Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Reading List

Here is my reading list for 2008. I only read 31 books this year, which is 10 less than last year, and the least I've read since at least 2004 (records prior to 2005 were lost in a computer crash in 2005).

The reason for this is a combination of working and going to school so much, stress and busyness around the house, and probably the fact that I've been watching more TV than I normally have in the past. The DVR is affecting my reading time!

Since January 1 of 2005, I have read exactly 165 books. More than 40 of them have been non-fiction, the vast majority of which have been on religious studies. The rest have been novels and a few short story collections. That's an average of 41 books per year, or 1 book every 9 days.

The Alexandria Link – Steve Berry…1/20
This might be the last Steve Berry book I read, at least for a while. Berry is like so many other modern thriller writers - very formulaic plots, predictable outcomes, and recurring characters that fail to provide that warm, familiar feeling that any recurring character should give. Again, like so many other thriller writers in this post-Da Vinci Code world, Berry's plots all have to center on some religious mystery that threatens the very fabric of society, and his books have simply become too formulaic for my tastes. Another of my favorite writers, James Rollins, has sadly become largely the same way. I think part of it is not necessarily that they aren't writing good books anymore, but more that I am losing interest in this sort of predictable genre fiction.

A History of God – Karen Armstrong…2/4
A fantastic, albeit dense and at times dry, book discussing the way God has been indentified with and worshipped throughout the millenia, told through the lenses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not for the average reader, but a very good volume for someone with a strong interest in the history of religion.

There Is A God – Antony Flew…2/10
A book that really made me sad. Flew is nearly 90 years old, and made a name for himself as a famous Oxford atheist philosopher back in the 1940's, 50's, and 60's. He took part in a number of famous debates with C.S. Lewis there at Oxford during that time. Now in extreme old age and clearly not as intellectually sharp as he once was, he has been preyed upon and exploited by the same faction of the religious right that has given us the rebranded Judeo-Christian Creationism now called "Intelligent Design." Essentially, since the 1980's (when Flew retired), this faction - which includes prominent conservative biblical scholar Gary Habermas of Liberty University - has been attempting to persuade Flew that there is evidence of "design" in the universe. Now nearly 90, Flew has finally relented to their persuasion and has written this book saying that he has not changed his mind about personal gods or an afterlife (he still denies both), but has changed his mind about a designer of the universe. He has basically "converted" to a sort of Enlightenment-era Deism.

The disturbing thing to me is not that he has changed his mind. It is the very obvious exploitation of a famous atheist who is now in old age and clearly not at the top of his intellectual game. This religious faction has been dogging Flew since his retirement, having zeroed in on him as a possible famous "convert" because his approach to atheism was always what might be called "weak atheism" - that is, he was an atheist simply because there was no evidence to make him believe otherwise - not because he had any specific problem with religious beliefs in general.

So they exploited him in old age, and now they have their "poster boy" for conversion from atheism to belief in a designer. And naturally they have played it for all its worth - you can find articles about it all over the Internet, it was in major newspapers and magazines in England, and of course Flew published this book outlining the reasons for his change of heart. The really disturbing thing is that after the book was published, Flew admitted that he did not write it, but rather it was written by a ghostwriter - and that ghostwriter was, of course, one of the primary people in the group that spent 20 years trying to get him to change his mind. And when interviewed by a British reporter after the publication, Flew actually contradicted several of the things that were said in the book, and gave no indication - even when asked - that he realized he had contradicted himself. While he asserted that he "read and approved" everything that this ghostwriter wrote, it is clear that this simply is not true, and his inability to remember and articulate clearly was strong evidence of just how deep the exploitation of this unfortunate man has gone.

The whole thing simply reasserted my belief that the religious right is neither religious, nor right.

And for what it's worth, the arguments in the book were not convincing, and were in fact often confusing, and I did not find myself leaning toward "design" after having read it - and I read it in its entirety before I knew any of the facts listed above.

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins…3/1
This was a surprisngly calm and reasonable book outlining Dawkins' belief that religion and theism is bad for humanity. While I disagreed with his ultimate conclusions, he provided well-written arguments, devestating logic, and was also surprisingly witty.

The Wheel of Darkness – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child…3/5
Despite my disilllusion with the aforementioned Steve Berry and James Rollins, Preston and Child (who have co-authored over a dozen novels) are still among my favorites. Unlike so many others, they have never really sold out to the post-Da Vinci Code hysteria. They are still very original and very good.

The Quest – Wilbur Smith…3/19
Book 4 in Smith's Ancient Egyptian series. Another really good one, though he is getting a bit "out there" with the ancient warlock thing. It almost read like Fantasy at times.

Trojan Odyssey – Clive Cussler…3/30
Formulaic as they come - as are all of Cussler's books - but Dirk Pitt is one of the best recurring characters in all of literary history. It's hard not to like Cussler, even if his plots are all identical and over-the-top.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling…4/4

Jesus for the Non-Religious – John Shelby Spong…4/12

Eagle in the Sky – Wilbur Smith…4/13

Misquoting Jesus – Bart Ehrman…4/16
A must-read for any Christian, in my opinion. This book delves into the academic field of "higher textual criticism," but Ehrman's style is very easy to read and understand. It is written for a mainstream audience. He basically discusses the textual and translational problems with our modern Bibles - the way that scribal errors over the centuries have left a lot of problem-areas in our Bibles, areas where we either know the words/passages are not original to the text, or we have no way of knowing for certain which version is original and which is not. A real eye-opener for anyone claiming the Bible is infallible. Even if it were infallible, the humans who have copied and translated it over the centuries are not, so it doesn't really matter. We know for a fact there are textual errors, additions, and omissions.

Coming Up For Air – George Orwell…4/23
This was the 5th or 6th time through this Orwell classic. Still one of my absolute favorites of Orwell. Written in 1938 and eerily prophetic about the coming war with Germany.

London – Edward Rutherfurd…5/17
A must-read for any anglophile. A very long novel, but very interesting and never boring. It fictionalizes the entire history of London, going all the way back to the Roman days.

Sphere – Michael Crichton…5/20

Eaters of the Dead – Michael Crichton…5/22
I was sorry to hear a few weeks ago that Michael Crichton died, but I am not sorry that he won't be publishing anymore neo-con tripe. I still enjoy his older books like these two, however.

Biggles of 266 – W.E. Johns…5/25
A book I've had on my shelf for a number of years. It's one of the old "dime store novels" glorifying the figher aces of World War I, published originally in the 1930's by a British writer who was a former WWI pilot. It was a series that was very populuar with boys, particularly in England, throughout the 30's, 40's, and 50's.

Under the Guns of the Red Baron – Norman Franks, et al…5/29
It took me longer to read and complete this book than any other book I've ever read. It's a coffee-table style book outlining each of the victories of the Red Baron, including biographies and pictures of his victims (where the information was available), as well as detailed descriptions of the combat and what was going on in the skies over Europe that day, and a transcript of each of Richthofen's own combat reports. I got this book about 9 or 10 years ago, and probably started reading it at that time. Since then, I have slowly read a page here and there over the years, and finally finished it off this year.

Start Where You Are – Pema Chodron…6/6
A Buddhist philosophy book. I saw Chodron in an interview and really liked her (she's an American Buddhist nun who entered the convent after a mid-life crisis and a nasty divorce), but I was a bit disappointed with the book. It was dry.

The Autobiography of the Red Baron – Manfred von Richthofen…6/13
Written by The Man himself, and finished just a few months before his death in combat. A very interesting look inside the mind of the greatest aerial pilot in history.

The Resurrection of Jesus – Robert B. Stewart…7/21
This was a transcript of a debate on the resurrection of Jesus between scholars N.T. Wright and J.D. Crossan. It also included a number of essays by various prominent biblical scholars from across the theological spectrum. The essays were very much academically-oriented, and this book would not be of interest to anyone who wasn't seriously interested in the academic side of biblical scholarship. Even with as much lay experience as I have in this field, I found some of the essays to be beyond my comprehension.

America (the Book) – Jon Stewart…7/27
A hilarious coffee-table book by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, giving a satirical and laugh-out-loud look at the history of the U.S. Literally the funniest book I have ever read.

Great American Short Stories – Corinne Demas…7/31

Akhenaten: The Heretic King – Donald B. Redford…8/6
Another book that has been on my shelf for years. This one may actually hold the record for the longest time on my shelf before I read it. M got this for me for Christmas 1997, our first married Christmas.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe…9/25
A friend of mine encouraged me to read this, so I borrowed the book and followed her advice. It was really interesting to see firsthand the "debate" that took place in the decades prior to the civil war about slavery. To our modern sensibilities it is overly sentimental, overly religious, and even racist, but it was without question the most important (not to mention best selling) American book of the 19th century. The racist aspects of it come from Stowe's asides where she - as the narrator - sort of steps out of voice and begins sermonizing on some topic or another. When doing so, she would frequently generalize and streotype blacks. It might go something like this: "The Negro is kind and child-like by nature, loving beauty and approaching the world with the simplistic air of a school child." She, of course, didn't mean it as an insult - it simply comes off like that today because our worldviews and sensibilities are so dramatically different from that of the mid-19th century. For its time, Uncle Tom's Cabin was extraordinarily radical and liberal, and was viewed by Southerners as vicious left-wing propaganda. It actually spawned a cottage industry of books written (mostly by Southerners) to contradict it.

Lords of the North – Bernard Cornwell…9/30

Sword Song – Bernard Cornwell…10/4
Parts 3 and 4 in Cornwell's Anglo-Saxon novels.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling…10/16

When the Lion Feeds – Wilbur Smith…11/9

The Sound of Thunder – Wilbur Smith…11/20

A Sparrow Falls – Wilbur Smith…12/12
These are the first three books of the "Courntney" series. Smith has since gone on to write about 14 Courney novels. The first book here - "When the Lion Feeds" - was Smith's first published book, first published back in 1964.

