Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Andrew Lincoln's Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 4)

(Go to the following links for previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

Consider the implications of Lincoln's reading of the New Testament. He thinks belief in Joseph as the natural father of Jesus was the majority position among the Christians of the New Testament era. He thinks the view is found in documents he assigns to the end of the first century (186), perhaps even later in one or more cases. He claims that the view was held by such influential figures as Paul and the authors of Mark's gospel and the Johannine literature. Think of all of the individuals, churches, and other groups influenced by such leaders, including through their writings. Accordingly, we'd expect the view that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between Joseph and Mary to be widespread in the early extrabiblical Christian and non-Christian sources. Is that what we find? I'll address the early Christian sources in this post and the early non-Christian sources in the post that follows.

Lincoln cites some comments of Irenaeus and later sources, to the effect that the virgin birth was one of the core beliefs of Christianity and was held by Christians across a vast geographical spectrum. At one point, he refers to the "dialogue" (involving multiple views) concerning Jesus' conception found in the New Testament, which "soon became a monologue" (123). How soon? Too soon for Lincoln's position to be credible, I would argue. Irenaeus wrote in the late second century, so, in light of Lincoln's concession about such later sources, my focus in this post will be on the middle of the second century and earlier.

Lincoln frequently criticizes J. Gresham Machen, who wrote a book arguing for the virgin birth more than eighty years ago. And Machen deserves to be criticized on some points. However, you wouldn't have much of an appreciation of the strengths of Machen's work if you judged it by Lincoln's assessment. One of the best parts of Machen's book is his chapter on the early extrabiblical sources. Lincoln ignores a lot of good points made by Machen in that chapter. But there's some extrabiblical evidence for the virgin birth that Machen doesn't address. What I'll be doing is bringing up some of Machen's arguments and supplementing them with some of my own.

Here's Lincoln's highly misleading assessment of the earliest patristic sources:

Writings such as 1 and 2 Clement, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Polycarp and the Epistle to Diognetus appear not to have been aware of the tradition of a virginal conception. In a number of cases this is clearly not because they did not have the occasion to say anything about Jesus' origins. The Epistle of Barnabas 5 has an extended discussion about the incarnation and the sufferings of Christ but simply talks of Christ's coming or appearing in the flesh, and elsewhere this letter speaks of Christ as the son of David (12). Similarly, the Epistle to Diognetus 9 reflects on the manifestation of Christ but is content to talk about the sending of the Word to humanity. Elsewhere the incarnation is seen in terms of a Spirit Christology. The Shepherd of Hermas speaks of God making the holy Spirit dwell in the chosen flesh of the Son and of this flesh then being subject to the Spirit in holy living (Herm. Sim. 5.6), while 2 Clement holds that Christ the Lord was 'first spirit, and then became flesh' (9.5; cf. also 14.2). (169)

None of the evidence Lincoln draws from the earliest patristic sources is inconsistent with the virgin birth position. Who, among virgin birth advocates, suggests that any discussion of Jesus' entrance into the world must include a reference to the virgin birth? The fact that a source could have mentioned the virgin birth doesn't mean that he should have.

And the idea that the sources Lincoln mentions "appear not to have been aware of the tradition of a virginal conception" is absurd. To get some idea of how widely Matthew and Luke and the traditions behind them are reflected in these patristic sources, see, for example, Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).

The gospels were known to some extent even among non-Christians during the late first century to the middle of the second. Ancient Jewish tradition that was attributed to the first century reflects detailed knowledge of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5 (see R. Travers Herford, Christianity In Talmud And Midrash [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003], 146-147). Eusebius refers to Quadratus and many others around the time of the apostles distributing copies of the gospels to non-Christians they were evangelizing (Church History, 3:37). Aristides expects non-Christians to have access to a gospel he cites and invites them to read it (Apology, 2). He mentions the virgin birth as something people could read about in the gospel. Trypho, a Jewish opponent of Justin Martyr, comments that he's read one or more of the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Justin places his exchange with Trypho in the 130s. Are we to believe that such non-Christians had so much access to the gospels, and sometimes read them, yet the Christian sources Lincoln refers to had never even heard of the virgin birth tradition, which is recorded in two of the gospels (including Matthew, the most popular of the gospels at the time)?

The virgin birth tradition would have been communicated in unwritten form as well. Justin's exchange with Trypho is an example. Lincoln comments that Celsus, in his arguments against the virgin birth, draws from some Jewish traditions about Jesus' conception that go back to at least the early second century (169). It seems that a lot of Christianity's early opponents were aware of the virgin birth claim, through both written and unwritten reports. The same would have been true to an even larger degree with the early Christians.

