Monday, December 21, 2009

Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?

The Virgin Birth is one of the biblical claims most often mocked by secular skeptics, radical scholars, and even many who purport to be Christian pastors and teachers. The reasons for their skepticism are many and varied. Were this article to focus on the critics rather than the Virgin, it would need to be far longer, not because their skepticism is in any way warranted but because it is as voluminous as it is vociferous.

The ferocity with which critics, especially those on the theological left, attack the Virgin Birth can, I think, often be explained both by a desire to justify the acceptance extra-marital sexual behavior and/or their political interest in presenting Mary as a victim of male sexual violence.

If, as one critic suggests, Mary was not "overshadowed" by the Holy Spirit but rather raped by a Roman soldie, then she becomes a victim of 1. western military occupation and 2. patriarchy. In other words, Mary becomes a political symbol for both feminism and those who oppose American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, if Mary was not a Virgin when she was found to be “with child” then, many critics believe, one more granite block is removed from the foundation of Christian arguments for sexual purity.

In any case, before proceeding to ground the Virgin Birth in the scriptures and tradition, let’s deal with the actual substance of the criticism from a biblical stand-point.

In his book “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism” John Spong (a bishop in the Episcopal Church) writes:

“When I became aware that neither the word “virgin” nor the concept of virginity appears in the Hebrew text of Isaiah that Matthew quoted to undergird his account of Jesus’ virgin birth, I became newly aware of the fragile nature of biblical fundamentalism. The understanding of “virgin” is present only in the Greek word “parthenos,” used to translate the Hebrew word “almah” in a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word for virgin is “betulah.” “Almah” never means “virgin” in Hebrew. I had to face early on in my priestly career the startling possibility that the virgin tradition so deep in Christianity may well rest on something as fragile as the week reed of a mistranslation.” (pg 16)

There are two primary manuscript sources for the Old Testament. The first is the Masoretic Text (MT) which is the Old Testament written in the Hebrew language. The second is the “Septuagint” (LXX) which is the Old Testament in Greek.

When translating the Old Testament into English or another language you might naturally think that the Hebrew translation (the MT) ought to serve as the foundation for translation rather than the Greek vesrsion (the LXX) since Hebrew was the language in which the texts were originally written.

The problem is that generally speaking the Greek manuscripts that we have discovered are more numerous and more ancient than the existing Hebrew manuscripts.

For that reason, again generally speaking, translators will use both the Greek and the Hebrew in their translations, comparing and contrasting the two texts to come up with the most accurate representation of the original possible.

But the text of Isaiah is something of a unique story. The Great Isaiah Scroll found in the caves at Qumran in 1948 dates to the first century. When compared to the second earliest Hebrew manuscript of Isaiah (about 1000 years later), there are amazingly few textual discrepancies.

This lends a great deal of weight and credibility to the current Hebrew manuscripts because it testifies to the extreme care taken by Hebrew scribes in the process of transmission.

At the same time the Greek version of Isaiah still predates the Great Scroll by some 200 years at least.

That means that the use of the word “Almah” found in Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does not necessarily trump the use of the Greek word “parthenos” in the Greek version.


Because the Greek manuscript was, apparently, based on an even older (now lost) Hebrew manuscript that may well have used the Hebrew word “betula” or “virgin.”

However, even if the Hebrew word “almah” is taken as primary the word is not mutually exclusive of and rather quite congenial to the concept of virginity because in Genesis 24:43 the word is used to refer to a young woman “about to be married,” a maiden.

Young Hebrew women about to be married were, as a matter of law, economics, and cultural necessity, virgins.

And if you actually look at the word, whether “virgin” or “young woman” in the context of Isaiah 14, you will see that it really makes little difference.

Isaiah may not have known that his words in Isaiah 7:14 pointed forward to the Virgin birth of the messiah. In context, Isaiah may have been using his own virgin betrothed, as a sign and a portent for King Ahaz of Judah who was afraid of being attacked by an alliance of surrounding kingdoms. King Ahaz was told to ask God for a sign but he refused, not wanting to put God to the test. But God, Isaiah says, gives the House of David a sign through the "almah" to whom he is pledged in marriage, “Before the young woman to whom I am pledged to be married (necessarily a virgin at the time the sign is given) has a child, the enemies you fear will be laid waste...”

