This is such a perfect display of the different creation stories. I certainly cannot improve on it. Just read this.
The opening to Plutarch’s description of Alexander includes this.
I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.
Full selection. Plutarch then proceeds to recount how Alexander was descended from Hercules and the miraculous circumstances of his conception. It seems to me that the Gospels were not “histories, but lives.” Recognizing how common in was for authors of this period to write like portrait-painters rather than news photographers comforts me. It comforts me because it justifies my understanding of what the Biblical authors were trying to accomplish.
I believe the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke are intended to demonstrate the special character of Jesus. I do not believe that God provided the sperm that fertilized the egg in Mary’s womb. I have often heard that when Matthew writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”),” he mistranslates the word ‘alma’ from Isaiah 7:14 because he used the Greek Septuagint as his source. According to someone on the internet, that is ridiculous because the Septuagint available to Matthew only included the Torah. The Septuagint we talk about today has the whole Hebrew Testament, but it was written by Christians much later. Also, I’ve read other places that alma refers to an unmarried young woman–which frankly, in ancient civilization seems to me to be pretty synonymous with physical virgin given how young people married. So, I don’t know.
Anyway, from Plutarch’s biography of Numa Pompilius we have Numa’s response to those who would want him to be king. He says, “Yet Romulus had the advantage to be thought divinely born and miraculously preserved and nurtured. My birth was mortal; I was reared and instructed by men that are known to you.” At some point I’ll start thinking about Numa, but note that Romulus was “divinely” born. For me, the fact that another first century biographer notes that a tremendously important, foundational figure is divinely born bolsters my notion that Luke and Matthew were making it clear to the readers that Jesus was every bit as much an ordained leader of the world as these Romans. I’m not sure what the claim means to those who believe that God literally impregnated Mary.
Is it impolite to suggest God provided sperm to fertilize the egg in Mary’s womb? First, I don’t see why that would be the case. If you believe in literal virgin birth then at some point Jesus has to have human physiology, and it seems conception would be a natural place for that to take place. Second, if you think that is impolite, consider this: Could a human man fertilize an egg to grow in God’s womb? Plutarch didn’t address the conception part of this question, but seemed to think it is ridiculous to think gods could only have sex with mortal women:
And this in particular gave occasion to the story about the goddess, namely, that Numa did not retire from human society out of any melancholy or disorder of mind, but because he had tasted the joys of more elevated intercourse, and, admitted to celestial wedlock in the love and converse of the goddess Egeria, had attained to blessedness, and to a divine wisdom. . . . Though, indeed, the wise Egyptians do not plausibly make the distinction, that it may be possible for a divine spirit so to apply itself to the nature of a woman, as to imbreed in her the first beginnings of generation, while on the other side they conclude it impossible for the male kind to have any intercourse or mixture by the body with any divinity, not considering, however, that what takes place on the one side must also take place on the other; intermixture, by force of terms, is reciprocal.
Hence, the question: Is immaculate fertilization possible?
Having finished Plutarch’s Lycurgus, I have moved on to his work about Numa Pompilius. That work opens with a discussion of another famous Roman, Romulus. The end of Romulus’s time on Earth is described as follows:
It was the thirty-seventh year, counted from the foundation of Rome, when Romulus, then reigning, did, on the fifth day of the month of July, called the Caprotine Nones, offer a public sacrifice at the Goat’s Marsh, in presence of the senate and people of Rome. Suddenly the sky was darkened, a thick cloud of storm and rain settled on the earth; the common people fled in affright, and were dispersed; and in this whirlwind Romulus disappeared, his body being never found either living or dead. A foul suspicion presently attached to the patricians, and rumours were current among the people as if that they, weary of kingly government, and exasperated of late by the imperious deportment of Romulus towards them, had plotted against his life and made him away, that so they might assume the authority and government into their own hands. This suspicion they sought to turn aside by decreeing divine honours to Romulus, as to one not dead but translated to a higher condition. And Proculus, a man of note, took oath that he saw Romulus caught up into heaven in his arms and vestments, and heard him, as he ascended, cry out that they should hereafter style him by the name of Quirinus.
