Exodus 4:19, The Virgin Birth, part V of V

Now the Lord has said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.”

//For five days, we’ve been discussing why most Liberal Christians assume the virgin birth stories in the Bible are not meant to be read as history. For the final argument, we want to introduce Matthew’s penchant for midrash—in other words, the way in which Matthew compared Jesus to other men of God through story, an exegetical technique quite common in Jewish circles.

A close look at Matthew’s birth story shows a striking parallel to the Hebrew heroes Moses and Abraham. Remember Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Matthew? Well, according to Jewish legends, Abraham’s birth is also signaled by the appearance of a huge star, by which astrologers predict a great ruler. They inform their king, Nimrod, who slaughters seventy thousand children.

Recall that Moses, too, just happened to be born at a time when the king had ordered male infanticide. Read what Josephus has to say in Jewish Antiquities about Moses: One of the sacred scribes … announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river. 

In other words, like Jesus, Moses was the occasion for the slaughter, after a “wise man” warns the king. Says Josephus about Moses, “he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage.”

Now back to Matthew’s Gospel. There, an angel then notifies Jesus’ parents when Herod is dead so they can safely return home from Egypt. This command alludes directly to the instruction God gave Moses to return from exile in Median (see today’s verse, above).

Matthew’s penchant for midrash and for scriptural fulfillment leaves no doubt as to how he conceived the story of Jesus’ birth, and his first readers never imagined that Matthew’s story happened literally. Few Christians of the first century and early second century believed the Bible meant Jesus really was born of a virgin, but understood that Matthew was tying Jesus to revered men of the past. Somewhere along the way, however, our appreciation for honorific myth and midrash dissipated; 1,900 years later, most Christians today believe the virgin birth story happened exactly as written.

I love this time of year. I love seeing the manger scenes and the celebration of our Lord’s arrival. But I love them more, knowing I don’t have to suspend reason and believe literally in the story. I don’t have to worry about whether it should be a manger or a house, whether shepherds belong with the wise men, or whether there were even three wise men in the first place. I can appreciate the meaningful, glorious, beautiful, honorific story it’s meant to be without trying to squeeze it into a historical event.

Matthew 2:6, The Virgin Birth, part IV of V

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

//Having pared the believable birth stories down from two to one—Matthew’s rendition instead of Luke’s—let’s now take a hard look at Matthew, and see if he really meant us to interpret his version literally.

Let’s begin with how Matthew crafts his story as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, particularly the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the original Hebrew), which in translation erroneously changed the Hebrew word for “young maiden” into “virgin”: “The young maiden” thus became “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Why is this virgin birth important to Matthew? Perhaps because Jesus’ competitor, the Lord and Savior of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, the man who demanded to be called Son of God, shares a similar story. Suetonius, a Roman historian, tells how Augustus was born of the union of the god Apollo and his human mother Atia, after Atia’s husband received a vision of a miraculous child (he dreamed the sun rose from Atia’s womb). This mirrors the union of God and Mary in Matthew’s story, after Joseph learns of its divine sanction in a dream. Matthew is posturing that a greater Son of God than Augustus has arrived. My book about Revelation examines this competition between Christianity and the Imperial Cult in more detail.

With this competition in mind, let’s look next at the massacre of the innocents. The slaughter of children by Herod has an interesting origin, again relating to Jesus’ opponent, Caesar Augustus. Seutonius writes, [A] public portent warned the Roman people some months before Augustus’s birth that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king; and this caused the Senate such consternation that they issued a decree which forbade the rearing of any male child for a whole year.

Few critical Bible scholars consider the “massacre the innocents” by Herod to have really happened; a decree of this nature would surely be recorded by Jewish and Roman historians alike. Was Matthew’s birth story meant, then, merely to heighten the competition between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World?

Another take on Matthew’s birth story tomorrow.

Luke 2:1-3, The Virgin Birth, part III of V

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

//We’re still on the topic of why most Liberal Christians do not believe literally in the virgin birth, and in the last two days, we’ve discussed the internal viewpoint and the honorific viewpoint. Let’s now look at the historical evidence.

A close look at the two birth stories in Matthew and Luke show them to be quite different, not only in the genealogy they trace back to David, but in the manner in which Joseph and Mary find themselves in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth and what they do after the birth. In Matthew, they already live in Bethlehem but soon flee to Egypt to avoid Herod; in Luke, they travel to Bethlehem for a census, as ordered by Syrian governor Quirinius, and 40 days after the birth they go to Jerusalem, not Egypt.

