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!


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