Liberating the Gospels – J.S. Spong…12/22
Another must-read for any Christian. This one has really altered my perception on how and why the Gospels were written. It has shown me that the biggest problem with understanding the Gospels is that we read them like 21st century post-Englightenment people, not like the 1st century Jews who wrote them. When you approach the Gospels with modern black and white thinking, you end up with literalists on the one hand, and those who reject it all as superstition and lies on the other hand. Spong shows why both positions are wrong. His basic thesis is that the Gospel stories were not intended by their writers to be understood literally. He then spends 250 pages defending that statement, and does so in profound and compelling ways.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Method of Jesus' Crucifixion

It is almost universally understood among Christians and those familiar with the stories of the New Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by being nailed to a cross.

Like most other people, this is a fact of history that I have never really questioned. I still do not question whether Jesus was executed by means of crucifixion, but lately I have begun investigating the historical basis for assuming his crucifixion actually entailed being nailed to the cross.

It is a known fact that the vast majority of Roman crucifixions did not actually involve nails or spikes. The condemned were simply tied to a cross and left to the elements, where they would slowly suffocate due to the position of the body. The whole purpose of crucifixion was to make the victim suffer a slow, agonizing death, not otherwise involving bodily violence. Driving spikes through the wrists or feet could have hastened death and therefore reduced the severity of the penalty. Perhaps more importantly, nails or spikes would have been a costly extravagance, and the Romans were nothing if not practical. With the tens of thousands of criminals and prisoners-of-war that the Romans are said to have crucified, it would have been cost-prohibitive to use anything other than ropes. This is why the historical data shows that most crucifixion victims were bound to the cross, not nailed.

With this in mind, we turn to the stories from the Bible. Readers may be surprised to discover that not a single account of Jesus’ crucifixion from the four Gospels says that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Instead, the writers simply note that Jesus was “crucified.” The images we have of Jesus’ executioners painstakingly affixing him with spikes to the cross come to us from art and film, not from the stories of the Gospels.

In fact, in our modern English-language Bibles, the word “nail” only appears three times in the New Testament. In at least two of these spots – Acts 2:23 and Colossians 2:14b – and possibly in the third – John 20:25b – the word is actually mistranslated.

Acts 2:23 (NIV) – “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

In this passage, the phrase translated as “nailing him to the cross” was based on the single Greek word prospegnymi, which does not mean “nailing to a cross,” but rather simply “to fasten.” In other words, wicked men put Jesus to death by fastening him to a cross. The method of this fastening, whether by nails, ropes, or some other method, is not implied. We know, however, that the same person who wrote Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke, and as already noted, neither Luke nor any other Gospel writer, when describing the crucifixion, mentions that Jesus was actually nailed to his cross.

The second passage in question, Colossians 2:14b, says: “…he took [our sin] away, nailing it to the cross.”

This passage comes from a letter that may have been written by Paul, but was more likely written much later by someone writing in Paul’s name. Either way, the image provided by this translation is metaphorical – the writer is saying that our sin was “nailed to the cross” with Jesus. However, the Greek word used here – proseloo – simply means, as in the passage in Acts, “to fasten.” So again there is no implication in the original Greek whether this fastening involved nailing, tying, or some other method.

The final passage in question comes to us from the Gospel of John. However, it does not appear in the crucifixion scenes. Instead, it occurs in the resurrection scenes, specifically the famous account of “Doubting Thomas.” In 20:25b, Thomas says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

The Greek word used here is helos. This is a very obscure word that is not attested in very many ancient Greek sources outside the New Testament – and its only occurrence in the New Testament is in this one passage. This means that the meaning of the word must be inferred from the context in which it is used. Most ancient Greek dictionaries suggest that it probably meant “spike” or “stud,” but some sources translate it as “talon,” “claw,” or “fingernail.” It is notable to point out that in the few ancient sources outside the New Testament where the word is used, the context seems to point more strongly to the latter group than the former, meaning it may have more likely referred to a fingernail than a spike.

If you read this passage in John as though the “nail” marks referred to were fingernail marks, it still makes sense in context. A crucifixion victim would no doubt have been tensing and squeezing his hands in pain and suffering, potentially digging his fingernails into his palms. Perhaps John’s Thomas was referring to this when he talked about “nail marks.”

Of course, that seems far-fetched, but even if we assume that John did, in fact, mean spikes, it is still notable to point out that the one and only reference to Jesus being nailed to his cross comes in the last of the Gospels, one of the last overall books to be written in the New Testament, composed somewhere around 100 C.E., or 70 years after Jesus’ death. And even then it comes in a resurrection account, not in the actual description of the crucifixion.

This rather late appearance in the Biblical texts of actual nails being used in Jesus’ execution is made even more significant when we consider the historical context. I have already noted that crucifixion in ancient Rome involved tying the victim to a cross, not nailing them. However, there is at least one account in secular records of the Romans actually nailing victims to crosses. This comes to us from the historian Josephus, who chronicles the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. This war, of course, culminated in the final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and sent the Jews into political exile for the next two millennia. Josephus tells us that the Romans, during their siege of Jerusalem, executed numerous Jewish rebels by crucifixion, and Josephus notes with horror and shock that many of these people were actually nailed to their crosses. The obvious implication in the tone Josephus uses is that this was an especially vicious and unusual anomaly.

This siege of Jerusalem, of course, had a dramatic impact on the texts of the New Testament, because many of them were written during, or just after, these world-changing events within Jewish history. If Josephus’ impression is anything to go by, it is safe to assume that Jews everywhere would have been aware of how the Romans not only crucified a large number of Jewish rebels, but even nailed them to their crosses. It would be easy to see, then, how the idea of Jesus being nailed to his cross might have crept into some of the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion – such as the Doubting Thomas story in the Gospel of John. The fact that the Romans of the early 1st century – in the time of Jesus – did not tend to crucify people with nails would have been lost on the writer of John, who was writing after the horrific events of 70 C.E. when the Romans actually did crucify people with nails. John’s account, then, may very well be a clear and obvious case of a Gospel writer writing modern perspectives back into the story of Jesus.

Whether Jesus was crucified with nails, or simply tied to his cross, does not, of course, really change anything for Christianity, theologically speaking. For those with a peculiar obsession with Jesus’ physical suffering (something that seems to be a hallmark of many conservative Catholics), this may be problematic, but otherwise it should not have any significant bearing on one’s faith.

More than anything else, this is simply an interesting tidbit that can help to illumine the difference between what many Christians commonly believe about Jesus and what the Bible actually says.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Merry $&%*$* Christmas

Well, I think it's fair for me to say that when I say "Christmas really sucked this year," I'm not just being cynical.

Our plan was to leave Tuesday for the in-laws' house, and return on Friday evening or Saturday morning. I was really excited about having the time off work to just spend with family, so I had high hopes as we left town.

We stopped on the way out and got gas. From that gas station, about 2 miles from our house, it is roughly 105 miles to my in-laws' house. We left right at 4 pm.

We arrived at my in-laws' house at 11:57 pm.

Now, of course I am thankful that despite the enormously long trip, we got there in one piece. But I have never in my life experienced a long-distance driving fiasco like the one I experienced on Tuesday afternoon.

I noticed before we even got out to the Interstate that the roads were slick. This came as a shock, because the thermometer on my car said it was about 35 degrees outside (i.e., above the freezing point), and it had been raining lightly all day - not a single snowflake at all. Yet there were slick spots on the road underneath the overpasses.

As a result of this, M and I began discussing whether we should just wait until the next day to go. But as it was above freezing, and was only raining, I guessed that the slick spots underneath the overpasses were just an anomoly, and things would be fine.

We got about 5 miles up the Interstate, just barely out of the county, when we ran into a wall of traffic. We stayed motionless for about 30 or 45 minutes. This was especially frustrating because we were actually stopped just a few dozen feet past an exit ramp that we could have taken to go back home. We were hearing all sorts of reports on the radio about accidents all over the city due to freezing rain. By the time we started moving again, we decided to keep forging ahead, thinking it would probably be okay if we just took it slow.

It wasn't.

About 15 more miles up the Interstate, we hit another slow spot, and although we didn't come to a stop, we creeped at 5 mph for about half an hour. We finally passed the wreck that was causing that slow down, but the traffic didn't clear beyond it as one would expect. Instead, there was apparently a second wreck that had just happened about a mile farther up the road. After slipping and sliding in an attempt to let ambulances with chains on their tires go by, we came to another complete stop. I tested the road with my foot and discovered that the entire road, from shoulder to shoulder, was covered in a sheet of ice. This was despite the fact that it was still above freezing (about 35 by now), and still only raining.

We sat there, without moving so much as a centimeter...

...for 3 solid hours.

It was already dark by the time we got stopped there, and everyone had their cars off and headlights off and people were getting out and peeing and walking their dogs and some were even hoofing it up to the next exit.

Finally, by about 9:30, we got moving again, and the road was, of course, treacherous. We stopped and ate McDonald's, then slipped and slid all the way down the entrance ramp back onto the interstate. Remember, it's still about 3 degrees above freezing, and the only precipitation falling is occasional liquid drizzle. Furthermore, the roads off the exit - where we got McDonald's - were just wet. Not a sign of ice anywhere, either on the roads or in McD's parking lot.

About 5 minutes after getting back on the highway, an SUV passed me doing about 60 (I was going about 25). Like many SUV owners, this person apparently thinks (or, perhaps I should say "thought") that the laws of physics don't apply to them. Either way, about 50 feet ahead of me, he spun out, fishtailed several times, narrowly missed the left side cement wall, then spun across all three lanes of traffic, and narrowly missed the right side cement wall. I was the closest car to him, but I was going slow enough that I was able to stop behind him without getting hit. I was so rattled I got off the Interstate again, just to calm down.

