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Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology

01.03.14 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Andrew T. Lincoln

Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology

    A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Craig Blomberg

    Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2013.  $35.00 pap.  xii + 322 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8028-6925-8.

    Andrew Lincoln, Portland Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Gloucestershire, is known especially for his commentaries and monographs on Ephesians and the Gospel of John.  He acknowledges that he only recently turned sustained scholarly attention to the virgin birth and was surprised by the direction his research led him.

    Lincoln begins by arguing that none of the scattered verses in the New Testament outside of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 that have sometimes been used as support for the virginal conception actually address the topic. These include Paul’s “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), Mark’s “son of Mary” (Mark 6:3) and John’s “we are not born of fornication” (John 8:41).  Conversely, references to “the seed of David” (Rom. 1:3, 2 Tim. 2:8) are most naturally taken of normal patrilineal human descent.  The recurring post-canonical tradition, especially in Jewish circles, that Jesus was born out of wedlock, perhaps at the hands of a Roman soldier, opens the door to the real possibility that Mary was raped before she was married but that God reassured Joseph that he should remain committed to her.

    The genre of the infancy narratives further convinces Lincoln that we are not meant to envision a literal virginal conception.  Both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are steeped in references to the Old Testament, with “history” often created on the basis of the Old Testament Scriptures that were then said to be fulfilled.  Here Lincoln’s approach closely approximates Raymond Brown’s in his Birth of the Messiah.  Greco-Roman biography likewise suggests a less than fully literal genre at play, with its penchant for inventing special births surrounding historic figures—especially Romulus and Remus, Alexander the Great, and Augustus Caesar.

    A close look at the key texts in the infancy narratives demonstrates further, in Lincoln’s opinion, that their authors may not have even been making claims for supernatural births.  “Pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18) need not mean divine paternity, merely divine empowerment for a special role (just as Philo can use “begotten of God” in the same way).  The “virgin” of Isaiah 7:14 LXX (cited in Matt. 1:20) is best understood as in Isaiah’s original Hebrew—a child born in Isaiah’s day to a young woman of marriageable age.  The fact that Mary is the last of the five women in Matthew’s genealogy, who all conceived children in some suspicious or illegitimate fashion (1:1-17), suggests that the same thing happened with Mary.

    Luke, too, can be read as referring only to a natural birth. That the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadow her (Luke 1:35) again need mean nothing more than that God is specially superintending this conception because the child is to be someone special.  But Lincoln recognizes this leaves Mary’s previous question about how this can be, since she has not had sexual relations with a man (v. 34) fairly meaningless.  So he posits that Luke does intend to narrate a supernatural birth, but as in other Greco-Roman biographies, to reinforce the theological truth that Jesus will be the Son of God, a divinely anointed Savior, rather than a biological miracle.

    There are then two competing traditions in the New Testament left side-by-side—one which postulates a miracle for theological reasons and one which believes in a fully human conception of Jesus, albeit out of wedlock.  As elsewhere in Scripture, two contradictory strands of thought are allowed to stand in creative tension with each other.  In this case, both highlight the divinely special nature of the child. Lincoln spends considerable time arguing that the view that holds to a natural birth came first, then the supernatural one, and finally the two were juxtaposed. Within the pages of the New Testament the virginal conception remains a fairly marginal doctrine.  But beginning already with Justin and Irenaeus in the second century, it quickly becomes central.  Based on the ancient belief that the mother’s womb contributed the key elements of humanity to a newly conceived child, divine paternity and human maternity could easily be viewed as the means by which Jesus was both fully God and fully human.  Not surprisingly this became the dominant view throughout church history, with only a few exceptions.

    But today we know better.  If Jesus were not conceived by two human parents, he could not have been “fully human in every way” (Heb. 2:17) like we are, insists Lincoln.  The virgin birth does not prove Jesus’ full deity and full humanity; it actually prevents Jesus from being fully human.  It is true that this means that we may have to revise or reinterpret no less a foundational Christian source than the Apostles’ Creed, with its affirmation that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary,” but such revision has already occurred with the clause, “he descended into hell,” in light of scholarly consensus on the true meaning of 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6.  One should be allowed to be considered a Christian in good standing even if one does not believe the virginal conception as a literal miracle.  The Church of England, of which Lincoln is a part, has already acknowledged this, in striking contrast to the Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler’s pronouncements on the absolute essentiality of the traditional doctrine for Christian faith, which Lincoln likewise quotes.

