Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part I


The story of Jesus’ miraculous birth is perhaps one of the best known stories from the Gospel tradition of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, few people familiar with Christianity are unaware of the accounts of Jesus being born to a virgin mother, fathered by the spirit of God.

Plagued as our Western society seems to be with black and white thinking (something is either right or wrong, something either is or is not, etc.), there are generally two categories that folks fall into: those who accept the stories of Jesus’ birth on faith, and those who reject the stories of Jesus’ birth as fantasy, legend, mythology, superstition, or outright lies.

It is perhaps noteworthy to point out that no one in mainstream society fails to recognize that the story is far-fetched. We know that women do not conceive without a male counterpart. We know that children are not born without a biological father. This is why the story is accepted on faith by Christian believers – they believe it was a miracle. The knowledge that women do not conceive without a male partner is not some special insight that we have today in this post-Enlightenment world. Virgin birth stories would have been just as fantastical, and just as far-fetched, to a 1st century mind as they are to a 21st century mind.

In the context of black and white thinking, the arguments presented by the competing camps are generally easy to predict. Believers argue that while no woman can conceive biologically without a male counterpart, the story of Jesus’ birth represents a miracle performed by God – a special circumstance where God broke into human history and altered his own rules, in order to fulfill an eternal plan. It is clearly a true story, because even in the 1st century, no one would have made such an outrageous claim if there was no evidence, or no common knowledge, to back it up. It would have been a liability to the emerging Christian religion if it had not been rooted in reality. Even in the first century, a believer will argue, people were not so superstitious as to believe in virgin births without any basis or reason to do so.

The skeptic, on the other hand, might present a number of alternatives. They might argue that the story is legendary, mythological. Jesus had a profound impact on his followers and, as with any influential public figure, legends rose up around him in the years and decades following his death. This was particularly true because these people were living in a pre-Enlightenment world where superstition was commonplace. Others might argue that it was an outright lie, told by Christians in an attempt to elevate their leader to divine heights, or perhaps to cover up the fact that Jesus was the product of sexual misconduct outside of marriage. Still others might argue that stories from other religious traditions involving virgin births were simply incorporated into the Christian religion by converts from Roman polytheism.

It is my belief that this black and white thinking has led both sides away from a more logical explanation. No one can know the absolute “truth” of what happened, and I do not claim that my views are anything other than historical speculation based on the preponderance of evidence, but I do believe that we can get a bit closer to the truth by removing the lens of black and white thinking and looking analytically at the evidence available to us.

To begin with, I believe the answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is “neither.” I do not believe a miracle was performed by God upon the conception of Jesus; neither do I believe that the story is simply a legend, superstition, or outright lie.

To the average person, it may seem difficult to imagine that there is much “evidence” that can be analyzed by historians. All we have are the texts, and those texts are fairly clear about what happened – Jesus was born to a virgin who was impregnated by God. This is why most people either believe or do not believe. How can there be any evidence to analyze historically?

In fact, there is a preponderance of textual evidence that can be looked at critically, analyzed historically and contextually, and put under the microscope of historical dissection.


The earliest texts in the New Testament come to us from the letters of Paul, generally written during the 5th, 6th, and 7th decades of the Common Era (for reference, Jesus probably died right around the beginning of the 4th decade – that is, 30 C.E.).

In these letters of Paul, no reference is ever made to Jesus’ birth – miraculous or otherwise. With something as profound in the story of Jesus as a virgin birth, one would have expected Paul to mention it, particularly during his many attempts to convince his readers why Jesus really was God’s son. What better way to demonstrate Jesus' divine calling than mentioning the fact that he was born to a virgin? Yet Paul never mentions it, and in fact seems to make clear that God “chose” Jesus as his son by resurrecting him from the dead. From Romans, chapter 1: “[God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…”

If we read that verse with the knowledge that the Gospels – and the virgin birth stories – had not yet been written down, it is hard to imagine that Paul would have written these words had he been aware that Jesus was God’s own physical offspring, born of a virgin. Paul is saying fairly straight-forwardly that “according to the flesh” – that is, according to Jesus’ humanity – he was descended through David, but that he was declared to be God’s offspring by his resurrection from the dead. In other words, no longer just a man, but now God’s own son, through his resurrection.

