In my previous blog, I clarified the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth (they’re by no means the same thing at all, despite widespread misconception and misuse of the two terms as if they were synonymous).
The Immaculate Conception is one thing; the Virgin Birth is simply something entirely different altogether. There’s really nothing controversial about that, once one correctly understands the nomenclature.
However, when it comes to just the Virgin Birth itself, there is a bit of controversy. And this controversy also revolves, in part, around the correct use of relevant nomenclature.
For theologically conservative Christians — particularly biblical literalists and biblical inerrantists — the miraculous virginal conception and birth of Jesus is accepted and affirmed as absolutely factual. From their perspective, if the Bible says that Jesus’s mother Mary was a virgin when she conceived and bore her son, then that’s literally and unquestionably what really happened.
For many theologically liberal or progressive Christians, however, who subscribe to neither biblical literalism nor biblical inerrancy as articles of faith, the matter of Mary’s miraculous virginal fertilization and delivery of Jesus is not necessarily regarded as a settled matter of historic fact.
And a great many secular academic biblical scholars (who study and analyze the Bible objectively and critically, rather than from a position of committed faith) have raised a number of objections to the biblical account. None of these objections are news in the scholarly world, but this sort of thing has a way of seldom trickling down to the vast majority of average “persons in the pew,” so some of them may indeed be news to many readers. I’ll give just a few basic representative examples.
Firstly, miraculous birth stories are actually rather commonplace in connection with great leaders of antiquity, and particularly so of great religious leaders. For instance, the newborn Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was said to have emerged from his mother Maya’s womb through the right side of her body, taken seven steps, and delivered a triumphant verbal proclamation. A Taoist legend states that Lao Tzu (traditionally regarded as the author of the Tao Te Ching) remained in his mother’s womb for 62 years, and was born an old man.
Hercules was said to have had a human mother and a god for a father (sound familiar?) — not just any god at that, but no less than Zeus, king of the Greek gods. And Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor on the throne when Jesus was born, was himself regarded as being the divine son of a deity, and even popularly referred to as lord, redeemer, and savior. (See a pattern here?)
Secondly, there are reasons to suspect that the virgin birth may have been a relatively late addition to the accounts then circulating (and evolving?) within the very earliest Christian communities, during the first few decades following Jesus’s crucifixion. After all, no mention of it appears at all within the earliest New Testament books.
Paul never mentions the virgin birth in any of his epistles (letters), and all of his authentic epistles pre-date the gospels. (The New Testament is not arranged in chronological order; the gospels may be the first four books of the NT, but that doesn’t mean that they were written first.) The earliest gospel is Mark (not Matthew, despite Matthew’s gospel appearing first), and Mark doesn’t mention the virgin birth, either.
The Virgin Birth is mentioned only twice throughout the entire New Testament: once in the gospel of Matthew, and again in the gospel of Luke. Both Matthew and Luke (which do mention it) were written later than Mark (which doesn’t mention it), and later than Paul’s epistles (which also do not mention it). Scholars are compelled to ask: wouldn’t something so significant have been included within the very earliest Christian writings, rather than being saved for later?
The gospel of John, the latest of the four canonical gospels to have been written, also doesn’t mention the virgin birth; however, it includes a prologue equating Jesus with the pre-existent divine Logos, an elaboration not found in earlier gospels or epistles. Might this suggest that early Christian understandings of and stories about Jesus (including stories about his virginal conception and birth) were perhaps not necessarily present or fixed and settled right from the get-go, but were actually a gradually developing and evolving thing?
Finally, a closer look at one of the two gospel accounts of the Virgin Birth itself strikes many scholars as revealing and suggestive. Matthew’s gospel probably pre-dates Luke’s, and so is likely the earlier of the two accounts. Matthew’s account cites an Old Testament prophecy as relating to Jesus’s birth — “A virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel” — but does so using a then-popular Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Scholars have long argued that this Greek version, upon which Matthew relied, mistranslates an absolutely critical term within the prophetic passage in question.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and in the original Hebrew the key term used in the above passage was almah, which is Hebrew for “young woman.” However, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was popular in Matthew’s day, the Greek term used in place of the Hebrew almah was parthenos, which is actually Greek for “virgin.” So, many secular and theologically liberal biblical scholars have suggested that Matthew’s reference to a “virgin” is actually based upon his reliance upon a Greek mistranslation, and that the Old Testament prophecy he cited in his gospel actually merely specified a young woman, and not a virgin per se.
Once again, correct understanding and use of the relevant nomenclature is everything.
Naturally, counter-arguments to all of the above challenges to the literal truth of the Virgin Birth have been offered by evangelical, Catholic, and other theologically conservative biblical scholars. And counter-counter-arguments have, in turn, been presented by secular and liberal scholars in response. That’s how the disciplines of theology and religious studies work.
Too often, such debates remain cloistered largely behind the curtains of the somewhat insular realms of academics and clergy, seldom impacting the awareness of ordinary churchgoers, average believers, typical inquirers, or uncommitted spiritual seekers. So, consider this a little peek behind that curtain. And stay tuned, for additional such peeks in upcoming blog posts!