Friday, December 23, 2005

The Virgin Birth: Credible And Widely Accepted Early On

Today's opening page at the Slate web site carries this headline:

"Bethlehem, the Untold Story: What if Mary wasn't a virgin? And what really happened in that manger?"

The article was originally published at their web site yesterday, but they've given it a more prominent place today. It's an article by Chloe Breyer, a female Episcopal priest. She writes the following, among other bad arguments:

"When Mary responds to the angel's good tidings in Luke, one translation of her speech is, 'How can this be, I do not know a man?' But in the Greek, the word for man is anthropos, which also means 'husband.' Schaberg suggests that if this is the meaning Luke intended, the text could imply that Jesus had a human father who was not Joseph. Finally, in the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise and thanksgiving to God, she says, 'God has lifted up his humble maidservant.' The Greek word for 'humble' is the same one that the Septuagint (the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) uses to describe the rape of Dinah in Genesis and other incidents of sexual violation. From this, Schaberg discerns the possibility that Mary's 'humility' could be 'humiliation' from a sexual assault. Admittedly, Schaberg's conjecture that the Gospel writers were obliquely conveying an illegitimacy tradition—one in which Mary was the victim of rape or seduction—is just that: conjecture. It lacks positive corroboration within the Gospels or other Christian writings."

Elsewhere at the Slate site, Alan Segal of Columbia University writes:

"With regard to the virgin birth, I would say that it does not pass the test of either the criterion of dissimilarity or embarrassment, and therefore should not be asserted as true by historians. The doctrine of the virgin birth seems to have arisen out of the response of some Christians to the question 'How was Jesus born?' We can guess that the doctrine originated largely among Gentiles known to Luke and not among the Jews known to Matthew; in any event, it was not a universal Christian response to Jesus' birth. The fact that the doctrine has a 'proof text'—in a tendentious reading of the prophecy in Isaiah 7 of the conception of a 'young girl'—doesn't take us to factual. We may find fascinating that Isaiah's Hebrew word alma (young girl) was translated by the Septuagint as parthenos (which can mean either 'young girl' or 'virgin'). And we may see this as important for understanding how the doctrine of the virgin birth may have taken root—perhaps the idea followed naturally from hearing the Christmas story proclaimed in Greek. But were I a Christian, I would stand with Paul, Mark, and John on the virgin birth. They do not mention it. Neither would I."

Breyer and Segal are misleading in what they suggest about early acceptance of the virgin birth. If only two New Testament authors say much about Jesus' infancy, and we have no reason to expect the virgin birth to be mentioned in the contexts of other New Testament documents, then objecting that it's mentioned in only two documents isn't of much significance.

Breyer and Segal may deny that 1 Timothy was written by Paul, but the evidence for Pauline authorship is better than the evidence against it, and 1 Timothy 5:18 seems to refer to Luke's gospel as scripture. Paul would therefore be indirectly supporting the virgin birth account in that gospel. Even without accepting its Pauline authorship, 1 Timothy would give us more evidence of early acceptance of the virgin birth, including among early followers of Paul.

Luke was a companion of Paul who widely traveled and did a lot of research into early church history, as reflected in Acts. He probably wouldn't report a virgin birth, and do so without any apparent expectation of controversy or attempt to argue against other views, if the doctrine was so narrowly accepted that people like Paul, John, and Mark didn't know about it.

The earliest church fathers repeatedly mention the virgin birth and speak of it as a widely accepted fact. Ignatius, who himself came from a church that was in contact with more than one apostle (Antioch) mentions the virgin birth when writing to other churches that had been in contact with more than one apostle (Ephesus, Smyrna). Aristides, also writing in the early second century, speaks of the virgin birth as something that characterizes the beliefs of all Christians. There are some heretical groups of the second century or later who are referred to as denying the virgin birth in one manner or another, including people who denied that Jesus was born at all, which would require rejecting birth from a virgin. But such groups were a small minority without much credibility, and they postdate the virgin birth account.

I think that the best explanation of Luke 2:19 and 2:51 is that Luke was in contact with Mary or that Luke's sources were in contact with Mary. Regardless of the sources behind Luke's gospel, however, we can be confident that the early Christians were in contact with Mary (John 2:1-2, 19:27, Acts 1:14) and other relatives of Jesus (Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19). Matthew was among the disciples who had been in contact with the relatives of Jesus, including Mary, and Luke is known to have met James (Acts 21:18). These and other contemporary relatives of Jesus were alive and sometimes in positions of church leadership for at least several decades. Hegesippus, a second century Christian, wrote:

"They [relatives of Jesus] came, therefore, and took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan [late first and early second centuries], and until the above-mentioned Symeon, son of Clopas, an uncle of the Lord, was informed against by the heretics, and was himself in like manner accused for the same cause before the governor Atticus." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:32:6)

The concept that Mary, James, Jude, Symeon, and other contemporary relatives of Jesus were alive and available to the church for decades, yet nobody asked them about Jesus' childhood or the people who asked never disseminated the information, is absurd. The virgin birth is a doctrine of the earliest Christians that was widely accepted at a time when contemporary relatives of Jesus were still alive and sometimes in leadership positions within the church. In opposition to it, people like Chloe Breyer and Alan Segal offer us, among other bad arguments, unproveable speculations about alternative readings of the New Testament text and appeals to later heretical groups that denied the doctrine for various bad reasons.

In her article, Breyer cites the comments of the second century pagan Celsus, who wrote against the virgin birth. Critics like Breyer seem to think that it's more significant than it actually is when the early enemies of Christianity argue against the virgin birth by claiming that Mary had sex outside of marriage. As Origen rightly comments in response to Celsus, such accusations against Mary are what we would expect:

"But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced [in the writings of Celsus], speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that 'when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera;' and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but their preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions." (Against Celsus, 1:32)

Though Celsus rejects the virgin birth account, as we would expect, he attributes the virgin birth claim to Jesus Himself (Against Celsus, 1:28). Why would Celsus do that, if a large percentage of people credibly claiming to be Christians rejected it? (Origen refers to them as a small minority: Against Celsus, 5:61.) In all likelihood, Celsus speaks of the virgin birth as part of mainstream Christian orthodoxy, as something Jesus Himself taught, for the same reason that Matthew, Luke, Paul, Ignatius, Aristides, and other sources spoke of the doctrine in such a way. It was mainstream Christian belief, and it was such from the earliest generation of church history.