Wednesday, January 06, 2021

A Response To Vincent Torley On The Virgin Birth

He recently posted an article about a lack of evidence for the virgin birth and argued against the historicity of much of the infancy narratives in the process. I want to make several points in response:

- He raises a lot of objections we've already addressed. See here, and you can search our archives to find more.

- He makes much of an article by Yigal Levin, which he cites against "the lazy and historically inaccurate belief that Jesus would have been publicly recognized as Joseph’s son, and as David’s descendant, simply by virtue of being adopted by Joseph…'No such legal institution' as adoption in Jewish law?! I would call that a major problem for Christian apologists. And it all stems from lazy thinking and a failure to ask probing questions." There are a lot of problems with Levin's article. See pages 423-24, for example, where he acknowledges the existence of adoption or variations of it in ancient Jewish culture, but makes dismissive comments like "almost all of these are cases of adoption within the existing family, often by women, who had little, if any, legal status to pass on…Only one of the Jewish papyri from Elephantine mentions something like adoption, apparently of a manumitted slave (Yaron 1961: 40)." You can read the article for more examples of the exceptions he makes. And we're not told what the relevance of legal status would be in the situation the early Christians were addressing. Jewish law and other aspects of ancient Jewish culture weren't intended to address a situation like Jesus' virgin birth. Jesus' birth from a virgin isn't analogous to being biologically descended from a man other than the husband of the mother, nor does a virgin birth have to preclude a biological relationship with the husband of the mother (more on that below). Furthermore, Caleb Friedeman recently published an article arguing against Levin. Friedeman writes, "Evidence for Jewish adoption abounds in the Old Testament, early Jewish texts and inscriptions, and the targums and rabbinic literature….In the latter part of this article, I have presented evidence for Jewish adoption from the Old Testament, early Jewish literature and inscriptions, and the targumim and rabbinic literature. Adoption was written into Israel’s story, and early Jews (and later ones as well) embraced this fact, affirming adoption and practising it themselves in ways that suggest a widely recognised institution. The examples adduced above exhibit varying degrees of similarity to Jesus’ situation in Matthew and Luke (e.g. in some the adoptive parent is female and/or a relative of the child). However, close parallels exist (e.g. Uriah’s adoption of Yedoniah in the Elephantine papyri), and all of the examples support the thesis that in early Judaism non-biological offspring could be reckoned as one’s child." (256, 267)

- Whether a virgin birth involves a non-biological relationship between the child and the husband of the mother depends on the mechanism of the virgin birth. Vincent's article doesn't address the potential for a transfer mechanism to have been used, meaning that there was a transfer of material from Joseph to Mary. That's the view of the virgin birth that I hold, as I've discussed elsewhere. Some of Vincent's objections are irrelevant to that form of a virgin birth.

- I wrote a response to Andrew Lincoln's book on the virgin birth several years ago, and that response discusses some of the Biblical objections raised by Vincent (e.g., Hebrews 2:17).

- 1 Timothy 5:18, which isn't discussed by Vincent, probably refers to Luke's gospel as scripture, as I've discussed elsewhere. And a reference to the gospel of Luke as scripture implies agreement with the virgin birth affirmed in that document.

- Vincent doesn't adequately address the implications of his claim that sources like Paul and the author of the gospel of Mark probably didn't believe in the virgin birth. Remember, there would have been knowledge about and some discussion of the events surrounding Jesus' birth, parentage, etc. for a few decades prior to the start of Jesus' public ministry. So, by the time we get to the closing decades of the first century A.D., which is when Vincent places the gospels of Matthew and Luke, information relevant to Jesus' alleged non-virginal birth would have been disseminated for around 80 years or longer, including by individuals as influential as Paul and the author of the gospel of Mark. Under such a scenario, it's not enough for Vincent to refer to how "there were some doubters" of the virgin birth in the patristic era. I addressed this issue several years ago in my response to Andrew Lincoln. See here regarding how widespread belief in the virgin birth was among the early patristic Christians, and see here regarding what the early non-Christian sources said about the subject. The widespread acceptance of the virgin birth among the early Christian sources and the prominence they give the belief and the comments of the early non-Christian sources on the subject make far more sense if the virgin birth was an earlier and more widespread belief than Vincent suggests.

