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Join us for the final episode of The Bible for Normal People Season 7 as Pete and Jared end the year on an easy note by tackling the cultural, historical, and societal context of the birth of Jesus as found in the Bible. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What does the Bible say about the virgin birth?
  • How do scholars wrestle with the topic of Jesus’s birth?
  • What context are we looking at when we’re talking about the virgin birth?
  • Are there parts of the Bible that aren’t affected by historical context?
  • Which Gospels recount the virgin birth? Other books or authors?
  • Do scholars think Jesus had an earthly father? 
  • Why would Jesus saying God is his father mean anything more than when Christians say God is their father?
  • What does Psalm 2 tell us about the birth of Jesus?
  • Are you alone in your opinion if you think Jesus had an earthly father?
  • What does Isaiah 7 have to say about the virgin birth?
  • How does the Greco Roman context play into the narrative being told about Jesus’s birth?
  • What’s a Priene calendar and how does it relate to the Bible?
  • What are the takeaways from this conversation around the birth story of Jesus for how we read the Bible?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • The two earliest sources we have for the story of Jesus don’t mention a virgin birth. — @theb4np
  • We have to remember that Paul dies probably before any of the Gospels are written, certainly before Matthew and Luke. — @theb4np
  • At the very least, we have a different perspective in Paul than we have in Matthew and Luke. — @theb4np
  • Jesus was Jewish, albeit in a Greco Roman world, but he was still Jewish. And what might these things have meant back then? — @theb4np
  • In the first, second, third centuries, people were reading this text and weren’t concluding that Jesus was born of a virgin in this abstract sense or this biological sense. — @theb4np
  • Jesus is a David figure. Absolutely. There’s no question. And what does this Messiah figure do? He rescues the people from the oppression of others. — @theb4np
  • I think it’s disingenuous for scholars, or for people who have been educated in these things, to come to theological conclusions without taking these factors into consideration. — @theb4np
  • The biblical writers were interpreting Jesus for their time—and differently than Mark did, and differently than John did, and differently than Paul did. — @theb4np
  • There’s no part of the Bible that can responsibly escape an engagement of history, and that includes Jesus. — @theb4np
  • The Bible is constrained by tradition and by culture and that’s not a bug, but a feature. — @theb4np
  • It’s one thing confessing the incarnation. It’s another thing to say, “and I know exactly how it works.” — @theb4np
  • I think the gospel writers were trying to get at something that they believed, and they used the language of their time to do it. — @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music plays]

Well welcome everyone to this episode of the podcast. Today we’re gonna take on some challenges. 

Pete: Mm-Hmm.

Jared: Some factors as we enter the holiday season. And really it’s, we wanna think about  some of these things that scholars think about. And this can be sensitive. 

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: And I think it’s important that we take some time, we unpack some of, particularly, this idea of the virgin birth. What does the Bible have to say about it? But primarily, how do scholars wrestle with this? What are the factors that have this coming up again and again for scholars? Books have been written about it, which maybe at the end we’ll, we’ll drop a few of those resources. We want to kind of take some time to set up what are the factors here?

Pete: Right.

Jared: What does the Bible have to say about it? What context are we looking at when we’re talking about the virgin birth and, you know, what are some conclusions? What are some—how can we comment on what, what it is that we’re doing even in this podcast that may be reflective of what scholars do? 

Let’s jump into the episode.

[Teaser clip of episode plays over intro music]

Pete: “There’s no part of the Bible that can responsibly escape an engagement of history, and that includes Jesus. Matthew’s birth story is essentially midrashic. It’s telling the story in a creative way that will signal very clearly to the people: we’re dealing with somebody who is very, very special. That’s not a problem to be overcome. That’s something that has to be theologically embraced.”

[Ad break]

Jared: Why don’t we start with—let’s set this up. What are the challenges here? 

Pete: Well, I think just a broader comment is that, you know, we do a lot of like, looking at Genesis in context, you know, or Exodus in context, all sorts of things. And the question is, are there parts of the Bible that aren’t affected by historical context? And my answer there is a resounding no. There is no such thing as humanless context for anything, even the God-man’s birth, right? Even that. So, the interest that we have is, you know, not ruining Christmas, either jokingly or otherwise. You know, you, people have listened and read our stuff. You know, we just joke around about that stuff.

But it’s really just to create the space to talk about the kinds of things that learned readers, and I think frankly, just careful readers of the biblical texts themselves, will understand and say, “ah, this is something I need to think about more deeply. And I wasn’t really aware of it.”

Jared: Right. 

Pete: So that’s, that’s really what this is about. We’re not trying to take anything away from people. I have my own views on how incarnation works and it’s a little subtle, but it’s by no means just my own. So—but that’s not the point. The point isn’t even what I think. The point is just looking at some of these factors. 

Jared: So let’s have—let’s go right to the evidence. Let’s look at some data of how does the Bible present this and what are some things, again, that scholars are looking at when they’re trying to assess what’s going on here with the, with the virgin birth?

