Was Jesus the Son of the Priest Zacharias?

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 5, 2003 - Pages 1-16

Let no one think it a cliché when teachers say they are often the learners in the process of classroom discovery. I had the rare privilege of substituting for a friend on the faculty of the Unification Theological Seminary a few years ago when he was laid up following a traffic accident. I had previously taught New Testament to Free Will Baptist freshmen and to doctoral students of various persuasions. In all such situations I was something of an outsider, as I found myself encouraging students to think through possibilities not made welcome by their creeds. But at UTS I was an outsider in a special sense. Familiar with the Unification movement for many years, having attended a speech by the Reverend Moon in Chicago in 1974, I had learned to admire the movement and to be fascinated by it. And here was a chance to interact and to help form the finest minds who would emerge to lead this new and enthusiastic messianic movement in future years. It was a responsibility I did not take lightly, as well as an experience I delighted in. At any rate, one afternoon one of my best students told me in almost conspiratorial tones that Reverend Moon had a special angle on one of the stories we had discussed in class: that of the annunciation and conception of Jesus in Luke chapter one. The truth was, she told me, that Mary was not merely killing time with her cousin Elizabeth when she went to visit her immediately following the annunciation by the angel Gabriel. No, once she placed herself in the care of her older cousin and the latter's husband, she received the attentions of old Zacharias, whom God had chosen to father the baby Jesus.

Reverend Sun Myung Moon is a religious visionary in the most literal sense. His suggestion about the true parentage of Jesus is a piece of what scholars like to call "inspired" or "charismatic" exegesis. That is a euphemism implying "subjective and Kabbalistic" exegesis, genuinely of interest to scientific exegetes, but primarily as an example of the kind of pre-scientific mythopoeic imagination that created the Bible in the first place. I will return to this issue at the end, but the main thing I want to consider in this brief paper is whether the suggestion may be taken seriously as possibly disclosing Luke's intention, if not the historical facts of the matter.


This Day Have I Begotten Thee

Three considerations might make us initially reluctant to take Reverend Moon's hypothesis (as I will call it, though I understand he does not offer it as such; rather apodictically, in prophetic fashion) as the fact of the matter. And yet we will see that all three objections are pretty easy to answer.

First, critical exegesis at least since David Friedrich Strauss has forbidden us to take at face value Luke's assertion that Jesus was the cousin of John the Baptist. Briefly, the problem arises from comparative source criticism. Only Luke has the family connection of Jesus with John, and Luke is a late document, dependent upon earlier versions which had no such link and left no room for them. Mark posits no link between the two men, Jesus being merely another face in the crowd, in the line of seekers awaiting baptism. True, Matthew 3:14 has John instantly aware of the identity of Jesus as the latter approaches him for immersion, but nothing is said of family connections. And John 1:33-34 disallows Matthew's version by having the Baptist say he did not know Jesus for the elect of God until he saw the divine Spirit descend and remain upon him, a visionary event happening just recently. Even Luke has failed to weave the cousin business in carefully with the rest of his own narrative, since the Q passage (Luke 7:18-23 // Matthew 11:2-6) Luke shares with Matthew shows John first imagining the possibility that Jesus is the messiah only while he has the leisure to think about it in his prison cell. Nothing is said of his having begun to doubt a messiahship in which he had once believed, say as young as a fetus jumping in the womb to attest his divine cousin's greater glory (Luke 1:41-44).

No, the connection between Jesus and John as cousins is "merely" Lukan redaction aimed at appealing to members of the rival John the Baptist sect thriving in his own day. He sought to co-opt this sect by subordinating John's nativity to Jesus'. (Luke is often thought to have used two Aramaic nativity stories, one about John, one about Jesus,[1] and to have connected them with the pivotal scene in which the Johannine fetus jumps for joy when the zygote Jesus comes on the scene. It is all a piece of the same technique Luke uses so well to parallel Stephen (originally the martyred James the Just, as Hans-Joachim Schoeps[2]and Robert Eisenman[3]have argued), Paul, and Peter to Jesus in their Passion narratives in Acts, and to parallel Paul with Peter on so many points in Acts. In all such cases, Luke seeks to endorse one character by modeling him upon another, already revered.

