Saturday, December 02, 2006

Why Did The Early Christians Claim A Virgin Birth?

A claim of a virginal conception in ancient history isn't something that can be directly examined. We make judgments based on more indirect criteria (whether the supernatural is possible, the genre of the accounts, the sources available to the authors, etc.). In earlier posts, I've argued for some of the evidence that indirectly supports the Christian belief that Jesus was conceived of a virgin, such as the earliness of the gospel accounts, their genre, the availability of relevant sources, and the Divine inspiration of scripture. What I want to do in this post is address some common arguments that are raised against the doctrine.

People often compare the Christian virgin birth accounts to unhistorical birth accounts in Jewish or pagan sources. However:

"Yet most alleged parallels to the virgin birth (see Allen 1977: 19; Soares Prabhu 1976: 5-6; cf. Grant 1986: 64) are hopelessly distant, at best representing supernatural births of some kind (Barrett 1966: 6-10; Brown 1977: 522-23; Davies and Allison 1988: 214-15; Hagner 1993: 17; even further are ancient biological views, e.g., Arist. Gen. An. 3.6.5; Ep. Arist. 165). Certainly pagan stories of divine impregnation, which typically involve seduction (e.g., Ovid Metam. 3.260-61) or rape (Ovid Metam. 3.1-2), bear no resemblance to a virgin birth. Even most proposed Jewish parallels (Daube 1973: 6-9; cf. also 2 Enoch 71; Gen. Rab. 53:6) are too late or on closer examination have little merit (cf. Brown 1977: 523-24); Philo’s claims that God supernaturally opened wombs (Schweizer 1975: 33; cf. Vermes 1973: 220) probably simply imply that only God can provide conception (cf. Gen 30:2; cf. Meier 1991a: 221-22)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 83-84)

Ben Witherington comments that "most scholars" think that the infancy narratives are more like Jewish infancy accounts than pagan birth legends (in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 60). Darrell Bock writes that there’s a "consensus" among scholars to reject the view that the virgin birth was derived from pagan mythology (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], n. 4 on p. 103). Bock also makes another relevant point. If the concept of a virgin birth was so important to the Christians that multiple gospel authors would be willing to fabricate an account, then why is it that "the virgin birth plays only a minor role in Luke and is largely absent from the writings of the early church and the church fathers" (ibid., p. 112)? Ben Witherington explains:

"It is doubtful that the idea of a virginal conception was part of Jewish messianic expectations in or before the era when the Gospels were written...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." (in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 70)

In the second century, Justin Martyr commented:

"Now it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born of a virgin, save this our Christ." (Dialogue With Trypho, 66)

It doesn't seem that a virgin birth was a common Messianic expectation or a common claim. And the idea that Christianity borrowed the concept from paganism is unlikely even aside from the differences mentioned by Craig Keener above. Christianity arose in a highly anti-pagan atmosphere, and the alleged pagan parallels are of too vague a nature to prove what critics want to prove. The doctrine of the virgin birth originated in a highly Jewish religion that was centered in Israel. The earliest Christians believed that their gospel was "to the Jew first" (Romans 1:16). They considered the Jewish people their "fathers" (Romans 9:5). They viewed pagan religion as a system of "ignorance" (Acts 17:23) and "foolishness" (Romans 1:22-23). Pagan gods were "no gods" (Galatians 4:8). Pagan religions were viewed as demonic (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Pagan religions left people "dead in trespasses and sins" and "without God and without hope" (Ephesians 2:1, 2:12). The infancy narratives are written in a highly Jewish context, with many citations of Old Testament scripture, references to Jewish tradition, Hebraisms, etc. Since conception by means of intercourse with the pagan gods was common in pagan mythology, the Christian concept of a virgin birth is more anti-pagan than a parallel to paganism.

The best explanation for why the early Christians claimed a virgin birth is what Luke suggests in the opening verses of his gospel. They believed that it happened, even though the Messiah wasn't commonly expected to be born of a virgin and even though a virgin birth wouldn't do much to appeal to the Gentile world. Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity, rejects the virgin birth account, as we would expect, but attributes the virgin birth claim to Jesus Himself (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28). The timing of the gospels and their sources suggests that the virgin birth claim was circulating when close relatives of Jesus were still alive. The claim may have been widely circulating even prior to Jesus' death, as Celsus suggested.

15 comments:

  1. The best explanation for why the early Christians claimed a virgin birth is what Luke suggests in the opening verses of his gospel. They believed that it happened...

    But you failed to explain why I should believe what they believed, and you failed to explain Isaiah 7:14 as interpreted by Matthew 1:23. Why should I believe it? Again, Why?

