Friday, 23 December 2005

Thinking about the virgin birth

What does the church mean when it confesses that Jesus Christ was natus ex Maria virgine, “born of the virgin Mary”?

It is well known that the doctrine was a relatively late and isolated development in the first century. There is no real trace of it in the earliest New Testament witnesses (the Pauline letters), or in the Marcan and Johannine writings. Only in the relatively late writings of Luke and Matthew do we find the virgin birth narratives, in the form of pre-histories to the story of Jesus. Here we are clearly concerned with later theological reflections on the nature of Jesus as the “Son of God,” even though there may well be a (no longer identifiable) historical core to the narratives.

It’s crucial to recognise, then, that the concept of Jesus as the “Son of God” does not depend on the doctrine of the virgin birth; on the contrary, the stories of a virgin birth depend wholly on the Christian community’s prior faith in Jesus as the “Son of God.” And this is still true in christology: the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus does not depend in any way on the doctrine of the virgin birth, but instead we can speak of the “virgin birth” only because we first believe in the incarnation.

The early Christians knew that Jesus was the “Son of God” because God had vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Because of the resurrection, the early Christians saw that Jesus must have come from God from the very beginning. In other words, they believed in the virgin birth because of the resurrection. Or to put it more sharply: if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, then he would not have been “born of a virgin” either.

We should thus avoid regarding the virgin birth either as a biological explanation of the origins of Jesus, or as an abstract reflection on virginity and sexuality. The New Testament witnesses are not concerned with any such scientific and biological topics. Instead, they are concerned solely with the identity of Jesus in relation to God. Their message is that Jesus owes his existence wholly to the Father. From the very beginning, he comes from the Father through the power of the Spirit. He was crucified, but God has vindicated him. Therefore he is, and always was, the Son of God—even from his mother’s womb! Natus ex Maria virgine!

12 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Now this is just patently stupid. Of course the Virgin Birth has something to say about the "biological origin" of Jesus.

Paul W said...

Ben,

Thank you for clarifying your position. I came across similar arguments to this when I worked through Moltmann's WJC with the Moltmann group earlier this year (or at least a small part of it). It's good to have someone in the group who "pushes the angle" that Moltmann does, because as far as I could tell, no one else (including me) did that when we discussed his take on the virginal conception of Jesus.

Chris Tilling said...

Well, the boldly self-declaring anon is certainly not mincing his/her words!

Ben, you wrote that the "New Testament witnesses are not concerned with any such scientific and biological topics. Instead, they are concerned solely with the identity of Jesus in relation to God."

I wonder if this isn't a false either/or. Is it better to write: "the NT witnesses are not concerned with any such scientific and biological topics in-and-of themselves. Rather, they are there to point to the identity of Jesus in relation to God"?

Or do I misunderstand?

All the best,
Chris

Ben Myers said...

Hi Paul. Yes, my approach is similar to Moltmann's in some ways. I'm definitely sympathetic with his account in The Way of Jesus Christ.

Thanks for your valuable point, Chris. You could be right that I've drawn the either/or a little too sharply. Still, I wouldn't want to say that Matthew and Luke are conceptualising the "virgin birth" in scientific-biological categories; rather, such modern categories are basically alien to the thought-forms of Matthew and Luke.

I think this becomes clear as soon as you really try to interpret the birth narratives "scientifically" -- e.g. what was Jesus' genome like? Bringing this kind of scientific question to the narratives simply demonstrates how foreign such questions are to the ancient writers, and how meaningless the questions are for interpreting the narratives.

So I would still want to say that Matthew and Luke are concerned solely with a theological reflection on the identity of Jesus -- not with any quasi-scientific reflection on certain biological happenings inside the body of Mary.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ben when you say: "There is no real trace of it in the earliest New Testament witnesses (the Pauline letters), or in the Marcan and Johannine writings." I can only say sic et non. I think Mark and John are both aware of the accusation of the illegitimacy of Jesus' birth, which perhaps presupposes certain things about his birth. Also, some would suggest that there are implicit statements in Paul, e.g. in Galatians: "born of woman, born under the law ..." etc. Cranfield (a Barthian chap) has a good essay on the Virgin Birth in a collection of essays on Romans (should be in the UQ library). Merry Christmas

Ben Myers said...

