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