Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Virgin birth?

OK, since I have at least one reader (hello Chris!) I'll write a post about an issue that has been niggling me for some time, although I must say at the outset that I really haven't made up my mind on this issue one way or the other.

The Virgin Birth - did it happen? why did it happen?

This is one of the 'fundamental' things that most evangelical, charismatic and conservative Christians believe and probably never question. I only began to question it when I realised that there is very little about it at all in the bible. Matthew and Luke mention it, more or less in passing, and that's it. The other two gospel writers either didn't know about it or didn't think it was worth including. Paul and the other epistle writers make no mention of it.

Of course, Isaiah mentions a virgin birth in 7:14, but reading that in the context of the surrounding verses in Isaiah does not necessarily point to the messiah.

If Jesus's disciples knew that he was born of a virgin, then that astounding miracle would surely have been mentioned in the earliest gospel - Mark. If John knew it, surely he would have mentioned it in his gospel - which has the agenda of demonstrating that Jesus was the Son of God. Likewise, given how much he wrote about the divinity of Jesus, it is astounding that Paul doesn't mention it.

This suggests to me that the disciples knew nothing about this story in the early days of the church. Sometime later (perhaps when the "Q" document entered circulation) the story became known and it became part of the gospel when Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts. If this is the case, it doesn't inspire me with confidence in the story. What if the writer of "Q" simply added it because he thought the Isaiah passage was referring to Jesus, therefore he must have been born of a virgin?

Some argue that if there wasn't an immaculate conception, then Jesus would be the illegitimate son of Mary and Joseph, and surely God wouldn't have His Son born of a sinful union. But the flaw in this reasoning is that the only evidence we have that Mary and Joseph weren't married at the time of Jesus's conception comes from the same passages that speak of the virgin birth. If the virgin birth is questionable, surely the other parts of the same story are equally questionable?

Immaculate conception is not a Christian concept - it was a common feature of many stories of Greek and Roman gods and was used, among other things, to explain why the vestal 'virgins' sometimes got pregnant. In other words, in pagan stories, the 'son of god' is born by means of immaculate conception, perhaps this bit of pagan belief has become grafted onto the Christian story - Jesus is the Son of God, therefore he must have had an immaculate conception.

I'm really not sure, the jury is still out on this one.

Comments anyone?


Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

Just think through the implications. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, it means he was just an ordinary man, even if he was extra-ordinary as a man, he was no more than that. He was created at conception, rather than pre-existent from eternity.

Thus, no virgin birth, no incarnation. No incarnation, then no divinity of Christ. No divinity of Christ, then no atonement -- no one man, however righteous can pay for the sins of the whole world and reconcile the fallen cosmos. So we are still in our sins.

Also if Christ is not divine, then our worship of him is blasphemy.

If Christ is divine, then he was not created at the moment of conception, he is pre-existent from eternity.

John may not mention the virgin birth explicitly in his gospel, but he does give a clear description of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)

It was a "Tron" moment [remember that film?]. The creator became a part of his creation.

Ricky Carvel said...

I'm not questioning the divinity of Jesus here. I'm also not questioning whether or not God could do immaculate conception. What I am questioning is did God do it that way.

Jesus was born of a human woman - if the issue boils down to the mere biology of the thing, then Jesus would only be half-God and half-man with immaculate conception, as it is generally understood. But I think that Chris and I are both agreed that Christ was entirely God and entirely man in a way that utterly trancends biology and nature.

But if that's the case, couldn't God have "fused" the divine nature of His Son with a human embryo which was given life in the normal way of things?

I believe that God could have done it any way He wanted, but from reading the bible, I find it a bit suspicious that such a monumentous event doesn't seem to have been talked about in the earliest Christian writings (Paul's epistles and the gospel of Mark) and appears to have possibly been a later addition to the story (maybe only a few decades later).

My jury's still out...

Gareth J M Saunders said...

Isaiah 7:14 mentions that an "'almah" will become pregnant.

The Hebrew word 'almah occurs seven times in the Hebrew Bible and it can mean 1. a virgin or young woman, 2. a woman of marriageable age, or 3. a maid or newly married woman.

One of the questions in this is whether (the writer of) Isaiah was referring to a local, chronologically-soon event or to something that would take place many, many years later.

This is, for me, one of the most fascinating areas of New Testament study: where, when and how was Jesus first regarded as divine. Ricky I think you ask an important question when you say that there is nothing about it in Mark and St Paul's epistles.

Prof. Larry Hurtado at the University of Edinburgh has recently published two books that touch on this: Lord Jesus Christ and How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus.

Prof Geza Vermes, a Jewish scholar, also throws into the debate in his book The Changing Faces of Jesus that contrary to popular belief the whole expectation of a Messiah figure to liberate the Jews at the time of Jesus was much less than we suppose:

"Christians with no expert knowledge of Jewish religious history tend to conceive of the Messiah as the central figure in the theology of the Jews in the age of Jesus, a figure dominating every other hope of Judaism. In fact messianic fervour, far from being all-pervasive, was only sporadically attested in Jewish literature, mostly amid the political upheavals of the last two pre-Christian centuries and in the first century AD." (p. 28)

Which raises the wider question: was Jesus regarded and understood as the Messiah right from the beginning, or only in retrospect? Was the doctrine of the virgin birth an historical fact or was it something that was attributed to Mary and to Jesus at a later date to demonstrate and 'prove' something important about Jesus, and to tie it in with other Biblical stories of miraculous births?

We also need to bear in mind that the writing of history in those days was very unlike our historical discipline.

I think these are all important questions. But at the end of the day my faith in God, and my faith in Jesus Christ doesn't rest solely on whether Jesus's conception involved a man or not.

Anonymous said...

The 'fusing' idea is a fascinating one. My first (so probably wrong) instinct is that it would be 'classified' in the same way as one of the old trinitarian heresies - I think it was called docetism, but to be honest I can't remember. That is if such a fusing did at any point take place, it would mean that at some point, Jesus failed to be either fully human or fully divine.

In the words of the carol he was 'begotten, not created'; not outwith God, but of the same stuff as God, as well as the full nature of humanity.

Why does it matter? I think it was Athinasius who said that the "unassumed is the unhealed" - if at any point of human experience Jesus was not both fully human and fully divine, then that part of human experience is not taken on by God, and He is not the saviour He claims to be. Mary being a virgin establishes clearly both God's Lordship and His 'begetting' as opposed to his mere use of an already exsistant human embryo. Maybe the Bible writers didn't go into this because they didn't understand the process of conception and embryo development, in the same way that the writer of Genesis had never heard of Darwin.

Funnily enough, I have many questions about the Bible, but this has never been one of mine. Probably just never thought enough.

Dave Meldrum

Ricky Carvel said...

Dave asked "Why does it matter?"

To be honest, I'm not sure it does matter with regard to salvation. Jesus was/is the Son of God and died to reunite us to God. As Gareth says, my faith in Jesus is not altered by whether or not a man was involved in His conception.

However, it does matter with regard to the church - issues like this one divide Christians and fragment the church.

The point of this blog and the discussions therein is to question some of the possibly non-fundamental issues to see if they are actually part of a 'reasonable' faith, and hopefully to take a step nearer to what is 'truth' rather than merely 'belief'.

I believe the Gospel is actually quite a simple thing which has been embellished and modified over the years as myth and rumour have been added. For myself, I'd like to strip away all the bumff, discard it and follow the real gospel.

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Ricky Carvel said...

Strange comment anonymous.

But thanks anyway.