Saturday, 23 December 2006

The virgin birth

David has started an excellent new series – a historical survey of various theological views of the virgin birth. We were discussing that topic here at F&T last December, and I tried to persuade you that the “virgin birth” is grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.

12 Comments:

Vynette said...

The 'virgin birth, as you say, is certainly not recorded in The New Testament, merely the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was born out of wedlock. The Graeco-Roman church 'fathers' had no psychological stomach for this perceived embarrassment.

They were also ignorant of Hebrew modes of thinking and expression, in particular the New Testament term 'son of God' when used in reference to Jesus of Nazareth.

This ignorance, together with a predilection for their own national religions, facilitated the creation of 'Jesus Christ', a new god-man, born of a virgin, fashioned according to their image, their likeness, their values, and their delusions of grandeur.

Out of the necessity to explain away the birth of Jesus was born the entire doctrinal structure of Christendom.

Compare and contrast this doctrinal image of Jesus with what the New Testament actually states about the same person:

he was God's 'anointed' who would one day sit on the throne of David and rule over the Kingdom of God on earth;

he was 'born of the seed of David according to the flesh' and therefore entitled to this position;

he was 'anointed' with full power and authority to speak and act in the name of YHVH;

he was a 'god' in the Hebrew sense that all who received the 'word' were themselves 'gods' or 'exalted' ones.

while Jesus was to be called the Son of the Most High, Jesus taught that others were also sons of the Most High (Matt 5:9, Luke 6:35).

The New Testament writers did not try to hide the truth about the 'humble' birth of Jesus. Matthew provides a genealogy to demonstrate the Jesus was not the son of Joseph (for a very compelling reason) while Luke's genealogy provides the name of Jesus' biological father to prove his descent from King David.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I happen to hold to the virginal conception of Jesus as an historical event. However, I do not think it is a theologically significant event--not like the Incarnation or resurrection.

Joey said...

I know some Christians who believe that the doctrine of the virgin birth proves the divinity of Jesus. And without it, we really don't have a message to proclaim.

Personally, I have no problem with this doctrine. However, I believe in the Virgin birth because of Christ not the other way around (its not I believe in Christ because of the virgin birth).

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

Vynette,

What about Matthew and Luke?

Matthew 1:18-19 (ESV): "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."

Luke 1:30-35 (ESV):
And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"

And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.


The word "virgin" does not appear in the text, but it is quite heavely implied. Or do you think the Holy Spirit had sex with Mary?

Vynette said...

Kjetil,

"she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 1:18)
"that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 1:20)

It is quite obvious that the 'Holy Spirit' does not refer to the manner of conception but to 'that which is conceived in her.'

The two Greek words used to denote the Holy Spirit are 'hagios' and 'pneuma', words which closely approximate the Hebrew term 'ruah ha-kodesh' or 'holy breath'. The 'ruah hakodesh' was used to denote a divine power which could fill men, as for instance the prophets, and was so used in reference to Jesus.

One need only to consult Luke to appreciate that one cannnot use these verses from Matthew to justify a 'virgin birth'. Luke records that John the Baptist was 'filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb.' (Luke 1:15). He also records that a few months before John was born, his mother Elizabeth was 'filled with the Holy Spirit.' (Luke 1:41)

For more insights into the working of the Spirit see Gal 1:15, Zech 4:6 and John 14:26.

A consistent theme of the Old Testament is that the Spirit of God is the agent of EVERY human birth. To use this theme in a 'particular' or 'exclusive' way ONLY where it refers to Jesus is to wrest the words of gospel writers who were just availing themselves of commonly understood terminology.

In essence, the angel of the Lord just told Joseph not to fear...it would all be taken care of ...everything that had happened was the will of the Almighty.

There was a very compelling reason, known to both Mary and Joseph, why Joseph was not to be the father of the child, hence her question in Luke "how shall this be..."

D.W. Congdon said...

Ben,

Thanks for the kind words and advertisement! I hope the series will prove useful to those of us thinking through some of these classic doctrines.

kim fabricius said...

For me the "problem" with a literal reading of the virgin birth (or rather virginal conception) of Jesus is not biological. It is the deafening silence of (not to say its inconsistency with) the rest of the New Testament on the subject, but, above all, the observation of Rowan Williams that while "Luke and Matthew obviously believed they were recording real events, yet that is not how they would have seen their main job. Now that we can see how useful the story of the virginal conception was to them doesn't mean that it can't be true. But the more we become aware of the storytelling conventions by which the narratives grew in the first century, the harder it becomes to reach a firm judgement on the historical ground of all this."

Interestingly, while many modern theologians (like Brunner and Bonhoeffer) have worried about the docetic implications of the doctrine, its original thrust was to demonstrate the true humanity of Jesus.

Anyway - and interestingly - my take on the virgin birth turns out to be the converse of Michael's: I remain comfortably agnostic about its historicity while insistent about its theological import: namely, not parthenogenesis but theogenesis, that is, the irreducibility of the divine origin of Jesus and his inexplicability in purely human terms.

Kjetil Kringlebotten said...

