to Our Critique of Christian Credibility
Because Christianity offers the second-most credible claim of any world religion, we opted to
provide its most traditional branch -- the Catholic Church -- with an opportunity to respond to some of our critical observations.
In early December, 1995, we forwarded the following three questions to Pope John Paul II:
(1) The Gospels teach that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. We are unclear, however, whether those appearances took place in Jerusalem or in the Galilee (or at both locales). According to our reading, the Galilean accounts seem to rule out prior Jerusalem appearances.
Where did Jesus actually appear?
If he appeared in Jerusalem, how should we read the Galilean accounts?
(2) We find the genealogy of Jesus provided by the Gospels
Who was Jesus’ paternal grandfather? (We notice that Matthew
says that his grandfather was Jacob, but Luke says it was Heli). Also, we notice that Matthew declares that Jesus was separated from King David by only twenty-eight generations, but Luke’s list shows a forty-three generation separation.
What does this contradiction mean?
(3) The genealogical line linking Jesus and King David seems to pass through Jesus’ father.
But since Jesus was the product of a virgin conception, then he does not share in his father’s Davidic ancestry.
How is Jesus a descendant of David?
In a letter from the Vatican dated 19 December 1995, the Pope's Assessor, Monsignor L. Sandri, responded in the Pope's name.
Monsignor Sandri declined to answer our questions, but informed us that the members of the French Dominican Fathers' Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem would probably provide satisfactory explanations.
Through facsimile communications, we forwarded our questions to the Ecole Biblique. In a
facsimile transmission dated 11 January 1996, Marcel Sigrist, the institute's director, also declined to answer our questions, but suggested that answers could be found in the world of Raymond E. Brown, a well-known Catholic theologian currently on the staff of Saint Patrick Seminary in
Menlo Park, California.
Again through facsimile communications, we forwarded our questions to Dr. Brown. In a letter
dated 22 January 1996, Dr. Brown referred us to writings of his held by the
library of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.
from Pope John Paul II, Marcel Sigrist, and Raymond Brown are reprinted at
this appendix's conclusion.)
On 2 February 1996 we visited the Ecole Biblique and examined Dr. Brown's writings.
As Dr. Brown suggested, his writings did address our questions.
Here we will summarize the answers we found there.
I. Post-Resurrectional Appearances:
Galilee or Jerusalem?
In an essay carrying the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur (official declarations by the
Catholic Church that a book is "free of doctrinal or moral error"), Brown
admits that the apparent contradiction in records of the post-resurrectional
appearances is real.
"It is quite obvious," Brown writes, "that the Gospels do not agree as to where and to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection." "Just as the Jerusalem
tradition leaves little or no room for subsequent Galilean appearances,"
explains Brown, "the Galilean narratives seem to rule out any prior
appearances of Jesus to the Twelve in Jerusalem."
Citing immense textual evidence, Brown then declares his disapproval of the
simples solution to the contradiction: "We must reject the thesis that
the Gospels can be harmonized through a rearrangement whereby Jesus appears
several times to the Twelve, first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee."
Rather, concludes the Church spokesman, "Variations in place and time may
stem in part from the evangelists themselves who are trying to fit the
account of an appearance into a consecutive narrative." Brown makes
clear that the post-resurrection appearance accounts are creative,
substantially non-historical attempts to reconstruct events never witnessed
by their respective authors.
II. Genealogical Contradictions
In the same essay,
Brown observes that "the lists of Jesus' ancestors that they [the Gospels]
give are very different, and neither one is plausible."
Brown takes the surprising position that "because the early Christians
confessed Jesus as Messiah, for which 'Son of David' was an alternative
title, they historicized their faith by creating for him Davidic genealogies
and by claiming that Joseph was a Davidide."
In another essay, also carrying the Church's Nihil Obstat and
Imprimatur, Brown expands upon this proposition:
Increasingly, the purported descent from David is explained as a theologoumenon, i.e., as the historicizing of
what was originally a theological statement. If I many give a
simplified explanation, the process of historicizing Davidic sonship is
though to have gone somewhat in the following way: the Christian
community believed that Jesus had fulfilled Israel's hopes; prominent
among those hopes was the expectation of a Messiah, and so the traditional
title "Messiah" was given to Jesus; but in Jewish thought the Messiah was
pictures as having Davidic descent; consequently Jesus was described as
"son of David"; and eventually a Davidic genealogy was fashioned for him.
