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New Testament Gospels

Does the Gospel of Mark Deny a Virgin Birth?

I want to continue my discussion of the virgin birth in the NT, with a set of reflections that is pretty unusual: the views of the Virgin Birth in Mark and John (who do not narrate it!).  I've talked about this on the blog before, but it's been a few years, and is worth thinking of again. It is interesting that Mark, our first Gospel to be written, does not have the story of the Virgin birth and in fact shows no clue that it is familiar with the stories of the Virgin birth.  On the contrary, there are passages in Mark that appear to work *against* the idea that Jesus’ mother knew anything about his having had an extraordinary birth. There is a complicated little passage in Mark 3:20-21 about Jesus’ family coming to take him out of the public eye because they thought he was crazy.  It is a difficult passage to translate from the Greek, and a number of translations go out of their way to make it say something that it [...]

2020-12-21T19:21:43-05:00December 27th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem? Luke’s Version.

Yesterday I discussed Matthew’s account of how it is that Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, if in fact he “came” from Nazareth.  It may well be that Matthew has placed Jesus' birth there to fulfill Micah's prophecy (5:2) that a great ruler (the supposed messiah) would come from Bethlehem. Matthew explains it all by indicating that Joseph and Mary were originally from Bethlehem.  That was their home town.  And the place of Jesus’ birth.  Two or more years after his birth, they relocated to Nazareth in Galilee, over a hundred miles to the north, to get away from the rulers of Judea who were thought to be out to kill the child.  (That in itself, I hardly need to say, seems completely implausible, that a local king is eager to kill a peasant child out of fear that he will wrest the kingdom away from him….) Luke has a completely different account of how it happened.  In Luke, Bethlehem is decidedly not Joseph and Mary’s home town.  The whole point of the story [...]

2020-12-21T19:30:19-05:00December 24th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem? Matthew’s Version….

It is virtually certain that Jesus’ was raised in the small hamlet of Nazareth in Galilee, the northern part of Israel.   All of our sources agree that he was from there, and it is very hard to imagine why a Christian story teller would have made that up (since there was no prestige about the place: no one had ever even heard of it!).    But now the question is whether that was also his place of birth. The only two accounts we have of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke, independently claim that even though he was raised in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem.   So isn’t that the more likely scenario?  Born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth?   You might think so, given the fact that this is what is stated in our only two sources of information, and that they independently agree about the matter (based on their own sources, the no longer existing M – Matthew’s source or sources – and the no longer existing L – Luke’s source or sources). But [...]

2020-12-13T21:35:28-05:00December 23rd, 2020|Canonical Gospels, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Was The Messiah Supposed to Be Born of a Virgin?

Here in the lead-up to December 25, I am discussing some issues related to Jesus' birth.  As I mentioned in my previous post, in the entire New Testament, the story of the virgin birth is found only in Matthew and Luke.  Luke has a pretty straightforward explanation of why Jesus had to be born of a virgin: it's because he was (literally) the "Son of God."  That is, God is the one who got Mary pregnant, as the angel tells her at the Annunciation:  read Luke 1:31-35, and notice the angels' explanation: the Spirit of God will "come upon her ... SO THAT" the child born of her will be called "The Son of God." Matthew, though, has a different explanation.  For Matthew Jesus had to be born of a virgin because that is what was predicted in the Old Testament. This view fits in very well with Matthew's entire birth narrative of chapters 1-2.  Everything happens "to fulfill Scripture." Why was Jesus’ mother a virgin? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Isaiah [...]

Do Christians Have to Believe in the Virgin Birth?

The last time I went to visit my mom in Kansas during the holiday season  was six years ago (she is now in a retirement home in Ohio; 93 and still walkin' around!).  I talked about it on the blog soon thereafter.  I was not a church going person then (still not) but I did the sonly thing and took her to her church.  This was a conservative evangelical Free Methodist Church – one that my mom has attended for many years.  It was not really my style – I rather prefer centuries-honored liturgy to electric guitars and drums, myself – but I wasn’t there to satisfy my own aesthetic preferences.   (She doesn’t like the guitars and drums either, but we missed the earlier service with the choir). The sermon in that kind of church is very different from what one hears in an Episcopal church and is also very different from the kind of sermon I learned to preach when I was in my Masters of Divinity program at the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary.  [...]

