Category Archives: Bible

Did Jesus’ Mother, Mary, Give Birth to Other Children?

 

At first glance, this question seems to fall into the “simple to answer” category: “Did you shut the garage door?” or “Is the earth round?” But when we really look into the history behind it, we find that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Christians of different stripes have disagreed for hundreds of years about how best to answer it.

Historically, Christians in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have thought “no” while Christians in the Protestant tradition have thought “yes.”

Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and some Protestants) teach that Mary remained a virgin all her life and gave birth only to Jesus.[1] This view was almost universally accepted by the Church from approximately the 3rd to the 17th centuries AD [2] and follows four basic lines of thought:

  1. Ezekiel 44:1-3 is a prophecy about the virgin birth of Christ.[3] According to this interpretation, Mary is the gate through which Jesus and only Jesus entered the world.
  2. If Mary had other biological children, Jesus would not have entrusted her into the care of John as he was being crucified.[4]
  3. The Greek words translated “brothers” and “sisters” have a wider range of meaning than the English and can mean “cousin” or “near relative.”[5]
  4. For both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the Church’s long-standing tradition regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity validates this belief.

Protestants who don’t accept the perpetual virginity of Mary base their belief on three primary points of evidence:

  1. The teaching that Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage is not expressly taught in the Scriptures.
  2. The belief that Mary was “ever-virgin” is not clearly found in two of the earliest Christian theologians: Irenaeus of Lyons or Tertullian.[6]
  3. Protestants believe that the simplest and clearest reading of biblical passages like Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, Luke 8:19-20, John 2:12, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and Galatians 1:19 lead us to believe that Jesus did have half-siblings.[7]

So, did Mary give birth to other children?  While we cannot know with absolute certainly whether she did or didn’t, what seems clear is that a person’s salvation and love for Christ does not depend on how they answer this question. Christians of all perspectives agree that Mary the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ occupies a unique and honored place. God chose her to carry and give birth to His Son who would save the world from its sins.

 

[1] This belief is commonly called the perpetual virginity of Mary. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christians also use the term “ever-virgin” when talking about Mary.

[2] Catholic and Orthodox believers point out that prominent Reformed theologians like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Jean Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. See Council of Trent 1545 ad.

[3] This interpretation was common among the early church fathers. St. Augustine clearly taught that Ezekiel 44:1-3 was prophetically speaking about Mary. “The Lord said to me, ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it.’ ”

[4] John 19:25-27.

[5] There are three widely held opinions within Christianity regarding who these siblings/relatives were:

  1. Catholics believe that the adelphos/adelpha (brothers/sisters) were cousins or near relatives, not brothers and sisters.
  2. Orthodox believers say that they were older, non-biological half-siblings through Joseph from a previous marriage.[5]
  3. Most Protestants believe that they were younger half-siblings from the union of Mary and Joseph.

[6] In addition to the clear absence of a defense in Irenaeus and Tertullian, Helvidius wrote against the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary prior to 383 ad.

[7] Protestant theologians also point to two additional passages as support for their position: Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7.

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Is it likely that Jesus’ body was not buried?

In recent years, a few New Testament scholars[1] have suggested that after Jesus was crucified his body may not have been buried as described in the Gospels. They conjecture that his body was likely buried in an unmarked grave or simply thrown on the ground to be devoured by scavengers. While it is true that the bodies of some crucified people were thrown into mass graves, the evidence surrounding Jesus’ death does not support the speculation that his body would have been discarded in this manner. Along with the testimony of first-hand witnesses preserved in the Gospel accounts, there are many other significant reasons to assume Jesus’ body would have been buried.

After Jesus was crucified, Jewish leaders were bound by their own customs and religious law to provide a proper burial for him. Regardless of their personal hostility towards Jesus, they couldn’t ignore issues of ritual purity without damaging their own credibility and authority as guardians and defenders of Jewish tradition. Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the period, wrote: “The Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors (criminals) who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.”[2] The Temple Scroll from that time period discovered at Qumran[3] specifically calls for the burial of crucified Jews.

John 19:31-34 confirms these ritual purity concerns by noting that the Jews asked the Romans to facilitate the deaths of the crucified so that they wouldn’t be hanging on the cross on the Sabbath.[4]All four Gospels confirm that Joseph of Arimathea took custody of Jesus’ body and provided an honorable burial.[5]

Pilate had already experienced sufficient conflict with the Jews and would have been hesitant to unnecessarily offend them. The heightened nationalism and explosive political climate of early first century Palestine would have made it extremely unlikely that any Roman governor would violate Jewish sensitivities by leaving the body of a crucified Jew on a cross on the eve of the Passover. The same concern with Jewish opinion that made Pilate willing to execute Jesus in spite of personal reservations,[6] would have made him unlikely to leave Jesus’ body on the cross on a holy day at the symbolic center of Jewish society.

[1] Two well-known scholars are Jesus Seminar member and former Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan and University of North Carolina professor and author Dr. Bart Ehrman.

[2] Also see Against Apion 2.211

[3] The region in southern Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

[4] Archaeological evidence confirms the precedent of crucified Jews receiving proper burial: “We actually possess archaeological evidence from the time of Jesus that confirms the claims we find in Phil, Josephus, the New Testament, and early rabbinic literature, to the effect that executed persons, including victims of crucifixion, were probably buried.

