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The virgin birth: surprises abound

06 December 2013

Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, tradition and theology
Andrew T. Lincoln
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ANDREW LINCOLN is one of the most respected New Testament scholars currently working in England. This is the first book of his to build on his biblical skills to delve into more general theological issues. His principal puzzle is why the virgin birth became so overwhelmingly important a doctrine, and what effect this has on Christian doctrines and attitudes. He writes with low-key gentle persuasiveness, courteous to those who disagree, and frequently agreeing with Raymond Brown that "the issue is not one of proof but of probabilities." Above all, he keeps his focus steady on the central Christological issues.

Very properly, he begins by establishing positively that the virgin birth is only one view of Jesus's genesis represented in the New Testament. In view of the equally strong Gospel evidence that Jesus had brothers and sisters, in view of the sturdy testimony of our earliest witness that there was nothing remarkable about the birth of Jesus, "a descendant of David according to the human nature he took", how did this elaborate story become necessary?

Then unusual and perceptive shocks begin. About Matthew, the first shock is that the quotation from Isaiah 7.14 is introduced not to prove that Mary was a virgin (the famous parthenos from the Greek version of the text can, but need not, imply lack of sexual contact), but to introduce the name "Emmanuel", enabling Matthew to bracket his Gospel with the divine presence of Christ among us, cf. 28.16-20.

The second shock is that the Joseph dream-story reads most comfortably if it is seen as putting right the status of Jesus: had it not been for the adoption by Joseph, he would have been despised as a mamzer, a child conceived out of wedlock.

About Luke, the first shock is that Luke "the historian" is so wildly at sea (no census at this time, no reason for dragging a pregnant wife to Bethlehem, no purification of the father, no presentation of the child required in the Temple, etc.) that he clearly had no special source of information.

The second shock - and this touches them both - is that Hellenistic stories of heroes and sons of gods engendered by deities and virginal mothers (with or without the co-operation of a father) had penetrated so far into Hebrew biographical writing that it would be merely a conventional way of expressing the status of Jesus. For Luke, both the virginal birth and the physical ascension accord both with his leaning towards physical realism (the dove at the baptism, the risen Christ eating fish, the cloud of the ascension), and his desire to put Jesus on a level with the emperor Augustus as an alternative to imperial ideology.

Moving into the second century, we find that the virgin birth is quite unmentioned in many of the texts, touched by Ignatius of Antioch, emphasised by Justin's Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, and then important in Irenaeus at the end of the century as a counterblast to Docetism. Tertullian's energetic and earthy treatment leaves no room for virginity in partu. Not until Origen, Athanasius, and Basil is it found offensive to speak of siblings of Jesus.

A great change takes place with Ambrose, the champion of virginity as an ascetical position (Letter 42). Absent from the Nicene Creed of 325, "born of the virgin Mary" appears in the revision of Constantinople in 381. The importance of the doctrine is finally confirmed by Augustine under the influence of his own sexual struggles and his opposition to Pelagius.

Then comes a huge leap to Schleiermacher's penetrating opening up of the whole field, and a slightly disappointed inquiry into Karl Barth's contribution. In the back of any reader's mind throughout the discussion must have been the difficulties posed by modern genetics: where did Jesus's Y-chromosomes come from? Can they be miraculously inserted by God? "What is not assumed is not saved," Gregory of Nazianzus said. The discussion is saved till the end. This is one of the most important and most challenging works of biblical theology which I have had the privilege to read in recent years.


Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture?
Steve Moyise
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IN A neat, systematic, and well-organised little book, Steve Moyise offers a balanced and fair investiga­tion into every aspect of the histor­ical and theological yield of the Gospel infancy narratives. His chief interest is the insight that these stories pro­vide into the person of Jesus; so he duly leaves many questions about historicity open.

It is impressive that he frequently agrees with the conclusions of Ray­mond Brown's massive study (1977, revised 1993) while also quoting with approval the much less trad­itional assessments of Borg & Cros­san, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth (2009). Perhaps the most crucial judgement is the footnote on page 97, that what for some amounts to a modest leap of faith is for others a descent into the irrational.

For me, a valuable insistence was that many of the "fulfilments" of the Old Testament in the Gospels are not ful­filments of prophecies, but indica­tions of typology; the Old Testa­ment did not foretell that something would happen, but the New Testa­ment authors saw that an event in the story of Jesus had its "prequel" in the story of Israel. 

Fr Wansbrough is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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