Unpacking the Tradition Around the Virgin Birth

Having looked at the Dawkinsian oral tradition surrounding the Virgin Birth, I thought it would be appropriate in the days leading up to the Feast of the Incarnation to unpack the Church’s tradition on the matter.

What follows is from the MSS of my book on the Creed, a work still in progress.

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Conceived by the Holy Spirit

One of the curious features of the Christian tradition is the introduction of the Holy Spirit into the story of Christ at this point.  This line is the first time the Spirit is mentioned in the Creed and the mention is a reminder that the Creed is being written by and for people who have already encountered the Christian story and therefore already believe in the Holy Spirit and have already heard the account of the conception and birth of Jesus elsewhere. 

Like the Virgin Birth itself, the Christian faith in the Holy Spirit appears to be something that is due entirely to the teaching of Jesus and the testimony of those in his circle.  A mere human fiction writer, tasked with concocting the story of the birth of the Son of God would, in a Jewish culture, already have a ready-made image for the author of the Incarnation: God the Father.  Who, after all, would be a more likely figure to conceive a Son than a Father?

But the Christian community, instead of teaching that Mary conceived by God the Father, attributes the Incarnation to the mysterious Person known as the Holy Spirit.  Why?

The answer appears to be, “Because it’s what happened and the Church is stuck with the facts that have been handed to it.”  They tell us that, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18).  If we ask how she knew this to be so, Luke adds the detail that Mary was told this by the Archangel Gabriel (cf. Luke 1:35).

Likewise, in Matthew, Joseph is assured by an angel, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).  And so, the Creed simply repeats this nugget of memory.  And it does so decades before the Church has clearly discerned and defined who or what the Holy Spirit is. For the first iteration of the Nicene Creed in 325 AD will simply state that we “believe in the Holy Spirit”.  That’s it.  That’s all.  It will not be until 381 AD that the Church gives us more detail (see Chapter 11 for the full discussion).

How, you may ask, could the framers of the Creed profess belief in the Spirit while apparently having no clear idea about who or what the Spirit is? The answer is that this is how communities built around memory and tradition function all the time. They hold fast to the tradition they have received even when they are not altogether sure what that memory and tradition mean.  So, for instance, the American community was founded on a tradition that professed “all men are created equal” long before it worked out that “all men” included not just white men but black men  (in the Civil War) and not just men, but women, in the passage of women’s suffrage.

Similarly, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit and the Church had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (of which much more in Chapter 11).  But just who or what the Holy Spirit was?  The Church trusted God would make clear such matters in his own time and his own way.

Skepticism about the Virgin Birth

Curiously, the Virgin Birth often seems to provoke more doubt than the Resurrection does. Not just non-Christians, but even many believers have difficulties with it while having no trouble believing Jesus rose from the dead. This doubt can be roughly divided into “weak” and “strong” skepticism. 

The weak type of doubt can be stated this way: Belief in the Virgin Birth was caused by scientific illiteracy. Long ago, people ignorant of science did not know that parthenogenesis (i.e. virgin birth) was scientifically impossible and that’s why they believed this story.

But, of course, people knew perfectly well two thousand years ago, as they know today, that babies are not born of virgins in the normal course of nature.  That’s why St. Joseph was dubius of Mary’s story (Matthew 1:19).

The Strong Skeptic argument goes like this, more or less: “Mary, a hysterical teen in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, invented the story of a virginal conception and brainwashed Jesus into believing it.  Jesus, a megalomaniac and mentally ill peasant due to this upbringing, therefore claimed to be Son of God.  He then convinced the apostles and hundreds of other disciples of this story.  Then it all fell apart, he was crucified, and his apostles founded a cult which claimed he had been raised from the dead. With the mother of their god still living in the Christian community, claiming to be a virgin, the apostles were stuck with this bizarre detail as part of their story and it became a fixture of early Christian belief along with the Resurrection.”

You will find variations on the theory that put the blame on various figures in the early Church, but the core assertion is that the Virgin Birth was a cover story for Jesus’ illegitimacy.

It is often a shock to the people proposing this allegedly daring new claim to discover that it is as old as the New Testament. 

In Mark 6:3, for instance, Jesus’ neighbors, incredulous that this common kid from the neighborhood is amazing the crowds, refer to him as the “son of Mary”, not of Joseph, as they try to denigrate him.

