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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The virgin conception of Jesus and the christology of Acts

In Acts Luke tells a story about the mission of the early church first to Israel, then to the nations. The risen Lord Jesus features prominently in this story both as the content of the church’s preaching and as one who is dynamically involved in the direction and oversight of that mission.

Nothing suggests, as far as I can see, that Luke thought this story depended on the premise that Jesus was God. It’s an invasive hypothesis. The remarkable status and role of Jesus in the story is fully accounted for by the claim—made principally on the basis of Psalm 110:1—that the God of Israel has exalted the “man” Jesus to his right hand and given him the authority and power to judge and rule over Israel and the nations that he would otherwise have reserved for himself.

There is no conflation of identities involved in this, only the transfer or delegation of “lordship”. God gives authority to his anointed king to reign at his right hand until the last enemy has been destroyed. When Jesus is revealed to the apostles and disciples, it is not as God himself but as the Son of Man—the representative of suffering righteous Israel who has now been vindicated and given the kingdom.

This is not an argument against Trinitarianism. It is an argument against the abuse of interpretation by a practice of indisciplined, theologically motivated proof-texting in disregard of context. It is an argument against the obfuscation of Luke’s dominant political-apocalyptic narrative about kingdom and the nations. It is an argument against a hermeneutic that assumes that the New Testament is a uniform witness to a set of ideas drawn up under vastly different intellectual conditions.

The Church Fathers rightly and necessarily, in my view, constructed from the New Testament’s identification of Jesus with the creative Wisdom of God a model of the godhead that would work in the post-Jewish, post-apocalyptic environment of the Greek-Roman world. But that doesn’t permit us to read this model back into arguments and narratives devised for an entirely different purpose.

Just saying.

OK, but what about the virgin birth? Doesn’t the virgin birth prove that Jesus was God, or at least something “a bit more than a normal human in Luke’s eyes”?

I’ve written about the virgin birth in Matthew in a number of posts. My argument, briefly, is that Matthew regarded the miraculous birth of Jesus as a sign that God was with his people at a time of crisis to save them from the consequences of their sins.

Luke makes no reference to the Immanuel prophecy. He has a different perspective.

The angel tells Mary that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33). That is the kingdom theme. It has its counterpart in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. It says only that Jesus will be given David’s throne and will rule over Israel forever.

Mary is a virgin, but the Holy Spirit will “come upon” her and “the power of the Most High will overshadow” her. This is not incarnation language: it is the language of God’s presence in the midst of his people.

Therefore, the child will be called holy, the “Son of God”. According to Luke, to say that Jesus is the “Son of God” means that he is the Christ:

And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ. (Lk. 4:41)

“Son of God” means only that Jesus has been chosen and anointed by God to perform a decisive kingdom-historical task: proclaim the coming kingdom to Israel, suffer rejection, rule as Israel’s king. He is the servant anointed to carry out God’s purposes (Lk. 3:22; cf. Is. 42:1), whose vocation as “Son of God” is then tested by Satan in the wilderness (Lk. 4:3, 9).

The phrase “Son of God” is found only once in Acts, on the lips of Paul:

And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” … But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:20, 22)

So Paul likewise understands “Son of God” to mean Messiah—the anointed ruler who would save and rule over his people in the age to come. This is confirmed by his testimony at the beginning of Romans. Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3–4). Presumably Psalm 2 is operative here:

The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Ps. 2:7–9)

As with Psalm 110:1 we have a clear distinction between YHWH and the “Son of God” who has been given the nations as his heritage. No invasive hypothesis required.

So I stick to my guns.

Luke sees in the miraculous birth of Jesus “proof” of the fact that Jesus is the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, and that he will rule over Israel and perhaps also over the nations forever, “and of his kingdom there will be no end”—at least, not until the last enemy has been destroyed and the authority to rule is given back to God. Acts gives us Luke’s perspective on the historical outworking of that conviction.

In his comment Peter made the point that “the writer of the Gospel of John equated Jesus with OT Wisdom”. Agreed. But Luke is not the writer of the Gospel of John. He had other fish to fry.

Comments

It is an argument against the abuse of interpretation by a practice of indisciplined, theologically motivated proof-texting in disregard of context. It is an argument against the obfuscation of Luke’s dominant political-apocalyptic narrative about kingdom and the nations. It is an argument against a hermeneutic that assumes that the New Testament is a uniform witness to a set of ideas drawn up under vastly different intellectual conditions.

