Reexamination of the Meaning behind the Incarnational Passages

James W. Deardorff
Feb. 1988, revised Mar. 1998


The possibility is examined that the incarnational passages reflect language that would have been used had Jesus believed in, and taught, reincarnation. Various clues from certain Gospel passages, redaction criticism, and Gnosticism, as well as modern evidence, supports this anagogic prospect.

Resurrectional Redaction
Shreds of Evidence
The Post-Crucifixion Appearances
Concluding Thought
End Notes

      The New Testament (NT) incarnational passages are of the nature "I have come not to...., but to...."1 They are usually interpreted to mean that God sent Jesus to Earth, once and for all, to provide redemption for mankind's sins. Then, in these passages Jesus explains certain aspects of why he came.

However, a somewhat different interpretation is open in light of modern evidence that supports the concept of reincarnation.2 Although the evidence is controversial, it is voluminous and ever accumulating. It is thus important that the incarnational passages be examined from this different viewpoint, and that other synoptic gospel evidence be examined that may support this interpretation. Failure to do so would be tantamount to scholarly withdrawal from controversies of the real world.

What does the reincarnation viewpoint consist of in this context? It posits that the human soul exists, that it evolves in wisdom and power over innumerable lifetimes, and that Jesus' soul had likewise experienced previous lives, with his probably being the most advanced -- most evolved -- soul on Earth. Within this spiritual framework, and with the aid of more advanced spirit guides, the soul between lifetimes is thought to choose the timing and location of its next human experience.3 The choice is believed to be made with the potential for certain goals to be fulfilled in the soul's next life that would further its evolution, and perhaps the evolution of other souls as well. From this viewpoint, therefore, Jesus could have spoken of "having come," if he somehow had become aware of the purposes of his soul's reincarnational choice. To "have come" can imply "having come again" as well as it can imply "having come for the first time." With this rarely expressed interpretation, the mystery shifts from his mode of coming to the manner in which he learned his wisdom and destiny.

Again, it is the accumulating evidence supporting reincarnation as a reality that forces a new look at this problem. Irenaeus apparently did not have any such evidence at his disposal when asserting that the soul cannot remember any past-life experiences.4 The childhood "cases of the reincarnation type" investigated by Stevenson instead indicate that in perhaps one child out of a hundred thousand or so,5 something goes awry that permits explicit pieces of the previous life's memories to be recalled up to age 5 or 7, before gradually fading away. Also, Irenaeus did not allow for the possibility that in matters of conscience (or of the right-half brain), the soul may at times be able to influence human behavior, thus permitting moral evolution, a concept inevitably accompanying reincarnation.6

Irenaeus may well have been wrong in assuming that reality of reincarnation should imply that everyone be able to recall one or more of their past lives. If that were to happen before mankind was morally prepared, or sufficiently evolved spiritually, it would lead to mass obsessions with the past. Instead, one may note the similar faulty reasoning if someone were to assume that dreams during sleep do not occur because they do not remember them later in the day.

There has been a singular lack of attention paid to the reincarnation concept and its supportive evidence by western biblical scholars. It might be thought that this neglect means that the concept has been defused by more recent scholars of philosophy and religion. This is not actually the case, however. The scholar and author, John Hick, for example, in one of his later works, was aware of some of Stevenson's data, but did not make use of them or similar data in his main discussions.7 He instead argued how futile it would be to attempt to prove for the bulk of the world population, in the absence of past-life memory evidence for them, that the reincarnation concept is true for them. However, this argument does not bear upon the reality of rebirth, but merely upon an aspect of it that may be disliked or not understood.

A more meaningful approach would be to ask if it is only the one child out of every one-hundred thousand or so possessing past-life memories who has a soul (or a past-life memory-retention mechanism). Hick, in effect, answers this question in the affirmative. However, the negative seems more likely, on the grounds that no great difference is noted otherwise between these particular children and others, though Stevenson finds a small intellectual advantage and E. Haraldsson a significant one.8 As these children grow into their teens, however, they appear essentially normal in all present-life respects. Again, the dream analogy is pertinent: Are people who remember their dreams different from others? Do only those who remember having dreamed, dream? Several decades ago the answer to the latter question might have been thought to be affirmative. Now psychology knows it to be negative.