Being the good church boy that I am, I immediately thought of Enoch, Elijah and Jesus. (This, I believe, is the only cause anyone ever has for thinking of Enoch.) Their ascensions, in order of appearance, are cited below:
When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
* * *
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
* * *
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
From Genesis, 2 Kings, and Luke. What to make of all this ascending directly into heaven? I noticed that both Elijah and Romulus call back to their chief disciple on the way up. Well, I don’t think Romulus ascended directly into heaven. I am not convinced Plutarch thinks he ascended into heaven as Plutarch could be merely demonstrating to his readers that early Roman’s held Romulus in high regard. But, even if Plutarch believes it I don’t. I will leave the analysis of the other ascension stories as a exercise for the reader.
James McGrath gets points for snark when he provides this as the interpretive rule employed by those who believe Jesus never lived, “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best one, unless a more complicated one supports mythicism.” Exploring Our Matrix: Godfrey's Razor and Historicized Scripture
Although I probably was exposed to it before, for me the most important presentation of the notion that the human being Jesus of Nazareth never existed was in Steve Gibson’s book A Secret of the Universe. It is a good book and Steve is a great thinker. I was underwhelmed by the notion as presented there, although this is a novel so it isn’t really trying to convince people of the notion either. Since then, I think McGrath’s teasing of one of his commentors sums up my take on the topic.
Here are excerpts from the opening few paragraphs from Plutarch’s Lycurgus
There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest. Their sentiments are quite different as to the family he came of, the voyages he undertook, the place and manner of his death, but most of all when they speak of the laws he made and the commonwealth which he founded. . . . But notwithstanding this confusion and obscurity, we shall endeavour to compose the history of his life, adhering to those statements which are least contradicted, and depending upon those authors who are most worthy of credit.
Now consider this opening to the Gospel of Luke, which curiously enough was written a basically the same time.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke 1: 1-4. What we have here is two first century writers, attempting to recount the life of a significant figure, but feeling compelled from the outset to acknowledge that others have set out to do the same thing. Luke’s author is a bit more self-assured than Plutarch, which is reasonable I suppose given that Plutarch was considerably more separated from his subject.
Mortimer Adler’s notion that Western literature is a conversation is compelling to me. Obviously, reading the works that his group selected to be Great only reinforces that notion. But I think it is crucial to recognize that the Bible is also a “Great Conversation,” and this passage from Luke makes it pretty explicit.
A final note, one can promote an allegorical reading of the creation myths without abandoning the notion of a divinely inspired, even divinely authored Bible. Why shouldn’t God communicate morals to God’s people through a parable? The opening to Luke, on the other hand, seems to strain that notion to the breaking point–at least, if the other accounts include Matthew and Mark. (John wouldn’t be written for some time after Luke.)
One of the big clues for me that I needed to read the Bible more closely was when Bishop Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism taught me that the nativities were irreconcilably different. I did a graph comparison of the two stories a couple of Christmases ago here. So, let’s try a similar technique with the resurrection story.
So, let’s start with Mark, which was written first. The story is contained in Mark 16:1-8.
The major points are that the women find a single man dressed in white. They tell no one what they saw, and Christ’s ascension is implied by the ending.
The next story is from Luke. Here the women see two men, also dressed in white. They tell the disciples what happened. Jesus appears to two non-disciples on the road to Emmaus. He appears in the flesh to the disciples in Jerusalem. Then there is an ascension, which takes place in Bethany. The story is at Luke 24.
In Matthew 28 the women see an angel. Then Jesus appears to Mary in the Garden, although it is only briefly described. She tells the disciples to meet him in Galilee, which they do. Then the book ends, implying Jesus’ ascension.
