what to believe (2)

Last week I began to look at a particular statement of faith put forth by a chap called, James L. Melton. Also, I pointed out that simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses to the questions asked are not always so simple. (Go here for part 1 of the series). This week, I want to pick up where I left off and consider two more of the questions asked by Mr Melton.

3. Do you believe that God is a Holy Trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yep, I do . . . although, I prefer the term ‘Godhead’ to ‘Trinity’; but that’s a minor issue.

4. Do you believe that the Lord Jesus was born of a virgin, without a man being involved, and lived a sinless life for thirty-three years as God manifest in the flesh?
Except for the ‘thirty-three years’ bit, yes I can affirm this. However, before explaining that exception two things need to be said about the nature of this very question. First, while this is a fairly straightforward claim for those with a decent grasp of Christian teaching (or basic theology) it might not be the case for those wanting to begin their journey of faith.[1] To put it differently: if I had little to no knowledge of the Bible and someone asked me if I believed the above statement (i.e. #4), I think I would be prone to ask: what do you mean by ‘Lord Jesus’, ‘lived a sinless life’ and ‘God manifest in the flesh.’ These terms would need a fair amount of explanation before I could commit to believing them. So while this makes sense for a church to believe, it does not make much sense to ask someone if they believe the same thing when in reality they don’t understand the terms.

Second, and slightly less substantial than the first, the qualifier ‘without a man being involved’ is quite superfluous in light of the explicit condition, ‘of a virgin’. I honestly cannot think of why such a qualifier is needed. If Mr Melton is trying to respond to the myth that Mary was impregnated by someone other than Joseph–usually a Roman soldier–that’s fine, but a statement of faith is not the place to have that discussion. (As before, Mr Melton is more than welcome to comment here and/or clarify his meaning).

Now, allow me to return to the ‘thirty-three years’ comment. My first question would be: is this really essential? Does the timeframe really need to be that specific? Why not just say, ‘Jesus lived a sinless life’? I ask this partly because the Bible (including ‘the infallible copy’ of the KJV) never says how old Jesus was when he was crucified. The traditional view of 33 years is based (partly) on two assumption: 1) because Luke 3.23 says that Jesus ‘was about thirty years old when he began his ministry’, he was either just shy of or just barely past 30 years of age; and 2) the Gospels seem to portray Jesus’ ministry as lasting for three years, based on the number of times he visits Jerusalem for specific feasts or Jewish holidays.

However, there are key flaws in both of these assumptions, which individually and collectively affect the traditional view of 33 years. First, and to come at this backwards, the Gospels do not specify precisely how long Jesus’ ministry lasted. Quite honestly, the Gospel writers do not seem to care about the length of time; it’s just not a pressing (let alone, necessary) issue for them. The only Gospel that provides some clues as to how long the ministry possibly endured is Luke. At the start of Luke 3, he refers to a known event in history: the reign of Tiberius Caesar (14/15-37 CE). He even goes as far as to give us a clear(ish) reference point within that known event: ‘in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’ (Lk 3.1).

The general consensus among scholars is that this ‘fifteenth year’ refers to either late 28 CE or early 29 CE. Now, Luke uses this chronological marker not only to situate the ministry of John the Baptiser but also the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (see, Luke 3.21-23). That’s the start, but what about the end of Jesus’ public ministry. The short answer (as many of you might be please to read) is that the strongest evidence points to 14 Nisan (or, 03-April) 33 CE. This, then, would give us a ministry lasting just over four years–maybe close to five.

We now have to address the second key flaw–i.e. the assumption of Jesus’ age at the start of his public ministry. If we use the 28/29 CE date as the starting point, this would presumably make sense of the ‘about thirty years old’ comment in Luke 3.23. The thing to recognise here is that this obviously assumes that the transition between BCE to CE (or BC to AD) is the point of Jesus’ birth. However, the Bible (including ‘the infallible’ KJV) points to a time of birth several years prior to this transition, a fact that Mr Melton must recognise if he is faithful to the implied claims of 1 and 2 in his statement of faith. Here’s what I mean.

The birth narrative, as told in Matthew, informs us that Herod the Great was in charge of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth (see 2.1). Moreover, the Gospel of Matthew goes on to tell us that the holy family fled to Egypt because of Herod’s decision to execute male children under the age of 2, and that the family remained in Egypt until Herod’s death, or shortly thereafter (Mt 2.19-20). Here’s the deal: it is a known fact that Herod’s reign lasted from 37-4 BCE. This means that Jesus’ birth had to take place prior to Herod’s death in 4 BCE, not at the transition between BCE and CE. If we throw in the ‘under 2 years of age’ bit, then we can tentatively offer a birthday of around 6 BCE.

Now for the problem that Mr Melton must explain: if we use 4 BCE as the absolute earliest birthday for Jesus (from Matthew’s Gospel), and if we use 28/29 CE as the start of his public ministry (from Luke’s Gospel), then this means that Jesus was either 32 or 33 when he began his ministry. Moreover, even if we accept the traditional view of Jesus’ ministry, this would mean that Jesus was either 35 or 36 when his ministry ended. If we mix things up a bit and allow the 14-Nisan 33 CE date, this would make Jesus either 36 or 37 years old at the time of his crucifixion. (Things get mixed up even further is we use the 6 BCE date as the time of birth). This compels me to ask Mr Melton: why are you asking me if I believe in a 33-year sinless life when the (biblical) evidence says that Jesus’ life was longer than that?

[1] This point ultimately applies to concepts, phrases and/or claims made in statements of faith, especially if they are consulted by a person unfamiliar with such things.


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