Pete: I think, you know, the data have to be interpreted too. Let’s just—right? But that’s the thing that these are factors people look at.

Jared: [Sarcastically] Well, I don’t want you to interpret the data. I want you to give me just the facts. 

Pete: Just the hard facts. 

Jared: Just the hard facts. 

Pete: Because I won’t interpret. I’ll just give you the straight poop here, right? 

Jared: Exactly. 

Pete: So, no, that’s impossible. So, so, I mean, for example, I think everyone—It’s very straightforward. I think most people have noticed this, that the virgin birth story occurs in Matthew, and it occurs in Luke, and that’s it. Nowhere else. Which is in and of itself pretty interesting, and they tell the story differently from their own perspectives. And when we factor into this that Mark just blows that off entirely, and if Mark is the earliest gospel, which most every New Testament scholar will say, “yeah, the evidence definitely points to that,” then we have to think of Matthew and Luke as having some sort of an innovation, so to speak, in the Jesus tradition. And then John just goes with cosmic stuff all right from the beginning, right?

So that—they’re no help. So we have the two and, and, you know, they have different ways of telling the story. You know, in Matthew, it’s an angel appears to Joseph in these dreams and no one’s appearing to Mary. And then in Luke, you have Gabriel having a conversation with a number of people like John the Baptist’s father and Mary and, you know, on it goes.

So, like, who’s talking to who? Like, how’s the announcement made? It’s like, they’re not quite on the same page and they have a different perspective on it. 

Jared: Well, before we get into—I think it’d be great to go down the road of Matthew and Luke in particular—but I’m going to back up because there’s a nuance here that I think is important, and it is: when we’re talking about the Gospels, if we’re used to, again, you know, I grew up in a tradition where “when we’re reading the Gospels, who cares if it’s only in Matthew and Luke?” Because there’s four of them and they’re read flatly.

But what you said was really important, that scholars recognize Mark is the earliest. So, if Mark is the earliest, and I’m going to throw in Paul here too. Paul didn’t have the Gospels. Mark is early, so the two earliest sources we have for the story of Jesus don’t mention a virgin birth, is what I hear you saying.

Pete: Yeah. Yeah, and that’s significant, I think. 

Jared: Yeah. So, then when we’re talking about Matthew and Luke, we’re saying use the word innovation insofar as at the very least we would say the writings that came second are the ones that have it, not the writings that came first. 

Pete: Or later. Well, wherever you want to sit it. Right. Well, okay, Jared, while we’re on Paul, just read that Romans 1:3-4, what does it say? 

Jared: So I’m gonna read from 1-4, 1-5 maybe?

Pete: Gosh, that’s serious. 

Jared: Um, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets and the holy scriptures—regarding his son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Pete: Yeah, and what’s striking is that Paul has opportunity to talk about the virginal conception if he wants to, but here, and I know there are answers to this—I just disagree with him—but his earthly life, he’s descended of David and what makes him Lord, what appoints him to that is his resurrection. It’s not his birth, for Paul at least. And we have to remember that Paul is writing, Paul dies probably before any of the Gospels are written, certainly before Matthew and Luke. 

Jared: Yeah, it could have been, it could have been “was born the son of God by nature of the virgin birth” but instead it was “appointed the Son of God by the resurrection.”

Pete: Right, what makes him Lord is his vindication by God by being raised from the dead. That’s what makes him Lord of heaven and earth. It’s not his birth. Now, no one is saying that his birth makes him Lord of heaven and earth necessarily, but it still, Paul doesn’t mention it. And that’s like, that’s a head scratcher, folks. 

Jared: And it’s important that—

Pete: I would lead with that if I were Paul.

Jared: It’s important that Paul uses the word Son of God.

Pete: Yeah. 

Jared: Which, again, if Son is tied to birth, there’s a perfect chance to make that connection and Paul doesn’t. 

Pete: So, at the very least, we have a different perspective in Paul than we have on Matthew and Luke. And I think, you know, I do want to again underscore something here that what we just said in and of itself doesn’t prove one thing or the other. That’s not what this is about, folks. It’s more if you say, “I believe in the virgin birth, and there is no question about it, it’s in the Bible.”

Well, do you know that it’s only in two, and it’s later Gospels, not the original one, and nobody else in the New Testament talks about it? That’s at least, at least know that when you’re thinking through this.

Jared: It’s adding some nuance, like we talked about the word earlier. It’s a factor. And so, when we’re formulating opinions about these things, it’s good to know all the factors.

Pete: Mhmm. And, I mean, there are some passages that people will point to and understandably so that’s sort of like, well, but this demonstrates that the virginal conception is very important, you know? So, for example, in Luke chapter 2, we have that story that’s only in Luke where Jesus is 12 years old and he sort of like, gets left behind during one of the Passover journeys that they took. Which I think is a hilarious scene, frankly, just anybody who’s lost their kid at the mall, like—I thought you had them! You know? But they’re saying, “Hey, you know, Jesus, what the heck?” You know, I mean, “we were worried sick about you.” And Jesus says, famously, “Don’t you know I have to be about my father’s business?”