2020-12-07T19:18:59-05:00December 20th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

An Apocryphal Story of Mary’s Conception of Jesus

In my previous post I introduced the seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, one of the most popular Christian writings of the Middle Ages.  It tells an expanded version of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and then yet more legendary tales of what happened afterward.   I continue here with another intriguing portion of the account: the events surrounding Mary conceiving Jesus, even though she was a virgin, and the reactions of Joseph when he realizes she is pregnant, and then – something completely missing from the New Testament – the religious “test” inflicted on her by others to see if she was telling the truth. Again, this is taken from the translation in my book The Other Gospels, produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše.   The Annunciation 9 1 On the next day while Mary was standing beside the fountain to fill her small pitcher, an angel appeared to her and said, “You are blessed, Mary, for you have prepared a dwelling place for God in your spirit.   Behold, a light will come from heaven [...]

A Different Account of Joseph and Mary!

As we move to the Christmas season, I thought it would be interesting to post some extracts on one of the most popular Gospels in the Middle Ages, an account of Jesus’ birth – and before that, his mother Mary’s birth – and what happened in the aftermath.   It is called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, because modern scholars once thought that it had claimed to be written by Matthew (the author of the first canonical Gospel); but in fact, as you will see, it claims to be written by Jesus’ brother James. The Gospel comes to us in Latin and was probably produced in the early 7th century.   Some of you may know, from the blog or elsewhere, a Greek Gospel of this description from the 2nd century, the Proto-Gospel of James.   This later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a kind of reworking and expansion of the Proto-Gospel, with some parts removed, lots more added, and others simply altered.  It may be that its unknown author wanted to propagate the stories of the Proto-Gospel in the [...]

What Really Happened at Jesus’ Trial Before Pilate?

An important question I’ve received from another scholar who is interested in New Testament studies but is an expert in a different field.   QUESTION: Have you ever encountered the argument that the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate giving in to the crowd’s call for Jesus’ death could be possible in as much as Pilate would have wanted to avoid a riot and so acquiesced for that reason?  I am wondering whether this is an old apologist argument of some sort?   RESPONSE: It is a great question and it has an easy answer.  Yes I have indeed.  This is a standard argument made by people, including scholars, who think that the Gospel accounts are entirely reasonable and probably accurate.  It’s the view I myself had for years.  The idea behind it is pretty simple, and works in easily delineated stages: Jesus was exceedingly controversial among the crowds in Jerusalem. His trial was a major public event. The Jewish leaders were intent on having him executed, and they stirred up the crowd by having them shout [...]

2020-11-13T08:36:07-05:00November 23rd, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Reader’s Questions|

Is Mary Magdalene the Founder of Christianity?

I have devoted a few posts to the relationship of / competition between Peter and Mary in early Christian traditions.  I conclude by posing a rather significant question.  Peter, of course, has traditionally been seen as the “rock” on which Christ built his church, the very foundation of Christianity (Matt. 16:18 – “You are Peter (Greek: petros) and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church.”).   And indeed, according to 1 Cor. 15: 3-5, Peter was the first to see the resurrected Jesus (and realize he had been raised from the dead), and that is the very beginning of Christianity.  But what if the Gospels are right, that Mary actually was the first.  Wouldn’t it make better sense, then, to say that Mary started Christianity? Here is how I talk about the matter in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:  ****************************** There is no doubt that Peter became dominant as the leader of the church early in the Christian movement, and Mary receded into the background.  We have scores of passages that [...]

2020-12-18T01:04:18-05:00November 16th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Women in Early Christianity|

Luke and Matthew at Odds: The Genealogies

I have devoted several posts to Matthew's genealogy, and I realized it's only fair for me to say something about Luke's as well.  As you may know, these are the only two Gospels -- in fact the only two books of the New Testament -- that provide an account of Jesus' birth and very young life, the "infancy narratives."  In Mark Jesus shows up as an adult, and so too in John.  They say nothing about the circumstances of his birth, nothing, for example, of his mother being a virgin, of him being born in Bethlehem, of .. of any of the stories celebrated every Christmas.  Either do any of the other books of the NT.  That in itself is a striking fact.   An "essential doctrine" of Christianity such as the Virgin Birth -- said by many Christians to be a decisive doctrine: anyone who denies it (lots of Christians say), cannot be Christian.  Yet 25 of the 27 books in the NT say nothing about it.  Did they know about it?  How could we [...]

