Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part II


Francesco Albani, The Annunciation

Read Part I here.

As we saw in the last installment, a lack of Scriptural and historical understanding haunts Ehrman when it comes to Luke. Now we come to Matthew. Ehrman writes (emphasis mine):

It is interesting to observe that the Gospel of Matthew also has an account of Jesus’s birth in which his mother is a virgin. One might infer from this account as well that Jesus is the Son of God because of the circumstances of his unusual birth. But in the case of Matthew, this conclusion would indeed need to be made by inference: Matthew says nothing of the sort. There is no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35. Instead, according to Matthew, the reason Jesus’s mother was a virgin was so that his birth could fulfill what had been said by a spokesperson of God many centuries earlier, when the prophet Isaiah in the Jewish scriptures wrote, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).[1]

It’s difficult to believe that Ehrman actually means what he says here. There is “no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35″? Really? Well, let’s see, what does Luke say?

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one who is born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)

And what does Matthew say:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.

It is strongly implied that Mary is a virgin, and explicitly stated that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. But this is not all. In 1:20 the angel tells Joseph:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”

Matthew actually sates twice that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit! Matthew then comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” (22-23).

Matthew has more or less what Luke has, the child is conceived in a virgin by the Holy Spirit, therefore he will be called the Son of God. The “conceived as a virgin by the Holy Spirit” is covered by the events he narrates, the “therefore he will be called the Son of God” part is covered by the reference to Is. 7:14. The events that had just taken place would lead to Jesus being called “God with us.”

But Ehrman isn’t finished yet. He continues:

It has frequently been noted that Isaiah actually does not prophesy that the coming messiah will be born of a virgin. If you read Isaiah 7 in its own literary context, it is clear that the author is not speaking about the messiah at all. The situation is quite different. It takes place in the eighth century BCE, during a calamitous time. Isaiah is talking to the king of Judah, Ahaz, who is very upset, and for good reason. The two kingdoms to the north of Judah—Israel and Syria—have attacked his capital city of Jerusalem to force him to join them in an alliance against the rising world power of Assyria. He is afraid that these two northern opponents will lay his kingdom to waste. Isaiah, the prophet, tells him that it is not so. There is a young woman (not a virgin) who has conceived a child, and she will give birth to a son, who will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” That God is “with” the Judeans will become clear, because before the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the two kingdoms that are attacking Jerusalem will be dispersed, and good times will return to Ahaz and his people. That’s what Isaiah was referring to. As a Christian living centuries later, Matthew read the book of Isaiah not in the original Hebrew language, but in his own tongue, Greek. When the Greek translators before his day rendered the passage, they translated the Hebrew for word young woman (alma) using a Greek word (parthenos) that can indeed mean just that but that eventually took on the connotation of a “young woman who has never had sex.” Matthew took the passage to be a messianic tradition and so indicated that Jesus fulfilled it, just as he fulfilled all the other prophecies of scripture, by being born of a “virgin.”[2]

By “messianic tradition” I presume Ehrman means “messianic prophecy.” His contention is: “Matthew only believes that Mary was a virgin because of a prophecy that didn’t really talk about a virgin, and actually meant something else entirely. Matthew made up the story of a virgin birth based on a mistaken translation of Isaiah 7:14.” This is a standard objection of skeptics.

First, in regard to almah vs. parthenos. This is so frequently raised as an objection with such assurance that I think that the critics should spend more time with their dictionaries. The Hebrew word almah has the basic meaning of “young unmarried girl.” It is often said that Isaiah would have used the word betulah if he really meant virgin, but the meaning of this word is not unambiguous either, and it can be used in other senses. For instance, in Joel 1:8 a betulah is described as mourning “for the husband of her youth.” It seems clear that this was a married woman and not a virgin. On the other hand, The Song of Solomon (Canticles) 6:8 describes the king’s harem as including “sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens (almah’ot) without number.” Going by the usual makeup of such a harem, the almah’ot here would be virgins with whom the king has not yet cohabited. The Greek word parthenos has a similar ambiguity (which even Ehrman admits), as it is used throughout early Greek literature in a way very similar to almah, to mean “young (unmarried) girl, maiden.” By extension, it later came to mean “virgin” in a technical sense, and as an adjective “chaste.” Given the time period when the Greek translation of the Bible was made, it doesn’t seem that the translators were mistaken in translating almah by parthenos; it’s likely they thought it the closest equivalent, and perhaps one that would preserve the general, even if ambiguous nature of the original word.

It is true that the words of Isaiah’s prophecy referred to a present, not a future situation. It’s not clear who the mother and the child to be born were, whether Ahaz’s wife and his son Hezekiah, or someone else. But most modern scholars think it clear that an immediate fulfillment was what the prophet meant.

Ehrman, however, believes that this was the only fulfillment this prophecy could ever have, so Matthew was mistaken in citing it.

The problem here is that Ehrman fails to understand how “fulfillment” worked in Jewish thought of the time with regard to the Old Testament. Direct fulfillment of a prophecy was not the only possibility – and this approach was not limited to Christians.

There were various Jewish methods of interpretation that sought to make the past relevant to the present. One was the exegetical technique called midrash, where the text was interpreted to bring out its relation to present events. A modern Jewish writer, reading Luke 1:35-37, notes that the angel’s words to Mary, “nothing is impossible with God,” is a midrash on Gen. 18:14.[3] This is the passage where Sarah laughs at the thought that at the age of 90 she will bear a child, and the angel of the Lord replies, “Is anything impossible with God?” The angel is telling Mary that her situation is similar to that of Sarah, and that like her, she is to have faith.

There was also typology, which saw various OT figures as prefigurements or “types” of current figures. The Christians inherited these ideas, seeing many Old Testament figures as types of Christ or his mother.

These ideas were not restricted to certain prophecies. The earliest Christians thought the entire New Testament lay hidden in the Old until it was revealed by Christ, who taught his disciples that Moses, the prophets, and indeed “all the scriptures” referred to him (Lk 24:27).  As my friend Mark Shea has written:

In fact, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of the Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is why Paul writes that the New Covenant was “veiled” until the gospel took away the veil (2 Cor 3:14). It is also why he declares the gospel was “ not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5).

His whole treatment also deals with the Matthew-Isaiah controversy, and is really worth reading.

