Question and answer December 1997

Does it really matter if I believe in the incarnation but have doubts about a good deal of the Christmas stories in the Gospels?

I guess that you will be in good company at Christmastime as there are usually a few bishops who say just that when they get the chance to write in the papers over the holy season. But leaders in the church are not always right!

The fact of the matter is that God chose to record the facts of the incarnation for us in that particular way. How else should we have been made aware of the amazing fact that God became man in the form of a human being if we did not have the birth stories preserved for us in the gospels?

We might, I suppose have concluded that Jesus was a divine being or a person especially open to God as a result of reading his teaching.

But then, if the birth stories are not to be believed, how can we accept that the recorded sayings of Jesus are true either? In fact, many scholars have the idea that much of what John recorded of Jesus claims to be God were not original and that Jesus probably never said (for example) "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me". But scholars are not always right either!

It seems to me therefore that, if we decide to abandon the birth stories as merely beautiful fiction, we may have to throw out a good deal of other material as well and that leaves us with Jesus as a good but rather odd human being and not much more.

Let us take, for example, the story of the virgin birth. It is often said that this is not likely to have been true. But then we have to ask some searching questions. Did Joseph sleep with his bride to be before they were married? Or did Mary have sex with someone else during that waiting period when she was bespoken to Joseph? Or perhaps did Joseph agree to marry her although she was already pregnant by another man? Or did Mary conceal the facts from Joseph and make up the story of the visit of the angel to explain her condition? And would Joseph really have believed such a cock and bull story unless it were really true and the angel had appeared to him also? Now these questions are not very pleasant to ask and we do not like asking them but this is the logic of denying the birth stories. The fact is that the virgin birth was not only true but was an acted parable for our edification as we see clearly that the child Jesus was the result of God intervening in human history through the willing and courageous co-operation of a young woman called Mary. It is simply true.

John Pearce, Bury St Edmunds.

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