Yvette, who was the father of Christ? It is quite clear from te New Testament that it wasn't Joseph.

And, why question it? Is it impossible? Why could not God create the necessary "things," and then let the natural laws work their way?

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I have been prompted to blog two posts on the VB: one arguing for its historicity using historical criticism (within the space limits of a blog post). The other, to be written tomorrow, addresses Kim's concerns and focuses on the wider themes of the Infancy Narratives--which ARE where Matthew and Luke put their respective emphases.

Vynette said...

Kjetil,

Within the limitations of a blog comment, it is obviously not possible to answer your question satisfactorily.

Simply put, however, the single purpose of the infancy narratives was to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth had a claim to messiahship.

Matthew disposes of the natural and public perception that Joseph was the father of Jesus for the simple reason that Jesus could have no claim if he were.

Luke takes the matter further and establishes that Jesus was the biological son of a man descended from David.

Without any evidence whatsoever, and despite the fact that Luke has clearly identified Mary as a Levite, some translators and scholars continue to claim that Luke is tracing Mary's descent from David. They are clumsy attempts to conceal the stark reality of the very point that Luke is making.

There are minor differences in the extant Greek texts of 3:23 but none of the differences affect the overall meaning.

The bible version translators have played games with 3:23 in order to prop up the VB. Seeing that the Roman Catholic Church is the greatest proponent of the doctrine, it is edifying to discover that their scholars, via the Roman Catholic Encyclopaedia, are well aware of the correct translation.

"And Jesus himself...being the son (as it was supposed of Joseph, but really) of Heli."

Of course there is no parenthesis in the original Greek text but the Roman Catholic Encyclopaedia (and biblical scholar Frederick Godet) have captured the truthful meaning of the verse by inserting the parenthesis in the correct place thereby removing Joseph from the genealogy entirely.

The endlessly-discussed 'conflict' between the two genealogies is an illusion necessitated by adherence to the 'Miraculous Incarnation.'

The negative impact of this manufactured 'conflict' can hardly be overestimated.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Vynette said, "Matthew disposes of the natural and public perception that Joseph was the father of Jesus for the simple reason that Jesus could have no claim if he were."

Actually, Vynette, I contend just the opposite. Matthew's genealogical argument (with fuzzy math on the 3 sets of 14 generations) for Jesus' Messiahship is UNDERMINED by the virgin birth. The miraculous birth claim goes AGAINST Matthew's apologetic interests and, this, by the principle of the harder reading, argues at least that MATTHEW thought Jesus really was born of a virgin--it was too much a part of his tradition to ignore.
Matthew's whole argument would be strengthened if 1:16 read "And Jacob begat Joseph and Joseph begat Jesus." But, instead, it reads "And Jacob begat Joseph and Joseph was the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus called the Christ." So MUCH does this hurt Matthew's case that he resorts to a twisted prooftext of Isaiah 7 (deliberately using the LXX rather than the Hebrew text) which originally HAD to refer to an already pregnant woman in the prophet's time (probably the kind's wife). Because the promised child was to be a sign to the king that before he could know right from wrong, the threat of Assyria would be over. How could a far off prediction of Jesus' birth be such a sign? But Matt. sees everything in OT history as being recapitulated in the life of Jesus.

Then, Matthew goes out of his way to have Joseph use the Jewish adoption formula ("and he called his name 'Jesus'")to try to make the genealogy work. There is no way that the Evangelist would create such problems for himself. He could have omitted a birth narrative altogether as Mark and John do. No, the VB as a historical claim goes AGAINST not with Matthew's apologetic interests.

It also goes against Luke's different apologetic interests. Luke wants to stress the humanity of Jesus, but placing a miraculous birth narrative at the beginning of the Gospel makes that more difficult. Luke is quick to use the opportunity stress Jesus as liberator, peacemaker, and other Lukan themes, but it would have been easier without the VB narrative.

This doesn't prove the VB as history--and my faith is not disturbed by Joseph as father or by Mary as a rape victim of a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) as some ancient Jewish mss. say. (But it is worth noting that those mss. are later than the Gospels and have their own apologetic axes to grind.) But if we believe, as I do, that God CAN do such miracles as a Virginal conception, then the case against it is harder.

Although I do no have much invested in it, I give the benefit of the doubt to a core historicity to these narratives.

Vynette said...

Michael,

Perhaps I did not make my meaning clear when I said: "Matthew disposes of the natural and public perception that Joseph was the father of Jesus for the simple reason that Jesus could have no claim if he were."

Matthew wrote his 'infancy narrative' to demonstrate that Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph because Joseph's line of descent from David was forever debarred from kingship, not by man but by God.

As we know, Matthew wrote his gospel to convince the Jews that their longed-for messiah had come. He could not claim that Jesus was this messiah and king of Israel unless he invalidated in advance the raising of possible objections on the basis of Jesus' supposed descent from Joseph.

After all, the greatest opponents of Jesus were the very persons who kept the genealogical records.

Which raises an interesting observation about Luke's 'eyewitnesses'. Aside from identifying Mary as a Levite, his story about the priest Zechariah also points to an original source for the true genealogy of Jesus.

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