We can see how this works a little more clearly if we look at another of Matthew’s “fulfillment” passages, where he makes this comment on the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem (2:17-18).

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

Jeremiah’s words were not even a prophecy strictly speaking, but a poetic description of what he himself saw during the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., with the slaughter of many of its people and the carrying off of the rest to exile to Babylon. He is imagining Rachel, the wife of Jacob, as an embodiment or personification of Israel, weeping over the dead. The scene is related to the one in Matthew, not as a prediction of it, but as a situation similar to it: oppression and slaughter again afflict the people of Israel in Mary and Joseph’s time, as they did almost 600 years earlier.

But there is more: the verses Matthew cited are a small part of a much longer passage, comforting and offering hope to the exiles for their coming return to their homeland. Just a few verses after the mention of Rachel comes one of the most quoted passages of Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31: 31-34).

Every Jewish Christian acquainted with the prophets knew these verses. There is an enormous amount of meaning here, and hope and joy hidden behind the said and poignant words, for Matthew’s audience was living that New Covenant. and would find Matthew’s words a whole commentary rich in meaning on the events he is describing.

Jeremiah also makes use of typology in making Rachel, as a personification of Israel, prefigure the mourning women of his own time (Rachel actually died near Bethlehem, and in some accounts is buried there, so this description is doubly fitting for the use Matthew made of it). At the same time, we would see Rachel as a prefigurement of Mary, who is the embodiment of the New Israel, being involved in these sorrowful events as well as the joyful promise of a New Covenant.

To return now to the prophecy of Isaiah: it was already known to all Jews in Matthew’s time that Isaiah’s prophecy about the child called “Immanuel” had been fulfilled. But because the prophecy was addressed to the “House of David” (7:13-14), it was ripe with possibilities for the development of messianic expectations. In fact, in the following chapter, Immanuel is already seen not as simply an individual , but almost as a kind of personification of land of Judah (Is 8:8). It is not surprising at all that Matthew should see such a development there and comment on the resemblance between it and the birth of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah from the land of Judah. For him, the “virgin” might not even be the most important part of the prophecy. What is important to him is the idea that the coming Davidic messiah could be called “God with us.”[4] As we have seen, exact agreement between all aspects of the two situations are not required for them to be meaningfully related to each other. And confirmation that the young woman of his fulfillment was indeed a virgin was not needed from the Old Testament: Matthew had that from the historical tradition he had received about Mary’s conception.

From his earlier statements, readers would never guess that Erhrman is aware of any of the above understanding of New Testament interpretation, though scholars in his field has devoted an enormous amount of time to it. However, at the end of his discussion he does backtrack a little and say:

It does not take too much thought to realize, though, that Matthew may have been giving “scriptural justification” for a tradition he inherited that originally had a different import: like Luke’s tradition, the one that came to Matthew may originally have spoken of Jesus as the unique Son of God because he was born of a virgin, with God as his father.

This is indeed exactly what Matthew does have! He has a clear statement from his tradition that Jesus was conceived by a virgin through the Holy Spirit, implying that God was his father. He does not say it quite as explicitly as Luke does, perhaps, but his account is certainly not the invention Ehrman thinks it is.

In fact, the idea of the virgin birth being an invention in Matthew depends completely on him being the first to tell the story. But since I’ve gone on long enough, I’ll have to deal with this question in another installment.


[1] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 277.

[2] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, pp. 277-78.

[3] Larry Magarik, “The Torah Reading for Rosh-Hashanah.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39:2, (2011): 83-90. The discovery of a number of scriptural commentaries among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. have added tremendously to our knowledge about the modes of scriptural interpretation in the time of Jesus and the apostles. These commentaries use the terms midrash and pesher (an Aramaic term) to denote their interpretive methods, but it’s not clear how far differ from each other. I am using midrash as the general term, as it is better known. A very helpful guide to the Jewish methods of interpretation used by Matthew and other New Testament writers can be found in Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[4] Richard Longenecker writes: “it may be that Matthew considered Isa 7:14 more a typological statement, which found its antitype [fulfillment] in the Messiah Jesus, than a direct messianic prophecy, as we would understand direct messianic prophecy.” Biblical Exegesis, p. 128.

Bart Ehrman and Infancy Narratives — Part I


Murillo, The Annunciation

Read Part II here.

Nothing is more predictable in the press than the race, every Christmas and Easter, to see who can throw the most doubt on the historicity of the Gospels.

Much of it is recycled older material, though there are a few names that stand out year after year. Among them, perhaps the most prominent is Bart Ehrman, renowned Biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who, unlike many of his fellow skeptics, admits the Jesus was a real historical person. Yet he relentlessly attacks the Gospels for giving an unhistorical picture of Jesus. For instance, in a December 2012 article in Newsweek, he even attacked Pope Benedict XVI’s newly published Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives for daring to suggest the events in the Gospel infancy narratives were historical.[1]

I decided to examine Ehrman’s various objections to the Infancy Narratives as the subject of my commentary, because he is the best known, and the type of objections he raises are quite typical of other skeptical critics. As we will see below, he has apparently cribbed much of it from Fr. Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, which was a succès de scandale a generation ago for the way it diminished the historicity of the Gospel accounts.

Ehrman’s Scholarship

Ehrman has a M.Div and Ph.D and specializes in New Testament textual studies. He doesn’t have degrees in history or theology. He definitely hasn’t acquired the intellectual tools of a historian, nor the temperament. In debates with Biblical scholars far more learned in history and archaeology, like Craig Evans, he embarrasses himself.

As a historian, I have a number of problems with Ehrman’s approach. For one thing, he doesn’t think it necessary that we understand ancient ways of writing and understanding history, as they differ from modern ones; he just dismisses the whole question (I have heard him do this in debates). This doesn’t make it likely that he will actually understand any ancient historical accounts like those in the Gospels.

He claims that if there are any discrepancies between two accounts in the Gospels, one or the other must be in error. He thinks that the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke “are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable.”[2] For him, this means that one or the other, or more likely both, are unhistorical. He is against any attempt to reconcile or harmonize accounts. He thinks if one source is in error somewhere you can’t use it for historical purposes.