On the other hand, suppose that it is the link between John the Baptist and Zacharias that is the fiction, forged by Luke, not that between Mary and the old couple. There is a hint of this in the otherwise odd vestige in Luke 1:69 which makes Zacharias call his son "a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David." John the Baptist does not stem from David's line. Neither does Jesus if he is Zacharias' son. But if he is destined to take the role of Messiah, the Davidic epithet will be his in an official or ceremonial sense. The Mandaean Book of John, ancient though impossible to date precisely, already knows "old father Zakhria" as the father of John, "Enishbai," as his mother. Does this constitute non-Christian tradition running parallel to Luke, and thus possibly older? I think not. The Book of John goes on to describe a series of prodigies witnessed by many in disturbing dreams. The priests, usually capable of interpreting dreams can make nothing at all of these, so they take them to a formidable adept named Lilyukh, who proves equal to the task.[4]Moses Gaster conjectured that this Lilyukh might be prophet Elijah the Tishbite, and G.R.S. Mead seems to favor the guess, but to me it seems obvious that Lilyukh can be none other than the evangelist Luke, from whom the Mandaean writer has therefore borrowed his information concerning John's parents. Thus it may be that, though the business linking John and Jesus as cousins, the former genuflecting to the latter already in the womb, is Lukan apologetics, the Lukan invention may have been the connection between John and Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Second, though a definite historical scenario seems to underlie biblical tales of this type (the impregnation of a formerly "barren" woman by the intervention of a holy man), it applies with difficulty to this case. I have in mind the brilliant book by anthropologist M.J. Field, Angels and Ministers of Grace, in which he argues that the miraculous nativity stories of Isaac, Samson, Samuel, John, and Jesus all reflect the ancient practice (still obtaining) of African and Arabia according to which a childless couple seeks the divine aid of a traveling shaman. He sleeps with the woman, who becomes pregnant, demonstrating that the problem all along was with the husband, not the wife. But the husband, far from being cuckolded and humiliated, is allowed to continue hiding behind the excuse of his wife's "barrenness," never admitting his own sterility. Though the impregnation is due simply to the wife receiving sperm from a non-sterile male, the husband is allowed to save face by the standard pretense that it is the wife's fault and that the shaman is applying supernatural power, not mere male virility, to the case. A man's pride might suffer compared with another man's ability to impregnate the man's wife, but not if it takes supernatural power to do the job. Who can compete with a god or be blamed for falling short in such a competition? Field knew that this practice was common in many cultures he had studied, cultures similar in many respects to biblical culture. So he naturally surmised that the same practice lay behind the nativity stories of biblical heroes whose mothers were called barren.[5]

It is only the embarrassment of plaster piety that refuses to take seriously Field's illuminating theory. Now this is not to say that any particular biblical story of a barren woman conceiving is historically true; only that the existence of this arrangement in Hebrew culture would have made the stories seem to ring true. The reader or hearer would have heard of such things before and would find the tales plausible. Likewise, the ancient reader/hearer would know good and well what sort of an "angel" it was who had allayed the couple's fears and promised them a child "in the spring of the year when I return." In the same way, we may accept Rudolf Otto's invocation of various biblical and extrabiblical tales of ancient heroes' encounters with God (whether of Moses before Yahweh or Arjuna before Krishna) as genuine evidence of the sort of numinous experience from which all religion ultimately stems,[6]without committing ourselves to believing that the historical Moses actually heard words from the burning bush. The stories arise from the familiarity of the general phenomenon.

But in the case of Mary and Zacharias, Field's theory does not seem at first to fit so easily. If Field's proposed scenario accounts for the impregnation of Elizabeth by the intervention of an itinerant charismatic (represented by the "angel" Gabriel in the narrative), it cannot very well have been that Zacharias got his wind back in time to do for his wife's cousin what he could never do for his wife! Field's theory might have lent a kind of general cultural verisimilitude to Luke's story, but does it fit Reverend Moon's alternate version of the same?

The real problem we have raised is that, if Zacharias stood in need of such assistance, leading to the conception of John the Baptist, then he cannot himself have functioned as the surrogate for Mary. Naturally, we have no problem here at all if Luke fabricated the connection between John and Zacharias. But let us not rest the whole weight of our argument thus on one possibility. Perhaps Zacharias was John's father and Luke has merely taken liberties with the chronology. Luke's juxtaposition of Jesus and John as precise contemporaries may itself be a piece of apologetics created (if not inherited) by Luke.