And again, here is a factor that scholars will bring into this on the basis of other things in the Bible itself. And also on the basis of things outside of the Bible saying, okay, well that in and of itself doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t have an earthly father.

Jared: Why wouldn’t it mean that? I think this is an important one to unpack a little bit. 

Pete: Well, why would it, you know, to say God is your father? For example, Jesus teaches in, you know, the Lord’s prayer, “Our father who art in heaven.” That’s like a normal thing to say if you’re into this Jesus business, right? 

Jared: Yeah. I say that because the argument usually is, “well, this is a unique thing.”

Pete: It’s not unique. 

Jared: No one, no one had called God father before and so Jesus does this in this unique way, but as you point out—Jesus himself in the Lord’s Prayer democratizes that. “Our father”.

Pete: Which to be fair is in Matthew, not Luke, but Luke also has a version of that later on, right? So again, you know, that’s—just I find that interesting. That’s all. I just, I look at that and say, hmm that’s really interesting. And in fact, you know, there is a whole train of thought and scholarship by people like, you know, Andrew Lincoln is the name that I want to mention here. He wrote a book maybe 15 years ago called Born of a Virgin: Reconceiving (yeah, that’s an intentional pun folks) Jesus in the Bible Tradition and Theology, where as an Anglican, he’s working these things out for himself.

And there’s a whole line of thought of people who say, “Well, to say born of a virgin is a convention,” which we’ll get into in a little bit later, I hope, “is a convention of the time for talking about someone who has an extraordinary effect on people.” Right? And, you know, Andrew believes that Jesus is different. You know, he’s not just another guy. I believe the same thing. But he says it doesn’t preclude that Jesus also has an earthly father, which would give him both sets of chromosomes, for example, which is sort of necessary for being a human being. 

Jared: Right.

Pete: Now, before we go further, Jared, I want to again say something because I’m a little concerned that people are going to misunderstand what we’re doing here, right? We’re talking about factors. I’m well aware of the fact that there is an evangelical apologetics industry that has answers to all of these kinds of things to sort of keep everybody on the beach blanket. I just don’t think those answers work very well if you look broadly at the historical context of these stories and when they were written and what might have been in the background as they’re writing some of these things, right?

Jared: Yeah, maybe we can talk about a few more pieces of kind of the biblical— 

Pete: Yeah, let’s lay some of that stuff out. 

Jared: Yeah, and then let’s go into the context because I think that will also—I think both are important, but I think it may land with people differently to say, okay, let’s look at some of these texts versus, yeah, those texts, but those texts also come from a context and those are both important.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, you know, one thing we were talking about before we started recording here was Psalm 2. 

Pete: Yes. Yes. 

Jared: And the coronation, right? Which is a psalm of, um, I don’t know how it would’ve been used in the history of Israel, but it’s when—

Pete: It might’ve been used for when kings became kings.

Jared: When kings became kings. We read this and it becomes, uh, and I think it’s also referenced in the New Testament. 

Pete: Right. 

Jared: “Today I have begotten you.”

Pete: Yeah. 

Jared: And the point being, when it’s used in Psalms, it’s clearly being used for a human king. So, begotten doesn’t necessarily mean begotten in a biological sense.

Pete: Right. Now, the thing, some people could say, and I would understand this, “Yeah, but in the New Testament it takes on a deeper, thicker meaning than it did in the Hebrew Bible.” That’s fine. I mean, if people, if that’s how people want to interpret the data or have reasons for doing so, that’s absolutely fine.

Jared: But that’s the question is—would you have reasons to do it other than to say, “well, because Jesus said it,” for me, that’s a circular argument to say, “well, it’s deeper meaning because Jesus,” well, why does that matter? Because I already have precluded, I’ve already concluded beforehand that Jesus It has to be this way because it is Jesus, if that makes sense.

Pete: So, to say, you know, in Psalm 2, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” obviously doesn’t mean that the king doesn’t have a father. So it’s sort of like this, like in Luke chapter 2, what we just talked about, it’s a similar kind of idea. And it’s just like, if that’s a new thing, it’s like—Oh. Okay, well, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before. That’s what, I mean, that’s what biblical scholars do. They look at the New Testament traditions of Jesus and they tie it to Jewish tradition and what the Hebrew Bible says and what Jewish tradition, how they handled certain things in the intervening century or two between the closing of the Hebrew Bible and then the time of Jesus.

So that’s, that’s a part of this. You’re going to have to deal with that stuff because Jesus was Jewish, albeit in a Greco Roman world, but he was still Jewish. And what might these things have meant back then? 

Jared: I want to go back and situate us because I think I have ringing in my ears my old apologetics ways, which would say the only reason we’d even be having this conversation is sort of this anti-supernaturalism. Right? The idea that, well, we’re just trying to argue away the miracle of it all. 

