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’

THE BONDING


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.

BW3

37 comments:

TheThinker said...

Great post Dr. Witherington.

Also,
I was wondering where you would be preaching in Fort Wayne, IN on February 8.

Michael Bridgman said...

Great post, Ben, and great poem to boot! You know it's funny, last weekend I went out to see Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, and in the hours before the play while I was walking around the streets of Denver, and during that time I saw many signs of a lot of this stuff in action. It was really one of those days when reality gets so weird it all seems more like a dream. I ended up recounting the day's story in a concert report for Music Appreciation, which I reposted on my blog, and which I think makes an interesting supplement to much of the commentary here.

stu said...

but would you die for this doctrine?

Ben Witherington said...

I will indeed be preaching in Fort Wayne on Sunday Feb. 8th.

Blessings

BW3

TheThinker said...

But where will you be preaching Dr. Witherington?

Ben Witherington said...

I shall be at the UMC, contact Rev. Dennis Laub.

BW3

Patrick M. said...

Concerning the Immaculate Conception, in Luke 1:28 the angel Gabriel said to Mary “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you”.
The phrase “full of grace” is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary. The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

Ben Witherington said...

Actually Lk. 1.28 says no such thing. It says 'Greetings, blessed or heavenly favored one, the Lord is with you." This is a remark about God's unmerited favor or blessing upon Mary, not about her being worthy or full of grace. The Latin translation, gratia plena, misrepresents the Greek text here.

BW3

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. The angel did not speak in Greek to Mary in all probability. You can't build a doctrine on the basis of Luke's translation of an Aramaic original. The fact that we have a perfect participle simply means that God had already blessed her and would continue to do so. It says nothing about her being a repository of grace.

BW3

Jc_Freak: said...

Ben, you last comment there is the most significant. The word Kecharitomene does not denote that she has grace within her, as if she were a cup or something. It simply refers to the fact that God's hand has been upon her, and He has shown her grace.

Brendan said...

Great post, but now I can't help but wonder what would happen if Brittney Spears went to a Pantera concert!

One thing that fascinates me about the Incarnation is the scientific, specifically DNA, aspect of it. If the Holy Spirit was responsible for completing the male half of Jesus' DNA, it is possible that it was the first perfect genetic code since Adam. Does anyone know of any books or websites that discuss these sorts of implications?

Thanks.

Grant R. said...

Dr. Witherington,
Thanks for the post. I had never really thought about the embarrassing quality of the virginal conception. Since embarrassing confessions strengthen the credibility of historical accounts, I think this aspect of the Christmas story certainly deserves more attention than it tends to.

- Grant

Scripta said...

Ben, in light of what some say about Mark's espousing an "adoptionistic" Christology (Mk 1:9-11), I'm glad you brought up the text in Mark 6. What else would you say in rejoiner to those taking such a view? Many also would say that, as only Matthew and Luke in the NT speak of the virginal conception, it was not a central or widespread doctrine in early Christianity. What's your response? Thanks!

Ben Witherington said...

First of all I would say that it is an argument from silence to say only Luke and Matthew know of the virginal conception, but that may be true. This may have been a story only circulated within the family, and amongst some of the earliest Jewish Christians. To judge from Acts and Paul it was not part of the public proclamation early on. You can't however judge the importance of something by how many times it is mentioned in the NT. For example the Lord's Supper is hardly discussed outside 1 Cor. 11.

As for Jesus DNA, check out the discussions on the blood found on the Shroud of Turin....

BW3

III said...

That picture does bear a striking resemblance to Britney Spears

Patrick M. said...

"You can't build a doctrine on the basis of Luke's translation of an Aramaic original."

Your argument presupposes the existence of an Aramic original that translates into "blessed, or heavenly favored one". What is it?

Patrick M. said...

Ben, you last comment there is the most significant. The word Kecharitomene does not denote that she has grace within her, as if she were a cup or something. It simply refers to the fact that God's hand has been upon her, and He has shown her grace.

No he denies the Angel Gabriel even says the word "grace". Kecharitomene means full of grace, how do you justify interpreting it differently?

Ben Witherington said...

The verb charitoo means to bless, to bestow favor on, even to highly favor. We do not have the concept of fullness attached here to this participle, that would have required the word pleroma, for starters. Secondly the angel is greeting Mary and telling her that God has favored or blessed her, and will going on doing so. The term refers to divine action and divine blessing, not human qualities nor the human response. The angel is simply making an announcement about what God is doing. He is not giving Mary a character reference.

As for the Aramaic it would probably have been some form of the word HESED which refers to God's covenant faithfulness or blessing on his people.

BW3

Patrick M. said...

