In the early 1980s, the newly appointed Anglican Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, said he did not believe the gospel birth stories nor that that a physical resurrection had taken place, and that such beliefs were not necessary to be a good Christian.
Now you may remember the uproar in Christian circles. Many – including the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher – thought he had no right to call himself a Christian and senior members of the Church of England demanded he be tried for heresy (the last heresy trials had been over a hundred years previously).
Moreover, on the day of Dr Jenkins’ ordination at York Minster, lightning struck the Minster and part of the roof caught fire. Proof, said his critics, that God was angry with the church for appointing him.
All this made quite an impression on me, at that time an agnostic in my late twenties, who had rejected the strict Methodist upbringing to which I had been subjected. I began to take an interest in religion again. I quickly discovered that Bishop Jenkins was merely expressing a view that had long existed among scholars. For example, Dr Albert Schweitzer wrote in 1906: ‘The histories of Jesus’ birth are not literary versions of a tradition, but literary inventions.’
But what was the Bishop really saying?
Let’s step back a moment. Not long ago, Ann Widdecombe presented a TV programme on the future of Christianity. During the programme, she debated with a Humanist. He argued, as a humanist would, that morality doesn’t depend on believing in a god, a bible, virgin birth, resurrection and so on.
‘Don’t you believe in love and forgiveness, and being kind to each other?’ she countered. He said of course he did, but that didn’t make him a Christian; all the great religions teach love, compassion, peaceful conduct, forgiveness and right living. They’re largely common sense and do not need Christian theology to support them. And he’s right. Because it’s not these things that define Christianity. Even following the gospel teachings of Yeshua is not enough. It’s not even the point. Far more important for Christians is to believe certain things about him – who he was, why he came to Earth, his place in the Holy Trinity and what became of him after his crucifixion.
Christianity’s greatest apostle, Paul of Tarsus made this very clear: if we have absolute faith in Yeshua’s death and resurrection, we redeem ourselves and take our place in the Kingdom of G_d. To Paul, this is what distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian. And note – there is no mention of a virgin birth anywhere in Paul’s surviving writings.
No wonder the Anglican hierarchy were shocked by the Bishop’s argument. In effect he was refuting the very basis of traditional Christianity.
Let’s take a look at the biblical Christmas and resurrection stories and consider how they relate to Unity teachings:
The Christmas story which is enacted around the world every December is based on just two gospels – Matthew’s and Luke’s. Mark and John have nothing to say on the issue. Indeed, John reports an incident in which a crowd doubted that Jesus was the Messiah precisely because he did not come from Bethlehem, but from Galilee.
The familiar Christmas tale combines just Matthew and Luke.
Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey. Their son was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. They were visited by shepherds and three wise men from the East. According to Matthew, and Matthew alone, the family then had to escape to Egypt to avoid persecution from King Herod.
Now apart from the sheer implausibility of such a tale, it is compounded by a number of ‘inconvenient’ facts based on what we know about history and the culture of Palestinian society at that time.
To start with, the above narrative is a combination of two incompatible sources. The only thing they have in common is the location, Bethlehem, and their wish to portray Jesus’ birth as important. ‘Matthew’ was also concerned to link it to the ancient Hebrew prophecies.
There is no mention of this miraculous birth anywhere else in the New Testament: no mention in the earliest gospel, ‘Mark’, and no mention in Paul’s letters, which pre-date Mark. Paul had met with the disciples Peter and James (Jesus’s biological brother) – surely they would have discussed such a remarkable turn of events? Or is it simply that these stories hadn’t yet been circulated when the earliest New Testament texts were written?
There’s no mention of the birth in the John’s Gospel; no mention in the Acts of the Apostles; and no mention in the later letters. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus make any reference to his birth, and neither do his mother or his brothers! Curious!
It was especially important for the author of Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus was seen to come from the town of Bethlehem, since the prophet Micah had foreseen a Messiah being born there. Matthew stated it as a fact but made no attempt to explain how they came to be in Bethlehem; that story came only from Luke. He wrote that a census was to take place which required every citizen to return to their ancestral home. Because Joseph was said to be a descendent of King David, this meant David’s city, Bethlehem.
Good story. The problem is, historians have searched in vain for an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus’s birth, but there was none. In any case the Romans had no jurisdiction to hold a census in Galilee since this was Herod’s province. And not even the Romans would have insisted that a heavily pregnant woman travel the eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem through hostile territory.
The flight into Egypt
According to Luke, after the birth the family immediately returned to Nazareth. But Matthew’s gospel says that Mary, Joseph and the baby fled to Egypt to avoid an order from King Herod that all new born Jewish boys be killed. But there’s no record of any such decree, and no record of a slaughter of Jewish babies at that time. It is simply a literary way of linking Jesus’s birth to the passage in the scriptures in which Yahweh says, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
So were ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ fibbers? Yes and no. They saw no harm in using a little artistic licence or borrowing a few ideas from other cultures. They simply wanted to convince others that Yeshua was the Messiah and encourage them to join their new community.
Crucifixion, burial and resurrection
Let’s turn to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Bishop Jenkins described the resurrection stories as ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ – hardly likely to endear him to the establishment.
While Jesus’s crucifixion is not in doubt (it is about the only fact about his life that is mentioned outside the official gospels), the circumstances of his burial are contested by historians. It was unheard of for a crucified person to receive a decent burial. It was normal practice to leave them on the cross until the vultures had torn off the flesh, then take the bones to the sulphur pits outside Jerusalem which were used as a crematorium.