This is a distortion of what genuine historians do. Ehrman doesn’t realize that the process of trying to reconcile two accounts – through study of the language and usage of the time, the historical background, and so on — is the only way you can determine if they are in fact irreconcilable. He apparently doesn’t know that this is a problem with all historical sources. As a historian who has had to deal with sources that often have discrepancies or even seemingly outright contradictions, I feel an almost constant need to explain to Ehrman that he doesn’t understand how historians actually work. There are always going to be discrepancies of some kind, but no historian would reject a precious ancient source for this reason.

At times, he confuses historical accuracy with biblical inerrancy as understood by fundamentalists. He thinks that only “fundamentalist” and very conservative Christians accept the historical accuracy of the Gospels.[3] This is actually false. Many historians and Biblical scholars who are not Christians are comfortable using the Gospels as historical sources for the life of Jesus, though they don’t think them inerrant. They do work to determine bias and the relative authority of the sources, just as they do with other historical accounts. Believing historians do the same, using the same historical tools.

All of this affects how Ehrman studies the Infancy Narratives. Let’s turn now to what he says.

Christology Backwards

Of course, Ehrman, along with other skeptics, especially disputes Matthew and Luke’s stories of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. This comes principally in his 2014 popular work How Jesus Became God.[4]

Ehrman’s treatment is based on what he calls the “backward movement of Christology.” Ehrman describes this as the “contribution” of Fr. Raymond Brown, but it was not. It was first popularized by Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his followers about a hundred years ago. [5] In this view, Christ went from being seen by his first followers as a human “elevated” by God to Lord and a divine being after his death to being pre-existent as God from all eternity. These scholars believed that in the earliest strata of the New Testament — Peter’s sermon in Acts, and the pre-Pauline material in Paul — Jesus is promoted to Lord and Christ at his resurrection. Later, in the Gospels, Jesus becomes Son of God at his baptism; in the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, he is God from his conception; the Synoptic Gospels, Ehrman says, don’t know of Jesus’ pre-existence as God; this comes only later, in the last stage, which can be found in the later Pauline epistles and John.

There are many problems with this conception, beginning with Ehrman’s view of his sources; he himself admits that Acts and Paul can contain primitive pre-Pauline material, alongside what he takes to be Paul’s own views, and even later developments all together in the same documents; this is obviously a problem for his chronological development theory, though he tries to get around it in various ways. Couldn’t this just mean that the writers didn’t all have the same interpretation of these passages that Ehrman does, and that they are not from different levels of development?

For instance, one of his main points, that the words heard at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved son,” mean that Jesus became God’s son at that moment, is questionable. It is anything but certain that this is the meaning of these words.[6] They can be read simply as a declaration of the ongoing relationship of Jesus and the Father, and have been so by most readers. And if Ehrman’s interpretation is correct, what are we to think of God’s words at the Transfiguration – “This is my beloved Son”? Did he only become God’s son at that moment too?[7]

Most good scholars are now rejecting this schematic view; nevertheless, Ehrman still clings to it. But let’s talk more specifically about the Nativity stories.

Ehrman and Luke

Ehrman does reject the idea that the Nativity stories are myths like those of the pagan Greeks, though he muddles his explanation of this:

The God of the Christians was not like the philanderer Zeus, filled with lust and full of imaginative ways to satisfy it. For the Christians, God was transcendent, remote, “up there”—  not one to have sex with beautiful girls. At the same time, something somewhat like the pagan myths appears to lie behind the birth narrative found in the Gospel of Luke. In this Gospel, Jesus was born of Mary, who had never had human sex. She had never had divine sex either, exactly, but it was God, not a human who made her pregnant.

Well, thank you for that much, anyway, Prof. Ehrman! You don’t really believe in the old canard that the virginal conception of Jesus is warmed-over pagan myth, but you have to try and bring it in anyway.

More seriously, Ehrman makes some frankly erroneous claims. To begin with, he says: “In the final form of Luke’s Gospel, it appears that Jesus is to be thought of as becoming the Son of God, for the first time, at the moment of birth. Or, to be more precise, at the moment of his conception.” He differentiates this from Jesus being the pre-existent Son of God from all eternity, the last and final state of Christological development in the New Testament.

Here is how Ehrman interprets the Annunciation in Luke:

Gabriel tells [Mary] that she is specially favored by God and will conceive and bear a son. She is taken aback—she has never had sex: How can she conceive? The angel tells her in graphic terms: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one who is born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I call this description “graphic” because there is nothing in it to make the reader think that the angel is speaking in metaphors. In a very physical sense the Holy Spirit of God is to “come upon” Mary and “therefore”—an important word here—the child she bears will be called the Son of God. He will be called the Son of God because he will in fact be the Son of God. It is God, not Joseph, who will make Mary pregnant, so the child she bears will be God’s offspring. Here, Jesus becomes the Son of God not at his resurrection or his baptism, but already at his conception.

In his discussion Ehrman doesn’t go much beyond what the pagan Greeks said about Zeus and his women: if a human woman becomes pregnant by a god, the offspring is a god (or at least a half-god). True, the nature of the divine sonship of Mary’s child is not explained in any detail in Luke. But that doesn’t matter to Ehrman. One of his many problems is that he evidently thinks that because someone does not explicitly affirm something, he must therefore be denying it. But Ehrman has no difficulty in filling in the blanks with his own ideas.

So according to Ehrman, Luke here represents the next-to-latest-stage in the development of Christology. Ehrman does not differentiate these last two stages clearly; in fact it is unlikely they could be differentiated by anyone with any understanding of Christian theology. As we articulate it now, of course, Christians believe that the man Jesus, meaning his human body and human soul, did not exist before the Incarnation, so he could not have been said to be anything then, much less God, but that at the moment he came into existence in Mary’s womb, he was joined in a hypostatic union with the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, who indeed existed from all eternity. In fact, it is not possible to talk about a non-pre-existent God, so if Jesus was God in any sense, that God had to be pre-existent, so Jesus would have been pre-existing God from the time he was in the womb, Luke’s account does not explicitly speak of this pre-existence, but nothing he says is in the least conflict with the statement “the Word became flesh” of John (1:14), which represents Ehrman’s supposed last stage of development, or the hymn in Philippians: “He emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).

