Davies (1989) notes that Matthew’s writing “imitates parts of that in 1 Chronicles 1–3” (p. 259). In reference to the virgin birth, Matthew quotes Is. 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, using the Septuagint (Greek translation) which for some unknown reason translated the word young woman in Hebrew to mean a virgin, while Luke records his version in Luke 1:26–38. However John’s gospel which perhaps has the highest Christology apart from Paul’s writing, has no record of a virgin birth. Even though Jesus refers to God as his father over a hundred times, and Joseph only twice. Instead John uses the word logos, as he introduces a pre-existence Christology (John 1:1–5), and in 1 John 3:5 he uses the word revealed.

With regards to Luke’s narrative, Brown (1994) noted that “Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is proclaimed by an angel at his conception, by Jesus himself the first time he speaks (2:49), by God at the baptism (3:22), and by Paul after the resurrection (Acts 13:32–33)” (p. 131). For Luke the highpoint of the birth narrative is captured in the preceding verses after his prologue in Luke 1:1–4. He sets the stage with an old priest burning incense in the temple, while the people were praying outside. And Yahweh in his sovereignty answers both prayers through JTB and Jesus Christ. In doing this, he takes away the reproach of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but perhaps most importantly, the reproach of the nation of Israel (Luke 1:5–24).

For Peter, the focus is on Jesus’ revelation (birth) and glory (resurrection) in 1 Peter 1:11, 20. In similar vein, Paul writes in Hebrews 2:14, 9:26 — just using the word appeared. Furthermore Paul referred to Jesus as being born of a woman (Gal. 4.4), and Phil. 2:5–11 (which many believe to be a familiar hymn in the first century church) has no mention of a virgin birth, just Jesus’ incarnation. Mark went straight into John’s ministry at the river Jordan, before delving into Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry. James also makes no mention of a virgin birth (1:1), in like manner to Peter and Paul, focussing on his glory (2:1).

And even though some scholars cite Romans 5:12, 17, and 19 as Paul’s endorsement of a virgin birth, these references are quite weak. If anything they strengthen the argument for a focus on Jesus’ death and the justification of believers. And if the virgin birth was so significant, then Paul should have recorded it within the verses of Romans 5.

For Bultmann (1968) “the verses which contain the reference to the Virgin Birth are a Christian addition and derive from the same Hellenistic sphere as Matt. 1:18–25” (p. 296). Furthermore he noted, “admittedly this could not have then contained the motif unheard of in a Jewish environment, a virgin birth. It was first added in the transformation in Hellenism, where the idea of the generation of a king as a hero from a virgin by the godhead was widespread” (pp. 291–292)


 

Conclusion

First and foremost, it is important to note that in Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth narrative, their gospels, and other writing as with the book of Acts for Luke; Jesus never used the virgin birth to justify or validate his origins or being.

It is also important to note that history cannot be recaptured in essence because it is impossible to recover every millisecond as events unfold. In Heraclitus’ vision of change, in relation to time he uses an epigram of the river of flux, and noted, “we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not” (B49a).

Even when history is captured, we still need to validate accounts for objectivity, biases and idiosyncrasies. On this point Stanton (1993) argues that “while Christian faith does not depend on the accuracy of every detail in the gospels, Christians do need to know whether or not the evangelists’ differing portraits are misleading (p. 151).

So, very much like poetry, the authorial intent of a writing can sometimes be difficult to fully grasp. They are often polyvalent (having many different functions, forms, or facets), just as with Jesus’ parables. But contrary to the views of some scholars, I hasten to qualify that this does not mean that these stories were just fabricated by the evangelists. In fact in Luke’s prologue he makes mention of eyewitnesses who were interviewed, albeit informally, in the process of his writing. In reference to this Ladd (1994) cited Cadbury (1923) who noted that “by the use the word parekolouthekoti (“having investigated”) in verse 3 Luke means to say that he has participated in the events he is to relate” (p. 349), which thus “shows, however, no more than that an historian is only as good as his sources, judicious good sense and skill in presentation” (Sanders & Davies, 1989, p.277).

So in optimism I am reminded of Wright (2015): “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if, in the present age, we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know, and understand all there is to understand, about Jesus himself” (p. 3).


 

Bibliography

Brown, R. E. (1994) An introduction to new testament Christology. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Bultmann, R. (1968), The history of the Synoptic traditions. Blackwell, Oxford

Davies, M. and Sanders, E. P. (1989) Studying the Synoptic Gospels. 5th edn. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Ladd, G. E. (1993) A theology of the New Testament. Edited by Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Mitchell, K R. (2010), Authorial Intention. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literary Theory, ed. Robert Eaglestone, Blackwell. eScholarID: 3b2968

Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press.