Andrew, even the twinkle in your pen in your later aside “Just saying” can’t modify this from being a highly inflammatory set of remarks. It won’t do for you to keep saying that any “conflation of identity” (a good phrase, which I take the credit for) of Jesus with the divine only emerged in a “post-Jewish, post-apocalyptic environment”. I’m sorry, but that isn’t the view of some serious scholarship which is addressing the issue today, and some serious contributions on your website. Just saying.

Andrew, I agree that we don’t see incarnation. (I mistook your point and thought you were arguing against the virgin birth in Luke’s writing.)

It’s harder for me to understand how the Jewish writer of the first gospel included “Greek-like” material than it is to understand why the Gentile Luke did. But it does seem both authors only viewed the miraculous birth as a way that God established Jesus’ credentials and not as something that gave Jesus supernatural powers we see in Greek demigods.

That’s right. I’m not arguing against the virgin conception. I’m arguing against an anachronistic misinterpretation of the virgin conception. I think this approach probably goes some way towards addressing the claim that the episode has a Hellenistic provenance or background. It certainly makes it a much more Jewish business.

From the article:
“And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33).

Concerning the “kingdom” of Christ:
Revelation 11:15. It reads,
Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (NASB)
Notice that the singular “He” refers both to the “Lord” (the Father) and to Christ (the Son). This accords with Trinitarianism.
a. G. K. Beale: It is not clear whether it is “our Lord” or “his Christ” who “will reign forever and ever.” It may well be that “the singular comprehends God and his Christ as an inseparable unity” ((The Book of Revelation: The New International Greek Testament Commentary, page 611).
b. Concerning “reign” the BDAG (3rd Edition) reads, “of God and Christ together” (basileuō, page 170).
Once again the singular “He” encompasses the Lord Jesus.

Marc, apart from the fact that Luke didn’t write Revelation, you can’t put forward tentative propositions (“It may well be…”) and draw categorical conclusions from them (‘Once again the singular “He” encompasses the Lord Jesus’). In fact, I think that you and Beale are both clearly wrong.

The proclamation echoes Psalm 2:2 LXX:

The kings of the earth stood side by side, and the rulers gathered together, against the Lord and against his anointed (tou christou autou).

The Psalm goes on to speak of the joint rule of God and his king without confusing the one with the other. This is consistent with Luke’s narrative.

To my mind it’s virtually inconceivable that the singular verb basileusei (there is no pronoun, and Aune notes that the subject is formally hē basileia, “the kingdom”) would merge “of our Lord” and “of his Christ” into a singular person.

The critical grammatical observation is that the nearest pronoun to basileusei is autou. The subject, therefore, is certainly God. Literally:

The kingdom of the world has become (the kingdom) of our Lord and of the Christ of him, and he shall reign…

And in verse 17 it is the Lord God Almighty who has “begun to reign” (ebasileusas). As in the Psalm the kingdom belongs both to God and to his king, but it is then said that God will reign forever and ever.

Here Mounce is helpful:

During his earthly ministry Jesus had resisted the tempting offer of Satan to hand over the kingdoms of this world in exchange for worship (Matt 4:8–9). Now this sovereignty passes to him as a rightful possession in view of the successful completion of his messianic ministry. “Our Lord and … his Christ” reflects Ps 2:2, which was interpreted messianically by the early church (Acts 4:26–28).3 Although the Son will ultimately be subjected to the Father (1 Cor 15:28), he will nevertheless share the eternal rule of God. The singular (“he will reign”) emphasizes the unity of this joint sovereignty. (R.H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (1997), 226)

Hello Andrew,
You cited R. H. Mounce in which he affirmed:
The singular (“he will reign”) emphasizes the unity of this joint sovereignty. (R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (1997), 226)
God the Father and the Lord Jesus are not confused with one another. They are not the same Person (contra Modalism) but the fact that the Lord Jesus is included in this reign once again demonstrates that the Lord Jesus possesses all power (omnipotence).
Besides the BDAG (3rd Edition) others too refer this reign to the Lord Jesus:
1. Murray Harris: in Rev. 11:15 the one kingdom belongs to ‘our Lord’ and ‘his Christ.’ (Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Jesus, page 22, footnote #8).
2. In Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament “reign” is used “of God” and then it also adds that it is used “of the rule of Jesus, the Messiah” (basileuō)
http://biblehub.com/greek/936.htm
For those who deny the Lord Jesus is God we they once again see the line between the Creator and their creature not so clear cut. This line should never be crossed or even hinted at.

