Friday, December 19, 2008

The Virgin Birth: Miracle or Legend? Part III

Read Part I
Read Part II


As we move forward chronologically, we come next to Luke, followed by John. Luke was probably written around 90 C.E., with John probably coming 5-10 years later. Luke also relied heavily on Mark, although not quite as heavily as Matthew. There is a quite heated debate in the scholarly world about second sources potentially used by Matthew and Luke. Many scholars believe Matthew and Luke – in addition to using Mark – also used a second source, dubbed “Q,” which contained sayings of Jesus. This theory accounts for material that is common to Luke and Matthew, but not contained in Mark. Others simply account for this common, non-Markan material by suggesting Luke used Matthew as a source. The first camp rejects this because Matthew and Luke were written too close to each other, chronologically, for Luke to have had access to Matthew’s account. Either way, Luke also includes a virgin birth story, though the facts of the story vary wildly from Matthew’s – which perhaps lends credence to the “Q” theory. More on the variations between Luke and Matthew in a moment.

The Gospel of John, like the Gospel of Mark, contains no virgin birth account. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the writer of John refers to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.” On one of these occasions, it is actually one of Jesus’ own disciples using the phrase. On the other, it is a group of skeptics questioning how Jesus can claim to have come from God when everyone knows his parents and background. These facts are fairly significant. How could one of Jesus’ own disciples not have known of his miraculous birth? Furthermore, since there is no virgin birth account in the story, the implication is that while Jesus is the “Word” of God in human form, that Word entered the world quietly and without fanfare, presumably settling upon an otherwise fully human infant.

It is important to remember that the Gospels were not written as a collection to be read together. Each of the Gospels, as this chronological look should make clear, was written as a stand-alone account, by four different people writing in different decades. And while two of those writers incorporated stories from earlier writers into their own accounts, each Gospel was written for an individual community and not as part of a “series” to be studied with all the rest. Therefore, if you were a Christian living in the community that Mark or John was writing to, you would have no textual basis whatsoever for presuming a miraculous birth. You would simply read and study those texts and come away with the impression that Jesus was a man who, in some mysterious way, had a special connection to God. And in fact, if you were reading only Mark, you would not only have no concept of a miraculous birth, but you would actually think that Jesus was likely estranged from his family, and perhaps even illegitimate!

The fact that a reader of Mark and John would have no concept of a virgin birth would actually hold true for the entire New Testament, with the exceptions of Matthew and Luke. Those two books are, in fact, our only source for the virgin birth account. No other book in the New Testament refers to Jesus having anything other than a normal, unremarkable origin.

But what do those two accounts actually tell us? Do they give us a unified picture that can be relied upon simply because of internal consistency?

The answer, unfortunately, is no.


When we consider the birth of Jesus, we tend to merge both Matthew and Luke’s account into one, effectively creating a third account which neither Luke nor Matthew, nor any other Biblical source, gives us. Thus, we tend to imagine three Oriental kings, a group of shepherds, heralding angels, a massive glowing star over a stable, and offerings of frankincense and myrrh. In fact, there are no kings at all in either of the stories – the idea of three kings comes from a popular Christmas song, not from the Bible. The Bible tells us they were “Magi,” or magicians, not kings, and it does not tell us there were three of them, it simply tells us that “Magi from the east” came to find Jesus. Furthermore, neither story tells of a glowing star over a stable – those are two concepts merged from Matthew and Luke, creating an image that neither account gives – Matthew’s star leads the Magi to a house; Luke has no star. In Luke’s account there are no Magi, exotic gifts, or glowing stars, and in Matthew’s account, there is no stable, no angels singing praises in the heavens, and no shepherds.

Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, while Luke tells us that they lived in Nazareth and were merely on a trip to Bethlehem when Mary gave birth. Matthew’s account specifically states that the Magi visited Jesus at home – at the family house in Bethlehem. He then relates the story of King Herod hearing about the birth of a king from the Magi, and ordering the slaughter of all Jewish male babies under 2 years of age (implying that a year or two has passed since Jesus’ actual birth). To escape this slaughter, Mary and Joseph move to Egypt. After several years, King Herod dies and the family moves back. Initially, they are going to return to their home in Bethlehem. But Joseph is warned in a dream not to go back there, so instead they settle on Nazareth, a quiet little backwater in rural Galilee.

Luke, on the other hand, gives no account of the Magi, and states that the family returned to their home in Nazareth after the various Jewish rituals, required by Mosaic Law, had been performed – a time span of about 40 days. Recall that for Luke, the only reason they had been in Bethlehem to start with was because Joseph had been required to travel there for a census registration.

More inconsistencies exist between the two accounts. In Luke, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she is to conceive God’s son, despite being a virgin. The text mentions Joseph only to tell that Mary is engaged to be married to him. Matthew tells us also that Mary and Joseph are engaged, but instead of an angel coming to visit Mary, the angel visits Joseph. Mary, the text tells us, has become pregnant, and Joseph – thinking the child is illegitimate – decides to quietly dismiss her. An angel appears to him, however, telling him that the child is the offspring of God, and encouraging Joseph to keep Mary as his fiancĂ©. One has to wonder why Matthew’s Mary would not have told Joseph up front about her visit (described in Luke) from the angel Gabriel. Matthew’s text implies that Mary simply turned up pregnant, and so Joseph was going to send her away quietly.

While both texts say that Mary and Joseph were only engaged at the time of the conception, the texts disagree about when they got married. Matthew tells us explicitly that they were married following the visit to Joseph by the angel – Matthew makes sure to point out, however, that Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after the baby was born. Luke, however, does not ever say when Joseph and Mary finally actually tied the knot, but he mentions that they were still only engaged during the trip to Bethlehem when Mary gave birth. They presumably got married after that time.

Finally, another major inconsistency exists in the genealogy of Jesus given by the two writers. Many of the names in the two lists are different, there are a competing number of generations to get back to King David, and even Joseph’s own father has a completely different name between the two Gospels.

What this all means is that the only two accounts we have in the entire New Testament of the virgin birth vary wildly from one another, and have contradictions that no amount of convoluting can reconcile. No other texts in the New Testament mention anything about a miraculous origin for Jesus, and the textual evidence suggests very strongly that this tradition did not enter the Christian story until the time of Matthew and Luke. Prior to that, Jesus is portrayed merely as a human man, born to human parents, and this holds true even in the writings that came after Matthew and Luke. If one removed Matthew and Luke from the canon, and read the remaining New Testament from beginning to end, one would never get even the first clue that Jesus’ birth had been anything other than normal and routine.

Taken together, what do all of these things mean for the virgin birth tradition of Jesus? First, they cast a long shadow of doubt on any literal understanding of the stories. The textual evidence, in my opinion, is overwhelming that the virgin birth stories are literary creations, not historical accounts. Does this mean, however, that the stories should be rejected as ancient superstition? Is Christianity null and void because the virgin birth stories may not be literally true?

We will look at the answers to those questions in the fourth and final installment of this look at the virgin birth tradition.

Read Part IV

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