By J. P. Holding| The view of Brown [Brow.BirM, 527-8] and Meier [Meie.MarJ, 222] is ultimately correct. The evidence and the nature of the virgin birth simply leaves questions of its historicity unresolved and unresolvable – and one’s decision regarding it will be based inevitably on preconceived notions. This historical event isn’t one of the sort that leaves tangible footprints.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to have to get “on the defense” where this subject is concerned:
“How can you believe in the virgin birth? It’s not mentioned anywhere else in the NT besides Matthew and Luke. This indicates that it was either a late invention or one not favored by the early church, because the other NT writers would surely have mentioned something this remarkable and relevant.”
Mentioning the virgin birth would have been irrelevant in other places in the New Testament
This sort of objection demonstrates a lack of realization that there is NO relevance for the virgin birth in the places where it is lacking mention. Remember, the NT materials were written to people who ALREADY believed the Gospel. By the time the were reading this stuff, they had already accepted all of the basic tenets, and already had all the basic information.
Furthermore, Paul (and I would also argue, the other epistle-writers) was writing “problem-oriented” letters – so that there was really no need to go out of the way to mention anything that he did not have pertinence for.
It also matches the point that the NT was written in a “high context” setting on which people’s background knowledge of events was substantially assumed, as opposed to our “low context” society in which we feel a need to explain everything, every time.
Beyond that, Brown [Brow.BirM, 521] observes that the virginal conception “would have become the subject of preaching (and therefore likely to be included in the kind of writing we find in the New Testament) only when its christological significance was seen.” He also observes that the primary theological doctrine associated with the virginal conception (that Christ was thus not tainted by original sin) was first cited by Augustine. (ibid., 530 — who probably misunderstood what Paul said anyway)
That being the case, we may suggest that the NT writers did NOT observe any christological significance in the virgin birth per se – any more than they did in any of Jesus’ other miracles collectively. Hence, there was no need to go out of their way to report it, and we may agree with Anderson, who observes that all we can therefore say about the silence of the rest of the NT is that the virgin birth was simply “not a ground on which (the evangelists) called others to faith.” [Ander.MI, 16]
Indeed, though he does not explain why, Brown suggests that adding the virgin birth to the preaching of the church would have “opened Jesus’ origins to ridicule and calumny” [Brow.VirgRes, 61] – but we may guess why. There would be the inevitable comparisons to pagan myths, or, the charge of illegitimacy – just as occurs today.
Brown’s observations are confirmed elsewhere in more detail. Campenhausen [VonCamp.VBT], though skeptical of the virgin birth himself, has performed a survey of the theology of the virgin birth in the early church, and observes, rather dryly, that the virgin birth was “anything but the starting point of the early Christian message.” (ibid., 10)
He does not speculate as to why this was so, but does note that it was only in the time of Ireneaus that the virgin birth was regarded as an essential part of doctrine, with hints of its theological import being found earlier in the works of Justin (c. 150 AD). Thus, he writes (ibid., 24):
…the doctrine of the virgin birth was not formulated for the sake of a theological line of thought; it is simply a supposedly ‘apostolic’ piece of biblical tradition that was handed down.
This leads back to Brown’s remark. The virgin birth was not seen in a christological perspective when Matthew and Luke reported it; hence, there is no reason for it to appear in Paul’s letters or elsewhere in the NT. There is not even any reason for it to be in Mark and John (note that in the missionary preaching of Acts, the kerygma begins not with Jesus’ birth, but with his baptism by John) – but there is a reason for Matthew and Luke to use it: The former wished to link it to the fulfillment of prophecy (Is. 7:14); the latter showed especial interest in the life of Mary.
Finally, it may be that the virgin birth was directly alluded to in the Gospel of John. Torrance [Torr.DVB, 10] points out that John 1:12-13, if reckoned in the singular rather than in the plural (as it is in some patristic cites) explicitly indicates a virgin birth. But because this evidence is questionable, it is best left to the side.
Didn’t certain Christian groups reject the virgin birth?
“Why believe this doctrine? It was rejected by several Christian groups. The Ebionites (who were the descendants of the Jerusalem church) and certain Gnostics rejected it. [Heine.PACT, 173; Phip.PaulSup, 51] Their objections need to be taken seriously.”
- To begin, not all Ebionites agreed on this matter. Origen [Mach.VBC, 21] and others recorded the existence of two sects of Ebionites – one that believed in the virgin birth, and the other that did not.
