The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

I have been travelling of late and not writing. Yet a friend’s question led me back to my desk and to this undoubtedly too lengthy writing.

On Easter Sunday the NYT printed an interview by columnist Nicholas Kristof with Rev. Prof. Serene Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It is the latest in a series of interviews Kristof has done with Christian opinion leaders from across the theological/ecclesiastical spectrum, most notably (for me) with President Jimmy Carter and Newark’s Cardinal James Tobin. Yet both the Easter Sunday publication date and this interview’s title (“Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?”) were shocking for me and others.

I urge you to read the relatively short interview before continuing here.

As Kristof noted a few days later: “My Easter column, an interview with Rev. Serene Jones as part of my ongoing series of conversations about faith, was meant to encourage conversation across America’s God Gulf but instead generated an unfortunately toxic response.” He then describes Jones “as a distinguished scholar of Christian history” who as a result of the interview has been “accused by some religious conservatives” who were then counter-attacked by various liberals. He notes Jones’ subsequent Twitter call for tolerance and makes a similar call of his own.

Fr. James Martin, SJ, also posted an irenic disagreement with Jones in America  I agree with the substance of his response though my tone may at times be somewhat less irenic. Indeed, my first response to Jones’ remarks was both a sense of déjà vu and of offense at her breathless ease about serious topics, perhaps especially her breezy dismissal of the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus.

Yet I am fairly certain that many of my friends and many “ordinary” Christians share Prof. Jones’ doubts, if not her certainties. So I write here for such folks..

Let me, as comic overture, begin with some name-play:  Kristof, who admires Jesus’ teaching but is openly skeptical of miraculous claims, suggests thereby that “Kristof” no longer refers to “Christ” even though Nicholas still admires Jesus. And, as I’ve already suggested, Rev. Jones’ remarks strike me as hardly “serene.”

More seriously, I want to emphasize that my response here is not only to Professor Jones, but to the tradition of “liberal Protestant theology” out of which she speaks. Thus the déjà vu aspect of my response. As a theological friend recently wrote me, “Jones sounds like [many professors] I’ve met over the years” who teach at prestigious Protestant seminaries from the East Coast to the Bay Area. I hasten to add, as would my friend, that the tone which offended should not be attributed to those liberal professors and is probably not typical of Jones on most occasions.

Liberal Protestant theology (since the Enlightenment) has largely been, as I see it, less an attempt to defend traditional Christian claims than to reinterpret them in terms acceptable to secular philosophy. Some Catholic conservatives probably think the same is true of “modern” Catholic theology before and since Vatican II. Yet in both tone and substance there is a world of difference between that Catholic effort to take seriously the claims of modern science and philosophy – and similar efforts by many Reformed theologians – and the broader thrust (some would say capitulation) of liberal protestant theology. Karl Barth’s magistral study, Protestant Theology in the 19th Century (1952), remains for me the best in-depth critical study of the origins of the liberal effort.

So what do I think about these traditional beliefs and the liberal dismissal of them?
As I’ve suggested, I distinguish between two kinds of efforts (among both theologians and “ordinary” folks) to respond to scientific discoveries and philosophical critiques of traditional Christian claims. The “liberal” approach strikes me as overly responsive to modern/secular objections, even though what it is trying to do is much needed. The other approach – found in most contemporary Catholic and much Reformed theology (and among Jews and Muslims seeking to re-think their faiths) — is more careful, what I like to think of as a “progressive conservatism” (to borrow the serious name of an earlier Canadian political party). It is critically open to the truth of science and the importance of much modern thought (about evolution, for instance, and human reproduction, or about liberty and women’s rights) without capitulating to the scientism and secularism within which such truths are often expressed. For such secular “isms” are as absolute, uncritical, and wrong-headed in their claims as are Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) fundamentalists in theirs.

So yes, I believe in the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus. I also acknowledge the clear differences between New Testament accounts written long after the fact. With the consensus of most contemporary Catholic and many Reformed theologians, and the best of classical theology, I think that those differences clearly indicate that the resurrection involves transformation into a new form of existence. That’s the reason for my quotation marks around “bodily.” Resurrection, according to this consensus, is not resuscitation. Jesus really died, just as we today experience death. Yet he then returned for a brief time to his disciples in some sort of spirit-body (my term) – clearly visible, at times touchable, able to speak and eat, and thus somehow in a human body, yet no longer bound as our bodies are by time and place. This I believe, even as, with most believers, I struggle to understand it.

Professor Jones, along with liberal Protestant thought as I understand it and with some Catholic thinkers, believes that the Resurrection is best understood as a “resurrection” of trust in Jesus’ message among his disciples, and thus as the gradual resurgence and spread of the spirit of love that had first reached a prophetic fullness in Jesus’ life and teaching. Jones’ articulation of this understanding of Jesus’ Resurrection strikes me as a fair presentation of contemporary liberal theology.

