Swaddling Cloths

Recently, I saw a video of a supposed Messianic Jewish rabbi talking about Luke 2:12. After declaring Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the angelic host tells the shepherds:

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

This rabbi goes on to say that the Mishnah teaches about “Levitical shepherds” who would take their birthing ewes to special caves and when their lambs were born, they would wrap the lamb in “swaddling cloths” to prevent them from injury so they could be presented as “spotless” for the sacrifice.

It is a nice little story, and it sounds so good that I found it quoted all over the internet. I decided to look into it; and SURPRISE, SURPRISE the entire thing is based on conjecture.

The entire idea evolved from a passage in Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (vol 1, p 186) which discusses the presence of sheep in December around Bethlehem and concludes that only flocks destined for the passover sacrifices could be kept close to the cities. His argument is indeed based on the Mishnah (Baba K 7:7, 80a); but nowhere in Edersheim or the underlying Mishnah passages is there a reference to swaddling the lambs.

In my research, I could not find a single reference in the rabbinical tradition to swaddling lambs, even those destined for the passover. There are LOTS of blogs and Christian websites reciting the statement as fact; but no one seems to be able to provide the source of this.

What seems to have happened is a confusion between the practice of swaddling infants and binding sacrificial animals, which was itself connected to the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:9). According to some sources, the binding of sacrificial animals was indeed to prevent them from harming themselves on their way to slaughter. This practice has been somehow mixed up with swaddling an infant to produce an image that has no connection to history.

So, what was the “swaddling cloths” all about?

The most obvious answers is that all babies get swaddled, especially in this culture. There is no reason to leap to the conclusion that this swaddling was meant as a sign to the shepherds and that they immediately recognized it and connected it to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God (especially since that image appears in John, not Luke).

There may also be a strand of Luke’s focus on the Gentiles here. In some of the Homeric Hymns about the birth of the Greek god Apollo, there are references to him being swaddled before being suckled.

And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of sore travail set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to bring forth; so she cast her arms about a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses raised a cry.

Straightway, great Phoebus, the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band about you.

Now Leto did not give Apollo, bearer of the golden blade, her breast; but Themis duly poured nectar and ambrosia with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all their ends were undone.

When I taught through Luke’s gospel several years ago, I highlighted some of the good evidence that Luke casts Jesus’s Virgin Birth as the reality of divine birth which is also seen twisted and broken in the pagan traditions of Greece. Luke calls his readers to see the TRUE Son of God in Jesus, of whom all other stories are only fractured shadows. He is savior of the world, not just Judaism.

If this is the case, then once again we see the subversive nature of the gospels, undermining Greek tradition to show true divinity.

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The Virgin Birth, post 5

After the message on Sunday, my friend Matt asked a couple of good questions about Mary and the virgin birth. Both were valid questions worth considering, and both are questions that people have struggled with as they read the Scriptures over the years.

Question #1: Why Don’t We Hear About Mary and Joseph later in the Bible?

Joseph: First, let’s wrestle with Joseph’s place in the gospel narrative. In the gospel of Luke, Joseph’s primary qualification was that he was of the lineage of David. So Joseph gives Jesus a certain qualification to take the throne of David as king.

Aside from that, Joseph leads his family in a Scriptural way, taking Jesus to Jerusalem for a dedication, providing for the family, and bringing Jesus to the temple at the age of twelve for Passover (Luke 2). In Matthew, an additional narrative includes Joseph taking his young family to Egypt to wait out the death of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:13-23). Other than that, the Scriptures are silent on Joseph. Joseph is called to a very specific role, a very limited role, in the upbringing of Jesus. That seems to be all Joseph is needed for.

Mary: Mary, however, continues in her role and relationship with Jesus through his life. She appears at his birth, she appears at his death. And she appears after his death, with the disciples in Acts chapter 1. Her place as the vessel that God uses, transfers into a relationship with Jesus. Now, many Christian traditions over emphasize Mary’s role and make her–well, the mother of God. That is completely unsubstantiated in the biblical record.

While Mary accompanies Jesus and even seems to have participated in some form in his adult life, her role is not primary. In fact her role seems to be entirely that of a caring mother for whom her oldest son (Jesus) has an obligation and responsibility to care for. So, she is with him out of necessity. He provides for her family because that’s what a good son does. And she remains with him, traveling with him when she can, living with the disciples, because she is his mother, not because she is divine, or co-redeemer, or in any way shape attached or connected to his work as Savior.

Question #2: Why did God choose Mary?

The Scriptures never tell us why God chose Mary and not another woman. There were certainly many virgins of marriageable age at her time and in times previous. Virgins kind of occur naturally, so they are never hard to locate. There must have been something unique about her and the Scriptures do record that Gabriel the Angel refers to her as “full of grace” or “greatly favored.”