But I just want to point out that this is an old conversation that was very popular 2,000 years ago. In the first, second, third centuries, people were reading this text and weren’t concluding that Jesus was born of a virgin in this abstract sense or this biological sense. But there, I’m just thinking of the view of adoptionism. That was very popular in the first, second, third centuries because people were reading Psalm 2 and saying, “today I have begotten you.” That seems like God is adopting a human king to be the son in this monarchic sense. 

Pete: And we can get the New Testament into this too. Acts chapter 2, a man, Peter, is chiding the people for having crucified Jesus. This man “attested by God,” right? 

Jared: Yes. 

Pete: Now, Daniel Kirk, our friend, has a whole book by that title, right? 

Jared: “A Man Attested by God.” Mm-Hmm. 

Pete: Talking about Christology in the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, not John. Because John’s a different Christology, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So it’s biblical data again. 

Jared: Exactly. And that’s my point is that if, if we’re, if we’re talking about this and, and people’s minds are going to, “oh, this is a modern take to do away with the miracles.” I just would say like, now, of course, adoptionism was labeled as a heresy in the fourth or fifth century. And so it sort of dropped off in popularity. But there’s a reason that these people thousands of years ago were coming—

Pete: That’s the whole point we’re making. 

Jared: It wasn’t, they were anti-supernatural. It was, no, we were reading Psalm 2. We’re reading Acts 2. We’re looking at the data. We’re looking at the baptism of Jesus. “Today I have begotten you.” It has this flavor to it. 

Pete: It is, it’s a reasonable reading of the biblical data.

Jared: That’s a good way of saying it. 

Pete: It’s a reasonable reading. And the church has gone in a different direction from that. Again, that’s fine. We’re not trying to overturn the history of Christianity here. We’re just saying, you know, folks, we’re probably talking about things that some people have already seen, but they’re not sure what to do with it.

Jared: Right. Exactly. And I think that’s, I say it because, again, where we started is we’re not trying to take anything away from people. It’s trying to set a context that if you notice these things, you are in good company. And it doesn’t mean you have an anti-supernatural bias or you are, have a proclivity for sin and you’re looking for ways to dismantle the text as an authority in your life.

Pete: Tickle itching ears kind of thing. Wolf in sheep’s clothing, that kind of nonsense. 

Jared: Yeah. You’re, you’re in good company. Both ancient and modern scholars—

Pete: Who have thought about this, who have the right to speak. And we sometimes mute those voices.

Jared: Exactly.

[Ad break]

Pete: So a little more on Luke, if I can, because I think it’s fascinating. 

Jared: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: You know, Gabriel appears to Mary and talks about, you’ll conceive, your son will be son of the most high and he will rule over the house of Jacob and he’ll be called son of God. And all that is in Psalm 2. It’s also in 2 Samuel 7 a little bit as well, which again, and when you keep reading in chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Luke, which are the two longest chapters of the New Testament, they just keep going.

Anyway, but if you look at those, it’s very, very clear in those opening chapters that the hope for this born child is to deliver the people of Israel, now called the Judahites, the Judeans, from their oppressors. Read Zechariah’s prophecy when he is made unmute, you know, at the end of the nine month period, and that’s exactly what he says. And Mary’s song, when Elizabeth’s presence is like, you’ve exalted me, I’ve been humbled—and by the way, that’s how you just do things. And that’s the pattern that you follow, which is absolutely without question modeled on Hannah’s song that is likewise praising that God humbles the proud and exalts, you know, the humble. 

And that is leading to, at the end of that song, it doesn’t mention David by name because it can’t yet, but that’s absolutely where this is going. So, Jesus is a David figure. Absolutely. There’s no question. And what does this Messiah figure do? He rescues the people from the oppression of others. Now, I happen to think, as probably most people do, that Luke doesn’t leave it there. He develops Jesus in a bigger way where he’s not just David, he’s actually Caesar. 

And that comes, when you see that most clearly, when the shepherds are there and the angelic choir announces, you know, that Jesus the Savior has been born to you and it’s good news for all the people. And, you know, people have been talking for a long time about a particular, this is getting into Greco-Roman stuff a little bit, but we can’t, they overlap, we can’t avoid it.

Jared: Yeah, go for it.

Pete: Something called the Priene calendar inscription. It’s about, it’s pre-Christian by about a decade. And it praises the birth of Caesar Augustus because—Priene is a little town. It’s in Turkey now, it’s on the coast, on the Aegean Sea coast. And they were dedicating themselves to having their calendar shaped around the birth of Caesar Augustus. And they say things like “he was given to us by Providence”, there is a divine initiative there. And “he is born to us and there’s never been anybody like him and there’ll never be anybody like him to come” and “he is the Savior”. 

This is the language we see in Luke: “He’s the Savior who brings peace and the good news”, the euangelion, right? It uses the same word. So when you read that, which is much older than Luke, it’s, you know, 70, 80 years prior to Luke, but it’s in the air. Not that he’s reading this inscription saying, “I think I’ll copy it.” It’s in the air. That’s, that’s how you talk.

