Monday, November 04, 2013

Andrew Lincoln's Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 2)

(To read part 1, go here.)

There's a lesson to be learned from the title of Lincoln's book. What do people have in mind when they refer to Jesus' being "born of a virgin"? They may be thinking of a virginal conception, without the intention of suggesting that Mary remained a virgin until after the birth. The point is that the child was born from a woman who was a virgin at the time of conception. Others accept the historicity of Matthew 1:25 as a reference to Mary's virginity until after the birth, so they think she was a virgin both at the time of conception and at the time when Jesus was born. Some would include virginity in partu, while others would define the virginity as consisting only of the avoidance of sexual intercourse. Terms like "born of a virgin" and "virgin birth" are somewhat flexible.

Early in the book, Lincoln explains that "For the sake of convenience and stylistic variation, 'virgin birth' is employed interchangeably in this book with the more accurate designation for the topic under discussion, namely, 'virginal conception'." (n. 4 on 2) There are tradeoffs involved in our use of language. We give up one thing to gain another. For example, we might use a less exact and more potentially misleading term due to that term's brevity and familiarity. The term "birth" is shorter than "conception", and people are more familiar with "virgin birth" than "virginal conception".

What happens if we take these principles, suggested as early in Lincoln's book as the title on its front cover, and apply them to the New Testament and other ancient sources? How plausible is it that documents not intended to deny Jesus' virgin birth would use phrases like "born of the seed of David according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3) and "son of Joseph" (John 1:45) without offering any further qualification? If the authors were using terminology that was less precise and more potentially misleading in order to gain something else, what did they think they were gaining?

The Judaism that produced Christianity had stock phrases it had been using for centuries. A younger man raised by an older man would be called a "son", even in cases in which a biological relationship wasn't involved. In the modern United States, where I've lived all of my life, my impression is that people recognize some differences between a biological son and an adopted one, yet think it's appropriate to refer to both as "son", often without including any further qualification. There were similar practices in ancient Israel. Messianic expectation is another relevant area in which Judaism passed on some concepts and terminology that were adopted by Christianity. The Messiah was to be a "son of David", "seed of David", "root of Jesse", and so forth.

If Paul and his source in Romans 1:3 believed in the virgin birth, what might they have been seeking to gain by using stock Jewish terminology that would most naturally be read as contrary to a virginal conception? Two advantages that could be gained from using such terminology would be familiarity and continuity. People were familiar with the Messianic language that had been used by Judaism for many years. And using such language would heighten the sense of continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

(Why did the Old Testament authors making the predictions use such terminology to begin with? That's not the focus of this series of posts, so I'm just making some brief parenthetical comments on the subject. Keep in mind that the Old Testament terminology would have already had a long history behind it prior to its incorporation into the Old Testament. It would have been known that a term like "son" or "seed" could be used to refer to more than one type of relationship. The God who inspired the Old Testament authors and/or the authors themselves would have been motivated by concerns for brevity, coherence, style, literary conventions, not wanting to reveal the virgin birth prematurely, etc. God and/or the authors could have known that the prophecy fulfillments would be accompanied by contexts that would clarify the meaning of the terminology. The disadvantages of the language would be offset by advantages like the ones referred to above.)

Much depends here on the background knowledge of the audiences to whom men like Paul and John were writing. As we'll see later, the evidence suggests that belief in the virgin birth was deep and widespread among the earliest Christians. Sources like Matthew, Luke, and Ignatius refer to the virgin birth, yet apply terms like "son of David" and "seed of David" to Jesus elsewhere in their writings. Somebody like Paul could use such phrases while having his audience's background knowledge of the virgin birth in mind, even though he doesn't refer to the virgin birth in what he writes to that audience.

Similarly, John wouldn't need to correct or clarify Philip's comments in John 1:45 if he expected his audience to be familiar with the virgin birth. As Craig Keener notes while commenting on another passage in John's gospel, "Many ironies in Greek tragedies did not need to be spelled out because the story was already well known to the audience." (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 730-731) Sometimes authors don't spell something out if they think their audience already knows it or can easily figure it out.