Robert Eisler (The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, 1931), a historical exegete generally ignored despite (or rather one might say, because) of his brilliant ingenuity, contended that John the Baptist was a much older man than Jesus, as attested partly by his apparent placement by the Slavonic Josephus (Capture of Jerusalem, a version of The Jewish War) as early as the time of Archelaeus; partly by Jesus' long look back at him in the saying "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God suffers violence and violent men seize it by force" (Matthew 11:12).[7]Suppose Eisler was correct. Suppose Zacharias and Elizabeth had brought forth John the Baptist without angelic assistance at least ten years before the birth of Jesus. In that case, neither his age nor his wife's need have posed an obstacle to the birth of John, and the appearance of this motif in Luke 1:18 has simply been borrowed from the story of Abraham and Sarah subsequent to the relocation of John's birth nearer to that of Jesus. And while Elizabeth would have been too old to bear a son around 4 BCE, Zacharias would not have been too old to beget one. He, then, especially as a priest, would then be available to father the holy child Jesus.

But, to follow Field's theory out consistently, we should expect Mary to have sought out the old priest's help because of Joseph's inability to impregnate Mary, and Luke's present chronology looks a bit tight for this. Isn't it too early for either Joseph or Mary to know of any reproductive dysfunction? Well, no. There need have been no lengthy period between their marriage [even their betrothal, especially if they lived in Judea as per Matthew, or if they had pietist sectarian ("Essene") connections][8]and a feeling that something was wrong, that Mary was "barren." The fault would, as we have seen, been ascribed to her, not him. Joseph would have been, like any young man of his time and place, eager to demonstrate his manhood as soon as possible by successfully begetting a son. It needn't have taken too many months for him to begin to worry. And thus the visit to Elizabeth, really to Zacharias, just, as on Field's reading, it was on a supplicatory pilgrimage to Shiloh that old Eli removed Hanna's reproach among the neighborhood gossips (1 Samuel 1:9-20).

Third, if Jesus had truly been descended from priestly stock, wouldn't this valuable fact have come in handy? Wouldn't it presumably have been known to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who goes to such great lengths to provide Jesus the imaginary credentials of the Melchizedek priesthood? Ever since the elevation of Judah the Maccabee and his brothers to the Jewish throne, friendly theologians had been busy providing legitimization for a priestly Hasmonean to take the Messianic throne without having to boast of ties to the house of Judah and David. This would seem to be the whole point of the Testament of Levi. Such apologetics were ready to hand, and it would have been a simple matter for Christians to apply them to the case of Jesus as a non-Davidic Messiah. On the other hand, if, as Reverend Moon suggests,[9]a begetting by Zacharias was understood from the outset to be so liable to misunderstanding, it is easy to see how the whole business might have been concealed, rendering Jesus' hereditary priestly credentials useless!


The Plot Thickens

The historical possibility or plausibility of the suggestion that Zacharias was the father of Jesus is one thing. Even if we do judge that the story, read this way, would fit in with known practices of the period, we would not necessarily have vindicated it in terms of the literary intention of Luke the evangelist. We do not wish merely to pick isolated bits and pieces out of a narrative and leave the story itself gutted in the garbage, like a holiday turkey cast off by diners who weren't very hungry!

The main question here is the old one as to whether Luke originally intended to depict a miraculous conception at all. As is well known, there is very slight textual evidence (the fourth or fifth century Old Latin ms. b.) that the original text of the Lukan annunciation scene went uninterrupted by Mary's objection in 1:34, "How shall this be, since I know not a husband?" Contextually, the scene flows much better without these words, since the angel has said nothing to Mary, who is after all a woman engaged to be married, about her conceiving a baby in a miraculous manner. What has she to object about? She is soon to be married and will have a distinguished son. Fair enough. "How shall this be, since I know not a husband?" "Uh, what do you mean? You will, won't you? I mean, you're engaged, aren't you?" "Oh yes! I forgot about that!" The artificiality of the dialogue is apparent. The import of the angelic tidings is simply that her son will be great, a king and a savior. It would make better sense if Mary asked something like, "But why me, of all people?" If we ask after the function of the objection, "How can this be, since I know not a husband?", it can be nothing other than to introduce the theme of a virginal conception where it had originally been absent.

It is clear in his discussion of the events surrounding Jesus' conception in True Parents and True Family (1996) that Reverend Moon harmonizes the nativity accounts of Luke and Matthew, the result being that Joseph's jealous displeasure/disappointment is sparked by Mary's return from her extended visit at her cousin's house, showing her pregnancy. If what we want is to reconstruct Luke's story on its own terms, we must bracket Matthew's very different story, which Luke presumably knew not of, nor wanted us to hold in mind as we read his own. In the same way, we must not and need not read Mary's visit to Elizabeth and Zacharias from Luke into Matthew to account for Joseph's suspicion and alarm. The mere fact of her pregnancy spoke eloquently, albeit misleadingly, for itself. And if we read Luke by himself, we detect no sign of a scandal attaching to Mary. If we read it without Mary's objection in Luke 1:24, there is just no puzzle for Reverend Moon or anyone else to supply the solution for. "Where did Cain get his wife?" Now, that's a stumper. But "Where did Mary get a father for her child?" That is no problem: the same story (without 1:24) has told us she is engaged to a man named Joseph.