Another verse from the Paul canon that is important for our purposes is found in the book of Galatians. From chapter 4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…”

Here Paul seems to be implying that God’s plan was eternal, or at the very least predated Jesus’ life on earth, but the phrase he uses – “born of a woman” – is the important part. That colloquialism, in the 1st century as well as now, implied no unusual circumstances surrounding a person’s birth. We are all “born of a woman.” We are all united together in humanity. Even our heroes – athletes, actors, singers, politicians, religious leaders – were “born of a woman.” Just as the phrase is used today to refer to our common humanity, and to imply no special circumstances regarding someone’s entry into the world, so it was also used in the 1st century. If Paul – the earliest New Testament writer – had known of a virgin birth tradition, would he have referred to Jesus with the colloquialism that pointed to our shared humanity and the fact that we all enter the world in relative obscurity and without fanfare?

This point is driven home even farther when one considers the context in which Paul was speaking. In the phrase, he clearly implies that God’s plan pre-existed Jesus – Paul says God “sent his Son” into the world. But instead of following that with something like “conceived by a virgin,” he instead says “born of a woman" - in other words, as normal and natural and unheralded as anyone else. And Paul's choice of word - translated here as "woman" - is signifcant too. That word referred specifically to a married woman - not an unmarried virgin, as Mary was later said to be. It is important to remember that in the 1st century, a woman's entire purpose for life was procreation. So where we have only one word for an adult female - "woman" - ancient languages had many different words for "woman," each referring to the woman's particular stage in life - unmarried virgin, married woman, widow, etc. The word Paul used was the word for a married, and therefore sexually active, woman.

It seems fairly clear from the writings of Paul that he was not familiar with any virgin birth tradition surrounding Jesus, and Paul’s own theology is built upon the idea that God used Jesus – a human man whom he “declared” to be his son – to fulfill his greater purposes on earth. In fact, for Paul, it was Jesus’ very humanity that made the atonement possible – Jesus, a man like you and me, died on the cross and was resurrected, and because of that, the rest of us humans can also enter the eternal kingdom of God if we accept the gift of grace through the death of Jesus, whom Paul describes as the “first fruits” of the new creation. How can the rest of us follow Jesus – the first fruits – in the resurrection of the dead if he was not human like us? Many Christians may disagree with this theology, but their disagreement (in my opinion) is with the theology of Paul, not necessarily with me. On this point, it is important to note that there was also no Trinity concept at the time of Paul – that did not arise until several hundred years later. Paul would have had no concept of a Jesus who was both fully God and fully human, and he certainly makes no such claims in his own writings.

Having now established some textual clues from Paul to reasonably assert that Paul was not familiar with a virgin birth tradition, we move forward in our chronological look at the writings of the New Testament. This will frame Part II of our look at the virgin birth tradition, to be posted soon.

Read Part II


Anonymous said...

You have an excellent understanding of Paul's theology. Like you state he had no belief in a Trinity. Nor that Jesus is God, but God's Son. That means he beleived in 2-Gods, God YHWH and YHWH's Son. The Trinity first shows up in The Gospel of John which dates to around 100 AD. (your timeline of the 4th century is when it was proclaimed as officailly sactioned Truth)

If one sees each book in our Bible as a separate work written by different men with differing stains of doctrine in different times and with different motives the bible becomes easy to classify and understand. Its when you try to unify it and make one large Truth is when it don't work.

1. Gospel of Mark: Jesus is devine and the Messiah (not clear if he is Son of God - surely not God himself). Jesus fears for his life and does not wish to die.