In the end, as I said, we arrived safely at the in-laws' at 11:57 pm. It took us 8 full hours to make a 105-mile drive. At the same time, my parents were flying to England. It only took them 30 minutes longer to get from Texas, across country, across ocean, and into London, than it took us to go a distance equivalent to driving from Tampa to Miami.

After that, it just seemed that everything was crappy. There were a lot of arguments over the next few days, a lot of high tempers and irritability. Our youngest daughter, S, was sick with a cold when we arrived, and that turned into pneumonia. M had the luxury of taking her to the ER at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning, and S was essentially miserable, uncontrollable, and often inconsolable, the entire week.

I literally don't think I've ever had a Christmas that was quite such a horrible experience from beginning to end. There were a few bright spots, but overall, it just sucked.

So anway....Happy New Year!!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part IV

Read Part I
Read Part II
Read Part III

THE JEWISH TRADITION OF MIDRASHIC WRITING

Midrash is a Hebrew term that means something akin to “interpretation,” specifically of a religious text. Its English equivalent is the word “exegesis,” which is often used in theological circles. When a pastor preaches a sermon based on an interpretation of a text in the Bible, his sermon is based on exegesis. But the term midrash, like so many others in the Hebrew language, is a very complex one, involving more than just simple “interpretation.”

One facet of the midrashic tradition in ancient Judaism involved interpreting, and re-telling, modern events through the lens of the collective cultural past. This was done for the purpose of describing, in a literary way, the significance of modern events. It was not unlike how Americans, on 9/11, continually compared the horror of the event to the attack on Pearl Harbor or Kennedy’s assassination. Jewish scribes used midrashic techniques in their storytelling to elevate significant modern events to legendary status. But they went a step further than simply comparing a modern event to a similar significant event in the past. They would actually tell the story of the modern event through the lens of the past event, as a way of bringing the modern event into historical significance.

To put this into a perspective that is a bit easier to understand, consider this midrashic account of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg:

Gathering his troops around him, General George Meade – a large, stoic man with a brilliant military mind – was faced with a difficult decision. His troops needed food and shelter from the cold, but the closest town – Gettysburg – was on the other side of an ice-bound river. The enemy was closing in from the south, and a messenger galloped through Meade’s temporary barracks warning that the Greycoats were coming. Making a decision that would change the course of the war, Meade set his face for Gettysburg and loaded his troops into makeshift rafts, crossing the frozen, treacherous river. He lost not a single man in the crossing, and his troops took up defensive positions in Gettysburg, awaiting the Rebel attack.

Now, what I have done is describe a real event, but I have woven in images and stories from the Revolutionary War in order to enliven the account and to make sense of Meade’s greatness in the battle. One way I have done this is by comparing Meade obliquely to George Washington. The physical and mental characteristics I have applied to Meade are actually characteristics associated with Washington, and it was Washington who crossed a frozen river to lead his army into battle. By tying Meade midrashically to Washington, I am honoring Meade and demonstrating what a great general he was. I have also tied in a second Revolutionary War image, alluding to a messenger on horseback stating that the “Greycoats” are coming. This is midrash on the story of Paul Revere’s Ride, tied into the account of Meade and Gettysburg to show the timeless importance of the battle.

In writing this story midrashically, I have compromised some of the literal nature of the event. There was no frozen river that Meade crossed to get into Gettysburg. Meade did not go to Gettysburg because his troops needed food and shelter. There was no rider warning of approaching enemy troops. The actual circumstances of the build-up to the battle are dramatically over-simplified. Finally, it was not winter when the battle took place, but the dead of summer.

What I have written is not literal history. Instead, it is a colorful account of a real event (that is, the Battle of Gettysburg), told metaphorically through the lens of several commonly known American stories.

This is one way that ancient Jewish scribes employed midrash. It was a storytelling tradition, used to bring life to modern events and to raise the importance of such events to epic realms. It was the way ancient Jews attempted to explain the inexplicable, describe the indescribable, and give legend to the legendary. While it may seem foreign to our modern black and white way of thinking, this was normal to a 1st century Jew. This is how their rabbis and scribes interpreted and retold the stories of the Jewish past and present. The tradition, in fact, exists heavily in the Old Testament. The two books of Chronicles, for instance, are very likely midrash on the preceding two books of Kings.

THE VIRGIN BIRTH STORIES AS MIDRASH

After a lot of textual study, I am persuaded by the arguments presented by many scholars suggesting that the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke were midrashic stories, told for the purpose of interpreting the life of Jesus through the lens of the Jewish past as told in the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). They employed this technique throughout their Gospels for the purpose of describing the indescribable power met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowhere does this midrashic tradition present itself more obviously than in the stories of the virgin birth.

If this theory is correct, and I believe it is, then the various aspects of the virgin birth accounts were never meant to be understood literally. Matthew and Luke were not intending to give journalistic, “just the facts, ma’am,” accounts of Jesus’ origins. They were creating midrash on the birth of Jesus to demonstrate the timeless power of God met in Jesus.

Thus, they are neither literal history, as traditional Christians assume, nor are they superstition, myth, or intentional lie, as skeptics, non-Christians, and atheists assume.

There are literally dozens of midrashic elements in the virgin birth stories, far too many for me to list individually. However, I will outline a few.

First, the Magi. In Isaiah chapter 60, the writer says that “kings” will arrive on camels to see the glory of God’s light, bearing with them gold and frankincense. This same passage says that people will come from the land of Sheba, and other Old Testament texts tell of a story where the Queen of Sheba arrived on camels to King Solomon’s palace bearing great quantities of spices. The land of Sheba was most famous for its myrrh.

Second, the swaddling clothes. This image draws on a passage from a Jewish text not in the Old Testament, but part of ancient Jewish scripture, known as the Wisdom of Solomon. In that text, King Solomon is said to have been “nursed with care in swaddling clothes.” By drawing on that image, the Gospel writers were comparing Jesus to one of Judaism’s greatest kings, the son of David himself.

Third, the manger. It is interesting to note that neither Luke nor Matthew actually mention anything about a stable. The image of the stable, with the animals lowing in the background, comes from Luke’s account because he notes that Mary laid Jesus “in a manger,” since there was no room in any local inns. The significance of the manger comes, like so many other elements of the story of Jesus, from Isaiah. In the very first chapter of that book, the writer states that “the ox knows its master and the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” As John Shelby Spong puts it, Isaiah was saying that the Israelites “did not even recognize that they were fed each day from the [manger] of God’s bounty.” By having Mary place Jesus in a manger, the writer of Luke was showing that Jesus was the sum of God’s bounty – he was the “food from the manger” that would give eternal life to those who partook.

Fourth, Bethlehem. King David, the first and greatest king of the Jews, had come from Bethlehem. David was known as a shepherd before he became a king. Later prophets predicted a new king coming from the line of David in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, according to Jewish scriptures, was also the home of the “tower of the flocks,” which was a structure that helped local shepherds keep watch over their enormous flocks of sheep. The Gospels writers, therefore, when writing about the man who would later be called the “Good Shepherd,” placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, where the first shepherd king had originated. And Luke, drawing on the image of the “tower of the flocks,” added other shepherds, who were “watching over their flocks” by night.

Fifth, Joseph. Joseph is characterized in the virgin birth accounts as wholly obedient to God’s will. He is given numerous divine instructions in dreams. Following one of these instructions, Joseph takes his family to Egypt. According to Matthew, Joseph has a father named Jacob. In the Old Testament, there is another prominent character named Joseph. His father was also named Jacob. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. Once there, he came to prominence in the court of the pharaoh because he was able to interpret dreams. He won favor with God because he was wholly obedient to God’s will. The midrashic connections are very obvious, and the reason for tying Jesus’ father to the Joseph of the Old Testament becomes even clearer when one considers the political background. Joseph and his brother Judah were the two ancient Jews whose descendents eventually settled and unified the Jewish kingdom. Joseph’s descendents ruled over the northern kingdom, which became known as Israel, while Judah’s descendents controlled the southern kingdom, which was known simply as Judah. The northern kingdom was destroyed fairly early in Jewish history, and only Judah (which included Jerusalem) remained. Jesus was already linked midrashically to Judah through his Bethlehem birth (Bethlehem was also in Judah). It was widely known, however, that Jesus came from Galilee, which was in the area of the old northern kingdom of Israel – Joseph’s area. So by tying Jesus’ father to the Joseph of the Old Testament, the Gospel writers were giving Jesus a connection to both sides of Jewish history.

What these examples show is that virtually every aspect of the birth accounts of Jesus, as given in Matthew and Luke, can be tied midrashically to stories from the Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament. The writers of these Gospels were not writing literal history, but they were also not telling intentional lies or just making things up for kicks. They were depicting Jesus’ origins against the collective stories of the Jewish people, as a means of describing the profound and otherwise indescribable power met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

CONCLUSION

When we, as Christians, begin to understand the distinctly Jewish way that the virgin birth stories were written, we begin to understand Jesus in new and profound ways. The writers of these stories did not intend for the stories to be understood literally. They intended for them to be understood midrashically, as creative portraits describing the ineffable power met in Jesus of Nazareth. They were not writing for an audience plagued with gentile 21st century (or even gentile 2nd century) black and white thinking. They were writing for an audience that understood the world through 1st century eyes, and they were writing in a style that was distinctly Jewish. To overlook this fact is, in my opinion, to completely miss the point of not only the virgin birth stories, but the Gospel tradition in its entirety.

Many commentators would point out that without the virgin birth, the theology of mainstream Christianity is in vain. If Jesus was just a human being, conceived like everyone else, then he cannot be God’s son. And if he was not God’s son, then there is no reason to put faith in the Christian story. The virgin birth is the core around which most other Christian theology revolves. Remove it, and you must begin to dramatically rethink what it means to be a Christian. Yet to avoid the ramifications of the textual evidence out of spiritual discomfort is not acceptable to many people. If that requires a rethinking of one’s own Christian faith, then I believe we should not avoid that opportunity for personal and spiritual growth.

