Saturday, December 22, 2018

How Should We Argue For The Virgin Birth?

Steve Hays drew my attention to a recent interview with William Lane Craig in the New York Times, part of which discusses the virgin birth. Craig's responses to the questions he's asked are of mixed quality, and I won't be responding to most of what he said. But I want to comment on his remarks about the virgin birth.

He didn't have much space to discuss the issue, and he made some good points in the short space he had. But I would have addressed the subject differently.

Better than citing the multiple attestation provided by Matthew and Luke would be to cite the fact that widespread early belief in the virgin birth is the best explanation for why the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy wasn't more controversial in early Christian and non-Christian circles. The premarital timing of the pregnancy is highly unlikely to have been made up by the early Christians. It seems to be something that was widely known early on. So, the lack of controversy over it needs to be explained. An accompanying belief in a virgin birth, accepted by Paul and other early Christians long before Matthew and Luke were written, is the best explanation. And even non-conservative scholars often acknowledge that the gospel material on the virgin birth is derived from pre-gospel sources. For these and other reasons, we ought to conclude that belief in the virgin birth not only predates the gospels, but was even widespread in that pre-gospel timeframe. Celsus and his Jewish source(s) attribute the virgin birth claim to Jesus himself rather than portraying it as something made up a couple or a few decades later, for example.

Craig shouldn't have used the brief space he had to claim that there are no Jewish or pagan parallels to the virgin birth. The more important point is that there's no evidence of borrowing from such sources. Critics can't just allege that there are Jewish and/or pagan parallels to the virgin birth. They need to go on to the second step of arguing that the Christian claim was in some significant way derived from the sources in question. They not only can't do that, but also would have to overcome a lot of evidence to the contrary in attempting to establish their allegation. There are many explicit and implicit anti-pagan sentiments throughout the New Testament. That's not the sort of environment in which we'd expect borrowing from paganism. The burden of proof is on the shoulders of those who want us to believe that such borrowing occurred. That's a better point to make than to claim that no parallels exist, which invites critics to then bring up one alleged parallel after another. Each supposed parallel has to be discussed, after which the critic can just go look for another one. They often aren't particularly careful about claiming supposed parallels, so the potential for wasting time and misleading people is large.

Another point that ought to be made in these discussions, which Craig didn't bring up, is that a virgin birth not only wasn't expected by ancient Jews, but even diminishes Jesus' fulfillment of one of the most widely expected characteristics of the Messiah. He was expected to be a descendant of David. And a virgin birth would diminish Jesus' claim to Davidic ancestry. Why make up a claim about a Messianic figure that gives him a characteristic the Messiah wasn't expected to have at the expense of diminishing a characteristic he was so widely expected to have?

The best argument for the virgin birth is the evidence for the Divine inspiration of the documents that affirm it. But Craig doesn't bring the subject up, and his comments about issues like the historicity of the Old Testament and Biblical inerrancy weaken the case for Divine inspiration and make people who are influenced by Craig less likely to appeal to it. But we should appeal to it. Scripture is Divinely inspired, and the evidence for its inspiration is a good argument for beliefs like the virgin birth.

For more about making an argument for the virgin birth, see here and here.

1 comment:

  1. I've often heard Richard Carrier argue that Rom. 1:3 supports his Christ Myth theory because Paul uses an unusual word for "came from". I wonder if he hasn't missed the possibility that Paul used that word because he was hinting at the unique conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary.

    Carrier wrote:

    //The problem posed is that in Romans 1:3 Paul says Jesus “came from the seed of David according to the flesh,” which historicists insist proves Paul knew Jesus was an ordinary man once living on earth, because this verse proves he believed he was a descendant of David. And a cosmically incarnated Jesus could hardly be descended from David.

    But there is in turn a problem with that.

    Paul does not say Jesus descended from David or was a descendant of David. Paul never says anything about his even having a father. Or being born. He only ever says his flesh, upon his incarnation, “came from the seed of David,” and was therefore Jewish and messianic flesh. He does not ever explain what he means by “came from.” The word Paul uses can sometimes mean birth in some other authors, but it is not the word Paul ever uses for birth (gennaô); instead, it’s the word he uses for God’s manufacture of Adam’s body from clay, and God’s manufacture of our future resurrection bodies in heaven (ginomai). Neither of which are born or have parents or are descendants of anyone.

    In short, what Paul says in Romans 1:3 is, for Paul, weird. It’s weird even if Jesus existed. Christians even found it so weird themselves, they tried doctoring later manuscripts to replace this word that Paul only uses of manufacture and “coming to be,” with Paul’s preferred word for birth. So saying this passage is also weird if Jesus didn’t exist leaves us at a wash.

    What I think is most likely is that Paul means what the first Christians he is mimicking no doubt meant, that God manufactured Jesus out of sperm taken directly from David’s belly exactly as prophecy declared he would (a concept already more rational than God manufacturing Eve from a rib taken directly from Adam’s side). Which, if Jesus didn’t exist, would most likely have occurred in outer space (although that’s not necessarily the case—ahistoricity is also compatible with earthly events imagined in distant mythical places, like Eden: OHJ, Ch. 11, n. 67—but the cosmic hypothesis has more evidence and precedent). More on that later. But it is this “cosmic sperm” hypothesis that Tweet thinks is implausible. He ignored, of course, all the evidence I presented in OHJ establishing it is plausible, and indeed the most plausible hypothesis yet on offer. But for now let’s just grasp the nature of the problem before we examine the solution.//