Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 17: The Verdict

Well, here we are. The end of the whole business. If you’re just tuning in, check out the last post for a recap of all the ground we’ve covered. The upshot of it all is that we need to reevaluate the virgin birth. It plays an outsize role in our churches and culture, yet Paul, Mark and John all leave it completely out of their writings. It simply isn’t necessary for the development of a robust christology or theology, and it’s possible we have overemphasized it to the extent that it’s actually weakening our view of who Jesus was and what God did through him.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to discard it completely. Two texts, Matthew and Luke, do in fact describe a virgin birth, though they do so in much different ways. And we should treat those differences seriously because they teach us something about what Matthew and Luke were doing when they told the Jesus story. Forcing them into the straightjacket of harmonized literalism does them a great disservice. Let’s accept the texts for what they are, not what we want them to be.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer two scenarios I think are equally plausible based on our studies thus far:

Scenario 1

Jesus is conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph. He is born perhaps in Bethlehem, more likely in Nazareth, but in either case, he grows up in Nazareth. Mary and Joseph become aware of this miracle through visions or dreams, but Joseph does not live long enough to see his stepson grow up, thus accounting for his absence from Mark’s description of Jesus. Luke and Matthew both are ahistorical on matters of the census and Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem-area toddlers, which means there was likely no stable, no manger and no Magi. In fact, Matthew and Luke are not really making any effort to hide what they’re doing – telling their stories in ways that place Jesus in the larger context of Israel’s story and subtly contrasting Jesus’ kingship with the alleged authority of Caesar. As a result, it’s probably best to view such vignettes, including the pronouncement to the shepherds, as the authors’ commentary on who Jesus was and why he was here, not as faithfully retold historical fact.

Scenario 2

Jesus is the son of a single mother named Mary, possibly the product of a coercive relationship or outright rape by a Roman soldier. God enters the boy at some time in his life – whether at conception, in utero, as a child, at his baptism, during the transfiguration or elsewhere – but his mother and siblings are unaware of this, resulting in the misunderstandings captured in Mark. The allegation of illegitimacy haunts Jesus throughout his life, and it’s reflected in his rejection in Nazareth and possibly in a conversation with the Pharisees told by John, as well as perhaps in the Gospel of Thomas and the anti-Christian accusations of pagans such as Celsus. Regardless, this fact is embarrassing to Christians, who feel pressure to have a miraculous, rather than scandalous, beginning to the life of the Savior. Knowing that, indeed, Jesus was a miraculous individual, and that the incarnation, whenever or however it happened, was a miracle of epic proportions, a legend begins to spread interpreting that miracle into a more literal story. Matthew and Luke, both writing in the same proximity, pick up on this legend – or Matthew writes first and Luke knows of and/or uses his text – and embellish it with their own additions to evangelize their Jewish and Roman readers.

Neither is likely to make conservatives too happy. But we’re confronted with too many inconsistencies in the biblical text, as well as between the text and the history as we know it to have actually happened, to simply take it as literal history. And it’s important to understand this: The concept of history is foreign to the writers of the Bible. When we demand historical or scientific accuracy from them, we are forcing 20th and 21st century concepts into ancient documents that know nothing of those concepts. The use of myth to tell truths was widespread and accepted, and the difference between myth and history – and the various ways in which those two can be combined – was much clearer to the original audiences than it is to us 2,000 years later.

Yet I understand the discomfort with simply dismissing outright a doctrine that has been accepted by the church for more than 1,500 years and has its basis in the plainly written and read text of two biblical books. Which is why I’ve offered the two scenarios here and not simply dismissed the virgin birth outright. Because it is indeed possible to engage the Bible honestly and rationally yet still believe in miracles, including the virgin birth.

In the end, the important thing is the incarnation. However it happened, God came into human flesh, and that miracle is of utmost importance.

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