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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "The Incarnation." To view all parts, click the link below.
The idea of the incarnation of Christ through the Virgin Mary involves many related areas of study, including our ability to separate Greek philosophy from Hebrew Scripture and later Jewish interpretations of Hebrew truth. While rejecting Greek assumptions of body and soul, along with the supposed “evil” nature of matter, we must also remain respectful yet somewhat suspicious of Jewish beliefs and thought patterns.
Jesus contradicted many accepted Jewish teachings about the law in His “Sermon on the Mount,” while Paul contradicted many tenets of Greek religion and culture. What we hope to uncover is a third alternative, unique to Scripture. Conclusions depend upon premises, premises upon underlying assumptions, and assumptions upon culture. If we can somehow examine the core assumptions and culture on which our opinions are based, we might hope to reach better conclusions, if not ultimate truth.
Jewish Expectations of the Messiah
The Jewish viewpoint of the first few centuries did not allow for any “incarnation” of Christ, for it was foreign to mainstream Jewish expectations of the Messiah’s origin and birth. Though there are always variant views and explanations for every doctrine, the Jewish view as a whole looked for a Messiah who was an anointed man—another “David,” if you please.
The Jewish Christian view diverged from Greek Christianity (if I may call it that), and the very success of evangelism among the Greeks soon relegated the Jewish Christians to the back rows of influence. Jews soon found themselves vastly outnumbered by those who thought in Greek. Furthermore, because the priests in Jerusalem had scattered many Jewish believers through persecution or excommunication, many moved away. Their children were raised among Greeks and Romans, they lost much knowledge of the Hebrew or Aramaic language, and ultimately began to lose their sense of Jewish identity.
Hence, most of the early Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were absorbed into the rising Greek-speaking church. By the end of the second century, the main body of the Church was Greek, and the Jewish Christian communities were largely isolated and lost much of their earlier influence. The gospels had been written under the backdrop of Judea and Judaism, but they were read with common Greek word definitions, instead of seeing the writings as a Greek expression of Hebrew concepts. Much truth was discolored, and some incorrect Jewish ideas were also lost.
The Break between Judaism and Christianity
From the book of Acts we can see that the 40 years from Christ to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem saw Jewish Christians still attempting to remain loyal to Judaism, though they considered themselves to be of a different sect. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, went to the temple daily to pray for Jerusalem. As a Nazarite, he was allowed to enter the holy place itself to pray. It was on one of these occasions that he was stoned to death for bearing witness that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
The Jewish Christians also continued keeping the feast days in the old manner, killing lambs and putting blood on the door posts at Passover, camping out in booths at the Feast of Tabernacles, and even offering or supporting the daily animal sacrifices in the temple. The splendid temple was a powerful psychological magnet that few wanted to abandon. It was only when God sent “his armies… and set their city on fire” (Matthew 22:7) in 70 A.D. that they were forced to abandon the old system of Old Covenant worship and to seek a new and better way.
In fact, Judaism itself had to accommodate itself to the new reality of a religion without a central place of worship. With no temple altar to make sacrifices, it was generally accepted that these should cease until the Messiah comes. They expected the Messiah to oversee a reconstructed temple and reinstate the Old Covenant forms of worship. Thus, they await the only coming of the Messiah, even as Christians await the second coming.
As I said earlier, they had no expectation of God coming down to inhabit human flesh, wherein he would be called the Messiah. A virgin birth was not totally unknown, but those who believed this did not contemplate any “incarnation from heaven” as the church conceived of it.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940’s, much was learned about the beliefs of the Essenes, who were one of the top three sects of Judaism along with the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Pharisees were in the vast majority, but the Sadducees were in control of the temple during the first century until its destruction. The Essenes had given up on mainstream Judaism and had abandoned the temple as being too corrupt to reform. They had formed their own communities in the caves near the Dead Sea, where they awaited the coming of the Messiah to rectify the situation.
