If you read my blog religiously – and I know you ALL do – then you may remember me talking in the past about how John Shelby Spong breaks down the change in theology within the Bible about when Jesus became God’s son.
To briefly explain it, Spong takes the four Gospels and the letters of Paul, and puts them in chronological order – with Paul’s letters coming first, followed by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
In Paul’s letters, Spong argues, it seems clear that Jesus was a human being, who was made into the Messiah – and thereby became God’s son – at the time of his death and resurrection. God chose Jesus, presumably because of his upstanding life and message, to be his son, and to usher in the coming of his kingdom.
By the time of Mark, about a decade later, this moment of Messiah-ship is moved up to Jesus’s baptism. Mark tells the well-known story of Jesus being baptized and a voice coming from the sky (God, of course, is an astronaut), proclaiming Jesus as his son, with whom he is well-pleased. For Mark, this is when Jesus became God’s chosen Messiah.
Matthew and Luke, writing still another decade or so later, move the magical moment up to Jesus’s conception. God decides to father a son, he chooses an upstanding virgin of good stock who is engaged to a descendent of King David, and Jesus is born, a Messiah in the making.
Finally, the book of John – written about 100 C.E. – moves Jesus’s divinity up to the beginning of time itself: Jesus was with God from the very beginning, and, in fact, is God’s creative force.
Being familiar with most of these stories, but having never viewed them in this sort of light, Spong’s argument really struck me as reasonable, poignant, and well thought out.
I haven’t changed my mind at all about this, but reading today from the book of Romans, I was simply struck anew by this concept. As I’ve argued so often in the past, one of the biggest problems facing Christianity today is the tendency to read all the books of the New Testament through the lenses of all the others. In my wife’s “Life Application” Bible, which has so-called scholarly commentaries at the beginning of and throughout each book, it states at the beginning of Genesis: “As the book of beginnings, Genesis sets the stage for the entire Bible.” As if the Bible is a chronological account of literal history, told from start to finish, in order, by a person or people working together toward the same literary goal, each telling their own little part. (This Bible also provides dates for each book of the Bible, and it dates Luke at 60 C.E, while setting Mark at 55 to 65 C.E., implying that Luke might have predated Mark – despite the fact that there is not a reputable scholar on the planet who believes Luke was earlier than Mark. I don’t personally know of any scholar who dates Luke prior to 80 C.E. This Bible also dates 2 Peter at 67 C.E., despite the fact that most scholars believe it was written in the SECOND CENTURY.)
Anyway, this linear, “coherent whole” way of reading the Bible is, of course, precisely how most Christian approach the Bible. Each book is one little cog, and they all function together to make a working machine.
This is not, however, how the Bible was written. Each book of the Bible is an individual text, written by individuals who did not know each other and frequently weren’t living at the same time, telling stories most often about people they didn’t know personally, writing accounts for specific and unrelated reasons, and inserting their own personal ideas, theologies, interpretations, and doctrines into the texts.
As I continue to study biblical scholarship more and more, I am better able to approach the Bible as a collection of individual texts, written for individual purposes, rather than a coherent whole. So when I opened my Bible this evening to read from Romans, I was struck by the first four verses of the very first chapter. So struck, in fact, that I didn’t read beyond those four verses, but got right online, instead, to write about it.
The NIV translation records these verses as follows:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Now, without reading this passage through the lens of what we know from other New Testament texts and traditional Church doctrine, what does this opening paragraph actually say?
It says, quite clearly and unequivocally, that Jesus was a human descendant of David (which would seem an odd thing to say if Joseph wasn’t Jesus’s biological father), and, more starkly, that Jesus was “appointed to be the Son of God” through his resurrection from the dead. It does not say that Jesus was with God from the beginning, or was literally fathered by God through the virgin Mary, or even that he was named at his baptism, but rather, it says that Jesus was “appointed” – chosen, selected, named – as the Son of God at the time of, and through, his death and resurrection.
None of this is really new to me, of course – as I stated above, I’ve read commentaries on this subject by scholars and theologians before. But reading it for myself, on my own, and seeing it with my own two eyes in a way that I would have been unable to see it before, really just struck a chord with me. Jesus, for Paul, was chosen to be the Messiah at his death. Prior to that, he was just a regular old guy, who must have impressed God enough with his upstanding life to single him out for glory.
This flies directly and completely in the face of basic Christian theology about the nature of Jesus, and it comes from the most prominent, prolific, and influential writer in the New Testament – the Apostle Paul himself.
If you’re a Christian, and this doesn’t make you feel as stunned as it makes me feel, then I would question whether you are really open to being intellectually honest about the doctrines you believe in. I don’t say that as an antagonistic remark – I simply say it out of an overwhelming feeling that this is important and needs to be considered seriously by Christians who may otherwise assume that their doctrines and theologies are a nice, consistent little package, sealed with a kiss, and sent down from heaven by God.