- It's popular to date Luke's gospel to the last three decades of the first century, but that view is highly unlikely to be correct. Luke probably was written no later than the mid 60s. See here.

- The premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy is unlikely to have been fabricated by the early Christians. As Raymond Brown noted, "If the marital situation between Joseph and Mary [portrayed in Matthew's gospel] were not a fact and could have been created according to the dictates of Christian imagination, it is difficult to see why a situation less open to scandal was not contrived. For instance, instead of picturing Mary as already pregnant, the narrator could have imagined her as betrothed to Joseph but without child. Then he could have had the angel of the Lord appear and begin his message with 'Joseph, son of David, hasten to take Mary your wife into your home.' Everything else in 1:20-25 could follow, and there would be no hint of scandal." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 142-43) That would be more in line with traditional Jewish views regarding the relation between marriage and pregnancy, and it would avoid suspicions about premarital sex and an attempt to avoid accountability for it. So, given the likely historicity of the premarital timing of the pregnancy, why wasn't that premarital timing more of a scandal among the early sources? If knowledge of the premarital pregnancy was accompanied by the claim of a virgin birth, then the lesser degree of scandal becomes more coherent. Christians would have thought that no premarital sex was involved, and non-Christians would have known that any claim of premarital sex that they alleged would be disputed. They'd still make the accusation to some extent, but they'd probably make less of an issue of it than they would have if premarital sex had been acknowledged by the early Christians. So, widespread early Christian belief in a virgin birth makes the most sense of the situation.

- Celsus and his Jewish source(s) have Jesus claiming that he was born of a virgin (in Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28), which would be a remarkable concession for non-Christians to make under Vincent's proposed scenario. If Jesus' relatives, Jesus himself, their neighbors, Paul, the author of the gospel of Mark, etc. had believed in and referred to a non-virginal birth for close to a century prior to the arrival of the virgin birth claim, it would have been easy for Christianity's early opponents to have noticed that inconsistency and to have made an issue of it. Instead, we find them acknowledging an early date for the virgin birth claim.

- Regarding Luke's general historical reliability, see Craig Keener's recent four-volume commentary on Acts, portions of which I've cited and discussed here. And here's a portion of a video series in which Keener discusses Luke's historiography and provides examples of how Luke's accuracy has been demonstrated on various issues. Here's a video of Lydia McGrew discussing how Acts gets hard things right. I and others have argued against the allegation that Luke erred in his census account in Luke 2, but that census material alone wouldn't overturn Luke's general credibility even if we thought he was wrong about the census.

- Vincent appeals to passages like Mark 3:21, arguing that "if Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally, then she would have known he was not crazy". Vincent writes, "why did Jesus’ own brothers disbelieve in him, during his earthly ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:1-5)? Had they heard from Mary about Jesus’ virginal conception, they would certainly not have said that he was out of his mind". That's a bad argument that's been circulating among critics of the infancy narratives for a long time. It ought to be abandoned. Earlier in Mark's gospel, we read about Jesus' performance of miracles as an adult, and the verse just after the one Vincent cites refers to those miracles again (Mark 3:22). Similarly, Jesus was already performing miracles as an adult prior to the passage Vincent cites in John 7. People weren't opposing Jesus because of a lack of miracles. They were opposing him for other reasons. It's absurd to suggest that Jesus' miracles as an adult didn't persuade these people, but that they would have believed if a virgin birth or some other miracle had occurred a few decades earlier. I've responded to Vincent's objection at length, as it was formulated by Raymond Brown, here and here.