    I know. I know. You haven't attempted to do so, because doing so means giving a whole apologetic. But even if your argument here is correct, then at best you've just shown that a virgin birth was an out of the ordinary type of a belief for them and not borrowed from pagan sources. But there are lots of beliefs that spring up out of nowhere, and expected in a superstitious pre-scientific era. Having a new belief that does not accord with known cultural beliefs means nothing to me at all! Neither does it mean anything to you, if we're talking about cultic beliefs. Any number of cult groups have new beliefs. So what?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Were people superstitious, or is loftus just incredulous?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Of anything that doesn't conform to his worldview, that is.

    ReplyDelete
  4. John Loftus wrote:

    "But you failed to explain why I should believe what they believed, and you failed to explain Isaiah 7:14 as interpreted by Matthew 1:23."

    I also failed to discuss the dating of the book of Isaiah, whether Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew, and American policy in Iraq. Why didn't I address those issues? Because my post wasn't intended to address them. Reread the first paragraph of my post (assuming you've already read it once).

    You write:

    "But there are lots of beliefs that spring up out of nowhere, and expected in a superstitious pre-scientific era."

    If people follow the links at the end of the article you've referenced, they'll find that we've already interacted with your claims. You eventually left our earlier discussion on this issue without interacting with my last response. I've repeatedly explained why your objection is insufficient, and I've repeatedly cited other sources, such as an article by Glenn Miller (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/mqfx.html), that address your objection at length.

    You write:

    "Any number of cult groups have new beliefs. So what?"

    If opponents of those cults claim that the cults borrowed the beliefs from another source, then it would be relevant for followers of that cult to argue against that objection.

    I didn't claim that the newness of the virgin birth belief is sufficient reason to accept it. Again, reread the first paragraph of my original post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. But my links were to the Bible itself. The Bible itself leads us to think that the ancient world of the masses, the ones that were converted to the Christian faith, was full of superstitious people who would believe most any good story.

    ReplyDelete
  6. John Loftus wrote:

    "But my links were to the Bible itself. The Bible itself leads us to think that the ancient world of the masses, the ones that were converted to the Christian faith, was full of superstitious people who would believe most any good story."

    No, I was referring to the links that appear after the article, in the "Links to this post" section. Your appeal to "the masses" is erroneous, for reasons I and others have explained to you before.

    ReplyDelete
  7. All I did in the longest chapter in my book is to read the Bible to see if we would act and think the way they did. By "we" here I also mean Christians. What would you think if someone cast lots to see whose sin caused a loss of a battle or caused a storm on the sea, or the next leader at work? What would you think if President Bush consulted magicians, Daniel being the chief one at one time? What would you think if a ruler had a dream and based foreign policy on the interpretation of it? Think about this. What would you think? Really now. What would YOU think?

    To ancient people this was the norm. And any people who seek omens, signs and wonders in the natural world is just as superstitious. There are several stories in the book of Acts where the very people Paul was reaching believed he was a god, and who demonstrated for two hours because he was preaching a different god (ya see, they knew Artemis was the true god). People like that didn't need evidence, just like the sailors in Jonah's case. It's a cumulative case. You can try to explain one or two of them away, as you have, but the weight of them all comes crashing down on you. Sea monsters. Animal sacrifices. Divination. Stories that an axe head floated, and snakes talked come from these same kind of people.

    Your problem is that you think they thought like we do today. They operated before the rise of science and a historical consciousness. But that simply cannot be, if you truly want to understand those times. Besides, why would God, as smart as he is, try to communicate with such a people he knew we would later develop a historical and scientific consciousness? Why? That wasn't too smart of him, now was it, because in our modern era we do not have evidence he ever acted in those times because of it. Skeptics now have the better case. Why is that? Didn't God know? Didn't he care? To say he planned it this way because he wants people like me to be unbelievers is really stupid, if you think about it. Why does this bring him glory? Why? You can't tell me in ethical terms. It's like letting your children's legs be broken in order to display before a whole nation your skill in setting them. What? Why? But I argue into the wind.

    ReplyDelete
  8. actually, several of the United States' presidents have used psychics for aid in political decisions. FDR and Nixon are included in that. Lincoln also made personal decisions during his presidency based on dreams. I really don't want to get involved in something that seems to be long-standing feud between debunking Christianity and triablogue, but people really arent much different now than they were then. still lots of claims of miracles, still lots of belief in the paranormal, still lots of "credulity".

    ReplyDelete
  9. people really arent much different now than they were then

    This is absolutely laughable and ignorant in regards to what educated modern scientific people think in comparison to ancient standards of believing.

