Friday, November 08, 2013

Andrew Lincoln's Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 6)

(Go to the following links for previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Lincoln often compares the gospels to ancient accounts of pagan gods, emperors, and other figures whose lives are commonly thought to have been recorded unreliably (in part or in whole). The frequent paralleling of the gospels with such accounts is accompanied by a lack of discussion of the most significant evidence that distinguishes the gospels from those other sources. Lincoln sometimes makes comments such as:

They [advocates of the virgin birth] turn out to be just as biased against the miraculous when it comes to other miracles in the ancient world and no more willing than anyone else to accept at face value accounts of other miraculous conceptions in Graeco-Roman literature. This position is, in fact, dependent on a particular view of the authority of Scripture, one that again fails to recognize the nature of Scripture as the words of God in the words of humans of their own time and place....

Taking the difference in our situation as readers [of ancient literature] seriously at the very least raises the question whether it is sufficient to accept the claim of a supernatural birth in the case of Jesus and reject it in the case of Augustus, for example, simply on the grounds that the former is in Scripture. (254-255)

What sort of evidence could we have for a virgin birth claim like the one in the gospels?

The only person who would be able to verify the account by normal human means is the alleged virgin herself, Mary. A man who had intercourse with her during the relevant timeframe, for example, could testify against the virgin birth account, but only Mary would know by normal means that the account was true, if it was. So, there would be value in attaining the testimony of Mary, directly or indirectly (indirectly through what she thought of Jesus in general, what other people believed who were influenced by her, etc.).

We could also look at the circumstances surrounding the virgin birth claim. Is the claim unlikely to have been fabricated under those circumstances? Does the account have characteristics that seem unlikely to have been made up or passed along if false?

And we could ask whether there's any paranormal source of knowledge that gives us reliable information on the subject.

We don't have any direct testimony from Mary. Even if Luke derived some of his infancy material from Mary in some sense, it could have come to him through a mediating source, like James. I see no way to demonstrate that it's probable that Luke (or Matthew or any other relevant source) derived the virgin birth claim directly from Mary.

But the evidence does suggest that Mary was a Christian. Matthew, Luke, and John agree in portraying her as a wavering figure, sort of like Peter or Nicodemus. All three of them record at least one example of her being rebuked by Jesus himself, and all three indicate in other contexts that she was a believer. Mark only mentions the negative aspect, Mary's unfaithfulness, but he doesn't deny that she was a believer. Given the widespread portrayal of Mary as a believer in the other gospels, Acts, and later sources, the best explanation of Mark's silence is that he knew of Mary's status as a believer, but didn't mention it. Somewhat similarly, he surely would have known that James became a believer, but he never refers to that fact when discussing James and makes no reference to the resurrection appearance to him. (Even if the original gospel ended at 16:8, Mark could have anticipated a resurrection appearance to James, as he anticipates the appearances to Peter and others in 14:28 and 16:7, for example.) Mark was writing a biography of Jesus, not a biography of Mary or James. The faith of such individuals would be relevant to a biography of Jesus, but it wouldn't be so important that its absence in Mark would be sufficient to prove that what all of the other sources report about Mary and James is wrong. Most likely, the faith of Mary and James was part of the background knowledge of most of Mark's earliest readers, and the readers who didn't know of it could easily learn it without getting it from Mark. I doubt that Mark would have thought that mentioning it was of much importance.

In addition to Mary's status as a believer, it seems that other relatives of Jesus (referred to by the New Testament, Josephus, Hegesippus, etc.) were believers as well. They would have been influenced by Mary to some extent. (I'll not address, here, the passages about the doubts of Jesus' relatives. I'm going to post on that subject next month. For now, I'll note that their faith is more significant in that it was their more mature response to Jesus. Their faith replaced their doubt, and, so far as we can tell, they died in a state of faith.) We don't know just what role the virgin birth had in Mary's faith or the faith of the other relatives. But their faith is consistent with a virgin birth.

Given the earliness of Matthew and Luke, the claims Luke makes about his sources, the highly Jewish and primitive nature of the infancy narratives, and other factors discussed in previous parts of this series, it's likely that the virgin birth claim was widely circulating early enough to overlap with the lifetime of Jesus' siblings. The atmosphere in which the virgin birth claim was popularized is one in which Mary's testimony is likely to have had significant influence. The popularizing of the tradition in that setting adds some weight, but not much, to the virgin birth claim.

