Friday, December 12, 2008
THE VIRGINAL CONCEPTION-- MIRACLE ON NAZARETH STREET
When I was teaching Sunday school many years ago in Durham, England, a little girl of about seven years of age named Rachel came up to me after the lesson about Lk. 2 with a quizzical look on her face and said “Now let me see if I got this right. If God is Jesus’ father and Mary is Jesus’ mother--- are God and Mary married? And if not, is Jesus illegitimate?” This was a better question than I have received from many seminary students about one of the seminal miracles in all of the Bible, and it bears some close scrutiny especially at this time of year. In fact, the miracle of Christmas has several components, but none more crucial than the miracle of the virginal conception which presents us with an explanation as to how the Incarnation happened. Several preliminary points need to be stressed.
Firstly, there are no real parallels to this story, despite the ‘Zeitgeist-ites’ contentions to the contrary. Mary of Nazareth was a historical person, unlike stories about Isis which are pure myths about mythological deities, not mere mortals. Furthermore, the mythological stories about the divine rape of a mortal woman by some male deity (cf. the story in Gen. 6.1-4 about wicked angels) are very different than the story of the virginal conception which stresses there was no intercourse with any kind of male, whether terrestrial or celestial. Then too, the stories about Caesar or other Emperors having divine origins besides being imperial propaganda (which even Romans recognized as pure P.R.) do not involve virginal conceptions. Finally, there are no comparable earlier Jewish stories. For example the stories about Moses’ origins (either canonical or extra canonical) do not include the notion of a virginal conception.
Secondly, it needs to be stressed that Isaiah 7.14 while patient of the interpretation that it refers to a virginal conception, was never interpreted that way before the time of Mary of Nazareth. Why not, because a literal rendering of the Hebrew there is as follows “an almah will conceive and give birth to a child…..”. The normal translation of almah is ‘a young nubile woman of marriageable age. Now, in an honor and shame culture, this would normally include the conception of the virginity of the woman, and thus we should not conclude that the LXX translation of almah is incorrect, when it renders the word as parthenos. The latter is a term with a more limited semantic field, focusing more clearly on the virginity of the woman. Even so, what Is. 7.14 and in particular“a virgin will conceive and give birth to a child” seems to have been understood to mean in early Judaism was that a woman who was a virgin would conceive by the normal means and give birth to a king. In short, no one seems to have been looking for a virginally conceived messiah in early Judaism. And this leads to an important conclusion—it was the unexpected event in the life of Mary that led latter Christian interpreters to search the OT and interpret Is. 7.14 as they did (see Mt. 1-2). In other words, the claims that the story of the virginal conception is an example of prophecy historicized, rather than being a reflection on an actual historical event, won’t work because Jews did not read that prophecy that way. On the contrary, it was the actual historical event that led to the re-evaluation of OT prophecies, including in particular Is. 7.14.
There are further problems with the contention that this story is not historical, namely in an honor and shame culture like early Judaism, and when we are talking about a religion that was evangelistic in character, no one in their right mind would make up a story about a virginally conceived messiah, because the skeptical would immediately conclude that what the real story was that Jesus was illegitimate, and in fact we know that that was the rebuttal in second century Judaism, with the suggestion being made that Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera or Panthera.
We can see the difficulties of explanation that were presented to a Gospel writer like the Jewish Christian who wrote Matthew almost immediately. How in the world does one squeeze Jesus into Joseph’s genealogy, as is done in Mt. 1, whilst maintaining that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus? The genealogy in Mt. 1 is a patrilineal genealogy, a genealogy of begats, basically, which means you are tracing the line through the male descendents of King David and even before that of Abraham. The answer is--- you put Mary into Joseph’s genealogy!!!! And you prepare for that little surprise by mentioning in passing other women who had surprising or irregular unions with Jewish males from Israel’s past--- women like Tamar, or Rahab, or Bathsheba. Notice how the genealogy concludes---- ‘Joseph, whose wife was Mary, who bore Jesus….’ And then the author goes on to explain that if Joseph had not been alerted in a visionary dream to marry Mary even though she was already pregnant, Jesus might never have been part of a patrilineal genealogy going back to David at all. In other words, the actually historical occurrence of the virginal conception is what causes all remarkable these genealogical gymnastics. The story of the virginal conception is a story too improbable not to be true, as an ambitious evangelical religion in an honor and shame world would not make up a story prone to all sorts of negative alternative appraisals. The possible punishment for pregnancy out of wedlock by a betrothed virgin was stoning. The virginal conception imperiled Mary’s very life, and it is no wonder that she took a little trip to see her cousin for various months immediately after the shock of becoming pregnant in a highly irregular manner.