In terms of Luke’s gospel as he begins with the miraculous virginal conception of the Lord Jesus he concludes it in reference to His Supreme Deity (cf. Luke 24:52). He is indeed a remarkable God.
1. William Arndt: as Jesus withdrew from the disciples, visibly rising upward, they fell down on their knees, overcome by the conviction of His being the true God and the Savior (Luke, page 501-502)
2. Thomas Schreiner: Luke concludes on a remarkable note. The disciples of Jesus were monotheists well schooled in OT devotion, and yet they worship Jesus (Luke 24:52). Such worship of Jesus, however, does not contradict their devotion to monotheism and the one God of Israel and of the world, for the next verse informs us that they blessed and praised God (Luke 24:53) (New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, page 189-190).

Andrew - you make a number of assertions, for which I ‘m struggling to see you have provided much proof. But first, can we just come to an agreement: no one, least of all myself, is denying that there is a background narrative of a coming king in the line of David who would be exalted to God’s right hand as Psalm 110.1 declares, and who would in some way defeat Israel’s enemies. The disagreement is whether this figure was in some way divine, whether the NT, gospels and Acts, bear witness to this divinity, and who the enemies ultimately were. I think the last becomes clear in the course of some of the passages you refer us to.

So when terms like Son of God are invoked, they not only bring with them a range of OT meaning, and that not simply messianic king, but because of this range the term cannot exclude further development of meaning, depending on the context. Psalm 2 is only one of a number of ways in the OT in which God’s “Son” is presented, and in the NT not the precise extract which you have selected. More importantly, it gets no mention in the birth account in Luke.

The same goes for the kingdom theme, the development of which in Luke/Acts was very different from any extrapolation of a simple OT narrative, if such a thing existed. Gabriel’s visit to Mary unambiguously introduces the kingdom theme, but says nothing about the totally unexpected way in which the theme would be worked out . We should already be alerted to the fact that some expectations are being created which are about to be dramatically challenged.

You quote the words used of Mary’s conception of Jesus, that “the Holy Spirit will “come upon” her” and ““the power of the Most High will overshadow” her”, and then say “This is not incarnation language: it is the language of God’s presence in the midst of his people”. You provide no substantiation for this claim , and I could find none in the post to which the claim directed us. So I assume it’s just an assertion: you want it to mean this, but provide no evidence for what you assert..

You then quote Luke 4:41, which mentions that demons recognise Jesus as the Christ, as proof that Jesus is the Son of God, which is a circular claim, since you have not in this instance said what Son of God means. You do however go on to say in the next paragraph that “Son of God means only that Jesus has been chosen and anointed by God to perform a decisive kingdom-historical task”. But Luke 4:41 shows nothing of the sort; in fact it raises a counter issue.

The incident referred to has demons recognising that Jesus was the Christ. This is a very peculiar outworking of messiahship, and certainly not what might have been expected from Jesus’s messianic manifesto of Luke 4:18-19. Freedom for the prisoners and release of the oppressed is being given a very new and unexpected meaning. Jesus is not recognised by Israel in Luke 4:16-29, but is recognised and feared by demons in Luke 4:31-41. Jesus has just overcome Satan in the desert in Luke 4:1-14, and become empowered by the Spirit. So the story is going in a very different direction from the kingdom narrative which you are presenting.

It is certainly the case that Paul proclaims Jesus as Son of God in Acts 9:20, but the immediate context gives no further definition of the phrase. You turn to Romans 1:3-4 for Paul’s definition of Son of God, which I personally think proves nothing one way or the other about what exactly the phrase meant, except that by the end of the paragraph Jesus is bracketed with God the Father - Romans 1:7b, which the significance of the description seems to me to impel us towards, and gives it more specific content. There is no mention of Psalm 2 here. That’s just your association of it with the phrase Son of God, and it doesn’t fit with Psalm 2 in this context. There is no mention of Psalm 110, which you have also imported into the passage without justification.

Pauls use of the phrase Son of God in Romans does seem to me to be moving towards a conflation of human and divine identity, which the final bracketing of Jesus and God the Father seems to me to confirm. I don’t disagree with much of your penultimate paragraph, but have a very different interpretation of how that is worked out in the narrative.

I’m not trying to suggest that Luke or Paul were setting out to do anything like “prove” that Jesus was God. They don’t have time for that. I am arguing that in the very novel direction which the narrative takes in the New Testament, a high Christology is a given, and there are many ways in which this is evident. I am also arguing that the narrative was everything you assert it to be, but that it goes much further than you claim. The one raised to God’s right hand was no less than God himself. He didn’t become God at some later stage. He wasn’t made to be God by later theologians, or cobbled together by them while they missed the whole point of the narrative history. Jesus was God from the start, and this can be seen throughout the gospels. It is evident in the birth accounts, if we let them speak for themselves without imposing our own agenda on them.