Brown explains that Matthew probably created
fictional genealogical links back to Abraham and David also "to appeal to
the mixed constituency of his [Matthew's] community of Jewish and Gentile
evidence that Jesus was really not a descendent of David at all, Brown
points out that:
There is not the slightest indication in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus that his family was of ancestral
nobility or royalty. If Jesus were a dauphin, there would have been
none of the wonderment about his pretensions. He appears in the
Gospels as a man of unimpressive background from an unimportant village.
Brown goes even
further, calling into question the reliability of large sections of the New
Testament. He encourages his readers to face the possibility that
portions of Matthew and Luke "may represent non-historical dramatizations:"
Indeed, close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical.
Matthew's account contains a number of extraordinary or miraculous public
events that, were they factual, should have left some traces in Jewish
records or elsewhere in the New Testament (the king and all Jerusalem
upset over the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem; a star which moved from
Jerusalem south to Bethlehem and came to rest over a house; the massacre
of all the male children in Bethlehem). Luke's reference to a
general census of the Empire under Augustus which affected Palestine
before the death of Herod the Great is almost certainly wrong, as is his
understanding of the Jewish customs of the presentation of the child and
the purification of the mother in 2:22-24. Some of these events,
which are quite implausible as history, have now been understood as
rewritings of Old Testament scenes or themes.
Brown's most extreme
statement in this regard, appearing in the same essay, suggests that the
Pope himself might reject the historicity of the resurrection altogether:
It was this interaction [of the eschatological and the historical] that Pope Paul pointed to in the same
address when he spoke of the resurrection as "the unique and sensational
event on which the whole of human history turns." This is not the
same, however, as saying that the resurrection itself was a historical
event, even though editorial writers quoted the Pope's speech to that
It is crucial to remember (a) that these words
appear in an essay carrying the Church's approbation; (b) that they were
written by a scholar whose works were endorsed by the Ecole Biblique; and
(c) that Ecole Biblique is the institution that we were referred to by
III. The Virginal Conception
Brown cautions that "we
should not underestimate the adverse pedagogical impact on the understanding
of divine sonship if the virginal conception is denied."
On the other hand, admits Brown, "The virginal conception under its creedal
title of 'virgin birth' is not primarily a biological statement."
He stresses that Christian writings about virginal conception intend to
reveal spiritual insights rather that physical facts. Because record
of the virginal conception appears only in tow Gospels, and there only in
the infancy narratives (which Brown suspects are largely fictional), the
Catholic theologian tactfully concludes that "biblical evidence leaves the
question of the historicity of the virginal conception unresolved."
Brown mentions the
possibility that "early Christians" might have imported a mythology about
virginal conception from "pagan or [other] world religions,"
but never intended that that mythology be taken literally. "Virginal
conception was a well-known religious symbol for divine origins," explains
Brown, citing such stories in Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Greco-Roman and
ancient Egyptian theologies.
He proposes that early Christians "used an imagery of virginal conception
whose symbolic origins were forgotten as it was disseminated among various
Christian communities and recorded by evangelists."
also considers the possibility that Christianity's founders intended to
create the impression that an actual virginal conception took place.
Early Christians needed just such a myth, Brown notes, since Mary was widely
known to have delivered Jesus too early: "Unfortunately, the historical
alternative to the virginal conception has not been a conception in
wedlock; it has been illegitimacy."
Brown writes that:
Some sophisticated Christians could live with the alternative of illegitimacy; they would see this as the ultimate
stage in Jesus' emptying himself and taking on the form of a servant, and
would insist, quite rightly, that an irregular begetting involves no sin
by Jesus himself. But illegitimacy would destroy the images of
sanctity and purity with which Matthew and Luke surround Jesus' origins
and would negate the theology that Jesus came from the pious Anawim of
Israel. For many less sophisticated believers, illegitimacy would be
an offense that would challenge the plausibility of the Christian mystery.
In summary, Brown leans
towards a less miraculous explanation of Jesus' early birth.
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Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of
Jesus, New York: Paulist Press, 1973, p. 99.
Ibid., p. 105.
Ibid., p. 106.
Ibid., p. 54
Ibid., p. 55.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A commentary on the Infancy
Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Garden City, New York: 1977, p. 505.
Ibid., p. 68
Ibid., p. 88
Ibid., p. 34
Ibid., p. 36
Ibid., p. 126
Ibid., p. 529
Ibid., p. 527
Ibid., p. 522
The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 61.
The Birth of the Messiah, p. 530.
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