Friday, December 23, 2005

Historicity of Virgin Birth

Reading through Ben Myers posts on the virgin birth and I'm not sure I would take the same line. Ben Witherington in his DJG article notes the following:

There are also serious problems for those who maintain that the virginal conception is a theological idea without basis in historical fact. It is difficult if not impossible to explain why Christians would create so many problems for themselves and invite the charge of Jesus’ illegitimate birth by promulgating such an idea if it had no historical basis. The reality of the charge of illegitimacy was well known in the time of Origen, but it may have existed even in the time the Gospels were written (cf. Jn 8:41; Mk 6:3). It is also evident that both Luke and the First Evangelist felt under some constraint to refer to the virginal conception, even to the point of awkwardly alluding to the concept in their genealogies.
One must also explain why this idea was accepted so widely by Christians in the early second century. Ignatius of Antioch is very matter-of-fact about the idea (Smyrn. 1:1). While it might be argued that at least in the case of Matthew he derived the idea from Isaiah 7:14, even this is unlikely. As we have already pointed out, neither the Hebrew >almaÆh nor the Greek parthenos are simply technical terms for a virgo intacta, though certainly the terms may imply or even point to virginity in some cases. The point is that even in the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14 the text itself would not lead one to come up with such an idea, for it would normally be understood to mean that a young woman of marriageable age, who had previously never had a child, would conceive and give birth.

Furthermore, it is not certain that the virginal conception is known only to the First and Third Evangelists. Even if that were true, we would have two likely independent witnesses to the idea. That Paul uses ginomai rather than gennao in Romans 1:3 may reflect a knowledge of the virginal conception, as may several other Pauline texts (Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7). It is also possible that John 1:13 and 6:41–42 reflect a knowledge of this idea. Perhaps more plausible is the conjecture that Mark 6:3 reflects a knowledge that Jesus was not physically the son of Joseph. Although calling a person a son of his mother is not without some precedent in the Bible (cf. 1 Chron 2:16), it is quite unusual and in a patriarchal culture may well have had a pejorative thrust. Whether or not this material outside the First and Third Gospels reflects a knowledge of the virginal conception, few would dispute that we do have such an idea in both Matthew and Luke.
I find Witherington's analysis here to be historically helpful. Why would Matt & Luke independently develop and/or maintain a tradition that would cause them so many problems? The various traditions that we do have reflect an early awareness of Jesus' problematic birth. Thus, Jesus is called Mamzer.
Clearly there are theological issues surrounding this topic, but could they [early church] have developed this theology in a vacuum apart from some sort of theological provocation? Possibly then, this is a theological response to a clear historical problem?
The article that really helps one get to grips with the issues at hand is of course, God's Way of Acting by Tom Wright. So be sure to check it out...


Ben Myers said...

Great post, Sean -- I appreciate this perspective, and I think Witherington (and Wright) makes a good case.

Just to clarify my own point of view: I don't actually think that the birth narratives (necessarily) have "no historical basis". On the contrary, I think there may well be a historical core to the narratives, i.e., some sort of irregularity about the birth of Jesus. This historical basis, though, would hardly explain all the elaborate developments in Matthew's and Luke's narratives -- although the theology of Matt and Luke certainly can explain these developments.

So when Witherington says that "it is difficult if not impossible to explain why Christians would ... invite the charge of Jesus’ illegitimate birth by promulgating such an idea if it had no historical basis," I would agree. On the other hand, if there were already rumours circulating about Jesus' irregular or illegitimate birth (as Witherington also suggests!), then the early Christians would have had a very obvious reason for offering narratives of virginal conception!

Best wishes for a merry Christmas in Auckland (or are you back in South Africa now?).

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Some parts of your analysis are less persuasive than others. In particular, the comment that Matthew and Luke constitute two likely independent witnesses to the idea of the virginal conception.

Yes, but independent to a degree that undermines their witness. When inquirers are presented with two witnesses to a supposedly historical event, they must ask whether the witnesses agree in the details surrounding the point at issue.

Matthew and Luke do not agree at any point except the bare assertions that Jesus was born of a virgin and born in Bethlehem. This gives the appearance of two stories generated out of the authors' imagination in order to provide a "historical" foundation for the two dogmatic points.