You provide no substantiation for this claim , and I could find none in the post to which the claim directed us. So I assume it’s just an assertion: you want it to mean this, but provide no evidence for what you assert.

I pointed to two Old Testament passages where this language is used without connotations of incarnation but suggesting rather the presence of God with his people. It’s limited evidence, admittedly, but there is no evidence at all for thinking that Luke is saying that God is taking on human flesh. Instead, Luke explicitly connects this with Jesus’ messianic status. This is in the text. It’s the sort of evidence that biblical interpreters rely on all the time.

You then quote Luke 4:41, which mentions that demons recognise Jesus as the Christ, as proof that Jesus is the Son of God, which is a circular claim, since you have not in this instance said what Son of God means.

I’ll quote Fitzmyer:

The identification of Jesus as “the Son of God” echoes that given in the baptism scene (3:22)—and by hindsight in the infancy narrative (1:32, 35). The context here suggests that Luke equates this title with that of “Messiah,” even though they are otherwise used independently, given their distinct and discrete OT origins. (554)

It is not the demons who equate “Son of God” with “Christ” but Luke.

It is certainly the case that Paul proclaims Jesus as Son of God in Acts 9:20, but the immediate context gives no further definition of the phrase.

The immediate context suggests quite strongly, it seems to me, that Paul understood “Son of God” to be more or less equivalent to “Messiah”. Saul proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying that he is the Son of God; and he confounds the Jews by proving that he is the Messiah (Acts 9:20, 22).

Moo is a conservative enough scholar, but he connects Romans 1:4 with Paul’s proclamation in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch:

“this [what God promised to the fathers’] he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten Thee’ ” (Acts 13:33). Rom. 1:4 probably alludes to this Psalm verse (2:7), which speaks of the coronation of the Davidic messianic King. (48)

I agree.

In your first point, yes, you do refer to two OT passages which you say have some connection with the Spirit references in Gabriel’s prediction to Mary. I also agree with your own comment: “It’s limited evidence, admittedly”. I don’t think Isaiah 32:15 has any connection with the Spirit causing Mary to conceive, and Exodus 40:35 still less.

In the passages in Luke, there is no question that a connection is made between Son of God and messiah. I was pointing out the circularity of the argument you present. If Son of God means messiah, what does messiah mean?

I was intending, if not successfully, to make the observation that Luke’s presentation of Son of God = Messiah was in the context of casting out demons, which takes the narrative in a very different direction from the expectations aroused by Luke 4:18-19, freedom for prisoners and release of the oppressed in particular. Here is a messiah whose first action was to overcome Satan in the wilderness, then immediately to follow on a liberation manifesto with casting out demons. The narrative is very different from the simple expectation of political freedom by defeat of enemies in the usual OT pattern.

A similar issue applies to Paul, who certainly proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ in Acts 9:20 and 22. What we are not told in the passage is what this means. It’s a circular statement. Who is Jesus? The Son of God. Who is the Son of God? The Christ. Who is the Christ? The Son of God etc.

Well, you obviously did get Psalm 2 into Romans 1:3-4 from somewhere, if Moo is correct. It seems very tenuous to me. The connection with 2 Samuel 7 seems rather more obvious to me. But who am I to say?

To return to Luke 1:35, the virgin conception of Jesus is a complete novelty, for which there is no OT precedent. Luke calmly proceeds: “So the one to be born will be called the Son of God”, as if that explains everything.

All that we have known and expected up to this point is that Son of God will be a descendant of David who will come on a restored throne of David. Now, the Son of God is someone who will be conceived by a completely new and unheard of means, and the family line of this person will be interrupted by an invasion (that’s a good word) of God’s Spirit. So what does that make him?

Luke is not presenting a story which is a simple continuation of OT antecedents. He sets up expectations, and then takes the story in a completely new direction. If you aren’t bewildered by this, you should be. John the Baptist lost it completely - Luke 7:20.

I was intending, if not successfully, to make the observation that Luke’s presentation of Son of God = Messiah was in the context of casting out demons, which takes the narrative in a very different direction from the expectations aroused by Luke 4:18-19, freedom for prisoners and release of the oppressed in particular.

I’m not sure the direction should be seen as that different. It seems that Luke is merely including demonic forces in the category of Imprisoners and Oppressors from whom the Messiah is freeing the people.

Thanks for the discussion, and thank you for the post, Andrew!