Advent One: Virgin Birth

I thought I would celebrate Advent by having a series of posts on Jesus. I will start with the virgin birth. I will not try and prove the virgin birth but will discuss the purpose of the virgin birth. Some skeptics would suggest that Matthew and Luke were forced into inventing a virgin birth because of either Hebrew or pagan traditions. I am not convinced. On the Hebrew side, the passage in Isaiah 7:14 does not require a virgin birth for the Messiah. In the original context, the child was born in Isaiah’s day and likely was not born of a virgin. The Hebrew word almah does not require that there is no male involvement in conception. On the pagan side, once you read the myths, there are very few actual virgin births. Most of the times it is a supernatural birth that includes sexual intercourse in conception.

Most often from Christians I hear that Jesus was born of a virgin because Jesus needed to be born without sin and the only way that could happen is if there was no human father. However, I see no biblical reason for this. Is sin passed on through DNA? And where does it teach that sin is passed only through the father and never through the mother? If sin is passed through DNA (which I doubt), DNA is passed through the mother as well and so Jesus would have received it through Mary.

So why was Jesus born through virginal conception (more accurate than virgin birth)? I believe it is because Jesus had a unique relationship with God the Father. A biological relationship with a human mother would not create confusion with this but a biological relationship with a human father would. By being conceived through a virgin, Jesus’ relationship with the Father was emphasized in a special way. This is why I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Zechariah, Mary and the Asking of Questions

An important part of apologetics is about the asking of questions and the wrestling with the potential answers. Although some people are uncomfortable with questions, they are essential to a healthy and strong faith. I always encourage both Christians and skeptics to ask the hard questions. However, if you have spent any time doing this, you will realize that there are questions and then there are questions. Not all questions are equally helpful.

A good example of this is found in the first chapter of Luke. In this chapter, the angel Gabriel reveals to Zechariah that he is going to be a father and to Mary that she is going to be a mother. In both stories, the recipients of the revelation ask the same question: “How can this be?” Strangely, the angel reacts quite different to the same question. In Zechariah’s case, the angel punishes him by making him mute. In Mary’s case, she is praised as a great woman of God. You can almost imagine Zechariah and Mary comparing notes at a family reunion.

This is much more than just Gabriel being fickle in his response. Although their words were almost the same, the questions asked by Zechariah and Mary were quite different. When Zechariah said “How can this be?”, what he really meant was “There is no way that can happen, just look at my situation!” When Mary said “How can this be?”, what she really meant was “That is amazing! I wonder how God will do that in my case?” Zechariah was asking out of stubborn skepticism. Mary was asking out of a sense of wonder and awe. Not only was there a difference in their attitude, there was a difference in their background. Zechariah was an older man who was a priest and who was very familiar with his Hebrew heritage. He would have known that God had provided children to older and barren couples in the past. Mary was a young girl (perhaps as young as 13), who would have had much less religious training. Even if she had been trained, there were no other examples of virgins conceiving in Israel’s history. So, despite the similarity in wording, the questions of these two individuals are very different.

This dynamic continues today. Both Christians and skeptics will ask questions. But before we answer, we should take a moment of reflecting on what type of question they are asking. Is the person asking out of dogmatic skepticism or are they asking out of sincere curiosity and wonder? We can ask questions about the resurrection of Jesus because we have predetermined that it is impossible or we can ask out of being in the presence of a great mystery. We can ask questions about the Bible because we want to reject it or we can have legitimate questions as we wrestle with difficult truths.

An important thing to remember is that this does not mean that the Zechariah-type questions are rejected as unacceptable by God. In a way, Zechariah received the answer he was looking for. He needed something to strengthen his faith and he received the gift of miraculous muteness to show that God was indeed capable of doing this. This was the type of question that Thomas asked after hearing rumors of the resurrection. Jesus did not reject his question but presented himself to be examined by Thomas.

At the same time, it would be better for us to have Mary-like faith, one that confesses a lack of understanding and yet trusts that God will do what he has promised. Ask the questions, but ask out of wonder and not out of stubborn skepticism.

The Beauty of Mary’s Submission

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I thought I would share these words of Francis Schaeffer concerning Mary from his book True Spirituality.

“It is beautiful, it is wonderful.  She says: ‘Behold, the bondmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’  There is an active passivity here.  She took her own body, by choice, and put it into the hands of God to do the thing that he said he would do, and Jesus was born.  She gave herself, with her body, to God.  In response to the promise, yes; but not to do it herself.  This is a beautiful, exciting, personal expression of a relationship between a finite person and the God she loves.”

Karl Barth on the Virgin Birth

“The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognized and acknowledged as the One He is and in the mystery in which He is the One He is.” – Karl Barth

People Kill

I have just finished reading the chapter “Religion Kills.”  It was a very frustrating chapter to read.  Hitchens’ argument is that religion seems to lead to greater violence.  His evidence is that numerous groups that aligned themselves with religious traditions have been involved in violence.  I cannot speak for other religions, such as Islam, regarding how closely violence is taught or tolerated in those traditions.  That is not my area, although I strongly suspect Hitchens is overstating his case there as well.  I would like to make few short observations about Hitchens’ claim that religion kills.