It might be thought that the usual fading of these past-life memories during childhood growth could mean that the mechanism responsible for the recall is of short term and cannot therefore be linked to the soul with its concept of immortality. However, such a linkage appears to be long term; memories from various ages of the past life are recalled, including those of youth as well as of the later mode of death. Thus, if the past-life person had lived a fairly long life, the memory-retention mechanism was operating throughout that life, available in rare instances for the next life personality to tap in its first few years. The mechanism did not become inoperable as the previous personage grew up. And of course if we expand into the past-life data of the hypno-therapists, we find that a single person may, during repeated hypnotic sessions, recall events from many different past lives.

One may note that the phenomenon ties in well with the Hindu concept of reincarnation, though the data does not support recent past lives in the form of lower, non-human animals (transmigration). However, it does not tie in so closely with the concept of rebirth held by some Buddhists wherein the individual's sense of continued identity is not retained.

With the reincarnation interpretation, the likelihood that Jesus taught it, not resurrection, needs thorough exploration. Simply because western biblical scholars were raised in an environment in which reincarnation is rejected or ignored by mainstream Judeo-Christianity and by atheism also, is insufficient reason not to explore its supportive evidence This possibility could not be sustained, of course, unless apparent New Testament contradictions with it can be explained or eliminated. Although such an endeavor has been carried out,9 it can only be outlined here. It is unfortunate that the topic is practically undiscussed within scholarly New Testament literature, and there are essentially no previous works to draw upon other than negative declarations such as by Irenaeus or the Second Council of Constantinople, which pronounced reincarnation an anathema. Here, attention will be centered primarily upon the Gospel of Matthew.

Resurrectional redactions
      In order to explain apparent redactions within Matthew, it will be necessary to postulate that a proto-Gospel derived from his teachings received extensive redaction at the time Matthew was written, which altered teachings of reincarnation into teachings of resurrection. And if Jesus had indeed been the teacher of wisdom that even the Gospel of Matthew professes (Mt 11:19 and 13:54), he should have known of the reality of reincarnation and have been teaching that, not resurrection. Thus when we come to Mt 22:23-32, we find this to be a section wherein original teachings on reincarnation could easily have been altered into teachings on resurrection with simple one-word substitutions. In Mt 22:23, "resurrection" could have been substituted for "reincarnation" or "rebirth," since the Sadducees believed in neither. The same would have occurred in Mt 22:30, which reads peculiarly, as redactions are apt to do. That is, resurrection pertains to the dead, yet "resurrection" in 22:30 is contrasted with "resurrection of the dead" in 22:31. Also, the fact that the attempted explanation of resurrection in Mt 22:31-32 seems to apply only to the patriarchs and says nothing about what resurrection would be like for the people who were listening, does not bode well for the authenticity of those two verses. Hence it is important to ask if motivation for such alterations would likely have been present.

Among Pharisees there would have been such motivation, because most of them had already believed in resurrection since at least the first century B.C.10 Also, Paul was once a Pharisee, judging from the two affirmations of this, in Acts 23:6 and Phil 3:5. Regarding his conversion event on the Road to Damascus, he would thus likely have interpreted his encounter with the light and the voice of Jesus (Acts 9:3-9) as an encounter with a resurrected form of Jesus.

By the time Matthew was written, which would have been several or many decades after Paul's conversion,11 Paul's views had already largely been accepted by the early churches. And since the writer of Matthew in all probability had been a Jew before converting to early Christianity, and even a Pharisaic scribe,12 his motivation to eliminate all reincarnation heresies from his source by substituting resurrectional redactions would have been strong. It is all too evident from the writings of Irenaeus and other church fathers that suppression of heresy was of prime concern to the early church.13 Decisions as to what constituted heresy can be traced in large part back to Paul's teachings as the basis.

Following this line of reasoning, other teachings by Jesus on reincarnation that might originally have been present within the source for Matthew would simply have been omitted en toto if they were not amenable to simple word, phrase or verse substitutions favoring resurrection. Simple insertions may likewise have been made in order to suggest that in his post-crucifixion appearances, Jesus was not only still physical in nature, but at the same time was in some nebulous resurrected state wherein he could walk through closed doors.14

Shreds of evidence
      Could redaction of such great extent have been carried out without some shreds of evidence being left behind? Awareness has been growing that much clever editing was performed upon the Old Testament writings.15 There is no reason to suspect that the New Testament Gospels could not have been edited very extensively with comparable cleverness, when the motivation was to suppress heresies and uphold the faith.