But it is certainly fair to throw in one's lot with the massive majority of manuscript readings, whatever sense or nonsense we may think the resultant text makes of the story. Let us suppose that Luke 1:24 is integral to the text, and that it reveals a premise hidden simply by authorial absent-mindedness: that for whatever reason, Joseph is out of the running as the child's father. Perhaps those Roman Catholic exegetes are correct who, following the fourth-century bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, assume an advanced age for widower Joseph and a merely legal marriage for Joseph and Mary.[10] Mary knows old Joseph, her caretaker, cannot be the father, so what can the angel mean? (This proposed solution is not attractive, though, since in this case, Mary's objection would have to be, "But my betrothed is old, and past the age of begetting!" Cf. Genesis 18:2-3) At any rate, suppose she knows Joseph cannot be in view. Who, then? Then we may take, as presumably Reverend Moon does, the words of the angel in 1:36 about Elizabeth's pregnancy as a piece of direction: that is where she will find the father of the child of promise, in Zacharias' house.

What was Mary doing in the home of her cousin for those months? Perhaps she undertook the visit to compare notes and to pay her respects. That is the narrative motivation Luke supplies to get Mary where he wants her for the scene in which Elizabeth declares the fetus John has leaped in the womb to acknowledge his superior cousin's future greatness. But that scene itself may hold another clue as to the real relationship between John and Jesus according to Luke. They are at least cousins (at least in this scene, though Luke appears to have forgotten about it later). But might they be more? As G. R. Driver noted long ago, the reference to the babe leaping in the womb is a direct reference back to the Greek Septuagint version of Genesis 25:21-24, where the pregnant Rebecca laments that her twins are getting a bit too rambunctious! They are "leaping" in the womb. The oracle of Yahweh assures her that this denotes her sons will beget two nations whose mutual strife will be perpetual. Luke wants, by his artful weaving together of the sagas of Jesus and the Baptist, to unify both sects under the Christian banner. In his day, as we read in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the Baptist sect continued in competition with the sect of Jesus. Their strife seemed to Luke a replaying of that between Jacob and Esau, Israelites and Edomites. But as those two ancient brothers were finally reconciled, Luke hoped the sects of Jesus and John might be reconciled. For this literary parallel to work, the yet-unborn Jesus and John need be no more than cousins, but it would strengthen the parallel if they were actually brothers, at least stepbrothers. And that is what Reverend Moon, in a bold act of "reader response," makes them. Wolfgang Iser[11] and others have made a great deal of the fact that the reading process is one subtly guided by the author but inviting the reader to share in the co-creation of the text. The author leaves details lacking, clues hanging, possibilities offered. Luke, intentionally or not, seems to have left open a door through which Reverend Moon has entered.

But perhaps we may go farther than this. We wonder how far along the story arc of Jacob and Esau Luke was thinking. In Genesis 32, on the eve of what turns out to be the reconciliation of the estranged brothers, Jacob has a mysterious nighttime encounter with one he later calls "Elohim." They fight until, desperate to flee before the cover of night should unmask him, Jacob's opponent cheats, dislocates Jacob's thigh, and is off into the darkness. Jacob has "striven with Elohim and prevailed" (32:28). He marvels, "I have seen God face to face!" Hence the name of the place: Peniel/Penuel, "Face of God." Next day, prepared for conflict with his brother, he encounters instead a surprisingly friendly Esau. Jacob is relieved and exclaims, "Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God!" (33:10b). Why is Esau so conciliatory? Had not Esau pledged to kill his brother with his bare hands (27:41)? Has he now just decided to let bygones be bygones? The text does not say. Or does it? Had he perhaps approached Jacob at the stream ford the night before, when no faces could be made out, and there evened the score in a terrific brawl? Having spent his long-simmering anger, perhaps he found he could then let go the past. He hoped to keep his identity secret, leaving with a new respect for his now-formidable brother. But Jacob had seen the face of this "god" after all and now recognizes him, which is why, of course, seeing the face of Esau is like seeing the face of God. In this case, Jacob had earned his epithet "Israel" not on account of a literal wrestling match with a divine being, but with a man taking the role of one.[12]