Think of the opening of Mark's gospel. Jesus is referred to as "the Son of God" (1:1). If that phrase is isolated from some of its contexts, what does it seem to most naturally imply? Apparently, God is a man who had sexual intercourse with a woman and produced a son. But if you take Mark's phrase in its relevant contexts, such as what sort of being God is usually considered to be and how ancient Judaism and Christianity in particular viewed God, you understand that the phrase "the Son of God" isn't defined in the way the phrase would most naturally be taken independent of such contexts.

Or consider the following extrabiblical example. Let's say you possess several letters exchanged between an older man and a younger one. In those letters, the men refer to each other as "father" and "son", respectively, dozens of times without further qualification. What would be the most natural way to interpret their relationship? Most likely, they have a biological relationship as father and son. The son was produced through the father's sexual intercourse with a woman. But what if a third party came along, one with a credible claim to possessing relevant information about the two men who wrote the letters, and he told you that the men's relationship is adoptive rather than biological? You'd probably change your view of those dozens of phrases used by two sources on the basis of that one comment made by one third party source. Why? Words like "father" and "son" are highly flexible, more flexible than the credibility of such a third party source. Though "father" and "son" usually refer to a biological relationship, it doesn't take much evidence to overcome that linguistic tendency.

The degree to which a phrase like "son of David" seems inconsistent with a virgin birth depends on the details involved. Matthew, Luke, and the other earliest sources to comment on the virgin birth don't give us much information to go by. We don't know much about the means by which God brought about the virgin birth. He could have created, at that time, whatever was needed, such as a Y chromosome, to supplement what Mary provided. Or material within Mary could have been transformed into what was needed. Or the needed material could have been transferred from Joseph to Mary, for example. The second and third scenarios just mentioned would be reminiscent of Adam's creation from the dust (Genesis 2:7) and Jesus' use of material like spit and clay to perform miracles (Mark 8:23, John 9:6), for instance.

Let's say God used the third scenario, in which material is transferred from Joseph to Mary. Under that scenario, terminology like what's found in Romans 1:3 would be significantly less problematic. Physical material from Joseph is being used, though without sexual intercourse. Lincoln objects, "If the Y chromosome supplied was a human one but miraculously transferred without sexual contact, what was the point of the miracle and what is the message it conveys about sexuality?" (260) The miracle would be "a sign" (Isaiah 7:14), and it wouldn't be about sexuality.

Throughout this discussion, we need to distinguish between how different sources are defining their terms. How does the Bible define humanity, for example? Adam and Eve were human without having been conceived through sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Similarly, John the Baptist is approvingly portrayed as saying that God can create children of Abraham from stones (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). A Biblical definition of humanity, or of being a descendant of David, could differ from a patristic, medieval Roman Catholic, or modern biological definition. If scripture is making claims about Jesus' humanity and Davidic descent that are qualified in ways in which they aren't qualified in other contexts, then we need to keep that distinction in mind. If the Bible isn't claiming to be addressing the standards of a medieval theologian or modern biologist, why hold it to those standards?

When Lincoln cites a passage like Hebrews 2:17 against the virgin birth, why should we think the author of Hebrews was reasoning in Lincoln's categories? When the author of Hebrews refers to how Jesus was "tempted in all things" (4:15), he wasn't claiming that Jesus was tempted in every conceivable detail in which other humans have been tempted. It's not as though Jesus had to be tempted to abuse a modern drug that didn't exist in the society of his day, for example. Rather, the author of Hebrews seems to be saying that there are some general categories of sin that Jesus was faced with. And even within those categories, there would be differences between what he was tempted with and what others were tempted with. Similarly, Hebrews 2:17 could involve some general characteristics without identity in every detail. Why should we think Jesus would have to attain a Y chromosome by means of sexual intercourse between two humans in order to meet the definition of humanity held by the author of Hebrews? Just as Adam, Eve, the children of Abraham John the Baptist refers to, and Jesus in Matthew, Luke, and other virgin birth sources were considered human without meeting Lincoln's standard, the same could be true of Jesus in Hebrews.

