Friday, June 25, 2010

The Virgin Birth.

Another excerpt from my book.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church has always affirmed the creedal statement that Jesus Christ "who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man [Homo Factus Est]"[1]  The biblicalsedes[2] of for this teaching is clear from the Gospels, notably Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:18-23 and Luke 1:34-6.  Matthew draws special attention to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.  Although it has been frequently argued that this verse only refers to a "young woman" several scholars have demonstrated that the term means "virgin" as the authors of the LXX translated it.[3]  Even the Jewish scholar Cyrus Gordon has agrees the word used in the verse, almah, does in fact mean virgin.[4]  Beyond the linguistic arguments, the context is highly suggestive of this.  The king is told by Isaiah that "the Lord himself will give you a sign."  If a miraculous event of a virgin giving birth is not referred to here, how would such an event be a sign?  If Isaiah merely refers to a "young woman," then this would not be miraculous in that young women give birth all the time.   

Beyond these typical and obvious sedes, David Scaer notes that in one of the textual variants of the Gospel of John, there is also a suggestion of Virgin Birth (the variant is in 1:13).[5]  As we have previously noted, the New Testament teaching of Virgin Birth represents the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, where we are told of the coming of the "seed of the woman."   Within Ancient Near Eastern culture, the women do not have "seed" and therefore such a phrase is highly suggestive of Virgin Birth.[6] 

Although it has been popular among theologically liberal circles to do so, it is incorrect to argue that Matthew and Luke possess a teaching on the Virgin Birth that finds alternatives elsewhere in the New Testament.  According to this theory, because John and Paul do not directly mention Jesus' Virgin Birth, they did not believe in it.  Whereas Matthew and Luke thought Jesus was a mere human and therefore needed to explain how Jesus could be God's Son (thereby inventing the Virgin Birth as an explanation), John and Paul believed in the pre-existence of Christ and therefore did not need a Virgin Birth to explain Christ's ontological connection to God the Father.[7] 

This is problematic for several reasons.  First, as we have shown in chapter two, the overwhelming evidence is that Matthew and Luke did believe that Jesus was God.  In fact, Matthew directly says this when quoting Isaiah's prophecy that Christ would be "God with us" (Mt. 1:23).  As we also noted, this reading is validated by the inclusio of divine presence within the Gospel.[8]  That the Virgin birth was directly connected to Christ's divinity in Matthew was recognized by the early Jewish Christian heresy of the Ebionites.  Although they used Matthew's Gospel, they removed the section that spoke of the Virgin Birth.[9]  Similarly, as Arthur Just notes, Luke describes Mary in the same terms of Moses describes God's descent in the Tabernacle in Exodus 40.[10]  Therefore Virgin Birth does not represent an alternative ascending Christology, but rather is part and parcel of a high, divine, descending Christology. 

Regarding the teachings of John and Paul, as we mentioned above, Scaer notes that in light of a particular textual variant, it is very possible that John did mention the Virgin Birth directly.  Nevertheless, we of course do not know if he textual variant preserves the original reading.  Certainly, the text as it is agreed upon by most lower-critics, would seem to imply that Christ was born of a Virgin, in that the new spiritual birth that Christ brings occurs "not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (Jn 1:13).  If this is how believers gain spiritual birth, then how much more would not the Son of God also be born in this manner as well?  Regarding Paul, itshould be observed (with Scaer again)[11] that in Galatians 4:4 that Paul says merely that Jesus was "born of a woman" and not a "woman and a man."  Within this context there was no reason not to say that Christ was simply was "made man" or just "born."  Paul appears to rather deliberately go out of his way to emphasize that Christ was "born of a woman" alone. 

In any case, it seems particularly strange that John and Paul would teach anything other than Virgin Birth, not only because they share a common incarnational theology with Matthew and Luke, but because it would simply be illogical for them not to.  If Jesus is God's Son, then to claim that he had an earthly Father according to the flesh and then a heavenly Father would seem very strange.  It would be to suggest that both John and Paul had a theology whereby the Son of God had somehow intervened at an opportune moment of human insemination and thereby brought about the Incarnation.  Not only is this bizarre sounding, but it would appear to totally contradict the monergistic theologies of grace taught by both.  Lastly, among the theologians of the early Church that we possess no records of or even a merely suggestion of, the existence a descending and incarnational Christology that does not accept the Virgin Birth.[12]

But if John and Paul did believe in the Virgin Birth, why did they not mention it?  There are very likely several reasons.  First, many of the writings of the New Testament (particularly Paul's) are occasional and do not deal with every article of the faith.  Since it appears that Gospels were widely circulated at an early dateas David Scaer,[13] Martin Hengel[14] and Richard Bauckham[15] have argued, [16]  it is likely that they would have assumed their audiences were already familiar with the doctrine via other writings or simple contact with the Apostolickerygma by way of oral teaching.  Hence there would be no reason to mention it. 

Secondly, N.T. Wright has noted, that although the Virgin Birth is an important doctrine, it is not at the very heart of the New Testament gospel.  Though one certainly cannot dispense with Christmas-Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost are more central to the New Testament's saving message.[17]  Consequently, the preaching of Paul and John emphasize these.  As Wright notes, even when we turn to Matthew and Luke, this doctrine is only taught in a few verses.[18]  Part of the reason for this might very well be a desire to actually play the doctrine down.[19]  After all, as we have observe in chapter two, it is the purpose of Luke to portray Jesus as an incarnation of YHWH's hypostasizedkavod, the Servant of Deutro-Isaiah, and the new David.  In light of this fact and the fact that Luke is very likely writing what (according to Arthur Just) is a catechism for Gentiles,[20] an overemphasis on such a doctrine might make his formerly pagan audience begin to think of Jesus as a pagan demi-god.  Matthew might very well have faced similar issues with his Jewish audience.  In the Jewish context, there appears to be significant evidence that certain Jews of this period (notably those who read Enochic literature, including the sect at Qumran) misread the story of the "sons of God" copulating with the "daughters of men" in Genesis 6 and thereby constructed a fantastic notion that sexual intercourse between fallen angels and human women had lead to the insemination of a race of giants.[21]  Matthew very likely did not wish to emphasize the Virgin Birth because this might create associations within some of his Jewish contemporaries' minds between Jesus and supernatural human-angel hybrids creatures.[22]  To understand Jesus in this way, would detract from Matthew's portrayal of Jesus as living kavod and Torah made flesh in the person of the Davidic Messiah. 

On an apologetic note, it is therefore hard to see why Matthew or Luke would favor inventing the doctrine of Virgin Birth in light of these concerns.  In fact, if it were not for their inspiration by the Holy Spirit, their immediate impulse might have very well been to suppress these events as embarrassing.  After all, from the Second Temple Jewish texts that we possess, there is no suggestion that there was a wide spread belief that the Messiah would be born of a Virgin.[23] Consequently, a Virgin Birth wouldn't ultimately make much of a difference in arguing that Jesus was the Messiah and might even harm it if their audience (in the aforementioned ways) got the wrong idea.  Nevertheless, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they felt it necessary to tell to the truth about Jesus' birth and conception, while at the same time giving the doctrine minimal emphasis.


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