- Second, the Ebionite belief in this matter is not attested until the SECOND century. Justin Martyr is the earliest to record ANY Jewish-Christian disbelief in the virgin birth [Brown.VirgRes, 49], and it is pure speculation to trace this belief all the way back to the first-century Jerusalem church.
- The virgin birth tradition is obviously early – Matthew and Luke, because of the differences in the way they report it, are evidently drawing on a pre-gospel tradition. [Brow.BirM, 161 – see also Meie.MarJ, 221]. (It is also well-attested in the apocryphal writings [ibid., 528] which indicates its popularity.)
- And what of the heretics who denied the virgin birth, other than the Ebionites? It should be kept in mind that what they objected to was not VIRGINAL conception, but CONCEPTION ITSELF. Most of these heretics held a docetic or anti-worldly stance which caused them to find the fact of conception repugnant [Brow.BirM, 528] – so they would have objected even to a “normal” conception. The issue was not really the virgin birth at all.
Thus, they came up with alternatives like: Jesus simply appeared on earth, coming directly from heaven; Mary herself was an angel; Jesus was actually Gabriel or Michael [Brow.VirgRes, 48], and so on.
Wasn’t the idea of a “virgin birth” stolen from other myths?
“The virgin conception/birth idea is stolen from pagan myths.” [Heine.PACT, 34]
This is perhaps the most common objection of all. We point the reader first of all to Glenn Miller’s continuing work on this general issue of “borrowed pagan myths” and to our own series — no one we have looked at comes close.
Then, we point out that the alleged sources for the virgin conception/birth are NOT AT ALL the same thing. Livy’s story of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, for example, has her miraculously impregnated by the god Mars. This is a ghastly and crude notion compared to the subtle and miraculous creative power and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
Most of the alleged source stories similarly have some god assume a human or animal form and impregnate a human woman with some sort of divine seed. (In fact, the parallels are so dubious that Biblical scholar Jane Schaberg arguesthat the lack of parallels indicates that the virgin birth could not have happened.)
Addressing skeptic Robert Price
Now we would like to add in some miscellaneous objections from the Secular Web’s Robert Price, addressed particularly to Josh McDowell:
“McDowell zeroes in on the virgin birth of Jesus, but digresses immediately into the mine field of “fulfilled prophecy.” He can unblinkingly cite Genesis 3:15, an etiological myth for why humans hate snakes, as a prediction of the defeat of Satan by Jesus! This medieval eisegesis makes utter gibberish of the context, but that’s okay with Josh. Context means nothing to a proof-texter. It simply does not occur to McDowell that no one living in pre-Christian times could have possibly understood any of the texts he blithely cites as predictions of the Messiah’s birth. These interpretations arose only after the fact, once Christians began to proof-text them as square pegs jammed into the round holes of Christian dogma.”
Here Price has at least correctly zeroed in on the minimal apologetic value of typology when dealing with Skeptics. But Genesis 3:15 as a Christian proof-text, a medieval eisegesis?
Eisegesis it may well be; but as McDowell notes on page 145 of ETDAV, the Jewish Targum Pseudo Johnathan interpreted Genesis 3:15 as Messianic (Price would perhaps say, because the Christians did); and as for medieval, I do not think that Ireneaus (170-200 AD) lived quite that long.
Here is an attempt to add something new to the debate: Objecting to the infancy narrative’s contents, Price objects to a man stupid enough to take his nine-months-pregnant wife on a donkey ride over unpaved hill trails. We reply that:
- First of all, where did the donkey come from? Price is confusing Nativity with New Testament here.
- Second, this comment does a grave disservice to ancient people. We modern couch-potato Americans who find even a hike to the fridge and back tiring would do well to remember that in the ancient world, with very few exceptions, fitness was paramount to survival. Walking was the usual mode of transport, especially for poor families like Jesus’, and there is no reason why even the “most pregnant” woman (even today, in many cases) could not make such a trip.
- Third, and as a matter of speculation, if the census journey coincided with a Jewish feast – as I think it may have – then Nazareth would have been deserted, and all of Joseph and Mary’s nearby relatives would be out, too. Would you want to be left alone in such circumstances? Would you want to be left alone anyway?
- Finally, we must notice that this “stupidity” was not optional. It was a Roman decree with military teeth in it, and travel with a pregnant wife is much simpler than travel with a newly-delivered wife and a suckling infant.