But there is even more reason to question Ehrman’s idea that Luke represents a later stage of development in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that the Infancy narrative in Luke, far from being late, contains primitive Aramaic material from the earliest Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem: it is early rather than late.[8] It concentrates on Jesus as the Messiah, son of David, and other aspects of him in Jewish expectation; there is nothing in it of the later language of Paul’s theology, indicating that Luke was very careful to preserve the words transmitted to him by Mary and other earliest witnesses. Hidden within the account are many Old Testament allusions, calling to mind concepts the original readers already knew, and helped them understand the nature of this conception and divinity of Jesus. Ehrman’s basic error is that he either doesn’t know about, or chooses not to notice, these allusions. Brown (from whom he is apparently taking everything), knows about them, but does his best to dismiss them.[9]

I won’t have time for all of these, but here is the important one. In Luke 1:35, “the power of the Most High overshadows” Mary. The word used in Greek “episkiasein,” is the same word used in Exodus 40:34. There” the cloud overshadowed the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”[10] God comes to Mary not in the manner of Zeus coming to Europa, but in the manner of God “overshadowing” the tent of the meeting, filling the tabernacle and accompanying the people of Israel through the desert. God will be present in Mary as he was in the tabernacle and in ark of the covenant. This indicates to Mary and to us, that God will come to dwell with his people. The earliest church here did not yet have the necessary language or concepts to express the nature of Jesus’ humanity an divinity more clearly. A more explicit description, however, comes later from Hebrews, an exhortation that is believed to have been addressed to the early Jerusalem Church at a somewht later date. In it, the pre-existing Son speaks: “A body you have prepared for me. . . then I said . . . Behold, I come to do your will.” (Heb 10:5-7)

It is important to understand that Ehrman is right about one thing: the fully realized Christian teaching about the Incarnation did develop over time, but it did not develop in the way Ehrman describes. We see Paul and the Synoptics grapple with it in different ways, but it was not by jumping around in time searching for the moment when God landed in Jesus; rather, it took place by a deepening of the understanding of the original teaching that was given. I think Ehrman is unable to understand, or compare Luke to the teaching, because he fundamentally does not understand the teaching.

But all of this is nothing compared to the muddle Ehrman gets into with Matthew. I’ll talk about that next time.


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, “What Do We Really Know About Jesus?” Newsweek, December 10, 2012; online version:

[2] Ehrman, ” What Do We Really Know,” ibid.

[3] One of the reasons for Ehrman’s strange view, as many of his critics have pointed out,n may be that he himself is of a Protestant fundamentalist background, and later lost his faith. He evidently has no experience of any Christian approach to the Gospels but a fundamentalist’s wooden literalistic view of inerrancy.

[4] Ehrman, How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. (New York: HarperOne, 2014)

[5] In How Jesus Became God, p. 269. Brown’s discussion is in The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp. 29-32. Ehrman evidently had a reason for this claim. “This shows,” he says, “among other things, that this is not simply a ‘skeptical’ view or a ‘secular’ view of early Christology; it is one held by believing scholars as well.” He lists no other scholars on this subject in his notes or bibliography for the book. He is either unaware of or simply ignores the fact that the theory was not actually Brown’s contribution, but was the product of nineteenth-century German scholars like F. C. Baur, and taken up by Wilhelm Bousset, Rudolf Bultmann and their followers, many of them radical skeptics about the historicity of many details in the life of Christ; nor does he seem aware that Brown’s view is a great deal more nuanced than the earlier scholars’ or his own. Ehrman is certainly misleading his readers here.

[6] A few early manuscripts of Luke, instead of “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” the best attested reading, have “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you,” (cf. Ps 2:7). Some early heretics, the Adoptionists, used one or another form of this passage to say that Jesus was not God’s son, but purely human, and “adopted” by God for his messianic task, just as David, though human was God’s son. But this is a pretty far cry from saying that Jesus became God when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. It should also be pointed out that “this day I have begotten you” does not necessarily mean what the Adoptionists thought it did. The author of Hebrews cited the same verse from Psalm 2 in a way that is perfectly consonant with his very high Christology, since he uses it in reference to the pre-existent Son through whom God created the universe (Heb. 1:2).

[7] For this point, see Simon J. Gathercole, “What did the First Christians Think about Jesus?” in Michael F. Bird, et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origin of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), pp. 96-97. This book as a whole is an excellent response to Ehrman.

[8] Even Brown admits the “primitive sotierology” [description of the mode of salvation] of the Magnificat and other hymns, and suggests they may have come from the primitive Jewish-Christian Church in Jerusalem; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 353-54. But he doesn’t extend this Jewish primitive quality to the rest of Luke 1-2.

[9] Brown says that the “overshadow” does not really come from the Old Testament, but is an adaptation of a very early Christian Christological formula, using the elements of “power” and “the Holy Spirit” found in other formulas such as Rom. 1:3-4. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 313-14. He contends that since there was no Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, these passages would not have been used directly, as there was no tradition involving them. Yet even the Christological formulas did not get their ideas from nowhere! Where else did they get them but from the Old Testament? Brown admits that the power of the Most High “overshadowing” Mary was a sign of divine presence at the birth, but still even though “the power of that presence creatively brings about the conception of the child . . . that is not necessarily the same as Jesus being the embodiment of the divine presence in the womb of Mary.” (ibid, p. 327).

[10] For a discussion, see Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers, 2014), Kindle ed., loc. 1339.



Does God Lead us into Temptation?

Christ-apostlesPope Francis suggests that “lead us not into temptation” is not a good translation of the words in the Our Father. The news cycle has again been thrown into chaos. The internet has again erupted.

It began when, in a television interview in Italian, the Holy Father commented on the Lord’s prayer in regard to a new liturgical French translation that asks God not to “let is fall into temptation.” (The Vatican has recently started allowing local episcopal conferences to generate new liturgical translations, rather than having them done “in house”). Pope Francis said the translation “lead us not into temptation” is “not good” and added:

The French have changed the text and their translation says “don’t let me fall into temptation,” . . . It’s me who falls. It’s not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.

Pope Francis is certainly correct theologically. The Letter of James says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (Jas. 1:13-14).”

So whatever God does in the Lord’s Prayer, it can’t mean that he is tempting us to evil, in the sense of enticing or seducing. Some language versions, including the Spanish, have long agreed, and translate this as: “Don’t let us fall into temptation.”