So which of the two do we choose as “historical?” The problem with Luke’s story is that it could only be true if Jesus were born on or after 6 CE, for that is when Quirinius arrived from Syria, so such a census (of which we have no historical attestation) could not have been ordered before that. On the other hand, Matthew’s story implies that Jesus was born at least ten years earlier, since Matthew refers to Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. One of the two stories is clearly fabricated; more scholars lean toward Matthew’s version, and date the birth of Christ around 4 BCE, for who would believe Mary would make a needless 90-mile journey in the final days of her pregnancy, as Luke describes? According to the genealogies given, only the Davidic Joseph had to be registered in Bethlehem, not the Levitical Mary.

Thus, historical analysis forces us to choose between Luke and Matthew, and Matthew seems preferred. But is Matthew’s story meant to be understood as history at all? More on this tomorrow.

Matthew 1:18, The Virgin Birth, part II of V

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

//As mentioned yesterday, I’m presenting a short series on the virgin birth to explain why many Christians do not feel it’s necessary to believe literally in this particular miracle. They find it more likely that Jesus’ birth was as normal as any other. Yesterday, I discussed the Virgin Birth from the perspective of internal evidence in the Bible, and pointed out that the earliest Biblical writings seem to contradict a miraculous birth. Perhaps stories of Jesus’ birth first surfaced 40-50 years after his death.

Today, I’d like to focus on what it means to say someone had a miraculous birth. We must remember that the New Testament is primarily a first-century collection of writings, portraying a first-century mindset. The virgin birth stories in the Bible were written in an age and for an audience who understood such stories to be not literal events, but a means of honoring great men, heroes, or gods. Hellenistic stories were rife with the idea of a god impregnating a human woman. The births of Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great are good examples. Jesus was neither the first nor the last in a long line of miracle births throughout the known world.

Thus, when a pagan polemicist named Celsus attacks Christianity in his letter On the True Doctrine, he does not bother to address the impossibility of a literal virgin birth for Christ, but rather, whether Christ deserves such a tale told about him. Celsus states, in pretending to address Jesus, “After all, the old myths of the Greeks that attribute a divine birth to Perseus, Amphion, Aeacus and Minor are equally good evidence of their wondrous works on behalf of mankind–and are certainly no less lacking in plausibility than the stories of your followers. What have you done by word of deed that is quite so wonderful as those heroes of old?”

So if early readers of the Gospel at first considered the virgin birth to be more of an honorific story, why and when did Christians begin to think of it as a literal event? Second-century apologist Justin Martyr may have helped: he insisted that while the majority of Christians of his era still did not believe literally in the virgin birth story (because it sounded too much like the pagan myth of Danae, impregnated by Zeus), we still should believe it happened as written (see Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, by Justin Martyr).

Romans 1:3-4, The Virgin Birth, Part I of V

Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power….

//Liberal Christians like myself often don’t feel it’s necessary to read the Bible in an entirely literal manner. Some of the stories, we insist, not only contradict common sense but were never meant to be read literally in the first place!

Consider the virgin birth of Christ. The Christmas story is a staple of Christian belief, it seems, yet was it really meant to be read as history? While I would never criticize you for believing in the story as a historical event, I don’t think it’s necessary for Christians to believe Christ was born of a virgin. There are a number of clues that make me believe otherwise.

To kick off this series, let me point out that the earliest writings in the New Testament imply otherwise. Pauline and Markan writings don’t just ignore the virgin birth, they hint that their authors didn’t believe it … probably have never heard any such stories. Paul writes merely that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (for an idea of how this phrase was understood, see Job 1:1, 15:14, 25:4) and that Jesus descended from David “according to the flesh.” In today’s verse, Paul hints at Adoptionism; the popular understanding among many early Christians that Jesus became the Son of God later in life, rather than at birth. Meanwhile, Mark portrays Jesus as estranged from his family, disowning mother and brothers, hardly an endorsement for the idea of Mary being informed by an angel of Jesus’ divinity. The evidence from the Bible seems to point to the idea that the virgin birth stories evolved 40-50 years after Christ died.

Continued tomorrow.