John Shelby Spong has called the misunderstanding that plagues New Testament interpretation the “Gentile Captivity of the Bible.” Only by, as he says, “reading the Bible with Jewish eyes,” can we hope to move more deeply into an understanding of how God was met through Jesus, and what the life-changing power was that led Jesus’ followers to call him the very Christ and savior of the world.

* Anyone who is interested in reading more about the midrashic methods used by the Gospel writers is encouraged to read scholar and theologian John Shelby Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes,” which is based in part on the works of British biblical scholar Michael Goulder.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part III

Read Part I
Read Part II

THE GOSPELS OF LUKE AND JOHN

As we move forward chronologically, we come next to Luke, followed by John. Luke was probably written around 90 C.E., with John probably coming 5-10 years later. Luke also relied heavily on Mark, although not quite as heavily as Matthew. There is a quite heated debate in the scholarly world about second sources potentially used by Matthew and Luke. Many scholars believe Matthew and Luke – in addition to using Mark – also used a second source, dubbed “Q,” which contained sayings of Jesus. This theory accounts for material that is common to Luke and Matthew, but not contained in Mark. Others simply account for this common, non-Markan material by suggesting Luke used Matthew as a source. The first camp rejects this because Matthew and Luke were written too close to each other, chronologically, for Luke to have had access to Matthew’s account. Either way, Luke also includes a virgin birth story, though the facts of the story vary wildly from Matthew’s – which perhaps lends credence to the “Q” theory. More on the variations between Luke and Matthew in a moment.

The Gospel of John, like the Gospel of Mark, contains no virgin birth account. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the writer of John refers to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.” On one of these occasions, it is actually one of Jesus’ own disciples using the phrase. On the other, it is a group of skeptics questioning how Jesus can claim to have come from God when everyone knows his parents and background. These facts are fairly significant. How could one of Jesus’ own disciples not have known of his miraculous birth? Furthermore, since there is no virgin birth account in the story, the implication is that while Jesus is the “Word” of God in human form, that Word entered the world quietly and without fanfare, presumably settling upon an otherwise fully human infant.

It is important to remember that the Gospels were not written as a collection to be read together. Each of the Gospels, as this chronological look should make clear, was written as a stand-alone account, by four different people writing in different decades. And while two of those writers incorporated stories from earlier writers into their own accounts, each Gospel was written for an individual community and not as part of a “series” to be studied with all the rest. Therefore, if you were a Christian living in the community that Mark or John was writing to, you would have no textual basis whatsoever for presuming a miraculous birth. You would simply read and study those texts and come away with the impression that Jesus was a man who, in some mysterious way, had a special connection to God. And in fact, if you were reading only Mark, you would not only have no concept of a miraculous birth, but you would actually think that Jesus was likely estranged from his family, and perhaps even illegitimate!

The fact that a reader of Mark and John would have no concept of a virgin birth would actually hold true for the entire New Testament, with the exceptions of Matthew and Luke. Those two books are, in fact, our only source for the virgin birth account. No other book in the New Testament refers to Jesus having anything other than a normal, unremarkable origin.

But what do those two accounts actually tell us? Do they give us a unified picture that can be relied upon simply because of internal consistency?

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNTS OF THE VIRGIN BIRTH

When we consider the birth of Jesus, we tend to merge both Matthew and Luke’s account into one, effectively creating a third account which neither Luke nor Matthew, nor any other Biblical source, gives us. Thus, we tend to imagine three Oriental kings, a group of shepherds, heralding angels, a massive glowing star over a stable, and offerings of frankincense and myrrh. In fact, there are no kings at all in either of the stories – the idea of three kings comes from a popular Christmas song, not from the Bible. The Bible tells us they were “Magi,” or magicians, not kings, and it does not tell us there were three of them, it simply tells us that “Magi from the east” came to find Jesus. Furthermore, neither story tells of a glowing star over a stable – those are two concepts merged from Matthew and Luke, creating an image that neither account gives – Matthew’s star leads the Magi to a house; Luke has no star. In Luke’s account there are no Magi, exotic gifts, or glowing stars, and in Matthew’s account, there is no stable, no angels singing praises in the heavens, and no shepherds.

Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, while Luke tells us that they lived in Nazareth and were merely on a trip to Bethlehem when Mary gave birth. Matthew’s account specifically states that the Magi visited Jesus at home – at the family house in Bethlehem. He then relates the story of King Herod hearing about the birth of a king from the Magi, and ordering the slaughter of all Jewish male babies under 2 years of age (implying that a year or two has passed since Jesus’ actual birth). To escape this slaughter, Mary and Joseph move to Egypt. After several years, King Herod dies and the family moves back. Initially, they are going to return to their home in Bethlehem. But Joseph is warned in a dream not to go back there, so instead they settle on Nazareth, a quiet little backwater in rural Galilee.

Luke, on the other hand, gives no account of the Magi, and states that the family returned to their home in Nazareth after the various Jewish rituals, required by Mosaic Law, had been performed – a time span of about 40 days. Recall that for Luke, the only reason they had been in Bethlehem to start with was because Joseph had been required to travel there for a census registration.

More inconsistencies exist between the two accounts. In Luke, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she is to conceive God’s son, despite being a virgin. The text mentions Joseph only to tell that Mary is engaged to be married to him. Matthew tells us also that Mary and Joseph are engaged, but instead of an angel coming to visit Mary, the angel visits Joseph. Mary, the text tells us, has become pregnant, and Joseph – thinking the child is illegitimate – decides to quietly dismiss her. An angel appears to him, however, telling him that the child is the offspring of God, and encouraging Joseph to keep Mary as his fiancĂ©. One has to wonder why Matthew’s Mary would not have told Joseph up front about her visit (described in Luke) from the angel Gabriel. Matthew’s text implies that Mary simply turned up pregnant, and so Joseph was going to send her away quietly.

While both texts say that Mary and Joseph were only engaged at the time of the conception, the texts disagree about when they got married. Matthew tells us explicitly that they were married following the visit to Joseph by the angel – Matthew makes sure to point out, however, that Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after the baby was born. Luke, however, does not ever say when Joseph and Mary finally actually tied the knot, but he mentions that they were still only engaged during the trip to Bethlehem when Mary gave birth. They presumably got married after that time.

Finally, another major inconsistency exists in the genealogy of Jesus given by the two writers. Many of the names in the two lists are different, there are a competing number of generations to get back to King David, and even Joseph’s own father has a completely different name between the two Gospels.

What this all means is that the only two accounts we have in the entire New Testament of the virgin birth vary wildly from one another, and have contradictions that no amount of convoluting can reconcile. No other texts in the New Testament mention anything about a miraculous origin for Jesus, and the textual evidence suggests very strongly that this tradition did not enter the Christian story until the time of Matthew and Luke. Prior to that, Jesus is portrayed merely as a human man, born to human parents, and this holds true even in the writings that came after Matthew and Luke. If one removed Matthew and Luke from the canon, and read the remaining New Testament from beginning to end, one would never get even the first clue that Jesus’ birth had been anything other than normal and routine.

Taken together, what do all of these things mean for the virgin birth tradition of Jesus? First, they cast a long shadow of doubt on any literal understanding of the stories. The textual evidence, in my opinion, is overwhelming that the virgin birth stories are literary creations, not historical accounts. Does this mean, however, that the stories should be rejected as ancient superstition? Is Christianity null and void because the virgin birth stories may not be literally true?

We will look at the answers to those questions in the fourth and final installment of this look at the virgin birth tradition.

Read Part IV

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part II

Read Part I

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

The first New Testament Gospel to be written was the Gospel of Mark, most likely written somewhere between 70 and 75 C.E., about 40 years, or two generations, after Jesus died. In this first Christian Gospel, as in the writings of Paul, there is no mention of a virgin birth. Again, and with even more significance, it is hard to imagine that someone sitting down to write the life story of Jesus would have failed to include this otherwise incredibly important event. The virgin birth is the crux around which so much Christian theology hinges. Why would the writer of Mark leave out such an obvious argument for the validity of Jesus’ life and ministry?

The conspicuous absence of a virgin birth story from Mark is, by itself, cause for pause when analyzing the origins of Jesus. But there is still other textual evidence from the Gospel of Mark that sheds light on the eventual development of this virgin birth story.

There are several places in Mark where the writer mentions Jesus’ family. One of these places is found in Mark chapter 3, where it is noted that Jesus’ “mother and brothers” came to take him home, because they believed he was “out of his mind.” The implication is that they heard about the preaching, teaching, and exorcisms that he was performing, and came to get him because they were shocked and disturbed by his behavior. When his family arrived, someone informed Jesus of their presence. Jesus responded by ignoring his family completely and instead giving a teaching about how anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother, and sister.

The significance of this story should be apparent. Not only is there no virgin birth account in this first Christian Gospel, but Jesus’ mother is portrayed as coming to take him home because she thinks he has gone crazy. Would a woman who experienced all the aspects of the virgin birth stories really react this way? A woman who, later Gospels tell us, was visited by an angel and told that she would conceive God’s very own physical offspring, a child who would eventually save the world from its sins. A woman who conceived, carried, and birthed this promised child, despite still being a virgin. A woman who, with her family and Jesus in tow, was forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a murderous king who had heard all the talk about a great child being born in his midst. A woman who, when the boy was 12, marveled at how he spoke with authority and knowledge to the elders of the temple. Could such a woman possibly have been shocked and confused when that same child, now an adult, began to actually carry out the mission that he had been sent by God to do?

Mark’s account simply cannot be reconciled with the virgin birth stories that appear in other Gospels.

Putting Mark’s story of Jesus’ mother and brothers aside for a moment, there is a second important spot in Mark’s Gospel that can give us a bit of insight. In chapter 6, Mark details the reaction of the crowds to the works and teachings of Jesus. He has the crowd exclaim: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?”

