Sunday, November 9, 2008

Google Jesus - Week 2 Assignment

Welcome to Week 2 of Google Jesus. If you’re just joining us, jump right in and check out this week’s assignment. And if you like, check out some of last week’s sites as well. I encourage you to join in this online learning community by setting up a Google account. That way you can add your comments and questions as we study together online.

It’s free and all you need to do is provide your current email address and create a Google account password. Click on comments and sign up or create an account by going to

This week’s lesson is centered on the birth of Jesus. You’ll find a variety of viewpoints in the sites we’re visiting. Don’t worry if you don’t agree with all the ideas you come across. You’re not suppose to. Engaging other differing viewpoints will challenge you and help you put your own understanding into perspective. So let’s get started.

Internet Assignment
Read Matthew, Chapters 1 – 2 and Luke, Chapters 1-2. How are the two stories alike? How are they different? Make a list you can refer to in future studies.

After you have completed your list, compare it with that of New Testament scholar, Felix Just. (Click here)

For a bit if a surprise, see the reconstruction of a typical Judean home and find out what Luke probably meant when he said there was no place for Joseph and Mary in the “inn.” Scroll down to the December 18, 2007, post at Stephen Pfann’s blog site until you come to his entry “A New Light on an Old Story.” (Click here)

Reflect on the historicity of the “virgin birth” and its meaning for contemporary Christians by reviewing the sharply contrasting views of two ministers/New Testament scholars, Bishop John Shelby Spong and Ben Witherington. (Click here) and (Click here)

Listen to an interview about the Christmas story with popular author, teacher, and Jesus Seminar fellow, Marcus Borg. (Click here)

Watch a brief video lecturette by Brian McClaren on the meaning of “Son of God” in a first century context. Scroll down and choose the video "Who is Jesus". It will take a moment for the video to load. (Click here)

Judge who has the better argument for the birth place of Jesus from a historical perspective by reading the articles of Steve Mason and Jerome Murphy O’Connor in Biblical Archaeology Review. (Click here) and (Click here)

Finally, check out how contemporary Judaism understands the concept of “Messiah” by visiting Judaism 101. (Click here)

Online Question of the Week
How did this series of assignments add to your understanding of the historical Jesus? Did they present any challenges? Raise any questions? Share a comment.

Reading Assignment – Jesus and the Land
Read Chapter 2, pp 39 – 70 (Note: we’ll discuss the baptism of Jesus next week.)

Do you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusion that Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus best fits historically with what really happened? Explain your reasons.


Judy H. said...

Okay, John, you're ruining Christmas for me!

Seriously, I do underestand the teaching value of genres such as legend and myth and parable. And I've never presumed to look at the Bible as an entirely historical document. But I have to admit that it's disturbing to think that the gospel writers deliberately manipulated the facts of the birth narratives to fit their particular purposes. Boer's assertion that "One can be almost certain that none of the events narrated in these stories actually happened," is really hard for me
to come to terms with.

Marcus Borg, too, refers to the birth narratives as "parabolic overatures," suggesting that we read them not for historical fact but for their "greater meaning". I understand that these scholars see "legend" as a powerful way in which ancient people expressed and passed down the significance of a person. But when it comes to the personhood of Jesus, I want to be able to separate legend from fact and know the real man. If the gospel writers concocted legends, created imaginary events, and put words in Jesus' mouth that he never said, how are we to separate fact from fiction? On what do we base our faith if these "eyewitness" accounts are fabricated or embellished?

revJohn said...

Thanks for your engagement with these differing voices on the birth of Jesus. A couple of thoughts. I I do not know of any reputable NT scholar who would suggest that the gospel writers "manipulated the facts." But let's look at what Luke says about his own methodology. He is not an eyewitness. Consequently, he finds it necessary to use other written narratives, oral tradition, eye witness reports, etc. We can identify that he relies on Mark for a significant portion of his narrative. He likely uses a saying source, sometimes designated "Q," and he has his own unique sources ("L") that only he seems to know about. Luke has no problem rearranging chronology to better present to Theophius the truth of his instruction. And Luke has edited Mark in significant ways. The birth narratives at various points have a Jewish priest, a young peasant girl, and old hasid break into song. Detailed dialog is presented as if it had been tape recorded word for word. All of this should raise some questions about historical fact vs. theological reflection in the narratives.