2. Matthew: Jesus is a tad more God-like in stature and behavoir, he no longer fears for his life and is all about fullfillment of OT prophesy. In fact his death is required and planed by God (who uses Judas as his agent to start the ball rolling).

3. Luke: Jesus is similar in personage to that of Matthew, but this time Satan is the one who reqruits Judas to do the deed, God is not even involved! There is no talk of OT prophesy


4. Gospel of John proclaims not only that Jesus IS God YHWH but that he PRE-EXISTED!!("in the begiing was the word and the word was god")........no other book in the whole bible makes such claims - and yet this Gospels' theology has been taken to be the "gold standard" and thus "forcefully" applied to all the other books in the bible.

5. Revelation - clearly NOT written by the same John as the above Gospel. Theology is totally difference (Essene vs pre-Gnostic), and the scholars say the greek style/wording is so different that they could not be written by the same person. Revelation reads alot like the War Scroll (A Dead See Scroll)and IMO was written by an Essene Christian convert. Church tradition insists both books were written by the same person - period, not to doubt it!

anyway just wanted to say you seem to know your bible pretty well. I ran across your site a few hours ago and have read some interesting stories about civil war battles and kidnapped kids (don't ya gotta love serial killers? - i know I do, i like macabre stuff like that), radiology travials/etc..

I may be back someday. BTW there are much better authors than Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong.

try Gisa Vermes and Bart Ehrman

another final book recommendation as well:

"A Peoples History of the Supreme Court" - by Peter Irons. fasinating reading of our 300 yr history.


can you point me to a good book on Jury Nullification? - seems a forgotten subject and sadly one of my favorite ;-/.


Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Anonymous. The arguments you make are arguments that I have made many times in the past as well. There is no question that the portrait we get of Jesus changes dramatically from Gospel to Gospel and NT text to NT text. And with the exception of the Gospel of John (and even that is, perhaps, debateable), there is no overt claim in the New Testament that Jesus was himself God in the flesh - as the Trinity doctrine states. YOu might want to take a look at my post from about this time last year (Dec. 2007) called "The Trinity Doctrine: Bad Math."

As for religious scholars, I have never heard of Gisa Vermes, but I will look for her (him?). Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, is one of my favorites, and I have read several of his books. I also read quite a bit from John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Tom Wright, and a slew of others. I try to read both sides of the scholarly world - liberals as well as eveagelicals. It gives a good 2-sided view of scholarship.

As for jury nullification, I can't really help you there. I haven't done much in the way of studying law. It's something that doesn't fascinate me the way other subjects do.

DeafShepherd said...

You all seem to be missing a very important point. Jehovah, or as we Christians would say, God, has always been triune. The Old Testament is rife with examples of God's triune nature.
However, the biggest damage here is when you mention that Paul did not believe that Jesus was God. This is a very careless mistake.
Whenever someone uses the term Christ (which was not Jesus' last name...), they are referring to a very special one, an annointed one, a Messiah (in Hebrew). To use this claim for anyone was a big step, and to use it for Jesus was an enormous risk for Paul.
Simply put, the Messiah was prophesied in Isaiah 700 years prior to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. Isaiah makes it clear that Immanuel (God with us) will come, and that He will be born of a virgin, and that He is God incarnate.
I do hope that you all have put your faith in the shed blood of Jesus CHRIST, who willingly entered human history to pay for the sins of the world, and who will forgive all those who believe in Him and His purpose. 'For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.'
Jesus is God folks...the God..not a god.

Scott said...

Thanks for sharing your views, DL (and nice 80's hair band reference, by the way).

I agree with you that for any Jew in the 1st century to refer to someone as the Messiah (i.e. "Christ") was a huge step. I don't deny that for a moment. There's no question that the earliest Christians were radical in many, many ways, and this is one very prominent example.