Yet one can nevertheless look for shreds of evidence left behind in Matthew. Of Mt 11:14, the interpretation in this regard is that Jesus was saying that the soul of John the Baptist had been Elijah in a past life, and that it would be reborn in someone else in the future. Of course, if he had instead said that his past life had been that of some other patriarch, such as Elisha, the writer of Matthew could well have altered that name into Elijah because Elijah had last been seen caught up in a "whirlwind" (2 Kngs 11), whereby the belief among some Pharisees had grown that he had been "translated" into heaven alive. Thus, the writer of Matthew could have substituted Elijah's name here without necessarily supporting the reincarnation concept, and could later have had the "translated' Elijah appear (in Mt 17:3). However, it doesn't make sense to think that John the Baptist's grown body had at some stage been taken over by the "translated" Elijah, especially since in Lk 1 John the Baptist is described as having grown up from babyhood. Hence the reincarnation concept is preferred here as underlying the Matthean verse.

Within the reincarnation framework, Mt 16:13-15 indicates that Jesus, talking with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, was asking who the people thought he (his soul) had been in a past life. Had he been asking only about who they thought he was (e.g., the Messiah), the replies the disciples received would not have included Elijah, Jeremiah or another prophet of the past.

In Mt 24:5 Jesus said that "many would come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,'" (or, more realistically, saying "I am Jesus"). For Jesus to have discussed this with his disciples again implies that they understood what he meant, namely, that others in the future would claim to have been him in one of their past lives. It is unlikely that Jesus could have been referring to resurrection here, for then the persons claiming to be the resurrected Jesus would have to prove that they had not had a childhood, but had always been in the same adult physical form as Jesus had been after the crucifixion, with wounds and all. If instead the claimant asserted he grew up as a child, yet was Jesus, that then reverts back to the reincarnation concept.

In Mt 24:27 the Second Coming would, within the reincarnation framework, simply refer to the coming of the soul of Jesus within a new body born on Earth during a future lifetime. To make his advent worthy of climactic public attention might require the participation of flights of UFOs over our skies, however.

If teaching rebirth, Jesus would likely have had to refer to an inner "realm of the spirit" now and then. Such references within the source document for Matthew would also be considered heretical and require redaction, since Christianity teaches that one's mind should dwell upon an external Spirit of God, not upon an inner human spirit. What else could it have been redacted into but "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God," so as to encourage believers to look outside themselves and to the church for spiritual authority? The phrase is now often taken to mean a present realm overhead, as in the parables of Mt 13. However, a fixed interpretation would cause confusion, since "kingdom of heaven" also refers to a future age to come, as in Mt 4:17.16 In instances of the latter type, the redaction could have been an addition to substitute for an admonition like: "Repent and seek truth and knowledge."

One might expect that, had Jesus taught reincarnation, his teachings on it might have caught on here and there without being so totally suppressed that there is no remnant of it today from Mideast or Western sources except for the biblical passages already discussed. One possible such remnant lies in the passage from the Gospel of Thomas (Saying #3): "Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you." Alternatively, if such teachings had appeared in a source document for the Gospel of Matthew, word of it would likely have leaked out upon first receipt of the document and before it fell into the hands of the compiler of Matthew.17 Then it could have fueled the strong expansion of Gnosticism in the early 2nd century.

A possible example of this could lie in the beliefs of Carpocrates, a 2nd-century Jew from Alexandria, whose family converted to a Christianity of sorts -- one which stressed the existence and preexistence of the individual soul.18 He believed that some people could remember their soul's preexisting state.

Further examples may reside in some of the beliefs of the Marcionites of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, who were contesting some of the teachings of the main church. Among other things, they believed in a key point of reincarnation: that at death, the spirit of man is, at least in some circumstances, saved (or lives on), while the body perishes.19 While the Marcionites were strong followers of Paul and of their own version of the Gospel of Luke, they showed this kind of Gnostic leaning.

Of course, one cannot press the Gnostic beliefs too far, since they contain such a wide variety of irrational thoughts. However, the rapid blossoming of the Gnostic movement in the 2nd century is consistent with the source document for Matthew having circulated around some at that time, before it came under the custodianship of the writer of Matthew. This 2nd-century movement in turn would have built upon the remnants of the weaker 1st-century Gnostic movement that had been prompted by Jesus' oral teachings concerning the individual human spirit. This possibility seems more likely than the assumption by Irenaeus that none of the spiritual input from Marcion (or his predecessor, Cerdo), Carpocrates and other Gnostics traces back to the Apostles or to Jesus' ministry, but rather that it all sprang forth spontaneously,20 or from earlier sources, such as Plato.