In John, after a particularly heated argument centering on the issue of fatherhood (in which Jesus declares that God is his Father and blasts his critics as being of “your father the devil” (John 8:44)), those critics fire back that he is a Samaritan and demon-possessed (cf. John 8:48). In other words, they claim he is illegitimate, not a Jew, and crazy. (Samaritans and Jews regarded each other with the same disdain that many Palestinians and Israelis have for each other today.)

None of this is evidence for anything other than that a) even in his lifetime, some people were aware that there was something unusual about his origins and, b) that enemies of the Faith such as Celsus[1] spread the claim of illegitimacy, eventually concocting (long after Jesus’ time on earth) the tale that he was the bastard son of a Roman soldier named “Pantera” (in case you ever wondered where the rock band got its name).

The primary difficulty for this claim is that evidence for it is non-existent. It depends entirely on massively privileging rumors by ancients and speculation by moderns as “fact” while treating actual documents written by people who were both eyewitnesses and friends of eyewitnesses to Jesus as though they are mere hoaxes or legends.

More than this, it depends on trying to maintain the claim that the apostles and evangelists were simultaneously the most gullible fools of all time, the most cunning liars and con men who ever lived and the most incompetent hoaxers in the history of the world.

Consider: the Virgin Birth story has to originate somewhere.  The most likely candidates for that origin are Jesus, Mary, or the apostles.  This leaves us with three alternatives:

  1. Jesus was the Ultimate Jewish Mama’s Boy who had been groomed all his life by his mentally ill mother’s tale of his Virgin Birth and made it the foundation of his preaching and self-understanding. Indeed, if the skeptic’s account is to be believed, this story was such an obsessive central focus of Jesus’ self-understanding that it is the reason he believed himself to be the Son of God.

The first problem is how a homeless itinerant preacher–obsessively haranguing passersby with a story of his own Virgin Birth–would have ever attracted huge crowds of followers and persuaded them to believe in him so profoundly that they deified him and invented a whole Resurrection yarn to account for his shameful crucifixion.  It passes the bounds of everything we know about normal psychology to take this account of the story of Jesus seriously, even if there was evidence for it.

The second and fatal problem is that there is not one syllable of evidence for the claim that Jesus ever discussed his Virgin Birth anywhere in the four gospels, much less made it the monomaniacal focus of all his thoughts. Nor does it seem to have occupied the thoughts of the early Church very much.  The focus of the early Church is not on Jesus’ birth, but on his Death and Resurrection.  One gospel, Mark, doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative and simply begins with Jesus as an adult. John only says “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and then moves on to the narrative of his adult ministry. The epistles never bring it up either, with the exception of Paul’s passing reference to the fact that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).  If this story is so central to Jesus’ allegedly megalomaniac self-understanding, why do we hear absolutely nothing about it in his preaching? There’s no There there.

  • If it is argued that Mary was the source of this allegedly fictional story in the early Christian community, either she believed her story or she did not. If she did not believe her own story, she was a spectacular liar.  But spectacular liars are never liars about one thing.  They live lives of spectacular lying and this quickly becomes obvious to psychologically normal people. 

If she believed her story, that is either because she was telling the truth or was mad as a march hare. But, once again, the problem is how such a story ever became rigorously and faithfully believed by Jesus’ circle of disciples if it was not true.  What normal person, confronted with a psychologically unbalanced woman trying desperately to hide her illegitimate pregnancy, would accept that tale as the real story? There have, after all, been countless other out-of-wedlock pregnancies throughout history and, no doubt, some of the mothers involved have cooked up some yarn about virginal conception to try to explain their difficulties, whether due to madness or pathological lying.  But has anybody ever believed such a story outside of this one case?  Perhaps one or two especially doting friends or family at most.  But all normal people have always regarded such tales as contemptible lies at worst and pathetic delusions at best.  How on earth, then, did this one story of a Virgin Birth gain the passionate faith of Jesus’ whole circle of disciples instead of becoming Exhibit A for them that they should keep far away from a very kooky man with a very kooky family and not be his disciple in the first place?

  • The third alternative is that the story originates with the apostles themselves as liars who cooked up the story to cover for Mary’s alleged indiscretion.  But this is the most incredible claim of all.

Think about it: You are an apostolic con man.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to foist on the world a Messiah, embarrassingly crucified and supposedly raised from the dead.  Your problem:  you know he is not only dead, but illegitimate.  What do you do?

