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“Born of a Virgin?” Andrew Lincoln’s New Book

November 11, 2013

Andrew Lincoln, a respected NT scholar (former President of the British NT Society), most recently serving as Portland Professor of New Testament in the University of Gloucestershire, has written an important book on the early Christian tradition that Jesus was conceived without the aid of a human father:  the “virginal conception” tradition (often popularly referred to as “virgin birth”):  Born of a Virgin?  Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition and Theology (SPCK, 2013).  Having reviewed the book for a journal, I want to bring it to the attention of other readers.

Emphasizing his own Christian faith-stance, and writing particularly for fellow Christians, Lincoln offers some serious and impressive reasons for what will be for many/most a major re-thinking of the matter.  Of course, others (often from critics outside the circle of Christian faith) have urged that a virginal conception is incompatible with “modern” thinking.  But Lincoln repeatedly aligns himself as a practicing Christian, and offers observations that involve both a careful, historical approach to the NT writings and some serious theological reasons that a virginal conception (if taken literally) could actually pose a serious problem for Christian beliefs about Jesus’ role in salvation.

One of Lincoln’s major emphases is that the idea of a virginal conception is actually reflected explicitly in only two NT writings:  the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  So far as we can tell, he urges, Paul did not know the idea, nor did the writers of Hebrews or Gospel of John, for example.  So, Lincoln’s first point is that we appear to have a certain variety of views or assumptions about Jesus’ birth, these latter texts suggesting a view that he was conceived in the normal manner, and emphasizing his Davidic lineage.

As a hermeneutical argument, this carries some weight, especially for Christians who make the biblical texts particularly important for faith.  If there is, as Lincoln urges, a diversity of views of Jesus’ conception in NT writings, then it may be debatable that any one view can be asserted at the expense of the others.

Second, Lincoln observes that the two birth-narratives in the NT seem to be almost entirely independent of each other.  There is little shared by them other than the key characters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  So, e.g., Joseph’s dreams, magi and star, King Herod’s massacre of infants, and flight to Egypt are all in Matthew, but none in Luke.  The angelic annunciation to Mary, shepherds and angel choir, and census-trip are all in Luke, but none of these in Matthew.  Traditional suggestions that Matthew relates Joseph’s recollections whereas Luke relates Mary’s seem, under careful scrutiny, less persuasive than the suggestion that these narratives have been composed, essentially to present Jesus’ birth as auspicious and a fulfilment of ancient hopes.

Moreover, Lincoln notes that it was often a trope in Roman-era biography to posit a birth of important figures as characterized by special/wondrous phenomena, and even to assert involvement of a deity.  So, the addition of birth-narratives by the authors of Matthew and Luke could be taken as a major example of a “literaturization” of the Mark-type narrative of Jesus’ ministry, giving the Mark-type narrative more of a biographical shape.  In the original setting, moreover, people would have read accounts of miraculous birth primarily as expressive of the high significance of the individual in question, and perhaps would not have focused so much on the gynaecological issues.

Lincoln also surveys how the idea of the “virgin birth” came to occupy such a prominent place in Christian faith (which really seems to have begun in the second century and/or thereafter), and how the idea came to represent different emphases across these early centuries.  Initially (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch), Jesus’ virgin birth was underscored to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against those early Christians who tended to deny or minimize his human nature).  But a couple of centuries later, Jesus’ virgin birth was coming to be used to affirm emerging emphases on virginity, celibacy, and then on how Jesus’ virgin birth meant that he was free of the taint of sexually-transmitted “original sin” (e.g., Augustine).

In his final chapters, Lincoln offers some thoughtful observations about why taking the idea of a virgin birth literally may actually raise serious theological problems.  Ancients seem to have thought that the “stuff” of the embryo came basically from the mother, the male essentially providing the animating power to generate life.  But if, as we now know, one half of the chromosomes of each person comes from each of the two people normally involved in procreation, what does it mean theologically to take Jesus as having only one parent?  If, as traditional Christian faith emphasizes (and already in such NT texts as Hebrews), it was necessary for Jesus to be genuinely and fully human to secure “salvation”, is this imperilled by a literal “virgin birth”?

Some portions of Lincoln’s argument are (in my view) not as persuasive as others.  For example, I didn’t find compelling his argument that Matthew may incorporate conflicting views of Jesus’ conception.  But the larger lines of his discussion are a model of irenic, respectful, patient and cogent analysis, and I think he has provided thoughtful Christians with a work that deserves consideration and with the same attitudes.

Lincoln proposes that the idea of Jesus’ “virgin birth” should be seen as originating as a historically-conditioned trope that was intended simply to express in a literary conventions of the time his high significance, and specifically the serious theological point that his origins really lie in divine purposes.  As the Christmas season approaches, Lincoln’s book is a timely work, both for Christians and non-Christians who value good scholarship, careful argumentation, and thoughtful reflections on this topic.

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69 Comments
  1. Hi,

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.

    Among those who accept the virgin birth as given in the New Testament, there seems to be an undercurrent that the virgin birth was a type of random utilization and fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, without a specific spiritual base. Arthur Custance (1910-1985) in “The Seed of the Woman” makes a solid case that the virgin birth was an imperative for Jesus to be sinless, as the sin nature, in Biblical and Hebraic understanding, is passed through the man.

