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Out of the question: Timing of the incarnation

24 June 2009


Your answers

The world has been trundling round for millions of years. Has there been any scholarly reflection on the timing of God’s placing of the 33-year “Jesus-event” in history? Has any reason been suggested, other than “So that scripture might be fulfilled”?

To offer a satisfactory answer to this question, you would need a more than human grasp of the relationship between divine providence and human freedom, but two considera­tions spring to mind about the timing of the incarnation.

First, although it was “folly” and “scandal” to many pagans and Jews, both Greek and Jewish thought had developed to a point at which sense could be made of the Christian mes­sage: the world was ready for it.

Second, this was the first time in recorded history that an empire (Rome), centred on the Mediter­ranean, had been able to provide safe and convenient trade and travel from east to west, and two common languages had emerged (Greek in the east as a legacy from Alexander the Great, and increasingly, Latin in the west). So the Christian message could be spread quickly and effectively in languages which many people could understand, as St Paul discovered.

All this surely makes the first century AD a good time for God to have chosen.

Adrian Roberts
Lay Chaplain, Grammar School at Leeds

Jesus was born when the Roman Empire had reached almost its fullest extent: the inclusion of Britain was a generation or so later. Its continua­tion, both as a united empire and, later, as the Western and Eastern empires, provided the social environ­ment in which Christianity could develop.

When the Western empire broke up in the fifth century, after a period of barbarian incursion, it was fol­lowed by a network of states that maintained the same friendly en­vironment.

The end of the Eastern empire, in 1453, was followed in 1492 by the discovery of the New World and the development of national empires based in the nations of Western Europe: this enabled the spread of Christianity to most of the remain­ing parts of the world.

It is difficult to see that the birth of Jesus in a Jewish family at any earlier time would have made the spread of Christianity any easier. What would have happened if Jesus was born at a later time would be almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty. It would require the analysis of many alternative histories of the future of the Roman Empire in the absence of the Christian Church.

J. Alan Smith

Epping, Essex

The first reflection was probably by Paul, as he wrote: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . .” (Galatians 4.4). But in what sense did the life of Jesus take place at “the fullness of time”?

Ambrosiaster (fl. c.370) wrote: “The fullness of time is the comple­ted time which had been foreordained by God the Father for the sending of his Son, so that, made from a virgin, he might be born like a man. . .”

There is more recent reflection in the by now classic Lux Mundi (pub­lished 1889, 12 editions by 1891), which sets out a liberal yet devout perspective on the subject.

Seen from a divine viewpoint, if such be possible, God had a plan from before time began to create a people for himself who would offer him worship of their own free choice. He did this by choosing a people to whom he revealed himself in ethical law and prophetic utter­ance, until the way was prepared for a compete revelation in an indivi­dual. The preparation ensured that that person was both rejected and accepted, so that divine love could be shown even in death, yet a growing community would continue his teaching.

Seen from a pragmatic viewpoint, polytheism had been shown to be an empty shell by Greek philosophy, leading to a thirst for a genuine and universal religion. The Romans pro­vided a system of international law in which, after a fashion, new believers would be protected. It pro­vided a wonderful road system along which missionaries could travel with speed and relative safety.

And the Parthian empire to the east, with its dualistic Zoroastrian religion and large Jewish diaspora, was not far behind in the facilities it unconsciously offered for the initial spread of the new faith.

The greatest modern problem for any concept of “fullness of time” is evolutionary theory. If we are living within a process of gradual change, that will continue until time shall be no more, how can the person and teaching of a first-century revolu­tionary have any permanent signifi­cance? Is it something that must be constantly built upon and improved by his successors?

The answer must lie in the fact that Jesus’s teaching did include things that are absolute and irreplace­able, even if set in the outdated context of Temple sacrifice and Roman occu­pation. The “Jesus event” created a signpost pointing the way to follow.
Christopher Haffner (Reader)
East Molesey, Surrey


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