Hi Mike. Thanks for this comment. I think you're right that "Mark and John may be aware of the accusation of the illegitimacy of Jesus' birth" -- and this is the main reason why I say that there is probably some (unidentifiable) historical core to the virgin birth narratives. It seems that the most we can say historically is that there might have been something irregular about the birth of Jesus.

But even if this historical aspect is (possibly) alluded to in the writings of John and Mark, I think it's still clearly the case that there is no trace of virgin birth in their writings. (Perhaps the closest candidate to a definite allusion is John 1:13 -- and if this is an allusion, it can only be a polemical one directed against the "virgin birth" doctrine!).

Nevertheless, Mark and John might offer some very faint clues about the historical basis of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. That's how it looks to me, anyway....

Best wishes to you and your family for your first Northern-Hemisphere Christmas together!

Michael F. Bird said...

And to you my friend, and to you! Have a nice hot and sultry Christmas day. I'll be sitting in front of a fire as it is about 10 degrees outside.

T.B. Vick said...

Ben states:

"The New Testament witnesses are not concerned with any such scientific and biological topics. Instead, they are concerned solely with the identity of Jesus in relation to God."

I can certainly see where the first sentence regarding the 'scientific' and 'biological' topics are not a concern for the NT witnesses, however, do you not see how the virgin birth would at least provide a stronger emphasis on the identity of Jesus in relation to God? Especially with reference to the issue of original sin.

Granted, I am bringing in doctrines which were developed later, but if this is a concern of the NT witnesses (i.e. the synoptic gospel's and the epistles), then the issue of the virgin birth would bear some weight in light of your claim of Jesus' relation to God.

It seems however, thinking through my assertions to your questions, the only reference from these sources which "hints" at a virgin birth (and this may be reading too much into the text) is Paul's epistle to the Philippians (2:6-11). Anyway, just thinking out loud.

I appreciated the post since it has caused me to think about issues I have not thought about in a long while.

R. Mansfield said...

I would question the statement that "It is well known that the doctrine [of virgin birth] was a relatively late and isolated development in the first century." The fact that Paul doesn't speak of it seems to me to be an argument from silence. Paul was writing letters to specific churches dealing with specific issues. As we all know, he never wrote down a catechism, let alone a systematic theology. There are lots of details in the gospels that Paul doesn't address, but that alone is not reason to discount them.

But what are Mathew's and Luke's points? Granted, they weren't thinking in the same biological categories that we would today. However, both gospel writers are informing us that (1) Joseph is not the father of Jesus, but rather God is, and (2) the fact that Mary is "with child" is NOT the result of any relations with another man either (γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου [Matt 1:20]; ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω [Luke 1:34]).

And granted John does not retell the birth narratives, but his prologue speaks volumes as to the eternal nature of the λόγος who became σὰρξ. Whether or not John was familiar with the synoptics is open to debate. Craig Blomberg has made a strong case that many of the differences in the fourth gospel stem from the desire to "fill in the gaps" left open by the synoptic writers (see Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel). Is the prologue to John's gospel his way of fleshing out the details of Matthew & Luke?

Apolonio said...

Is the prologue to John's gospel his way of fleshing out the details of Matthew & Luke?

Response:
It could be. Fr. Laurentin showed a similarity of style and theology in the beginning of John and Luke. This suggests that Luke's source may have come from a Johannine community or John himself. And if it is true that John took care of Mary, then that's the link.

Exiled Preacher said...

I agree that the virgin birth of Christ was the virgin birth of the pre-existent Son of God. But I think that the virgin birth does have something to say about the biological origins of Jesus' human nature and that his virginal conception has theologial signifigance in its own right. See my blog article:
http://exiledpreacher.blogspot.com/2005/12/virgin-birth-of-christ.html

Allem said...

From my studies the virgin birth was an after thought to motivate people to Christianity. I believe Christ is the Son of God, as God made all of us. However, Jesus lived a life as a standard for us to follow. He was willing to give his life for the religious injustices of the day. As a human, not as a God. But we still want to cling to the supernatural, and refuse to opt for a Chist life!

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