When John Selby Spong, in his book Born of a Woman asks the question "Was Jesus the child of adultery, rape or violence?" he is challenging his readers to think new thoughts. What a challenge! However, the idea becomes less shocking if we stop believing we can blame a child for the way it was conceived. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is so familiar that most people with a Christian background scarcely stop to question it, nor even consider whether they really believe it. Spong's book challenges the familiar Nativity tradition and addresses the damage he believes has been caused to women by images of femininity that are rooted in those stories.
Bishop Spong deals well with the key issues concerning the Nativity traditions and makes clear his view that the Virgin Birth is a dispensable doctrine. Paul built his theology, and even his Christology, without reference to a Virgin Birth doctrine, or a Nativity tradition; The gospels of Mark and John do not seem deficient by their failure to mention these matters; Luke's and Matthew's accounts differ and disagree with one another and both include apparently erroneous records and stories. I had previously recognised discrepancies in their stories of the census, Herod's reign and Quirinius' governorship, but Spong's comments on the genealogies included thoughts that I found quite new. I used to think that the difference between Matthew and Luke could be explained by suggesting that Matthew gave Joseph's genealogy (why?) and Luke gave Mary's. It is harder to explain away Matthew's disagreement with the records of kingly succession in Kings and Chronicles, as noted in this book. Missing some of the names out could be unfortunate, but miscounting the result is downright carelessness!
Spong's suggestion that the conception of Jesus could have been what former generations would have called 'illegitimate' is not just a gratuitous attempt to be controversial. He points to texts that seem to hint at some stigma attaching to the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. The suggestion is plausible, although there is not enough evidence to consider it conclusive. However, I was attracted to his suggestion that the father-love shown by Joseph to a child, who was not genetically his own, could have been a powerful model for Jesus' teaching on God as 'Abba'. Joseph gets a raw deal from traditional Christian teachings. When we pair these thoughts with Spong's suggestions about Mary Magdalene's position they raise ideas about the personality of Jesus of Nazareth which could be attractive, rather than repugnant. These are not original thoughts, but reflect teachings found in Second Century Gnostic writings. The idea that Mary Magdalene could have been Jesus' wife seemed disgusting and ridiculous when I first came across it; but why should marriage be good for me and bad for him? Marriage was a mandatory requirement to become a Rabbi in first century Judea, so why not for Jesus? Jesus does not attract me because of his celibacy, abstinence, fasting or seriousness, so much as by his total acceptance of life, and his commitment to the realities, joys, temptations and sorrows of being human.
Challenging and controversial ideas may hurt at first, but their power to hurt is rooted in the fear of 'losing our faith'. Real faith can stand the challenge of thoughtful reflection. On reflection, I can live with the ideas contained in Born of a Woman, I can accept some of them, and reject others. I am provoked, but not shocked. Fundamentally, Spong's ideas present a Jesus who was fully human; a Jesus who learned love from a kind, generous and loving human father; a Jesus who dealt respectfully with women and men, without retreating from human sexuality . Rather than diminishing Jesus, this book opens views of him that could increase his attractiveness - but we don't have to believe it!