    Lincoln’s approach to the virginal conception is far more scholarly and nuanced than many who reject it today, most notably Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, whose wholesale skepticism Lincoln likewise disavows.  His work deserves a more careful response than a brief review can offer.  But a few strengths and weaknesses may be identified.

    Lincoln is correct, and scarcely in the minority, when he notes the minimal role the doctrine of the virginal conception plays within the New Testament itself, though there may be hints of it in the passages he discusses outside of the infancy narratives.  He is also correct to stress that a virginal conception does not guarantee that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, as well as to note that God could have created a sinless human being who had two fully human parents.  After all, unless one opts for Mary’s sinlessness, as in Roman Catholicism, even having one human parent would normally have implied that Jesus inherited a sinful nature.  A secondary miracle had to have occurred on either interpretation.

    On the other hand, it is not at all clear that a natural reading of any of the ancient texts, inside or outside of the New Testament, leads to a normally conceived Christchild.  The baby of Isaiah 7:14a, born in the prophet’s day, is also a child who can be called Immanuel (God with us) in v. 14b and again in 8:8 and who morphs in 9:6 into “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”.  Isaiah himself may have had multiple fulfillments in view.  Parthenos in the LXX and Matthew technically might not have to refer to a virgin, but the authors’ choice of this word rather than others available, makes that interpretation the most obvious one.  With reference to the five women in Matthew 1:1-17, there was nothing illicit about Ruth and Boaz’s relationship, merely the suspicions surrounding her proposal on the threshing floor by night.  Verse 17, moreover, surprisingly uses the feminine singular relative pronoun to make it clear that Jesus was not born of both Joseph and Mary but only of Mary. The later Jewish polemic is the natural slander one would expect of people disbelieving the early Christian story.  It offers support for thinking that Jesus really was born out of wedlock but not for rejecting the virgin birth as the means.

    As for the stories of miraculous births in other Greco-Roman biographies which Lincoln highlights, they all date from the second century or later, so it is hard to know how early the traditions originated. It is even more doubtful that they arose within a generation of the deaths of the individuals in question, while many who knew them were still alive, as was the case with Jesus.  The accounts are so diverse that Lincoln himself stresses that the only pattern he finds is something special or unusual about the births, as a way of honoring exalted or deified humans.  And amidst legends of giant phalluses, gods springing from rocks, pythons entwining married women and gods having sex in the usual fashion with mortal women by taking human form, where is there anything as subdued as Luke’s simple reference to the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary?  It really is hard to see these stories as a part of any similar genre, however loosely defined.

    Mohler’s rhetoric is exaggerated to be sure, as it often is.  Lincoln’s position is sufficiently nuanced that it need not “undermine the authority of Scripture or nullify the incarnation,” as Mohler claims.  Indeed, Lincoln stresses that he still fully believes that Jesus was the divinely incarnate God-man; he simply observes that God had several possible ways of taking on human flesh among which to choose.  Exegetically, however, Lincoln has not provided a convincing case that the vast majority of all Bible readers over the centuries have misread the text.  And it is not true that paternity without a human father renders the offspring something other than human; by that logic one would have to say that Adam and Eve could not have been viewed as human (on any interpretation of the genre of Genesis 2)!  Indeed, the very ploy that Lincoln rightly resorts to in order to explain how Mary’s child by a rapist could be the son of David (Joseph legally adopted him) also explains how a miraculously conceived child without any human father could be viewed of David’s lineage as well.  And the second-century conviction that Mary, too, had Davidic ancestry, is not that implausible given the frequency with which ancient Jews tried to marry within tribal lines.

    Eddie Adams may be right in his book cover blurb that “this book offers the most important contribution to the subject of Jesus’ earthly origins in many years,” though there have not been many scholarly book-length treatments of the topic at all.  On the other hand, Helen Bond is almost certainly wrong when she raves that she “cannot recommend [the book] highly enough.”  It merits careful scrutiny, but it is hardly the best resource on the topic.

    Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 2014