Thus I find myself agreeing with the point of one of Kristof’s questions: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.” And, I would add, a particularly secular form of philosophical humanism.

As to the Virgin Birth – traditionally understood as Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse – I first of all agree that other miraculous conceptions are reported in Hebrew tradition – as in the elderly Sara’s conception of Isaac — and are also found in other ancient religions and mythologies — such as the Buddhist story of Gautama Siddhartha’s supernatural conception in his mother’s womb.

More significantly, I do share liberal questions about whether such claims are literally/physically true. I simply don’t know and, more important, I don’t think we can know.  Thus I find liberal claims which at least imply clear knowledge about such things curious at best.

So I find Jones’ dismissal (“I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim”) not only ungrounded but offensive. Why “bizarre”? Why not “poetic” or “imaginative,” or “the way ancient thought announced world-shaking births,” or even “reverently, if mistakenly, believed by earlier Christians and many Christians today.”

It is, moreover, not just the tone but also the substance of her dismissal that seems quite wrong-headed. She asserts that the Virgin Birth “has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.” Really? Wow! Why not at least admit that it’s the way that Mathew and Luke, from within their cultures, announced the world-shaking birth of the Messiah.  Thus one way they prepared their readers to appreciate their subsequent accounts of Jesus message? Instead, to repeat, we get a dogmatic assertion that the Virgin Birth has “nothing to do with Jesus message.”

Then we read Jones’ explanation for her dismissal: “The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful.” Yet it is at least interesting to note that that the Hebrew mind and its Jewish successor have never considered sexuality sinful. They, unlike Jones it seems, have long been able to distinguish between the great good of sexuality and the hard reality of sexual sin, of abuse and misuse. Christianity, too, for all its’ mixed and messy history about sex, has also been able to make that distinction even though some important theologians and too much popular preaching failed to do so.

And finally Jones’ coup de grace, her claim that belief in the Virgin Birth “promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.” That remark may touch the hearts of some soi-disant “feminists.” but there are fortunately many other feminisms.  For it does not even begin to explain the millennial oppression of women which has characterized most cultures and those religions which give no particular importance to virgin births. Nor does it acknowledge the legitimate importance that mothers, every bit as much as fathers, have long placed on protecting the bodies of young daughters.

I need to add my suspicion that most liberals who reject belief in a literal Virgin Birth may not share Jones’ “feminist” grounds for their rejection. Indeed, and here I am clearly speculating in a way that may be offensive to some, Jones seems to me to be expressing a deep kind of pain suffered by some (many?) women. And, as with pain-filled claims by racial and ethnic minorities, and even by white nationalists, the pain needs to be heard and taken seriously. But such respect does not mean agreement.

I also find Jones’ remarks about belief in an afterlife objectionable if less important. Among the adult Christians I know and read, doing good during this life is necessary in itself and not a childish calculation for gaining heavenly rewards. This is true even for those of us who do share the traditions’ hope for such rewards.

For what it’s worth, I believe in “the resurrection and the life” because I believe in Jesus’ Resurrection which Paul describes as “the first born among many” (Rom. 8:29). But I don’t try to imagine the afterlife. I find most images – from roads paved with gold or St. Bridget’s lake of beer to Aquinas and Dante’s more sophisticated image of eternal joy in the face of utter beauty – somewhat wonder-full. Yet in the end I share Updike’s inability to imagine. As in his short story (I forget the title, but hope I remember it correctly) satirizing a theological student working as a summer lifeguard and trying to imagine how the crowds at a beach and all the billions who’ve ever lived could be crowded into some vast heavenly “space.” Yet while I don’t take images of heaven too seriously, I do (again) believe in the reality of heaven because of Jesus’ Resurrection. I believe, in other words, in the transformed rebirth promised by Christian tradition — though I happen to disagree with Paul about the heavenly possibility of sex in the next life.

I could go on. Anyone who has read this far will get (and may well disagree with) the substance of my response to this undoubtedly serious professor and the liberal tradition I take her to represent.

Let me end on a hopefully irenic note. Jones closes her interview with a series of comments about Christianity (and other religions) being at “something of a turning point” where traditional beliefs and structures are failing and new forms are emerging – as happened previously at the Reformation and earlier during the times when Jesus lived. I definitely agree that we are living within a period of immense cultural and religious transition.

Most liberal and secular thinking about this transition recognizes its very real problems and challenges, but (to repeat) as I see it is moving in the wrong direction with a “naively liberal” response.  I think much the same about “naively conservative” fundamentalist responses to these same challenges. I have written to urge a more mediating or “progressive conservative” response — even though I know that some will find this little more than intellectual evasion, weaseling out of hard choices.