Suppose Luke read the story of Jacob and Esau in this manner. We know he was interested in it because of his transparent use of it in Luke 1:44. We know it was the issue of reconciliation of feuding groups that interested him most, so he would have relished the whole story with its happy ending (Psalm 133:1). And if he understood that, in seeing and striving with God, Jacob had really seen and striven with Esau, Luke might have borrowed this detail, too. In this case, he might well have surmised that Jesus became the Son of God in the same sense that Jacob had become the sparring partner of God, namely that both times God utilized a mortal vicar, Esau in the one case, Zacharias in the other. The Alexander Romance tells us that the world-conqueror was physically fathered by the old Egyptian priest Nectanebus, but he does not appear to think Alexander deserved the title "Son of Amun" any less because of it. No, this was precisely why the title was appropriate! In such fashion had the priests of Egypt ever served as sexual surrogates for the gods, begetting all the Pharaohs of Egypt.


Stigma and Dogma

So much for Luke. Does the Zacharias theory shed any light upon Matthew's story of Jesus' origin? Yes, I venture to say that it does, and that this will become apparent with no attempt at all to square Matthew with Luke otherwise. We need not resort to the ancient (fascinating but unscientific) practice of midrashically expanding the text by positing tacit events to provide hitherto unsuspected larger contexts. To anticipate, I will suggest that Reverend Moon's theory about Zacharias neatly fills a lacuna left in Matthew's nativity story, as interpreted by Jane Schaberg in her The Illegitimacy of Jesus (1987). This tentative conclusion may in turn suggest further possibilities about the development of the virgin birth doctrine.

Jane Schaberg was a graduate student of Raymond E. Brown. In class, her professor raised the point that, despite the fact that Matthew meant to describe a miraculous virginal conception and birth for Jesus by appealing to the proof text, Isaiah 7:14, in the Greek Septuagint version, "Behold a virgin shall conceive," the Greek translators could not have supposed parqenoV in Isaiah to denote technical sexual innocence. The Greek translators must have understood the Hebrew original almah to mean "young woman," so we must understand that, for them parqenoV had a larger range of meaning than usually supposed. This set Schaberg to wondering, "In that case, how can we be so sure Matthew meant technical virginity, either?" She wound up with the conviction that the notion of a miraculous conception and birth is totally alien to the evangelist's intent. By contrast, Matthew evidences plenty of concern with the readers' anticipated skepticism concerning the legitimacy of Jesus, and he deals with it as best he can. But the mythical notion of a virgin birth is not the way he deals with it. (This mytheme, Schaberg agrees with most scholars, was later imported into Christian lore by Gentile converts already used to glorifying heroes, gods, and philosophers with virgin births. But, she says, Matthew and Luke knew as little of it as do the Pauline letters.)

Schaberg takes aim at the references and allusions in the Matthean genealogy to only four women, and women with dubious reputations at that. They are, of course, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bath-Sheba. Surveying what New Testament-era interpretation had to say of these women, Schaberg offers some hot stuff! Tamar, of course, dressed up as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law Judah so she might win from him the right of Levirate marriage. This is straight from the text of Genesis chapter 38. Rahab was a career harlot, though she redeemed herself by betraying her doomed compatriots into the hands of the Israelites (Joshua chapters 2 and 6). Rabbinical tradition had her subsequently wed Joshua. Ruth 3:7 is already pretty risqué, depicting the merry widow Ruth "uncovering the feet" (i.e., penis) of Boaz as he lies there oblivious after the barley-harvest revelry. Yet God was not too pure to spurn Ruth as a genealogical step toward King Messiah. Similarly, though the Sun King Solomon was the fruit of a murderous adultery between David and the wife of Uriah, it was he who forged another link in the messianic succession. Can we avoid seeing a pattern here? Only morally questionable women are mentioned, and yet events in the providence of God made them into Holy Mothers of Israel. Can God still do as he did then? Can a woman overshadowed by such a cloud today nonetheless be reckoned the mother of the Messiah? According to Schaberg, that is Matthew's claim. So far, her theory is not so controversial, but just wait. How far does Matthew try to dispel that cloud of opprobrium?