Every Greek verb has up to nine distinct stems, each expressing a different modality of the verb's lexical meanings.(FH. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 108-109.) For instance, Ephesians 1:6 has the first aorist active indicative form, echaritosen, "he graced, bestowed grace." This form, based on an aorist stem of charitoo, expresses momentary action,(Blass and DeBrunner, Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 166. ) action simply brought to pass.(Smyth, sec. 1852:c:1.) It cannot express or imply any fullness of bestowing because "the aorist tense . . . does not show . . . completion with permanent result."(Ibid., sec. 1852:c, note.)

Luke 1:28 has the perfect passive participle, kecharitomene. The perfect stem of a Greek verb denotes the "continuance of a completed action";(Blass and DeBrunner, 175.) "completed action with permanent result is denoted by the perfect stem."(Smyth, sec. 1852:b.) On morphological grounds, therefore, it is correct to paraphrase kecharitomene as "completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace." -C.A.

Quiddity said...

BW3 writes: "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."

I think you would be wise not to use this kind of argument.

Shea Cole said...

is this mary or brittney spears?

Edward Pothier said...

(1) "This was a better question than I have received from many seminary students about one of the seminal miracles in all of the Bible"

(2) "...the story of the virginal conception which stresses there was no intercourse with any kind of male, whether terrestrial or celestial."

Since (2) is true, should not (1) then be about a "non-seminal miracle"?

Ben Witherington said...

In regard to the various questions: 1) nope that ain't Britney, besides that's not a name in the Jewish lexicon anyhow; 2)Ed your comment on a non-seminal miracle provided seed for thought :) When is something seminal not seminal???

BW3

wabbott said...

The story of the virginal conception is a story too improbable not to be true
it is an argument from silence to say only Luke and Matthew know of the virginal conception

BW3,
Your article as always was interesting. But I have to wonder why you propose that we accept "folk logic" in the first case, but deny it in the second?

The (weak) logic of the argument from silence is that if someone thought something important they would have mentioned it. So we might (weakly) infer that Paul either didn't know about a virgin birth or didn't think it was important enough to talk about.

If the virgin birth is too improbable to be true, then why wouldn't Seutonius' account of the miraculous birth of Augustus be accorded the same honor? it strikes me just an improbable.

The virgin birth account in Matthew and Luke may have some unique elements, but they also have some common elements with pagan religions (God-Female union, miraculous star signs). Just because something is unique in its details doesn't mean that it is not very similar in pattern to other stories.

The same is true about 'resurrection theology' in Judaism. It may be unique in that it insists that resurrection is physical, but it looks very much like Zoroastrian theology and the apocalyptic model that goes with it.

gdelassu said...

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.

Surely this is not true. As you note yourself, Dr Witherington, the LXX interprets the passage in a fashion that refers to a virginal conception. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the LXX is older than the gospels and their virginal conception accounts.

Ben Witherington said...

Not to push the obvious but the LXX only say a virgin will conceive. It does not say by what means she was impregnated-- kapish? So not even the LXX was interpreted to refer to a virginal conception in the miraculous sense. Many virgins have conceived without a miraculous virginal conception. and Jewish interpreters of Is. 7.14LXX did not read anything out of the norm into that verse.

And Mr. Abbott you are comparing apples and oranges when it comes to Suetonius' stories and the birth narratives of Jesus. The Romans understood the story about Caesar to be an etiological myth. That understood that what was being written was not making historical claims. This is not true in the case of the Jewish stories about Jesus' orgins, which reflect a whole different genre and type of literature. As for Zorastrian theology, we have no pre-NT evidence of what that looked like. All of the sources for that stuff comes from long after the time of Jesus, and could just as easily have been influenced by the Jewish sources, as vice versa.

Blessings

BW3

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington,
I like both apples and oranges. They both grow on angiospermic trees and have a sweet flavor that has contributed to their survival. I also understand that, despite their unique characteristics, they most likely have a common evolutionary ancestor. ;-)

Many blessings to you as well.

Ben Witherington said...

Trees, unlike ideas can be said to develop over time in an evolutionary spiral of sorts, but ideas are a whole different ballgame, and it is always dangerous to play the game-- this idea must have evolved from that idea which in turn came from this idea.

History is far more messy than that, and so are human ideas, especially mutually contradictory ideas that come from completely different thought worlds and mindsets.

The synthetic and evolutionary approach to radically different religious ideas and systems, in order to produce an earlier myth origins is not only fraught with possible errors. It also often makes the fundamental mistake of all--- assuming that the ideas always came from earlier ideas, when in fact, in many cases the ideas were spawned by events in space and time, by history itself. Such an idea is the virginal conception that took place in the womb of Mary. It was the event which spawned the reinterpretation of the ancient prophetic text in Is. 7.14. Not the other way around.

Blessings

BW3

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington,
I appreciate you bringing up the point about the Christian virgin birth story causing the re-interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 because it certainly isn't a popular position to take among conservatives.

