Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Andrew Lincoln's Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 3)

(Go to the following links for previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2.)

I agree with much of what Lincoln says about the virgin birth in Matthew. The concept is found in Matthew's gospel, but not as clearly as most people think. I would argue, however, that the evidence for a virgin birth in Matthew is somewhat better than Lincoln suggests.

For example, he rightly notes that a phrase like "with child by the Holy Spirit" (1:18) could be applied to scenarios in which God assists conception through sexual intercourse (Genesis 29:31, 30:22, 1 Samuel 1:27). Furthermore, just as the sin and shame of the cross could be used for good, so could the sin and shame of Mary's being raped or involved in fornication. Jesus could be conceived through rape or fornication, yet still be God incarnate and a sinless Savior. But what does the notion of conceiving through the Holy Spirit normally imply? Old Testament examples like Leah and Hannah involve God's assisting individuals through non-sinful means. Matthew 1 could involve an exception, but the burden of proof would rest with those who think an exception is involved. Since Mary was engaged to Joseph, any sexual intercourse with another man would have been sinful. If God worked through a non-sinful means, as with women like Leah and Hannah, then a virginal conception has to be in view. And the remainder of what's said about Mary in Matthew 1-2, including her close association with the righteous Joseph (Matthew 1:19), most naturally suggests that she was similarly righteous.

Furthermore, the reference to Joseph's not knowing Mary until she gave birth in 1:25 seems to be best explained by the citation of Isaiah in 1:23. Verse 23 tells us that the woman conceives and bears a son. Matthew, who shows so much concern for prophecy fulfillment, is showing, in 1:25, that Isaiah's prediction was fulfilled both in terms of the conception and the birth. And Mary couldn't have been a virgin at the time of birth unless she'd been a virgin at the time of conception as well.

An alternative interpretation is that the reference to Joseph's not having sexual intercourse with Mary until after the birth was meant as an illustration of Joseph's righteousness mentioned in 1:19, since it was often considered appropriate to refrain from intercourse during pregnancy. But 1:23 is a closer context than 1:19. And if Matthew just wanted to further illustrate Joseph's righteousness, how likely is it that he'd happen to choose an example that lines up so well with the Isaiah passage he had just cited? Maybe Matthew was addressing both issues simultaneously. But it's unlikely that fulfillment of the Isaiah passage wasn't at least part of what Matthew had in mind. It follows that he thought Mary fulfilled the Isaiah passage by means of both virginal conception and virginal birth.

Lincoln thinks that Luke's gospel presents two traditions about Jesus' conception side-by-side. The virgin birth tradition is there, but accompanied by the tradition that Jesus was Joseph's natural son (1:32, 2:4, etc.). He claims that other ancient sources reported multiple traditions, even seemingly contradictory ones, side-by-side. Luke was following that practice.

One of my first reactions to Lincoln's argument was to think of the opening of Luke's gospel. Luke wanted to convey "exact truth" (1:4). He wanted to sift the many reports circulating, examining the evidence carefully, to present an orderly account (1:1-3). That's not the sort of context in which we'd expect contradictory views of Jesus' conception to be presented side-by-side.

And where else do we see such an approach in Luke's writings? He composed more of the New Testament than any other author. Where else do we see him doing something like referring to Jesus as a natural son of Joseph (1:32-33), immediately followed by a passage about a virginal conception (1:34-45), one that refers back to the earlier verses as if they're consistent with what followed (1:34, 1:45)? If there was an ancient convention of contradicting oneself so explicitly, the absurdity of the convention likely rendered it a minority practice. And the remainder of Luke's writings suggest he didn't think much of the convention.

When Lincoln is arguing for an ancient convention of presenting differing traditions side-by-side, he cites examples that seem to have little relevance to Luke's gospel. He tells us that the literary convention was "sometimes" practiced by biographers (120). He cites several examples, and I'm not familiar with all of the relevant details. But some of what Lincoln cites seems distant from Luke's context. For example:

Plutarch also offers a number of accounts of the conception of Romulus. Some, he tells us, hold that he was son of Aeneas and Dexithea, others that he was born to Latinus and Roma. Both of these would have been natural conceptions. But then Plutarch reports 'the story which is most believed' about Romulus' origins. It concerns Amulius, whose niece, Ilia, is a vestal virgin. After she is discovered to be pregnant and has given birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, she claims their father is the god Mars (Rom. 2-4)….

Philostratus relates that 'the people of Tyana say that Apollonius is a son of Zeus; the sage himself says that he is the son of Apollonius [his father of the same name]' (Vit. Apoll. 1.6). (120-121)

How are such practices comparable to what Lincoln claims we find in Luke? Does Luke say that he's reporting different traditions held by different sources? No, he doesn't. Even if the convention Lincoln attributes to Luke was followed by some ancient biographers, it doesn't seem to have been followed by Luke, for reasons I've explained. And it doesn't seem to be as common among other sources as Lincoln suggests, given how irrelevant at least some of his examples are.

Most likely, Luke thought that phrases like "son of David" and "seed of David" were consistent with a virginal conception, much as sources like Matthew and Ignatius did. The vast majority of interpreters of Luke over the centuries, including the earliest ones known to us, have thought so.

Although Lincoln is knowledgeable of and interacts with a broad range of sources, he says nothing of Craig Keener's recent commentary on Acts. The first volume came out in 2012, and Lincoln cites other sources that came out that year or later. Keener argues at length for a high view of Luke's historical reliability. Contrast what Keener argues about the nature of ancient biography and the nature of Luke's writings in particular to Lincoln's lower view (e.g., 142).

What about the rest of the New Testament? For the most part, I'm in agreement with Lincoln about the absence of reference to the virgin birth. I doubt that passages like Galatians 4:4 and John 1:13 have a virginal conception in view.

But Lincoln never discusses 1 Timothy 5:18, which I take to be a reference to Luke's gospel as scripture. For a discussion of the evidence, see George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 233-235 and Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 205-207. Notice that 1 Timothy not only cites Luke as scripture, but even does so without any apparent expectation that such a citation would need to be explained or defended. If 1 Timothy 5:18 is referring to Luke's gospel as scripture, as I believe, the implication is that the passage is indirectly affirming Luke's report of a virgin birth.

Lincoln claims that Paul and Mark contradict the virginal conception. But notice how much Luke and 1 Timothy were influenced by Paul (even if the traditional authorship attributions of Luke and 1 Timothy are rejected) and how much Matthew and Luke were influenced by Mark (in their use of Mark as a source). Lincoln acknowledges Luke's high view of Paul (52, 57), and he refers to the Christians associated with 2 Timothy, which has a close relationship with 1 Timothy, as "Pauline" (27). The advocacy of the virgin birth in Matthew, Luke, and 1 Timothy is more coherent if Paul and Mark held the same view. It would be possible for the former to think highly of the latter, yet disagree with them about Jesus' conception. But their agreement on the subject makes more sense of the evidence. As we'll see in my next three posts, widespread early agreement on the virgin birth also makes a lot more sense of the extrabiblical evidence.

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

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