Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Born of a Virgin?

This is how the birth of Jesus came about.

When Jesus' mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly.

This was Joseph's intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, "Joseph, heir to the House of David, don't be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus - 'Salvation' - because he will save the people from their sins."

All this happened to fulfill what God had said through the prophet:

"The virgin will be with child
and give birth,
and the child will be named

- a name that means "God is with us."

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth; she had a son, and they named him Jesus.

- Matthew 1:18-25, The Inclusive Bible

The scripture above is, along with the birth narrative in Luke, one of two scriptural sources for stories of the virgin birth of Jesus. That story is one I have long been skeptical of, for various reasons.

First, and most obvious, is, of course, that a virgin giving birth is impossible. That, however, is a trivial concern. Despite the protestations of the most belligerent and least charitable critics of traditional Christianity, no one, regardless of what they believe concerning the historicity of stories of Jesus' virgin birth, argues that such events are, by nature, possible. Everyone is aware that this is not the normal, natural course. It is offered as an exceptional event, a unique event. That, then, it is impossible, means very little. The basis for the claim that it is impossible is the same as the basis for the claim that it is a unique event, an unprecedented act of God.

This would have been no less true in Jesus' time as it is today. Despite caricatures of 1st century Palestinians and other citizens of antiquity as benighted savages unaware of the laws of nature, and despite the fact that we have undoubtedly uncovered a great deal more of the workings of nature than they had, it is abundantly clear that the necessary connection between sexual intercourse and human reproduction had been made in Jesus' culture.

So, that virgins giving birth is impossible should bother those who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin not even a little bit. No one, at the time of Jesus, today, or at any point in between, would assert anything else. Those who believe merely add a single caveat:

With God, all things are possible.

The obstacle to belief here then is not some basic knowledge of biology, but rather the capacity to believe that claim, that God can do that which is by nature impossible. The capacity to believe that unique events can and do take place.

My real reason for long disbelieving in the stories of the virgin birth of Jesus is found instead in the passage above. Matthew's account includes a reference to Isaiah 7:14. This reference follows a recurring pattern in Matthew's Gospel. This pattern is one of prophesy and fulfillment, and it occurs roughly 14 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Here the fulfillment of prophesy is not merely a predicted event now taking place, but rather also the completion of an act of God that has already begun. It is a way of connecting the life and work of Jesus to the work that God had already begun in the world, as understood in the Hebrew scriptures.

Matthew's Gospel quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible. The Greek term employed there for the young woman giving birth is parthenos. In English it is rightly rendered "virgin." The Hebrew, almah, however, is not translated "virgin," but rather something like "young woman."

For me, then, this was a simple case of Matthew writing the virginity of Mary into his story, since it was a part of the prophetic literature that he saw being fulfilled in Jesus. This is, after all, how I've long seen Matthew work. In his Gospel - and others - Jesus is seen through the lens of the sacred literature available to the early Christian community. Jesus' unique life and ministry are understood through the lens of the Torah, through the lens of the prophets, through the lens of the wisdom literature of ancient Israel, and through the lens of cultural and religious expectations. If - per a mistranslation in the Septuagint - the virginity of Mary would have been expected, then it would be inevitable that, after the fact, such stories would emerge.

The problem is, I'm no longer sold on that. For one thing, while Isaiah 7:14 is evidently important to Matthew, Luke makes no mention of it. And the Gospel of Luke exists independently of the Gospel of Matthew. That the two both contain stories of a virgin conceiving by the Holy Spirit indicates that such stories predate either work, and make the analysis I offered above pretty shoddy.

For another, according to Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998), one of the top New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, "there was no Jewish expectation of virginal conception of the Messiah." If that's the case, then:

1) Isaiah 7:14 would not have been seen among 1st century Palestinian Jews as predicting the birth of the Messiah to a virgin, thus making the above analysis of Matthew's motives for using the verse suspect, and

2) cultural expectation would not have been a motive for the crafting of a story of Jesus being conceived in and born by a virgin.

That brings me to something I read the other day. Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is one of my favorite conservatives. And not just because he has a pretty cool blog. He is both intellectually curious and honest, and is more interested in Biblical theology than cultural conservatism. He is, in other words, an honest evangelical Christian who is not held captive to the political right. More importantly, he makes me think.