Jared: It’s the context.

Pete: That’s it. It’s the context. And so you, you read this in Luke and you can read it in two ways: Apart from that context, and say whatever you want; or read it engaging the context, making tentative conclusions, or none at all, but just reading it in light of that and saying, “I think Luke is presenting Jesus as a better Caesar.”

Right? So, it’s, Luke has that Gentile feel that Matthew doesn’t quite have. But they have different reasons for telling the story. They both have a Greco Roman context, but they also have different reasons. I want to say agendas in the best sense of the word. They have something, it’s like an agenda for a meeting, right? Here are the steps I’m going to take to get to a certain goal. And they’re both doing that. But it’s not just, I mean, understanding something with that context, I just think helps a little bit. I don’t know. 

Jared: Well, it doesn’t, I think you’re being generous. 

Pete: I’m trying to be generous, Jared. 

Jared: I don’t think it just helps.

Pete: It’s Christmas time. 

Jared: I think it’s a factor. It’s an important factor in what Luke is trying to do and I think it’s, I would go so far as to say I think it’s disingenuous for scholars, or for people who have been educated in these things, to come to theological conclusions without taking these factors into consideration.

Pete: That I will agree, yeah. 

Jared: I think it’s disingenuous and I think it’s important that we figure, we have to wrestle with this. We have to figure out what we do with it and it absolutely shapes to know that this Priene calendar inscription exists. In that it’s not an isolated event, which I think we can sometimes think about archeology and these things as though it’s like, that’s it.

But it’s a representation of how people thought of Caesar. So, this isn’t the only time Euangelion or the gospel, the good news, is used in reference to Caesar. We can come to that conclusion. To not factor that into how we think about Luke’s use of the exact same phrasing within a context of a birth of a kinglike Messiah figure—I think it’s disingenuous.

Pete: Right. And all that, I think, is an interpretation of the life of Jesus. 

Jared: Yeah, what we do with it, I don’t know. 

Pete: Well, not just we, but what they did with it, the biblical writers. They were interpreting Jesus for their time, and differently than Mark did, and differently than John did, and differently than Paul did.

Jared: Yeah, and it’s baked in, and that’s where I think if we can, again, I’m saying things more strongly than probably you will. If we deprogram the evangelical methodology and we see that the Bible itself is modeling this for us, Mark doesn’t seem to have any qualms about interpreting the life of Jesus for the audience of Mark and that community. And Matthew and Luke and John, they don’t, they don’t seem to be embarrassed that they’re shaping these stories.

Pete: No! They’re quite intentional because, I mean, you know, literary critics of the Gospels will tell us that it’s not just that Matthew and Luke are later and they’re different, they’re intentionally augmenting or changing or adjusting Mark’s gospel in places to say what they need to say to their constituency, let’s say, right?

Jared: Yeah, this isn’t just sloppy editing. 

Pete: Right. 

Jared: This is an intentional, this is how you do—tradition. 

Pete: They’re creations, they’re literary creations based on a forlaga, as the Germans say, something that comes beforehand. And that’s the four gospels we have, you know? And Matthew and Luke are two of them, right? And they say something about Jesus and the question is, why do they say it? And what is their intention? What are they trying to get across? And folks, you know, I think that’s tricky business. I mean, if I knew what that was, I might be the only person ever to know what those intentions were. We don’t know that, but what we have is literature that we can presume, “I think Matthew’s trying to say this, here’s my theory.” 

How does that pan out with reading other stuff? “Well, not too well, I have to think of another theory,” but the point is that that conversation is an important one for people who want to be more than, oh gosh, I don’t want to—more than just superficial readers and saying what’s, “there’s this verse in the Bible and that’s it.” But the verse has a context. The story has a context. 

Jared: Well, it’s not just superficial reading because I think there is, at least in the West, I would say in America, this is becoming less and less the case. But I think for your generation, my generation, there is no such thing really as a superficial reading because it is always an inherited reading. It’s just a matter of what tradition are you inheriting when you read it? 

There is so much programmed already when we come to the text based on how steeped we are within certain Christian traditions. So, I just think that’s important because I kind of long for a day, and this is near and dear to my heart and probably yours too, that the Bible for Normal People exists for a world in which someday there’s a different default programming.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So it’s not there’s a superficial and there is a deep. There is already a program out there. And it’s sort of, is the default going to be one that takes into account these factors and these contexts and wrestles with them? Or is it going to be a tradition that doesn’t do that? 

Pete: And then how do you think about the nature of Christian faith as a result of that, let’s say, reconfiguration?

Jared: Yes. 

Pete: And if that freaks people out, I just want to say, I think that’s what theology has always been. It’s always—the Nicene Creed did that. 