Finally, we have John. John spends two chapters, 20 & 21, describing Jesus’ appearances. In John, no one at the tomb tells them anything. Even Peter sees the empty tomb. However, in the Garden, Jesus appears to Mary. Then he appears three times to the disciples. Twice after they went “home”, which I assume is Galilee, and once on the Sea of Galilee. Then John says I he doesn’t have time to list all of the appearances Jesus made all over. Again, the ascension is only implied.
The last solution for handling scriptures like these is what I will call abstraction. A nice basic example is to compare Exodus 21:23-25, But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise., with Luke 6:29, If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. At first, these seem to contradict each other, until you realize that the old testament law calls for restraint. You can only take so much retribution against those who have wronged you.
I prefer to analyze scripture in this way. What was the author saying? What was the author’s world like when he or she wrote these words? Where is the presence of God in what the author has to say? I like to do things this way because it allows me to suck the holy marrow even from scriptures that might at first seem like useless bones to me. I also like this treatment of scripture because it is how I try to treat all passages.
It is not without its pitfalls. Any student of statutory construction will tell you that cases rested on constitutional law often turn on how abstract a view one is willing to take. There is of course a temptation to just abstract away everything difficult.
Which leads me to the notion that Scripture is best interpreted while in contemplative prayer, or for the non-theist readers, in times of quiet introspection. Better to let your mind and heart explore the meaning than to try to interpret with the eyes of a litigator pressing for one interpretation over the other. I’ve long recognized that it is invalid to open the Bible and search for support for my arguments. I always find plenty of support, but so does everyone else. If the Bible is to be a guide, we have to tune our hearts to be guided by it.
A second option is to cut these scriptures out of the Bible. We can decide that these scriptures don’t apply to us. First off, the most extreme example of this is to declare that the Bible does not have authority. This is true of non-Christians, but I submit there could be Christians who would hold this position. Being Christian means following Jesus, and one can do that through what one has inherited through the church tradition. As a Protestant from the revivalist movement, I sort of forget that sometimes.
Next, and more what I’m thinking of on this topic, is deciding not to acknowledge certain section of scripture. You can’t just ignore the Old Testament, for example. Jesus depended on the Law & the Prophets, and made it clear he came to complete not abolish the law. (Well, or more properly the Gospel author’s report he made that clear.) The OT also has many important stories in it. It has the 10 commandments. Finally, the New Testament has plenty of the same stuff we want to get rid of.
Perhaps certain portions of the Bible are too old. Perhaps they were only intended to apply to the Hebrews or to the Church at Corinth. The real problem here is having integrity. It is hardly a solution to say, “Well, obviously slavery is wrong, so scriptures accommodating slavery are inapplicable.” That means you get no guidance from the Bible at all, which presumably those who employ this sub-answer C are trying to avoid.
A friend has suggested giving less authority to cultural components of the scripture. This is significantly more subtle than just ignoring the bits you don’t like. Love your enemies, isn’t cultural, while don’t get divorced is. What about give to the poor, though?
The containment solution is what I have employed most of my life. I make the words of Jesus in the Gospels as the only thing I have to follow. I don’t know that I’m so uncomfortable with that, but it isn’t easy to defend. I am worried about integrity, and it is hard to jive with Jesus’ words mentioned above. Also, it means you lose any benefit from giant swaths of scripture.
Sometimes I get really thoughtful comments to posts that have sort of scrolled off the page. I think it is a shame because folks might be interested in them but have no reason to monitor comments for such things. One example was recently added by James Snapp to my Mark’s Ending post.
I commend James’s comment to anyone interested in the history of the Bible. He provides a link to links that will let you look at pictures of ancient biblical texts and examines much of the source material that scholars use to come to their conclusions about authenticity.
It is also good reading if you have a new holy book that you claim to be less corrupted than the Christian bible (i.e. the Book of Mormon or the Koran) because it is pretty shocking how much filling in had to be employed to get that bound volume of letters and narratives some of us have on our shelves.
My biggest problem with James is that he is sometimes a Jr. and sometime a II, which makes me not trust him.