But to take the next step...to equate the Jewish Messiah with God himself - there' simply no historical basis for such a judgement. You referred to Isaiah's messianic prophecies; it's worth noting that no Jew in the 1st century equated the Messiah with God. The Messiah would be sent by God, would be ordained by God, would be approved by God, but the Messiah was not God.

The proof text you site from Isaiah is an interesting one for a number of reasons. To begin with, have you ever read Isaiah chapter 7 in its entirety? Isaiah is prophesying about the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians, which happened around 700 B.C.E. He states that God will send a sign, which will be a boy called Immanuel. He goes on to say, however, that before this boy is "old enough to reject the wrong and choose the right" (that is, while he's still a child), Jerusalem will be laid to waste by the Assyrians.

I encourage you to read it for yourself. It's not a prophecy about the far-flung future (that is, the 1st century C.E. when Jesus was born). It is a prophecy about the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians 700 years before Jesus was born.

Another interesting facet of this prophecy is that it predicts that a "virgin" will conceive. In fact, that's not what the original Hebrew text said. The original Hebrew text refers not to a virgin, but to a married woman. When Matthew quoted this passage in his story of Jesus, he quoted the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures - called the Septuagint. The Septuagint, unfortunately, mistranslated the word from Hebrew, and thus the writer of Matthew simply copied the error. This has been known among textual scholars for centuries.

Thus, Matthew's proof text, from Isaiah 7:14, is based on a mistranslation, as Isaiah 7:14 says nothing about a virgin conceiving.

S. Campbell said...

The original Hebrew text refers not to a virgin, but to a married woman.

I would like you to post some sources on this one.

Scott said...

S. Campbell:

I'm not a scholar of Hebrew, but I have read the commentaries by many scholars who DO know Hebrew. The most recent place I've read a discussion of this issue is in Bart Ehrman's book "Forged."

The word in question is a Greek word found in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. This is the version the writer of Matthew would have been using. There, the word used is the Greek word for "virgin." But in the original Hebrew, the word simply refers to a "young woman."

The writer of Isaiah was saying that a young woman would bear a son and call him Emmanuel. The context implies that this son would be her first-born - the most important child in the patriarchal, Bronze Age society of Isaiah. There is nothing in that passage that says anything about a virgin giving birth without having had sexual intercourse. And, as I said in the previous comment, the context also has nothing to do with messianic predictions or with events to happen in the far-flung future. It was talking about something that was going to happen right then, during the time of the Assyrian invasion of ancient Israel.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely wish that I had more time to refute your obvious lack of traditional bible understanding. There is much evidence in the writings of Paul to state strongly that he believed Jesus to be God in flesh. Many scriptures from the OT are tied together and, indeed, are direct references to Jehovah in the OT being referenced to Jesus in the new testament. I'll be back.

Scott said...

I await your refutation with giddy anticipation, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Jesus was the idea man, upon his death James ran the church for 30 years until he was murdered too, and Paul was the marketing guru. Paul sought rulings from James on church policy, probably the most important of which was the decision to allow non-Jews to participate in the church, thereby vastly increasing potential membership. Until Paul really got going, the church remained quite small.
Had the 'virgin birth' and Mary's perpetual virginity been part of the original church's nascent doctrine, Paul surely would have included it in his writings and teachings as a selling point, a natural complement to the claim that Jesus was the son of God. But in those early days there was also the problem of the siblings of Jesus, something that would have been in the living memory of many people at the time.
Additionally, even the Catholic Church dates the documentation of the idea of the virgin birth to the writings in the "Protoevangelium of James", about 120 AD. Here it is also revealed that Mary was pregnant without 'knowing' Joseph or 'any man'. At the time, Mary was 12 years old.
The earliest similar such claim of conception by a god that I can think of is that of Ramesses II: that the spirit of Ra entered at the moment of conception thereby making Ramesses conceived a god, but even here the participation of a mortal man is involved. Usually, most mortals have claimed to be gods during their lifetimes or upon their death, by their successors.
Anyway, interesting stuff,

Scott said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Robert.

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