Jared: Say more about that, because I think that’s an important, I think again, that’s one of those litmus tests of the creeds—

Pete: It’s not just reading the Bible. They read it through the lens of Greco Roman philosophy, which is fine! I have no problem with that. But I mean, David Bentley Hart basically says something like they took a, the New Testament is—which is fundamentally a Jewish apocalyptic text—and they reconfigured it, that’s my word, in the context of Greco Roman philosophy to serve certain polemical purposes or political purposes.

And I don’t look at that and say, “oh my goodness, they ruined everything.” It’s just, well, that’s what happens. When a story takes on a life of its own and then gets filtered through different and diverse cultures, you’re going to do that, right? And I think the Greco Roman culture of the first century, the writers of the New Testament were doing that with their own tradition. One quick example, I mean, I want to, I want to move past the Gospels in a second here, but maybe just one more. And I think we’ve talked about this maybe on a podcast, but you know, Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14. 

Jared: I’m glad you’re bringing it up because that was the last thing we had to cover on our journey here, is Isaiah 7.

Pete: I know we got to do that. And the thing is, you know, well, “obviously Jesus was born of a literal virgin because Isaiah says so,” but again, and this is, if you want to read a great book about, at least a chapter, Amy Jill Levine and Marc Brettler have a book, The Bible With and Without Jesus—I hope that’s the right title guys. Don’t email me. You know, and they, they talk about this. And one thing that, I think Marc wrote this chapter, he points out pretty obviously, he says, “Isaiah 7:14 doesn’t say a virgin shall conceive. It says even if it is virgin, it’s a past tense” and he would say, “a young woman has conceived and she will bear a son” or “has born” a son.

And the point of that story is not the miraculous nature of the birth. It’s the fact that by the time that child is old enough to know right from wrong, whatever age that is, this political threat that King Ahaz was concerned about in the eighth century—basically being attacked by Assyrians and by the Israelites in the north and others too—it was, it was sort of a crap show there at the point.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: But, but the point is that by the time the child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, this will not be a threat to you anymore. So that’s the prophecy. Right? Now Matthew, I’m gonna put it this way and I, I’m gonna stick by it. Matthew, to make his case about Jesus, exploited the linguistic ambiguity of that word once it got put into the Greek Old Testament, Parthenos, which is a word you can use to translate the Hebrew Alma, but it has other connotations. And that was very intentional on Matthew’s part, because if you want to talk about someone who’s had a major impact, an influential figure, maybe the most influential person, you’re going to tell that story in a certain way that accents that person’s uniqueness. The irony, however, and I guess we’re going to get into the next issue here, which is a Greco Roman context, the irony is that that kind of way of talking about great figures of the past is by no means unique to the New Testament.

Jared: Well, and maybe it’s unique and it’s not unique, and that’s the point. It’s not alien.

Pete: It’s distinct. 

Jared: It’s distinct. 

Pete: But it’s not unique. 

Jared: Yeah, that’s a good way of saying it. Because the only reason it makes sense is we already have a culture where extraordinary people come from extraordinary births and origins. So it can’t be unique because then it doesn’t make sense. But in a context where—I’m trying to liken it to sort of how we tell our modern day kind of hero stories. Ours is much more like bootstrap. It’s like we came from, I mean, if you’re going to be an extraordinary person in America, if you’re going to tell your story with a certain emphasis, you’re probably going to tell it with the emphasis of, “I didn’t have much and I pulled myself up from my bootstraps and I became great.”

Even if that’s not completely true, you’ll emphasize that part because it fits the cultural milieu of how we want to tell these stories of our origins. And the Greco Roman world had that as well. And even within the context of a virgin birth, we have that.

Pete: Yeah. And I think, you know, what we’re saying is that there’s no part of the Bible that can responsibly escape an engagement of history, and that includes Jesus. That’s what you get, folks. If you have a human being, however special and divine this human being is, but you still have a person in history who has a context, right?

Jared: And well, and you have other people telling the story who are part of a culture. I don’t know how you don’t tell a story that is completely not just impacted by, but within the world of, the humans who are telling the story.

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Pete: So in terms of Greco Roman stuff, you know, I mentioned this Priene calendar inscription. 

Jared: Yeah, we talked about Priene calendar. 

Pete: Which is Augustus, but you know, his father, Julius Caesar, was also declared God. And so his son is, in effect then, the son of God. 

Jared: The son of God. 

Pete: And then when Augustus died, which was, I think, and the year AD 14 around there, then the stories about him began to be more expanded. And now he’s the son of Apollo. So, by the way, this book by Andrew Lincoln, he goes into great detail. I’m trying to summarize some of the stuff that he says here. But I find that fascinating, you know, because Remus and Romulus, you know, the legendary founders of Rome, had stories written about them that involves things like a very special kind of birth and, and that’s what happens.