“The discovery in 1968 of an ossuary (ossuary no. 4 in Tomb1, at Giv’at ha-mMivtar) of a Jewish man named Yehohanan, who had obviously been crucified, provides archeological evidence and insight into how Jesus himself may have been crucified. The ossuary and its contents date to the late 20s CE, that is during the administration of Pilate, the very Roman governor who condemned Jesus to the cross. The remains of an iron spike (11.5 cm in length) are plainly seen still encrusted in the right heel bone. Those who took down the body of Yehohanan apparently were unable to remove the spike, with the result that a piece of wood (from an oak tree) remained affixed to the spike. Later, the skeletal remains of the body—spike, fragment of wood, and all—were placed in the ossuary.” (p. 54, How God Became Jesus)

[5] Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51; John 19:38

[6] Matthew 27:11-26

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How can we helpfully respond to the prodigals in our lives?

When people we love abandon us, it can be painful. The pain seems magnified when the person is also leaving, or seems to be leaving, their church and their faith. When this happens, it is natural to feel angry and confused. But for the Christian, the call is to move beyond the initial pangs of emotion to something that will reflect the light and love of Christ.

Jesus offers us two visions of how we can react through the parable of the prodigal son: the father and the dutiful eldest son. Their reactions to the lost son’s return can instruct us as we engage with and respond to those who have abandoned the church.

The father, who could have easily become bitter from the hurt his youngest son inflicted, chose to forgive and offered the returning son open arms instead of a closed heart. He didn’t question his son about the sins he had committed. He didn’t ask his son to promise or do anything in order to be welcomed back. The father’s pain did not overpower his capacity for love.

On the other hand, the eldest son’s heart was full of bitterness and a sense of injustice, feeling that his lost brother did not deserve to be welcomed back. How easy it can be to react this way. How easy to ask, “Why does he (or she) deserve my love and rejoicing?”

When the prodigals in our life return to church for a holiday service or a wedding, how will we react? The unconditional love of the father for the lost and returned seems almost impossible for us to emulate…almost. As long as we think of emulating the Father’s unconditional love as our duty, we aren’t very likely to do it, and we run the risk of becoming like the older son. But love is not merely our duty; it’s our destiny as followers of Christ.

The church is the body of the risen Christ in the world. Something new and powerful happened when Jesus rose from the dead. It was the start of God’s Kingdom—His new creation breaking into our fallen world. And one day, when Jesus returns, he will finish that recreation. Until then, God calls us to reflect the reality of His future Kingdom in the present by how we relate to each other today.

When people leave the faith, we can react in a way that reflects old way of the fallen world as pictured by the eldest son, remaining “faithful” but all the while growing resentful and self-righteous in our dutiful obedience; or, we can react like the father, taking the new creational path of love, peace, and reconciliation, longing to pour our love out to those we have lost.

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How Powerful is the Devil?

Even though the Scriptures tell us little about Satan’s origin, they do inform us that he is a fallen angel of considerable power. The New Testament describes him as a “great enemy” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”[1] Jesus Himself said that Satan is such a force to be reckoned with that He is the only one strong enough to conquer him.[2]

Jesus would go on to refer to Satan as the “ruler of this world.”[3] Paul called him the “god of this age.”[4] He also portrayed him as the head of a great, highly organized “army” of evil spirit beings.[5] He is a cunning liar, capable of seducing Adam and Eve by disguising himself as an “angel of light.”[6] The book of Revelation says that his powers of deception are so potent that he is able to lead the whole world astray.[7]

While Satan is portrayed in the Bible as powerful, dangerous, and an adversary to be taken seriously, he shouldn’t be considered in any way equal to God. He is a creature with creaturely limitations. His power is nothing in comparison with that of the Creator of heaven and earth. And according to James 4:7, because of the power God gives to His children, if we submit to Him and resist the devil, Satan will flee from us. Although subtle and cunning, the devil is an already defeated foe who will continue to resist God furiously until the time that he will be sealed in hell forever.

[1] 1 Peter 5:8

[2] Mark 3:27

[3] John 12:31

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:4

[5] Ephesians 6:12

[6] 2 Corinthians 11:14

[7] Revelation 12:9

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Why do Christians disagree so much about the Bible?

The Bible is an ancient and complex book, and not always easy to understand. That is why so many people have differing views about subjects as foundational as the Lord’s Table and baptism, and even more variation on topics like church government, spiritual gifts, and end times. Entire denominations and church movements have been formed around a collective understanding of what they believe the Bible teaches on these subjects.

Many assert that disagreements are a result of others who are unwilling to follow what the Bible “plainly” teaches. “Those churches,” they may think, “just don’t take their Bible seriously.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is often not true. The closer we get to the people we disagree with, the more we find that they are often godly, sincere, and informed individuals who desire to do and believe what the Bible teaches just as much as we do.

“It’s clear we just have two different opinions on this topic,” my friend jested. “You have yours and I have His.” Watching his finger point to the heavens, I couldn’t help but think how this humorous gesture communicated so much about how I often mistake my understanding of what the Bible says for what the Bible actually does say.

If we really listen to those we disagree with, we might not only start seeing their biases, but ours, as well. Our beliefs—like theirs—are affected by culture, economic status, family, place in history, and even our own denomination’s emphasis on certain doctrines and issues. Is it possible that we often don’t see another person’s perspective because we are looking to ourselves, not Christ, as the ultimate source of truth? Perhaps a way forward is to humbly and honestly admit our own imperfections and shortcomings. Then we can begin to work through our disagreements together with a focus on Jesus Christ.

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