I'm not denying that terminology such as we find in Romans 1:3 and John 1:45 is favorable to Lincoln's position. What I'm saying is that we need to be careful in discerning the degree to which such evidence favors his view. If all we had to go by were the letters most commonly attributed to Paul, would we conclude that Jesus was born of a virgin? No. We'd conclude that he most likely was a natural son of a man who was a descendant of David. The same goes for Mark's gospel. And the Johannine literature. And Hebrews. Similarly, 2 Peter 3:15-16 implies agreement with the Pauline literature on this subject, and James, 1 Peter, and Jude don't discuss a virgin birth. But there's a lot of other evidence to consider, including much that Lincoln doesn't address.

My focus in this post has been on the flexibility of the New Testament language Lincoln emphasizes. What he's doing is assigning more weight to less forceful New Testament evidence that's found in a larger number of places than the contrary evidence that's more forceful. Matthew and Luke are addressing Jesus' conception more directly and at more length than passages like Romans 1:3.

In my next post, I'm going to argue that the New Testament evidence for the virgin birth is better than Lincoln suggests. Then I'll argue that he's overestimated the extrabiblical evidence for his view and underestimated the extrabiblical evidence against it. I'll argue that the totality of the evidence for the virgin birth, much of which Lincoln ignores, outweighs the evidence against it.

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


  1. Great post. Thanks for the clarifications. I actually went back and read some relevant sections from Machen's "The Virgin Birth of Christ"

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with Lincoln's proposals. It appears that Lincoln is proposing that the idea of Jesus' natural conception should be considered "normative" during the apostolic era while the tradition of the virginal conception was a minority view that later became normative in Christian tradition. Yet is it meaningful to define as "normative" the view of those who either did not know about the tradition of the virginal conception or who were not sure at the time they wrote whether or not this tradition should be accepted as normative? If the tradition of the virginal conception arose gradually during the first century as, say, a tradition that was based upon testimony of Mary that she only shared with a small circle of confidants and that later came to be affirmed by the leaders of Palestinian churches as derived ultimately from Mary and as fitting with everything else they knew of Jesus Christ, then someone like Paul writing in the 50's would either have not known about this tradition or he would not have lived long enough to have learned of its approval by the Palestinian churches where the knowledge of this tradition was going through a process of being learned, tested, and finally approved. If this was how the tradition of the virginal conception developed in Palestine before it was spread to other churches, such as the church in Antioch, then it seems arbitrary to label as "normative" the viewpoint that Jesus was conceived by natural means since such a viewpoint was deficient in knowledge of the developing status of the tradition of the virginal conception. Also, it does seem that the tradition of the Davidic descent of Jesus was known and affirmed by leaders of the church earlier than the tradition of the virginal conception. However, it is quite understandable why this was so if the tradition of the virginal conception arose out of a process in which leaders of the Palestinian church gradually affirmed it based upon an examination of stories that were rooted in Mary's sharing her very intimate experience with a few chosen confidants after she herself came to understand it better as a member of the church following the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Finally, it is likely that the tradition of the virginal conception was incorporated as part of the apostolic tradition as didache or teaching (offered to those who believed in the Gospel of the crucified and risen Lord or who were being prepared for baptism) rather than as kerygma or preaching (for the virginal conception was not a part of the kerygma). It seems likely that Paul would not have been instructed by the church in Syria at the time of his apostolic commission or by Peter and James when he met with them about a year and a half after his apostolic commission that the virginal conception was a part of the apostolic didache during the time of his ministry because it was not yet confirmed as didache when he was active as an apostle. Thus he would have kept silent about it even if he may have been aware that this tradition was circulating among Palestinian Christians in the middle of the first century.

    1. Wayne,

      For reasons I explain later in this series of posts, I think belief in the virginal conception was widespread during the apostolic era and is affirmed by Paul indirectly in 1 Timothy 5:18. Many Christian documents written after Matthew and Luke don't mention the virgin birth, and those who mention it in some places often don't mention it in other relevant contexts. I wouldn't expect it to be brought up much by somebody like Paul, in his extant literature, even if he believed in it. There are many miracles affiliated with Jesus that Paul doesn't single out for mention. How many of Paul's own miracles does he single out in his letters?