The Roman Catholic tradition holds that this statement implies that Mary was in some way conceived without sin, called the “Immaculate Conception”, but there is no biblical basis for this. What the angel is telling Mary is that she has been chosen.

Grace is never a part of the human beings existence. It is imputed to a human being by God’s sovereign choice. So Mary is not “full of grace” because of something she has done or the lifestyle that she has lived or some kind of immaculate miracle at her birth. She is “full of grace” because God has chosen her.

Luke does give us an indication that God was setting up a scenario of interrelated miracles. Mary’s family, including her cousin Elizabeth, are participants in the unfolding of Jesus’ advent. Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth after menopause, when she had been barren, is miraculous and acknowledged to be so by many. This first miracle opens the door for a second and greater miracle – Mary conceiving and giving birth before sexual activity. The first miracle makes the second miracle more conceivable (pun intended).

Luke also gives us indication that Mary was uniquely placed as both the cousin of a priest’s wife and also betrothed to the descendent of David. This unique combination sets her son up to fulfill both the Law and the Kingdom.

But really, do we know why God chose her? Good genetics? Good complexion? Nobody knows. Any statement made about the reasons that God chose Mary would be completely and utterly hypothetical.

It is often confusing and befuddling that God chooses the people he chooses to do the things he has chosen to do. His choices are rarely the logical ones. And the people that we would choose almost never the ones that God chooses. And as my father often reminded me, “where the Bible is silent the wise and be like the Bible.”

What is important is that God chose her. God chose Mary. She was “overshadowed” by the Spirit of God, conceived in her womb a child, and that child was born, lived, died on the cross, and was raised again to life by God, declared to be the son of God (Romans 1:6), and is our Savior and King Jesus Christ. We don’t know why very fulfilled the role she did, but she did and she was the mother of our Lord.

The Virgin Birth, post 4

The gospel record in Matthew and Luke makes it clear that the early church embraced the idea of Jesus’ miraculous conception in the womb of Mary. But one of the chief criticisms of the doctrine of the miraculous conception is that the rest of the New Testament is silent about it. If the doctrine was important to the early church, why didn’t the apostle address the issue?

The answer to this question should be self-evident. Why retread something that is spelled out so plainly? Luke leaves absolutely no room for a variety of interpretations. The apostles could not improve on his direct statement. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the virgin womb of Mary and was born naturally to her thereafter.

What more is there to add to it?

The problem lies not with the gospel record or the apostles but with the extraneous interpretations made by many in the medieval church. The miraculous conception was expanded to the virgin birth and then to the immaculate conception of Mary herself. This was done to theologically explain Christ’s sinlessness.

Remember that the medieval church, what we call today the Catholic traditions (and to a lesser extent the Orthodox traditions), viewed sexuality as inherently sinful. Thus, it was simple to render Jesus naturally sinlessness by amplifying the necessity of the miraculous conception. To do that, he had to become an asexual creature. I will simplify the thousand years or so of logic and philosophy to a simple syllogism:

  • Sin passes from Adam
  • Adam is male
  • To not have sin, therefore, you must not have a human father

Up to this point of the syllogism, I really have no problem with it. I think it is somewhat extraneous, but it makes good sense. But the medieval theologians kept going.

  • But women sin too
  • Jesus’ mother must not have sin either
  • Therefore, Mary must have been conceived without sin as well

Using logic and philosophy rather than Scripture, the medieval church eradicated any human nature for Jesus and made him logically sinless as well as practically. Jesus could not sin because there was nothing human about him.

This necessity to rid Jesus of his human ancestry descends from an ancient heresy called gnosticism, which was itself descended from a philosophical school called neo-platonism. The main tenet of gnosticism is that all material things are sinful and all spiritual things are righteous. Although not fully gnostic, the medieval church adopted this position concerning sex – which is physical and material, and therefore evil.

The miraculous conception thus became much more than it was originally. The gospel writers did not include the virgin birth so they could evolve a theology. It was included because it was true, and that was enough for them. The apostles did not expand upon it because they did not see it as a theological point. It simply was the way God chose to give Jesus to the world.

No theology hung on the virgin birth, and that is a good position to take even today. The apostles accepted that Jesus was without sin, without having to explain it. We would be wise to do the same, accepting the Scriptures at face value and not reading into them.

We might be able to look back into the record and make theological observations after the fact, but we must be cautious not to overreach the apostles in this endeavor and see things they did not.

The Virgin Birth, post 3

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her…

…In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-7, ESV)

That’s it. That is the entirety of the Scriptures’ report on the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus. Between these passages in Luke and the passage in Matthew we talked about yesterday, we have the entire witness of the Scriptures about the miraculous conception of Jesus.

