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December 21, 2012

The Incarnation—Is Jesus God Incarnate?

Read/Post Comments (6)

At Christmastime Christians celebrate the incarnation—the word means “enfleshment” or “embodiment in flesh.” Today what the average church member understands by “incarnation” is reflected in Matthew 1:23 (date: 80-100): Jesus, a Jewish child born to Mary, is Emmanu-el, which means God is with us—although Matthew never explains how God is with us in Jesus. A similar idea appears in Luke 1:35 (date 70-90). Mark (date: around 70), however, does not use incarnation language about Jesus, and does not know the birth traditions of Matthew and Luke. The idea that God is incarnate in the birth of Jesus, however, takes several centuries to crystallize in Christianity.

     Matthew’s idea was not a new concept. Antecedents existed in the Graeco-Roman world. For example, the twelve traditional Greek Gods appear in the form or guise of human beings; or the legendary heroes of Greek tradition, such as Herakles, and real human beings like Alexander were sons of Zeus by human mothers. Even the Jewish writer Philo portrayed certain human beings as the embodiment of divine Wisdom.

     In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus is portrayed as claiming “to speak with divine inspiration and authorization as in some sense the representative of God.” But there is nothing in the synoptic gospels to suggest “that Jesus saw himself in some sense as God, as the incarnation of deity” (Dunn, “Incarnation,” 401). In Paul’s writings the classic statement of Jesus as a divine figure “incarnated” in bodily form is found in an early Christian hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:5-11. The hymn uses incarnation language, but is also dualistic—that is, the divine figure does not become human, but merely assumes the form or guise of a human being. The theology of the hymn scarcely meets the later standards of Christian orthodoxy:

Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God did not count equality with God [not God, but equal to God] a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant [not really human, but only a divine figure in servile form], being born in the likeness of human beings [a divine figure in a human likeness]. And being found in human form [human in form only] he humbled himself...(Phil 2:5-8).

     Paul thought of Jesus as “God’s Son,” but how Jesus came by that relationship to God is different from the synoptic birth narratives. Paul thought of Jesus as a human being (Galatians 4:4) whom God appointed to son-ship when he was raised from the dead (Romans 1:3-4)—i.e. not at his birth. I find no incarnation language like the synoptic birth narratives in Paul’s writings.

     At the end of the first century the prologue of John (1:1-18) in language reminiscent of Lady Wisdom’s role in the creation (Proverbs 8:22-31) describes the divine Word as pre-existent with God, adding a divine character to the Word—“and the Word was God” (John 1:1-3). The Word (which was also the true Light, John 1:9), “became flesh” and temporarily resided among us (John 1:14). Other passages in John support the idea that John 1:14 is incarnation language (6:46, 14:9, John 10:33, 20:28).

     “Became Flesh” is very odd and obscure incarnation language at best. Clearly John thought of Jesus as a human being, for he describes him as “the son of Joseph” (1:45, 6:42), and John knows how human beings are born (John 16:21). So why use such an odd expression (“becoming flesh”) for describing the advent of the Word into the world? The language is hardly a personal description for the birth of a child. John uses sarx “flesh,” meaning a living being (in this case, of the human variety, John 17:2), rather than using anthropos, meaning human being. Such language suggests that the Word, while a living physical being like us, nevertheless is not one of us—a dualistic motif.

     The statement likely is formulated to oppose Docetism, an early ideology opposed by Christian orthodoxy. The Docetists argued that the body of Jesus was a phantasm (an unreal apparition). Hence, they argued that Jesus suffered and died in appearance only. From the perspective of that early Christian debate, John 1:14 is insisting that the Word was not intangible sound or immaterial luminance, but rather something actual, substantial, and physical—fleshly even. Opposition to Docetism is a feature of the Johannine letters (1 John 1:1-2, 4:2-3; 2 John 7), which were written about the same time as the Gospel of John, and in which exist echoes of the same sensual language as John 1:14.