It is notable that Mark, through the words of the crowd, refers to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” In 1st century Jewish society, a man was referred to as the son of his mother only when the paternity was in question, or the father was not known. It was actually a mild insult, certainly used derisively, to refer to a man as the son of his mother. This is a small piece of textual evidence that casts doubt on the later Gospels’ accounts of Joseph and the virgin birth. It is significant to point out that Mark never mentions Jesus’ father at all, by name or even by reference. Some scholars have suggested that, in fact, Matthew – writing after Mark – created the character of Joseph to fill a gap in the known history of Jesus. They suggest that it may have been an inconvenient truth that Jesus’ paternity was in question, or that he was a bastard (a big “no-no” in 1st century society), so later Gospel writers created Joseph to fill this gap. There is a lot of intriguing evidence supporting this assertion, but for the purposes of this essay, I will simply note that Mark does not mention any father at all for Jesus, and specifically calls Jesus the son of his mother, implying no special circumstances (such as a virgin birth) surrounding that genetic fact.

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Moving on to the next chronological Gospel, we arrive at the book of Matthew – the first Christian text to describe a virgin birth. Although Matthew comes first in our modern Bibles, it was written some 10-15 years after Mark (during the 9th decade of the Common Era), and its writer relied heavily on Mark’s Gospel as a primary source. “Relied heavily” is perhaps an understatement. Mark’s Gospel contains 664 verses. Matthew regurgitated no less than 606 of those verses into his own Gospel, many of them word for word. That is somewhere in the range of 91%. What it boils down to is that virtually every scene from the Gospel of Mark is incorporated and repeated in the Gospel of Matthew in some form.

With that in mind, it is significant to note that Matthew completely deletes from his Gospel the scene where Jesus’ mother and brothers come to take him home because they think he has lost his mind. We have already seen that there is no way to reconcile Mark’s account of this story with later virgin birth traditions. The writer of Matthew was savvy enough to recognize this fact himself. So he simply omitted that Markan story from his Gospel. This might not be significant if Matthew had only casually relied on Mark’s content. But, as seen above, he used 91% of Mark when writing his story of Jesus’ life. The fact that he omitted this scene completely is, therefore, not an accident.

Another interesting point comes when we compare Matthew’s account of the crowd’s reaction to Jesus to the same account in Mark. We saw earlier that Mark has the crowd exclaim: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Yet when Matthew copies this scene, he changes the wording. It is a subtle change, easy to overlook, but when put into the context of the virgin birth story, it is quite profound. Matthew’s version goes like this: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” By changing a few words, Matthew has solved the problem of reconciling Mark’s lack of a virgin birth story with his own account. Now, instead of Jesus being the carpenter, Jesus is merely the “carpenter’s son” (a reference to Joseph – who, as we saw, does not appear in Mark’s gospel). Also, now instead of the derogatory “son of Mary,” Mary is simply listed as the name of his mother. Matthew fixed several problems by doing this. First, he incorporated Joseph into Mark’s account. Second, he cleared up the question of paternity that is raised by Mark’s reference, and eliminated any sense that Jesus may have been illegitimate. Finally, he made Mark’s account – which contains no virgin birth – fit neatly with his own story that includes a miraculous origin.

In the upcoming Part III of this exercise, we will continue our march through a chronological look at the New Testament evidence for the virgin birth tradition.

Read Part III

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part I

INTRODUCTION

The story of Jesus’ miraculous birth is perhaps one of the best known stories from the Gospel tradition of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, few people familiar with Christianity are unaware of the accounts of Jesus being born to a virgin mother, fathered by the spirit of God.

Plagued as our Western society seems to be with black and white thinking (something is either right or wrong, something either is or is not, etc.), there are generally two categories that folks fall into: those who accept the stories of Jesus’ birth on faith, and those who reject the stories of Jesus’ birth as fantasy, legend, mythology, superstition, or outright lies.

It is perhaps noteworthy to point out that no one in mainstream society fails to recognize that the story is far-fetched. We know that women do not conceive without a male counterpart. We know that children are not born without a biological father. This is why the story is accepted on faith by Christian believers – they believe it was a miracle. The knowledge that women do not conceive without a male partner is not some special insight that we have today in this post-Enlightenment world. Virgin birth stories would have been just as fantastical, and just as far-fetched, to a 1st century mind as they are to a 21st century mind.

In the context of black and white thinking, the arguments presented by the competing camps are generally easy to predict. Believers argue that while no woman can conceive biologically without a male counterpart, the story of Jesus’ birth represents a miracle performed by God – a special circumstance where God broke into human history and altered his own rules, in order to fulfill an eternal plan. It is clearly a true story, because even in the 1st century, no one would have made such an outrageous claim if there was no evidence, or no common knowledge, to back it up. It would have been a liability to the emerging Christian religion if it had not been rooted in reality. Even in the first century, a believer will argue, people were not so superstitious as to believe in virgin births without any basis or reason to do so.

The skeptic, on the other hand, might present a number of alternatives. They might argue that the story is legendary, mythological. Jesus had a profound impact on his followers and, as with any influential public figure, legends rose up around him in the years and decades following his death. This was particularly true because these people were living in a pre-Enlightenment world where superstition was commonplace. Others might argue that it was an outright lie, told by Christians in an attempt to elevate their leader to divine heights, or perhaps to cover up the fact that Jesus was the product of sexual misconduct outside of marriage. Still others might argue that stories from other religious traditions involving virgin births were simply incorporated into the Christian religion by converts from Roman polytheism.

It is my belief that this black and white thinking has led both sides away from a more logical explanation. No one can know the absolute “truth” of what happened, and I do not claim that my views are anything other than historical speculation based on the preponderance of evidence, but I do believe that we can get a bit closer to the truth by removing the lens of black and white thinking and looking analytically at the evidence available to us.

To begin with, I believe the answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is “neither.” I do not believe a miracle was performed by God upon the conception of Jesus; neither do I believe that the story is simply a legend, superstition, or outright lie.

To the average person, it may seem difficult to imagine that there is much “evidence” that can be analyzed by historians. All we have are the texts, and those texts are fairly clear about what happened – Jesus was born to a virgin who was impregnated by God. This is why most people either believe or do not believe. How can there be any evidence to analyze historically?

In fact, there is a preponderance of textual evidence that can be looked at critically, analyzed historically and contextually, and put under the microscope of historical dissection.

THE PAULINE CORPUS

The earliest texts in the New Testament come to us from the letters of Paul, generally written during the 5th, 6th, and 7th decades of the Common Era (for reference, Jesus probably died right around the beginning of the 4th decade – that is, 30 C.E.).

In these letters of Paul, no reference is ever made to Jesus’ birth – miraculous or otherwise. With something as profound in the story of Jesus as a virgin birth, one would have expected Paul to mention it, particularly during his many attempts to convince his readers why Jesus really was God’s son. What better way to demonstrate Jesus' divine calling than mentioning the fact that he was born to a virgin? Yet Paul never mentions it, and in fact seems to make clear that God “chose” Jesus as his son by resurrecting him from the dead. From Romans, chapter 1: “[God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…”

If we read that verse with the knowledge that the Gospels – and the virgin birth stories – had not yet been written down, it is hard to imagine that Paul would have written these words had he been aware that Jesus was God’s own physical offspring, born of a virgin. Paul is saying fairly straight-forwardly that “according to the flesh” – that is, according to Jesus’ humanity – he was descended through David, but that he was declared to be God’s offspring by his resurrection from the dead. In other words, no longer just a man, but now God’s own son, through his resurrection.

Another verse from the Paul canon that is important for our purposes is found in the book of Galatians. From chapter 4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…”

Here Paul seems to be implying that God’s plan was eternal, or at the very least predated Jesus’ life on earth, but the phrase he uses – “born of a woman” – is the important part. That colloquialism, in the 1st century as well as now, implied no unusual circumstances surrounding a person’s birth. We are all “born of a woman.” We are all united together in humanity. Even our heroes – athletes, actors, singers, politicians, religious leaders – were “born of a woman.” Just as the phrase is used today to refer to our common humanity, and to imply no special circumstances regarding someone’s entry into the world, so it was also used in the 1st century. If Paul – the earliest New Testament writer – had known of a virgin birth tradition, would he have referred to Jesus with the colloquialism that pointed to our shared humanity and the fact that we all enter the world in relative obscurity and without fanfare?

This point is driven home even farther when one considers the context in which Paul was speaking. In the phrase, he clearly implies that God’s plan pre-existed Jesus – Paul says God “sent his Son” into the world. But instead of following that with something like “conceived by a virgin,” he instead says “born of a woman" - in other words, as normal and natural and unheralded as anyone else. And Paul's choice of word - translated here as "woman" - is signifcant too. That word referred specifically to a married woman - not an unmarried virgin, as Mary was later said to be. It is important to remember that in the 1st century, a woman's entire purpose for life was procreation. So where we have only one word for an adult female - "woman" - ancient languages had many different words for "woman," each referring to the woman's particular stage in life - unmarried virgin, married woman, widow, etc. The word Paul used was the word for a married, and therefore sexually active, woman.

It seems fairly clear from the writings of Paul that he was not familiar with any virgin birth tradition surrounding Jesus, and Paul’s own theology is built upon the idea that God used Jesus – a human man whom he “declared” to be his son – to fulfill his greater purposes on earth. In fact, for Paul, it was Jesus’ very humanity that made the atonement possible – Jesus, a man like you and me, died on the cross and was resurrected, and because of that, the rest of us humans can also enter the eternal kingdom of God if we accept the gift of grace through the death of Jesus, whom Paul describes as the “first fruits” of the new creation. How can the rest of us follow Jesus – the first fruits – in the resurrection of the dead if he was not human like us? Many Christians may disagree with this theology, but their disagreement (in my opinion) is with the theology of Paul, not necessarily with me. On this point, it is important to note that there was also no Trinity concept at the time of Paul – that did not arise until several hundred years later. Paul would have had no concept of a Jesus who was both fully God and fully human, and he certainly makes no such claims in his own writings.