The gospels say that that Pilate, the Roman governor, gave permission for Jesus’ body to be removed and placed in a tomb. Quite why this notoriously cruel and ruthless man would have given permission for the body of this particular insurgent to be given this special treatment is unclear, except it set the scene for what followed next.
As Unity’s Rev Tom Thorpe points out, nobody saw Jesus walk out of the tomb.
So where did this story come from? When Jesus died, his followers’ hopes that he was the one to liberate his people were shattered. Then, as the decades rolled by, successive generations of Christians began to see him as the personification of G_d. But how could G_d die? How could they execute G_d as a common criminal? The New Testament writers and subsequent theologians had a lot of explaining to do!
The explanation they came up with was startling – resurrection.
According to the gospels, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that he would be killed and then resurrected on the third day. But according to these same sources, nobody – not even his closest disciples – expected him to rise again, and when the post-Easter Christ figure ‘appeared’ to them, they were so surprised they didn’t recognise him.
Most of the gospel sightings began and ended mysteriously. Usually he ‘drew near’ then ‘disappeared from sight’. But the gospel writers went to great lengths to insist that the risen Jesus was not a ghost. Even though he could appear and disappear at will and walk through walls, they claimed he ate, drank and could be touched.
Paul of Tarsus – whose writings, remember, pre-date the gospels – would not have believed this. He believed that Jesus returned in changed form, not as a resuscitated corpse but transformed into a spiritual body.
I don’t have time to go into all the inconsistencies in the resurrection stories (I wrote several pages on this in the book), so I’ll summarise:
- In Mark’s Gospel the disciples fled in terror and returned to Galilee. The original gospel ended there, but decades later twelve extra verses were added in which the Christ figure ‘appeared’ to them several times, spoke to them and was immediately whisked away to heaven. Nowhere does this gospel claim that Jesus had risen in bodily form.
- In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus as they fled from the empty tomb, but she didn’t recognize him. Clearly he wasn’t the man she had known just a few days earlier.
- Luke’s Gospel added several more appearances in which Jesus ‘came near’ and ‘stood among them’, showed them his wounds, ate fish, then vanished. There are no such claims in ‘Mark’ or ‘Matthew’. Moreover, far from fleeing to Galilee, the disciples stayed in Jerusalem and ‘were continually in the temple.’
- In the Fourth Gospel – written around 70 years after the crucifixion – neither Mary Magdalene nor Peter recognised him at first. Later, he ‘stood among’ the disciples and invited ‘doubting’ Thomas to touch his wounds. He also appeared to the disciples on various occasions, once while they ate bread and fish for breakfast and another in which he appeared on a beach and gave the disciples some advice on fishing.
- Acts of the Apostles, written by the same author as ‘Luke’, merely says he ‘presented himself alive’ to the disciples over a forty day period before the momentous events of Pentecost.
Once again we find ourselves wondering which, if any, of these accounts is correct, since they can’t all be right! The only things the gospels agree on is that the tomb was empty on the third day and Mary Magdalene was one of those who discovered it.
Psychologists tell us that we are just as likely to see what we believe as believe what we see. There’s no verifiable evidence for a physical resurrection, just the words of a small group of devotees. But we must all decide for ourselves. Whatever you choose to believe is true – for you. That’s the nature of belief.
I believe that what Bishop Jenkins was trying to say was no different to Unity’s teachings on the scriptures – seek the deeper, metaphysical truths rather than blindly accepting them as literal, historical truth (which they are quite plainly not).
But what are these truths? Charles Fillmore, co-founder of Unity, said that ‘there is only one metaphysical interpretation and that is your own.’ In other words, what matters is what the biblical texts mean to you.
Being a Christian for me is above all knowing that the Christ spirit, energy, principle, whatever you want to call it, is present everywhere, including in me, and expressing it with joy. I believe that quantum science is revealing this as a scientific and not just a metaphysical truth. Bishop Jenkins – the man branded a heretic by members of his own church – thought the same.
For me, Christmas is about celebrating the presence of the Christ spirit in me, and the resurrection about re-affirming the power of a spiritual rebirth in me and the indestructible nature of consciousness.
I conclude my recent book with this comment:
If I have to believe in a virgin birth, walking on water, dead and decomposing bodies coming back to life and a man being carried up to heaven on a cloud before I can realise my spirituality, then there’s no hope for me. For me, in this sense conventional Christianity is a barrier. I can study it, learn from it and borrow the sayings and parables that make sense to me. The rest I can reject without fear of eternal damnation (a loving G_d wouldn’t do that to me anyway).
Spiritual seekers like myself do not dismiss the Christian tradition outright, but know that the scriptures must be read allegorically and metaphysically to access their real meaning. They acknowledge tradition but do not follow it blindly. That’s what more and more people are doing in this enlightened age; long may it continue.
That’s what Unity teaches. It’s what Bishop Jenkins was driving at. That’s not heresy – that is truth!
©David Lawrence Preston, 2016
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The Quest of the Historical Jesus
 John 7:40-42
 E.g. Mark 9:31 and 10:34; Matthew 16:21 and 17:23; Luke 9:22 and 24:7; John 20:19
 Mark 16: 5-8
 John 20:19-20
 John 21:4-6
How to Books 2007 Hay House/Balboa Press 2015