     The issue addressed by this strange language in John 1:14 concerns the substantiality of the Word. The situation is similar to Lady Wisdom becoming substantially incarnate in Torah (Baruch 3:37-4:1), although there, as in John, there is not a one to one relationship between Lady Wisdom and the Book of the Torah. The prologue of John sets the reader up to understand that Word and Light are “enfleshed” in Jesus Christ. The term Light is specifically applied to Jesus in the narrative (John 8:12, 9:5, 12:35-36, 12:46), but oddly the principal term used in the prologue “Word” is not. John’s language created huge problems for later theologians, since it never explained how the divine incarnate Word and the human being Jesus are related.

     Is Jesus God incarnate? The earliest followers of Jesus did not think so, and it was not until the 4th century, particularly in the Nicene Creed, that such an idea became the official belief of Christian orthodoxy—where Jesus is thought of as “true God of true God.”

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Source: James D. G. Dunn, “Incarnation” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (David Noel Freedman, et al. eds.; 6 vols.; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3.397-404.

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:56am

No, not many cases like that!
Posted by Jim Deardorff on 12/26/2012 at 12:45am

Thanks for your reply. I think such cases might be worth further consideration if the children involved were able to accurately recall things like their former incarnation's Social Security Number, the names of their former incarnation's teachers and sweethearts, and the full address of their former incarnation's first and last residences. Are there many cases like this?
Posted by Lee Penya on 12/25/2012 at 9:59pm

There are several different categories of past-life evidence.
1) Childhood "cases of the reincarnation type" -- Young children as soon as they have much of any vocabulary at times talk as if they were someone else, saying something about such things as the name of a city or landmark where they had lived, who their children were, or their parents or syblings, their job, how they died, what their house looked like, as well as more detailed and petty stuff. If they say enough, and if one of their parents or relatives becomes curious and starts accumulating the child's statements (the remembrances usually fade away after age 6 or so), they may have enough information (e.g. from 30 statements) to check out who this past life was, and confirm it beyond any reasonable doubt, and learn that the past life had died shortly (a few months or years) before the subject child was born. Then an interested psychiatrist, such as the late Ian Stevenson, may become informed and check it out more thoroughly, and eventually publish several or many such cases in books and articles, always being alert to possibilities of fraud, of not making assumptions, and keeping track of the statements of the child that weren't confirmed as well as the (larger percentage of) statements that were confirmed. Some 1500 of Stevenson's cases were confirmed, with another 1000 or so having insufficient information for locating the past life.

2) Past lives revealed through hypno-therapy of adults. There are a significant number of these that have been well confirmed. However, most of these past lives lived too long ago to be able to identity them beyond reasonable doubt, as they're almost always rather obscure lives, not famous for anything.

3) Fragments of past lives are sometimes recalled by adults without being in a hypnotic trance.

4) As is pretty well known, near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences are consistent with the above.

If Charlie doesn't mind my taking up more space, here are some references for category 1).

Lafcadio Hearn, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields (Houghton-Mifflin, 1897, Chap. 10)

(Dr.) Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (New York: American Society for Psychical Research, 1967)

Ian Stevenson, Cases of the Reincarnation Type (Univ. of Virginia Press):
Vol. 1 Ten Cases in India (1975)
Vol. 2 Ten Cases in Sri Lanka (1977)
Vol. 3 Twelve Cases in Lebanon and Turkey (1980) Vol. 4 Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma (1983)

_____, Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (University of Virginia Press, 1987)

_____, "American children who claim to remember previous lives," J. Nervous and Mental Disease 171 (1983) pp. 742-748 (research paper)

_____, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1997)

_____, European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2003)

_____, and Godwin Samararatne, "Three new cases of the reincarnation type in Sri Lanka with written records made before verification," J. Sci. Exploration 2, No. 2 (1988) pp. 217-238

Jurgen Keil and Ian Stevenson, "Do cases of the reincarnation type show similar features over many years? A study of Turkish cases," J. Sci. Exploration 13 No. 2 (1999), pp. 189-198

Satwant K. Pasricha, Claims of reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India (New Delhi, Harman Publishing House, 1990)

_____, "Cases of the reincarnation type in northern India with birthmarks and birth defects," J. Sci. Exploration 12, No. 2 (1998), pp. 259-293

Bruce and Andrea Leininger, with Ken Gross, Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009) [online summary at:]

It's easier to find cases in countries where reincarnation is understood and the child involved is not chastised or unduly dissuaded for speaking out.
Posted by Jim Deardorff on 12/25/2012 at 2:35am

Hi Charlie:
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. On another note, in his post of 12/21/12, Jim Deardorff speaks of a large amount of "evidence" from the past 5 decades which, as he puts it, "confirms that past lives are indeed real." I'd like to know what "evidence" Jim is referring to. If there were reliable scientific data about this, I'm pretty sure it would make the headlines constantly.