We now turn to another extended section of commentary on the virgin birth. I’ll be stopping in the midst for comments here:
“One of the obstacles standing in the way of the virgin birth as any more than a myth is the sparseness of its attestation in the New Testament. Only Matthew and Luke mention it (and even there, some early manuscripts of Luke imply the virgin birth is an interpolation into that gospel, while as Jane Schaberg shows in The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Matthew never really mentions a miraculous conception, only a providential one). But this doesn’t bother McDowell who simply takes for granted a picture of a united “early church” who can be safely assumed all to have believed the same things. Thus if Luke mentions it, Jude must have believed it, too. This is merely a reflection of the fundamentalist dogma of the harmony of scripture.”
- Re doubt over the integrity of Luke’s account: This was the province of scholars early in the 20th century, such as Taylor’s proposal in 1920, referred to (and soundly refuted) by Machen [JGM.VBC, 119-168]. Brown [REB.BMh, 301] tips his hat to the idea and lists a few scholars who hold it even in his time, although – and this is rather important – even the majority of these say that the verses were added by LUKE HIMSELF later on.
At any rate, there is neither textual nor literary grounds for regarding Luke’s virgin birth material as an interpolation.
- Re Schaberg: I have offered these descriptions applied to Schaberg’s work by Meier [JM.MJ, 246]:…self-conflicted from the start…a strange position…with a tour de force of exegetical expertise…a long catena of dubious interpretations…Repeated affirmation of a theory takes the place of detailed arguments, rhetorical questions abound, and counterindicating data are ignored or passed over quickly in footnotes…a great deal of learning is wasted on a quixotic project.
As it turns out, Meier is not being the least bit harsh here. Schaberg’s work is full of peculiar arguments – among them, that the LACK of parallels to the virgin birth story in pagan religions makes it less likely to have been true, as noted. [JS.IJ, 66] For years Skeptics have been citing pagan “parallels” that they say were sources for the virgin birth story in order to discredit it – and now we have the opposite argument being used. At any rate, Price’s source here is indeed a dubious one.
“And speaking of subordinating the text of scripture to gratuitous church traditions, McDowell is a sucker for the fanciful hadith of Papias which identifies the author of the anonymous Third Gospel with Luke the companion of Paul. This comes in handy, as it enables the apologist to treat everything in the Gospel of Luke as if it were written by Paul, which is precisely why the link was first made, by ancient apologists.”
Papias says NOTHING about the authorship of Luke’s Gospel, not that has been left to us, at any rate. Price is perhaps confusing Papias with Ireneaus. (See our item here re the authorship of Luke.)
“…knowing that adoptionism was rife in the early church (Acts 2:36; 13:33; Romans 1:3-4), itself a fact that completely ruins McDowell’s fallacious claim that everyone in the early days believed, or even knew of, the virgin birth, it makes sense that Mark should begin with the baptism of Jesus, with Jesus being informed by the heavenly voice that he is God’s son.”
I hardly think that FOUR verses – by authors who affirmed either the virgin birth and/or the immediate/constant saviorhood of Christ elsewhere – amounts to ANYTHING being “rife” in the early church. In fact, those four verses neither affirm nor deny the virgin birth/constant saviorhood OR adoptionism – they may be read and used for either purpose. (Note that we can answer this even WITHOUT resorting to parts of the NT written by other authors – unless Price is one of those that insists that the authors of Luke and Acts are two different people. For a refutation of the idea that adoptionism was the par for the early church, see JCO.WD, 7-22.)
“Matthew and Luke supplement the account by a prior virgin birth. Again, Mark has Jesus’ family decide he is out of his mind and must be taken in hand (3:19b-21); thus he has Jesus repudiate them (3:31-35). Matthew and Luke realize this is simply impossible if his mother had been told by an angel that her son would be a divine savior, so Matthew (chapter 12) and Luke (chapter 8) both omit the reason for their visit, while Luke even softens the rebuke. It seems pretty apparent that Mark had no virgin birth in mind. But just as Matthew and Luke felt they had to add stories of the virgin birth when expanding Mark, so do modern apologists insist on injecting the notion into Mark. They find their toehold in the story of Jesus returning to his home town and speaking in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6). The crowd is impressed that a local boy, known to them for so long, has become the master of such great deeds and fine words. They proudly ask the rhetorical question, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
As we have recognized here, simply assuming that Mark came first among the Gospels is unwarranted, and at any rate, this also bypasses a host of other issues related to oral tradition, apostolic interaction and checks and balances, etc. One must also remember that Mark was essentially recording the “preaching of Peter”. Some scholars, including Pesch, have pointed out that the preaching of Peter in Acts forms the basic outline of the Gospel of Mark. The sermons in Acts reflect Christo-centric messages with a very limited focus on the content needed for evangelism. The virgin birth, as we have noted, falls way outside the evangelistic, call-to-faith pale, so we should not expect it in Mark anyway. In fact, had it showed up, we would have to suspect interpolation — given the literary characteristics of Mark.