    I can propose scientific tests for what I consider superstitions. I can compare what a meteorologist says about the weather with someone who plans to do a rain dance, and test to see who’s right more often. That’s science. The results of reason and science have jettisoned a great many superstitions. Testing and comparing results. That’s science. I can do the same for the superstitious practice of blood-letting, for exorcisms, for people who claim to predict things based on palm reading, or tea leaves, or walking under a ladder, or breaking a mirror, or stepping on a sidewalk crack. I can even test the results of someone who gets a shot of penicillin when sick with the person who refuses this and prays instead. That’s science. And we modern people are indebted to science for these things. It’s what makes us different from ancient people.

    Let me give you some examples of the results of science and compare that with ancient thinking:

    Modern medicine, pharmacology, biology, earth science, computer science, engineering technology, zoology, geology, electricity, botany, genetics, dental technology, rocket science, astronomy, forensics, meteorology, chemistry, laser surgery, hydraulics, understanding the nervous and muscular system, brain science, the whole notion of friction, etc, etc.

    Compare the above scientific disciplines with such things as divination, casting of lots, dreams, visions, trances, magic, exorcisms heal people, astrology, necromancy, sorcery, prophets for every religion, idol worship, gods and goddesses for every natural phenomena, human and animal sacrifices, priests, omens, temples, festivals, sacred writings, and the Pseudepigrapha.

    There is no comparison...absolutely none. to think there is no difference is to have your head in the sand.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Jason, many times I don't engage you in the details, as you so often point out. But I don't need to. Let me explain. Tell me this, do you think that if I did engage you on any one particular issue it would change your mind? Be honest. Of course it wouldn't. With regard to Jonah, you presented how you see it, and I have presented how I see it. That's how we both see Jonah. Now what is there further to say? Evidence will not convince either you or I on this particular issue. We both have the same evidence before us. The problem is that we see that evidence differently, and how we see that evidence is due to how we see the whole of the Bible, and that's nothing we can discuss. We just see things differently.

    What I do is to merely inform you how I see things. That's all. Perhaps you haven't considered how someone like me views the evidence before, I don't know. But I can only show you what I see on as many issues as I can. Because we can never directly argue about our control beliefs themselves. Those are the beliefs that make us both see things as we do. So I merely try to let you in on how my control beliefs make me see the way I do. Since worldview change demands a cumulative case, my case will either fall into place in a moment (or extended moment), or not at all. No one single issue will do what I want to do, so I don't bother with them very much. As former professor Dr. James D. Strauss said, "it's not more evidence that we need. What we need is better interpretative schema." He spoke from the Christian perspective, but I still believe he's right now as a skeptic. It's the whole I'm aiming at...the Big Picture. And I think my Big Picture makes more sense of the Bible than yours does. So I share with you how I see the bits and pieces.

    ReplyDelete
  11. John Loftus wrote:

    "All I did in the longest chapter in my book is to read the Bible to see if we would act and think the way they did. By 'we' here I also mean Christians."

    Again, I and others here have addressed these arguments you're repeating. You left your discussion with me, involving the post you linked to earlier, without responding to my last reply. Now you're repeating the same fallacious arguments you posted earlier. We've already responded. For example:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/05/god-fought-monsters-in-order-to-create.html

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/05/john-loftus-educated-americans.html

    Your latest response to an anonymous poster in this thread is another example of your erroneous understanding of this issue and your unwillingness to be corrected. You mention "what educated modern scientific people think", then compare that category to what you consider the worst of the ancient world. You're comparing the best to the worst, which is a faulty comparison, and your definitions of what's good and what isn't are dubious.

    In other words, you compare what you consider some of the worst elements of the ancient world to what you consider some of the best elements of the modern world. You don't mention the positive elements of the ancient world or the negative elements of the modern world.

    As I've said repeatedly in previous responses to you, the large majority of the people in the world today are supernaturalists. I can produce a lengthy list of modern beliefs that you would disapprove of. Many modern people believe in God or gods, astrology, ghosts, psychics, etc. And while our technology is more advanced than ancient technology, people in the forty-first century surely will have more advanced technology than we have. Does it therefore follow that people of the forty-first century should consider John Loftus an unreliable source, since he lived in a world in which many people held false beliefs, a world with less advanced technology?

    As we've told you before, Paul didn't need to be a physicist in order to conclude that he saw the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Luke didn't need to know the science of laser surgery in order to know that he saw Paul heal people. Peter didn't need to be a chemist to know that he saw an empty tomb after Jesus' body had been placed there. Etc. Similarly, modern law courts accept the testimony of people who have no college degree, who read their horoscope in the newspaper, etc. The fact that people are ignorant or wrong on some subjects doesn't mean that their testimony should be rejected on every subject.