Around the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr gives us a description of church services in the city of Rome (First Apology, 67). He mentions that the gospels or the Old Testament scriptures are read during those services. If the reading of the gospels was a regular part of Christian church services in Rome at the time, why should we think the Christians in Rome mentioned by Lincoln would never have even heard of the virginal conception?

Lincoln will go on to discuss Ignatius' advocacy of the virgin birth. Ignatius discusses the concept in documents written from or to locations that are also associated with some of the patristic sources Lincoln lists above. If Ignatius was writing to such Christians about the virgin birth in the early second century, and was writing in a manner suggesting he expected them to be familiar with the concept and to have accepted it, how likely is it that Christians writing from those locations around the same time or afterward had never even heard of the virgin birth?

Polycarp's letter to the Philippians refers to and commends the letters of Ignatius (13). As I mentioned above, those letters repeatedly advocate the virgin birth.

The Epistle Of Barnabas seems to cite a passage from Matthew's gospel with the introduction "as it is written" (4). The author probably not only knew of Matthew's gospel, but even considered it scripture.

Similarly, Second Clement identifies as scripture a passage that seems to be taken from either Matthew or Mark (2). Given how frequently Matthew was used in the early church and how seldom Mark was, and given how often other Matthean material appears in Second Clement, a citation from Matthew seems more likely. At the least, the passage should caution us against Lincoln's conclusion that sources like Second Clement had never even heard of the virgin birth tradition. Most likely, they not only had heard of it, but even affirmed it.

Though Lincoln cites a lot of the material from the writings of Ignatius that's relevant to the virgin birth, he doesn't draw out some of the most significant implications. For example, consider the churches Ignatius was writing from and writing to when he advocated the virgin birth: Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus. They're all apostolic churches, some of which had recently been in contact with multiple apostles.

When writing to the Smyrnaeans, he commends them for being "totally convinced" of the virgin birth, among other beliefs (1). Polycarp, a disciple of John, was bishop of the Smyrnaean church at the time. He, especially as a leader of the church, would have been included among those Ignatius commends for holding to the virgin birth. He commends Polycarp without mentioning his name (12), wrote a letter to Polycarp that's still extant, and is commended by Polycarp in the latter's letter to the Philippians (9, 13). They knew each other well and had mutual respect. Polycarp recommends Ignatius' letters to the Philippians, and those letters repeatedly advocate the virgin birth. Polycarp's belief in the virginal conception is highly probable in light of the evidence just cited, and that conclusion is corroborated by Irenaeus' later testimony about the beliefs of Polycarp (e.g., Against Heresies, 3:3:4; cf. 1:10:1-2), who was Irenaeus' mentor.

The Smyrnaean church is also significant as one of the recipients of Revelation (Revelation 2:8). The book is commonly dated to the last several years of the first century. It's one of the documents Lincoln cites against the virgin birth, since it puts a lot of emphasis on Jesus' Davidic descent (3:7, 5:5, 22:16) without mentioning a virgin birth. Yet, Ignatius' letter to the Smyrnaeans tells us that the church of Smyrna was convinced of the virgin birth probably less than two decades after receiving Revelation. It looks as though the early Smyrnaean interpreters of Revelation didn't interpret the book as Lincoln does.

We can further test Lincoln's interpretation of Revelation by examining Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians. That church, too, had received Revelation less than two decades earlier (Revelation 2:1). When writing to the Ephesians, Ignatius mentions the virgin birth in passing (19), as if the Ephesians already knew of it and wouldn't need to be persuaded of it. Note that the Ephesian church was not only Johannine, but Pauline as well.

Ignatius was a bishop in Antioch. The church there was both Petrine and Pauline (Galatians 2:11).

Lincoln doesn't discuss Papias' acceptance of Matthew's gospel (in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:16). Though the brief comment Eusebius quotes from Papias concerning Matthew doesn't seem to be directly referring to the extant gospel attributed to the apostle, Eusebius may have been quoting some sort of introductory comment Papias made in the process of discussing Matthew's gospel as we have it. The surrounding context suggests that Eusebius was citing Papias regarding New Testament documents. Though the evidence is somewhat ambiguous, it seems likely that Papias thought highly of Matthew's gospel, which carries implications for his view of the virgin birth. And Papias was a disciple of the apostle John.

Lincoln mentions that the virgin birth is referred to by Aristides, but neglects the larger significance of the passage. Aristides claims to be representing Christians in general. He tells the Roman emperor, to whom his document is addressed, that he can read of the Christian faith in "the gospel", and he mentions the virgin birth as one of the characteristic beliefs of Christians that he'll read about there (Apology, 2). Notice that we see Aristides referring to the virgin birth as one of the characteristic beliefs of Christians in general about half a century before Irenaeus did the same.

