While I consider whether I really have anything useful to add to the Chick-fil-A wars, and whether the fact that I probably don’t will keep me from saying something anyway, you get the second-to-last installment of this incredibly long series about the virgin birth.
I suspect most people just joining the series don’t have time to go back through 15 posts, and those who have been following along since March(!) might not even remember all that we’ve discussed, so before we get to the conclusion next week, here’s a summary of where we’ve been:
- Part 1: We started with some ground rules, some basic assumptions going in, as well as an assurance that I didn’t have a preformed opinion of where my research would take me.
- Part 2: First up was Paul, the earliest Christian writer. Briefly discussing every reference Paul makes to the physical life of Christ, we found: “The Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the appearances and, by inference, the ascension (he has to get to the right hand of God somehow, right?) are all part of the known story of Jesus when Paul writes his letters 20-30 years after Christ’s death. But the virgin birth is not.” It seems likely that rather than finding the virgin birth unimportant to his theology, Paul simply didn’t know of it.
- Part 3: We tied up some loose ends with Paul, noting three references to his birth or lineage that sound very human and unmiraculous, then moved on to Mark, the first-written gospel, which begins the story of Jesus abruptly and does not include a virgin birth. But he does include some statements that make it sound as if Jesus’ relationship with his family is strained, and, not only that, his family seems unaware of any miraculous origin; otherwise, why consider him crazy (Mark 3)?
- Part 4: We began looking at the virgin-birth narratives themselves. We explored the similarities and differences between the Matthew and Luke narratives, and discussed three problems of varying weight that arise from attempts to merge the stories into a single coherent tale: The discrepancies in the genealogies; Mary’s apparent silence to Joseph about her coming conception, waiting until after she’s pregnant to tell him about it; and the complete incompatibility of the family’s actions after Jesus’ birth (trip to Jerusalem and return to Nazareth in Luke versus a two-year stay in Bethlehem, flight to Egypt until Herod’d death and return to Nazareth in Matthew).
- Part 5: We looked at the rest of Matthew and Luke to see what they say about Jesus’ origins. We noted they both add Joseph to the story in Mark 6 in which Jesus is rejected in his hometown synagogue, and we talked a little about the significance of Mark’s use of Mary alone as a descriptor for Jesus. Some scholars believe that’s a sign Jesus was actually an illegitimate child.
- Part 6: We moved to John, who perhaps is aware of the virgin-birth narratives, even if he doesn’t say so directly, but otherwise just doesn’t add very much to the discussion.
At this point, we had finished with the biblical texts, and perhaps found that the evidence for the virgin birth is not as sound as we would think or like. Despite the central place it now holds in our churches and society thanks to the celebration of Christmas, the birth stories are sparse on details and the ones they have contradict each other in several places. Further, the earliest Christian voices we have, Paul and the writer of Mark, managed to present a robust theology of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection without once mentioning it.
- Part 7: Moving on to early extrabiblical sources, we talked about a possible reference to an illegitimate birth by Jesus himself in the Gospel of Thomas, and at the other extreme a text upholding Mary’s physical virginity even after giving birth to Jesus in the Protevangelium of James. We discussed the Roman philosopher Celsus’ argument, as described by Origen, that Jesus was the product of a union – whether consensual or not – between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera. “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).”
- Part 8: We looked at Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:2, two key Old Testament passages cited by Matthew as prophecies fulfilled through the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and found that in both cases the passages do not say what Matthew says they said.
- Part 9: In an ill-fated effort to give the floor to conservative theological defense of the virgin birth, I ran into a big problem: The fatally flawed, incoherent structure of the arguments usually used online to defend the doctrine. In this part, I simply describe the argument: “Without the virgin birth, Jesus is born with a sin nature, and is therefore incapable of saving humanity from its sins.”
- Part 10: The problem with the argument in Part 9 is that the sin nature itself is not considered a core doctrine of Christianity, which means: “The virgin birth can only be tied directly to the divinity of Christ through the doctrine of original sin – the notion that each human being is born with a sin nature. But the doctrine of original sin is not one of the essential doctrines of Christianity, at least not according to the same sources who argue the virgin birth is.”
- Part 11: We discussed Robert Gromacki’s conservative defense of the virgin birth. Gromacki makes a series of sweeping claims in which belief in the virgin birth is not only necessary for the divinity of Jesus but also the resurrection and the second coming. As he put it, “They come as a doctrinal package. You either embrace all of them or deny them all. No one can logically believe in some of them while rejecting the others.”
- Part 12: After analyzing Gromacki’s arguments, we’re left searching elsewhere for something better. His claim that the virgin birth is necessary for Jesus’ divinity turns out to be arbitrary and hollow because even he acknowledges God could have made Jesus divine at any time in his life from conception on, which means the only argument for a virginal conception is the text of the Bible itself, which we’d already discussed.
- Part 13: We moved on to look at the history of the virgin birth belief in the church, another fact to which Gromacki appealed. But the defenses of the early church involved some pretty artful theological gymnastics, particularly by Justin and Irenaeus. So the widespread belief in the doctrine has existed since the second century, but the reasons for believing in it have changed. Which seems significant.
- Part 14: I gave the conservatives one final voice: N.T. Wright’s. Wright argues there wasn’t enough time for the virgin birth to spring up, spread and gain the credibility necessary to be included in two separate works written just 50 or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wright also, however, acknowledges the relative unimportance of Mary’s virginity to our faith. His argument, then, is essentially: If that’s what the Bible describes, and it’s consistent with the actions I believe God takes in the world, then “who am I to object?”
- Part 15: Finally, it’s the liberals’ turn. I turn the forum over to Marcus Borg and Thomas Boslooper, who articulate theologies using a metaphorical virgin birth. Boslooper also adds another layer to the possible origins of the narratives, arguing they were created as evangelical tools for the pagans and Jews who would not have accepted the rest of the Jesus story without a miraculous beginning.
So here we are. If I had to summarize all of that into a few handy points, here’s what they would be:
- The evidence from the biblical text is weaker than we’d probably assume.
- The church nonetheless has a long tradition of accepting the virgin birth, though the reasons for it have changed.
- Conservatives not only accept the narratives of Matthew and Luke, they argue they are essential for the faith.
- Liberals argue the narratives are metaphorical descriptions of the miraculous incarnation, whenever or however it occurred.
So where do I stand? We’ll find out next week!