    (This can be counterposed against other theories that are , such as a divine implant/surrogate mother theory, or Mary being in some sense sinless.)

    Those readers of the New Testament who accept and understand this perspective see the virgin birth as a spiritual imperative. And I think it is proper to call this “Christological”, although it should be kept separate and distinct from the later Trinitarian add-on of “God the Son” phrasing.

    The ideas above also fit well with the idea that the genealogies are accurate and true.

    “This discovery is that Luke’s genealogy traces the line of Mary, not of Joseph.” (The Genealogies of the Bible: The Genealogies of the New Testament, by Custance).

    Arthur Custance does work with the common mistaken idea of Luke being a Gentile. However that does not effect the basics, the acceptance of Luke’s Hebraic perspective only strengthens his work. As does the acceptance of true “eyewitness” testimony, Luke and Matthew being written within about 10 years after the resurrection, Luke being closely involved with the Hebraic community and writing to the high priest.

    Yours in Jesus,
    Steven Avery

    • Steven: There is no such “Biblical” idea of “the sin nature” being “passed through the man”! That’s the doctrine of “original sin”, which was formulated sometime in the 5th century CE. And Arthur Custance is hardly a recognized scholar in the field! As to your other assumptions about the Lukan genealogy and who “Luke” was, you’re free to hold them, but should know that they’re not widely shared, and for good reasons.

  2. Patrick permalink

    Miraculous conceptions are part of the flow of the OT narrative though. First Issac is conceived via a miraculous Divine intervention, then Samuel is. Isaiah 7:14 seems( I know of the controversy) to indicate a virgin birth as a semeion to Israel.

    Jesus being the apotheosis of all the OT types of Christ, it really makes for textual consistency for a miraculous Divine intervention conception relating to Messiah and a virginal conception tops a re-establishing of an infertile womb in a more dramatic display of God’s power cause Jesus is more of everything good than the OT types.

    Concerning the theological fear Jesus might not be fully human if Joseph wasn’t really His father, why couldn’t God create the human male part of the zygote with no problem?

    • Yes, Patrick. Your comparison with OT miraculous births is noted by pretty much every commentator on the nativity narratives, and seems to have been intended by the authors of them. As for your final proposal, the theological question would be whether an artificially created biological component would be adequate. But this isn’t the place to conduct the discussion, and certainly not without reading some serious stuff on the topic, now esp. Lincoln’s book.

  3. physicistdave permalink

    Larry,

    It seems to me that some broader issues are implied by your statement that “Lincoln proposes that the idea of Jesus’ ‘virgin birth’ should be seen as originating as a historically-conditioned trope that was intended simply to express in a literary trope of the time his high significance, and specifically the serious theological point that his origins really lie in divine purposes.”

    This raises the issue of whether the Evangelists intended or expected the Gospel stories about Jesus to be taken as literally true. E.g., did Matthew really think that there was a mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world could be viewed, or was this simply a picturesque way of emphasizing his point about Jesus’ integrity and incorruptibility?

    It is hard to believe that the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas intended his tales to be taken as anything more than entertaining and edifying fictions, and the same holds of the giant walking, talking Cross in the Gospel of Peter.

    Isn’t it possible that the four Evangelists whose works ended up being canonized similarly thought of their writings as edifying, illuminating fictions meant to convey important points about Jesus’ teachings and how the early Church viewed their Lord, rather than as literal history?

    I have never seen this hypothesis stated explicitly, though it may be implicit in the work of various scholars.

    Given past debates in your comments section, let me state clearly that I am not suggesting that Jesus did not exist but am merely suggesting that perhaps the four Gospels were not meant by their authors to be taken as literally true.

    Of course, that hypothesis would have serious implications for drawing conclusions from the Gospels: i.e., it would mandate great caution in assuming that the Gospels portray Jesus’ actual views as opposed to the views of the early Church. But, I take it many scholars already would grant that point.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Dave: You portray a major matter of analysis in Gospels scholarship for ca. 200 years . . . at least. It’s far too big a question to do it justice in a brief comment, but a few sentences for now (maybe a good topic for a posting from me at some point). Three things are pretty much agreed by the consensus of scholars: (1) Jesus of Nazareth excited a following in his own ministry, taught things, did things that made him a polarizing figure; (2) after his crucifixion and the eruption of belief that God had raise him from death and exalted him to heavenly glory, sayings, teachings, stories of his deeds were transmitted as part of the communication of the early Christian movement; (3) the Gospels draw upon this transmission of Jesus-tradition, each of the authors both reflecting adaptations of this material and adapting it further. As part of the processes in #2 and #3, in various ways people sought also to make clear the significance of Jesus (for faith), which included making connections with biblical (OT) texts (to show Jesus as fulfilment of them). Other factors may well have been at play as well.
      Scholars come down variously as to how to judge the effects of all this. But it’s evident, simply by reading all four Gospels, that the Jesus-tradition was adapted in various ways, and in varying ways Jesus was depicted through the lens of early Christian beliefs about him. The Gospels were written to promote faith in Jesus (as, e.g., the author of GJohn says explicitly in 20:30-31). They obviously wanted to root and link that faith to the historical figure, but they also wanted more than simply to paint a “historical” portrait. They likely believed that what they wrote was “true”. But this truth was not simply at some level of historical data-checking. A historical rootage was essential for them, but they were interested in conveying much more than simply bare historical data.