His counter-proposal is no miraculous conception. It is rather a forgiving providence that makes virtue of necessity, that pulls victory out of moral defeat as he did in these previous cases. No miracles? Schaberg reminds us that the closest the narrative ever comes to such a claim is the pair of notes in Matthew 1:18 and 20 that "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." And that could mean a number of things. After all, traditional Jewish marriage theology said that the Shekhinah of God hovers over every marriage bed. To show how little a genuine nature-twisting miracle is in view, Schaberg compares the Matthean phrase to similar statements found in Targumic paraphrases of the Tamar story. The Targums, of course, were extremely loose Aramaic paraphrases of scripture current in New Testament times. If you want to know how most folks used to understand the texts at that time, read the Targums. In Genesis 38 Tamar's identity is revealed, and she is on the verge of being immolated as an adulteress (prostitution itself being apparently no crime for the unmarried), when Judah decides to be a man about it and explain the extenuating circumstances lest his daughter-in-law become a victim of them. "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah" (Genesis 38:26). At this juncture in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, a voice from heaven sounds: "It is from me that this thing comes!" At the same point the Fragmentary Targum has the voice declare, "Both of you are acquitted at the tribunal. This thing has come from God." Targum Neofiti I has, "They are both just; from before the Lord this thing has come about."[13] Schaberg suggests that the angel's reassurance to Joseph is a dream ("That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit") is the equivalent of these divine-voice reassurances of the righteousness of Tamar. To say that her pregnancy is of the Holy Spirit is intentionally vague so as to avoid the disgusting implication that God had impregnated her in some manner—physical or metaphysical! What would be the difference? Fleshly versus ectoplasmic genitalia? (Remember the anxiety of the scribes over Genesis 4:1, "I have gotten a man with the help of Yahweh." Yikes!) But the phrase does not have to mean there was no father, only that Joseph's not being the father was part of the divine plan, just like Judah's rendezvous with Tamar, Rahab's marriage to Joshua, Ruth's seduction of Boaz, and David's affair with Bath-Sheba.

But perhaps Matthew, on Schaberg's reading (which I find quite compelling), is a bit too delicate. It leaves something important unsaid, left hanging. There is some story left untold. Schaberg is content to show that Joseph's initial plan to divorce Mary was required of him by Jewish law (Deuteronomy 22:23-27) as then interpreted, if Mary had cheated on him or been raped. Is the tacit story either of these? Did Mary suddenly fall in love with someone else, or yield to the seductions of some village Lothario? Or was she raped? Any such implied backstory is quite disturbing, and even with the four precedents Matthew builds into the genealogy of Jesus, it is hard to swallow any of them easily.

In view of this, it is amazing that Matthew does not attempt something more spectacular, for instance a virgin conception and birth like those ascribed to Horus, Plato, Alexander, Cyrus, and others. Later readers of his gospel would read such miracles into the story. Had Matthew intended that, surely he could have made it clearer than it is.

It is every bit as surprising that he does not close the apologetic door tighter to exclude other elements of anti-Christian polemic. Both Celsus and the rabbis make Jesus the bastard whelp of the Roman soldier Pandera.[14] And such he might be, as far as Matthew's story leaves it. His reticence to close the question one way or another implies he felt he could not push credulity too far from known facts. He could only try to palliate them. And the fact might be that Jesus was half-Roman. If he had been, we could not expect Matthew to rejoice in the fact nor to advertise it. Or perhaps he had inherited a version of the nativity which had already been apologetically shaped, omitting the nastiest facts and leaving them implicit. So he himself may not have known the ultimate facts. Later texts, and readings of this one, along the same trajectory would eliminate the negatives Matthew allowed and add the positives (e.g., a miraculous conception) that he hadn't.

The Lukan story of Jesus as the son of Zacharias and Mary would seem ideally designed to fill the gap left by Matthew. It involved sexual irregularity, as had the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bath-Sheba, but it in no way involved rape, infidelity, or Roman ancestry for Jesus. Naturally, this raises the question as to whether the Zacharias theory, even if it represents Luke's opinion, is not itself a palliating adjustment to the story of Jesus, making it less disgraceful. Is it a piece of apologetical fiction? If so, one can only say it is a very peculiar one, since, as Reverend Moon points out, someone must have thought "I'm pregnant by the Holy Ghost" sounded better!

So Jane Schaberg shows how Matthew's nativity does not go so far as positing a miraculous conception (as later readers would) in order to ameliorate some underlying reproach attaching to Jesus' birth. Instead, he grabs the altar by the horns and admits something untoward happened, but affirms that precisely in this respect Jesus' origin recapitulated the providence of God whereby ancestors of prophets and of the messianic line were begotten in questionable circumstances. But what were those circumstances in Jesus' case? Matthew gives no clue, but Reverend Moon's reading of the Lukan Zacharias/Mary story would perfectly fill in the blank, providing something itself so possibly scandalous as to be left unsaid and yet not inviting charges of rape, infidelity, or Roman parentage of Jesus, to which early Christians cannot have been indifferent.