Here he offers a clear and concise argument for the historicity of what he calls "the virginal conception" (as opposed to "the virgin birth," as the miracle is not so much that a virgin gave birth as that a virgin conceived in the first place) that anticipated every objection I've ever had, plus a few that I hadn't yet thought of.

I'm not yet ready to say that I fully believe in the virginal conception, or the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. But I'm more open to the possibility than I have been in a long, long time. Now I have to ask myself a simple question:

Can I really ever believe that God can do impossible things?


Update: Here is Michael Westmoreland-White's post on the Virgin Birth, mentioned in the comments.


Burl said...

Actually, I would say that it's the other way around. It's not that virgin birth is hard to believe; it's that it's easy to believe. History is replete with Egyptian references to virgin births and their connections to the divine. It's the over popularity of such a story that makes virgin birth unbelievable. Paul also mentions nothing of Jesus's virgin birth. Either it's so common that there's no need to mention it, or, perhaps it never happened. Just looking at this from another angle.

Sandalstraps said...


1. What is the context for Egyptian stories of virgin birth? From what region, and what period, do they emerge?

2. What similarities, if any, do they have to the stories in Matthew and Luke?

3. Is there any connection between the authors of Matthew and Luke and the stories of virgin birth from Egypt that you allude to here? Any indication that such stories would have been known by the authors of the virgin birth accounts in these Gospels?

4. Is there any indication that such stories would have been known to anyone in 1st century Palestine, or that they would have shaped the cultural consciousness of that region?

Answering those questions is vital, I think, to making the point I'm hearing you making. If there is no way to connect the Egyptian stories you're alluding to to either the region or the Gospel authors, then I suspect that's a red herring.

As for Paul, you're right that he doesn't mention the virgin birth, and seems to have no knowledge of it, as far as I can tell. I used to find that significant. Now I'm not so sure.

The question for me is this: how did the story emerge. It was easy to dismiss when I believed that it emerged from a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. But if - even in the Septuagint - Isaiah 7:14 was never used to anticipate a Messiah born of a virgin, then I'm not sure the mistranslation (and Ben Witherington disagrees with my characterization of rendering almah as parthenos a mistranslation - if you haven't read his post you really should) in question is all that significant. That is, Matthew would not have employed it because he felt that he had to deal with the text, since it would not have shaped Messianic anticipation in the first place.

So, where did the story come from?

While Paul does not mention it, that Matthew and Luke each have the story, and that they each tell it in very different ways, points to it having an earlier origin than either of them. They each got the story, but there is no textual reason to believe that they got it from the same source, since their versions are so different. So now you have at least two sources, prior to the writing of either Matthew or Luke, telling a story that would not have been a part of 1st century Messianic anticipation, concerning Jesus of Nazareth. That raises the case for historicity considerably.

There are other factors involved as well, and for them I would suggest you consider Ben Witherington's post, as it addresses cultural factors in more detail than I possibly could. But, to your point I would simply say that unless some strong connection could be made between the Egyptian stories you allude to an either Jewish, Palestinian, Greek, or Roman culture, there is little chance that such stories would have influenced the people who first began to articulate stories concerning the virginal conception of Jesus. As such, those stories would have little to do with the historicity of the claim that Jesus was conceived in Mary, a virgin, by the Holy Spirit.

Liam said...

We also have to remember that Paul was writing neither a Gospel nor a systematic theology, but rather (in most cases) letters to address specific issues. An argument from absence in his epistles is particularly problematic.

As with any other miracle story (with the possible exception of the resurrection or the incarnation), I do not have my faith invested in the virginity of Mary. If it was somehow proved that she was not a virgin, it would not trouble me, and I still would interact with the references to her virginity metaphorically and liturgically. That said, for me God transcends the physical universe, so the idea of a miracle does not bother me (I get impatient and bored by the type of religious thinker who gets nervous and feels he or she has to explain away any miracle story out of fear as being represented as superstitious), since I do feel that with God all things are possible. Was there a virgin birth? Did Jesus walk on water? For that matter, did St Francis really receive the stigmata? It's enough for me to know that these things were possible through God and therefore could have happened. If the meaning they convey turned out to be legendary as opposed to factual, they would not be any less true.

As I have often said, I'm in it for the mystery.

btw, has anyone noticed that recently the word verification letters are more word-like? Mine right now in "nones" -- one of the hours of the monastic office. Cool.

