A Virgin Shall Be With Child (Part II)

In the first post I explored why there was a need for the virgin birth. It is one of the most extraordinary features of Jesus’ life and something the Church has proudly taught for two millennia. I came to the conclusion the reason for the virgin birth is that it is the means of God becoming incarnate. It was accomplished by the power of the Spirit but happened through the long, winding course of Israel’s history. Having figured out the first question we must answer the second:

Why does the New Testament not devote more time to virgin birth accounts?

As I mentioned in the first part some scholars think the inclusion of those accounts was to defend Christianity. New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker in an article for Christianity Today makes a case for that. Surveying the New Testament he demonstrates that outside those two sources, we have at best only tangential references to the virgin birth through the veiled accusations of Jesus being an illegitimate child. Claims of Jesus being illegitimate were somewhat popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries so it plausible that they originated from an earlier period, namely the 1st century AD. He therefore feels their mention in early Christian literature, that is the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is to counter those accusations. However, I do not think apologetic purposes sufficiently account for their inclusion since they also form an important part of the respective narrative structures.

Apart from lacking explanatory scope, the virgin birth created problems of its own which a simple defence is not supposed to do. There were the Docetics who used the virgin birth to support their belief that Jesus only appeared to be human. Then there were Psilanthropists who rejected the virgin birth because they thought like the docetics it meant Jesus was nonhuman or superhuman, yet they rejected any claims of divinity believing that Jesus was merely human. These kind of unorthodox beliefs prompted the mention of Jesus’ virgin birth in latter important historic creeds of the Church. This intentional theological emphasis explains why the virgin birth is so prominent today.

(The orthodox view of Jesus is that he is completely human and fully divine. I argued that the virgin birth did not give Jesus extra human abilities but rather made him as human as everyone else. I did not mention this in the former post but I also do not think it gave him some kind of immunity to sin. It is not an explanation the New Testament itself offers. It stresses in several places Jesus being as vulnerable to temptation as we all are but rather choosing faithful obedience to God in every circumstance (Romans 5:19, 8:3.) There would be no point in trying to tempt an “untemptable” Jesus. The vulnerability of Jesus is the reason why he can be a faithful mediator on our behalf before God (Hebrews 2:17-18.) If he could not be affected by sin he could not have born our sins on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21.))

As with many things regarding the early Church we can only guess. The New Testament is only a fraction of all the things the early Church wrote let alone what they said and did. Whatever material we do possess were those that were preserved and were able to survive. That on its own makes what we have now very significant since we can be sure they were very important to those of that early period. We must be careful of making arguments from silence because they are never definitive. Not having as many mentions as we would like or think significant does not make the virgin birth unimportant.

Of the historical books in the New Testament four deal with the life of Jesus. Of the four gospels two mention the virgin birth and they are the most historically detailed and comprehensive of the four. This shows that the virgin birth was clearly known being attested by multiple early independent sources, who according to Richard Bauckham’s work on the gospels, were probably eyewitnesses themselves or at least knew such people. On that basis I do not think the virgin birth was unknown.

The epistles which make up about 40% of the New Testament, distinctly lack the mention of episodes from Jesus’ earthly life except those related to his death and resurrection. It is therefore unsurprising they do not mention the virgin birth. Various references and allusions to the gospels show they were aware of them but for whatever reasons they did not include them. They all do mention frequently in different ways that Jesus is God incarnate worthy of worship along with the Father. Now if the virgin birth is the climactic moment of incarnation, any talk of incarnation necessarily includes the virgin birth even though there is no explicit mention of it. There was no parallel to the worship of Jesus along with God therefore it had to have a real world basis from which it emerged. That obvious foundation is the stories of the life of Jesus given by eyewitnesses. The virgin birth is one crucial piece of evidence in establishing that belief.

It is highly conceivable that it does not get mentioned in the epistles because they tend to deal with immediate issues in local Christian assemblies. It is quite relatable to what happens today where pastors prioritise what messages are of present value to their congregations. It took a while before the gospels as we have them today were compiled so it shows that the early Christian community was well aware of those stories. I conclude that from the documents we possess today, it was very important but not a pertinent concern to specifically address in their correspondences.

So far I have only hazarded educated guesses. We will never know the exact reasons why the biblical authors chose to mention one thing over the other. What I can say with much more confidence is that the virgin birth is an important historic feature of the life of Jesus and the teaching of his Church. We cannot do without it out or push it to the side because it seems so strange and incomprehensible. By the grace of God we know about it today, therefore we should cherish it and think about it carefully on what it meant for the world then, through the ages, and what it means for us now.

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