    Much more could be said, and much more has been said, but you keep disregarding what other people have already written in response to your arguments. Your arguments for the unreliability of ancient people are themselves unreliable. Your posts are a demonstration of the fact that many modern people, not just ancients, are lacking in discernment. But all of us, including historians and scientists, for example, frequently accept the testimony of ancient and modern people anyway. We do it in our everyday lives, and much of modern scientific research depends on it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. John Loftus said:

    "Since worldview change demands a cumulative case, my case will either fall into place in a moment (or extended moment), or not at all. No one single issue will do what I want to do, so I don't bother with them very much."

    You can't have a cumulative case if the individual pieces are rejected. Hundreds of leaky buckets don't hold water cumulatively. You're making excuses for your inability to defend leaky buckets that you've been using for years.

    ReplyDelete
  13. You're comparing the best to the worst, which is a faulty comparison

    Really? Then show me how the best in the ancient world thought by comparison to the standards of getting a doctorate in physics from Stanford? Let's compare the best with the best then. Look at the list of scientific disciplines I just mentioned. How were those thought of in the ancient world?

    Or we could compare the worst with the worst in America. A psychic still would be skeptical if someone claimed a virgin had a baby next-door to her. A faith-healer would still be skeptical if he heard a rival one claiming he raised Joe Smoe up from the dead. The list could go on and on. Now there are a few handfuls of people who might rather pray than go to a doctor in today's world, but we consider them ignorant. In the ancient world they didn't have modern medicine to even consider.

    And I'm not talking about supernaturalists, although I personally consider them superstitious. I'm talking about those who could believe that the sun stopped, or back up, or swallow up an army in a sea that was previously parted. I'm talking about someone coming up to me claiming he had a word from God, like the prophets of old did...plenty of them...in all walks of life. Now granted there are still Christian people who claim to receive a word from God in the same sense, but even intelligent Christians reject this, so how much more so will I.

    Anyway, I do not earn a living by this. I have limited time. So I leave you to explain what I missed.

    The leaky buckets analogy is cute, but as Richard Swinburne said, what if the buckets are placed together in such a way that they cover each others holes? At some point that's what happened to me. You keep focusing on the holes. I focus on the buckets. The problems take care of themselves once your consciousness is raised to see the buckets for what they are. And the buckets come from modern science.

    ReplyDelete
  14. John Loftus wrote:

    "Then show me how the best in the ancient world thought by comparison to the standards of getting a doctorate in physics from Stanford? Let's compare the best with the best then. Look at the list of scientific disciplines I just mentioned. How were those thought of in the ancient world?"

    You initially compared the worst of the ancient world to the best of the modern world, which was a false comparison. You had been told that it's a false comparison many times, yet you kept repeating it. Now you're repeating another fallacious argument, one that's an improvement over your initial argument, but still fallacious.

    I've already addressed your revised argument. As I said before, I don't deny that the modern world is better than the ancient world in some ways. Similarly, as I said before, people of the forty-first century will have some advantages over people of the twenty-first century. It doesn't therefore follow, though, that the testimony of twenty-first century people can be dismissed by mentioning the existence of some false beliefs among those people or by contrasting their lesser technology (and medicine, academic standards, etc.) with the better technology of the forty-first century. If five different people alive in the late twentieth century report that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, their testimony can't be dismissed on the basis that many people who lived at that time believed in astrology, their technology wasn't as advanced as later technology would be, etc.

    The fact that ancient people didn't have "the standards of getting a doctorate in physics from Stanford" doesn't prevent modern historians from reaching thousands of confident conclusions about what happened in ancient history. Modern law courts don't require that those who testify meet "the standards of getting a doctorate in physics from Stanford". And when the standards at Stanford are higher a century from now than they are today, it won't make sense for that future generation to dismiss the testimony of today's Stanford scholars. Much of scientific research, historical scholarship, etc. depends on the information gathered by previous generations and by less educated people of the modern era.

    As I've told you before, you keep professing to follow modern scholarship, yet you repeatedly take positions in opposition to what most modern scholars believe. If modern scholars were as dismissive of "the masses" and ancient people as you are, they would have to radically alter their conclusions and, in some cases, abandon their field of research. You may choose to revise your argument again, so that you can avoid such unwanted conclusions, but it's not my responsibility to keep anticipating where a moving target will go next. The fact that you have to keep revising your arguments and keep explaining that you didn't mean what you seem to have said suggests that you haven't given these issues much thought.