- Vincent repeats the common appeal to Luke 2:39 as an alleged contradiction of Matthew's material on the family's residence in Bethlehem. That, too, is a bad objection that ought to be abandoned. See my discussion of it here. As Stephen Carlson has argued, Luke 2 refers to Bethlehem as Joseph's place of residence. Joseph and Mary aren't married yet in Luke 2:5, but they're living together in verse 7. The wedding probably occurred in Bethlehem, where Joseph lived. The most likely timing of the wedding would have been shortly after 1:56, since Joseph and Mary would have wanted to get married sooner rather than later, given Mary's pregnancy. The popular idea that Mary was nine months pregnant at the time of Luke 2:5 is highly unlikely. It's probable that the "While they were there" of verse 6 consisted of close to half a year, not just something like several hours or a day or two. Luke then refers to more than a month of further events before we get to verse 39. So, the amount of time the family spent in Bethlehem makes far more sense if it was their place of residence than if they were just there temporarily for a census. Verse 3 implies that Bethlehem is Joseph's place of residence, the presence of the wedding there implies it, and the amount of time the family spent there implies it. So, why would the family move immediately after the fulfilling of the law referred to in verse 39 if Bethlehem was their place of residence? It's more likely that Luke didn't have immediacy in mind. For more of the evidence to that effect and a discussion of the relevant material in Matthew's gospel, see the post that I linked above.

I think the biggest objection that can be raised against what I've just outlined is that Luke shouldn't have placed so much emphasis on the census if Bethlehem was Joseph's place of residence. But that objection doesn't carry as much weight as the points I've made above, and Luke's interest in emphasizing the census is easy to explain under my view. Remember, the issue here is what Luke emphasizes, which is distinct from what would have most interested Joseph and Mary in the context of the events Luke is reporting. Vincent mentions one of the relevant issues in his article:

At the same time, the early Christians went to great pains to emphasize that Christians were obedient subjects of the Roman empire: hence the Biblical injunction (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26) to “render unto Caesar”; hence Jesus’ statement (John 18:36) that “My kingdom is not of this world”; hence St. Paul’s insistence that “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1). While placing Christ above Caesar, the early Christians also enjoined submission to Caesar, which undoubtedly facilitated the propagation of their religion within the Roman Empire.

Among the gospel writers, Luke especially would have had that sort of interest, since his two-volume work addresses material like what we see in Acts with Paul and other Christians being accused of disrupting society, being involved in riots, etc. Having said all of that, I'll outline one possible scenario Luke had in mind in the opening verses of chapter 2 in his gospel. This isn't the only possibility, and he doesn't give us much to go by, but this is an example of how easily the passage can be interpreted along the lines I'm suggesting.

For whatever reason, Joseph was in Nazareth at the opening of Luke 2. Maybe he had relatives there, with whom he was staying at the time (to visit them, to make arrangements for the upcoming wedding, because he was doing carpentry work in the area, or whatever). The wedding was planned for the end of the month, but he wanted to or had to register for the census before then. Since he needed to go back to Bethlehem for the census, he decided to take Mary with him at that point, since the wedding customs of the day would require him to take her back with him soon anyway (see Carlson's article linked earlier). Though they would have gone to Bethlehem eventually even if the census hadn't occurred, the census did have a role in bringing them there, it was the most immediate and urgent reason Joseph had for going to Bethlehem at that point, and Luke had his own reasons for wanting to emphasize the census (as explained above). Similarly, though Davidic ancestry surely wasn't the only reason why Joseph and some of his relatives lived in Bethlehem, it was one of the factors involved, and Luke wanted to highlight it as he does in verse 4.

Though it's not necessary, we could expand upon the scenario above. Joseph and Mary's families had to have been in contact in some way for the marriage to have been arranged. So, it would make sense that Joseph had one or more relatives in Nazareth. That would provide a connection between the families. I've explained elsewhere that I think the events of Matthew 1:20-24 are the best explanation for Mary's departure from Elizabeth's home in Luke 1:56. Once Joseph had sent word to Mary that he was aware of what was going on and that he intended to go through with the marriage, he would have had reason to be in Nazareth (to explain the situation to his relatives and Mary's to whatever extent he wanted to do so and to make arrangements for the wedding). And he may have been in Nazareth earlier, if Mary's relatives and/or his had taken the initiative to summon him there to discuss the situation. Joseph's presence in Nazareth makes a lot of sense just after 1:56, and 1:56 was the last time Luke had narrated what was going on with Mary and Joseph. Most likely, 2:4 is picking up roughly where 1:56 left off. Because of the pregnancy, Joseph and Mary probably would have wanted to have the wedding sooner rather than later. That would have been a change in Joseph's plans. He may have initially expected to have registered for the census long before the wedding occurred, but the change in plans brought the two events closer together. He was already in Nazareth, handling the change in circumstances described in Matthew 1:20-24, and the deadline for registering for the census was getting close, so he decided to bring Mary back with him to Bethlehem (as the groom in a marriage context normally would) at that point in time rather than going back for the census, then having to return to bring Mary with him for the wedding. Furthermore, under the circumstances in question, with a supernatural pregnancy and the social consequences of its premarital timing, Joseph and Mary probably wanted to be closer rather than further apart. Even if they stayed in different houses in the same city prior to the marriage, they at least would have been in the same city rather than as far apart as Bethlehem and Nazareth.