Having now established some textual clues from Paul to reasonably assert that Paul was not familiar with a virgin birth tradition, we move forward in our chronological look at the writings of the New Testament. This will frame Part II of our look at the virgin birth tradition, to be posted soon.

Read Part II

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Few Funny Facts

I got to thinking today about some of the funny things about my relationship with my wife, and decided I would share. Many of these are perhaps not so much funny as unusual, but here goes:

1. My wife and I are 33, but have been a couple for nearly 20 years. We had our first date at the age of 15. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 24, 1990, and we went to see Home Alone. My sister drove us to the theater, and then her father picked us up. We have actually known each other since we were 13.

2. We were both virgins on our wedding night, despite having dated for 7 years by that time.

3. On prom night our senior year, my Mom let us have a wine cooler (and I mean a single wine cooler) when we got home, and we thought that was really "wild and crazy." It was also the first time either of us had ever drank.

4. After we got married, when we decided to list our names in the phone book, we wanted to have both our names listed. However, we were not comfortable with the privacy issues involved in that, so we decided to just list our first initials together with our last name. So we were listed as S & M (last name). We were both so naive that neither of us realized that "S & M" referred to something else. For those of you who know our last name, you'll realize that this is even funnier.

5. We lived for two and a half years in a 2-room dorm apartment, while my wife finished a second degree and I worked as a resident director. The apartment was literally just two dorm room-sized rooms, together with a small bathroom and kitchenette. It was probably not even 500 square feet. Our queen-sized bed (queen, not king) filled the bedroom so completely that there was only about 2 feet between the left side and the wall, about 2 feet between the foot and the wall, and perhaps 3 feet between the right side and the wall. We stuck my small computer desk in the corner, and you had to turn to the side, or even crawl over the bed, to get past it to the bathroom door.

6. We separated in late 2003 and got divorced in 2004, then got back together in the summer of 2005 and had our divorce anulled, which means that - officially - we have never actually been divorced.

7. My wife suffered from serious problems with heart burn during her first pregnancy. Everyone told us the old wives' tale that this meant our child would have a full head of hair. When Bug was born, she not only had a full head of dark black hair, but she never lost it as most babies do. She has thick, long hair to this day - far thicker and faster-growing than her younger sister, with whom M never had any serious heart burn.

8. Our kids sleep in the bed with us, and we are the ones who decided that we would encourage them to do that.

9. M and I used to watch the Golden Girls every Saturday night, when it was still on in prime time. Later, after we were married, we watched the reruns on Lifetime literally every day after work - it was sort of a ritual. We don't watch the Golden Girls much anymore, but now we watch Reba reruns on Lifetime in the afternoons after work.

10. Neither one of us graduated from college with a degree that we ended up using. Both of us have gone back to school to get a second degree instead, and M has now also gotten a Master's degree on top of that.

11. When M and I first got married, I was in a period of my life where I suffered quite a bit from untreated anxiety and depression. One of the ways that this anxiety presented itself was in unreasonable and obsessive fears about my health and the well-being of my loved ones. Whenever M would go out for the evening, with friends or to her parents' house, etc., I would sit up all night a nervous wreck, fearing something terrible would happen. Fortunately, she did not do this very often.

However, one night in particular, not long after we were married, she had gone out to dinner with friends, and I sat in the apartment with my stomach in knots fearing that she would meet an untimely and horrific death. The phone suddenly rang at about 8:00 pm, and my stomach dropped. Could it be the police phoning with the bad news? "Don't be silly," I told myself as I reached for the phone with trepidation. "Hello?" I said. And a deep, unfamiliar voice replied, very slowly and gravely, "Scott?"

I still remember to this day the feeling that went through me at that moment. My worst fears confirmed. The only way I can think to describe it is that it literally felt like my entire body shut down for a moment. It was a momentary feeling of being carved out of stone. It was really quite awful. Anyway, I recovered fairly quickly and literally managed to croak out a "Yes?" as my heart started pounding away in my chest.

It turned out to be my goofy Uncle who has called me in my entire lifetime maybe 3 times. He said my name funny simply because he was being silly. I remember trying to cover up the panting relief I felt when I realized it wasn't the medical examiner's office calling, and I remember thinking that my voice sounded breathy and hysterical in relief, and that he must surely find my tone of voice strange.

12. One evening, during that first year of marriage, M saw a mouse run across her path in the bathroom, and we were both so disturbed at the thought of a living, breathing rodent in our apartment, that we left almost immediately and stayed the night at her parents' house.

13. Strangely enough, M and I really do not have nearly as much in common as what it seems that many other couples do, but we both love the same kinds of foods and restaurants, we tend to like the same TV shows, we agree politically and for the most part religiously, and we both love to take late night drives.

14. When we were younger, we always said we wanted 3 or 4 children. Yet, after our first, we were nearly to the point of deciding to stop there, and now that we have had a second, we have decided unequivically that we are finished. We both tend to think that people who want more than 2 children are a little manic and perhaps should be locked up.

15. Prior to asking M out for the first time, I angsted over it for weeks, even going through the age old motions of dialing the number and then hanging up. My phone back then was a replica payphone - wall-hanging and totally black, complete with nickel-, dime-, and quarter-sized coin slots and a panel to open to retrieve the change. So that was the phone that I finally called her from for the first time. Since we didn't attend the same high school, most of our relationship ended up being over the phone for thost first three years. We saw each other every weekend, but did not actually see each other during the week. However, we would talk on the phone for - literally - about two hours every night. The phone is what literally characterized our relationship back then. I first told her I loved her over that phone, for instance (and she didn't say it back, the hobag! - in fact, her response was, and I quote: "No ya don't").

Our relationship, of course, has been off and on stormy throughout the years. We were screamers even back in high school. We broke up in college once, but got back together. And of course we divorced and later reconciled. Somehow we always end up back together - we've been part of each others' lives for so long, not having the other person around is sort of like divorcing your own family or something.

So, with our love of quarelling and reconciling, and our origins on a replica payphone in mind, I'll end this post with the lyrics of what we call "our song." It is called "Coast of Carolina" and it was written by Mac MacAnally and performed by Jimmy Buffett (I've italicized the particularly poignant parts):

Little roadside restaurant we artfully complain
Groovy tells the waitress that his chicken died in vain
Most every day goes by according to design
I live this dream and still it seems I have you on my mind

[Chorus]
From the bottom of my heart
Off the coast of Carolina
After one or two false starts
I believe we found our stride

And the walls that won't come down
We can decorate or climb
Or find some way to get around
Cause I'm still on your side
From the bottom of my heart.

I can't see the future
But I know it's coming fast
It's not that hard to wind up knee-deep in the past
There come alot of Mondays
Since that phone booth that first night
Tears and miles and years and smiles
I wanna get it right.

[Chorus]

These days I'm about the time I used to go to bed
Living large was once the deal
Now I watch the stars instead
They're timeless and predictable
Unlike most things that I do
I tell the wind and my old friend
I'm headed home to you.

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

It's freezing ass cold and it seems that we basically didn't have an autumn this year.

We stayed warm until the second week of November (for only the second time in since records have been kept we were over 70 degrees on each of the first 7 days of November), but then after that, it got cold and got cold fast. Since that time, we basically haven't been above 50, and we've had nights down into the teens and days in the 20's. We've also already had several periods of snow, and had sleet today for about an hour. Summer lasted two months longer than normal, and winter started two months earlier than normal, and there was no autumn. It's really odd, and if I understand the science correctly, we have global warming to thank for it.

Don't worry, this isn't a liberal diatribe on global warming.

I'm finally getting some rest and relaxation after working almost nonstop from the end of August to the beginning of December. During the 70 days from September 26 to December 5, I had exactly 7 days off, and three of those were during Thanksgiving. If I only count up to Thanksgiving, I had exactly 4 days off over the span of about 59 days. I had one stint where I worked 34 straight days, I think. This was basically due to a combination of part-time work, 3-day a week clincial rotations, and 1-day a week in class. Needless to say, there were plenty of days where some of those responsibilities overlapped, too.

My last final was on Monday, and I am not scheduled to work again until Saturday, so today is my third day completely off, and I still have tomorrow. It's been nice to stay up late, sleep late, nap throughout the day, and basically just be a complete and total lazy slob. I have done housework every day though (well, not today, actually).

I have also - as you may have noticed - been using a lot of my free time to write. I've been so busy for the last few months that I haven't been able to blog nearly as often. That's why I wrote two essays, and posted both of them, yesterday, and am now writing again. I've also been tearing up the threads on the Rush messageboard with religious discussions about everything from the death penalty to putting religious displays on government property.

I used to not really have a problem with religious displays on government property, but I am becoming convinced that it causes such a circus, and such strife every year, that it would just be better if it didn't happen at all. Sort of like the whole: "If you can't play together nicely, then just sit down and be quiet."

I'm not so PC that I have a problem with Merry Christmas or a nativity scene, but I do have to question the motivation that causes church groups, or individuals, to want to set up religious displays at a courthouse or other government building. Why isn't enough to put them in your own home, your own front yard, non-government public areas like malls and restaurants, your holiday cards, your church, etc.? Why the overwhelming need compelling you to erect a nativity scene in front of a courthouse? The only answer I can come up with is that it is done by people who are trying to blur the line between church and state. No other motivation makes any sense.

And the circus that results when that happens (15 million different religious displays, an atheist plaque attacking religion, and then tons of arguments over who is right and who is wrong) - all that is caused by those groups that feel this strange need to put crosses and nativity scenes in front of a courthouse. If they'd just keep them in the places that are appropriate (such as every other place in America besides government property), then there would be no problem.

I think the issue that most people take with religious displays on government property is related to the separation of church and state, not the display itself.

Anyway. You may have noticed the new "subscribe" form at the top left of the page. Put your email address in there if you want to get emails whenever I add new content to my blog. I also apologize for the eyesore ads that you now see at the bottom of the page. I'm simply trying to see if I can't make a little revenue from this 400-hits-per-week website of mine.

