Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Attacking the Virgin Birth

I'm going to quote, then comment on, some arguments by Andrew Lincoln:

It should be apparent, then, that in this area Matthew's and Luke's birth stories also provide the features that would be expected of an ancient biography's depiction of the beginnings of the life of a great figure. In Matthew there are Joseph's dreams, the angel's prediction of the child's future role as Saviour, the fulfillment of earlier predictions from the Scriptures, the magi who are the equivalent of the diviners, the portent of the star, and the accompanying attempt to prevent the birth of male children. In Luke there are again angelic predictions of the future greatness of Mary's child, the omen of Elizabeth's baby leaping in her womb at the appearances of the pregnant Mary and the accompanying explanation, the glory of the Lord shining around the shepherds as the angelic announcement is made to them, and both Simeon and Anna immediately recognizing in Mary's child the one who is to bring salvation to Israel, with Simeon also predicting his destiny.
There are further correspondences with Graeco-Roman biographies. Matthew began his story with a genealogy (cf. also Luke 3:23-38). As might be expected, other biographers also provide material on the family lineage of their subjects…Diogenes Laertius follows Plato's family back through Solon to Neptune…The naming of Jesus and the meaning of his names are particularly important in Matthew's narrative. A similar concern is found in Plutarch about the names of Romulus and Remus and Theseus.
Sometimes such biographies recount something miraculous about the birth of the subject…Plutarch provides three examples. In relating the origins of Romulus…The two boys, Romulus and Remus, are taken away and looked after by a wolf and a woodpecker…Like Romulus, Theseus "got the reputation of descent from gods…that he was begotten by Poseidon."
In Plutarch's biography of Alexander, Philip sees Apollo, under the form of a serpent, lying with his wife…Suetonius has a similar story about Augustus' conception. His mother, Atia, falls asleep in the temple of Apollo. Apollo comes to her in the form of a snake…Porphyry recounts that Pythagoras was said to be the son of Apollo.
In relation to Tiberius, Suetonius relates how an eagle landed on the roof of his house and underlines that he was confident of his destiny because of the predictions of astrologers…His account of Vespasian lists a number of portents of his future imperial dignity, including a prediction from Josephus and incidents involving a dog, an ox and eagles.
Philostratus relates that Apollonius' mother had an apparition of Proteus, the Egyptian god, in the guise of a demon before the birth of her son...
These examples indicate that major elements in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke bear a remarkable resemblance to what is to be found in Graeco-Roman biographies at the places where they treat the early stages of their subjects' lives before their public arena…In this material ancestry, names, and geographical and political setting may well have support from tradition, but much of the content, whether traditional or not, involves notions about the gods, fate, auguries, portents, divination and astrology that are legendary but nevertheless illustrate the significance that became attached to the subject's life. Born of a Virgin? (Eerdmans 2013), 60,62-63,65-66.

i) One preliminary observation: Lincoln defends the mutual independence of the Matthean and Lucan nativity accounts (129ff). That, however, would mean we have multiple-attestation for the virgin birth. 

ii) It's striking that a NT scholar of Lincoln's distinction would resort to such atrocious comparative methodology. I guess the best explanation is that because he finds the virgin birth incredible, he's forced to justify his infidelity at whatever cost. Lincoln's handling of sources is naive and sloppy. He fails to draw elementary distinctions or make allowance for obvious considerations:

iii) The need to distinguish between historical figures and mythological figures. In the nature of the case, legendary embellishment can only apply to someone who actually existed, not to fictional demigods like Romulus, Remus, and Theseus. In the case of mythological figures, the entire "biography" is invented whole cloth. There are no factual constraints on what can be said about them.

iv) The difference between writing about a contemporary or near contemporary, in contrast to a public figure who lived and died generations before the historian or biographer. In the case of figures who died within living memory, reliable information is still available. 

v) We must also take into account the motivations of court historians and royal biographers who make their living by churning out flattering propaganda about their Roman overlords, or ex post facto legitimation of the Roman regime by concocting or elaborating a chauvinistic national mythology. Josephus, Plutarch, and Suetonius are all pandering to their social superiors, to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. It's a classic client/patron relationship. 

vi) Perhaps Lincoln imagines that Luke's relationship to Theophilus is comparable. However, if Luke was so motivated, he'd do for Caesar what he does instead for Jesus and John the Baptist.    

vii) All of the examples he gives in Matthew and Luke have OT precedents. So it's anachronistic for Lincoln to attribute that to Greco-Roman biographical conventions.

viii) Even on their own terms, why does Lincoln assume that Greco-Roman biographers and historians simply invented stories about prophetic dreams and celestial portents? The ancients really did believe dreams could be prophetic. 

