Thursday, January 18, 2024

Once upon a time, a Man Became God

How in the world did that happen, do you suppose? Well, as with all good stories, there are several different accounts in the New Testament. The best known appears in two different versions (Matt 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-2:20).1 These narratives are blended and celebrated annually every December in Christian church and family settings. The narrative leads the reader to think that the God-Man (or man-God) was born naturally like all human children, as a flesh and blood child through the vaginal canal of his birth mother. The conception of the child by the birth-mother, however, is most unusual. Matthew says that the child’s mother conceived by a holy spirit (Matt 1:20) in fulfilment of Scripture. The child was to be called Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14), which Matthew interprets as “God with us” (Matt 1:23). Luke also describes the child’s conception through a holy spirit that “comes upon” the mother and a “power of the Most-High overshadowing her,” suggesting that conception occurs in fashion similar to human conceiving, by a spiritual sperm.2 This child, Luke opines, shall be holy and called a son of God (Luke 1:35).

            In John’s Gospel, there is a third version of the story in the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) for how a divine figure came to be man. The fragmentary narrative (John 1:1-2, 14) lacks in clarity. A figure, described as logos,3 who was from the primordial beginning alongside God and “what God was, the logos was.”4 Hence, the logos shared God’s essence, while being distinguishable from God (cf. Phil 2:6). In John 1:14 this spiritual figure “was made flesh” (cf. John 1:3).5 I take this to mean an incarnating or “enfleshing” of the logos in the sense of Phil 2:7: “taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in form as man…” How ever the author of the introductory poem to John may have conceived the event, it seems clear that conception and birth in the Matthaean and Lukan sense is not the process being described.

            A fourth version of the story appears in Rom 1:3-4 where God’s son is “born (genomenou) from the sperm (spermatos) of David according to the flesh,” and “appointed (oristhentos) son of God with power according to a spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” Jesus was a human being, a descendent of David, born of fleshly sperm, and was appointed, or declared, son of God by the spirit at his resurrection. His historical life was therefore not lived as the son of God. He was only advanced to that status at the end of his life at his resurrection.

            The early period of the Jesus movements was one of speculation about the identity and nature of Jesus. The historical matrix providing the spark that led toward the regarding of Jesus as son of God was plausibly the influx of gentiles into the gatherings of the Jesus followers.6 The cessation of early speculation about the nature of Jesus, which effectively weeded out other views and resulted in the dominance of the stories of Matthew/Luke, was occasioned by the early confessions of the church in the fourth century and at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth,7 where Jesus was acclaimed as “very God and very man.” That declaration by the council is an uneasy solution, since it is challenged by other views reflected in the early Jesus gatherings and preserved in biblical texts. So, What is your thinking was Jesus a God-man or a man-God?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1They are not contradictory narratives but just completely different, but they both agree in the birthing process.

2See Charles W. Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions and the Language of Faith,” The Fourth R 52.1 (January-February 2019): 15-20; idem, “How Do Divine Beings Procreate,” The Fourth R 36.6 (November-December 2023): 18-19.

3Logos is a central term in classical Greek culture. Its range of meaning in English is generally covered by two different ideas: speech and reason. See the entry logos in Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed. Oxford: University Press, 1999), 882. And the discussion by Ernst Haenchen, John 1. A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6 (Robert W. Funk, trans. and ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 135-40.

4Here is the translation of John 1:1-2 in the Revised English Bible: “In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was the Word was.” It is at once as much an interpretation as a translation.

5See Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed. revised; Chicago: University, 2000), 196-99, taking ginomai in the sense of Bauer-Danker’s second entry rather than the fifth.

6Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions,” 13-20.

7Hedrick, “Early Christian Confessions,” 17, 20.


bobinberea said...

Thanks, Charlie. I'm missing here a nod to Mark, in which I and other Markan scholars think Jesus becomes son of God by divine decree in his baptism. 'Adoption,' as it were, in the manner of Psalm 2, a liturgy for the anointing of Israelite kings, all of whom apparently were "son of God." And of course there is also the odd business of Matthew and Luke's virginal conception stories being accompanied by two different genealogies for Joseph, who is supposedly not Jesus' biological father but rather, I suppose, his 'adopted' father. Curiosities galore, eh?

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Bob, Thanks for the correction. I can only plead the reason for my omission was a matter of practicality. I try to limit myself to what equals two printed pages. Had I more space I would have added Mark 1:11 (along with Luke 3:22). See my blog "On Calling Jesus my Brother" (where Mark played a large part). In a sense the method of becoming son of God by declaration was covered in the earlier confession Romans 1:3-4. But you are correct, Mark deserved at the very least, a nod. My apologies to Mark.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

In my understanding you absolutely hit the nail on the head in the version 4 birth story. Jesus was a human being raised-up upon death to the position of Son of God with Power. I think that this is the only place in the Christian scriptures where the humanity of the risen Jesus has been respected. I also think, however, that Romans 1:3b-4 is a later interpolation not original to Paul. I have prepared a paper setting out that hypothesis and hope to get it published. Do you have any thoughts about an interpolation theory?

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, there's a typo in previous message: the interpolation verses are Romans 1:3b-4b.


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
Offhand I do not know if anyone argued for Romans 1:3-4 being an interpolation. I note that Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 212 did not think it was an interpolation. But I will grant you that I have always thought that the idea behind those verses was foreign to Paul.