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Virgin birth (arguments)

Arguments for and against the Virgin Birth of Jesus

In the wider sense, arguments for and against the Virgin Birth depend on fundamental philosophical assumptions: if God does not exist, or if God exists but does not perform miracles, the Virgin Birth cannot have taken place in the traditionally accepted sense. Nevertheless, there are many people who believe both in God and in miracles but reject the Virgin Birth. Their arguments against it have therefore concentrated on the texts alleged to prophesy and support it, and these arguments are also used by atheists and skeptics who question the existence of God and miracles altogether.

1. Alleged Late Appearance in the New Testament

There are explicit references to the virgin birth in only two places in the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are believed to be amongst the latest written parts of the New Testament. The apparently older Gospel of Mark, on which Matthew and Luke are believed to be partly based (see Markan priority), does not mention the virgin birth, and some scholars also argue from lexicon and style that the first two chapters of Luke, describing the virgin birth, were a later addition to the Gospel, which may originally have began at 3:1:

2:51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. 3:1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2 Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

At 3:1 there is an abrupt change of subject and the story begins again. The letters of Paul also appear to be older than Matthew and Luke, and Paul does not take a clear opportunity to refer to Mary as a virgin when he describes the birth of Jesus:

Galatians 4:4 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law...

The phrase in Greek is γενομενον εκ γυναικος, genomenon ek gunaikos, "having-become of a-woman", not γενομενον εκ παρθενου, genomenon ek parthenou, "having-become of a-virgin". Christian apologists reply that Mary's virginity was not relevant to Paul's reasoning at this point, and point out that he uses a special verb to describe Jesus's birth, which he plainly regarded as a special event. However, Jesus's birth would have been special to Paul whether or not it had taken place by parthenogenesis, and if Paul had not known of the virgin birth, it could never have been relevant to any of his reasoning and so could never have appeared in his writing. This argumentum ex silentio, or "argument from silence", cannot be conclusive, but it does increase the probability that only the writers of Matthew and Luke knew of and believed in the virgin birth. If other writers had mentioned the virgin birth in the New Testament, it would be certain that they believed in it. They did not mention it, therefore it cannot be certain that they believed in it and, like the resurrection appearances, the virgin birth may be an example of the gradual supernaturalization of the Christian story. Some scholars have argued that early Christians did not claim that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. They point to the geneaologies in Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2, which use descent through Joseph to demonstrate that Jesus was the heir to King David. Moreover, the Ebionites (a group of Palestinian Judeo-Christians rejected by Gentile Christians as heretics) maintained that Jesus was naturally conceived.

On the other hand, Paul frequently asserts the divinity of Jesus Christ in his writings and refers to him as υιος Θεου, Huiou Theou, "Son of God". If he thought that Jesus was born in the usual way of a mortal father and mother, one would expect him to explain how a normal man could be God. His failure to refer to any problem of this sort could suggest that neither he nor his readers were faced with such a problem, possibly because they took the virgin birth for granted. Similarly, Paul mentions the setting of the sun -- "(Ephesians 4:26) Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath" -- but does not say that it goes down in the west, which would have been taken for granted by his readers. However, the precise direction of the sunset has no obvious theological significance. The Virgin Birth certainly does, and if Paul develops the theological significance of Jesus's death and resurrection at such length, why does he neglect the theological significance of Jesus's virgin birth? Examine, for example, Paul's words at the very beginning of Romans:

1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, 2 (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) 3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; 4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

This seems to say that Jesus was human by the flesh and divine by the spirit: he was the "seed of David" by descent in the male line through Joseph. Furthermore, he was declared to be the Son of God by his virgin birth as well as by his resurrection from the dead, and later in Romans Paul says this:

Romans 8:3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Why is a body begotten of a virgin by the Holy Spirit called a ομοιωματι σαρκος αρματιας, homoiomati sarkos harmatias, a "likeness of sinful flesh"? These and similar references may suggest that Paul does not mention the Virgin Birth because it had not yet been created as a way of honoring Jesus or overcoming the difficulties of reconciling human flesh and divine spirit, and although Paul refers to Jesus as "Son of God" after his death, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself in life as υιος του ανθροπου, Huiou tou Anthropou, "Son of Man" (Matthew 8:20 etc; Mark 2:10 etc; Luke 5:24 etc; John 1:51 etc).