The scenario I've just outlined is large and complicated, but the evidence warrants a large and complicated explanation. It's not the sort of situation the early Christians are likely to have made up if they were free to have made up whatever they wanted. When the pregnancy is premarital, Mary lives in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, Joseph is in Nazareth shortly before the wedding in spite of having a home in Bethlehem, etc., the early Christians probably were operating under significant historical constraints that prevented them from giving an account that was as simple and easy as they would have preferred.

Even if we granted the usual skeptical claim that Joseph didn't have any residence in Bethlehem, and we granted the usual skeptical claim that Luke 2:39 is referring to an immediate move to Nazareth, there still would be no contradiction between Luke and Matthew. The family could easily have returned to Bethlehem later, especially given that even under skeptical scenarios like the ones referred to above, Luke refers to a significant relationship Joseph had with the city (Davidic ancestry, registering for the census there because of that ancestry, enough standing in the city that he and his family were given accommodations to live there for more than a month, the experience he'd had living there after the events leading up to Luke 2:39 had transpired). For more on the subject, see my article that I linked earlier.

- Vincent doesn't say much, if anything, about the best lines of evidence for the virgin birth. Mary was the only person who could have known of the virgin birth by normal means, but Christians have argued for paranormal means of verifying it. The most significant example is the evidence we have for the Divine inspiration and historical genre of the relevant portions of scripture, which we and others have argued for in a lot of depth. For more about the evidence for the virgin birth, see here.


  1. Something I didn't manage to fit in in much detail in my Virgin Birth series (long as it was): If the stories about John the Baptist's birth told in Luke were circulating early, that indirectly confirms the Virgin Birth, as it would be a coincidence for Jesus' cousin to be conceived in an unusual way and for Zecharias to be telling this story about seeing an angel in the Temple at the same time that Mary was telling the story about conceiving virginally. And the same for Joseph attesting to having a dream telling him that Mary had conceived virginally. Obviously the skeptic is going to respond that the *entire* stories were made up and that whoever made up the infancy story in Luke for Jesus also made it up for John the Baptist. The point, then, is just to say that the statement that "Mary would have been the only one who would know," which I just heard from a Christian commentator again the other day on social media, is facile. Obviously if several of the other events occurred or even were told about at the time, they happened to people other than Mary in ways that were independent of anything Mary could control. And those other events fit together with the Virgin Birth--John the Baptist foretold to be the forerunner of the Messiah, Joseph reassured about Mary.

    1. Yes, there's a network of miracles associated with the virgin birth (Elizabeth's recognition of the significance of Mary's pregnancy, the reaction of John the Baptist in Elizabeth's womb, etc.), which is why we need to include paranormal means of verifying the virgin birth, not just normal means of discerning it. Since the network of miracles in question is so widespread, it's more difficult to dismiss accordingly, especially given Luke's credibility in historical contexts, as discussed above.

  2. On Mary's "thinking Jesus was crazy," the text doesn't say that Mary specifically thought he was crazy. It attributes this idea to the group as a whole. As in any family strife, people can be there for various reasons. Mary could have gone along to try to defuse the situation or mediate, not because she shared the brothers' perspective. As for the brothers, we don't know of course exactly when they were told of the infancy stories. It might even have been after this point. Or they may have thought that Jesus was crazy because he was not preaching the kind of messianic reign they thought he would. Sibling jealousy obviously could play a part as well. The brothers were obviously all too human.