With regard to evolution of thought, I think certainly we have to allow for the possibility of innovation and originality, but when I observe the emergence of Satan, resurrection and apocalypticism within Judaism only after the Jewish people come into contact with cultures who already have these concepts in their religion, it does greatly raise the probability of syncretistic origins in my mind.

Similarly, when stories of God-female unions and miraculous star-signs accompanying the births of great figures all pop up within a relatively short period of time in a certain cultural context, this at least raises suspicions that either (1) God put something in the drinking water or (2) that these ideas became common religious themes in the Greco-Roman cultural context.

Again, we're talking about probabilities, but when noticing the similarities would it be crazy or irrational to think that syncretism is a real possibility?

-wa

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Brother Abbott for this, but unless I am badly confused neither Satan, nor resurrection nor Apocalypticism emerge anywhere before they appear in early Judaism. Of course there are various religions that are syncretic, but Judaism and Christianity would not be good examples of them, not least because they stood out like a sore thumb in their insistence on monotheism. Monotheism did not encourage them to go to the smorgasbord of other religion and take samples, and when Jews did sometimes try this, they were roundly condemned as idolaters. I want to stress again two things: 1) Jews were not myth making peoples. They did not explain their origins or beliefs that way; 2) the Greco-Roman stories you are talking about were known to be myths even by their proponents, and their proponents were all polytheists. They had no allergic reactions in principle to other religions-- the Romans for example were happy to borrow from the Greeks in their mythology.

Blessings

BW3

Beloved said...

Yes, it surely is Brittney.

S. Coulter said...

IMO, this is a great post. Except when you get to this point:

"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."


Dr. Witherington, saying that Jesus' sinlessness is caused by the virgin conception seems wedded to the notion that the sex act is somehow morally impure, and that the inherent impurity of sex is responsible for normally conceived babies' inherent sinfulness. But surely that is not a sound biblical notion?

Jesus' conception is certainly miraculous, and certainly a qualitative step above the conceptions of Sarah (with Isaac), or Hannah (with Samuel), or Elizabeth (with John). But I don't like saying that Mary's virginity was needed for Jesus' being untainted by human sin.

Have I misunderstood your position? Or can you explain why my negative reaction to it is unfounded or misguided? Thanks. :)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brother Coulter: I am certainly not saying that sexual activity is inherently sinful. God after all created us that way. What I am however saying is that since the Fall, sin has touched and tainted all that we are, and the way our fallenness happens to be transmitted is of course genetically, and thus through sexual intercourse. The fault lies not with the activity itself, but with the fact that it is a means of transmitting fallenness. Think of the analogy with AIDs. The intercourse itself may be perfectly moral, but the transmitting of the disease involves transmitting something that is not good.

BW3

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington,
I've been trying to wrap my thoughts around your latest reply for the past few days.

When you say "Jews were not myth making peoples", are you saying that something like the "J" Creation Story in Genesis 2, complete with elements like a talking serpent, YHWH searching among the animals to find a mate for Adam, magical fruit trees and a heavenly court afraid that man would "become like one of us", doesn't strike you as mythological in character?

Sincerely,
WA

Ben Witherington said...

Brother Abbott there is a major difference between 'muthos' ( a story about the gods), and say a legend or a saga. The latter both intend to have some historical substance, and are connected to historical persons. This is precisely what we see in Gen. 1-4 where Adam is connected to a whole series of historical persons by means of geneaology.

Now you may argue that though the author had historical intent, in fact the material is fictional, though I would not say this. But what you cannot do is call this material myth. It meets neither the ancient nor the modern criteria for the term.

If you want to see a good discussion on these sorts of matters from a very responsible OT scholar see Bill Arnold's new commentary on Genesis by Cambridge.

Joyeux Noel,

Ben W.

James Pate said...

Okay, maybe Christianity didn't draw from pagan legends, but could it have drawn from Old Testament stories of miraculous births (e.g., Samuel, Sarah, etc.)? No, those aren't virgin births, but is it a stretch for Matthew or Luke to carry those stories a step further, by making Jesus born without sexual intercourse altogether?

On your comment that Mary would be putting her life in danger by making up a story about the virgin birth, that depends on what the Gospels were written. Would her life be in danger after 70 C.E.? She'd be pretty old then!

Also, I wonder if there's a way to find religious significance in the virgin birth without replaying the Augustine tape: Jesus was born of a virgin because that way he avoided original sin. Matthew doesn't say that. Neither does Luke.

Ben Witherington said...

Hello James:

The Gospel story was part of the oral tradition already in the time of Paul. We needn't wait for Mark's Gospel's publication in about 68. This is clear for example from 1 Cor. 11 where Paul cites the Lukan form of the Last Supper. The OT stories are not close to the story of Mary. They are certainly closer to the story of Elizabeth.

Blessings,

Ben W.