Are there any aspects of the virgin birth accounts that are unlikely to have been made up or passed along if false? Yes.

Matthew and Luke agree that the pregnancy was premarital. Sex between an engaged man and woman was typically considered inappropriate. And the premarital timing of the pregnancy facilitated the widespread charges of illegitimacy among Christianity's early opponents.

Another difficulty with the virgin birth accounts is how they affect perceptions of Jesus' ancestry, as Lincoln's book illustrates. One of the most common Messianic expectations in ancient Judaism was that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. I've argued that a virgin birth is consistent with Davidic ancestry, but it does weaken the force of Jesus' fulfillment of the prophecy. Given how much people were expecting the Messiah to be a descendant of David, and how little he was expected to be born of a virgin, why weaken your claim to the former in order to gain the latter?

Notice the combined effect of the points I've made above. If the premarital timing of the pregnancy is unlikely to have been fabricated, yet the relatives of Jesus held such a high view of him, how would they have reconciled the two? The question can be broadened to include people other than Jesus' relatives. If Mary's pregnancy was known to be premarital, why did individuals like Peter and Paul consider Jesus the Messiah, Son of God, and such? It's possible that other aspects of Jesus' life, like his resurrection, were thought to justify a high view of him in spite of the inappropriate circumstances surrounding his conception. But early acceptance of the virgin birth tradition makes more sense of the situation. If knowledge of the premarital pregnancy was accompanied by knowledge of the virgin birth, then what we see in early Christianity becomes more coherent.

Though the evidence I've discussed so far lends some support to the virgin birth tradition, the most significant line of evidence, by far, is the testimony of sources with paranormal knowledge. Lincoln dismisses the appeal to scripture as evidence for the virgin birth, but he doesn't interact much with the arguments for a high view of scripture.

In his comments that I quoted at the beginning of this post, Lincoln asks whether it's sufficient to accept Jesus' supernatural birth, while rejecting a supernatural birth for a figure like Augustus, based on an appeal to scripture alone. As I mentioned above, Lincoln doesn't interact much with the arguments for a high view of scripture. And we aren't dependent on scripture alone here. Aside from scriptural authority, why should Christians distinguish between Jesus and Augustus?

Contrast the character, wisdom, and claims of the two men. Jesus is the central figure of human history, the leader of the largest religion in the history of the world, and the centerpiece of an ongoing system of miracles spanning thousands of years, miracles far higher in quantity and quality than we can attribute to a figure like Augustus. See, for example, Craig Keener's Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). I've posted about the contrast between Augustus and Jesus in the past. Jesus is a far more plausible candidate for Divine revelation and supernatural activity than Romulus, Augustus, Apollonius, and the other figures Lincoln frequently parallels to Jesus.

Lincoln is correct to note that miraculous births of some sort are often attributed to various figures in accounts that Christians reject. But one of the reasons why such accounts have been so popular is that it makes so much sense for a supernatural figure, if he exists, to mark a significant birth with miraculous activity. (And we have good evidence for miraculous activity surrounding Jesus' birth, such as his fulfillment of the Davidic descent and Bethlehem prophecies, even if we set aside the virgin birth for the sake of argument.) Birth isn't just significant in fiction. It's significant in non-fiction as well. People celebrate a child's birth. They often commemorate the birth yearly. If we have good evidence for aspects of Jesus' life such as his deity and his resurrection, as Lincoln seems to believe, then miraculous activity surrounding his birth makes more sense accordingly. When we compare the births of Augustus and Jesus, we take the remainder of their lives into account in the process. It's incumbent upon a professing Christian, like Lincoln, to make more of an effort to distinguish between Jesus and the likes of Augustus and Perseus.

1 comment:

  1. "So, there would be value in attaining the testimony of Mary, directly or indirectly (indirectly through what she thought of Jesus in general, what other people believed who were influenced by her, etc.)."

    I think you should write "obtain" instead of "attain" in this quote. Thanks for fascinating discussion. Prof. Lincoln's books severely damaged my faith that is only now limping back to health.

    Merry Christmas to you!