Last year I wrote a brief series of Christmas reflections: an historical-critical affirmation of the virgin birth and 2 posts on the theological emphases of Matthew and Luke’s birth & infancy narratives. These proved very popular and more than one person urged me to run them again. I had thought that I would update and improve them, but I am not prepared to do so at this time. So, comment away and maybe by next year I’ll be ready to give a 2.0 version of these posts. Thanks for your continued interest.
There have been many good theological reflections on the Virgin Birth on blogs, recently. Darrell Pursifal has posted an excellent series trying to pin down the when of Jesus’ birth. D.W. Congdon has been reviewing major figures in church history on the Virgin Birth. Peter Lumpkin posted an original poem on the Incarnation. And so it goes.
This has prompted me to write two [update: three] reflections. Today, Christmas Eve in my part of the globe (Louisville, KY), I want to affirm my belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus as an actual historical event and to give a historical critical argument in its favor–an argument that might prove persuasive to those, myself included, who do not hold to biblical “inerrancy.” I don’t think the focus of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is on this point, so, tomorrow, I will blog on the wider themes that I think ARE stressed in the Gospel accounts.
First, some things I DON’T BELIEVE:
- I don’t believe in these Christmas card depictions of Mary having apparently the easiest birth ever in history–no pain, no blood, no sweat, with a smile that seems to say, “Well, that was easy.”
- I don’t believe that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried! If he hadn’t, his parents would have wondered if something was wrong. Jesus was fully human and behaved like any other infant. The docetic heresy that he only seemed human is very popular in our churches.
- I don’t believe Jesus glowed or had a halo. (The punch line of an old Doonesbury had a children’s Christmas pageant in which “the part of baby Jesus is played by a 100 watt light bulb!”)
- I don’t believe in the “swingshift Trinity” of the Modalist heresy which has Jesus keeping the planets in orbit from his crib!
- I don’t believe in shepherds and Magi both showing up on the same night. Matthew clearly has the Magi arrive 2 years after Jesus was born with the Holy Family now living in a house in Bethlehem. [Update: Darrell Pursifal’s reconstructed chronology attempts to place this visit in the same year as Jesus’ birth, but still sees them as 2 separate events.]
- I don’t believe the Virgin Birth is a “fundamental of the faith.” Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ’s pre-existence. John’s Gospel and some hymns in Paul’s letters indicate Christ’s pre-existence without ever mentioning virgin birth. We get our very WORD “incarnation” from the prologue to John’s Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus’ sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection–and doesn’t promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.
- Karl Barth said that the Virgin Birth was a necessary doctrine because it was the sign of the Incarnation in the way that the empty tomb was the sign of the Resurrection. But sign to whom? Unlike the empty tomb accounts, no one saw the Virginal conception of Mary. We have her word for it. I am not doubting Mary’s virginity as we will see, but since this is not a public event, it cannot be a sign of the incarnation. Had God chosen to do so, God could have used ordinary biological means for Incarnating the Son. However, Barth is onto something. I do believe that we have these birth narratives to indicate to those of us who already believe in the Incarnation that God initiated everything–that Jesus did not become the Son of God, but that in him God became human!
- As the Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, points out in his massive, The Birth of the Messiah, the term “Virgin Birth” is shorthand. What we really affirm is that the Jewish maiden, Miriam (“Mary”), conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse–that she did not experience sexual intercourse until after Jesus’ birth. This affirmation of her Virginal Conception of Jesus is in contrast to Medieval doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity (claiming that her hymen remained unbroken before, after, and DURING, delivery!!!) or the strange Christology promoted by the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman (and, to the great embarrassment of modern Mennonites, eventually accepted by Menno Simons) that Jesus did not receive any physical characteristics from Mary, passing through her body “like water through a pipe!” I don’t believe any of that!
If it turns out that I am wrong, that, as some ancient documents hold, Jesus was the product of Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) or, alternatively, that Joseph and Mary “jumped the gun” on the wedding ceremony (Jewish betrothals were considered to be already legally binding marriages), nothing central to my faith will have been touched. I may have to make some adjustments in my view of how much of Scripture is historical narrative, but that’s all. If the birth narratives in the Gospels are purely symbolic, as many hold, I can live with it. But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.
But if the Virgin Birth is neither theologically necessary, nor impossible, what case can be made for its historical truth? A fairly strong one, I think, if one is open to the possibility in the first place.
