God’s DNA

We’re going to have to talk just a little about the Virgin Mary today. My strategy in entering this field is to begin on the outrageous end of the row and pick my way back to where I parked the car. I thought “God’s DNA” was outrageous enough to do that.

On the other hand, this is a serious-minded essay. I know all the Virgin Mary jokes—have told half of them myself. This essay isn’t about that. It is about changing the metaphor entirely. I will want to work my way around to the proposition that Jesus was not begotten in a reproductive act of any sort, but in a creative act of God.

Where to start? Let’s start with John 3, where the Johannine Jesus, so dramatically different from the Synoptic Jesus, attacks the proposition that “Jewishnss” is a high priority matter. [1]

Virgin 1Jesus’s answer to Nicodemus, so familiar that it is hard to hear at all, goes like this. “In all truth, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being begotten from above.” [2] So it is the begetting—God’s work—that matters, not the physical birth—the work of humans. That’s all in John 3:3.

Down in John 3:5, Jesus concluded that being “begotten/born” through water and the Spirit is crucially important. Having a Jewish mother, not so much. There is more that really needs to be said about that, but let’s pop back to the Virgin Mary just for a moment. The question we are asking about the Immaculate [3] Conception of Jesus is a Nicodemus-style question, not a Jesus-style question. That alone ought to make us stop and think about what question to ask.

In the Prologue of the Gospel of John, we find that God gave to those who believed in the divine Word—later in the chapter, the divine Word is identified with Jesus— the power to become children of God. These children of God were begotten/born “not from human stock or human desire or human will, but from God himself.” Here is an excerpt: these children of God were not born…from human stock.”

What does that mean?  It does mean something.  It does not deserve to be thrown out or paved over by years of casual attention.  But what does it mean here?

I think it depends radically on the context of the question. In these passages from John, the question is, “Is it enough to have a Jewish mother? Does that establish you as one of God’s people?” To this question, the answer John gives is, “No. That is not enough. No considerations of human parentage will establish that you have been born “from God” (John 1:13)” by water and the spirit” (John 3:5).” So that’s what it means in that context.

What does it mean in the context of the Virgin Birth? There, I think we have to follow an entirely new path.  There, I think “born of the Spirit” requires us to find a way to think of the birth of Jesus in either the conception and birth metaphor or the “new creation” metaphor.

To approach the “new creation” metaphor, I propose that we look at the old creation virgin 2metaphor. [3] Here is Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth “When God began creating heaven and earth, the earth being then a formless void with darkness over the deep and a divine wind sweeping over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” [4] We see here that the wind (spirit, breath) of God is sweeping over the waters.

The situation here is evil and chaotic. Professor Rendsburg, in making this judgment, points out that every word, with the exception of “wind” is “symbolic of chaos and evil: unformed, void, darkness, deep. God’s role, he says, is “to bring order and goodness into this chaotic and evil world.

We are working with the “creation” metaphor. That was Genesis. Here is Matthew. The angel says to Joseph, who is right on the edge of calling everything off between himself and Mary, “…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.” Luke says the same thing, although the angel is talking to Mary this time, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so your child will be holy and will be called Son of God.”

According the Raymond E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah), both Matthew and Luke, by virgin 3referring to “by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew) or “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke) mean to point the minds of the first hearers back to the first creation. The “creation of Jesus” through the power of the Holy Spirit is analogous to the “creation of the world” through the power of the Holy Spirit. So when I speak of the “creation metaphor,” that’s what I’m talking about.

So these two gospel writers ask us to use a metaphor that is at home with “creation” rather than reproduction. And you will recall that that is what John asked of his hearers as well: “not by the will of the flesh, but by the will of God.” That means that there is nothing more sexual about the creation of Jesus that there was about the creation of the seas and the dry land. And if you want to extend the metaphor off into the area of deep scandal, you would have to ask whether the zebra (or some zebra-like progenitor) also carries God’s DNA.

virgin 5The zebra picture was supposed to be silly; that’s probably why zebra was the animal that came into my mind. If God does not share His DNA with his first creation, then why would we think it appropriate that he shared His DNA with his “second creation?” DNA is not a relevant notion either for the “divine wind sweeping over the waters” or for “the shadow of the power of the Most High.” It’s not a hard question. It’s just a bad question. We should ask DNA questions about situations where DNA is relevant.

But the church was born in contention. Accusations were made; defenses were constructed. “This guy you call the Messiah is actually a bastard from the hills of Nazareth.” [5] And the church says, “He is not a bastard. Joseph and Mary didn’t have sex until after the first child was born.” You see how weak that is as a rebuttal. You have to get some distance away from a situation everyone is going to define as essentially sexual in order to make the distinction I am making today, which is that the gospel accounts emphasize “creation” and not “reproduction.” That distinction is just not going to hold up under controversy.

But, as I said, it seems a lot to ask of people in the middle of a controversy in which sexual charges are being made, to say that such charges are entirely irrelevant. So the church invented a “reproductive process” in which Mary participated but no other human did. Therefore, presumably, Mary’s DNA is a part of Jesus’s genetic makeup. And the other half of Jesus’s DNA is…the Holy Spirit’s? God’s? Joseph’s? Some itinerant Roman soldier’s?

Once you start down the DNA route, which is where the sexual reproduction metaphor takes you, it takes you right to this corner and you have to invent more and more outlandish explanations. It’s a paradox. It’s a mystery. God’s ways are not our ways.

That’s not a good route to take.

I propose, instead, that we go back to the biblical account and say that in the beginning, God’s creative spirit brought good and order out of darkness and chaos and “in the fulness of time” God’s creative spirit came over Mary and produced a son, who was the light of the world. [6] Theologically, we can say that the first act was “creative” and the second “redemptive,” but in the gospels, it is unquestionably a new creation, comparable in scale only to the first creation.

So I conclude that the question of “God’s DNA” is a silly question, as I said at the beginning. But by now, I have said why I think it is silly.

[1] The ironies this argument provides are so thick and overlapping that it is hard to leave them alone. Jesus, the Jew, is arguing with “the Jews” that “being Jewish” is a very low priority matter compared to being “begotten by God.” You are a Jew if you are born of a Jewish mother. You are a part of God’s family if you have been “begotten” by God. So “begotten” is used by one side of the argument and “born” by the other side and in the Greek of John’s time, the word for born and for begotten was the same word. As I say, ironies abound.
[2] There are lots of good reasons for the variability of translations here. I am pushing all the “begetting” (the male part of the process) onto one side and the “bearing” (the female part of the process) onto the other side. So in this passage, Jesus says “begotten from above” and Nicodemus says, “What” Born again? Surely not.”
[3] I want to pause here to acknowledge the work of Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University. He offers a really good set of lectures, part of the Great Courses series, on “the Book of Genesis.” Lectures 2 and 3 are on the first creation story and the second creation story respectively. It is from his lecture that I learned that “creation ex nihilo” is no part of Genesis 1.
[4] That’s the way Rendsburg translates it. It is given in the New Jerusalem Bible as a “grammatically possible translation” but not the one they chose. I am not competent to choose between them, but Rendsburg’s translation highlights what I want to highlight, so I am going with him this time.  The cartoon I chose to illustrate this moment has, oddly enough, that same translation.
[5] For some years now, I have taken quiet delight in the fact that the English word bastard comes with an etymology that means “born in a barn.” So using this terms fits beautifully with Luke’s account and not at all with Matthew’s.
[6] All the powerful light and darkness poetry of John helps to carry the Genesis account of creation into the New Testament.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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