But is he correct about the actual translation? What does the original actually say? Though the liturgical translations of the Our Father are from the Latin, the Latin comes from the words of the Gospel, which are in Greek.

There are two versions of the Our Father in the New Testament. The one in Luke 11:2-4 is shorter and worded somewhat differently in places than the one in Matthew 6:9-13, but in regard to the words in question it is identical to Matthew. These are the words of Jesus himself: me eisenekes hemas eis peirasmon.

The verb eisphero means “to bring into, carry into,” or by extension “lead into.” In his just-published article in the National Catholic Register, Mgr. Charles Pope is blunt, and even ferocious in his disagreement with the Pope:

Eisenenkes is an aorist subjunctive in the active voice. “Lead us not” is simply the clearest and most accurate translation of me eisenenkes. To instead render it “do not allow us” is to read into the text an extended meaning that is not there. While the intention may be to assist the reader to understand that God does not tempt us or directly cause us to fall, the effect is to imply that the inspired Greek text is inadequate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begs to differ:

CCC 2846 . . . It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation.”

I’m not enough of an expert in the language to know who is right. It is true, though, that the aorist does funny things in Greek. And we have to remember that Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, so there is undoubtedly some nuance lost.

I suspect that the real crux, however, is in interpretation, not translation. If you pair this phrase with the phrase following it in Matthew, it becomes more understandable, as a kind of rhetorical contrast of what we don’t expect God to do with what we know he will do. Contrasts are always heightened. “Do not bring us to temptation, BUT RATHER deliver us from evil.”

There is more involved here, however. I’ll let Msgr. Pope out of his cage for a bit, to explain why Scripture often attributes things to God without mentioning any secondary cause:

In more ancient and believing times, people were more aware of and conversant with God’s role in sustaining and being the primary cause of all things. They were more comfortable with attributing things to God’s primary causality, things that today are more often attributed to the secondary causality of physical nature or man. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out regarding the more ancient appreciation of primary causality, This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (# 304).

This brings us back to the request in the Lord’s Prayer that God “lead us not into temptation.” Surely God does not tempt us in any direct sense. He does not will to entrap us or to confound us so as to make us fall. However, because He is the first cause of all existing things, He is also the first cause of things that tempt us. So, in asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we ask Him, who providentially holds us and all things in existence, to lead us forward with the graces we need to resist it. This will allow us to enjoy the good things He gives without giving way to the temptations of our inordinate desires.

A quite clear and vivid presentation of this same idea can be found at the beginning of the book of Job. Satan goes up to heaven and discusses things with God. God allows Satan to put Job to the test. It is what we have always called “God’s permissive will.” Nothing can be done without that.

There is another noteworthy thing about this story. Job is not being “tempted” so much as “tried.” Satan does not dangle beautiful women or opportunities for embezzlement in front of Job. He subjects him to terrible tragedies, including the loss of his wealth and health and the death of all his children. Satan wants Job to turn against God in his misery and curse him: the ultimate temptation and ultimate fall. Job comes close at times, but doesn’t succumb (Read the Book of Job: it’s magnificent).

This brings up another possible meaning for peirasmos, (test, trial) one that some Biblical interpreters prefer. The Old Testament often refers to God testing his people:

Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testing (en peirasmo), by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? All this you were allowed to see that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other. (Deut 4:34-36).

Here we see that God both did the testing and allowed it, so his people could realize the extent of his power and the necessity of their complete trust in him.

These references also occur in the New Testament, for instance in 1 Peter 4:12. And perhaps it is also the meaning of peirasmos in the Lord’s Prayer.

In its commentary on Matthew 6:13, the New American Bible says “Jewish apocalyptic writings speak of a period of severe trial before the end of the age, sometimes called the ‘messianic woes.’ This petition asks that the disciples be spared that final test.”

So the words of Jesus could be referring to the warnings he frequently gave to his disciples about the coming terrible siege and fall of Jerusalem, or the persecution they were going to undergo, or perhaps the tribulation before the end times. He speaks of these things often in the Gospels, and warns the disciples that they are coming. He is teaching them in this case, as in all others, to pray that God might spare them from these things, if possible, but as in all things, to confidently say: “deliver us from evil.”

We may or may not need a new translation, but good catechesis gives us so much.

The Perils of Pope Francis, Part I: A Lesson in Multiplication

Pope_FrancisI have been meaning to write this for some time, but many things intervened. At any rate, here it is, probably long overdue.

Not long ago LifeSite News came up with a compendium: The ABCs of Our Concerns with Pope Francis. It’s a greatest hits recap of their “reporting” on the Pope’s controversial remarks, often containing denunciations of his supposed heresies. (Rather remarkably, for an outfit that is supposed to be about reporting pro-life news, they have ventured more and more into theology). The whole thing gives me a persistent image of a dastardly villain tying Pope Francis to the railroad tracks every week in some kind of ongoing melodramatic serial. So far, 26 episodes, one for every letter of the alphabet, a whole TV season’s worth.

I’ve decided it’s time for a rescue.

What I mean is that ordinary Catholics need an antidote to those on both sides who are trying to manipulate our view of Pope Francis. In a small way, I’ve been trying to do this since the beginning of his pontificate. I recently realized to my amazement that I wrote my first post defending the Pope from his critics only five days after his election. Five days. Before he had done anything whatever of substance. This shows that there is something more behind this hatred than just the Pope’s words or deeds. I plan to get back to this later.

I’m going to start by supplying some rules to to follow in reading the Pope’s words:

1. Read the whole thing. Seriously, just do it. Don’t just read the LifeSite News article or the headline in the secular press. Read the whole of what the Pope said. Yes, even if it’s longer than a paragraph. If you don’t do this, you have no right to comment.

2. Read with an open mind. If you are already convinced the Pope is a heretic, you will read everything with a mind to finding what’s wrong with his words, rather than being open to what he’s really saying. This often leads to ludicrous results. And yes, it’s just as ludicrous when “liberals” read their own presuppositions into the Pope’s words.

3. Context, context, context. Exactly who is the Pope speaking to? What was the occasion? If it’s an interview, what was the exact question asked? What cultural differences might come into play?

4. Keep translation difficulties in mind. Unfortunately the Vatican translation service is not infallible. In many cases, if you don’t know the original Italian or Spanish, you won’t be able to find the mistranslation by yourself, but at least be aware of the possibility.

