Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part II

Read Part I

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

The first New Testament Gospel to be written was the Gospel of Mark, most likely written somewhere between 70 and 75 C.E., about 40 years, or two generations, after Jesus died. In this first Christian Gospel, as in the writings of Paul, there is no mention of a virgin birth. Again, and with even more significance, it is hard to imagine that someone sitting down to write the life story of Jesus would have failed to include this otherwise incredibly important event. The virgin birth is the crux around which so much Christian theology hinges. Why would the writer of Mark leave out such an obvious argument for the validity of Jesus’ life and ministry?

The conspicuous absence of a virgin birth story from Mark is, by itself, cause for pause when analyzing the origins of Jesus. But there is still other textual evidence from the Gospel of Mark that sheds light on the eventual development of this virgin birth story.

There are several places in Mark where the writer mentions Jesus’ family. One of these places is found in Mark chapter 3, where it is noted that Jesus’ “mother and brothers” came to take him home, because they believed he was “out of his mind.” The implication is that they heard about the preaching, teaching, and exorcisms that he was performing, and came to get him because they were shocked and disturbed by his behavior. When his family arrived, someone informed Jesus of their presence. Jesus responded by ignoring his family completely and instead giving a teaching about how anyone who does the will of God is his mother, brother, and sister.

The significance of this story should be apparent. Not only is there no virgin birth account in this first Christian Gospel, but Jesus’ mother is portrayed as coming to take him home because she thinks he has gone crazy. Would a woman who experienced all the aspects of the virgin birth stories really react this way? A woman who, later Gospels tell us, was visited by an angel and told that she would conceive God’s very own physical offspring, a child who would eventually save the world from its sins. A woman who conceived, carried, and birthed this promised child, despite still being a virgin. A woman who, with her family and Jesus in tow, was forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a murderous king who had heard all the talk about a great child being born in his midst. A woman who, when the boy was 12, marveled at how he spoke with authority and knowledge to the elders of the temple. Could such a woman possibly have been shocked and confused when that same child, now an adult, began to actually carry out the mission that he had been sent by God to do?

Mark’s account simply cannot be reconciled with the virgin birth stories that appear in other Gospels.

Putting Mark’s story of Jesus’ mother and brothers aside for a moment, there is a second important spot in Mark’s Gospel that can give us a bit of insight. In chapter 6, Mark details the reaction of the crowds to the works and teachings of Jesus. He has the crowd exclaim: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?”

It is notable that Mark, through the words of the crowd, refers to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” In 1st century Jewish society, a man was referred to as the son of his mother only when the paternity was in question, or the father was not known. It was actually a mild insult, certainly used derisively, to refer to a man as the son of his mother. This is a small piece of textual evidence that casts doubt on the later Gospels’ accounts of Joseph and the virgin birth. It is significant to point out that Mark never mentions Jesus’ father at all, by name or even by reference. Some scholars have suggested that, in fact, Matthew – writing after Mark – created the character of Joseph to fill a gap in the known history of Jesus. They suggest that it may have been an inconvenient truth that Jesus’ paternity was in question, or that he was a bastard (a big “no-no” in 1st century society), so later Gospel writers created Joseph to fill this gap. There is a lot of intriguing evidence supporting this assertion, but for the purposes of this essay, I will simply note that Mark does not mention any father at all for Jesus, and specifically calls Jesus the son of his mother, implying no special circumstances (such as a virgin birth) surrounding that genetic fact.

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Moving on to the next chronological Gospel, we arrive at the book of Matthew – the first Christian text to describe a virgin birth. Although Matthew comes first in our modern Bibles, it was written some 10-15 years after Mark (during the 9th decade of the Common Era), and its writer relied heavily on Mark’s Gospel as a primary source. “Relied heavily” is perhaps an understatement. Mark’s Gospel contains 664 verses. Matthew regurgitated no less than 606 of those verses into his own Gospel, many of them word for word. That is somewhere in the range of 91%. What it boils down to is that virtually every scene from the Gospel of Mark is incorporated and repeated in the Gospel of Matthew in some form.

With that in mind, it is significant to note that Matthew completely deletes from his Gospel the scene where Jesus’ mother and brothers come to take him home because they think he has lost his mind. We have already seen that there is no way to reconcile Mark’s account of this story with later virgin birth traditions. The writer of Matthew was savvy enough to recognize this fact himself. So he simply omitted that Markan story from his Gospel. This might not be significant if Matthew had only casually relied on Mark’s content. But, as seen above, he used 91% of Mark when writing his story of Jesus’ life. The fact that he omitted this scene completely is, therefore, not an accident.

Another interesting point comes when we compare Matthew’s account of the crowd’s reaction to Jesus to the same account in Mark. We saw earlier that Mark has the crowd exclaim: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Yet when Matthew copies this scene, he changes the wording. It is a subtle change, easy to overlook, but when put into the context of the virgin birth story, it is quite profound. Matthew’s version goes like this: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” By changing a few words, Matthew has solved the problem of reconciling Mark’s lack of a virgin birth story with his own account. Now, instead of Jesus being the carpenter, Jesus is merely the “carpenter’s son” (a reference to Joseph – who, as we saw, does not appear in Mark’s gospel). Also, now instead of the derogatory “son of Mary,” Mary is simply listed as the name of his mother. Matthew fixed several problems by doing this. First, he incorporated Joseph into Mark’s account. Second, he cleared up the question of paternity that is raised by Mark’s reference, and eliminated any sense that Jesus may have been illegitimate. Finally, he made Mark’s account – which contains no virgin birth – fit neatly with his own story that includes a miraculous origin.

In the upcoming Part III of this exercise, we will continue our march through a chronological look at the New Testament evidence for the virgin birth tradition.

Read Part III

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