Wright, N. T. (2015) The Challenge of Jesus. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing

 

 

 

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What is the value of Christian theology taught at University?

Introduction

In an earlier essay entitled: what is Christian theology, and why does it matter,my arguments leaned heavily against too much theology in favour of simple Christian piety.

The term too much theology was coined by Daniel L. Migliore, describing it asabstract and unfruitful. He argued further, that it is “theology that gets lost in a labyrinth of academic trivialities” (Migliore 1996, p.6).

Cornel West’s Crisis of theological education, draws up similar conclusions ontoo much theology noting that it was excessively frivolous and meretricious in its enactments. In his words:

the demystifying of European cultural hegemony, the deconstruction of European philosophical edifices, and the decolonization the third world has left theology with hardly an autonomous subject matter (hence a temptation to be excessively frivolous and meretricious in its enactments) and with little intellectually respectable resources upon which to build (p. 273).

Darragh (2007) sees the role of curriculum shapers and lecturers as critical success factors in providing the right balance between both sides of the spectrum, he wrote,

The role of theology teachers in academic institutions is not just to inform students what other theologians have written, nor even to teach them the art of critiquing the writings of other theologians. This turns theology into commentary on endless commentary. The role of the theology teacher is also to teach students how to do theology themselves. This is not just a matter of exposing students to good theology and hoping they will guess how it is done. It is a matter of being very explicit about the methods of practical theology, and at the same time of being self-critical about those same methods (p. 2).

To this end, my essay seeks to:

– evaluate Colin Gunton’s essay on the practice of theology;

– assess the value of Christian theology taught in universities; and

– draw up a conclusion.

An evaluation of Colin Gunton’s essay on the practice of theology

Faith seeking understanding, was Anselm’s take on reason and faith. For Kant, faith and reason were mutually exclusive as he argued that it is not rational and logical to make sense of a God who could not be truly known. Schleiermacher’s view leaned towards feeling as to reason. Feeling he acclaimed, was central to our humanity regardless of religious inclination. He argued further that religion was essentially what makes us human, hence he saw theological pursuit as useful in describing the supranatural.

I think, therefore I am religious, came to be known as Hegel’s strap line for his contribution to the debate, as he embarked on combining revelation and reason. All through the age of enlightenment the pendulum kept swinging for, against or in between faith and reason, with further contributions being injected into the debate by many others, most notably: Kierkegaard, Barth, Ayer, Wittgenstein and Polanyi.

In similar vein, thinkers in Jesus’ era would have had similar debates over his messianic claims — little wonder why many did not receive him. Which brings me to a statement he made when the seventy came back from their mission and were giving him an update of their activities, “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Luke 10: 21–22).

Perhaps in the same way the internet disrupted commerce and communication, the impact of these thinkers have left indelible marks on the minds of Christian theology students all around the world. According to Gunton (2001),

There are two ways in which we can compare situation of the ancient theologians with the modern who operate in the university. On one hand the situation is similar, in some ways remarkably so. Not only is philosophy neutral, or actively hostile to Christian theology, then as now; but theology operates in a world, like the ancient world, when many different religions are competing for attention and acceptance (p. 454).

Interestingly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he said, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesian 4:11–13); then to Timothy — his protégé, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The latter quote puts the demand for excellence on followers of Christ — do your best. To do is praxis, an outworking of our Christian service demonstrated in preaching, praying, worship, teaching, hospitality, civic activities, Bible translation, and other means of communicating the gospel in an ever changing world. The challenge to keep the gospel relevant to old audiences, while reaching out to newer and younger audiences is ever before us.

Strengthening this argument, Forde (1959) boldly stated that, “Theology is for proclamation”, emphasising the outreach element as most crucial to its underlying purpose. Again, very much in line with 1 Peter 4:11a, “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God”. According to McGrath (2011), Christian theology means the systematic study of the ideas of Christian faith, this includes: sources, development, relationships, and application (pp. 101–102). Note that, proclamation as highlighted by Forde, sits comfortably with McGrath’s application.

In Migliore’s (1996) effort to highlight the various tasks of Christian theology, he grouped the voices of the major schools of thought under the following strands: to provide a clear and comprehensive description of the Christian faith, to emphasise the importance of translating Christian faith into terms that are intelligible to the wider culture, to think about issues from the perspective of Christian faith, and as a reflection on the praxis of Christian faith within an oppressed community. According to him, underpinning all these various arguments is “the assumption that faith and inquiry are inseparable”, and this perspective defines the theological task as a persistent search for fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ, as to the notion of a body of repetitive traditional doctrines (p.1).