More about Rule no. 1. The thing that amazes me most about the Pope’s most virulent critics is that they never read his complete reply to questions, much less a complete interview. Much of the time I suspect, they don’t read more than the headlines or the few snippets that the secular press will extract and print from a papal statement, and of course, distort into a caricature of what was really said. The Pope’s critics strangely cling to this misinterpretation, and call all efforts to correct this impression “explaining away” or “elaborate attempts at special pleading.” No folks, it’s called “adult reading comprehension.” Everybody has to do this all the time. This is no exception.

In many cases, these are the same people who when it comes to one of their cultural heroes, like Trump, will endlessly parse his statements and movements to try and prove he didn’t say or do what everyone thinks, who plead with us to look at the context, who decry everything the secular mainstream press writes as “fake news.” But with Pope Francis, they buy everything the secular press puts out, hook, line and sinker.

I will admit that it’s often not easy to get some of the Pope’s complete statements, especially in his plane interviews. You can go to the Vatican website, but his interviews might be there only in Italian and the English translation might not be put up for weeks, even months. So let’s try something simpler to start with: his sermons and Angelus addresses, which are always up on the Vatican website the day they are given. The one I’m going to discuss here shows the virtues of Rule no. 1 well, but the other three I mentioned also apply. I think we should start with something not as fraught with tension as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, etc. So here we go.

Multiplication or Sharing?

Here is exactly what LifeSite News wrote in the above-mentioned compendium about the “scandal” of Pope Francis talking about the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

During the Angelus of June 2, 2013, he spoke about Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as taking place by “sharing.” “This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer,” he said. He was even more explicit about it in July 2015 in a homily preached in Christ the Redeemer Square in Bolivia. Pope Francis said, “This is how the miracle takes place. It is not magic or sorcery. … Jesus managed to generate a current among his followers: they all went on sharing what was their own, turning it into a gift for the others; and that is how they all got to eat their fill. Incredibly, food was left over: they collected it in seven baskets.”

Though they never exactly spell it out, LifeSite News evidently thinks Francis is guilty of the typical “liberal” Christian interpretation of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: it was not really a miracle, but Jesus teaching the crowd to share; inspired by him, they bring out the food they had all brought with them and were secretly hiding under their cloaks the whole time, and offer it to their neighbors.


Loaves and fishes – mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication in Galilee.

From the excerpts quoted, this interpretation looks plausible. But now to apply Rule no. 1: Go read the whole of the first talk, here at this link. You might as well get used to doing it. And you will quickly find out that LifeSite News did not read this talk all the way through, or if they did, they didn’t read it with any attention.

Now, Rule No. 3: the context. At the beginning the Pope notes that it is the feast of Corpus Christi. So the whole talk is in the context of the Eucharist. After summarizing the situation in the Gospel, Pope Francis contrasts the attitude of Jesus to that of the disciples, who weren’t really concerned with the crowd and just wanted them to go away. Then he comes to the point:

Jesus senses our problems, he senses our weaknesses, he senses our needs. Looking at those five loaves, Jesus thinks: this is Providence! From this small amount, God can make it suffice for everyone. Jesus trusts in the heavenly Father without reserve; he knows that for him everything is possible. Thus he tells his disciples to have the people sit down in groups of 50 — this is not merely coincidental, for it means that they are no longer a crowd but become communities nourished by God’s bread. Jesus then takes those loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, recites the blessing — the reference to the Eucharist is clear — and breaks them and gives them to the disciples who distribute them… and the loaves and fish do not run out, they do not run out! This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.

Pope Francis notes that this is a “sharing.” What sharing? Well, there is certainly no reference to anyone but Jesus and the disciples having any bread. Rather the context is: Jesus is concerned with the crowd and their needs. He wants to provide bread, but trusts in his Father to provide (note: he does not trust the crowd to provide). Francis points out the likeness of this scene to that of the institution of the Eucharist. He concludes by noting that this miracle is the sign of Jesus being “the Bread of God” for humanity.

So who is sharing? Jesus shares something of himself, out of his compassion, and inspired by his own “faith and prayer.” He shred the bread he had but also shared himself. It is a sign that he himself is the Bread of Life. Yes, you might have to work a little to get the meaning, but it is there and don’t think it’s possible to mistake it with a close attentive reading. True, Francis says that there is a lesson for the disciples and us to share what we have, but it the context of what has gone before, it is perfectly understandable: it refers of course to the loaves and fishes that Jesus and the disciples had and shared with others; in a wider sense we are to share of ourselves as Jesus shared himself.

“Aha!” you say. “But what about the second sermon, where Francis said the people “shared what they had?”

Well, back to Rule 3: the first problem is that LifeSite News destroyed the context of the sentence by leaving off the first part: Let’s read the whole thing as it appears in the Vatican translation:

The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared what they had, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.

The whole of the first sentence makes it clear that Jesus himself distributed the bread, and that everyone passed the same bread back, handing what they were given on to others. This alone makes “gave what they had” stand out as awkward. If we take it to mean “their own bread (which they brought with them),” it contradicts the previous sentence.

What to do? Well, now it’s time for Rule no. 4: Be aware of possible translation difficuties. In this case, Francis was speaking in Bolivia, and Spanish was the original language for his talk. Since I know Spanish, I was able to find the words that were creating the difficulty and look them up. Here is the passage, with the words in question in bold:

Las manos que Jesús levanta para bendecir al Dios del cielo son las mismas que distribuyen el pan a la multitud que tiene hambre. Y podemos imaginarnos, podemos imaginar ahora cómo iban pasando de mano en mano los panes y los peces hasta llegar a los más alejados. Jesús logra generar una corriente entre los suyos, todos iban compartiendo lo propio, convirtiéndolo en don para los demás y así fue como comieron hasta saciarse

The word “propio” in Spanish does mean “his own.” or “what he had” but the specific idiom used, a verb followed by “lo propio,” means to do something “the same,” or in this case “the same way.” Here’s what a Spanish-language translation forum has to say.

Here is the correct version in English:

The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared it in the same way, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.