By the way, the best book I’ve read on the topic of this posting is Raymond Brown’s The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1972), though I freely admit to not having kept up with more recent biblical scholarship. Brown (1928-98) was a Catholic priest widely considered the best New Testament scholar of his generation. Often under suspicion from a conservative Catholic hierarchy, he was honored with a chaired professorship at Union Theological Seminary where he taught from 1971 to 1990 – well before Professor Jones’ presidency.

10 thoughts on “The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

  1. John,
    Thank you for a thoughtful and sophisticated rebuttal to Jones. As you might expect from one in the “liberal” camp, I can offer only partial agreement. But rather than slog through with my objections to your position, let me simply offer a thought for your consideration: perhaps your characterization of the liberal perspective as a secular-humanist rejection of biblical truth is not entirely fair-handed. Perhaps rather than a project of radical revisionism, liberals are merely articulating an interpretation of “Jesus events” with the tools at their disposal–just as writers like Paul forwarded interpretations with their cultural tools e.g. miracles, magic and blood sacrifice. You side with Paul (mostly) but rather than accept his cosmic Christ as the last word, I, and other liberals are impelled to cast a skeptical eye on interpretations that are informed by world views of a distant past. In this context consider today’s “original intent” interpreters who, in an age of automatic weapons hold to the words of the Second Amendment, a stricture from a document written when single-shot muskets were the rule
    Are they faithful to the Constitution in much the same way as literalists are to the Bible?
    In other words, interpretations are just that–interpretations, whether about gun rights or resurrections.

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    1. Andrew, good point — really — and thanks both for your respectful tone and the point. Suspect I remain still too controlled by my many resentments, as I suggested Jones may also be. Yet, as with gun control, interpretations have consequences. John

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  2. I guess I find all this intense debate about “virgin birth” and “resurrection” rather overly hammered from either the liberal or more traditional positions. Couldn’t it all be recognized as a metaphor for something so much more important than this fascination with the “literal?” I am much more inclined to go along with Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth on both these issues as representative of something larger than the literal sum of their parts. All this theology get too sticky for my taste.

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  3. How apt to reference the John Updike story. It is titled “Lifeguard” and was published in The New Yorker, June 17, 1961, p. 28- . These themes are further explored in his novel, “Roger’s Version” (1986). I wonder if Kristof’s interview with Serene Jones would have had the impact it has had had he (or his editor) not highlighted her unfortunate but provocative use of the adjective “bizarre” in the title of the article? This journalistic ploy reminds me of how the media often chose to cover the work of Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar.

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    1. Andrew, thanks for the Updike info. Suspect you are right about such journalistic ploys. Hope your book going well. Eternally (!) grateful to you for Wipf and Stock. John

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  4. John, fine response to Kristhof’s getting Serene Jones to overstate something, perhaps in a bizarre-ish way. Having read the NYT for too much of my life, I am glad they try to give religion some attention some of the time– and with Douthat and Brooks (and perhaps Egan) among the columnists, there is some faith on their op ed pages. Gary Dorrien’s more sympathetic treatment of Liberal Theology might be a general corrective by a fine theologian/philosopher/ethicist on the current Union NY faculty, though I appreciated your ending with a reference to Ray Brown’s work there. My overall defense of Dr. Jones would be that she often steps up and names things early on– like the moral damage and racism of the current administration– that need naming. Like many Midwestern Protestants, she may also still be reacting to the power of fundamentalism in parts of US culture. I take the Reformed philosopher Paul Ricoeur as a key guide to interpreting the Gospel narratives– though maybe “hermeneutics of retrieval” just sounds better than “wish fulfillment.” Nothing that speaks so archetypally can be that bizarre, but perhaps some bizarre is necessary to help us find the burning bushes.

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    1. Chris, thanks for your response and quasi-defense of Jones. Yet I am not at all sure what she is “stepping up early” to notice in this interview. As I said, my overall reaction is deja vu. I don’t know Ricoeur well, but a hermeneutics of retrieval was what I was attempting. And you lose me at the end with “burning bushes” — which and where? But thanks.

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  5. John, you note in reference to the Virgin Birth (conception),after contextualizing it with the story of Issac and Gautama, “More significantly, I do share liberal questions about whether such claims are literally/physically true. I simply don’t know and, more important, I don’t think we can know”. But such agnosticism skirts the Catholic position of Tradition along with Scripture as fundamental in God’s revelation. Indeed, Brown specifically affirms Tradition as a critical hermeneutic principle in the Catholic dogma of the Virgin Birth

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    1. Rhett, I need to think more on your point. My goal, as you undoubtedly can see, was a form of tradition retrieval. I am not sure tradition can help us “know,” though it certainly is a guide to belief. Perhaps it all hangs on what we mean by “know” and “believe.”

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