2020-11-10T07:45:39-05:00November 9th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Another Unusual Feature of Matthew’s Genealogy: The Women!

Since I've started talking about Matthew's genealogy, I've decided to stick with it a bit longer.  Most of my students, when they pick up the New Testament and I have them start at the beginning, they begin with Matthew 1:1 and moan.  A genealogy?!?  Ugh. I tell them to get over it.   This thing is only 16 verses long.  C'mon!  If you want a GENEALOGY, read 1 Chronicles 1-9.  Nine CHAPTERS of fathers and sons, starting with Adam.  Now *that* is a genealogy! (Anecdote: when I was an undergraduate at Moody Bible Institute in the mid 70's, for some reason I had to take a correspondence course to fill out one of my requirements.  This is back when a correspondence course meant doing it as correspondence -- through the mail!   It was some kind of broadly based Bible class, and one of the requirements was that you had to memorize and then reproduce a certain number of verses from the Bible.  You could choose.  Just your favorite verses.  They were expecting, of course, things like [...]

2020-11-01T22:30:23-05:00November 8th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

A Numerical Puzzle in Matthew’s Genealogy

I started this small thread in response to a question about the use of “gematria” in the New Testament, the ancient Jewish interpretive technique that uses the numerical value of letters to find deeper significance in the words they are found in.  If you did it in English, and  a = 1, b= 2 and so on, when you got to  j it would = 10, k = 20, and so on.  In that case if your name is Jack your name would add up to 34; when you found another word whose letters also add up to 34 (say, “brilliant” or “egocentric” – neither of which, of course, does add up to 34…) then you could connect the two words and say that the one explains the other. One possible use of gematria occurs in the very first passage of the NT, the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew.   I pointed out in my previous post that Matthew presents a numerically significant genealogy of Jesus in order to show that something of major significance [...]

2020-11-01T22:24:49-05:00November 7th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Curiosities and Puzzles from the Very First Passage of the New Testament

Yesterday I was asked about the use of the Jewish interpretive procedure called gematria (the interpretation of words by the numerical value of their letters), and its use in the NT.  In that post, I explained how it worked.  Now I want to explain how it gets used in the NT.  As it turns out, it appears at the very outset (implicitly) in the first book of the NT, the Gospel of Matthew, and at the very end (implicitly) in the final book Revelation.  The latter will be familiar to many of you:  666!  But the former?  It’s a bit trickier. And to explain it I need to provide some background on the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel in general.  In my next post I’ll talk about the possible use of gematria. Here’s what I've said about it before: A reader who first comes to the New Testament, and so begins at the beginning, with Matthew chapter 1, first finds him/herself confronted with a genealogy. This may not seem like an auspicious beginning, but the genealogy [...]

2020-11-01T22:29:37-05:00November 5th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Are the Gospels Right? Did Pilate Really Release a Prisoner at Passover?

This now is number eight of my favorite posts from the past.   Often I deal with issues in the New Testament that in my judgment cannot be historically accurate.  One of these, to the surprise of many readers, is the familiar story of what allegedly happened at the trial of Jesus according to the Gospels: Pilate is said to have offered to release him as a favor to the Jewish crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Passover; but instead they choose a Jewish insurrectionist and murderer, Barabbas – and so that was the one Pilate released.   Could that have happened? I addressed the issue in 2019, in response to a reader’s question: ****************************** QUESTION: Pilate condemns Jesus to execution for treason against Rome. Pilate gives the Jewish crowds the option of releasing Jesus or a Jewish insurgent, Barabbas (15:6–15).   I did a quick search to see if this was an attested practice in the Roman Empire and couldn’t’ find any relevant information.  So, I have two questions:  Do you think this detail is accurate?  Is there [...]

2020-10-30T21:30:31-04:00November 1st, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Who Would *Invent* the Idea that Women (?!) Discovered Jesus’ Empty Tomb?

Back to Christian apologists for a minute (from my post a few days ago).  One common argument that the resurrection stories must be historical is that no one would invent the idea that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women; therefore the tomb really was empty (i.e. since no one would have made up the story that way).  I get asked about that probably once every four or five months.  I dealt with it on the blog -- in fact exactly eight years ago.  Here is the question I was asked about it and my response -- the same one I would have today! QUESTION: How do the stories of the women at the tomb found in the canonical gospels come to be told?  As many scholars I've read have pointed out, having women, who were considered untrustworthy witnesses, as the first to see the risen Christ, was not exactly a way to get people to believe the stories.  So why would the gospel writers tell the stories with the women in such a [...]