Something else that LifeSite News did: The ignored Rule no. 2: Read with an open mind. In concentrating solely on the words they thought proved the Pope’s “error,” which they think lies in the words, “was not magic or sorcery”: they left out the Pope’s explanation of the meaning of those words, which follows in the next three paragraphs. They appear to think he meant that the multiplication was not magic or sorcery because it was a completely natural, non-miraculous event. Actually, if you read carefully, he is saying the opposite. As Catholics, we already know (or should know) that a miracle is something completely different than magic or sorcery. We are amazed, of course, at the changing of physical reality in the bread being multiplied. But that’s not all there is to a miracle. A miracle is also a sign (In his Gospel, John describes Jesus’ important miracles as signs), just as a sacrament is a sign. A miracle points to a greater reality.

multiplication-of-loaves-and-fishes-c-ossemanPope Francis is fond of pointing out how the miracles of Our Lord show us God’s transforming power in our lives, though not in the superficial way the “liberal” Gospel sermons do. LifeSite News, in its haste to vilify the Pope, leaves out the part where he explains the Jesus’ three actions of taking, blessing and giving the bread. I cannot quote it all in this space, but read it. Among other things, he says: “Blessing has this double aspect: thanksgiving and transformative power. It is a recognition that life is always a gift which, when placed in the hands of God, starts to multiply. Our Father never abandons us; he makes everything multiply.” Francis concentrates on the meaning of the miracle: the bread is miraculous because it multiplies physically, but even more because God’s power multiplies through our hands, as in Francis’ moving account. We share what we are given by God and it multiplies in the lives of others. This whole point rests on it being bread given by God, not our own bread.

Pope Francis neither denies nor discounts the physical aspect of the miracle. It is the basis for all his remarks. But he does concentrate on the sign, the spiritual aspect, as well as on the concrete life proposals. In doing so, he is giving us perfectly good Catholic theology as well as a good sermon with practical application. Now go read the whole thing and enjoy. It really is beautiful.

Next time we’ll try something a little harder. I plan before next time to make a series of links to my own posts on Pope Francis’ controversies, to be added to as I progress.


Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty — Part III

I was preparing to put up this third installment when the news about Pope John Paul I broke, so this is coming later than I had planned.

[Part I] [Part II]

The point of the objection raised by Edward Feser and others is that the Church has always and everywhere taught the legitimacy of capital punishment. Many people now think that the death penalty has always been widely accepted in the Church as it has been in our time. Yet history does show that there was a time when it was in question, and we can see this in the life and writings of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, who, along with Augustine and Jerome, was one of the three great early Fathers of the Western Church.


This mosaic in the cathedral of Milan may have been done in St. Ambrose’s lifetime, and could be an accurate portrait of him.

St. Ambrose’s Dilemma

A little background on Ambrose will help us understand his ideas on the death penalty. He was brought up in a very devout Christian family of Roman background. His father was a civic official and Ambrose followed his path, becoming a lawyer and then judge in the court of the praetorian prefect, and later consul and civil governor of Emilia-Liguria. His was universally admired for his virtue and integrity, as well as his devout faith, though at the age of 35 he still remained a catechumen.

Then, when the see of Milan, which had been occupied by an Arian bishop, fell vacant, a riot threatened to break out between Catholics and Arians over who would fill the see. Ambrose the governor came to where the people were gathered, and began speaking to calm the tumult. Suddenly a child in the crowd shouted, “Ambrose bishop!” and everyone took up the cry. Ambrose found himself suddenly elected bishop by acclamation. It is at this point that Ambrose’s biographer, Paulinus, brings in a bizarre anecdote – one that is not usually told in modern accounts of the election. Ambrose was a conscientious governor, and he did not put people to torture under his regime. But when he heard himself acclaimed bishop, he was determined to avoid the office, feeling himself unprepared and unworthy. He went into the tribunal, and ordered (in pretense, I hope) for people to be tortured, evidently hoping that this would put people off accepting him as bishop. But the people assured him that baptism would forgive this sin.[1] The strict historicity of this account might be questioned, but it is a good indication of the attitude of people at the time.

It was common in the fourth century for officials like Ambrose to put off baptism, because public office often led to bloodshed, including torture, political assassinations and the execution of criminals. The most famous example of this is the emperor Constantine, who, although he was converted to Christianity soon after winning control of the Empire, was only baptized on his deathbed. Waiting until retirement to accept baptism to wash away those sins – and some did see executions as a sin, as we will see — was thought preferable to doing severe penance for them if they were committed after you were baptized. This gives us a likely interpretation of why Ambrose had remained a catechumen during his time in office. All of his protests about his unsuitability were unavailing, however, and within a short time he was baptized, ordained a priest, then consecrated bishop of Milan.

It is clear then, that Ambrose had considerable first-hand experience with civil law and government, more so, perhaps, than any of the Fathers of the Church. Respect for human life was very important to him. He was later very severe with the Christian emperor Theodosius for staining his hands with civil blood in the massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica, and would not admit the emperor to Communion again until he had done many months of penance.

A Question and Answer

This attitude of Ambrose is also clear in the letters I am going to discuss. These are two letters written sometime between 385 and 387 to a man named Studius,[2] prompted by a letter from him that has not survived, but the contents of which can be surmised. Studius has evidently become a judge, and is worried about whether a Christian in this office can order an execution, and still remain in communion with the Church. In fact, this seems to have been a very controversial question at the time. We can trace it in the followers of the rigorist heretic Novatian, who condemned the bishops of the 250′s who were willing to admit to penance those who had committed apostasy during the Decian persecution. Even in the late fourth century, many of Novatian’s followers were still around; they would not admit to Communion any judge or official who had ordered someone put to death, even justly.[3] Even some who were not heretics agreed with them on this point.

Now to the point I have been building up to for so long. In the second of his letters, Ambrose speaks of the passage on the adulteress in John as arousing a great deal of controversy, not only historical and theological, but very concrete and practical, about the question of capital punishment itself:

Indeed there has always been repeated discussion of the question of the famous acquittal of that woman in the Gospel according to John who was brought to Christ accused of adultery. . . And the question has become more heated since the time that bishops have begun to accuse those guilty of the most heinous crimes before the public tribunals, and some even to urge them to use the sword and capital punishment, while others have begun to approve of these kinds of accusations and of the blood-stained triumphs of the priesthood. For those men say just the same as did the Jews, that the guilty ought to be punished by the public laws, and therefore that it is also fitting for priests to accuse before the public tribunals those who, they assert, ought to be punished according to the laws. The case is the same, though the number is less, that is to say, the question as to judgment is similar, the odious nature of the punishment is dissimilar. Christ would not permit one woman to be punished according to the Law; they assert that too small a number has been punished.[4]

Ambrose even said elsewhere that he did not hold communion with those bishops who sought for the death penalty to be applied to heretics, such as Bishops Idacius and Ithacius, who had induced the tyrant Maximus to put the heretic Priscillian and his followers to death.[5] So Ambrose did not come to the question with any love for the death penalty, and spurned its most fervent supporters in the Church. But he gives Studius’ question a finely nuanced answer.