The post-crucifixion appearances
      It is evident that if Jesus taught reincarnation and knew the truth of what he taught, resurrection could not be an explanation for his post-crucifixion appearances. Therefore, the remaining alternative, survival of the crucifixion, must be addressed, despite Christian medical opinion of the low probability for such survival.21 There is much support, both old and new, for the view that the Gospel stories concerning these post-crucifixion appearances are based upon reality, and that Jesus' form in these appearances was physical.22 Here it can only be noted that if Jesus did survive and recover relatively quickly, it would seem that he would have needed secret help while in the tomb, though not necessarily resuscitation, and that his healing powers frequently applied to others must have worked in behalf of himself, too. Of course, the many traditions that speak of Jesus, accompanied by mother Mary and Judas-Thomas, having traveled widely through Anatolia and Asia perforce support the likelihood that Jesus survived the crucifixion.23

Jesus' prophecy of rising again in three days, and his invoking of the sign of Jonah (Mt 27:63; 16:4), do not point to resurrection any more than to survival of the crucifixion. In fact, together they slightly favor the latter possibility, since Jonah stayed alive while in the belly of the "whale."

Concluding thought.
      It might be hoped that reincarnation could somehow be incorporated into Christianity in order to reconcile faith and evidence. Indeed, Geddes MacGregor concludes that "there is nothing in biblical thought or Christian tradition that necessarily excludes all forms of reincarnationism."24 Although one may not agree with him, he states his case well, and suggests that the concept of purgatory could be revived, brightened and extended into the concept of the individual soul experiencing multiple future lives. With regard to the beliefs of many ordinary Christians, this hope might be realizable. However, for the Christian or scholar who distinguishes between reincarnation and resurrection, or the church member who faithfully follows the leadership of his priest or minister, this hope cannot be easily realized. As demonstrated here, even the interpretation of just the incarnational passages in terms of reincarnation thought, if pursued in some depth, inevitably leads to potential repercussions that extend throughout the New Testament and beyond. Further investigation of the possibility explored here will require serious examination by open-minded scholars of alternative viewpoints and arguments previously ignored or unjustly ridiculed.

End Notes

1. See Mt 5:17 and 10:34, for example.

2. This reference in the text takes you to a relevant bibliography in .

3. Michael Newton, Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life between Lives, (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1994) 221-248.

4. Irenaeus Against Heresies, 2.33-34, in ANF 1, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956) 409-411.

5. See previous references to Stevenson within Ref. 2 above. The phenomenon may occur more frequently than suggested here, due to the likelihood of its being greatly underreported.

6. Irving S. Cooper, Reincarnation, 7th Ed. (Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Press, 1964) 79, 86.

7. John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 3rd Ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983) chap. 10.

8. See Stevenson's four volumes of Cases of the Reincarnation Type within Ref. 2 above; Erlendur Haraldsson, "A psychological comparison between ordinary children and those who claim previous life memories," J. Sci. Exploration 11 (1997), 323-335.

9. J. W. Deardorff, Jesus in India (Bethesda, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1994) chap. 2.

10. Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978) 13.

11. Francis W. Beare, The Gospel according to Matthew (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 7-8.

12. Op. cit, p. 9; Michael Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974) xiii, 5-6, 13-27, 70.

13. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979) xxiv.

14. Jn 20:19, 26.

15. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Summit Books, 1987).

16. For discussions on the problem of "kingdom of heaven" referring to both concepts, see Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 1984) 248-263; and Richard H. Hiers, The Kingdom of God in the Synoptic Tradition, Univ. of Florida Humanities Monograph No. 33 (Gainesville, FL: Univ. of Florida Press, 1970) 20, 63.

17. Here we have in mind the Logia known to bishop Papias, which could well have been an extensive document, and not just sayings.

18. Irenaeus Against Heresies, 1.25.1-4.

19. Ibid., 1.25.2-3.

20. Ibid., 3.3-4.

21. William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, "On the physical death of Jesus," J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 255 (1986) 1455-1463.

22. Charles Guignebert, Jesus (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1935) 506; Grant R. Osborne, The Resurrection Narratives: A redactional Study (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 196-198.

23. See also Deardorff, Jesus in India, chap. 9.

24. Geddes MacGregor, Reincarnation in Christianity (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978) 173.

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