We’ve gone quickly through a number of books to explore our question about the virgin birth. Today, I’ll briefly explore a chapter of one more – The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions – a debate between liberal theologian Marcus Borg and, in this context, the conservative N.T. Wright (although describing Wright, who rejects the historicity of the first 11 chapters of Genesis and supports gender equality in the church, as a conservative I’m certain makes the fundamentalists among us retch).
Each of the scholars takes a chapter to discuss his take on a specific issue related to Jesus – birth, death, resurrection, mission, miracles, the whole business. Chapters 11 and 12 are devoted to the virgin birth, and since we’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to liberal deconstructions of the traditional beliefs, as well more fundamentalist defenses of them, I think it’s only fair to let a heavy hitter like Wright close out the part of this series that defends the doctrine.
Wright immediately garners credibility by opening his chapter, “Born of a Virgin?”, with these acknowledgments: “Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. … One could be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. … God’s glory is revealed not in the manger, but on the cross.”
Instead, the stories have gained significance, Wright argues, as test cases – first, for belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, and second, for views of sex. But Wright points to another way in which the stories divide us, between those who focus more on Christ’s divinity and those who focus on his humanity. “Those who have emphasized Jesus’ divinity have sometimes made the virginal conception central. Those who have emphasized Jesus’ humanity have often felt that the virginal conception would mark him off from the rest of us.”
This is very true. As I read Gromacki’s book, I couldn’t help but notice his strong emphasis on Jesus’ divinity – and my own equally strong aversion to that emphasis. It’s a difference in world views that I’m not sure can be easily reconciled.
Wright introduces his argument with a “suspense account” metaphor: Wright’s view of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are not affected by whether he believes Jesus was conceived miraculously – here he differs from Gromacki quite significantly and refreshingly.
As a historian, I cannot use the birth stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives. I can, however, run the process the other way. Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this God, Israel’s God, my worldview is forced to reactivate things in the suspense account, birth narratives included. … The God who does not intervene from outside but us always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.
Wright calls for some common sense, acknowledging the numerous questions about Matthew’s version of the story, especially concerning the fulfillment of prophecy. “As with most ancient history, of course, we cannot verify independently what is reported in only one source. If that gives grounds for ruling it out, however, most of ancient history goes with it. Let us by all means be suspicious, let us not be paranoid. Just because I’ve had a nightmare, that doesn’t mean there aren’t burglars in the house. The fact that Matthew says something [was] fulfilled by scripture doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
On the flip side, he seems to acknowledge we are likely dealing with some legendary elements within the stories:
The fact that Luke did not mention the wise men, or Matthew the shepherds, is not reason for doubting either; this sort of thing crops up in ancient historical sources all the time. Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterward become important. As historians, we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus and some reason to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look after all quite restrained.
Wright rejects an argument for the possibility of the virgin birth based simply on the possibility of divine miracle because that opens up the possibility that all virgin birth stories are possibly true – which is, strictly speaking, accurate. They are all possibly true. So Wright develops a different argument for it:
1. “The powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel,” the same one who raised Jesus from the dead, compels us to reassess our notions of what can and cannot be done in “bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old.”
2. “There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin.” I would think this would be an argument against the virgin birth, but Wright argues the opposite: With no previous expectation of such a miracle, why would Matthew and Luke make one up?
3. Most convincing, Wright argues there simply was not enough time to “start this hare running” such that it would have been included in the Bible. Wright cleverly invokes Paul in his climactic paragraph:
What would have to have happened, granted the skeptic’s position, for the story to have taken the shape it did? To answer this, I must indulge in some speculative tradition history. Bear with me in a little foolishness. Are they tradition critics? So am I. Are they ancient historians? So am I. Are they reconstructors of ancient communities? So am I. Are they determined to think the argument through to the end? I speak as a fool – I am more so. This is how it would look. (a) Christians came to believe that Jesus was in some sense divine. (b) Someone who shared this faith broke thoroughly with Jewish precedents and invented the story of a pagan-style virginal conception. (c) Some Christians failed to realize that this was historicized metaphor and retold it as though it were historical. (d) Matthew and Luke, assuming historicity, drew independently upon this astonishing fabrication, set it (though in quite different ways) within a thoroughly Jewish context, and wove it in quite different ways into their respective narratives. And all this happened within, more or less, fifty years. Possible? Yes, of course. Likely? No. Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult. Unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don’t.
I think Wright overstates the improbability of pagan converts drawing from their own traditions to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, then Jewish-Christian gospel writers picking up on that tradition and setting it in their stories for different reasons. The main problem is the time. Could it have happened in 50 years? If Matthew and Luke both wrote from the same geographic location, Syrian Antioch, as some historians argue, then it’s perhaps not as much of a stretch. Nevertheless, Wright makes a compelling argument, perhaps moreso when he simply argues for the possibility of the virgin birth based on what the resurrection teaches us about God. I give him the last word:
If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different. But since they do, and for quite other reasons I have come to believe that the God of Israel, the world’s creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazareth, I hold open my historical judgment and say: If that’s what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?