So I sum up Darragh’s idea with the words, learning culture. But in order to develop this culture we will need to invest our time and resources in studying the sacred texts and body of work of other academics, and perhaps no other environment is better placed to lay these foundations than Universities. They provide students with a forum for intellectual intercourse and circulation of thoughts, to help students to understand, live out, and exemplify their Christian faith; very much like what John Quincy Adams described as the highest glory. In his quote on how America’s fight for freedom from British rule was underpinned by Christian values, he mentioned, “the highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity”.

Centuries later, we see these same principles giving impetus and delivering lasting changes on issues like slavery, suffragettes, civil rights, and in more recent years, rights for gays and lesbians.

An assessment of the value theology taught in University

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the value of something is: the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.

Most major work on the value of a university degrees allude to the fact that it adds value to the lives of graduates and communities at large. Sadly like most things these days, these researches focus majorly on monetary values. But by pure chance, I came across a report by The University of Washington with some interesting data. According to their piece, graduates vote at a higher rate than non-graduate citizens, and are more likely to volunteer (43% of citizens with a BA or higher report that they volunteer at some during the year). Also, “College graduates have significantly lower rates of unemployment and poverty than high school graduates, are healthier, and more public spirited.” (Source: What is a college education worth… for the Citizens, Community, Employers, State and Students?).

So, what then is the value of a degree in theology?

A useful pointer from Migliore (1996), states: “Christian faith invariably prompts questions, sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, ourselves, and our world” (p.2). With this statement as a backdrop, let us first consider the intrinsic value (the end) of theology, by having another look at Ephesian 4:11–13. From this reference, we could deduce that the end is for the work of ministry and building up of the body of Christ. So, assuming this as an end goal, how then can universities be placed to meet these goals?

By drawing from Darragh’s idea I mentioned earlier in my introduction, we understand that people are integral. Why? Because they shape culture, develop curriculum, run institutions, run organisation, lead communities and even nations. For this reason two universities can deliver similar courses with completely different outcomes for students. As a result leadership, succession planning, recruitment, induction, retention, and high quality continuous personal development programme; become integral in making lasting and sustainable impact for students.

With this in mind, it might be best if we talk in terms of universal and local values. Universal value being the ultimate goal of the Christian follower or observer, local value being the vision for the university and perhaps its faculty of theology. Once this is achieved, we can then progress towards developing further matrices for measuring inherent and imposed values of the subject at hand.

Conclusion

In a letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 8–13).

This passage explains in simple terms that our growth in knowledge are constrained in our humanity, even as we believe or reason our way through the maze of life in pursuit of God. The prophetic voice of Isaiah are ever resounding today as they were centuries ago when they were first declared, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

So, our faith calls us not into conformity to all major influences, but rather to be transformed and innovative (Rom 12:2), in our quest to make lasting positive impact in the world around us with the love of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore the value of Christian theology as taught in university is largely dependent on policy makers, delivery team, resources available, and how these resources are deployed. The impact will ultimately be measured in the lives the students lead, and their legacy.

In the words of Gunton,

It is an exciting time to study theology, as questions claimed to be closed open up again, and the Christian tradition appears once again ready to contribute to the great questions of the day, and perhaps especially questions about the nature of the human person in the world apparently threatened with depersonalising forces (p. 454).

Bibliography


Forde, G. O. (1959) Theology is for proclamation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers

Gunton, C. E., Holmes, S. R. and Rae, M. (2001) The Practice of Theology: A Reader. Edited by C. E. Gunton, S. R. Holmes, and M. Rae. United Kingdom: SCM Press

Migliore, D. L. (1996) Faith seeking understanding: an introduction to Christian theology. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Mcgrath, Alister (2011): Christian theology: An Introduction. Chichester: Blackwell Publishers

Neil Darragh (2007), The Practice of Practical Theology: Key Decisions and Abiding Hazards in Doing Practical Theology. Australian eJournal of Theology 9 (March 2007)

Victor Anderson; Yancy, George (2001): Cornel West: A Critical Reader.Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

https://admit.washington.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/WhatIsACollegeEducationWorth.pdf last accessed: 10/4/2015

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This Sunday’s lecture | Church reloaded: perpetual fire!

In Lev. 6:13, Aaron and his company of priests were given a mandate to keep the fire on the alter of the tabernacle burning perpetually. 

I believe these texts provides us with opportunities for exploring themes around fellowship, within the context of the local church today. 

To this end, tomorrow’s lecture aims to treat the following key questions: 

  • what is the church?
  • what is the primary purpose of the church?

  • how do we preserve the church? And, 

  • what is our role in the preserving process?

Join us if you can, (6:00-7:30)pm.

The Art Centre, Drama Room, Bexleyheath Academy, Woolwich Rd, Bexleyheath, Kent DA6 7DA 

(Free parking in front of the school and adjacent streets)