A few points need to be clarified at this juncture: 1) the virginal conception is a Biblical doctrine, not to be confused with the later Catholic notion of the immaculate conception of Mary herself, nor should it be confused with the later Catholic notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary. These are three different ideas, and only one of them is clearly grounded in various birth narrative stories in Matthew and Luke. 2) though the miracle we are discussing here is sometimes called the virgin birth, this is not quite correct. The miracle took place at the point of conception, and so far as we can tell there wasn’t a further one at the point of the birth of Jesus. This seems to have transpired normally. 3) What Mt. 1.25 certainly strongly suggests when it says “and he [Joseph] was not ‘knowing her until she bore a son and called his name Jesus” is that thereafter he was knowing her in the Biblical sense of ‘to know’. This, plus the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters later in the text (see e.g. Mk. 6), who are quite specifically found in the company of Mary suggest that the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not an idea that comports with the Biblical record; 4) it would appear that the local folks in Nazareth knew of the tale of Jesus being conceived without the aid of Joseph. Mk. 6 says that when he preached his first sermon in Nazareth the hometown folks objected, and in fact asked –“Is this not the son of Mary?” Now even if Joseph was dead, in that extremely male dominated society, you did not call a man a son of his mother, unless you were making a pejorative comment about his origins, the rough ancient equivalent of calling someone an S.O. B., and thus calling him a ‘mamzer’ or as we would say, a ‘bastard’. Despite all these possible problems, Matthew and Luke both relate the idea that Jesus was virginally conceived, and that Mary was his only human parent. It is especially interesting to note the retort of Jesus to his own mother in Lk. 2.41-52—when she, being distraught complains to Jesus “your father I have been looking for you (for days)…” Jesus’ reply is “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house”, or perhaps we should translate this “be about my Father’s business” (either is possible). The Father in question is not Joseph, but God. 5) Furthermore, the story in Lk. 2 indicates that Mary needed to go through ritual purification and made an offering for sin, before the family returned to Nazareth. The idea of the immaculate conception or the sinlessness of Mary does not seem to comport at all with the story as we find it in Lk. 2. Nevertheless, this in no way diminishes the great faith and trust in God it took for a young teenage woman, barely nubile to respond to an angelic vision with “Be it unto me as you have said, I am the handmaiden of the Lord”. Mary is the first person in Luke’s Gospel portrayed as being a person of great faith and courage, in light of how people would likely view her irregular pregnancy.
Too seldom, in sermonizing about the Christmas story do preachers actually discuss why it was important for their to be a virginal conception. The answer has to do not with the sinlessness of Mary, but rather the sinlessness of Jesus. Jesus was not born with what we would call original sin, because, as Luke says ‘the Holy Spirit’ overshadowed and protected Mary, and the child miraculously conceived in her woman did not partake of the taint of human sin, either original or actual. The author of Hebrews was later to stress that Jesus was tempted like us, and indeed was like us in all respects “save without sin”. But why was this necessary?
It was necessary for a series of good theological reasons: 1) Christ would not later be able to be the perfect and unblemished lamb of God who takes away and atones for the sin of the world, if in fact he was a sinner either by nature or by behavior; 2) Christ came to be called by Paul the ‘last or eschatological Adam’ implying that the human race started over with him (see e.g. Rom. 5.12-21 or 1 Cor. 15), but for that to happen Jesus, like Adam needed to be without sin from the outset; 3) it was very important to demonstrate through the life of Jesus that sin was never intended by God to be an inherent property of being truly human. Whilst Alexander Pope was right that to err is human… the converse of that statement is not true--- one cannot say ‘to be truly human one must err or sin’. Sin is what Jesus came to save us from, not what he came to share in common with us.
Thus it is that the story of the virginal conception tells us how the Incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God happened, or as Paul says in Rom. 8 how it was that Christ came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ without actually having a fallen human nature or being a sinner. He appeared to be just like any other mortal, only he did not share our ‘birth defect’, so to speak. As you meditate on all this, remember the words of John Donne---
“Twas much that we were made like God long before [i.e. created in God’s image]
But that God should be made like us---- much more.” Jesus came as an infant in order to identify with, and go through every age and stage of human life. He came in humble circumstances to make clear no one was beneath his dignity or love, no one was excluded by his coming. He came not to meet our expectations, but rather to meet our needs. As George McDonald stressed--- “we were all looking for a king to slay our foes, and lift us high// thou cam’st a little baby thing, that made a woman cry.”
So I say to you all ‘Joyeux Noel’ and leave you with one of my Christmas poems, now found in my book of Christian poems entitled ‘The Living Legacy’
A cold and listless season,
And full of cheerless cheer,
When hopes are raised and dashed again
And joy dissolves in tears.
The search for endless family
The search for one true Friend
Leaves questers tired, disconsolate
With questions without end.
Best find some potent pleasure quick
Some superficial thrill
Than search for everlasting love
When none can fill that bill.
So hide yourselves in shopping
And eating ‘til you burst,
Use endless entertainment
As shelter from the worst.
And hope at least for truce on earth,
Though warlords rattle swords
As if to kill could solve our ills
We seize our ‘just’ rewards.
Mistake some rest for lasting peace
And calm for ‘all is well’
And absence of activity
As year end’s victory bell.
But what if Advent is no quest
Despite the wise men’s star
What if Advent isn’t reached
By driving from afar?
What if Good News comes to us
From well beyond our reach?
What if love and peace on earth
Are more than things we preach?
What if a restless peace
Is what He did intend
Until we open up our lives
And let the stranger in?
What if a peaceless rest
Is not the Christmas hope
What if nothing we could do
Helps us truly cope?
What if there is a bonding
With one who rules above
Who came to us in beggar’s rags
And brought the gift of love?
The God shaped hole in every heart
Is healed by just one source
When Jesus comes to claim his own
Who are without recourse.
So give up endless seeking
Surrender is required
The one who is the Lord of all
Cannot be bought or hired,
He’s not conjured into life
By pomp and circumstance
By Yuletide carols boldly sung
By fun or drunken trance.
He comes unbidden, unawares
Fills crevices of souls
He comes on his own timely terms
And makes the sinner whole.
‘We shall be restless’ said the saint
‘Until we rest in thee’
And find that we have been reborn,
Our own nativity.
How silently, how silently
The precious truth is given
And God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.