So this series is taking longer than I’ve planned, but I’m enjoying it. I hope you are, too. So far, we’ve noticed some problems, though they’re not particularly egregious, with the traditional story of the virgin birth of Christ:
- The earliest surviving Christian writings – Paul and Mark – don’t mention it.
- The two virgin birth narratives we have – Matthew and Luke – are incompatible with each other.
- Mark not only doesn’t mention it, his portrayal of Jesus’ relationship with his family and hometown seems completely unaware of any such supernatural occurrence surrounding his conception, while Matthew and Luke make some strategic edits to rectify this.
These can all be explained to some level of satisfaction if you’re so inclined, but I hope the series so far has provided food for thought. We have just one gospel left, and after that we can delve into some theology and begin asking whether or not the virgin birth is essential for our notion of who Jesus is and why he came here.
John’s birth story is, of course, more of an incarnation story, and most of us can recite it from memory: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The sense of “dwelt” is “pitched his tent.” The pre-existent Word, the Son of God, God himself wrapped himself in skin and hung out with us for a while.
Once again using Gerd Lutemann’s book Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus as our guide, let’s see what else John says about Jesus’ origins.
John likely knows at least one of the other three gospels, although it’s hard to tell. John overall tells a completely different story than they do, and the few things they share in common are such major stories – feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, the crucifixion and resurrection – or are so generic – healing the son of a Roman centurion or official, healing a blind man – that they could well have been part of the accepted oral traditions of Jesus without the author ever reading Matthew, Mark or Luke.
Nevertheless, John was written late enough – near the end of the first century C.E. – that it seems likely he knew at least one of the others, and simply didn’t care for chronology or geography in shaping the stories he knew to hammer home his focus on Christ’s divinity.
With that in mind, 1:12-13 seems to be aware of the virgin birth narratives:
But those who did welcome him,
those who believed in his name,
he authorized to become God’s children,
born not from blood
nor from human desire or passion,
but born from God.
As Ludemann notes, John (we’ll call him that, but like the other gospels, we don’t really know the author) could be comparing “God’s children” to God’s child Jesus, who was “born not from blood … but born from God.” Or he could be simply saying that when we become God’s children, it’s a birth from God, not humanity. Ludemann thinks, and I agree, that this is a parallel – the author knows the virgin birth story and references it in likening our birth into Christ to his birth into the world.
Per our discussion earlier of Jesus being described first as only the son of Mary in Mark, then seeing Matthew and Luke add Joseph to the story, we now see a separate story in John that refers to Jesus as the son of Joseph in 1:45, when Philip calls Nathaniel to join the disciples: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.” (“Nathaniel,” apparently, is short for “Bartholomew”; John is the only gospel with Nathaniel as one of the 12, while the others all list a Bartholomew, whom John omits.)
John mentions Mary, but does not call her by name, in the wedding feast at Cana, but doesn’t really have much bearing on our questions. His address of her as “woman,” Ludemann says is not a disrespectful address, “but it is not particularly respectful either.” Interesting to note that John says this is Jesus’ first sign, but Mary clearly had some idea that Jesus could perform miracles.
In 6:42, John adapts at least the questions asked about Jesus in the stories of Jesus’ return to his hometown in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In response to his claim to have come down from heaven, the Jews ask: “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know?”
Ludemann plances a lot of weight on John 8:41, in which the Jews opposing Jesus respond to his accusation that they are not truly Abraham’s father. Their response – “Our ancestry isn’t in question!” or, alternately, “We were not born of fornication!” – on the surface is another in the long line of instances in John where Jesus says something and his listeners misconstrue it. Over and over, John has Jesus talking past his audiences and needing to explain himself (“How can someone go back into his mother and be born a second time?” “Our ancestors dug this well to provide us water.” “I know Lazarus will rise on the last day.”) So this is part of that motif, in which Christ is portrayed as so divine, humanity simply cannot understand him.
Ludemann sees another layer, however:
Here already the Jews rightly understand the allusion as an attack on their claim to be children of God. Therefore they emphasize that God alone is their father. Conversely, by rejecting a birth in fornication with an emphatic ‘not us,’ they accuse Jesus of having been born in adultery. Thus they counter the questioning of their religious integrity with the criticism that Jesus is illegitimate.
Ludemann then writes: “The scene … is certainly fictitious; however, the insinuation of the Jews contains the tradition which is also reflected in Mark 6:3: Jesus’ birth was illegitimate.”
I’m with him on the unlikelihood of John having accurately recorded a word-for-word debate several decades after it would have occurred, but the rest of it is quite a stretch. Without some sort of analysis of first-century Jewish rhetoric, I simply don’t see much evidence for the Jews’ response to be anything more than an indignant rebuttal of what they perceived Jesus to be saying about their own origins.
The last reference to Jesus’ family is from the cross. Though the crucifixion and resurrection stories are noteworthy for their consistency across all four gospels, John takes some liberties throughout his (the placement of Passover, the omission of the Last Supper, the extended discussion with Pilate). The story of Jesus discharging his mother into the care of the beloved disciple is one of these. The Synoptics don’t list his mother as one of the women witnessing the crucifixion, and those who did witness it did so “from afar,” according to Mark, not “standing near,” as John has her.
Either way, this doesn’t say much about the birth narratives, except that it’s interesting to note the transition: In Mark, Jesus is portrayed as estranged from his family. By the time John writes, Jesus is ensuring his mother’s care with his dying breaths.
In the end, John doesn’t tell us very much. He likely knows of the virgin birth narratives and seems to reference them in chapter 1. He otherwise breaks no new ground as he follows Matthew and Luke in referencing Joseph and portraying Jesus as a more typical son. But because John is interested in Jesus’ divinity, he does not spend much time focusing on Christ’s earthly ties, leaving that for the more down-to-earth Synoptics to handle.
Next time, we’ll look at what some sources from outside of the Bible say on the subject.