One final thought. The oldest extant Christian writings, the letters of Paul, give no indication that he knows a tradition of the virginal conception, even though the traditions about the Lord's Supper and the resurrection are part of his teaching. The earliest gospel, Mark, does not contain a tradition of Jesus' birth. Nor does John, who is only concerned with Jesus' heavenly origin. In both Matthew and Luke, after the birth narratives are presented, they are never mentioned again. They play no role in Jesus' self-understanding nor in the preaching of the early church as recorded in Acts.

However,the greater part of the Christian world believes in the literal, historical accuracy of these narratives. This number includes a great many biblical scholars. You are not alone.

One final question: Do we base our faith on the bible or do we place our faith in God and our relationship with the living Lord?

If historically the church could view Jesus as both human and divine, it seems possible to view the bible in the same way. If human, it would not be surprising to see myth, legend, history, metaphor, and much more all mixed together. That's why I do bible study.

Judy H. said...

You know how much I value your insights; I always find them helpful. Thanks for challenging me to think about these things in a new way.

I've always found it puzzling that neither Mark nor John nor even Paul make mention of the "miraculous" nature of Jesus' birth, as reported in Matthew and Luke. The point/counterpoint exchange between Ben Witherington and Bishop Spong on this subject was extremely interesting but did little to help me resolve the question in my own mind. They both make convincing arguments.

Does my faith rise or fall on the issue of the virgin conception or the prophetic location of Jesus' birth? No, of course not, but I still find it disconcerting to think of the gospel writers playing fast and loose with
the facts. I know that in speaking to different groups of people I may sometimes emphasize certain things to one group and other things to another group. But I wouldn't feel free to actually change facts in order to convince an audience of my point. Maybe the phrase, "manipulating the facts," was a little harsh, but if you change facts to advance your purpose, no matter how good your purpose may be, that seems disingenuous.

Your point is certainly well taken that a healthy faith is based on God, himself, and our relationship with him. But how do we come to that faith?
Those who are apart from God, for whatever reason, often come to faith through the teachings of and about Jesus in Scripture. We begin a journey toward relationship with God from what we learn in those pages. It just
troubles me that what we think we know about Jesus may, in fact, not be true.

Judy H. said...

I just realized that in earlier posts, I failed to respond to the question of how this week's assignments added to our understanding of the historical Jesus. There are several things that were new to me that I found especially interesting: One was the discussion of the meaning of "inn" as being the "guest room" in a private home, which may have been crowded with other visiting family members. It was also interesting to learn the likelihood that Joseph and Mary would have been residing in his father's home, either as permanent residents or as visitors from Nazareth. Either way, they were not abandoned and alone, searching for help in a strange land. I found that comforting! I was also fascinated by the pictures and discussions of the different types of dwellings, both in Bethlehem and Nazareth.

There was something else in the last part of the chapter that was completely new to me. That is the idea that Jesus' move from Nazareth to Capernaum represented
a shift in thinking away from the more legalistic Judaism of Nazareth to the more enlightened thinking of the House of Hillel in Capernaum. It had never occurred to me that his move to a new location might also represent a move away from the faith of his own family, creating additional tension and trauma in his life. I look forward to more on that in next week's lesson.

jakemaxwel said...

I do agree that Matthew's version of the nativity story makes the most sense. I have always resented the expectation that I had to accept the literal truth of all the Scripture. And I find the absence of mention of anything about the virgin birth in Paul's writings problematic to taking the birth story literally. It really helpful to place the stories of the Bible in their historical and now their geographical settings.
I find it fascinating to hear Jesus made a shift left or more toward the liberal view of his Jewish faith in a sort of "conversion". Actually, I guess it isn't so surprising; young people are still shifting away from their parents' often more conservative views! I also find it ironic that so much of our Christian brethren are so hostile toward the liberal leanings of some other Christians. If the Hilel branch of the faith of that time was less about law and more about love and acceptance, why aren't we? Too many people who proclaim themselves Christian are quick to judge and condemn people on the fringe of society. Jesus was hardly that way.

I am really loving this study. I spent a lot of time on Judaism 101. Since Jesus was a Jew, it seems we as Christians should devote some of our study of our faith to understanding the faith
Jesus studied!

Thanks, John. I really appreciate the work this all represents on your part!