Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 15

I think we’re finally reaching the end of our journey through the various cases for and against the virginity of Mary when she conceived Jesus. We’ve looked at the texts, the history, the defenses. One thing we have not looked at yet is, now that we’ve explored the conservative case for why the literal virgin conception is necessary, why more liberal theologians argue it isn’t.

I do not think [the birth stories of Matthew and Luke] are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true in another and more important sense. … I do not see these stories as historical reports but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance.

That’s Marcus Borg in his response to N.T. Wright’s defense of the virgin birth in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, the pair’s literary debate about all things Jesus.

Similar, Thomas Boslooper in his 1962 work The Virgin Birth takes great pains to lay out the historical case against the literal historicity of the Matthew and Luke narratives, yet in his introduction says:

If the church continues to deny, neglect or misinterpret the virgin birth, it will continue to fail to employ one of its chief tools for building a well-ordered and moral society. A truly catholic and ecumenical understanding of the virgin birth of Jesus is demanded by the religious issues and moral climate of the twentieth century. Such an approach to an important Biblical narrative may also help to produce a truly catholic and ecumenical church.

This from someone who believes the virgin birth is purely metaphorical!

So let it be rejected that those who reject the historicity of the virgin birth are not strong defenders of it in some sense. The question is: How do they get there? How do they argue for truth apart from fact?

Borg argues the virgin-birth stories are “history metaphorized.” The themes of light shining in the darkness and the struggle between the kings of earth and heaven are reflective of the Jesus story as a whole. He sees the Jesus birth story as another in the long Jewish line of remarkable birth stories (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, etc., all gave birth when they were too old or infertile to do so).

Just as God had acted in the history of Israel to create and sustain the people of God through remarkable births, so also God had now acted in the birth of Jesus. Just as Israel came into existence through the grace of God when humanly speaking it was impossible, so the early Christian community as the continuation of Israel came into existence through the grace of God.

Borg’s second point is that the virgin-birth stories affirm that God was at work in the story of Jesus. “The activity of the Spirit of God in his life was projected back to the beginning of his life. … It is a metaphorical affirmation of Jesus’ identity and significance. Like the voice in the transfiguration story, it affirms, ‘This is my beloved son; listen to him.'”

Thus I do not see the story of the virginal conception as a marvel of biology that, if true, proves that Jesus really was the Son of God. Rather, it is an early Christian narratival confession of faith and affirmation of allegiance to Jesus. To say, “What happened in Jesus was of the Spirit,” is not a factual claim dependent upon a biological miracle, but a way of seeing Jesus that immediately involves seeing him as the decisive disclosure of God. …

The truly important questions about the birth stories are not whether Jesus was born of a virgin or whether there was an empore-wide census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem or whether there was a special star leading wise men from the East. The important questions are, “Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he the true Lord? Is what happened in him ‘of God’?” Answering these questions affirmatively lays claim to our whole lives.

Boslooper takes a more historical-critical approach.

“The problem for the early Christian community doctrinally was at what point in the life of Jesus the divine power was originally effected,” he writes, then citing evidence of several different theories held by the earliest Christians and preserved in the gospels: The baptism, the transfiguration and the resurrection, as well as Paul and John’s arguments for Christ’s pre-existence. The virgin birth stories are part of this attempt to figure out when God did what he did, which was the incarnation.

But Boslooper goes a step further. The virgin birth was not intend to be a defense of Christ’s divinity, he argues, because Jesus’ divinity was self-apparent to the earliest Christians. Rather, it was a defense of his humanity:

The virgin birth of Jesus attests the humanity of Christ. The marvel is that God became man. The central message of the story of Jesus’ story is that he was born of a woman, a human being. The fact which the virgin birth represents is that Jesus was a human being. The important word in the story is the proper noun “Mary.” What Paul expressed in the mythic phrase “born of a woman” and John recorded in the religio-philosophical terminology “the Word became flesh” was put by the authors of the First and Third Gospels into a mythical formulation, and each surrounded it with several significant legends.

In no way does the virgin birth obscure or obstruct the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity. The virgin birth obscures the humanity of Jesus and his true incarnation only when it is seen through the eyes of the Romanist who Marianizes it, the naturalist who rationalizes it, the supernaturalist who de-historicizes it, the historian who demythologizes it, and the theologian who subcategorizes it. The virgin birth enhances the incarnation. The word pictures which the Gospel authors drew are subtle but forceful statements in behalf of Jesus’ humanity for a society and primitive mentality which thought that the Savior was not or could not be human. The Savior was real! Amidst all the Christological speculation that followed the resurrection it was necessary to hold before the world and the church the fact that Jesus was human in every sense of the word.

As the resurrection stands for the “Godness of Jesus,” so the virgin birth attests the “humanness of Christ.”

Boslooper, in other words, is essentially casting aside the notion that the virgin birth must be historically factual for Jesus to have been divine (as is argued by fundamentalist theologians like Robert Gromacki). The resurrection is the proof of his divinity; the virgin birth served to argue primarily for his birth – his humanity – with the supernatural aspects essentially used as tools for evangelizing a population that would not have believed the story otherwise.

Because of the mythical form into which this truth was cast, Christianity was able to evangelize the ancient world. The story of Jesus’ origin in its Biblical form established a natural bridge between the Christian community and non-Christian society. … The Christian story made it possible for God’s Word concerning incarnation to be communicated to the hearts of masses of men.

The corollary to that is rather modernist: Now that we are so enlightened, we can recognize mythical literature for what it is and affirm the metaphorical aspects of the narratives while casting aside the notion that they represent historical truth. I am not quite ready to go that far – God could do as he pleases, and none of us knows for certain what happened – but Boslooper does not appear to be wholly rejecting the miraculous in Jesus’ life, as Borg is wont to do. He appears to accept the resurrection at face value, as I do, and that is welcome, and it makes his arguments more convincing when he argues against the historicity of the virginity narratives.

What Borg and Boslooper tell us, each in his own way, is that belief in the virgin birth is not necessary for a robust theological defense of the incarnation. Further, Boslooper’s argument about the historical purposes of the birth narratives makes clear that accepting them as mythological, metaphorical creations does not lead us to therefore reject the resurrection.

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