Lincoln fails to distinguish between inventing a prophetic dream, and recounting a real dream to which you ascribe prophetic significance. Oneiromancy isn't about inventing dreams, but interpreting dreams. A dream can be quite real without it being really prophetic. 

Likewise, why does Lincoln assume that Greco-Roman biographers and historians simply invented stories about stellar prodigies? Ancient people really did believe certain astronomical phenomena portended the future. Lincoln fails to distinguish between inventing an astronomical sign, and ascribing prophetic significance to an actual astronomical phenomenon. 

Astrologers don't need to invent comets, meteors, eclipses, conjunctions, &c. Astrologers are inventive, but not in that respect. Rather, they offer ingenious interpretations of birthdates in relation to the position of the stars, &c.  


  1. Also, when such pagan mythologies create those kinds of remarkable origins for famous characters it's only because there's a natural desire and expectation that it's fitting for great persons to have equally great beginnings. In His providence, God, the great story teller of history (or HIS-story), "conforms" to that expectation in the human heart by actually giving some Biblical figures remarkable origins. I suspect that that natural human expectation is either implanted by God himself in the human heart or is a natural expression of being made in God's image. We want remarkable persons to exist and for them to be remarkable in every way possible (including their origins). Think of the the modern celebrity mentality. Some celebrities have fans who almost worship them. Similar things can be said about superhero mythologies. People probably rightly claim that Superman's origins parallel that of Jesus' because the creators have consciously or unconsciously borrowed from the gospels. People claim Jesus origins parallels that of Moses and that both Jesus' and Moses' origins parallels that of other pagan myths. All these types of things are probably an expression of an innate desire for, or knowledge of God's existence. Because of the combination of the sensus divinitatus/deitatis with 1. the natural sinful desire to be God or god-like (Gen. 3:5) and/or 2. the supernatural desire to be godly, people naturally want to have superhero powers to do good or evil, and so be a superhero or super-villain. Because of common grace, even non-Christians would like superhero powers to do good and carry out justice. The next best thing to being a superhero or a god, or one of the sons of the gods (like Hercules etc.) is to know one (e.g. celebrity cults).

    If God really exists, then it only makes sense that some of the main characters in His story would have epic or unusual origins like Adam, John the Baptist, Samson, Moses and Jesus (et al.). So, for people to criticize the Bible as being fictitious because it has similarly fantastic stories as pagan myths do is to beg the question. It's to assume that no God exists and that therefore such things couldn't happen.

    Continued in Next Post:

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    2. Some skeptics may claim that they are not a priori assuming the falsity of pagan myths and then concluding that the Christian story is false because of similarities. Such skeptics may claim that on inductive reasons, since these other stories aren't verifiable and therefore shouldn't be believed, neither should the Bible's stories since it would be a case of special pleading. But such statements already assume worldview presuppositions about ontology, epistemology, induction, knowledge, the orderly structure of the external world, the knowability of the external world, the ability of our faculties to reason and access the external world etc. It also, doesn't take into account the self-attesting nature of Scripture or the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in confirming in the hearts of the elect the truth of Christianity. Nor do they take into account the demonic origins of some myths as well as their origins from the human heart (as I explained above). That's why in one sense Christians should be wary of pagan myths. Yet in another sense, those pagan myths can be, as C.S. Lewis said, a kind of prophecy of Christianity. Or as he put it in another way, Christianity is myth come true in space and time. That's because while their penultimate origins are from sinful human and demonic hearts, they're ultimately source is the imago dei and the sensus divinitatis. The "seed of religion" (semen religionis) that Calvin spoke about accounts for the origins and similarity of both pagan and Christian stories. Also, some of these stories might have some actual historical core to them and are pagan renditions of Biblical stories passed down through the generations. For example, the strange fact that many creation myths throughout the world have flood narratives similar to the Bible even though these cultures can be very distant from each other in time and space. Another example is how many cultures teach that their most ancient ancestors worshipped one true Spirit and some how that relationship broke down (i.e. a Fall) and how they are now in bondage to lesser evil spirits. Finally, God may providentially use such pagan stories in order to eventually prepare those peoples for the true story of the Gospel. Whether it be the pagan story of Hercules or Perseus or the comic book characters of Superman or Bruce Wayne (i.e. Batman), God can use those stories to awaken people's desires for a redeemer and a life of meaning and adventure. Christianity provides that ultimate and perfect Redeemer in Christ, as well as a sense of heroic dignity, destiny, nobility, meaning and mission in its teachings about spiritual warfare. Given Christianity, life is a battle for every Christian to win because the War has already been won by Christ at the cross.