Re the angel: As if Matthew and Luke were not aware of this? It is quite probable that Mary, like many in that time, had her own idea of what the Messiah would be like, and hence was rather disappointed to see that Jesus did not fulfill her expectations (i.e., going out and kicking the Romans out, for example). Indeed, if the water/wine incident at Cana is any indication, she may well have been thinking of Jesus as sort of a convenience.
Re Mark 6:1-6 – Price is reading a positive value of “impressed” into the text here. Let’s look at it:
“Mark 6:2-4 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”
The word here is ekplesso, which is used to describe amazement or astonishment. There is neither positive nor negative value ascribed to it – as with our own words “astonished” and “amazed.” Therefore, the value should be determined by the context, and in light of the context – especially considering Jesus’ reaction – this is evidently a situation of negative value. Therefore, several points drawn thereafter by Price, making this into some sort of fete for Jesus that had arbitrarily become ugly, is due to his own unwarranted act of eisegesis.
He is also reading too much into the text on the matter of “ugly” – the word here is more in the sense of “scandalized.” [JAB.Mk, 49] The situation as a whole is that the citizens of Nazareth are amazed and offended by Jesus asserting Himself to be “special” in their eyes – and that they are saying, “How dare you! You’re no better than the rest of us!” [JM.MJ, 230]
But now to the matter of finding the virgin birth in this entry. Price attends to McDowell’s quote of another scholar, Ethelbert Stauffer:
“But on the peculiar assumption that the statements attributed to the crowd are insults, Ethelbert Stauffer conjured up the strange hypothesis that they are cat-calling Jesus: “You bastard!” Huh? How’s that again? “This account… which appears only in Mark does full justice to the situation. The Jews had strict rules governing name-giving. A Jew was named after his father (Johanan ben Sakkai, for example) even if his father had died before his birth. He was named after his mother only when his father was unknown.” I’m not sure Stauffer, a Nazi and author of the book On the Unification of the Cross and the Swastika, is to be trusted as an authority on Jewish customs! In fact, the whole interpretation is a piece of anti-Semitic vilification, injecting Jewish hostility toward the Christian savior where there was none.”
I do not care to check out this claim that Stauffer was a Nazi – no one else who has cited him seems to know about it – but since this makes his opinion invalid in Price’s eyes, perhaps he would be willing to accept the testimony of Ben Witherington [BW.JQ, 35]:
“In Jesus’ world, people were important because of who they were related to, or even where they came from, not so much because of who they were in themselves. Take for example Peter, or to use his Jewish name, Simon bar Jonah. He is identified and singled out by whose son he is…In such a society paternity or even communal origin was often thought to determine one’s destiny.”
In light of this, Witherington regards the label “son of Mary” as “probably perjorative” (ibid., 258) – inasmuch as it indicates that Jesus’ father was unknown. Let’s also provide the testimony of James D. G. Dunn [JGD.EJ, 19]:
“In those days a man would normally be known by reference to his father – X, son of Y. To call a man the son of his mother would usually imply therefore that his father was unknown – that is to say, he was illegitimate.”
Thus, Dunn acknowledges that Mark may be preserving the idea of an oddity surrounding Jesus’ birth. James Brooks [JAB.Mk, 49] says that the passage:
“…may reflect rumors that (Jesus) was illegitimate, and may have been a deliberate slur by the townspeople.”
And so on; the point is not that Price is wrong and that Witherington, et al. are right – the scales are, actually, tipping in Price’s direction here – the point is that the position is one that IS held by respectable scholars, and for Price to allow the reader to think – even by implication – that it is merely the product of some Nazi sympathizer, and that McDowell therefore lacks moral compunction because he indiscriminately quotes Nazis, is outrageously misleading.