2. Ambiguity in Isaiah 7:14

In past two millennia there has been considerable controversy among Christians and their opponents about the precise meaning of a small section of Isaiah. In the King James Bible, the verses in question run like this:

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. 16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

Skeptics argue that this is not a very clear prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. For example, what does the "butter and honey" refer to? And why is Christ, who was sinless from birth in the traditional Christian understanding, described as having to learn to refuse the evil and choose the good? Skeptics raise even greater questions about the translation of the first verse in this passage:

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Is this an accurate translation? According to a prophecy in the Greek version of the Book of Isaiah 7:14 (see below and the articles on Biblical canon, Tanakh, Septuagint and Old Testament) a parthenos shall conceive a child called Immanuel (meaning "God with us"), "parthenos" conventionally translated as virgin. Furthermore, the Gospel of Matthew 1:22-23 explicitly links the Isaiah prophecy to the birth of Jesus. Accordingly, many Christians understand the Isaiah prophecy as referring to Mary at the birth of Jesus.

There are two important words in Hebrew that can be translated into English as "virgin": בתולה, bethulah, and עלמה, `almah. Isaiah uses `almah, and so Christians have tried to demonstrate that the word unambiguously means "virgin", while their opponents, Jewish and otherwise, have tried to demonstrate that the word means simply "young woman", without any necessary connotation of virginity. `Almah occurs seven times in the Hebrew Bible and usually seems to mean a young woman of marriageable age (e.g. Genesis 24:43); bethulah is accepted in modern Hebrew usage as the characteristic Hebrew word for virgin, although it is also seems to be used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to women who have had sex but who cannot conceive. The Mishnah and the Tosefta use the word bethulah to refer to a young woman who has not yet menstruated (even though she may have had sexual intercourse). Jews themselves claim that there is no Hebrew tradition of virgin birth: although Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, and Hannah were sterile women who miraculously gave birth late in life, the Bible makes no claim of divine impregnation. Christian apologists nevertheless argue that many first century Jews, including Jewish converts to Christianity used the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which used the word παρθενος, parthenos, which they say clearly means "virgin". However, the great Greek-English Lexicon edited by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott[?] lists other meanings for the word:

παρθενος, parthenos, I. 1. maiden, girl; virgin, opp. γυνη gyn, "woman". 2. of unmarried women who are not virgins, Iliad 2.514, etc. 3. Parthenos, h, the Virgin Goddess, as a title of Athena at Athens. 4. the constellation Virgo. II. as adj., maiden, chaste. III. as masc., parthenos, ho, unmarried man, Apocalypse 14.4.

There is also archaeological evidence that Jewish speakers of Greek used the word "parthenos" elastically; Jewish catacombs in Rome identify married men and women as "virgins," and some have suggested that in this case the word was used to call attention to the fact that the deceased was someone's first spouse. Nevertheless, it remains true that Jews stopped using the more explicit Septuagint translation as Christianity spread, and that post-Christian Jewish translations into Greek use νεανις, neanis, meaning "young woman" rather than "virgin". Despite this apparent Jewish embarrassment, however, the Septuagint does not use parthenos very precisely and translates at least three different Hebrew words by it: bethulah, "maiden/virgin"; `almah, "maiden/virgin"; and נערה, na`arah, "maiden, young woman, servant". When we look at parthenos in the Septuagint, we discover that its meaning is sometimes expanded in a way not seen in Isaiah:

Genesis 24:16 And the damsel [parthenos = Hebrew na`arah] was very fair to look upon, a virgin [parthenos = Hebrew bethulah], neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.

Judges 21:12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins [parthenous = Hebrew bethulah], that had known no man by lying with any male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

If the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is correct, the meaning of parthenos is obviously far more important in Isaiah than it is in Genesis 24:16 and Judges 21:12, and yet it is only in Genesis 24:16 and Judges 21:12 that the meaning of parthenos is expanded to remove any possible misunderstanding. Furthermore, even the use of a completely unambiguous word for "virgin" in the Hebrew or Greek text would not necessarily have settled the matter: "a virgin shall conceive..." might mean "a virgin shall lie with a man and conceive...". Every woman who conceives was originally a virgin, and a woman can actually conceive without a penis penetrating her vagina. Two thousand years of controversy might have been saved if Isaiah had added a few words to the original prophecy:

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive without lying with any man, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

This may suggest that Isaiah did not intend `almah to mean "virgin", and certainly suggests that he did not make his meaning as clear as he might very easily have done.

Note: There is also considerable controversy about the verbs used in Isaiah 7:14 and about the verses that directly follow it -- see the external links below for further details.

