If we’re not persuaded by literal readings of the virgin birth, bodily resurrection and Pentecost, then we need to supply an alternative account for the extraordinary and enduring impact of Jesus upon humanity, writes Ian Wallace
Ask almost anyone around about Christian beginnings around Christmastide and they will almost certainly point you towards the nativity – those parabolic overtures (to borrow a phrase from Borg and Crossan’s The First Christmas) that Matthew and Luke provide as a means of ‘leaking’ Jesus’ significance prior to the onset of his ministry. Interestingly, the popular re-telling of Jesus’ birth is an amalgam of both versions, with contemporary appropriations. Be that as it may, what is important to recognise is that these narratives relating Jesus’ miraculous birth with angelic annunciation and divine conception, dreams, portents and programmatic infanticide were not intended by the evangelists to communicate historical fact but theological meaning. They bear witness to Christian beginnings, but not to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth; instead, to the community of faith his ministry conceived. Or, expressed in another way, they are evidence of Jesus’ enormous impact upon those whom he encountered and, more remarkably, upon those who never met him and yet recognised his authority upon their lives.
Two thousand years of Christian history have desensitized us to the profundity of this happening. Think about it for a moment, a first-century Galilean with a grass-roots vision for how God’s kingdom could blossom in the midst of oppression and austerity, a gifted teacher and minister of forgiveness, who orchestrated his own death through challenging the legitimacy of the prevailing temple cult and the sovereignty of Rome, becomes the founder of a world-wide movement that has attracted more followers than any other throughout human history.
How unbelievable is that, especially as it is unlikely that Jesus had much of a sense of the universal reach of his kingdom vision. Let’s be clear, the phenomenon of Christianity demands explanation. And if we’re not persuaded by literal readings of the virgin birth, bodily resurrection and Pentecost, then we need to supply an alternative account for the extraordinary and enduring impact of Jesus upon humanity.
Gerd Lüdemann (pictured) is a New Testament scholar with an international reputation who has devoted a career to addressing this vital question. He will be the speaker at the Centre for Radical Christianity’s Spring conference at St Mark’s, Broomhill, Sheffield, on Saturday, 11 May 2013. CRC is extremely fortunate to be able to host one of his rare visits to the UK.
Conference details and booking link here