Interestingly, Meier notes that Stauffer is used extensively – and rather uncritically – by Schaberg, a source that Price cites positively. (2) So, while there is probably not a slur here indicating illegitimacy (as held by REB.BMh, 541 and JM.MJ, 226-7), Price has used unvalidated slurs of his own to make his point.
“Notice that it simply does not occur to the apologists that things might be the other way around: that Jesus might actually have been a bastard and that the virgin conception tale was circulated as a theological euphemism, just as Livy tells us that the claim of Rhea Silvia (mother of Romulus and Remus) to have been miraculously impregnated by the god Mars might well have been a desperate stratagem to avoid being executed for violating her vows of sacerdotal celibacy. Why not take the virgin birth story as evidence of Jesus’ illegitimacy?”
Why not? Well, if our preconceived notions are in that direction, that is how it MUST be explained. If we are inclined already towards the idea, then naturally we will assume fabrication by the Gospel writers.
But then again – a “why not” is not evidence? Why SHOULD we consider a positive story of his birth to actually be NEGATIVE evidence for what it says? What evidence do we have that it was a euphemism? What reason do we have to believe it was a ‘cover up’? And what reason do we believe that it was convincing?
Price here has tried to argue from the possibility of something to its probability, and then to its actuality. Why should we consider Livy’s case as more relevant to this Jewish incident than Isaiah 7.14?
I am in agreement with Brown [REB.BMh, 527-8] and Meier [JM.MJ, 222] in this matter. The evidence and the nature of the virgin birth simply leaves questions of its historicity unresolved and unresolvable – and one’s decision regarding it will be based inevitably on preconceived notions.
On briefly to another matter, that of Talmud references indicating Jesus’ illegitimacy. We have discussed the Talmuds as historical references here; but a few notes here:
“Stauffer also cites a Talmudic tradition that Rabbi Shimeon ben Azzai said, “I found a genealogical scroll in Jerusalem, and therein was written, ‘so-and-so, bastard son of an adulteress.'” So does Hugh J. Schonfield, whom McDowell sneeringly deprecates as a “Jewish skeptic.” (McDowell seems not to know, or not to care, that the author of The Passover Plot was in fact a believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. He just didn’t identify with the Christian religion and its deification of Messiah Jesus.) The point, once again, is to place Jewish sarcasm about the virgin birth, and thus the Christian belief in the virgin birth, as early as possible, before the fall of Jerusalem, as if to make it early were to lessen the likelihood of its being a late legendary accretion. Does this tradition prove this? No. First, in case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus’ name is conspicuously absent! Though Jesus might be the one intended, we just don’t know. From “so-and-so” to Jesus is something of a leap!”
A minor point – re “sneeringly” depreciating Schonfield…the actual quote from ETDAV is: “Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish skeptic, relates…” followed by a quote from Schonfield. How this amounts to “sneering deprecation” is beyond me.
As McDowell points out just one paragraph below this, “so and so” was used to represent Jesus’ name in older Jewish records, and Schonfield supports the identification and says that it goes back to an early date. Also, in HWAU (p. 69), McDowell observes that the identification of “so and so” with Jesus (or “such an one”) is supported by Klausner, and is otherwise “commonly accepted.” Price may therefore bring his argument to Klausner and Schonfield. He has plenty of support in the matter, including Meier [JM.MJ, 97]; personally, I think that the identification is an open question, and really rather unimportant.
Objections against the validity of the virgin birth are based mostly on preconcieved notions – in the main, that the miraculous is impossible. There is no reason, other than pre-conceived notions, to reject it as historical; and to be fair, no reason other than own’s own perceptions to accept it as such. It simply depends on our starting point.
- Ander.MI – Anderson, Norman. The Mystery of the Incarnation. Downers Grove: IVP, 1978.
- Brow.BirM – Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Image Books, 1977.
- Brow.VirgRes – Brown, Raymond E. The Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. New York: Paulist Press, 1973.
- VonCamp.VBT – Campenhausen, Hans von. The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church. Naperville: Alec R. Allenson, 1964.
- Phip.PaulSup – Phipps, William E. Paul Against Supernaturalism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1987.
- Heine.PACT – Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Putting Away Childish Things. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.
- Mach.VBC – Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930.
- Meie.MarJ – Meier, John P. – A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
- Torr.DVB – Torrance, Thomas F. “The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Spring 1994, pp. 8-25.
This article was originally featured on Tektonics and was republished with permission from the author.