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4th Sunday of Advent 

12 December 2022

18 December, Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-8,18-20*; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25

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THESE readings touch on a unique selling-point of Christian faith, enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed: that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary” and “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary”. If you tackle arguments by opponents of faith, you may find that the passages from Isaiah 7 and Matthew 2 both loom large. But I need to be more specific. I should say “modern opponents of faith”.

Most people, when they refer to the “Virgin birth”, mean the virginal conception of Jesus rather than the more apocryphal legends associated with Mary’s purity before, during, and after childbirth. And there was plenty of healthy scepticism in the early days of the Way from outsiders who could make no sense of a mingling of divine and human “stuff” in the person of a single human being.

The criticism that I am referring to gains much of its strength from 19th-century biblical inquiry, which led to the intensification of a new approach: historical criticism. In other words, treating the Bible like any other ancient document: scrutinising its date, authorship, place of origin, audience, intended purpose, and genre. This was a revolution in thinking for Christians, imitating (and partly modelled on) the new science of evolution.

When the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke began to attract this kind of scrutiny, opponents of Christianity, and some within the faith, sensed an opportunity. Where once miracles had been shining proofs of divine power (if one took it as a given that scripture was sacred), they now became potential embarrassments to be minimised at all costs. The feeding of the five thousand? Obviously not a real tuck-in-and-scoff occasion, but a symbolic sharing of tiny fragments. The healing miracles? Anything but the quasi-magical transformation of broken or dysfunctional bodies into whole ones.

A combination of the sceptical attitude and a historical-critical approach, applied to the virginal conception, created what looks like a clinching proof that that virginal conception was a fantasy, or a misunderstanding, or a clever piece of mis-selling. Who knew that biblical translation could be so controversial?

The argument goes like this. Isaiah 7.14 says “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.” When translated into Greek (before Christ’s birth) and Latin (afterwards), this became “a virgin shall conceive.” Matthew used the Greek text of Isaiah as proof that God had foretold the virginal conception. Conclusion: this is, therefore, either a misunderstanding or a deliberate deceit to trick people into thinking that Jesus was more special than he really was.

When I first discovered that Christian faith could stretch my mind as well as my heart, it was thrilling. My faith no longer needed to sit in its own sealed compartment, separate from the rest of my life as a student of ancient history and literature. And I had learned that the historical-critical method was the Truth, just as others learned the Bible as Truth. So, I swallowed the argument that I’d been presented with, and happily accepted that Isaiah had not prophesied a virginal conception; and Matthew had been at best mistaken, and at worst deceitful, in pretending otherwise.

Strangely, that did not make a difference to my belief in Jesus, whom I had not yet learned to divvy up into “true God and true man”. Nor did I regard belief in the virginal conception as a cornerstone without which my faith would crumble. Back then, I read The Myth of God Incarnate, because it was new and controversial, not because I understood that calling God “incarnate” might need explaining.

It is true that the Hebrew does not necessarily mean “virgin”; and that Matthew has read more significance into the text than perhaps he should. But the virginal conception does not stand or fall by that translation. His existing belief in it prompted Matthew to look for corroboration, which he found in Isaiah.

What is more, we have not one, but two accounts of it, which are different in their details, and independent of each other, but similar in their trajectory. And it is normal for ancient life-stories to tell a birth narrative and then skip straight to adulthood, as Matthew does (and, with one adolescence-story, Luke also).

Scepticism, and historical-critical scholarship, are not the enemies of Christian faith. On the contrary, they are a big step forward into a faith that claims both head and heart for Jesus.

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