I mean, I mean, think about it this way. When Jesus is born, leave Matthew and Luke just for the moment out of our minds. It’s like, he’s just another baby, but then he goes and does these amazing things and he’s crucified and raised from the dead. It’s like—”we got to tell this story. How do you tell it?” Well, there are conventions for telling this kind of story. And that’s another way of putting this whole challenge as factors, like to what extent are ancient conventions informing the biblical writers? And I don’t know the answer to that, but one thing I’m willing, it’s a hill I’m willing to die on, they are being influenced by something, because the connections you see them historically a little bit.

And there are things that, you know, this is a, um, the Gospels are part of a genre of antiquity called bios, B-I-O-S which is, you know, biography, but it’s not really a biography in the modern sense. They’re much more creative because they’re trying to tell a story. And some of these birth stories and other outside of the New Testament, these miraculous birth stories, include things like genealogies. Like think of Matthew, how it begins, right?

Jared: Mhmm.

Pete: That’s not an accident, right? Uh, having dreams. Joseph has dreams in Matthew’s gospel. Angelic predictions and presences. And signs. And things like even having diviners, people who see things like the Magi or a sign that tells you that something’s happening. You know, that’s, you could argue—and Robert Gundry did argue this and he got thrown out of the Evangelical Theological Society for saying—Matthew’s birth story is essentially Midrashic.

In other words, it’s not giving us historical fact in some bare sense. It’s telling the story in a creative way that will signal very clearly to the people, we’re dealing with somebody who is very, very special. 

Jared: Yeah. Right. 

Pete: And at some point, I don’t know, I just, I just kept hearing that and thinking about it. I said, well, yeah, I don’t know what else it would be, quite frankly. So you have these conventions for referring to a key figure. And, you know, I mean, just if it helps throwing C. S. Lewis into this, you know, he, the way—he understood myth, he understood the stories and he didn’t shy away from them. And he says in Jesus, “the myth became reality.” That’s his way of addressing that. That’s not a bad way of addressing it, you know? Where am I on that? I’m not sure. I’m thinking about it. And I think God understands us. 

Jared: But at least he doesn’t—

Pete: He doesn’t just blow it off. 

Jared: He doesn’t shy away from the myth of it. 

Pete: Right. 

Jared: And again, by myth, we don’t mean, I think I would want to use myth in this context exactly the way you’re talking about. There are conventions by which we tell these kinds of stories in the ancient world. And it’s participating in that.

Pete: Myth doesn’t mean lie. 

Jared: Right. 

Pete: Myth means a way of telling a story. And again, just, uh, by analogy, the story of creation or Adam and Eve and things like that. Those are also participating in ancient conventions that we know of from other cultures that have written creation stories that are older than the biblical story. So, you know, it’s just, again, this is an exercise and not escaping the obvious, which is if you have—

If, okay, if the Bible is a historical book, folks—that has consequences. That means it has context. And what in heaven’s name doesn’t have context? The question is only how do we interpret that? How do we handle that? What conclusions do we feel safe in drawing? And some people feel safe in drawing some very clear conclusions that others like myself might not be ready to draw. But the thing is that we’re part of the conversation in some sense, right? 

Jared: Yeah. So maybe we can move into this last piece around just these conclusions, and I think we’ve, we’ve peppered, you know, we haven’t gone in a linear way because we’ve kind of peppered back and forth between these different pieces of the conversation. But I think what I’m taking away again is this idea that the Bible is constrained by tradition and by culture and that’s not a bug, but a feature. 

Pete: That’s not a problem to be overcome. That’s something that has to be theologically embraced. I would say, I mean, doctrinally embraced. Even if it hasn’t been in the past, that doesn’t mean it can’t be now, because what is theology if not bringing all that stuff and that tradition into your present moment?

And again, people will say, well, “you can’t just make things say what you want them to say.” And I agree with that, but I think that’s exactly what some conservatives are doing. They’re making the Bible say what they want it to say based on their own culture, which is a church culture, for example. And I’m looking at the historical context as at least a place to start, I think, that generates the theological kinds of conversations or doctrinal conversations.

Jared: Yeah, well, and it’s being honest about, again, I think the Bible models this for us quite well. The purpose isn’t brute facts, but it’s meaning making. That’s what Mark is doing. That’s what Matthew’s doing. That’s what Luke is doing, is they’re making meaning for their particular community. And I think it’s only honest and authentic to acknowledge that we are doing that as well.

Pete: Mm-Hmm.

Jared: And I think that’s always my challenge, is certain traditions want to absolutize it and pretend they’re not doing that. 

Pete: Right. 

Jared: And it’s like you are still participating in it, but you’re making it seem like you are doing this once for all. There’s only one right way to read it, but the Bible itself doesn’t mind it. It feels contrary to what the Bible itself is showing us. 

Pete: Mm-Hmm. Right, right. 

Jared: And it’s more like we may not get that absolutized universal thing, but what I can do, and this is where I feel like I’ve learned so much from my friends and colleagues who are people of color, is that they’re not interested in this abstract thing. They’re interested in the meaning-making process, but they also realize they’re doing it within their own context and within their own history. And I respect that. And I think that I can actually learn from that. What’s harder is when we deny that we’re doing that and we do it all the same. 