  4. revbav permalink

    Thank you for a fascinating review. In common with a number of your commenters, I have not yet had a chance to read the book. But I was surprised by the idea that the virgin birth (by virtue of deifying Jesus) could create any problem for our soteriology.

    For me, the virgin birth is one key dimension of our theology of the Incarnation, and hence crucial to a right understanding of the cross. Not (as some have scoffed) that a cruel God punished His son for us in an act of divine child-abuse, but that God entered our world in the person of his “Son” (God-as-man) and received the punishment due to us. Thus John 1:14, which only makes sense to me if Jesus was conceived virginally (i.e. without the involvement of sperm from Joseph).

    John Bavington

    • Thanks, John. Your perspective is widely shared and even likely traditional. It is interesting, however, that the author of GJohn doesn’t say anything about a virginal conception. The same is true of Philippians 2:6-8. It would appear that strong claims about the “incarnation” of the divine Son didn’t require an accompanying claim of a virginal conception.

  5. Since the genealogies are now being discussed, may I mention that I have a detailed discussion of Luke’s genealogy in my book ‘Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church’, in which I argue in detail that Luke’s genealogy is the one that was used by the relatives of Jesus who (according to Julius Africanus, who had access to Palestinian Jewish Christian traditions) used a family genealogy in their preaching of the Christian message. I think it is very plausibly a traditional family genealogy that has been manipulated a bit to fit a numerical scheme (as often in OT and other ancient genealogies) of 77 generations. It is clearly the genealogy of a minor branch of the Davidic line and it is very likely that such a family would maintain the tradition of its Davidic descent.
    But both genealogies now need to be studied in the light of the huge amount of information we now have about Jewish name usage in the Second Temple period. We ought now to be able to tell whether the names in the later parts of the genealogies fit plausibly into the pattern of name usage in those periods that we can now reconstruct. This work has still to be done. By the way, in my opinion, Raymond Brown’s book on the infancy narratives is much over-rated. Its strength is that he read nearly everything anyone has written about those biblical texts. Its weakness is that he never seems to read the relevant Jewish literature for himself but depends entirely oin what other NT scholars say about it. This can lead to bad mistakes.

    • Thanks, Richard. I should have mentioned your book, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus and your treatment of genealogies.

      • Magnus permalink

        I think the late Geza Vermes’ little book about the Nativity should be added into the discussion. A lot of what’s been discussed above has already mentioned by Vermes.

        Magnus

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Dr Hurtado! This is an intriguing question. As a wannabe theologian, I have to ask, is there a way for Mary to have become pregnant without divine assistance and without scandal? Joseph would have dumped her, if not for divine intervention, which seems inconsistent with Joseph being Jesus’ dad.

    And, to add to the “Problems with the Trinity” file, if Mary was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, doesn’t that make the Third Person of the Trinity the Father? If so, it adds a little weight to the binitarian pattern you laid out in “Lord Jesus Christ” which is the book I have purchased most for friends.

    Have a blessed day, sir!

    • Arvo: If one inquires how/whether the birth narratives are in some real sense “fictional”, i.e., the details (e.g., star, magi, shepherds, etc.) deployed to make connections with OT prophecies, Jewish hopes, and to bring out the significance of Jesus, then that includes the question of whether the distinctively Matthean reference to Joseph’s dreams and the issues of “putting away” Mary must be included. So, that isn’t a fixed thing around which everything else has to be fitted.
      As to your final comment, good gracious no! In the traditional Christian understanding of the “virgin birth”, Mary wasn’t “made pregnant” in the normal manner. Instead, by the creative divine word she conceived, the Spirit as the agent of this word.

      • Professor,

        Thank you for the reply!

        One wonders how Jesus’ family got so dysfunctional that they thought he was out of his mind, tried to take him, and didn’t believe him. Maybe the kids had heard the village gossip about Jesus’ paternity, but were not convinced by their mother’s version of events, maybe because Joseph wasn’t around to back her up. “Sure, Mom, whatever you say,” accompanied by eye rolling.

        A lot of maybes, lol.

      • Arvo: The Markan reference to Jesus’ family suspecting that he had gone a bit over the edge is set in a context where he is exorcising and generating a lot of controversy about “the kingdom of God” expressed in his deeds. It has nothing to do with rumors of his conception. Read the text: Mark 3, which, BTW, is a splendid example of the familiar Markan “sandwich” arrangement in which two stories are interwoven to link and mutually interpret each other.

      • You, sir, are a very good teacher! Thanks for the insight on the literary structure. I do wonder why Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and what his mother thought of it all.

  7. Prof. Hurtado, very interesting topic indeed. Does Lincoln provide any thoughts then as to “who Jesus’ earthly (physical) father might have been? if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, was his earthly father Joseph then? And I guess, wouldn’t writers of the period or Josepheus write against the bit and claims that this “jesus” was born of a virgin”.

    great topic! God bless.