I'm really not very good at this "random shit" blogging. My sister is an expert at it and does it really well. But I always feel like a balloon in the wind, with no direction. And these blog posts are always poorly written and unorganized and generally full of meaningless chatter, jumping from one topic to another like a Joe Crumpler sermon (sorry, vague reference there that only a handful of people are going to get).

Okay, I just sat here looking at the wall for about 30 seconds trying to think of what else to say. I reckon I passed the reasonable end of this blog post about four paragraphs ago.

So...happy mid-winter holiday/secular festival season to all!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Consistency: My Life Philosophy

(Let me apologize in advance if this post comes across as inflammatory - that is not my intention, nor is singling out any one person or group of people. More than anything else, I am just sort of vomiting onto the page here as I sort out my own belief systems and core motivations.)

Consistency is the goal of my life philosophy.

As I have grown in adulthood, I have come to recognize a great deal of inconsistency within people. Inconsistency in what they believe, inconsistency in how they behave, inconsistency in what they support and do not support. I see inconsistency not only in individuals, but in society at large, the things we profess and the things we do, our laws and our social and governmental hierarchies.

One of the first areas of my own life where I began to recognize this inherent inconsistency was in my religious beliefs. How could I claim to believe that the same God that I described with words like “all-loving” and “all-merciful” was also guilty of slaughtering countless Egyptian children in the Exodus story? How could I claim to respect the tenants of science and reason but also accept that the earth was once flooded entirely by a great storm – with only one man and his family surviving, and only after building a ship that any modern ship engineer could tell you would not float? How could I call the Bible the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God, knowing that it was created in the 3rd and 4th centuries by a group of old white men who brought their own human biases and agendas to the table and voted on which books belonged and which books did not belong? How could I put my faith in these bishops of the early church councils when they were the same people leading, commanding, and supporting wide-spread persecution against Jews, Pagans, and basically anyone else who was not a Christian? How could I use the Bible to support – for instance – a claim that homosexuality was a sin, when that same Bible condoned, and had been used by Christians like me to support, the institution of slavery? How could I conveniently ignore the teachings of Paul about women being required to remain silent in the church, yet accept the Pauline teaching that women should not be priests or pastors?

As I began to explore my own faith tradition, and my own beliefs and prime motivations, I began to see the depth of inconsistency within society at large and those people that I interact with and observe on a day-to-day basis.

To simplify things, let me just list some of the inconsistencies and contradictions and basic hypocrisies that I feel are plaguing our country in the present day:

1. People who would march on Washington to support what they believe is their constitutionally-mandated right to own an AK-47, but would turn around and claim to believe in an “eye for an eye” justice system, which is expressly prohibited by that same constitution.

2. People who are patently opposed to gay marriage and equal gay rights, but would express disgust and disturbance at stories of Americans who worked tirelessly to keep blacks from having equal rights with whites.

3. People who call themselves pro-life, but vigorously support the death penalty.

4. People who claim to believe in small government, but who support giving the government the most significant power on earth – the right to choose who lives or dies.

5. People whose love and concern and compassion for the rights of a clump of embryonic stem cells surpasses their love and concern and compassion for living, breathing human beings who could benefit from genetic research using those stem cells.

6. People who claim to believe in supporting, enriching, and reinforcing a concern for life, but who complain about Welfare and “socialized” medicine.

7. People who care deeply about the welfare of a baby before it is born, but who have absolutely no apparent concern whatsoever for the welfare of that baby after it has been brought into the world – certainly not concerned enough to have their precious tax dollars spent to give it food, shelter, clothes, and health insurance.

8. People who harbor prejudice – even just subconsciously – against Jews because the Jews rejected Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus, himself, was a Jew.

9. People who claim to be followers of Christ – a man who taught against the evils and perils of greed, money, and the pursuit of wealth more than just about any other single topic – and yet have no compunction about striving to make a lot of money, and then spending that money frivolously once they make it – even going to so far as to drive to church in their $50,000 SUVs, wearing expensive suits and dresses, and all the flashiest jewelry they can find.

10. People who reject Biblical teachings about women not being permitted to speak in church because those things were unique to the culture in which they were written and are no longer valid for modern life, but who turn around and use ancient 1st century Jewish prejudice to support discrimination against gays.

11. People who believe in the constitution inasmuch as it gives them the right to own a gun, but who spit all over the constitution when it demands a separation of church and state, or when it asserts that political candidates should not be subjected to any religious tests for government office.

12. People who cringe and despise militant Muslims because of their backward, violent, evil faith system, without ever recognizing or acknowledging that Christianity has enough evil, backward, violence in its own history to make 9/11 look like an attack with cream pies.

13. People who generalize all adherents to the Muslim faith by the standards of that small minority that represents militant Islam, but would be offended and indignant if someone suggested that all Christians are abortion-clinic bombers.

14. People who reject every religious tradition in the history of the world as misguided and silly mythology, but who can’t see that the same reasons for rejecting those other faith traditions are just as valid for rejecting Christianity too.

15. People who put the rights of an unborn baby over the rights of a living, breathing adult who is already alive and dealing with the struggles of life.

16. People who despise anything that stinks of socialism, and fight tooth and nail to keep liberal policies out of government, but who follow a religious tradition that began, in its infancy, as a communal society, where everyone shared their wealth and were required to give all they had to the community – and the penalty for not doing that was death, as depicted in the book of Acts.

17. People who engage in daily petitionary prayer, even though Jesus taught us to use prayer for worship and self-growth, not for enticing God to do our own will.

I could, of course, go on and on, but I have probably already gone on too long. Suffice it to say, my own personal commitment to consistency has caused me – or maybe even “allowed” me – to see so much inconsistency in other people. I look at the world around me and simply see nothing but inconsistency on top of contradiction on top of hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, I cannot change a broken world. But I can strive, personally, for consistency in the things I profess, believe, and do.

It is for this reason that I am anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, and anti-war. I believe in respecting, valuing, and supporting life, not destroying it.

I also believe, however, that the rights of living, breathing human beings trump the rights of unborn children – it is for that reason that while I am personally opposed to abortion for birth control, I support an adult’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. If we lived in a country that had universal health care, better distribution of wealth, and low poverty, I might take more of an issue with giving people the right to abortion-as-birth control. But since I recognize that the sexual urge is the most basic of the human biological urges, and since I recognize that no one deserves an 18-year sentence for giving into that biological urge despite knowing that they are not emotionally or financially prepared to have a child, and since many single mothers cannot afford to carry, birth, or raise a child because of poverty and the wealth gap, I support giving women the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, even if there is no medical necessity. Again, I believe this is consistent with my commitment to respecting, valuing, and supporting life.

Also consistent with that view is my belief in death with dignity. I believe terminally ill people should have the right to choose to end their life with a doctor’s assistance, so that they can die on their own terms with dignity, rather than suffer and waste away as a vegetable in a hospice. I can’t imagine the difficulty involved for both the sufferer and the family in such a situation, and I hope that I am never faced with such a situation, but I support giving people who are in that situation the right to die with dignity.

I am no socialist, but I do believe that a happy medium can be found somewhere between Marxist Socialism and unrestricted, no-oversight free-market capitalism. The country’s present economic predicament is a painful and blatantly obvious illustration about everything that is wrong with unrestricted free-market capitalism. I believe people should have the right to make a life for themselves and to earn money based on their own skills, abilities, talents, and work ethic, but there is something badly wrong with a society where 90% of the wealth is controlled by 20% of the population. No one is talented, able, and skillful enough to deserve millions upon millions of dollars in compensation, when there are so many people in this country and around the world who cannot pay their bills and struggle just to put food on the table. Athletes, business people, politicians, actors, writers, singers, doctors, lawyers – you name it. None of them actually deserve the enormous amounts of money that they are paid, particularly not when poverty and homelessness are as rampant as they are in this country. I believe in valuing and elevating life; putting all the wealth into the hands of a few, at the expense of the many, is not valuing and elevating life.

I am not an economics expert, and do not claim to have all the answers to this problem, but I know that simply continuing on with an economic system that is broken and has failed us time and again is not the answer. Failing at a task, and then attempting to complete the task again using the same methods, and then doing that over and over and over again, is a sign of insanity, not determination or industry.

I am a strong proponent of universal health care. Again, because I believe in supporting and elevating life, and because I believe in the tenants of the Declaration of Independence – which guarantees that the government will provide for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for its citizens – I believe it is the duty of the government, funded by the people, to provide health insurance coverage for all Americans. This was not an issue that was faced by the founders of this country, but it is an issue that faces us today.

The United States is one of the only developed countries on earth with no universal health care system. If good, affordable health care does not fall under the government’s role to provide for “life” for its citizens, then what, exactly, does fall under that role? I have lived either without health insurance, or without good health insurance, for four years. I am fortunate that nothing serious has happened during that time. Others are not so lucky. When people get sick and pile up tens of thousands of dollars in health care costs, they frequently lose their credit, their homes, their cars, and their ability to live successfully in society. The government has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen, and that responsibility should be carried out with a universal health care program, which would cover health care costs for people who are unable to obtain or pay for private health insurance plans.

I believe in equal rights for all people in all stages and stations of life – straight, gay, black, white, short, tall, skinny, obese, old, young, and disabled. I believe gays should have the same marriage rights as straight people. I believe black people should have the same job opportunities as white people. I believe women should make the same money for the same job as men. To me, this is supporting and valuing life. To deny, for instance, gay people the right to get married is to engage in blatant and unrepentant discrimination, and that is not elevating life, that is dragging life into the mud.

I have already said it a number of times, but it bears repeating: I believe in valuing, respecting, elevating, and enriching life. I also believe in consistency in the things I profess, the way I act, and the way I approach the world. For me, the inconsistency and hypocrisy I observe in so many others serves as a warning, and a motivation, for me to strive for consistency, and work toward doing my small part to make the world a better place in which to live.