A Begotten Messiah
The Dead Sea Scroll 1QSa 11-12 mentions, “When God begets the Messiah.” The idea that God would beget the Messiah probably came from Psalm 2:7,
7 I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, today I have begotten Thee.”
Another important passage is 1 Chronicles 17:13, a prophecy that Nathan conveyed to David, which spoke of his son, Solomon, saying, “I will be his father, and he shall be My son.” There is no reason to believe that Solomon was literally begotten by God of a virgin. The “sonship” principle here only meant that God would treat him as a son. In other words, if Solomon fell into sin, God would discipline him but “I will not take My lovingkindness away from him, as I took it from him who was before you.”
Hence, the actual Messiah a thousand years later was qualitatively different from Solomon, even though Solomon, like Jesus, was a “Prince of Peace,” as his name implies. Both David and Solomon were imperfect types of Christ, and so the rabbis of the Second Temple era based their view of God’s begetting a future Messiah on partial patterns. Their revelation was necessarily limited prior to the actual fulfillment of the real Messiah.
This, along with their rather militaristic view of what a Messiah ought to accomplish, made it difficult for the Jews of the first century to recognize Jesus as Messiah when He arrived.
Another Dead Sea Scroll (4Q246) reads,
“Son of God he shall be called, and they will name him ‘Son of the Most High’… His (or its) kingdom is an everlasting kingdom… The great God will be his strength.”
This is quite similar to what Gabriel told Mary in Luke 1:32,
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.
With 20/20 hindsight, we look back at this and have no trouble seeing that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptural prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Jewish view was not what I would say is the Hebrew view. What is clear to us as Christian believers was not at all clear to most of them. They did not have the revelation that Mary was given in Luke 1:35,
35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.”
In other words, the term “Son of God” applied to Jesus specifically on account of His virgin birth. This revelation took the idea of sonship and the fatherhood of God beyond the current Jewish understanding of that time. Joseph himself needed his own revelation to be able to accept her story (Matthew 1:19, 20).
In fact, it was easier for a Greek to accept this account than for an average Jew, for such an event, though supernatural, was not outside the bounds of their religious culture. Hercules, for instance, was said to have been fathered by Zeus, through an adulterous tryst with Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon. So the Greeks already believed that the gods could take the form of men, and they were steeped in mythology that allows for demigods.
As for the idea of the incarnation, unlike the Jews, most Greeks believed the stories about the gods taking human form and walking among men. In fact, when Paul healed the man in Lystra, the people “began calling Barnabas Zeus, and Paul, Hermes” (Acts 14:12).
The Romans, too, were used to the idea of a god in the form of man. Not only did they share similar myths with the Greeks, their Caesars were God-men as well, deified either after their death or (later) during their lifetime. Going back into antiquity, the Egyptians also had a long history of deified pharaohs.
So the Jews understood that in some manner the Messiah was to be begotten by God, but they did not interpret this to mean that God would incarnate Himself in a man in the process. David, after all, was not a God-man. Being a son of God required neither a virgin mother or a divine incarnation where God would take human form.
The primary view of a son, other than the obvious literal meaning, is that it applied to one who followed the example of another. “Like father, like son,” was a common way of looking at it. So there were children of wisdom, children of light, children of darkness, children of the devil (or Belial), and, as Paul notes, seed of Abraham. In each case, the “children” resemble their father insofar as their deeds, beliefs, characteristics, or faith was concerned.
The most basic characteristic of a son was that he would carry out the will of his father, doing only what his father would do, and speaking only what he heard his father say. If a son could do this perfectly, then it could be said that he was in the image of his father and was an ideal son.
To the Jews, a son of God was one who resembled God in some way, either in faith or righteousness or in power. Kings were seen as sons of God, especially heirs to the throne of Israel, which was filled by a man who was supposed to rule as God’s agent or trustee. So Nathanael said to Jesus in John 1:49, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” When he spoke those words, he had not yet learned of Christ’s virgin birth, but he knew that the Messiah, as the promised King of Israel, was to be known as Son of God.
In the end, Luke 1:35 links the virgin birth to Christ’s sonship, but does this connection extend also to the idea of Christ’s incarnation?
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "The Incarnation." To view all parts, click the link below.