But whether the Hebrew or Greek is preferred, the concept of virginity is almost certainly assumed in Isa 7:14 especially if Isaiah is refering directly to his own betrothed.

Isaiah, again, may or may not have known that his prophetic sign was also a foreshadowing of the virgin conception of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Holy Spirit who inspired Isaiah revealed this truth through the apostle Matthew who applied Isaiah's sign directly to Mary the mother of Jesus.

Why did Matthew do this?

The skeptics' answer puts the cart before the horse. They assume that Matthew superimposed Isaiah 7:14 over the true story of Jesus’ natural (if violent) conception because of the use of parthenos in the Greek Septuigent (the version of the Scriptures with which he was most familiar).

But this makes no sense. It was not expected or necessary (at least by Jews of the first century) for the Jewish messiah to be born of a Virgin. In fact, it would complicate matters somewhat as the coming King was supposed to be a direct descendant of David. There was, therefore, no motive to take Isaiah 7:14 out of context and impose it on the birth narrative.

Other skeptics suggest that Isaiah 7:14 was employed in Matthew’s gospel to point to Jesus’ “divinity.” A virgin birth, they suggest, would put Jesus’ on par with members of the Greek pantheon of gods.

But that Matthew, whose gospel was obviously written from within a Jewish context for the benefit of Jewish readers, would feel the need to import a pagan concept like the pairing of a god and a human female into his text and defend it by taking Isaiah 7:14 out of context, is inexplicable unless facts on the ground forced him to rethink the text.

This is, in fact, NT Wright’s argument in his article God’s Way of Acting. It is far more likely that the fact of the virgin birth drove Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to reassess Isaiah 7:14 than that the text of Isaiah 7:14 compelled him to falsify his birth narrative.

“No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk-unless they at least believed the stories to he literally true?"

It is important at this point to note that the claim found in Matthew and the claim found in Luke are generally thought to represent two distinct traditions rather than one.

In general scholars tend to think that Mark was the first gospel and that both Luke and Matthew used Mark as the foundation of their own narratives. However, they did so separately. Matthew and Luke share the Markan material but little else. The rest of their gospels represent relatively independent narrative strands.

That means that together the virgin birth narrative in Luke and that in Matthew provide “multiple attestation.” They represent two distinct and/or independent witnesses to a single event.

In strictly historical terms, all things being equal, this ought to lend both birth narratives a great deal of weight and credibility. That two distinct contemporary witnesses from two distinct narrative traditions publicly testify with one voice to a single event within 70 to 80 years of its occurrence and that one witness (Matthew) likely published within the very region and among the very people who would have been able to falsify the account, would, under normal circumstances, provide more than enough substantiation.

But, of course, we are not operating under normal circumstances. The attack against the doctrine of the Virgin Birth has much more to do with a general attack on classical theism than it does the historical veracity of the biblical text.

Let’s face it, if God exists and his character is consistent with theistic claims, then the Virgin Birth, Miracles, and Bodily Resurrection, attested as they are in the text of the New Testament, are not only possible, but, given the NT witnesses, are highly likely. And if these are true, then the arguments against the verbal inspiration of the text itself begin to crumble. That would mean that the actual words of scripture represent the actual Word of God. And, in turn, that means that mainline liberal Protestantism in general is all wet.

So, you see the stakes.

Ultimately Bishop Spong et al want to do away with the idea of a Creator God who intervenes in human history. Or, similarly, at least do away with the idea that human beings can adequately perceive a Creator God intervening in human history. With Theism out of the way, we human beings will be free to reimage the divine in a way more conducive to and compatible with social/political fashion.

Spong, at least, comes to text with his mind made up that God is toothless; that if he exists, he cannot act and we cannot see him. Thus, regardless of the testimony of text itself, virgins can’t get pregnant and dead men don’t rise.

In any case as I hope you can see, the revisionist attack against the Virgin Birth is as toothless as Spong’s god.

And now that this pre-apology is complete I see that it is very long, much longer than I intended and so my three part series must, necessarily, with your indulgence, be a 4 part series.

My next article will go on to describe in basic terms the Virgin Birth as it is positively presented in the text of Scripture and explain why such an odd thing would be necessary in the first place.

Thank you for bearing with me

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