    You write:

    "A psychic still would be skeptical if someone claimed a virgin had a baby next-door to her. A faith-healer would still be skeptical if he heard a rival one claiming he raised Joe Smoe up from the dead. The list could go on and on."

    And ancient people were skeptical. Luke "investigated everything carefully" (Luke 1:3). The first naturalistic theories about Jesus' resurrection came from the Christians themselves (Luke 24:11, John 20:2, 20:15), and the early enemies of Christianity proposed naturalistic theories (Matthew 28:15). The earliest form of church government was centered on eyewitness testimony (an apostle had to be an eyewitness), which is an evidential concept. The earliest Christians repeatedly warned against "thinking like a child" (1 Corinthians 14:20), "cleverly devised tales" (2 Peter 1:16), etc. The phrase "doubting Thomas" came from the apostles, not from a group of modern atheists. I and others here have repeatedly, at length, documented the fact that there was widespread skepticism and concern for evidence among the early Christians and among other ancient people. I've repeatedly referred you to Glenn Miller's article on the subject, which goes into far more depth than your shallow treatment of the issue does.

    You write:

    "And I'm not talking about supernaturalists, although I personally consider them superstitious. I'm talking about those who could believe that the sun stopped, or back up, or swallow up an army in a sea that was previously parted."

    You say that you're not referring to supernaturalists, then you go on to say that you're referring to people who believe that it's possible for particular supernatural events to occur. How do you know that these particular supernatural events can't occur?

    You write:

    "I'm talking about someone coming up to me claiming he had a word from God, like the prophets of old did...plenty of them...in all walks of life."

    No Christian has to defend prophets in general, just as you don't have to defend every argument used by every atheist. The prophets Christians accept are prophets whose claims are supported by evidence. We don't believe in a prophet just because he claims to speak for God. Neither did the ancient world as a whole.

    You write:

    "Anyway, I do not earn a living by this. I have limited time. So I leave you to explain what I missed."

    But you've published a book on such issues, you've participated in public debates, you maintain a web site on such subjects, etc. I'm a layman. I don't have any directly relevant college degrees. I'm younger than you are. I've never been a pastor, sat under the instruction of men like William Craig, etc. Why should I have to keep "explaining what you missed"?

    You write:

    "The leaky buckets analogy is cute, but as Richard Swinburne said, what if the buckets are placed together in such a way that they cover each others holes? At some point that's what happened to me. You keep focusing on the holes. I focus on the buckets. The problems take care of themselves once your consciousness is raised to see the buckets for what they are. And the buckets come from modern science."

    You need to be more specific. I've gone into the details regarding the holes in your buckets. You aren't giving us such details to justify your claim that there's some larger context in which your belief system is preferable to mine. You keep telling us that there's a larger context, but you never justify that claim.

    What do you have in mind when you refer to "modern science"? Scientists widely disagree among themselves on many issues. Science is dependent on philosophy, and science is dependent on the testimony of historical witnesses, the same sort of historical witnesses you keep dismissing as unreliable.

    ReplyDelete
  15. the point i was trying to make is you were setting up a dichotomy between what people were willing to believe back then and what people are willing to believe now.

    I showed that plenty of moderns believe many of the things you think are reserved only for the ancients. And Jason is completely correct that you are judging the ancients on the worst and moderns on the best.

    why dont you judge moderns on the mass hysteria which ensued from the airing of war of the worlds? why dont you judge early Christians on some of their best members, like the article by glen miller on christian thinktank points out? why dont you judge moderns on seeing the image of mary in french toast? or still believing in prophets and dreams and visions? why dont you judge all moderns based on widespread Hindu belief in thousands of gods? or claim to be abducted by aliens? or belief that there are accounts of reincarnation even today?

    none of these have gone away Mr. Loftus. what i was pointing out was that people still believe many similar things to what they did back then. one cannot claim the ancients in general were stupid or gullible just because they did not have access to certain truths, and that moderns are far beyond any such belief solely because of the rise of science. we still live in a "superstitious scientific era".

    people still claim to see ghosts and claim to come into contact with the dead, ect. your long rant went well beyond the point i was making. i wasnt claiming there is any truth to claims like these back then or today, merely that "superstitious and supernatural" claims have anything but ceased amongst moderns.

    another modern example from a man of science is that the astronomer george hale believed in elves. once again, my ONLY point was that many people back then believed in "superstitious" things and many people today believe in "superstitious" things and we cannot generalize the reliability of all peoples from some time period based on our own ideas of gullibility and base all peoples from a time period based on their most gullible.

    I dont think we should distrust all claims from people of the time period the war of the worlds was aired because it would be an invalid generalization, much like the one you make with ancients.

    ReplyDelete