1) Hitchens does not make a clear distinction with regard to sources of conflict.  How much is really about religion and how much of it is about ethnic groups?

2) Have more groups that had some religious affiliation committed acts of violence?  Perhaps.  But look at how much of the world is religious and how much is atheist.  Atheists are a very tiny minority and so by the odds, more violence will be done by those who claim some religious affiliation because there are so very few atheists.

3) Hitchens has done nothing to show how this violence has come from religion rather than just people who happen to have a religious affiliation.  What Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist teachings direct people toward violence? How exactly do religious teachings lead to violence?  Hitchens gives no evidence on this.

4) What Hitchens probably knows but does not admit is that religion is not a cause of violence but a tool used by violent people.  Religion is an extremely motivating force.  Those who want to manipulate their followers are wise in using religion.  Hitler is an example of one who detested Christianity but was happy to use the church as a tool for his own purposes.

5) Does Hitchens really believe that if the world suddenly became atheist that the violence would end?  That ethnic differences apart from religion would disappear?  That greed and lust for power would be eliminated?  The experiments with the officially atheistic Soviet Union and Communist China and their 100 million or so murdered does not point to much hope.

6) How does religion’s supposed influence toward violence fit with its even greater influence to bring about good?

7) The common denominator in all the examples Hitchens provides is not their religion but their humanity.  War and violence is not a religious characteristic but a human one.

A side note, Hitchens passes on the common accusation that Jesus’ virgin birth was just one of many in the ancient world.  Since this is an area of interest, I should comment.

Perseus – Considering Zeus’ habit of mating with mortal women, the “golden shower” probably was not as innocent as it sounds.

Buddha – He was not born of a virgin but was conceived in the normal way.  Presumably Hitchens is mis-stating that his mother dreamt a white elephant entered her side.

Attis – Hitchens neglects to mention that the tree that was involved in Nana’s pregnancy came from Agdestris’ penis.

Genghis Khan – He was not virgin born and living over a thousand years after Jesus is not relevant.

Krishna – Not sure how Devaka was a virgin as she gave birth to seven children conceived in the normal way before Krishna.

Horus – He was conceived through the sexual union between Isis and her dead husband Osiris.

Mercury – Was the result of a union between Jupiter and Maia.

Romulus – His mother was a virgin only in that she was a Vestal Virgin.  She was impregnated by either Mars or Hercules.

I share all this, not just out of my interest in supposed pagan parallels, but as a picture of how Hitchens uses facts.  What is important is not what is technically accurate but what is a good poke at religion in general and Christianity in general.

The Virgin Birth

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” 

(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18–25 ESV)

What is one to make of the virgin birth?  There are some that have suggested that the virgin birth had to be inserted because that is what Greco-Roman god-men experienced and Jesus is just based on those myths.  A problem with this is that when you try and track down the supposed virgin birth of Horus, Dionysus or Mithras it soon becomes difficult to find a true virgin birth.  What critics really mean is a supernatural birth which is not the same as a virgin birth.  The story of Jesus’ virgin birth is extremely different in its description to the the tales of supernatural births in the myths.  Did the early Christians really feel the need to attribute a virgin birth?  If so, why is Paul silent on it?  Did he miss the memo about creating a Greco-Roman god-man?

When we compare Matthew’s account to Luke’s account we see that we are dealing with two separate but compatible traditions.  This multiple attestation suggests we are in the realm of history rather than myth.

What about Matthew’s citation of the prophecy of Isaiah?  Critics will point out that the Hebrew almah means young woman rather than virgin as if this was an argument against the virgin birth.  Instead, I see this as an argument for.  The Old Testament did not demand that the messiah be born of a virgin.  If there had been no virgin birth story for Jesus, no one would say “What about Isaiah’s prophecy?”  This means that the early Christians did not feel pressure to make up a virgin birth to make Jesus fulfill the prophecy.  What likely happened was that they had this knowledge of Jesus’ virgin birth and noticed that the Greek of Isaiah used parthenos meaning virgin and that this sacred language expressed what they knew to be true.

Mary and Pagan Virgin Mothers

Very often, skeptics claim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is just another version of other pagan virgin mothers such as Isis.  I have done some work to demonstrate that often these pagan mothers are not quite so virgin as Jesus Mythicists like to suggest.  However, I would like to come at this from another angle.  What people are often doing is comparing later Roman Catholic descriptions of the Virgin Mary and not what the Bible says.  If this virgin motif is so important and the key to Jesus’ pagan origins, it must be asked: why is the virginity mentioned only in two Gospels and never again in the rest of the New Testament?  In fact, Mary’s virginity is only mentioned three times in the entire Bible and she is never called the ‘Virgin Mary.’  I am not denying that the virgin birth is important, but it is not what Jesus Mythicists claim.  Whenever one encounters these type of claims, we must always go back to what the Bible actually says.  Pagan concepts may indeed have influenced later concepts of Mary, but they did not influence the New Testament.