There's a passage in Eusebius' Church History (6:14:5-7) in which he discusses a tradition he says Clement of Alexandria received from the early elders. For a fuller discussion of the passage, see here. Lincoln doesn't mention it. Since Eusebius tells us that Clement was relaying a tradition of the early elders, and Clement was born around the middle of the second century, the elders' tradition probably went back at least to the middle of the century. The tradition is contrary to Lincoln's view of the historicity and consistency of the gospels on multiple points, for reasons I discuss in the article linked above.

Lincoln acknowledges that Justin Martyr affirmed the virgin birth, but makes some misleading comments in the process. He quotes an erroneous translation of Justin that makes it look as if Justin referred to some people who rejected the virgin birth as fellow Christians (170). To his credit, Lincoln mentions that the translation is wrong in a footnote, but, then, why did he use that translation to begin with? For example, Michael Slusser's recent edition of Justin's work (Dialogue With Trypho [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003]) has an accurate rendering of the passage, so Lincoln could have used Slusser's version instead. To make matters worse, Lincoln goes on to comment that the passage in question is "frequently and plausibly" cited to support the notion that Justin considered some individuals who rejected the virgin birth to be Christians (171). Lincoln himself later advocates that view of Justin (177). Yet, I see no reason to think Justin expressed such a view in the passage quoted if you correct the error in the translation Lincoln used. Surely the popularity of the interpretation of Justin that Lincoln is referring to is due largely to how widely the false translation has been disseminated. Why, then, should the popularity of that interpretation be cited? Lincoln goes on to refer to some other passages in Justin, but I don't see how any of those support his conclusion either. He provides no supporting argument.

By the way, his misleading translation of Justin isn't the only such material he includes. He also attributes to Ignatius a passage from the spurious longer recension of his letter to the Ephesians (174).

Close to the time of Irenaeus, Melito of Sardis wrote of Jesus as "He who put on a bodily form in the Virgin" (fragment 4 here). Notice that Melito was from Sardis, another of the churches addressed in Revelation (3:1).

Since Lincoln's view of the New Testament involves the authors contradicting one another, and Luke presenting contradictory traditions side-by-side, we should ask whether the early extrabiblical Christians held such a view of the documents. They didn't. And Lincoln admits that harmonization of the documents was popular in the second century. He discusses the gospel harmonies of Justin Martyr and Tatian and refers to harmonization that occurred even earlier (n. 22 on 188). The tradition Clement of Alexandria received from some elders, which I discussed above, also has some harmonizing tendencies. Eusebius, who had access to and consulted many early documents no longer extant, commented that "every believer" had attempted to harmonize the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke (Church History, 1:7:1). Julius Africanus refers to relatives of Jesus who had verified the accuracy of the genealogies (in Eusebius, Church History, 1:7:14). I could cite many other examples. That sort of high view of the historicity and consistency of the infancy narratives and the New Testament in general is widespread in the extrabiblical sources of the earliest centuries.

The sources I've cited contradicting Lincoln's view are early, large in number, geographically widespread, and diverse in their backgrounds, personalities, and theologies, for example. They include individuals and churches who were in close contact with one or more of the apostles and/or New Testament authors. Lincoln maintains that men like Paul and the author(s) of the Johannine documents contradicted the virgin birth, yet the individuals and churches who were close to those men repeatedly affirm that Jesus was born of a virgin.

By contrast, what sources does Lincoln cite in support of his position? Remember, he claims that the belief that Joseph was Jesus' natural father was the majority view during the New Testament era. He claims that the view is found in New Testament documents at least as late as the end of the first century. So, where do we see that perspective on Jesus' conception in the extrabiblical literature? Lincoln cites sources like the Ebionites and Carpocratians and apocryphal and heretical documents like the Gospel Of Philip and the Gospel Of Thomas. He also appeals to some dubious readings of New Testament manuscripts, which don't actually support his conclusion. He makes a vague appeal to some "Gentile Christians" referred to by Origen in the third century (173). The extrabiblical sources supporting a virgin birth are earlier, far more numerous, more geographically widespread, and relationally closer to the apostles and other New Testament authors.

The disparity between Lincoln's reading of the New Testament and what we see in the earliest extrabiblical sources is striking. And, remember, the early extrabiblical sources aren't just highly inconsistent with Lincoln concerning the virgin birth. They're also very inconsistent with his claims about how the earliest Christians viewed the genre, historicity, and consistency of the New Testament documents, for example.

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

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