I recognize [in your question] a pure intention of mind, zeal for the faith, and fear of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I too should fear to reply to it: [You would be] constrained on one side by the commission you have been given to keep the laws, and on the other by the claims of mercy and clemency, if you did not have in this matter the Apostle’s authority that “the one who judges does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the avenger of God upon evildoers” (Rom. 13:4).[6]

Although this is already known to you, you did not think it useless to ask the question. For there are those, though outside the Church, who do not call into communion of the heavenly mysteries those who consider it right to carry out capital sentence on some people. A great many [judges] voluntarily abstain [from the sacrament] and are lauded indeed, nor can we fail to praise them: for them we observe the authority of the Apostle [i.e. Paul above] to the extent that we do not dare refuse them communion.

You see, therefore what power authority confers on you, what mercy persuades you to. You will have excuse if you do it [impose death], praise if you do not do it. But if you are not able to do it, or to afflict someone by causing him to waste away in the squalor of prison, but set him free, as a priest I will commend you. For it may be when the case is heard, a criminal is received for sentencing who afterwards either asks for indulgence, or certainly without grave severity, as some say, is confined in prison. I know, however, a number of pagans who are accustomed to boast that they have brought the executioner’s ax back from their provincial administration unstained with blood. If the pagans do this, what should Christians do?[7]

This was an actual practice of the time; even an emperor, though he might have killed many in war in the provinces, would be proud of the Greek title of anaimaktos, or “unstained by blood,” meaning that he had not shed the blood of civilians.[8] Ambrose continues:

But in all these matters let our Savior’s answer suffice for you. The Jews apprehended an adulteress and brought her to the Savior, with the insidious intent that if He were to acquit her He might seem to destroy the law, though He had said, “I have not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law” (Mt 5:17), and on the other hand, were He to condemn her, He might seem to be acting against the purpose of His coming.

So the Lord Jesus, foreseeing this, stooped down and wrote upon the earth . . . He raises [his head] again, as though about to give sentence, and says, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her.” And again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they began to go out one by one beginning at the eldest, and this either because they who had lived longest had committed most sins, or because, as being most sagacious, they were the first to comprehend the force of His sentence, and though they had come as the accusers of another’s sins, began rather to lament their own.

When they had departed, then, Jesus was left alone, and lifting up his head to the woman, he said, “Where are those who were accusing you? Has no one stoned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.” Being the Redemption, He refuses to condemn her, being the Life He restores her, being the Fountain He washes her. And since Jesus, when He stoops down stoops that He may raise up the fallen, He says, as the absolver of sins, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he is still unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!

This is why our ancestors thought it better to be more indulgent towards judges, so that while their sword was feared, the madness of crime would be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to judges, it would seem like a retribution for their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors preferred then that those who abstain [from Communion] should do it out of free will, rather than because the law requires it.[9]

So unlike Edward Feser and associates, the death penalty has not exactly had complete approval at all times in the history of the Church. I think that Ambrose would have been very happy with the position of Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism: that the death penalty might not be an intrinsic evil but it should be avoided whenever possible. At the same time, he saw, along with many of his time, the fuller implications of the death penalty as a violation of the sacredness of human life, a question that is still with us.

Our Choice Today

In the end, what can we make of the question of “intrinsic evil” vs. “contrary to the Gospel”? If we begin with Old Testament Law, we can see its clearly articulated dividing lines between what is permissible and what is not. Sometimes there is a spectrum: The death penalty was on the permissible side of the line, but killing of the innocent is always wrong (“You shall not kill” is actually translated more correctly, “You shall not commit murder”). Using this spectrum, we can separate out the intrinsically evil acts.

I think what Pope Francis recognizes is that the Jesus in the Gospel calls us to something higher, just as he tells us “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This doesn’t suggest being on one side or another of allowability, but choosing what is best. Jesus didn’t suggest that Moses was wrong when he allowed divorce, but that with him, there began a new and more perfect conception of marriage. The Gospel is not simply about avoiding intrinsic evils, but achieving a more perfect justice. And, as Pope Francis said, it is about respecting the inviolable dignity of human life.

Update, Nov 20: Since writing this I came across this excellent article by David Bentley Hart, with more detail of the controversy over the death penalty in the early Church.

Update, Nov. 20: Yet another excellent response to Feser by Robert Fastiggi, with many quotes from the Fathers and Councils, which show clearly that the definitely not universally accepted in the early Church.


[1] Paulinus of Milan, “Life of St. Ambrose,” 3:7, from Early Christian Biographies, trans. John A. Lacy (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of American Press, 1952), pp. 36-37.

[2] It is uncertain what his name actually was, since in the earliest texts of Ambrose’s works, the first letter is headed “To Studius” and the second “To Ireneaus,” though both are obviously to the same person. (Ireneaus should not be confused with the famous second-century Father of that name). I’ll call him Studius, just because I really love the name. For more on this question, see The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (Oxford: James Parker, 1881), p 182.

[3] Cf. Migne, PL 16, col. 1040, note g.

[4] Ambrose, Letter 68, 2-3. (This is the modern numbering. In the Oxford and other earlier editions it was Letter 26). I have translated from the Latin edition in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 16, cols. 1042-43, with some help from the Oxford translation.

[5] Letter 24, 12, Oxford ed., p. 181.

[6] The words “the one who judges” don’t appear in the Latin or even the Greek text. They were evidently inserted because this is the actual office Studius holds.

[7] Letter 25 (50 in later editions), nos. 1-3. Oxford, ed., pp. 182-83.

[8] Migne, PL 16, col 1041, note a

[9] Letter 25 (50), nos. 4-9, Oxford ed., p. 183-85.