    • Lincoln notes various ancient views about Jesus’ birth, and I think he leans toward a “normal” procreation, involving Joseph and Mary. We do have indications of a backlash against the “virgin birth” tradition, perhaps particularly in Jewish sources, one of our earliest reflections being in Celsus’ critique of Christianity where he echoes claims that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock. In rabbinic texts, the “Panthera” tradition emerges (Panthera sometimes portrayed as a Roman soldier who raped Mary). I’ve proposed that these ideas were a polemical response to early Christian claims that Jesus’ conception/birth was in some way miraculous and divinely facilitated (Lord Jesus Christ, 318-30).

  8. Even if only Matthew and Luke mention it, the virgin birth is still part of New Testament Christianity. As far as I can see, the virgin birth of Christ underscores that Jesus represents a new beginning for the human race. As for Paul not mentioning the virgin birth, I note that he doesn’t seem to mention Joseph and Mary anywhere, either.

    If the virgin birth embarrasses us as “unscientific”, then the resurrection must do so, too.

    • Cephash (Is this your name? If not, please use your name on this site): You’re correct to note that the “virgin birth” tradition does express some Christological claims. That’s something everybody who has studied the matter agrees on. As to your final sentence, that’s not the point that Lincoln makes. His point is that a virgin birth raises a theological problem, not a scientific one.

  9. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry,

    In Jewish theology, was a woman seen as the conveyor of the Spirit of God to her baby?

    • Geoff: The “Spirit of God” was not portrayed as conveyed via procreation, but in biblical/Jewish tradition was a special gift given by God to individuals, esp. for task such as prophecying and/or to make them particularly holy, etc.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry,

        The folk you refer to were presumably ‘filled’ with the Spirit of God. It did not mean that they were not influenced by the Spirit. I thought that in Jewish theology, the spirit in a person animated that person, i.e. made that person live, move, and do right or wrong actions. It gave life from the very beginning in Genesis, to all living, and even to objects that moved in the ‘heavens’ above. Thus Mary could be considered as the conveyor of God’s Spirit to Jesus – “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” We are in the realm of the two spirits in a person, the spirit of truth or light, and the spirit of deceit or darkness.

        In Jewish theology, it seems that the spirit of a person is the same as the spirit of truth or light which must come from God. And the Spirit of God seems to be the same as the spirit of truth or light. Thus the Spirit of God was not special in the sense that it had an influence upon all people through their spirit of truth.

        The spirit of deceit or darkness came from the Devil. Similarly, the spirit of deceit could be influenced by the Devil.

      • Geoff: You’re confusing two things and from various periods of biblical/Jewish history. There is the “living soul/lifeforce” (Heb: “nephesh hayah”) in Genesis, which appears to be essentially the animating force of all living beings (even animals have “nephesh”). But in the OT the “Spirit of the LORD” (Heb: “ruach YHWH”) is seldom mentioned, and where it is mentioned is rather consistently treated as a special endowment for particular roles/tasks.
        By the time of the Qumran group, and in their texts we have a “two spirits” view, which is that there are two moral forces within humanity. Again, neither is the “the Spirit of the LORD/God”, or “Holy Spirit/Spirit of Holiness” which is referred to separately, and with distinguishable functions.
        In later still rabbinic tradition, you have the two “inclinations” (Heb: “yetzer”, the “good inclination” (Heb: “yetzer ha-tov”) and the “bad/evil inclination” (Heb: “yetzer ha-rah”). Again, neither = “the Spirit of the LORD/Holy Spirit”.
        So, in the Lukan annunciation story (1:35), the “Holy Spirit” clearly = “the power of the most high” (poetic parallelism), again, a special endowment, not the “life force” or either of the moral inclinations. If you like, I discuss the various features of “God discourse” in the NT in my book, God in New Testament Theology, and have a section on the Spirit (pp. 73-94).

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry,

        It does say that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2, and the earth was formless, empty and dark. The Spirit of God was God. When God spoke he spoke by his Spirit (Gen:1:3). When he created man he breathed into him the breath that gave him life. What was God’s breath if not God’s Spirit. I can’t see that folk who believed so deeply in God could conceive of a ‘life force’ or a ‘moral force’ as though it was independant of God. The concepts may have developed with time. But the end is as Eccl. 12:7 – the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, in Jewish terminology.

      • Well, Geoff, you’ll just have to enhance your conceptual powers. There is different terminology and deployed in sentences saying different things. “Nephesh hayah” (“living force/soul”) is what Genesis says God put into Adam and all other living beings. God’s own “Spirit” is not thus described. The spirit that returns to God in Eccles 12:7 is that human spirit, just as Jesus is pictured in Luke 23:46 commending his own “spirit” into God’s hands. But in Acts 2:34-35, the risen/exalted Jesus receives “Holy Spirit” and dispenses it upon his followers. Different things. The one finite and human. The other divine and “holy”.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Well Larry,

        Why did Jesus have to receive the Holy Spirit to dispense it, when prophets could receive it directly from God?

