Spong dissects virgin birth story in Gospel of Matthew

John Shelby Spong answers questions from attendees during Q-and-A after his lecture Wednesday afternoon.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

During Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture Series, retired Bishop John Shelby Spong continued his quest to reclaim the Bible from the clutches of literalists and fundamentalists.

In a lecture themed “The New Testament — An Evolving Story,” Spong focused on the Gospel of Matthew and tackled the controversial matter of Jesus’ virgin birth.

“Before we can make a decision to either accept it or reject it, we have some responsibility to look at exactly what the Bible says about the virgin birth, or the birth of Jesus itself. It is not what most people think,” Spong said in a lecture that continued his weeklong theme, “Re-Claiming the Bible for A Non-Religious World.”

The New Testament is made of material from five main authors — Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John — a sixth source that contains the epistles attributed to Paul, which Paul didn’t actually write, and other epistles written by Jude and James, Spong said. Matthew and Luke are the only two sources that mention the virgin birth.

“So if you want to be literal about the sources, it’s four to two against the virgin birth,” Spong said.

The Epistles of Paul, written between the years 51 and 64, make three statements about the birth and family of Jesus, Spong said. In his writings, Paul states that Jesus was a descendant of David, that he had a brother named James and that he was born of a woman and under the law.

“Born of a woman is the way everyone is born; born under the law is the way a Jewish person is born,” Spong said. The Greek word used for “woman” by Paul in this statement has no virgin connotations, Spong said.

Mark wrote the first gospels between the years 70 and 72. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is only discussed as an adult, with no mention of a virgin birth, Spong said. The Gospel of Mark mentions the presence of Jesus’ siblings and mother but only in the context that they were worried for Jesus’ sanity, and sought to quell what they considered to be abnormal behavior.

“That’s not exactly the kind of behavior that one would do if an angel had told you were going to be the bearer of the Christ Child in your virgin status,” Spong said about Mary. “And by the time he’s grown, you think he’s mentally disturbed.”

In the Epistles of Jude and James, and the non-“Pauline” epistles, there is no mention of a miraculous birth, Spong said.

Jesus’ virgin birth first appeared in the Gospel of Matthew.

“The story is filled with magical symbols — stars that announce his birth, wise men who follow those stars,” Spong said.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth has many symbolic parallels to the story of Moses, Spong said. The story of Herod, who tried to kill Jewish infants at the time of Jesus’ birth, mirrors the story of Pharaoh, who tried to kill Jewish children during the time of Moses.

In addition to symbolic connections between the birth stories of Jesus and Moses, Spong said, Matthew added the figure of Joseph as Jesus’ earthly father to draw further connections between Jesus and other Jewish heroic figures.

“The reason we suggest that the name of Joseph was not because that was the name of the earthly father of Jesus, but because that’s the way Matthew was interpreting Jesus,” he said. “He was interpreting him after the analogy of the Joseph of the Book of Genesis.”

The symbolic details included in Matthew’s gospels, which trace parallels between Jesus and legendary Hebrew figures, are clues woven through the gospels to tell us it is not a story to be taken literally, Spong said.

The other New Testament source that includes a miraculous birth narrative is the Gospel of Luke, Spong said. And even that story is different from the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke’s birth narrative Jesus is born in a manger, while in Matthew’s he is born in a home. In Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, there are no magical stars or wise men, Spong said.

“The only place in our society where the two stories, one from Luke and one from Matthew, are put together is in our Christmas pageants,” Spong said.

The virgin birth story was added to Matthew’s gospel, between the years 82 and 85, because Matthew was attempting to develop the idea that Jesus was a holy person, who had a holy birth, Spong said.

“There were lots of critics of the Jesus movement that tried to criticize the movement by declaring that Jesus was himself illegitimate — that he was base-born,” Spong said.

The writings of the Gospel of Matthew were shaped in response to early critics of the Jesus and the Christian movement, Spong said.

“So Matthew responds to this attack by saying this child is of God, this child is Holy, this child is the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Spong said.

Even with the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth added to his gospel, Matthew knew the story still was not strong enough, Spong said. Matthew added 17 verses tracing the three epochs of Jewish-remembered history, from Abraham through to the time of Jesus, as a preamble to the virgin birth story.

“Then Matthew in his genealogy does an even stranger thing: He inserts four women into the genealogy of Jesus,” Spong said.

