Friday, December 30, 2011

N.T. Wright on the Virgin Birth

Claude Mariottini on his blog has a link to an article by N.T. Wright on the virgin birth of Jesus. Wright’s article is entitled Suspending Scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth. In my post here, I’ll interact with a few of Wright’s defenses of the historicity of the virgin birth. I’ll only be scratching the surface of what Wright’s article is about, however, and so I’ve linked to it here so that you can read it for yourself.

1. Here are some quotes from Wright, which make essentially the same point:

“…there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?”

“Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult – unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don’t.”

This appears to be similar to Wright’s argument in defense of Jesus’ resurrection. In that case, Wright argued that first century Judaism did not expect the Messiah to rise from the dead before the eschaton, and that Messianic movements generally folded after the death of their leader. For Wright, the fact that the Jesus movement continued after Jesus’ death and claimed that their founder was risen had to be due to some reason, and Wright believes that reason was the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Similarly, in the area of the virgin birth, Wright’s argument seems to be that the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus had to come from somewhere, and, for Wright, the most plausible explanation is that it came from the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. Wright does not believe that Matthew or Luke got the idea from pagan stories, which first century Jews anathematized, plus Luke was already putting himself at the risk of making Jesus out to be a demigod, in the eyes of his Jewish audience. For Wright, as I understand him, Matthew and Luke believed in the virgin birth of Jesus, and they got that idea from its occurrence.

I’ll list three problems that I have with this argument. First, why couldn’t the virgin birth have simply been an original idea that Matthew and Luke came across and included in their works? The fact that an idea is original does not mean that the idea has any grounding in reality. There are all sorts of original ideas out there! Second, why couldn’t a first century Jew absorb ideas from pagan cultures, while still opposing paganism? We see that sort of thing a lot in the Hebrew Bible: things are said about the God of Israel that other nations say about their gods, such as Baal. By drawing on these motifs, the writers of the Hebrew Bible may be saying that the God of Israel is the one who truly does the deeds that pagan nations attribute to their own gods. Why couldn’t something similar be going on with the virgin birth story? Third, and this contradicts the first problem that I listed, I think that the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin could have come from something other than its actual occurrence—-that the concept, in a sense, has a Hebrew precedent. In the Hebrew Bible, there are stories about figures who are born when their parents are really old, and such births can be described as miraculous. Why couldn’t a Christian come along and suggest that Jesus’ birth was miraculous—-and even more astounding than the births of the Old Testament figures—-for Jesus was born, not of a woman whose womb had dried up, but of a woman who had never even known a man?

2. “Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important. As historians we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus, and some reasons to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look, after all, quite restrained. Except, of course, in the matter where the real interest centres. Matthew and Luke declare unambiguously that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. What are we to make of this?”

My impression is that Wright here is making the sort of argument that many evangelical apologists (such as David Marshall) have made: that the Gospels’ stories about miracles are more reliable historically than non-Christian miracle stories because the Gospels are more restrained and low-key than the non-Christian miracle stories. I wonder what this proves, though. Perhaps the main thing we can conclude is that the Gospel writers were simply imitating the style of the Hebrew Bible, which was low-key in its description of miracles.

3. Wright makes the following statements:

“Further, anyone can say that Matthew made it all up to fulfil Isaiah 7:14 (‘the virgin shall conceive’). Since Luke doesn’t quote the same passage, though, the argument looks thin. Is Bethlehem mentioned only, perhaps, because of Micah 5:2-4?”

“What then about his central claim, the virginal conception itself, dropped almost casually into the narrative, with no flourish of trumpets? Some have argued, of course, that there is instead a flourish of strumpets: Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities (to put it no stronger) of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba, presumably in order to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God’s strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary’s being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to ‘fulfil’ this theme.”

I can see Wright’s point that Matthew did not make up the virgin birth story, for the concept of Jesus’ virgin birth also appears in Luke, and their stories are so different that they appear to be independent. Both could have gotten the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin from a common source. I also agree with Wright that Matthew 1 is trying to show that the strange circumstances around Jesus’ birth do not detract from Jesus being the Messiah, for God in the past was involved in peculiar situations, such as births from Gentile women, some of whom engaged in trickery or sexual immortality. Matthew is responding to something. But what? Could it have been a prominent belief that Jesus was a mamzer? Matthew does not believe that Jesus was a mamzer, for he has the tradition of the virgin birth, which could have been developed by someone else in response to the charge that Jesus was a mamzer. I guess my point here is that the fact that Matthew did not invent the virgin birth and was seeking to defend Jesus from a charge does not show that the virgin birth happened.


  1. I find Wright's arguments often weak. I think in the thought-world he moves in he prefers to be as fundamentalist as he can.

    My preferred solution is that the early Christians dabbled about in the OT for anything and everything they could read as about Jesus, and took what they got there without much good judgement. Thus, it does not look surprising to me that Isaiah was taken as it was, and the idea just got put around.

    There appears no good reason for Jesus to be born of a virgin. Except perhaps to save as fundamentalist an approach to the Bible as possible.

  2. Hi Davey! That could be. I'm not really against the virgin birth, per se. I'm just not gun-ho on Christian apologetics! Some apologetic arguments are a little better than others, but, overall, I'm skeptical that Christianity can be proved, especially when there are different ways to interpret evidence.

  3. Depends what you mean by 'proof' and 'evidence'!

    Here's a bit of fun re evidence:

    "The situation in which I would properly be said to have evidence for the statement that some animal is a pig is that, for example, in which the beast itself is not actually on view, but I can see plenty of pig-like marks on the ground outside its retreat. If I find a few buckets of pig-food, that's a bit more evidence, and the noises and the smell may provide better evidence still. But if the animal then emerges and stands there plainly in view, there is no longer any question of collecting evidence; its coming into view doesn't provide me with more evidence that it's a pig, I can now just see that it is." J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia

    Further on virgin birth: I wouldn't be happy with any theology that needed Jesus to be born of a virgin to be Son of God. So, if in practice Jesus had been born of a virgin, what would the point be? What possible difference could it make to what Jesus was or did? Suppose it had been mentioned in a Gospel that Jesus was less than average height ...? Were there Shepherds and Magi around the time of the birth, hardly, so maybe the other surroundings are also just part of the scene setting.

  4. I think Matthew and Luke were including the story to show that Jesus was special and to offer a version of how he was Son of God. Many Christians say the virgin birth is necessary because that's how Jesus escaped original sin, but (to go to your discussion of evidence) there's no evidence that Matthew and Luke believed the virgin birth was significant on account of that. Paul arguably had something like original sin in his letter to Romans (maybe), and he does not mention the virgin birth.

  5. Catholics have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is that Mary was born without original sin, though she had both parents human.


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