A Christian View of the Death Penalty

Recently I have been having discussions in various places about the death penalty. Since the beginning of my adulthood, I have gone from being a supporter of the death penalty (I can remember a time when I said that capital punishment was one way in which I – a lifelong Democrat – identified more strongly with conservatives than liberals), to feeling that the death penalty should be used only in the most extreme circumstances, to being an outright opponent of capital punishment in any form for any reason. The reason I have come to this place is because of my desire for consistency in what I believe and profess. How can I commit myself to life – how can I commit myself to honoring and respecting and supporting life in every way – if I also support giving the government the right to put people to death?

My feelings about the death penalty are very simple: I do not believe that a civilized nation should give its government the power over life and death.

By no means do I believe that murders should not be forced to pay for their crime. By no means do I believe that those who take life from innocent people should be trusted to be returned to mainstream society. By no means do I believe that people should not be held accountable for choices that they make in life.

However, I also recognize that no one is born a murderer. No one wakes up one morning from a well-adjusted life and decides to go out and kill someone. People become criminals because of a complex mixture of genetics, upbringing, life experiences, and circumstances, not because they simply decide one day that they have no respect for the lives of other people. I believe that our society, plagued as it is by black and white thinking, fails to recognize this poignant fact. Anyone, I believe, is capable of murder, given the right circumstances, experiences, and influences.

Again, that does not mean that I believe people should not be held accountable for their actions. I support stiff penalties for those who commit murder. I support life imprisonment in the name of justice and in the name of making society safer. But I also support and believe strongly in a spirit of forgiveness and compassion. A few years back, when the big news story was about a man who barged into an Amish classroom and murdered several young Amish girls, I was astounded by the response – given literally within hours of the event – of the Amish community. In their shock and grief, they openly stated that they forgave the man for what he did, and members of the community – including family members of the slain children – actually visited and mourned with the family of the gunman.

Many people talk a big talk about forgiveness, but most people – Christians included – do not really strive to live the life of forgiveness that Jesus taught us to live, and that is illustrated, I believe, through the perspective that many Christians have on the death penalty. More on that later.

When someone commits a murder, no one is served by putting the perpetrator to death. Executing the murderer does not bring the victim back to life. Repaying killing with killing does not provide justice and does not provide closure. I am sure that there are studies out there that one could research, but my guess is that families of murder victims – while commonly believed to be provided closure by a death sentence against the murderer – probably do not heal emotionally any quicker than families of murder victims whose slayer does not receive the death penalty.

In addition to not providing justice, closure, or bringing back to life the person who was murdered, the death penalty also does not deter future murders. Again, if murderers were people who woke up one morning from a well-adjusted life, and decided to go out and kill someone, then knowing the consequences of that action might deter them. But that is not what motivates people to kill. People kill – as I said – because of a complex mixture of genetics, upbringing, life experiences, and circumstances.

The fact that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent is illustrated over and over and over again in murder rate statistics. There are exactly 14 U.S. states that do not have capital punishment laws. In 2007, the national murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000 people. Of the 14 states that do not engage in capital punishment, 12 of them – or 86% - were under the national average. In fact, of the nine states that had a murder rate below 2.0, six of them – or two-thirds – were states with no death penalty. Of the top 25 states for murder rates, only two are states that have no death penalty laws. That means that 92% of the states with the highest murder rates are states that also have death penalty laws. Only 8% of states with no death penalty laws are among the states with the highest murder rates. Clearly, death penalty laws do not prevent murders.

But the numbers go even farther than that. Since 1976, there have been 921 executions in the South. In that same period, there have been 67 in Western states, 127 in Midwest states, and 4 – yes four – in Northeast states. Which region do you suppose has the lowest murder rate, and which region do you suppose has the highest murder rate? If it were true that the death penalty was a substantial deterrent to murders, we would expect to see the region with the greatest number of executions also carrying the lowest murder rate. Yet the results are exactly the opposite. The Northeast, which has carried out only 4 executions in the last 32 years, has by far the lowest murder rate in the country – 4.1 in 2007. The South, on the other hand, which has executed far more people in the last 32 years than any other region, also has by far the highest murder rate in the country – 7.0 in 2007 – nearly double that of the Northeast.

Some might argue that the South has more executions simply because they have more murders. That may seem logical except that the numbers do not correspond. In 2007, the South had a murder rate that was roughly 71% higher than that of the Northeast. If the more murders/more executions argument were true, then we should expect to see execution rates in the South at approximately 71% higher than those in the Northeast. Yet in the last 32 years, the South’s execution rate has been a staggering 230% higher than the Northeast.

These numbers tell me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that putting more people to death does not in any way reduce the overall number of murders. People who commit murder are not deterred from doing so simply because of the rational knowledge that they might get arrested and be put to death if they go through with it. If a murderer were interested in such rational considerations, they probably would not be committing murder in the first place.

The death penalty only provides revenge, not justice, closure, or deterrence.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Financial studies into the cost of capital punishment have shown over and over again that it actually costs more to keep someone on death row than to simply put them in prison for life. A recent study by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice indicates that a death row inmate costs the government an additional $90,000 per year, over those inmates who are simply incarcerated for life. They estimate that the present cost of the death penalty system is somewhere in the neighborhood of $137 million per year. A system that instead imposed only a lifetime sentence for murderers would cost roughly $12 million per year.

The cost of an average death penalty trial is nearly $500,000 higher than a trial where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. Furthermore, appeal hearings for death penalty cases cost somewhere in the range of $100,000 more than appeals for non-death penalty crimes.

It should go without saying that those numbers are staggering.

The reasons for this cost difference are fairly obvious if you give it some thought. Inmates on death row are segregated from the general prison population. This requires separate buildings, with all the cost and overhead involved in running those buildings, as well as separate guards and prison staff. Furthermore, since the constitution requires that criminals be given due process of law, convicted murderers are entitled to the appeals process, and that process – as we all know – can be quite lengthy. It is also quite expensive, because the judges, lawyers and court personnel have to be paid for their services.

The average time spent on death row is somewhere around 12 years, and it is not uncommon for it to go beyond 20 years. Yet to argue that the appeals process takes too long would be to argue that people who are being put to death by the government should not be entitled to appeal their sentence, or be given time for new evidence to arise that might cast doubt on their conviction. And I would question the heart and core motivations of any person who is not deeply disturbed by the fact that we know that innocent people have been executed on death row. We know this, of course, because of DNA testing that has exonerated people after their execution.

Many Christians I know support the death penalty. They justify this position in a variety of ways, most commonly by saying that the Bible permitted the death penalty for certain crimes, so therefore it is okay for our society to do so as well.

Yet I always wonder if any of these people have ever considered that Jesus, himself, was a victim of the death penalty? I wonder if they have ever considered that since the Bible also permitted slavery, does that mean that slavery is permissible? A prominent theologian in the 1850’s famously stated that “What God ordained in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin.” He was talking, of course, about slavery, and was making the same argument to support slavery that some Christians use today to support the death penalty. The exact same comment, in fact, could be inserted into a Christian discussion of the death penalty, and one would never know the difference.

Many Christians I know will argue that the death penalty is appropriate because of “an eye for an eye.” If you kill someone, you forfeit your own life. That’s fair; that’s justice. Here it may be appropriate to quote a Charlie Daniels Band song, which I believe sums up (albeit rather crudely) the view of many Christians quite well: “As far as I’m concerned there ain’t no excuse for the rapin’ and the killin’ and the child abuse, but I got a way to put an end to all that mess. You just take them rascals out in the swamps, put ‘em on their knees and tie ‘em to a stump, and let the rattlers and the bugs and the alligators do the rest.” And then later: “You know what’s wrong with the world today, people done gone and put their Bibles away…Well the Good Book says it so I know it’s the truth, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you better watch where you go and remember where you been, that’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.”

But does the “Good Book” actually demand an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” style of justice? In the Old Testament, yes. But Jesus himself, during the Sermon on the Mount, preached on that law by contradicting it! From Matthew, chapter 5 (NRSV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

As he did so many other times, Jesus took a familiar passage from the Law of Moses, and gave a new interpretation of it, contradicting common untouchable religious beliefs in the process. Who did Jesus think he was, after all, contradicting the infallible, inspired Word of God, as recorded in Holy Scripture? That same attitude, of course, is frequently taken by modern Christians when people question and reinterpret deeply-held beliefs – ideas believed by many Christians to be untouchable and infallible.

But what did Jesus have to say about the death penalty in particular? Many Christians might respond by suggesting that Jesus never really talked about capital punishment.

Yet Jesus, in fact, spoke very clearly about his opinion on the death penalty – and a one-liner from that discussion is actually a very well-known and common phrase within Christianity. From John, chapter 8 (NRSV):

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”


What Jesus was saying here is that a sin is a sin, and no one sin is any more deserving of the death penalty (stoning) than any other. He was specifically contradicting the Jewish law which ordered stoning for a woman caught in adultery. Again, as in the case of “an eye for an eye,” Jesus was contradicting and reinterpreting the infallible, inspired Word of God – that is, the Jewish scriptures.

I hope the point is clear. Jesus did speak about the death penalty, and his words are unambiguous – only the person who has never sinned has the right to make life or death decisions about someone else who has sinned. Since no one on earth qualifies for the former, no one else should be qualified for the latter, either.

When I take this teaching together with the fact that Jesus was, himself, a victim of the death penalty, and add that together with moral teachings on compassion and forgiveness and the knowledge that no one is born a murderer, and combine that with the knowledge that the death penalty does not offer justice, closure, or deterrence, and pour on top of that the enormous additional cost of death penalty cases, and top it off with the danger of a civilized nation giving its government the right to put people to death and the knowledge that sometimes innocent people are executed, I can simply find no reason, as a Christian or an American, to support capital punishment.

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