The Zen Slap

In defending Reverend Moon's version of the conception of Jesus as a creative and apt exegetical suggestion, we cannot entirely ignore the fact that it did not originate as a mere theory. Indeed, once we hear it, it leaves us in the position of Mary in the narrative: faced with what purports to be a revelation, how shall we react? Simple belief and intellectual submission? Or a reflexive reaction of intellectual suspicion and doubt: "How shall this be?"

The Zacharias/Mary business is presented as a kind of revelation from the same source of inspiration as the story upon which it ventures to elucidate. This bit of what we might call oracular exegesis, as one instance of a larger trend, tends to reinforce the authority of Sun Myung Moon in an important way. It tends to clothe him in the authority of the scriptural writers by allowing him to provide "paralepses," hitherto unsuspected events in an otherwise familiar story--implying he is the writer, or a confidant of the writer. This is even better than being, like the Pope of Rome, an infallible interpreter of scripture! In this respect Reverend Moon reminds us of Sri Ramakrishna, who "told many a parable, either of his own making or out of local folklore, but they were certainly not Vedic, as he claimed. Quite often he preceded these tales by the words bede ache, 'it says in the Veda'; and I think the reason why even the most learned didn't object was that they tacitly granted him the status of a Veda-maker, a [rishi], on a par with the original compilers of the Veda."[15] Even so, in the eyes of the devout Unificationist, it hardly matters in the last analysis whether the evangelist Luke ever entertained the possibilities Reverend Moon has seen in the text. It is just as good for Reverend Moon to spot them for the first time. He is creating Veda just as surely as Luke did.

Though I do not mean to dump Reverend Moon into the cell with the fundamentalist extremists Lowell D. Streiker describes in his fascinating The Gospel Time Bomb: Ultrafundamentalism and the Future of America (1984), there is one illuminating point of comparison: the unaccountability of the revealer: he "is the lone wolf of biblical interpreters, accountable to no one except himself. His private interpretations are like the secret ingredients in commercial products that make them new and improved even though they are indistinguishable from the old and inferior versions. By adding a remarkable discovery (for example, that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday not Friday) or a novel interpretation... the ultrafundamentalist offers a new, improved gospel for those bored by the previous versions of the product."[16] In this way, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses like to produce the trump card that Jesus was (they think) impaled on a stake, not suspended from a T-shaped cross, as if this really mattered. Much of Joseph Smith's appeal must have stemmed from his being able to offer more and better scripture, the Book of Mormon and the Inspired Version of the Bible respectively.

Such authority by its very exercise, every time it is "flexed," tests the faith of the devout: here, as from the void, comes a new bit of scripture. It has no venerable pedigree of hoary tradition. You cannot cower with the throng, huddling beneath the aegis of second-hand belief. You cannot take it for granted. You must decide now whether to regard it as true. John Bennett found himself in precisely this position one day amid "conversations I had with Mr. Gurdjieff in 1949 shortly before he died. He said, in the presence of many of his pupils, that Judas was of all the disciples the closest to Jesus and the only one who shared all his secrets. He insisted upon my replying without equivocation to the question he put to me: 'Do you believe that what I say about Judas is the truth?'"[17]

In for a penny, in for a pound, one might reason. And it is at such moments that the most rides on the bet: one knows deep down, at least, that if one quails at a seeming enormity that drops from the lips of the revealer, one has at one blow undermined one's whole theological epistemology! Once, as Pentecostal healer and prophet William Branham was on a roll, he chanced to slip and comment that the speed of light was 186, 000 miles per hour, when of course, as he doubtless knew, it is 186, 000 miles per second. A disciple, hanging on every word of Branham's, quipped in astonishment, "How could the scientists be so wrong?"[18] Likewise, half a century ago many reluctant Roman Catholic theologians found themselves swallowing hard and confessing that they did, if the Pope said so, believe in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. Such faith-acquiescence provided the easiest and shortest path to cognitive dissonance reduction, though it may entail a major headache in the short run. Whether a measure of doublethink is involved, as one would have to suspect, is another matter. If the chain has a weak link, one simply tries to fortify it with the strongest faith one can muster, but since this faith is compelled, how sincere can it be? Has one become a humble believer or a loyal party apparachik?

