Sunday, November 03, 2013

Andrew Lincoln's Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 1)

(This will be a six-part series. All six parts will be linked in one post after the series has been completed.)

Andrew Lincoln, a New Testament scholar, recently published Born Of A Virgin? (London, England: SPCK, 2013). I've read the British edition. The American version is due out next month. Lincoln is a supernaturalist who accepts traditional Christian concepts like the deity of Jesus and his resurrection, but rejects other traditional positions, such as Biblical inerrancy and the historicity of the virgin birth. He thinks Joseph was Jesus' natural father.

On the back cover, James McGrath of Butler University calls Lincoln's book "groundbreaking…excellent…sure to be considered the volume to turn to on this topic for many years to come." Edward Adams of King's College London refers to it as "thorough…the most important contribution to the subject of Jesus' earthly origins for many years." Helen Bond of the University of Edinburgh calls it "masterly" and comments that "I cannot recommend it highly enough." Robert Morgan of Linacre College, Oxford refers to "Lincoln's masterly literary and historical analyses…theological and hermeneutical reflection at its best".

Lincoln argues that the New Testament presents at least two views of Jesus' conception. The virginal conception is found only in Matthew and Luke and was a minority position among the Christians of the New Testament era. Only Matthew refers to a virgin birth consistently, and even in Matthew there's only a small probability that the author had a virgin birth in mind. Luke refers to the virginal conception more explicitly, but accompanies it with a contrary tradition that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between Joseph and Mary. Some other biographies in antiquity presented inconsistent reports side-by-side, and Lincoln believes that Luke did so on the subject of Jesus' conception. Furthermore, ancient biographies were often least reliable when reporting their subject's childhood years. There are indications, especially in Luke, that the infancy narratives were meant to emulate pagan accounts that made unhistorical claims about a great figure's childhood. Though the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are of a largely Jewish nature, they were influenced by pagan sources to some degree.

The majority view of the earliest Christians, that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between Joseph and Mary, is reflected in Paul's letters, Mark, the Johannine literature, and Hebrews. Phrases like "born of the seed of David according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3) and "son of Joseph" (John 1:45) could be reconciled with a virgin birth, but are most naturally taken to the contrary. That Jesus' family opposed him, as we see in Mark 3:21-35, for example, is likewise evidence against the virgin birth.

Some early sources outside of the New Testament also refer to Jesus as a biological son of Joseph. However, the virgin birth view eventually became the majority position.

Lincoln argues that belief in the virgin birth undermines the incarnation. Jesus wouldn't be fully human under a virgin birth scenario, and Biblical passages like Hebrews 2:17 would be undermined. Views of human reproduction that were popular prior to modern times are now known to be inaccurate. Though Christians prior to the modern era thought Jesus' entire physical humanity could have been derived from Mary, we now know that she couldn't have provided all that was needed. Lincoln argues that proposals concerning how God could have provided what was lacking, such as his creating a Y chromosome or transferring one from Joseph, are deficient. In sum:

But we can simply no longer think that a mother's input alone is sufficient to constitute a fully human person. Understood in the light of present biological knowledge, instead of guaranteeing Jesus' real participation in humanity, the virgin birth has just the opposite effect and becomes positively damaging to the doctrine of incarnation. Without complete human DNA Jesus would be a semi-divine or wholly divine special creation that appeared to be human. (261-262)

Lincoln's book focuses on the virgin birth, but he comments on other portions of the infancy narratives along the way. He refers to the "paucity of any agreements" between the accounts in Matthew and Luke (129). He repeats common objections to Luke's census account (139-140). Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem (160). And so on. I've addressed such issues in the past, and I'll be doing so again during the upcoming Christmas season. The current series of posts will focus on the virgin birth.

Though Lincoln is wrong in much of what he says, there's a lot that he's right about. As far as we know, Jesus could be sinless without a virginal conception. If he was conceived through sexual intercourse between Joseph and Mary, he would have more solidarity with mankind in that context. Deriving a virgin birth from Matthew's gospel isn't as easy as most people think. I agree with Lincoln that phrases like "son of David" and "son of Joseph" are most naturally taken as contradictions of a virgin birth. Ancient views of human reproduction were deficient, and Christians need to rethink the incarnation in light of modern knowledge. He cites a large number and variety of concepts and sources, including material written as recently as 2012 and earlier this year. Even those who disagree with Lincoln on the virgin birth and other issues are likely to learn a lot from the book.

(As they become available, I'll link future parts in the series here: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)


  1. Jason, I have a question. Are you implying that this guy is not a Christian because he doesn't believe in the virgin birth?

    1. Mike wrote:

      "Are you implying that this guy is not a Christian because he doesn't believe in the virgin birth?"


      Adherence to a belief is related to salvation in more than one way. For example, must a person believe in the virgin birth in order to become a Christian? No. Scripture doesn't say or suggest that it's necessary, and I doubt that individuals like the thief on the cross had a belief in the virgin birth when they were justified. On the other hand, the virgin birth is correct, important, and repeatedly taught by scripture with significant clarity, so ignorance or denial of it would be sinful, to differing degrees, under some circumstances. Denial of the virgin birth would be evidence against salvation in the sort of secondary sense in which something like pride, impatience, or denying that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead would be. Somebody might be involved in that sort of behavior, yet be a Christian, but the behavior is inconsistent with his Christian identity. Denial of the virgin birth is evidence against salvation, but inconclusive by itself.

  2. "I agree with Lincoln that phrases like "son of David" and "son of Joseph" are most naturally taken as contradictions of a virgin birth."

    It will be interesting to see how you respond to this. If you think that the text are "most" naturally taken, then does that mean that your reading will be unnatural. If so doesn't that put you at a decided disadvantage?

    1. Pseudo-Augustine,

      The second part in the series should answer your questions. Let me know if it doesn't.

      Reasoning through an issue like the historicity of the virgin birth involves tradeoffs. Some evidence seems to lead in one direction, and other evidence seems to lead in another direction. The same occurs in many other contexts in life, like court cases. Advocates of the historicity of the virgin birth shouldn't deny that they're at a disadvantage in some contexts. You don't have to think that you're at an advantage in every context, or deny that there are any difficulties with your position, in order to think that it's the best position to take on balance.

    2. I see what you meant now. I actually realized it after I read the post for a second time, but I didn't want to cover up my mistake. I started reading some of Machen's work last night, and he seems to deal with most of these issues, at least the questions of biblical interpretation. Does Lincoln interact with Machen?

      In Christ,

    3. Blake,

      Yes, he cites Machen many times and is highly critical of him. I'll be saying more about that in Wednesday's post.



  4. As a former student of Andrew Lincoln's I am interested (but distressed) by this development. What I ask Dr Lincoln is how, if Joseph is the father of Jesus this buttresses the incarnation. To be sure, it guarantees Jesus' full humanity - but the incarnation is God taking on human flesh and that requires Jesus is not just fully man. What 'solidarity' with us in our humanity is left if Jesus is but a man and fully so? God has not shared 'our flesh and blood' Heb.2:14, what of His deliverance Heb.2.15? If he is 'made like his brothers' Heb.2.17 are we not all too? Where is the uniqueness of Christ in this?