Regards and Happy Holidays,
Posted by Lee Penya on 12/22/2012 at 9:06pm

Hi Charlie,
In your interesting blog of 12/21 you mentioned, "... Emmanu-el, which means God is with us--although Matthew never explains how God is with us in Jesus." Could it not have had a slightly amplified, implied, interpretation, depending upon the original intention of the bestower of the name? The interpretation I have in mind, ala Philo, is "El's wisdom with us," with the word "wisdom" being implied (and "is").

Probably the best known example of such amplification is Yeshua = Joshua = Jesus, meaning "God saves his people from their sins," with all but the first two words being implied.

Regarding incarnation language and "became flesh," it's interesting that the huge accumulation of evidence the past 5 decades, which confirms that past lives are indeed real, tells us that Jesus was not at all out of the ordinary in that respect -- the evidence says that reincarnation goes on for all of us, whether we want it or not -- our spirits become flesh each time when ready to reincarnate. But Jesus' spirit seems to have been more highly evolved than that of any of the rest of us. Among his past lives (e.g. Mt 16:13-14) might have been Enoch, Isaiah, Jeremiah, besides Elijah. The pastlife evidence is available in quite a few books written by PhDs and MDs and is on the Internet, but has trouble becoming mainstream because the idea of reincarnation is distasteful to the bulk of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Posted by Jim Deardorff on 12/21/2012 at 10:09pm

Hi Jim,
I am glad to have your comments. I don’t know what you mean in your first paragraph when you refer to “the original intention of the bestower of the name.” Would that be Isaiah, or Matthew, or ??? In any case, however, “intentions” are never open for all to see and evaluate—describing intentions is a lot like reading minds—I have never been good at that. Remember it is only your view as to what someone intends, and even if someone tells you what they intend, you never know if they are telling the truth or not.

I don’t think you need to go to Philo to make an association between Jesus and Lady Wisdom, however; Matthew spells that out by citing Jesus himself (Matt 11:16-19); compare Luke 7:31-35 where Jesus only claims to be one of Lady Wisdom’s children and not as Matthew has it Lady Wisdom herself.

I have no idea if there is a “spiritual world” where departed spirits await their chance to be reborn in the physical world. I have a friend who has tried to lead me through some of the evidence from the internet and books (your MDs and PhDs), and alas I do not find the evidence convincing. The evidence is anecdotal, depends upon personal testimony of a given subject that cannot be independently confirmed, and is not repeatable under controlled conditions. Hence I don’t find the evidence you cite as evidence to affirm a prior life for Jesus, nor do I find it to be something that adds credence to the idea of incarnation.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/23/2012 at 2:21pm

Hi Charlie:
You mentioned the Incarnation having antecedents in the Graeco-Roman world. Do we have any reliable historical evidence from unbiased, contemporary sources that would make the Christian case for incarnation any stronger than those antecedents?

All the best,
Posted by Lee Penya on 12/21/2012 at 11:43pm

Hi Lee,
I only know of one source that addresses the interface between Christian belief about the birth and career of Jesus and pagan (not meant pejoratively) beliefs about the Greek sons of Gods (immortals/demi-Gods). This issue is addressed briefly in Justin’s First Apology (date ca. 150), but he is hardly an unbiased source. His answer to the parallels between Jesus and the demi-Gods is that the Christian account is superior to the pagan, and furthermore it is true. The pagan accounts of the Greek demi-Gods narrated by Greek poets, on the other hand, he regards as fictions devised by demons. My own personal view is that stories of the incarnation of God or Gods belongs to the category of myth rather than history. One person’s faith claim regarding incarnation of a god is as good as another’s. I simply do not see how one incarnation event can be definitively proven to be historical over others. What might make one “superior,” however, would be the numbers of people that prefer it over others.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 12/22/2012 at 2:23pm