Pete: So maybe—we should probably draw this to a close. 

Jared: We should draw this to a close. 

Pete: Shortly. Let me, a couple of summary points. And I jotted these down because it helps me think through this a little bit. So, one is that I would see the birth narratives as employing conventions. And part of those conventions is utilizing their own Jewish tradition, the Hebrew Bible. So whether it’s Isaiah 7, right? Or Psalm 2 or 2 Samuel 7 or something like that, they’re using that—

Jared: We might call that like the vertical context, right? They’re reaching back into their own tradition and pulling it forward. 

Pete: Yes. They live in a Judaism which is always doing that anyway, but they’re always bringing that and trying to bring the conversation between their moment in the past. 

The thing is that with the gospel writers, they’re doing that with a faith in a man who they believe was distinct or unique or whatever word we want to use and how to describe that. So, so it’s, it’s bringing the Hebrew tradition as well to articulate, I want to say their understanding and their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. And I respect that, right? So I do think that they are, I don’t know if constrained is the right word, Jared, but they are—

The language they use is a factor of their time and place and their culture because they’re humans. “Yeah but they’re inspired by God.” Okay, fine. But read the Gospels, for heaven’s sake, and look at them from a historical perspective. Whatever it means to be inspired by God doesn’t mean the culture is irrelevant. 

Jared: Well, you still have to take the factors. 

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: There’s still data there that shows this influence, regardless of what you mean by “inspired.”

Pete: Yeah. And maybe the third thing is that one thing I’m pretty certain of, we can put to rest reading the Gospels as being free from the cultural influence.

I mean, that’s, again, that seems like anybody who’s, I think, studied the Bible in any formal setting, whether it’s college or seminary, that’s like a no, that’s an obvious thing to say. But I think it’s worth saying, because it has implications, some of which we talked about today. 

And then the last point is that I think it’s okay to have an internal conversation and also an open conversation in communities of faith where how can we address these factors that are very real for us in a historically conditioned and minded age that we are, how do we engage our tradition and particularly maybe even the creeds? I mean, I’m Episcopalian. We say the Nicene Creed every Sunday. And I read it thinking of these factors, but I still read it. I’m participating in it. And it’s meaning-making for me as well. The question is, how does it make meaning for us? It’s one thing confessing the incarnation. It’s another thing to say, “and I know exactly how it works.”

Jared: Right. 

Pete: Right. So I’m going to get to that word, Jared, that you don’t like. What’s that word? 

Jared: Myst—everyone say it together. Mystery!

Pete: And I say that with respect and obviously not walking away from the difficulties, but the way I sort of look at all this is I think the gospel writers were trying to get at something that they believed, and they used the language of their time to do it.

And I want to try to do the same thing. I don’t know what that looks like, but I think whatever I’m grasping at is never going to reach the thing. So, that’s another way of talking about Jesus’s, you know, distinctiveness or uniqueness or whatever, you know, with a dialogical perspective with the factors and also with people who also care about this stuff and being able to talk with them.

And, you know, there are some communities of faith where that’s much easier to do and others where it’s almost impossible to do. And I understand that too, but I think that’s too bad. 

Jared: Alright. Well, you know, gives us some food for thought as we’re sitting around the Christmas table with our friends and family, as we’re sitting around the Christmas tree—

Pete: Not ruining Christmas…

Jared: Not ruining Christmas, enhancing Christmas.

Pete: Ah, enhancing Christmas! That’s what we’re trying to do. 

Jared: [in a soft voice] We’re enhancing Christmas. We’re bringing it forward into our day and time.

Pete: I hope you see that we’re not—we didn’t really ruin anything. We’re just talking about stuff that you, it’s like, talking about the sun without talking about the nature of the solar system. You just, you can’t get away from it.

Jared: Right. And again, what we’re, we’re doing the thing that we’ve always done, which is try to wrestle with these questions: what is the Bible, and what do we do with it? And, and we can’t, again, avoid the factors. That we’ve been doing, you know, kind of my final word here is this is what we’ve been doing for years and years at the Bible for Normal People with the Hebrew Bible and other things, is recognizing this vertical context of how the tradition is using itself and ever evolving and how it’s using that horizontal context of the time and place in which it is written. 

And we are doing the same thing and that’s what makes it so complex and so messy. We’re bringing all that from our time and place to this ancient thing that had its own time and place, that’s been interpreted in dozens and dozens of other times and places, and trying to make sense of it all. And that’s a challenge, but I think for us, it is the task. And it’s the process that’s rewarding, and it doesn’t have to come to the conclusion.

[Outro music plays signaling end of episode]

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to 

Pete: And if you want to support us and want a community, classes, and other great resources, go to

Jared: And lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show. In addition, you can let us know what you thought about the episode by emailing us at

Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of The Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget, you can also catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Jessica Shao, and Lauren O’Connell.

[Outro music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.