Aspirant said...


I read BW3's post too, and it is indeed good. But I offer a couple of thoughts.

One, if God can raise a dead man or heal a withered hand, he can make a baby; and even if the miracles and resurrection are viewed skeptically (and this is one thing you and I share: we think ourselves into grim corners time to time); IF there is a Creator God outside the cosmos, it seems to me we cannot say that he cannot manipulate the laws of nature freely.

I also don't think, and have not thought for a while, that Matthew was fitting Jesus into the OT schema here. Does M do so other places? Sure looks like it. But this one was always stretched, as you (and BW) note. There is one possibility but I have only heard it mentioned in conversation: that the translators of the LXX might have had a different manuscript for Isaiah, one that used a different Hebrew word. That is possible. That said, Witherington, as you also note, makes a good case for almah connoting, if not denoting, virginity. It also seems, though, that this passage in I had contemporary historical application as so many of the passages the early Christians used do. Best thing I've ever read on that point is from C.S. Lewis, of all people; his chapter "Second Meanings in Scripture" from Reflections on the Psalms. Don't know if I would have converted without it.

Would Matthew have invented the story to make Jesus more legitimate to his Jewish-Christian audience? Again, maybe, but Brown is far from conservative, as you know, and I take him at his word that we have no expectations of a virginal birth for the messiah. It looks, most honestly, to me like the story was already in the tradition and Matthew found a verse, a rather non messianic text really, to show that it had in fact been predicted. Ditto, in my view, with the slaughter of the children. The fact that the virgin birth is in Luke, and far as I know, not in Q (if Q existed), that it is found in special M and L...that is powerful.

Anyway, I think two views are likely: one, Jesus was in fact born of a virgin for whatever reason God wished to do that (when BW3 brings up "original sin" I wince a bit, but what do I know); or two, Mary conceived Jesus out of wedlock and the virginal conception story was an early response to cover that. Of course, they could have just said Joseph was the baby-daddy...I don't think the early Christians, as we keep saying, needed a virginally born savior.

Would it matter to me if that latter option were true? If Jesus had a human father, maybe even was a "bastard" child. Not really. Not when the rest of hist story is taken into account.

The virgin birth as necessary to erase original sin is surely not in Matt, nor anyplace else in the NT. It is unusual to me the VB is not in Mark, maybe. who just begins with JBap. Paul? Nah. He never attempted anything like a life of Jesus. My guess is he had limited information beyond some teachings and the resurrection accounts anyway. He spent minimal time in Jerusalem and seems to have done his own thing from the start.

So, at some early point, especially since the infancy narratives in M and L differ in other key (and non-reconcilable ways) the virgin conception entered the tradition. Almost certainly among Jewish Christians in Palestine.

Nor, as I said earlier, would it matter if Joseph was Jesus' father. Jesus, we may say, speaks for himself.

But I want to get to your other post, and my day is full.

Love you brother.


Burl said...

Ooohhh. I’m not sure I have the time to delve so deeply as you have into this subject. I want to start by saying that I am coming at this from a “common sense” perspective. During the time of Jesus, geographically speaking at least and based on the maps I’ve seen at the time, we are looking at the Roman empire. It seems “common sense” to me that since Egypt is next door and Rome is farther away (an especially without a boat) that Egyptian culture would have some influence on the people of that area. If I’m not mistaken, the gospel of Mark was used and/or written in Egypt. I find it hard to believe (again common sensically) that Christianity spreads while other religions remain immobile. Also, again (common sensically) if Gospel of Mark is being read or spoken, then their must be an audience to which it refers; jews and pagans.

Okay, specifics. There’s Horus. Virgin birth, an only begotten son, born during the winter solstice and message was one of social justice after the murder of his father. I find hard to believe 1rst century jews would not have heard of him as he was the son of Isis and Osiris.

You ask “So, where did the story come from?” I think the question aught to be how did this guy named Jesus become a God. If you look at it from this perspective, you don’t need a virgin birth; you only need requirements for a messiah, which the jews rejected and the new believers accepted. Virgin birth is only a require of subsequent Christian doctrine and this is why no one can find much information about in relation to Jesus.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Did you ever read my series on this topic which affirmed the VB, but refused to make it either a "fundamental of the faith" or the central point of Christmas?

Sandalstraps said...


No, I didn't read that. I'll have to check it out.