      • Geoff: In the perspective reflected in NT writings such as the Acts passage, the claim is that God now dispenses the Spirit via the exalted Jesus, and in response to recognizing Jesus as God’s appointed Messiah. Moreover, in the NT perspective, the Spirit is now given to all such, not simply selected individuals such as prophets. Note, e.g., the Acts 2 claim that the prophecy in Joel 2 has been fulfilled, a dispensing of Spirit & prophetic powers upon “all those who call upon the name of the Lord”.

  10. I have not read the book. I was wondering if it offers any fresh perspective on the conflicting genealogies?

    • If you refer to the differences in the ancestries of Jesus in the genealogies, I don’t recall Lincoln commenting specifically on the matter.

      • That’s unfortunate. Technically, I suppose the diverse ancestral names for Jesus in Matthew and Luke are not connected to the virgin birth idea or doctrine. Nonetheless, it’s a 500lb gorilla that doesn’t go away by ignoring it.

      • Well, not a 500 lb gorilla, just a further instance of the two birth narratives being apparently independently produced.

      • The names in the two genealogies are so dramatically different after David that they point to the birth of two different individuals. At least they do to me. Would that not be the most simple explanation. Matthew’s Jesus descends from Solomon, as one might expect, but why would Luke choose the relatively obscure Nathan over the greatly beloved King? That’s the gorilla. Makes no sense.

        If you and I independently produced different genealogies for somebody I think we’d at least the grandfathers correct if they were in living memory.

        As it happens, I prefer Matthew over Luke. But I agree with Lincoln that “virgin birth” is missing from both Gospels and is an interpretation that has to be forced. However, I don’t have any problem with my Catholic friends who joke about this as much as anyone.

      • Mark: Neither genealogy is likely a “real” list of ancestors of Jesus (or anyone else). Both are instead appropriations of ancestor-lists that function to state the Christological emphases of the two authors (“Matthew” & “Luke”). On the matter of the genealogies, see, e.g., the masterful discussion by R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 57-95.
        But, no, Lincoln does not claim that there is no “virgin birth” idea in Mattthew and Luke! It’s clearly there in both texts. No forcing necessary. The question is what to do with the idea.

      • I would agree both lists are appropriations, but that fails to explain why Luke would reject Solomon over Nathan. What messianic philosophy would that represent? There must be more to it. Brown is a masterful writer, for sure, but his Catholic presuppositions get in the way for me.

        As for “virgin” birth..I would have to disagree. I don’t see it at all. Even in Luke.

      • Mark: I see no “Catholic presuppositions” in Brown’s proposal that Matthew appropriated and adapted a “royal messianic” genealogy (which served Matthew’s royal-messianic emphasis throughout the text), whereas Luke appropriated (and/or fashioned) a genealogy that fits his emphasis on Jesus simply as human descendent (e.g., Luke’s tracing things back to Adam, cf. Matthew’s back to Abraham). As if you can’t see a virginal conception even in Luke, I can only admire your determination!

      • Haha..well I would agree with his view on Matthew. As for Luke….is that inspired scholarship or self-serving guesswork?

        What possible advantage has Luke to gain by rejecting Solomon over Nathan? How does it make Jesus more “human?” That’s a stretch among stretches.

        Luke includes 77 names in the genealogy which fits Enoch’s prophecy that the Messiah comes in the 77th generation after the Fall of the angels (doesn’t Brown omit this snippet?), so it does seem like he appropriated the list from somewhere. Nonetheless….I seriously doubt that both lists are pure fantasy. And if they are….what is real in the infancy narratives? The virgin birth? I suppose we get to pick and choose depending on our preferences. That’s always what it comes down to anyway, isn’t it?

      • Mark: On your final question, I’d say “no”. At least in proper scholarly discourse, “preferences” can and should be challenged, have to be defended, and are in themselves insufficient. There. That puts me clearly outside the fashionable “postmodernist” camp, I guess. But so be it.

  11. John Markley permalink

    Larry,

    I plan to get my hands on a copy soon, but I can’t tell from info about the book online whether Lincoln addresses the birth narrative preserved in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah 11:2-17. It agrees with Matthew and Luke in terms of the virginal conception, and it even claims a miraculous birth – one without labor or delivery. Yet, it does not exhibit any overt dependency upon Matthew and Luke; many of their salient features are absent. This is considerably different than what we find in, for example, the Protevangelium of James, which seems to quote Luke’s birth narrative at points. What makes it even more interesting is that some scholars date this portion of the text to the first century CE. If this date is correct, it could be a near contemporaneous, perhaps independent, account of Jesus’ birth to stand alongside Matthew and Luke’s accounts.

    I am curious about the treatment it gets in Lincoln’s book.

    • John, Lincoln’s discussion of MartyIsa is brief (pp. 176-77), and he sees hints in it that the birth-account is influenced by the account in GMatthew.

    • Jim Deardorff permalink

      John,

      Your reference to the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah seems most pertinent, because an important purpose of this document seems to have been to explain all about Isaiah 7:14 – both the virgin birth aspect and the “and shall call his name Immanuel” aspect. The latter is best explained at MartyrIsa 9:5,

      And He who permitted thee, this is thy Lord God, the Lord Christ, who will be called “Jesus” in the world, but His name thou canst not hear till thou hast ascended out of thy body.”