Well, let’s review the job requirements for a Messiah.  The Messiah, as we have seen in Chapter 3, was supposed to be of the line of David.  That’s it.  That’s all.  Nothing in the Jewish tradition said he had to be born of a virgin.  Nobody in your culture expects him to be born of a virgin. So all the inventor of a Messianic lie had to do was establish that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary (both Davidic descendants).  Given that Joseph had, in fact, raised Jesus as his own son, why on earth go out of your way to draw extra scrutiny to Jesus’ origins with a tale like this?  If you are a liar, just say he was born of Joseph and Mary and be done with it.  Who will be the wiser, particularly since the events of his birth are thirty years in the past? 

At this point, the dogged skeptic might suggest that Joseph never existed and was invented by the apostles too.  But this is surely to multiply hypotheses to rescue an increasingly shaky theory.  Even Celsus, the source of the whole Yeshua ben Pantera legend, grants the existence of Joseph the carpenter, to whom Mary was betrothed.[2] Indeed, all the actual evidence we have says that Joseph did exist while no credible evidence from those contemporary to and eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life shows that Mary had relations with any man.

The skeptic may desperately respond, “That’s because the Church edited Pantera out!”

To which the sensible person replies, “And replaced him with this?”  Why does the early Church insist on taking the trouble to tell this tale of Jesus’ birth and not simply make a cursory statement that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary and be done with it?  Why add the incredible narrative burden of a completely unnecessary Virgin Birth to the story?

The reply of the skeptic is that the early Church needed Jesus be the son of a virgin in order for him to be the Son of God. (Note how the goalposts have now shifted from “Mary needed to cover up her sinful past with the ridiculous fiction of a Virgin Birth and everybody believed her” to “The Church needed to make Jesus the son of a virgin for theological purposes”.  Arguments against the Faith tend to shift their ground a lot.  It’s what C.S. Lewis describes as the “restless fertility of bewilderment.”[3])

But as we have already seen, the claim the Church needed him to be the son of a virgin is to retroject on the story assumptions that need never have occurred to messianic Jews at the time.  Why would early Jewish Christians need for Jesus to be the son of a virgin?  Although Isaiah 7:14 was read in retrospect as referring to birth of Jesus (for reasons we will address in Chapter 8), nobody before the birth of the Church understood that text as necessitating a virgin birth for the Messiah.  Nor does the doctrine of the Incarnation necessitate a virginal conception.  God, being God, could have brought his Son into the world any way he chose.  All the other great heroes of Israelite history had arrived in the normal way, so why not this one?

“Because he was illegitimate,” says the skeptic, arguing in a circle and coming right back to square one.  “They had to concoct the Virgin Birth to explain that.”

No.  They did not. All they had to do was establish that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, a lie (if lie it was) made incredibly easy by the fact that Joseph had—thirty years before—accepted Jesus as his son.  The last thing the apostles needed to do was invent an incredible tale of a Virgin Birth that was totally unnecessary to their story.

The assumption at the bottom of the skeptic’s claim is that the apostles are simultaneously suckers and ingenious liars and fantastically inept con men: gullible fools who believed a crazy man and his crazy mother, but also brilliant liars who invented the whole story of the Virgin Birth themselves—and all because they were too stupid to see that they need not have invented it at all.

In the end, all critics of the Virgin Birth really mean is that they hold a philosophy which declares that God is not allowed to interfere in the ordinary course of nature via what we call “miracles”. Because of this philosophy, they are forced to propose multiple mutually irreconcilable alternative explanations for the Virgin Birth that contradict one another and fail to explain. In short, the whole argument depends on a philosophical prejudice, not on evidence.  But if God is, in fact, the Creator and Ruler of nature, then all bets are off and he can do anything he likes—including become incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.

Of which more tomorrow

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6 Responses

  1. Although from what you say the virgin birth would have been a pointless lie, it does as a miracle seem somewhat pointless and even counterproductive, rather than, as miraculous births in old age, curing a thing that was wrong, instead creating complications where none was necessary, almost God just showing off – “look what I can do!”.

    1. The Virgin Birth demonstrates the divine origin of the Eternal Son. It is a sign that Christ was born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13) It shows that our salvation, just like our creation, is entirely of God’s initiative, no action of man was involved or necessary.

      1. It wasn’t just a matter of God “showing off”. It was a matter of showing us, quite literally, who Christ is: Fully human (because his mother was human) and fully divine (because he had no father but God. In this way an abstract idea became concrete.

  2. In a way, the Virgin Birth just had to be. God is the First Mover, the Creator, Being Itself. It would not have made sense for God to have a mortal father, for then God would come from something, i.e. something would have caused God, God would have come from man, and that would be a discrepancy.

    As to why God is both fully divine and fully human, that is a mystery. I think it shows His great love and esteem for us, that He would become one of us.

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