July 02, 2017

Is Jesus the Son of God?

The short answer: Yes. Of course Jesus is the son of God.

The relationship of Jesus Christ and God is a fundamental truth of Christian Theology. But the circumstances of how Jesus became the son of God are a bit murky, and have been the source of almost constant argument ever since the book of Matthew was written.

So.... what is a logical and credible explanation of his relationship with God?

Some Caveats.

There is no “Mrs. God” with whom God had a son that he somehow placed in Mary’s womb. Jesus is not the son of God in the human sense of father and son. God did not mate with Mary to produce a son. Contrary to the assertions of some early Church theologians, Jesus did not exist before Mary became pregnant, and Jesus was not God before he was conceived as a human. It is, however, widely held that he became the “same substance” as God after he ascended into heaven for the last time.

So how did Jesus become the son of God?

Some background.

During the time the New Testament was written and the early Church was developing (~30 – ~451 AD.), it was generally believed that a woman contributed nothing to the creation of a baby. An agrarian culture took its conceptual beliefs from farming. They knew that if a farmer planted a seed in fertile soil, and it was properly nourished, it would grow into a plant (a tree, a stalk of wheat, and so on). Thus it was believed a man planted his “seed” (a complete human) into a woman’s body and if she was fertile, the seed would attach to the womb and grow into a baby. The idea a woman could be infertile (or barren) and hence incapable of providing the “soil” for the seed persisted into the 20th century – even though there were theories about the existence of a woman’s egg and its function before then. Even as a young man, I can remember the women of our church would occasionally say things like” “She can’t have a baby because she is infertile,” or “Isn’t it a shame she is barren.” 

The discovery of how conception works had to wait for the invention of the microscope, attributed to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 1632–1723. By the late seventeenth century, both key components of fertilization — the egg and sperm — had been postulated, but remained a theory. Oscar Hertwig (1875) showed how a sperm head fused with female genetic material in sea urchins, giving a conceptual basis for genetic inheritance. But the discovery of how the human female egg is fertilized would not be confirmed until the 1900s (by Edgar Allen 1928).

Conception (when the sperm penetrates the egg) creates a fertilized ovum called a zygote. The zygote's genome is a combination of the DNA in each parent, and contains all of the genetic information necessary to form a new human. Cell division begins, creating the fetus that will become a human baby.

The importance of DNA was not clearly recognized until ~ 1953. A molecule of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contains the genetic instructions that govern the growth, development, function and reproduction of a living organism. Our physical characteristics are largely determined by our DNA, and the information contained in DNA also influences our intellectual and emotional persona. DNA instructions (information) are passed from parent to child during conception. We inherit half of our DNA from our father and half from our mother.

The Birth Story

For most Christians, Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ to a Virgin Mary is a wonderfully uplifting and spiritually thrilling narrative. It represents the excitement of new life, the promise of spiritual grace, and a living proof of God’s love. We must always respect the beliefs of those who find spiritual joy and inspiration in the concept of a virgin birth. God certainly has the power to cause the birth of a man he would call “his son”.

But perplexing questions and controversy have always surrounded the Matthew’s story.

It is likely Matthew believed God’s “seed” would be a complete human baby (a tiny fetus), ready to grow in Mary’s womb. Because it was a seed created by God, Matthew assumed it would have the divine characteristics of God (in effect, it would be the progeny of the Holy Father). Jesus was thus expected to be the son of God with the physical characteristics of a human male.

But a virgin birth creates several problems that have plagued Christianity for almost 2,000 years:
  1. Marriage was consummated by intercourse, and it was assumed drops of blood from the act would prove the virginity of the bride. It was also assumed consumption would usually result in conception. A consumption, conception or birth outside of marriage would have been contrary to Jewish law. It is difficult to believe either Mary or Joseph would even consider ignoring the tenets of their faith. It is equally difficult to believe God would ask them to do so.
  2.  In order to assure it was God who seeded Mary, some early Church leaders decided Joseph was really an old man (who could not, presumably, seed Mary). But this conflicts with the image of Joseph as a young father and his role in fathering a total of seven children.
  3. Matthew, and many early church fathers, believed it was important for Jesus to trace his lineage back to King David. That link would have to be through his human father, Joseph, and he would have to be a descendant of King David. That reinforces the idea Joseph had to be the one who “planted” his seed in Mary.
  4. But according to Matthew and Luke, Joseph was not the father of Jesus. Thus early church theologians were put into the position of trying to trace the lineage of Jesus though Mary to King David, an effort contemporaneous Jews would reject because they believed a baby’s lineage must be traced through the male. Besides, if it was generally believed a woman contributed nothing to conception, then how could there be a connection? Thus we have a conundrum; neither Mary nor Joseph provides a link to King David because neither one contributed to the conception.
  5. It is alleged the Matthew created the virgin birth story to support his contention Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Having a God for a father and a human woman for a mother was a frequent claim of emperors and kings. This gave them political and theological status above ordinary people (usually their subjects) in a hierarchy of social order and privilege.
  6.  And finally, many early Christians wanted to believe Mary was never seeded by a human. She was “immaculate” and “innocent” of all earthly sin. This conflicts with the evidence of her six other children.
On the other hand, if we accept Joseph was the natural father, and Mary was the natural mother, then Jesus was a natural human baby, and the connection with King David is theologically and biologically correct.

A Natural Birth

For Joseph, and early church fathers, it was an either or proposition. Either Joseph would be the father or God would be the father. Joseph’s seed or God’s seed. But of course God knew all about DNA, a woman’s egg, and the role of a man’s seed in the act of conception. God could have easily created a natural conception with all the right DNA for the human he would call his son.

There are two perfectly logical solutions.
1. God created the DNA of his son. He then placed it into Mary’s egg, and into Joseph’s sperm. Joseph’s seed makes its way into the Fallopian tube, burrows into the egg, and a natural conception takes place. But the DNA was created by God. It is therefore God’s son (or more correctly the son of God and the son of man).
2. God could modify or replace the DNA of the Zygote to ensure it had all of the characteristics he wanted in a son.

In either case, conception would occur according to Jewish custom and law; it would be possible to connect the blood line of Jesus with that of King David; Mary and Joseph would have a natural conception according to their faith; and God has a son. After all, it’s his DNA. God’s divinity is transferred to the fetus that will become baby Jesus. In 21st century terms, think of it as a form of In vitro fertilization.

Unfortunately, however, no one really understood these possible solutions until the late 20th century, and traditional Christian beliefs continue to center on obsolete first century medical knowledge. We can wonder. If Luke (a doctor) were alive today, what would he write in his Gospel? Would Matthew avoid the theological problems he created?

Time for a Revision.
It’s time we revisited the birth of Jesus and revised it to reflect our 21st Century understanding of biology and medical technology. There is no biological reason why Jesus could not have DNA from two fathers (God and Joseph) or from God alone. There is no biological reason why Mary’s egg could not have contributed the DNA attributes God wanted in a son. God could have created Mary’s egg, or Joseph’s seed, or both sources of DNA. Medical science has rendered the early church’s concern, and constant argument, about the creation and lineage of Jesus obsolete. Jesus was (and is) God’s son and divine by God’s will. The lineage of Joseph’s seed can be traced back to King David. It’s in the DNA.

Ron

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