      Evidently, the author was letting us know that the name had been “Immanuel” before the name “Jesus” took over. In that respect, the point I failed to make clear to Prof. Hurtado is that Paul must have been very familiar with Isa 7:14, since from Rom 15:12 (and Isa 11:10) we know he believed in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messiah prophecy. So why did Paul not want to mention Isa 7:14 and “Immanuel”? I hope you can see this connection between Paul and MartyrIsa 9:5 and further verses that support a name change.

      I favor MartyrIsa being dependent upon GMatthew largely because of MartyrIsa 11:2-4.

  12. Dr. Hurtado,

    When and where will your review of Lincoln’s book appear?

    I reviewed the book at my blog last week. I won’t link the review here, since I don’t know what your link policy is. Anybody who’s interested can search for the review under the title “Andrew Lincoln’s Book Against The Virgin Birth”.

    I agree that the book has some significant merits. It addresses a wide range of issues in a lot of depth, and it cites and interacts with a lot of sources, including many recent ones. He makes some good points, and some of his criticisms of virgin birth advocates are deserved.

    But there are a lot of problems with the book as well. He underestimates the New Testament and extrabiblical evidence for the virgin birth. He doesn’t even discuss some of the most significant evidence from second-century sources. New Testament passages like John 1:45, Romans 1:3, and Hebrews 2:17 are more flexible than he suggests. He uses terms like “almost certain” (22) and “little doubt” (25) to describe the likelihood that such passages contradict the virgin birth. Yet, he warns us against exaggerating the clarity of the virgin birth in Matthew. I agree with his warning about Matthew, but the same warning should be applied to Lincoln’s interpretations of other passages. And he dismisses the argument for the virgin birth based on a high view of scripture, yet he doesn’t make much of an effort to interact with the arguments for that view. Lincoln makes some good points, but the case for the historicity of the virgin birth remains better than the case against it.

    • My review will appears sometime in the Spring 2014 in Expository Times, but I was assigned a limited number of words. So, it won’t be a really adequate engagement on critical issues. That’s something that the book certainly requires and deserves.

  13. Brian permalink

    Also, concerning the Virgin birth, it would be interesting to “think” about the Judeo-Christian literature and “astral prophecy,” as Dr. Mike Heiser as shown here:

    It goes along with Dr. Ernest L. Martin research in his book, “The Star that Astonished the World.” You may find it on Amazon.com

    • Brian, I’m not sure that I see relevance.

      • Brian permalink

        The relevance rests in that John of Patmos perceived a virginal conception and that the miraculous birth is connected to the positioning of certain stars at a precise timing, and that maybe Jesus was born in Fall 2 BCE. The relevance is that this is another source of information about this matter, which is relevant to the *implications* of Lincoln’s entertainment of it in the NT (one implication being whether the virginal birth happened or didn’t happen). I thought it was “duh.” I shared it here as an aside; not that it specifically relates to the *contents* of the book under discussion.

      • Er, Brian: I see no reference by John of Patmos to a virginal conception (supposing that you must be thinking of Revelation 12:1-6, the woman there only described as pregnant). So, no “duh” involved, I fear! As for stars, constellations, etc., all very interesting. But hardly probative of a normal or virginal conception. Again, no “duh” there.

      • Brian permalink

        Larry, you may be right in certain respects, but you may be missing the background. “Woman,” and “Pregnant,” have a backdrop. The text doesn’t have to be explicit to serve your potential misunderstanding of the references I commented on and on my own comment. This is a bit (and I do emphasize “a bit”) like 1 Pet 3.19, about the identity of the spirits in prison, where the text is ambiguous and far from being explicit, but the backdrop of the text suggests it goes back to the view of Gen 6:1-4 and the book of Watchers (see Ph.D. dissertation of Chad Pierce [2009], or see works of George W.E. Nickelsburg). So you may be right, but in light of my own comment, it is still relevant. Oh, and the “duh” remains🙂, jk.

      • Gee, Brian, where would we be without your perceptivity to seeing things in texts that the rest of us can’t. We are just unworthy (still can’t see, even implicit, a virginal conception in Rev 11).

  14. One point at which Lincoln is wrong is that he claims biographers themselves made up stories about portents and remarkable events connected with the births of important people. (Miraculous births and conceptions as such are very rare, prophecies and portents more common.) What the biographers (Plutarch, Suetonius and others) actually do is report stories that were already circulating. They say so. Sometimes they report them without committing themselves to their truth. Sometimes they have no such stories, presumably because there were none available to them. So I don’t think we should assume that such things were understood as just a literary convention or conclude too readily that Luke would have just composed his birth narratives de novo.

    • Thanks, Richard. There is some reason to think that stories about Jesus’ conception/birth were circulating prior to GMatthew and GLuke. It would be the choice to include an account of Jesus’ birth that comprises a biographical “trope”, in comparison with the Mark-type narrative, restricted solely to Jesus’ ministry.

      • Ali Hussain permalink

        Sir , an unrelated topic but since Prof. Baukham have commented here , and since i have read his book Gospels as eyewitness testimony , i want to ask u …in your opinion are Gospels eyewitness accounts ?

        Then coming to topic , i think we just cant say for sure that Jesus was not born of a virgin as 2000yr have passed after the event .