2020-10-23T23:33:26-04:00October 7th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Gospel Questions and Problems

Here I return to the quiz I gave my undergraduate class the first day of the term; I have been explaining why I ask the questions I do and what I would like my students to learn from them.  Here now are three more of the questions Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament Some students may know something like the Gospel of Thomas, but, well, not many even know this one.  In the course we spend most of our time, of course, talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  But we also look at some of the amazing non-canonical Gospels: The Gospel of Peter. This is a fragmentary alternative account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection, with unusually interesting features, including an actual description of the resurrection.  People are surprised to hear this, but the New Testament Gospels do *not* describe the resurrection.  They indicate that Jesus was buried, and then they jump to the third day when his tomb is discovered empty.  The event itself is not narrated.  But it is in [...]

2020-09-13T14:55:06-04:00September 13th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: Why Don’t They Agree?

In my previous post I tried to show how Mark and Luke portray Jesus very differently in his final moments before his death: in Mark he is deeply disturbed and seemingly in doubt, in Luke he is calm, confident, and in control.  But why would they each chose to portray Jesus in the way they do?   It is easier to show *that* they differ than to explain why.  Still, there are some good, plausible views of the matter.  I’ll start with Mark. In Mark Jesus appears to be in shock, is silent the entire time, seems not to understand why this is happening to him, up to the end, when he cries out asking God why he has forsaken him.  And then he dies, never having received an answer.  What is most striking is that even though Mark’s Jesus may not know why, when it comes to the time, he has to suffer like this, the reader ... The rest of this post is for the lucky few, the blog members.  Actually, they're not lucky [...]

2020-09-10T16:57:49-04:00September 10th, 2020|Canonical Gospels|

The Calm and Collected Jesus

I was just browsing through old posts and came across this one that appeared eight years ago tomorrow – a circumstance I thought was remarkable, since the very topic I cover in it is what I’ll be talking  about with my undergraduate class tomorrow, in my course on Jesus in Scholarship and Film.  At this stage of the semester we are learning about the various Gospels, and one of the BIG points I'm trying to make in the class -- one that is extremely hard for anyone raised with a traditional view of the Bible to get their mind around -- is that each of the Gospels has its *own* story to tell about Jesus:  the portrayal of Matthew is not the same as that in John; that Mark's is not Luke's; that none of them is like the Gospel of Peter; or of Thomas; or of Mary; etc....  Each is different – sometimes in contradictory ways and more often in emphasis (which is just as important).  And you can't just assume they all are [...]

2020-09-09T09:57:26-04:00September 7th, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Two More Answers from My Pop Quiz

I continue here with some comments about my pop quiz (see: and ), and some of the reasons I ask the questions – that is, what I try to teach from the answers (so that the quiz is not designed to see how much the students know already).  Here are two more of the questions:   In what century were they (the books of the NT) written? Answer:  First century CE.  I use this question to explain the modern usage, among historians (and others!) of BCE and CE.  Of course all of us (well, all of us my age) grew up with the dating system BC and AD.  Most people don’t actually know what those abbreviations mean.  Nearly everyone gets “BC”: Before Christ.  But I remember – or maybe I misremember – being taught when I was young that A.D. stood for “After Death.”  Well that ain’t right.  And a second’s reflection shows why.  It would mean there would be no dates for the years between Jesus’ birth and his death!  A.D. therefore [...]

2020-09-03T16:21:07-04:00September 2nd, 2020|Canonical Gospels, Teaching Christianity|

Does Basic Information about the NT *Matter*? My Pop Quiz

Last week I posted the pop quiz that I gave my first-year seminar, “Jesus in Scholarship and Film,” on the opening day of the term.  There are several reasons I give a quiz, even before the students have read, heard lectures, or discussed anything about the New Testament.  For one thing, it’s a fun activity and we can have some laughs – it’s not graded and we go over the answers after they take it.  For another thing, it’s important for me to know how much they know about the New Testament and early Christianity before we start the course.  It’s also important for them to know how much they know – especially the students who were raised in church and assume they already know a lot.  Some of them do; but not most.  And sometimes they are chagrined when they find out.  (If I had a nickel for every time a student has said to me, “Why haven’t I heard this before?" I could buy a condo on the Champs-Élysées.) Even more important, in [...]

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