And if one must be careful not to tempt God, one hopes God will be mindful not to tempt the believer. Let the prophet, the revealer, think twice before he speaks too extravagantly, expecting his hopeful hearers to "put it on the tab," lest at last he and they run out of credit, credulity, and credibility. That is what one may call an epistemological abuse of authority. And it may backfire. It may be that the very attempts to mandate and to secure a strong faith in the unseen and unprovable will wind up producing the very liberalism of belief that it sought to prevent. Suppose the hopeful believer finds himself simply unable to countenance some claim his faith (or the stipulator of the terms of his faith) makes upon him.[19] Think of the majority of American Roman Catholics who blithely disregard the Pope's pronouncements against birth control yet continue to regard themselves as "good Catholics." They have learned never to take papal pronouncements about anything else with the same old seriousness again. Or think of liberal Protestants who demythologize their creed. Both they and their Catholic counterparts have been asked to believe too many things. But they will do what they can: they will begin to inflate the meaning of the word "believe" so that it denotes primarily loyalty to the doctrines of one's tradition, not necessarily belief in them. One finds oneself in the role of a museum caretaker. One treasures the fossils and relics on display there and might even be willing to give one's life for them. But one would not want to restrict oneself to the use of the old machines and medicines on display there. One becomes a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1), not necessarily a believer in them. I recall a vehement discussion in which I gained the definite impression that my fundamentalist friend did not actually believe evolution was erroneous (or that it wasn't); he just considered it his religious duty to oppose it!

But perhaps the lobbing of biblical-theological apples of Discord is itself one of the needful duties of a steward of the divine mysteries! One almost detects a Krishna-like, or even a Socratic, mischief in Gurdjieff's impromptu demand to know whether Bennett would automatically accede to his fiat. Did he perhaps mean to throw the too-faithful Bennett back on his heels, to challenge him to take nothing for granted, but to test all things for himself?

We have suggested that Reverend Moon's exegesis of the nativity of Jesus may indeed supply new answers to old historical puzzles, as well as opening new doors for interpreting Lukan intent. And just as important, it tells us much about the function of "charismatic" scripture exegesis as a kind of scripture production, and thus it elucidates the role of the prophet as a revealer of scripture.




[1] Stephen Farris, The Hymns of Luke's Infancy Narrative: Their Origin, Meaning, and Significance. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 9 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), p. 56. Luke need not be thought simply to have reproduced the original nativities in Greek translation. There are clues that he has transferred the various canticles, originally hymns of the Anawim (communities of pious poor—see Albert Gelin, The Poor of Yahweh, trans. Kathryn Sullivan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1964), between speakers, as we shall see.

[2] Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, trans. Douglas R.A. Hare (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), pp. 43-44.

[3] Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Penguin Viking, 1997), pp. 411-465.

[4] G.R.S. Mead, The Gnostic John the Baptizer: Selections from the Mandaean John-Book, Together with Studies on John and Christian Origins, the Slavonic Josephus' Account of John and Jesus, and John and the Fourth Gospel Proem (London: John M. Watkins, 1924), pp. 35-37.

[5] M.J. Field, Angels and Ministers of Grace: An Ethnologist's Contribution to Biblical Criticism (Hill & Wang, 1971), pp. 34-35, 113 ff.

[6] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John H. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1924).

[7] Robert Eisler, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist according to Flavius Josephus' Recently Rediscovered “Capture of Jerusalem” and the other Jewish and Christian Sources (New York: Dial Press, 1931), p. 260. It is worth noting how in the film version of Hugh J. Schonfield's The Passover Plot, John is depicted as a senior, gray-bearded counselor to Jesus. Schonfield was a not-uncritical admirer of Eisler and must have taken him seriously at this point.

[8] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 123-124; Barbara Thiering, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of his Life Story (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), pp. 43-49.

[9] Sun Myung Moon, True Parents and True Family (New York: Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, n.d.), p. 19.

[10] John McHugh, The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975), p. 209.

[11] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyon to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

[12] Reverend Moon, too, associates Esau and the wrestling angel: "Esau (Genesis 33)... was in the position of the substantial body of the Archangel," True Parents and True Family, p. 17.

[13] Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 24.

[14] "So next time you go on about the 'bloody Romans,' don't forget you're one of them!" Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Monty Python's The Life of Brian (of Nazareth) (New York: Ace Books, 1979), p. 31.

[15] Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1976), p. 78.

[16] Lowell D. Streiker, The Gospel Time Bomb: Ultrafundamentalism and the Future of America (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1984), p. 83.

[17] J.G. Bennett, The Masters of Wisdom (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1977), p. 91.

[18] C. Douglas Weaver, The Healer-Prophet, William Marrion Branham: A Study of the Prophetic in American Pentecostalism. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1987), pp. 158-159.

[19] "Pray I do not alter our 'deal' further!" Darth Vader to Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Leigh Brackett, screenwriter.