Matthews’s four female additions to Jesus’ genealogy were surprising because they were not just women, but women with questionable reputations, Spong said.

The first woman was Tamar, the first wife of Judah’s oldest son, Er. Early into the marriage of Tamar and Er, Er died. Then, in accordance with the traditional laws of Judaism, Tamar married Judah’s second oldest, Onan. Soon after that marriage, God killed Onan, Spong said.

“Before we can make a decision to either accept it or reject it, we have some responsibility to look at exactly what the Bible says about the virgin birth, or the birth of Jesus itself. It is not what most people think.”

—John Shelby Spong

After his two oldest sons died while married to Tamar, Judah told Tamar she could not marry his youngest son and sent her back to live with her father.

“It was a denigrating thing, a shameful thing for a woman to have to do,” Spong said. “She was now ‘damaged goods’ in that society.”

Then Judah lost his wife. A while later, during a business deal, Judah was sent to the town where Tamar lived with her father. When Tamar heard that Judah, her father-in-law, was coming to her town, she disguised herself as a prostitute and offered herself to him at the city gates. When Judah saw Tamar, he paid for her “services” with his signet ring, his girdle and his staff.

After three months, Tamar realized she was pregnant, and word of that reached Judah. Since Judah was responsible for Tamar, as she was the wife of his sons, he took her to be burned at the stake for being a prostitute. Right before she was killed, Tamar revealed that Judah was the father of her unborn twins.

“Despite the fact that for a father-in-law to take a daughter-in-law to be his wife was considered incest in that society, he takes Tamar into his harem as one of his wives,” Spong said.

The second woman Matthew lists in the genealogy of Jesus was a prostitute named Rahab.

Rahab lived in Jericho during the time of Joshua. When Joshua’s soldiers entered Jericho, Rahab welcomed them into her home and kept them safe. In return for this protection early on, Joshua’s soldiers saved Rahab and her family when the Jews conquered Jericho. Rahab later married a soldier name Salmon. Rahab gave birth to a son named Boaz, Spong said.

“What is Matthew saying?” Spong said. “In these 17 verses he is saying the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth traveled through the incest of Tamar and the prostitution of Rahab.”

The third woman Matthew cites in Jesus’ genealogy was Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi and the widow of Naomi’s son. Though her husband died, Ruth remained with Naomi and returned with her to the land of the Jews. Ruth and Naomi were destitute and surviving off wheat collected from fields. When Naomi realized a rich landowner, Boaz, was a distant relation, she entreated Ruth to seduce Boaz while he was drunk. At the end of the harvest season, Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions. At the harvest festival, when Boaz was drunk, Ruth put a blanket over Boaz and crawled under it with him, Spong said.

When Boaz awoke he did not know what had happened, but Ruth told him it was his responsibility to marry her as her husband’s next of kin, and eventually Boaz and Ruth married and they had a child named Obed, Spong said.

The fourth woman in Matthew’s genealogy was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and a woman seduced by David. While Uriah was in the army, King David and Bathsheba had an affair, and Bathsheba became pregnant. To cover up Bathsheba’s affair and pregnancy, David granted Uriah furlough.

While on furlough, Uriah refused to share a bed with Bathsheba, and David ordered that Uriah be placed at a dangerous point of an offensive military movement so he would be killed. Uriah died, and David invited Bathsheba to be one of his wives. Their son was named Solomon, Spong said.

The reason Matthew introduced Jesus’ birth story with the tales of incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery was to show that it didn’t matter how Jesus was born because God can work through any human perversion or sin, Spong said.

Matthew was convinced Jesus was a god, Spong said.

“Literalism can never be the doorway to understanding biblical truth,” Spong said. “The Bible was written to interpret the power of Jesus, not to describe the events of his life.”

The Gospels were written to describe the experience of knowing Jesus.

“In the humanity of Jesus, the reality of God has been confronted, met, engaged in a new way,” Spong said.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ virgin birth, with its 17-verse preamble, was added so people could understand that no matter what the biological basis for Jesus’ existence was, the man Matthew met and experienced on Earth was a god and a holy man, Spong said.

“If you and I could only reclaim the Bible in its pristine wonder for the non-religious world, that is not religious because it has rejected literalism,” Spong said, “then you and I might discover that we have come to the insight that the original author of the Gospel of Matthew was trying to communicate.”

On Thursday, Spong examined the role of Judas Iscariot in biblical literature.