      • Ali: Prof. Bauckham can answer for himself, but I think that you need to make sure that you grasp his own perspective. As I understand him, he doesn’t mean that the Gospels are “eyewitness testimony” such as a court transcript would provide, but that the Gospels draw on “eyewitness testimony” as it circulated in early Christian circles. In any case, to speak for myself, I do not think that the Gospels are themselves “eyewitness testimony” (as I think you mean the expression). I see them as early representations of Jesus’ ministry informed and shaped by early Christian traditions about Jesus, which included reports of sayings, deeds, and interpretations of his significance.
        As for the Virgin Birth issue, unless one proceeds from an a priori position (e.g., “no such thing is possible, and therefore it didn’t happen”; or “anything narrated in the Bible must be treated as an actual event that happened just as it’s narrated”), there are a number of factors to take account of in trying to judge how to take the birth-narratives in the Gospels. But these would require a book-length treatment (such as given by Lincoln).

  15. Jim Deardorff permalink

    One aspect of the “virgin birth” that’s worth special scholarly consideration is the attention given to it as being the validation of Isaiah 7:14 by the writer of Matthew, and by Justin and even Irenaeus. I suppose Lincoln must have covered this, but he may have overlooked the peculiarity that the only really verifiable part of this messianic prophecy is that the child would be named Immanuel AT BIRTH. Justin and others avoid discussing that, while nevertheless believing that the prophecy had come true. Even Paul rejoices that it came true, at Rom 15:12. His avoidance of quoting 7:14 need not imply that he did not know of the “virgin birth” belief. He may instead have had a reason for avoiding mention of “Immanuel.”

    • Uh, Jim, Paul cites Isa 11:10 in Rom 15:12, not Isa 7. And, yes, Lincoln does discuss the texts.

  16. John Moles permalink

    Glad to see this posting and to note its general tone. I’ve also read Lincoln’s book and think it good. It’s not a problem for me, since I’ve never believed in the virginal conception, but of course it will be a problem for many. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been written. But the case illustrates the enormous problems inherent in debate about what many will regard as Christian fundamentals as being in the creeds. Lincoln faces up to that fairly and squarely. Since there’s never going to be agreement about such matters, it’s essential that Christians generally cut each other generous slack.
    Two further points: (1) I’ve always thought Romans 1.3 (which of course Lincoln discusses) decisive against the virginal conception; (2) as a Classicist (and one who has written rather extensively on Plutarchean biography), I don’t find Lincoln’s appeal to the (loose) truth standards of Classical biography particularly convincing, because, although Classical biography (and historiography) do contain plenty of supernatural material analogous to the birth narratives about Jesus, they characteristically ‘fence them off’ from their main narratives by various distancing devices (‘it is said’/’they say’ formulas; invocation of ‘muthos’ rather than ‘historia’), which of course Matthew and Luke do not do.

  17. I am sympathetic to Lincoln’s thoughts. I remember thinking a couple weeks ago, “Why do we even need the virgin conception?” It seems unnecessary. And the historical foundation for it seems dubious. However, I am very cautious of stepping out of the Christian tradition, especially over creedal matters. I suppose this is what separates me from Lincoln, and I fear this may limit any role I’ll be able to play in academia, but I subject myself to the Apostle’s teaching. Somewhere early in the Christian tradition, someone preached Jesus’ birth as miraculous, I am a student of that tradition and so I submit myself to its authority. I don’t innovate, I receive the tradition and I pass it on. Certainly we think critically, and search for understanding, but as of now, I must hold to the Apostle’s Creed.

  18. Julian permalink

    Hi Larry,

    I’m curious if Lincoln discusses the passage in Isaiah 7:14, from all the various points of view as to its meaning, and if so, how much?

  19. Judy Diehl permalink

    While I respect Lincoln and his scholarship greatly, I also see some issues with this book about the “virgin birth”. In my opinion, the key theological theme that is really at stake in this issue is christology. The bottom line is — who is Jesus, really? If the virgin birth was not an event as indicated by Matthew and Luke, then is it a lie? Is it just a made-up story by the evangelists to combat Gentile issues and fables? If so, the divinity of Christ is the issue, not his humanity. Prof. NT Wright contends that today we see too many doctrinal issues through 16th-century, Reformation eyes, and not through the eyes of the original readers. This appears to be a case in point.

    • Judy, I think you’re mistaken. The issue most definitely isn’t Christological claims about Jesus’ divine status, significance, etc. These rest fundamentally on convictions about what God has done and declared, esp. in the conviction that God raised Jesus from death and exalted him to divine glory. And I don’t get the relevance of the reference to the Reformation. But never mind.

  20. In the ANE and today, in some groups the girl can be married only after having her first menstruation which is regarded as a sign that she is now fertile and can conceive. She is now a woman, however fertility occurs before the first menstruation therefore if she is sexually active she can conceive and give birth before her first menstruation which certainly could look as if its a virgin birth event. Her first period therefore comes after her first birth.

    • Joe, Uh, Ok. But that isn’t so clearly relevant to the issues in Lincoln’s book. The question isn’t whether Jesus’ mother was “sexually active” before her marriage or whatever. Lincoln’s book is about how to take the idea of a virginal conception, no male involved before or after menstruation.