Notice that the Virgin Birth causes problems for the theologies of both Matthew and Luke. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah: A Davidic figure. His genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is designed to prove (a) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David (as well as Abraham) and (b) through some fuzzy math that God has prepared exactly the time for Jesus to appear as Messiah. But there is a problem. For Matthew’s genealogical point to work perfectly, it should conclude, ” and Jacob begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Jesus.” But it doesn’t! It says, “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.” But that undermines Matthew’s entire case. Why would Matthew create problems for himself and his theological point? With Mark as a guide, he could have skipped even having a birth narrative. There is no compelling reason for Matthew to include a virgin birth apologetically and every reason for him to leave it out. But he doesn’t. The tradition of such a birth must be firmly entrenched in the sources (other than Mark and “Q,” the hypothetical source of much of Jesus’ sayings) that Matthew is using. He MUST include it even though it hurts the case he is trying to make for Jesus as Davidic Messiah.
So, Matthew makes the best of things: He includes women in his genealogy who all have scandal attached to them to prepare readers for the scandal that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He relates the Virgin Birth indirectly through the angelic dream to Joseph and connects it with Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about a young woman (Hebrew almah, “a young woman of marriageable age”) already pregnant. (Originally, the sign was probably a reference to the prophet’s wife or the king’s since Isaiah said that before the child would know right from wrong, the Assyrian threat would be removed.) Matthew does “creative exegesis” to turn this into a prediction of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth. Then, he makes sure that the readers know that Joseph has gone through the Jewish form of adoption (“and he called his name ‘Jesus'”) in order, once more, to validate his genealogical case for Jesus’ messiahship.
Luke also has theological problems because of the Virgin Birth. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke is most at pains to stress Jesus’ full humanity–e.g., 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans.” That is, Jesus developed normally–intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. Luke’s Jesus, even more than Mark’s or Matthew’s (and FAR more than John’s), gets tired, hungry, careworn, etc. Luke isn’t denying Jesus’ divinity (he uses the label “Son of God” more than the other Synoptics), but stressing that this divinity is only shown through the very real humanity of Jesus. So, why would Luke start his Gospel with a Virgin Birth–something that points out Jesus’ difference from other humans? Again, it is very unlikely that Luke would create such problems for himself. He could only include this if it was indelibly part of the sources he was using–he had to be convinced it was true. Again, Luke uses this for his own purposes: comparing Jesus’ birth with John the Baptizer’s; emphasizing liberation themes and peacemaking themes, and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginalized. (More on this tomorrow.) But, surely, it would have helped Luke’s theology if he could have ignored the Virgin Birth.
The principle of the “harder reading,” in text criticism is that copyists do not change things to make matters more difficult. So, deciding between different variants otherwise well attested, textual critics tend to go with the “harder reading.” Similarly, authors do not introduce elements that weaken their very purposes for writing–unless they have no choice. I argue that Matthew and Luke HAD to include the Virgin Birth because their sources were absolutely convinced of its truth–and so were they.
The two accounts are very different and not wholly harmonizable: Luke’s narrative, which has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ circumcision and dedication in the Temple (Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem when there aren’t roadblocks between the two!) eight days after birth, doesn’t seem to have room for Matthew’s narrative in which the Holy Family is still living in Bethlehem two years later when the Magi come and they need to escape to Egypt. One account is of forced travel by a Roman census, birth in a stable, visitation by shepherds (the lowest of the low; like contemporary migrant workers in status), angelic announcements and shepherd evangelizing; the other is of visitation by wealthy foreign astrologers, mysterious dreams and stars, death squads sent out by Herod, and a refugee flight to the Jewish colony in Egypt. Nor are the 2 genealogies easily harmonized. Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown notes, there are 11 points of commonality between these two different traditions:
- Both Infancy Narratives indicate that the parents are to be Mary and Joseph, legally betrothed, but who have not yet begun to live together or have sexual relations (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1: 27, 34).
- Joseph is a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).
- There is an angelic announcement of the future miracle birth ( Matt. 1: 20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
- Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through human intercourse (Matt. 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).
- The conception is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1: 18,20; Luke 1:35).
- The angel commands the child to be named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
- An angel states that Jesus is to be “savior” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11).
- The birth (not the conception) of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together(Matt. 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
- The birthplace is Bethlehem (although Matthew gives no explanation for why the couple is there–and they appear to have moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem!) (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
- The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5).
- The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39).
That’s an impressive list of commonalities for two such divergent narratives and argues strongly for a historical core.
Does this “prove” the Virgin Birth? No. And, as I said, I do not believe this is a core or “fundamental” doctrine and I do believe that the focus of the Gospels is elsewhere. But these considerations, coupled with my firm belief that God is quite capable of such a miracle, lead me to affirm that, in all probability, the virgin birth of Jesus is historically true.
Tomorrow: the deeper meaning of the Gospel Infancy Narratives.