This passage is more direct about the implied meaning of the word virgin. Mary says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin.” In Greek, this is not the word parthénos but a phrase – andra ou’ ginōskō. This means, “I don’t know a man” and it has an idiomatic sexual context.  She has never had sex, and since Mary is apparently pretty knowledgeable in the area of biology, she knows that pregnancy is fairly impossible without sex.

Mary’s words amplify that the early church clearly believed she had been a virgin when she conceived Jesus. Matthew might be somewhat ambiguous but there is no way to get around Luke.

The Virgin Birth, post 2

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The first gospel has very little to say about the miraculous conception of Jesus. It does not even definitely state anywhere that Mary was sexually pure.

The Greek word translated virgin is parthénos which has a sexual connotation to it but in the context of marriage. It is a rare word even in non-biblical literature, but was used in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures to translate the verse from Isaiah 7 that Matthew quotes. The problem is that Isaiah 7 is written about Isaiah’s wife who most definitely was sexually active since they had children.

That being said, it is quite clear that Matthew does intend for us to understand that the conception was miraculous. He states quite plainly that the child is “from the Holy Spirit” implying that the pregnancy was not caused by biological means.

There is a certain ambiguity in Matthew’s language, intended to direct to the reader to a conclusion without stating it clearly. God goes to an extreme to protect Mary and her unborn child by sending an angel to her betrothed husband Joseph, and the reader cannot help but conclude that there must be something truly unique about her pregnancy.

It is left to the other gospel writer who records this conception to clarify the nature of the conception.

 

The Virgin Birth, post 1

Introduction

Today, we are beginning a series on one of the most controversial beliefs of Christianity – the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. James Orr, writing in The Fundamentals said this:

The Virgin Birth is assailed with special vehemence, because it is supposed that the evidence for this miracle is more easily got rid of than the evidence for public facts, such as the resurrection. The result is that in very many quarters the Virgin birth of Christ is openly treated as a fable. Belief in it is scouted as unworthy of the twentieth century intelligence. (James Orr, The Fundamentals, ch 30)

In Orr’s day, there was a concerted effort by a group of scholars to question the core of Scriptural interpretation, and it must be said that some of the observations made by these scholars were observations that needed to be made. Unfortunately, they approached the Scriptures with a hostility and condescension that caused many more conservative believers to basically curl up in a ball and retreat from the discussion. As a result, we of a more conservative nature do not actively consider the belief structures we have inherited from the ancient church through the medieval church, and as a result we do not truly appreciate the nature of what the Scriptures actually say.

I have intentionally pointed out that we have inherited our ancient beliefs through the medieval church because it is there that we find many of the errors and misconceptions we have in our beliefs.

At the very beginning of this series, I need to emphasize that a belief system not capable of questioning should never be acceptable to you. If teachers tell you that you cannot question or doubt something, then by all means question it. A belief that cannot stand up to scrutiny and criticism is not worth accepting.

We must be willing to question and deconstruct our inherited beliefs because that which we inherit often has additions and subtractions from what God originally inspired. Our purpose in any doctrinal pursuit should not be to defend what we already know but to construct our beliefs based on the strength of the Scriptures.

(Defending a position you already hold is called deductive interpretation. Taking the Scriptures as your source, understanding them as correctly as possible and then forming your beliefs is called inductive interpretation. I make no apologies for being an inductive reader of the Scriptures.)

Making a Necessary Distinction

With our introductory thoughts out of the way, let’s now consider what has come to be known as “The Virgin Birth” because there is a distinction to be made here

We need to begin by using correct terminology. Theologically, the idea of the virgin birth has far more to it than simply that Mary was sexually pure when she became pregnant with Jesus. In fact, the classic view of the virgin birth goes much further and makes some fairly extraneous claims. Millard Erickson writes:

Some theologians, particularly Catholics, interpret the virgin birth as meaning that Jesus was not born in normal fashion. In their view, he simply passed through the wall of Mary’s uterus instead of being delivered through the normal birth canal, so that Mary’s hymen was not ruptured. Thus, there was a sort of miraculous Caesarean section. (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd edition p. 759)

Let’s just be very clear here. The Scriptural witness to the virgin birth contains nothing of this nature, and it is purely conjecture based on an existing belief – called “the perpetual virginity” of Mary. Without getting into too much detail, this is one of the most obvious examples of what I mentioned about beliefs coming through the medieval church. The medieval church, in controlling a number of other facets of life, developed a number of extra-biblical beliefs about Mary which in turn precipitated doctrinal additions. The result is something that bears no resemblance to the biblical narrative of Jesus’ conception.

To distinguish the position we will develop from the Scriptures from this erroneous belief, we will follow the example of the theologian Dale Moody and use the term miraculous conception rather than virgin birth.

Now, with all that said, tomorrow we will begin looking at the Biblical witness.