  21. Seth permalink

    First allow me to stress that I haven’t read the book. My comments are based solely on this post.
    Also, I hope everyone will be compassionate toward my posting as a layman. Any mistake I make, please, be kind and generous, point out the flaw, inform, move on.

    Pointing out all the other texts in the canonical New Testament seems far more to be an argument of silence than other birth traditions. And an argument of silence is no real argument at all. John emphasizes the eternal nature of the Christ and no birth of any kind is mentioned at all, merely ‘the Word became flesh.’ I would think that Hebrews, emphasizing Christ as the heavenly High Priest would be in a similar vein. And mythicists would be quick to point out (and correctly so, albeit misguidedly) that Paul says next to nothing at all about the earthly life and times of Jesus. All we get is that Jesus was “born of a woman, under the Law.” Now Mr Hurtado might be able to tell us how common such a phrase was for normal human beings but, regardless, we must acknowledge that this text still doesn’t say anything about his birth being typical or virginal. And while the inconsistencies of the M and L birth accounts IS a problem to be reckoned with let’s not ignore the characteristics that they both emphasize and AGREE on. Both emphasize Jesus’ Davidic line (albeit in conflict with each other) AND virgin birth.

    And why would a virgin birth effect the theology? According to the myth, Adam had no birth of any kind whatsoever but he was still fully human. What difference would it make if Jesus was only half related to anyone since he would still be human and a divine sacrifice. It’s not like the pre-Christian Jews were closely related to the livestock they were slaughtering for things like sin offerings.

    Further, if we’re going to retrograde modern biology back into ancient myths, for some reason, several different scenarios could be dreamed up. If YHWH wanted to make a perfect human avatar then wouldn’t engineering part of the DNA, the building blocks that make us who we are even a decent part of our personalities, make sense? And implanting a fertilized egg into an unrelated woman to be a surrogate mother is certainly doable. Jah could have engineered an ENTIRE strand of DNA to His liking, stuck it in Mary’s womb to be the surrogate and non-miraculous nature could take its course from there. And let’s not ignore the fact that parthenogenesis (virgin birth) has been observed in nature (Although, I stress HEAVILY that no such process has been observed in higher mammals, including humans, and the babies are all born female, in stark contrast to all the virgin born boys in mythic histories).

    I’m sorry, but the arguments presented, and AS they’re presented seem very weak, indeed.

    And what difference does how the virgin birth was interpreted throughout the years afterward make to whether or not it happened? Several events in real history that ACTUALLY happened have had multiple theories as to how and why the event occurred but this has little bearing on the reality of the event. Whether the virgin birth happened or not, this seems to be a poor argument all together.

    • Seth, You recite, actually, a number of the arguments that Lincoln mentions and engages. It’s not his purpose (and certainly not mine) to say that discussion can cease on the matter and the last word written in Lincoln’s book. All my posting reflects is the view that Lincoln has written a stimulating, irenic, and carefully laid out case for thinking, thinking carefully about the “virgin birth” of Jesus as a simple statement of his procreation. So, you’ve indicated some of the reasons why thinking about the matter, not simply reciting a position, is needed.

  22. Can my Christmas stocking take any more good books this year? I sure hope so. Thanks very much for the great review. Definitely getting this one.

  23. blop2008 permalink

    This is quite thought provoking and considerable to entertain. However, as you must realize yourself Dr. Hurtado, although some good legitimate points may be made by Lincoln, one must equally realize that almost anything could be broken down into disparate, inconsistent bits of data throughout the Judeo-Christian literature. I have studied the history and development of Satan and the Angel of the Lord (the Angelomorphic YHWH), and these matters could also can be broken down into disparate bits of development, from the most recent to the most ancient, until one arrives at an obscure, undeveloped evil figure; and an obscure, undeveloped hypostasis of YHWH. If one ends-up dissecting everything in the literature without any realization of this, we are left with almost nothing to be confident about what it may tell us on Judeo-Christian beliefs; whether one is a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. As long as we don’t make too much their undeveloped inceptions, it’s fine to entertain.

    There are synoptics in the OT, too. Take the Chronicler, for instance, and how he re-writes some of Samuel. There is quite a lot of rewrites and additions throughout the canonical and non-canonical literature. Take another example: all the doublet-stories throughout the book of Genesis. What about that? Which version of each doublet is correct? It is part of the ancient, literary genre to obtain different versions and additions of the same subjects. What the exegete does with it is part of the controversy (and fun).

    • Er, I don’t think you’re quite getting the point. Lincoln’s books isn’t about “breaking down” things, or reducing matters to supposed components. He writes as a serious Christian believer himself, affirming for him the special role of the Bible as “scripture”, etc. You’ll have to read the book, I fear!
      Oh, and I reiterate the policy of this blog-site, that people use their names. So, “blop” can you do so please?

      • Brian permalink

        Yes Larry, I wanted to see what you would answer to my comment since you have evidently read the book and I haven’t. It was a test — thinking: “Let’s see what he responds.” Your comment reassures me and clarifies your post on Lincoln’s book about what it is and what it isn’t.

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