Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why am I an adoptionist?

Post by Ian

A number of Unitarians do not believe in the virgin birth, myself among them. My personal belief is that of the adoptionist. I believe that Jesus was chosen by God at his baptism and anointed by God as well as by John the Baptist. This is also why I hold baptism as high regard as an expression of faith. I see it as an undertaking to try to follow the path of the Christ.

This is a belief I have come to through study of the Bible, the various translations, and the context of the writing. I will endeavour here to lay out my reasoning, and defend an adoptionist position over the accepted doctrine of the virgin birth.

The Gospels
Unlike the doctrine of the Trinity, the virgin birth is actually in the Bible. The gospel of Matthew emphasises the virginity of Mary, referring back to the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14). There is a problem with the reference.

Firstly, because the Hebrew text refers to a young woman instead of a virgin. When the Greek Septuagint was compiled, the word almah was translated as parthenos. This indicates that the author of Matthew used the Greek text, rather than the Hebrew text when writing the gospel text. Secondly, the prophecy was fulfilled in the next chapter - the enemies of King Ahaz defeated when the child was young. God was with them (Isaiah 8:10), as indicated by the call to Immanuel (Isaiah 8:8). The young woman was the mother of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, the early lines of Isaiah 8 repeating the prophecy made to the King in the previous chapter.

Matthew is also a product of its time. It is written after the fall of Jerusalem, during a time when the early Christian church was spreading in the gentile Roman world. The message of a demi-god born of a virgin was a common one of the time, giving Christianity a certain familiarity and comfort. To the Jewish Christian audience, the message of Isaiah and the overthrow of the enemies of Christianity would also be a comforting one - given the defeat just dealt to the Jewish people. He is writing of the overthrow of Damascus and Samaria, equating it with the Roman occupation.

The other nativity story in the gospels, that of Luke, has Mary as a virgin when the angel appears to her while she attends Elizabeth. In the next chapter she is betrothed to Joseph and pregnant. This can be interpreted, especially by those who try to bring all parts of the Bible together as a literal whole (despite the contradictions if you do so), as confirming the virgin birth. However, nothing is said in this book about that, only that Mary was a virgin when the angel appeared to her. It can be just as easily, and more plausibly, interpreted that she is pregnant in the normal way - by Joseph. The child is destined, but not divinely conceived. In many early cultures, especially where divorce was shunned except in the most extreme of circumstances, a pregnancy in betrothal was not uncommon. The marriage was seen as consummated by the birth of the first child, proving that the marriage was a productive one and neither party barren.

As I have written before, the nativity stories are completely separate and can not be seen as a whole. They are written by separate authors, for different audiences. They use different references and metaphor to tell the story of Jesus' birth, each drawing on different traditions.

The Baptism of Jesus
The story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the gospels, the earliest of which is Mark. The early writings, the gospel of Mark and the letters of Paul (esp. Romans 1:1-6, Galatians 4:1-4), do not concern themselves with infancy stories of Jesus, starting the narrative at his baptism and the start of his ministry. The accounts reference the Old Testament, in the same way that the nativity accounts reference the older texts and Jewish tradition. In the baptism accounts, the references are the adoption of King David (2 Samuel 7) and the Psalms which praise David (Psalm 2). In the earliest texts of the gospel of Luke (e.g. Codex D), the acclamation from the heavens directly reflects that of the anointing of David: You are my son, with who I am pleased. Today, I have begotten you.

There are many in the Bible that are referred to as Son of God. In the beginning of the old Testament, the Nephilim are referred to as sons of God. It is a title of the Kings of Israel, with David being referred as directly anointed and adopted by God.  Prophets that are seen as holy are referred to as sons of God. It is a title, given to those whom God favours and loves. What the authors of the gospels were saying is that Jesus was a righteous man, a descendant of kings, who would fulfil the criteria of the expected messiah. Only later, when trying to extend the Christian following to Roman gentiles did the direct Son of God idea start to leak in.

The Church in Jerusalem
The followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, known as Ebionites (poor ones) and led by Jesus' brother James, are noted by their rejection of doctrines that were later to be accepted as part of the Nicene creed. These include the pre-existence, divine nature and virgin birth. These beliefs, to me, are all later Greco-Roman additions to the faith that was held in Jerusalem in those early days of Christianity. They came in to existence during the spread of Jesus' teachings throughout the Roman empire, mixing Roman beliefs with the Jewish ones to create what became the Christianity doctrines of the Council of Nicea.

I believe in Jesus as the chosen of God. I believe in his teachings and in the rending of the veil at his death, allowing us to accept the holy spirit directly rather than having to go through intermediaries of the priest class. I believe that Jesus acted as the paschal lamb for all, meaning that sins no longer had to be purged in the Temple. All this does not diminish if Jesus is the human child of Mary and of Joseph. To me, it enhances the achievements of Jesus - to be accepted as righteous by God and chosen as prophet and messiah. It puts those achievements in the reach of all of us, should we wish to try to follow in his footsteps.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.
~ Edwin Hatch, 1878

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