3. Borrowing from Paganism

Another argument against the virgin birth has been that it is in fact a Jewish borrowing from paganism. The impregnation of mortal women by gods is common in pagan mythology, but Christian apologists have replied that the obvious sex of the pagan myths is missing in the Gospels:

Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Luke 1:34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

However, because the Jewish God did not take human form in later Judaism, he could not impregnate Mary in a physical way, and the absence of sex from the conception of Jesus does not disprove borrowing from paganism. Furthermore, a pagan myth of virgin birth may also underlie the disputed verses from Isaiah:

It all boils down to this: the distinctive Hebrew word for 'virgin' is betulah, whereas `almah means a 'young woman' who may be a virgin, but is not necessarily so. The aim of this note is rather to call attention to a source that has not yet been brought into the discussion. From Ugarit of around 1400 B.C. comes a text celebrating the marriage of the male and female lunar deities. It is there predicted that the goddess will bear a son ... The terminology is remarkably close to that in Isaiah 7:14. However, the Ugaritic statement that the bride will bear a son is fortunately given in parallelistic form; in 77:7 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew `almah 'young woman'; in 77:5 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew betulah 'virgin'. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of `almah as 'virgin' for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet. (Feinberg, BibSac, July 62; the citation to Gordon is: C. H. Gordon, "`Almah in Isaiah 7:14", Journal of Bible and Religion, XXI, 2 (April, 1953), p. 106.)

This philological reasoning seems to raise three possibilities: virgin birth is a pagan concept that Christianity has 1) taken from contemporary paganism; 2) taken from pre-Mosaic paganism through Isaiah; or 3) taken from contemporary paganism and justified from Isaiah, who took it from pre-Mosaic paganism. If pre-Mosaic paganism supports Isaiah, and Isaiah supports Matthew and Mark, paganism has anticipated Christianity, perhaps because God was preparing the way for Christianity or because, as some Church Fathers argued, the Devil was blasphemously imitating Christianity. On the other hand, if pre-Mosaic paganism does not support Isaiah, there are several possibilities. For example, perhaps virgin birth was invented separately, first in paganism, then in Judaism or perhaps, despite the earlier date of the Ugaritic text, virgin birth existed first in Judaism and was borrowed by paganism. The obvious difficulty with this idea is that virgin birth was much more prominent in paganism, where is occurs in many myths in many different areas, than it was in Judaism, where it occurs (if at all) in a single verse late in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the argument that virgin birth was a Hebrew concept first borrowed by paganism and later incorporated into Christianity was first made by Justin Martyr in The First Apology of Justin, written in the second century. Justin also made this argument in his Dialog with Trypho, in which he debates with a Jew called Trypho:

"Be well assured, then, Trypho," I continued, "that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by Jupiter's intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that the Devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? ..."[1] (http://www.ccel.org/fathers/ANF-01/just/justintrypho#Section69)

However, that the Devil is responsible for the similarities between paganism and Judaism is not generally accepted by modern scholars, partly because the Devil's influence would be impossible to disprove. The Devil could, for example, imitate Christianity or Judaism before either existed, violating the generally accepted historical rule that a culture cannot be influenced by a culture that does not yet exist. In other words, we don't generally accept that the past or present can borrow from the future. Christian apologists also point out if in fact the writer of Isaiah intended to borrow the idea of a virgin birth from an older pagan tradition, we might expect to find Isaiah using more explicit language to indicate that a virgin was meant, as described in the second argument above. However, if Isaiah borrowed the story from pagans, we might expect him to speak in the same way as the pagans, and that is what he does, according to the scholar quoted, who notes the "remarkable" similarity of the Ugaritic and the Hebrew. Religious language is generally conservative. If Isaiah received a new prophecy direct from God, on the other hand, he had no tradition to conform to and he could have expanded the meaning to make it completely unambiguous. He didn't, which, as pointed out above, is an apparent difficulty for the Christian interpretation of the text.

External links

  • The Copycat Messiah? (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/copycat) -- Attempted refutation of the idea that Christianity borrowed from paganism in any way.
  • Vocabulary in Isaiah 7:14 (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/fabprof2) (1) -- A Christian conducts a detailed examination of bethulah and `almah and concludes that the former does not mean "virgin" while the latter does.
  • Vocabulary in Isaiah 7:14 (http://www.messiahtruth.com/is714a) (2) -- A Jew conducts a detailed examination of bethulah and `almah and concludes that the former does mean "virgin" while the latter doesn't.

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