The conversation about Jesus’ birth obviously did not end with the Bible – nor did the remarkableness of the claim that Mary was a virgin when she was conceived escape notice until the rise of biblical criticism in the 19th century.
Gerd Ludemann, whose book Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus, has provided a helpful walkthrough of the relevant scriptures, also cites two apocryphal works as contributing in some way to the conversation.
Dealing with apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works is a little tricky. They’re not in the canon, so they don’t share the same assumptions of truth that their canonical brethren do – rightly so, in my view. Yet they speak to the traditions in place among certain communities at the beginning of the church, just as noncanonical texts ascribing the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the more famous of the Gnostic Gospels, thanks mostly to The DaVinci Code. It consists of largely disconnected sayings of Jesus – some of which are in the Bible, some of which are not – and in No. 105 Jesus says: “Whoever knows the father and the mother will be called the child of a whore.” Other translations have it: “Whoever knows his true father and mother will be called the son of a whore.”
I have no idea what this means. Ludemann thinks it describes Jesus talking about himself because only he knows his true mother and his true father. I don’t have a better interpretation than that one, but that also seems pretty weak. On the other hand, any scholarly interpretations I can find all allude to this possibility. Other options include: It’s a command to despise one’s physical parents, or it’s a reference to Simon the Magician’s associate, Helena, who was a prostitute yet also divine and was considered “mother of all.” Against those possibilities, Ludemann’s sounds pretty good.
Another option, which comes off some crazy person’s website, actually makes the most sense of all, knowing as we do the Gnostics’ fascination with spirituality and denigration of the physical world: “You cannot know a person as both a physical being and a spiritual being and so, he who knows his mother and father as physical beings, must also see himself as a physical being, and if he believes this, then his mind has already been prostituted to the world; in other words, he is renting his mind out to the world, to gain for himself the things that are of it.”
Anyway, another apocryphal work, the Protevangelium of James, written sometime in the late 100s but attributed to the brother of Christ, continues the tradition of Mary’s virginity at conception and adds to it her virginity at birth, as well as her perpetual virginity. The key part is a story in which Jesus is born in a cave near Bethlehem, and Mary’s midwife, Salome, refuses to believe Mary is a virgin and so checks for herself. Her doubt causes her hand to wither as soon as she confirms Mary’s virginity, but after praying for forgiveness and healing, she touches the newborn Christ and is restored to health.
Of course, canonical and apocryphal texts weren’t the only early witnesses to Jesus’ birth traditions. As Christianity spread in the second century, Greco-Roman backlash led to alternate claims as to Christ’s origins. The question is whether these are simply lies made up on the spot or the use of alternate traditions in circulation for some time.
The second-century philosopher Celsus, wrote a work entitled True Discourse, in which he writes from the perspective of a Jew. But we only know Celsus through the apologetic work of Origen, who rebuts him in Contra Celsus. Regardless, Celsus’ Jew apparently interviews Jesus, and Jesus confesses he “made up the story of the virgin birth,” and that his mother was put away for having committed adultery. (I’m using the summary provided by John Granger Cook’s The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism.) Celsus goes on to claim Jesus’ mother was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Panthera.
It seems likely that Celsus didn’t simply make this up out of whole cloth; rather, he’s tapping into an anti-Christian tradition that’s been making the rounds. Whether this tradition existed at the time of Christ or arose purely in opposition to the popularity of the new faith is difficult to determine. Ludemann and others argue Celsus is simply the latest to repeat a tradition found obliquely in Mark and John.
In all, these three sources probably don’t tell us very much. Sorry for the letdown. Celsus and Thomas could well be referring to the same tradition in which Jesus was born illegitimately; Celsus almost certainly is, and I’m inclined to believe he’s using a tradition well known to both himself and the Christians he’s attacking. The introduction of the Roman soldier is new to us, but probably was not new to him.
It seems clear, then, based on Celsus, Thomas and the possible threads of Mark and John, that in the opening century of Christianity, there were two competing traditions regarding the birth of Jesus: He was born miraculously, the product of divine conception in the womb of a virgin, or he was the product of a liaison between his mother and a Roman soldier (the willingness on Mary’s part would certainly be in doubt given such a scenario).
The big question, then, is what would acceptance of the latter over the former mean theologically? We’ll tackle that next time.