Evolution of the Word
in Paul and the Four Gospels
A foundational teaching of the New Testament is that God has declared that Jesus is the Son of God, thus affirming, on the highest authority, his divine nature. At what point in time, or during which event in the life of Jesus, is the declaration made? It turns out that there are four answers to this question: four different answers.
The earliest writings are the letters of Paul and in Romans, written circa 58 C.E., Paul says that God designated Jesus the “Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Paul, therefore, places the time of the divine declaration at the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . Romans 1:1-4
Mark, the earliest gospel, written around 70 C.E., moves the declaration back in time to an earlier event: the baptism of Jesus. And, whereas Paul merely states that God has designated Jesus as Son of God, Mark presents it as a story, or episode, with dramatic details:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11:
Continuing that backward trend, Matthew, writing in the late 80s C.E., places the divine declaration at the time of the conception of Jesus. And it is in this gospel that we first hear of the nativity story and the virgin birth, an addition that is made some six decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus . . .” Matthew 1:18-21
Luke (early 90s C.E.) follows Matthew’s nativity story but offers an upgrade in terms of more concrete details: the angel now has a name, Gabriel, and he appears not in a dream, but in person, and not to Joseph, but to Mary.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph . . . The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. . . .” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you . . . ; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Luke 1:26-35
And so, thus far, the declaration has been moved back in time from resurrection, to baptism, and to conception.
“One would think that no point earlier in life than conception could be imagined. But thinking thus would not appreciate fully the ingenuity of the early Christian theological mind.” So writes John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop whose analysis I follow in this presentation.
And indeed, when we come to the gospel of John, written around the turn of the century, or 100 C.E., the divine designation has been moved back to its ultimate temporal limit, the dawn of creation. Jesus was with God in the beginning . . . With this expansion of the backward theme, by the incarnation of the eternal logos, there is no time when Jesus is not with God. Moreover, with God as God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. John 1:1-2
In light of this, it is interesting to note that there is not so much as a whisper in John’s Gospel about the nativity or virgin birth. For John, the important birth was the mystical birth, the incarnation of the Word.
And the Word became flesh
and lived among us . . .
full of grace and truth.
Paul in Romans
circa 58 C.E.
circa 70 C.E.
late 80s C.E.
early 90s C.E.
circa 100 C.E.
One point to be noticed here is that, in the beginning, the beginning of the church, understanding didn’t come in a flash, once and for all time, but emerged, evolved. There is first, the Christ event, or experience, and then there may be an articulated understanding of that event. Paul’s numinous experience of the presence of Jesus on the road to Damascus ignites later understandings that will be articulated in his writings.
And God said:
“Let there be . . . upgrades,”
and there were upgrades,
in saecula saeculorum.
A HyC Presentation
that derives from
John Shelby Spong
“Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament”