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Does Mark’s Gospel Implicitly Deny the Virgin Birth?

It is interesting that our first canonical Gospel (which is our first Gospel, whether canonical or noncanonical), Mark, does not have the story of the Virgin birth and in fact shows no clue that it is familiar with the stories of the Virgin birth.  On the contrary, there are passages in Mark that appear to work *against* the idea that Jesus’ mother knew anything about his having had an extraordinary birth.

There is a complicated little passage in Mark 3:20-21 about Jesus’ family coming to take him out of the public eye because they thought he was crazy.   It is a difficult passage to translate from the Greek, and a number of translations go out of their way to make it say something that it probably doesn’t say.   The context is that Jesus has been doing extraordinary miracles, attracting enormous crowds, and raising controversy among the Jewish leaders.   Jesus then chooses his disciples and they go with him into a house.  And then come our verses.

In the Greek the passage literally says that “those who were beside him came forth” in order to seize him, because they were saying, EXESTH.    The two problems are: who is this group that has come, and what does it meant that he EXESTH?   It is widely thought among translators and interpreters – and I think this has to be right – that “those who were beside him” means “his family.”   It cannot mean the disciples, because they are already with him in the house.  It must be people who were personally attached to Jesus (that’s what the phrase “were beside him” means).   And so that appears to leave his family members.   No one else is “on his side,” as it were.

Why then did his family members come?   Because they thought he was EXESTH.   Whatever the word means, it can’t be good.  The whole point of this section of Mark is that Jesus is finding opposition everywhere he turns, despite all the miracles he is doing.   The Pharisees are against him because they don’t think he has authority to do the things he does (2:24, 3:2).   They become so outraged at his activities that they team up with the Herodians to decide to kill him (3:6).  The scribes are against him because they think that he has blasphemed against God (2:6) and that he does his mighty works because he is possessed by the Devil, Beelzebub (3:22).   Even his family members – those who stand beside him – think that he EXESTH.

The word EXESTH literally means “to stand outside of oneself.”   It is a phrase comparable to the English phrase “to be out of your mind.”   In other words, it means “he has gone crazy.”

And so 3:21-22 can be translated “Now when his family heard these things they came out in order to seize him, for they were saying “He is out of his mind.”

Some translators don’t like that way of putting it, not because of any grammatical or lexical issues with the Greek, but simply because they can’t get their heads around Jesus’ family members thinking that he has gone crazy.   And so, to avoid the problem, they sometimes change the translation – not because of what the Greek says, but because of what they think it *ought* to say.  And so they translate it as saying that his family has come to take him out of the public eye because “people were saying that ‘He is beside himself.’” (Thus the RSV, for example.)

This is really taking liberties with the Greek.   In Greek, the subject of a sentence is often not expressed because it can be found in the form of the verb itself.  I will try to explain this simply.  In English, when we write or speak a sentence that requires a pronoun (“I” “you” He” “she” “they” “Those ones” “These ones”) we actually give the pronoun.   In Greek and other “inflected” languages, the pronouns are already built into the verb.   So the verb is spelled differently, with a different ending, whether you want the subject to be “I” “you” “she” “we” etc.   It was *possible* for Greek to use pronouns, of course, and it often does when it wants to place special emphasis on the subject.   But in normal speech it was not necessary.

Now the rule is that if a sentence containing a verb does not have an explicit pronoun, and the subject within the sentence itself is ambiguous, then the implied subject (found in the ending of the verb) is the immediately preceding noun or pronoun (or other substantive).    So that if you have a sentence that says “He jumped over the ditch,” you actually do not know who the “he” is unless you look in the preceding context and see, right before this sentence, something like, “James ran into the field.”  Then you know that the “He” that is jumping over the ditch is James.

Apologies for the grammar lesson here, but it matters.   In Mark 3:21, when it says “for they were saying” there is no noun or pronoun expressed to indicated who the “they” is.  And so, by the rules of grammar, it almost certainly refers to the closest antecedent, which in this case is “those who were on his side,” i.e., his family.  In other words, the ones who came to seize him were the ones saying that he is out of his mind.

The RSV translators were not happy with that view though, evidently because of its implications.  But its implications are the very point of the passage and of this post.   (As I’ll explain in just one second.)  Still, not liking what the verse actually said, the RSV translators interpreted it and re-translated it so the English says something different from the Greek.  Their English version adds the word “people” – not found in the Greek – to explain who, in the translators’ opinion, were saying that Jesus had gone crazy.   And now what the story means is that the family of Jesus wanted to take him from the public eye because there were people out there saying that he was nuts.   But that’s not what the Greek says.  The Greek says that the family came to seize him because they were saying that he was nuts.

And who would be included in his family?   It becomes pretty clear later in the chapter.  For once again his family members come, and we’re told that it is “his mother and his brothers” (3:31) – in another interesting passage where Jesus appears to reject them in favor of his followers (3:31-34).

What does all this have to do with the Virgin birth?   Mark does not narrate an account of Jesus’ birth.  Mark never says a word about Jesus’ mother being a virgin.  Mark does not presuppose that Jesus had an unusual birth of any kind.   And in Mark (you don’t find this story in Matthew and Luke!!), Jesus’ mother does not seem to know that he is a divinely born son of God.   On the contrary, she thinks he has gone out of his mind.   Mark not only lacks a virgin birth story; it seems to presuppose that they never could have been a virgin birth.  Or Mary would understand who Jesus is.   But she does not.

It’s no wonder that when Matthew and Luke took over so many of the stories of Mark, they decided, both of them, *not* to take over Mark 3:20-21.  They had completely different view of Jesus’ mother and his birth.


The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John
Why Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in Matthew and Luke?

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Comments

  1. stephena  December 27, 2014

    Excellent post. I’ve also wondered about this passage, since Mary surely would remember the angels telling her god would impregnate her and create a semi-divine God-Man, but apparently either Mark didn’t know this or (more likely) it never happened. Similar to the problem of John The Baptist calling Jesus “the lamb of God” but later he and his followers acting ignorant of Jesus’ mission or teachings. (One could say John was ignorant of Judaism, too, since lambs did NOT take take away sin, even symbolically.)

    • Scott  December 28, 2014

      I always wondered where John got that. The blood of the Passover lamb – that John obviously intends Jesus to be – is used as a sign to mark those who are to be saved. That could be a powerful Christology but there is nothing about sin there.

      Now if John wanted to be correct he should have written, ” Behold the Goat for Azazel that carrieth away the sins of the world”

    • simonelli  December 29, 2014

      Yes that too: But the ambiguities could have been inserted by the enemies of Christianity. Why accept the negative side of things?

  2. steffi  December 27, 2014

    Bart.

    Re. Mark 3:21.

    I remember hearing or reading a NT scholar’s (I think it was Crossan, but I’m not sure) stating that he didn’t think the reference to Jesus’ family’s concern for his mental health was anything more than a way for the author of Mark to have a go at the Jerusalem “branch” of the early Christian movement, a branch that had been under the leadership of Jesus’ brother James; do you think this theory holds water, or is the account just another example of the various characters’ “not getting it”?

    Also: while we’re discussing Mark’s gospel…..

    Would you add to your Everest-high list of topics to be discussed the theory that the apparent statement of recognition attributed to the centurion (“Surely this man was a/the Son of God”) was, in fact, an expression of sarcasm (along the lines of “yeah, right; this guy really was the SOG!”), please? I must say that I found the arguments in support of the theory quite persuasive, so I’d be very interested in your take on it.

    Consider the suggestion a belated Christmas present. 🙂

    Regards.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2014

      On your first point: I think it’s absolutely possible, though hard to establish. On the second (the centurion): I think that interpretatoin would run counter to the structure of Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ life story begins with a declaration that he is the son of God (at the baptism) and ends with a declaration that he is the son of God (at the crucifixion).

      • whicks1  December 28, 2014

        If memory serves human characters typically can’t understand who JC is in mark. Demons/possessed do, disciples don’t, crowds and authorities don’t. A gentile does only after the cross.

      • steffi  December 29, 2014

        Bart.

        But doesnt Mark’s technique involve a kind of “nod, nod; wink wink”, essentially informing the reader that he knows the truth even though the characters his gospel are pretty clueless? I don’t see how the interpretation I mentioned really undermines the message Mark wanted to convey.

        What’s very striking is that Mark specifically states that it was the way that Jesus died that caused the centurion to utter what he did; but what was there in the way Jesus died, alone and in despair, that would have caused him to think that Jesus was anything other than a deluded failed pretender?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2014

          I think your last statement is precisely the point. For Mark, the way Jesus died is precisely what made him the messiah, contrary to what everyone would have thought.

          • steffi  December 31, 2014

            Bart.

            I don’t want to labour the point, but it strikes me as odd that Mark would inform the reader that the *centurion* was convinced of Jesus’ being the SOG because he endured the kind of death Mark describes; however, the exclamation understood as a taunt or an expression of sarcasm coheres very well with other taunts employed to convey ‘dramatic irony’ , e.g. “Hail, king of the Jews!”, “Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”; and ” “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,”.

            Anyway, I just thought it was an interesting interpretation of the exclamation. Other readers may find themselves persuaded if they read the passage, without presupposing that the centurion believed Jesus was the SOG.

            Regards.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 31, 2014

            I think it’s actually a major point that Mark wants to make. No one during Jesus’ life — not the townsfolk from Nazareth, not the Jewish leaders, not his own family, not even his disciples — understood that he was the messiah who, precisely, had to die. It was only an outsider, the centurion, a pagan, who saw it. That’s the way the Christian mission in Mark’s day was working. Only outside Gentiles were buying it.

      • Mhamed Errifi  January 1, 2015

        In Greek and other “inflected” languages, the pronouns are already built into the verb. So the verb is spelled differently, with a different ending,

        this is also true for Arabic language

    • acircharo
      acircharo  April 3, 2015

      “If this guy is the “Son of God” than I must be Shecky Greene!”

  3. Wilusa  December 27, 2014

    I think the Catholic explanation I’ve heard of this is that his “brothers” were really (sigh) his cousins…and while his mother may have been physically with them, it shouldn’t be assumed that she *agreed* with them.

  4. Tom  December 27, 2014

    You decomplicated the story very well. At least it fit in my brain.

    Aren’t these changes by “scribes” similar to what was done centuries ago to early manuscripts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2014

      If I’m understanding you correctly, then I’d agree: what Matthew and Luke do to Mark the later scribes do (to a much lesser degree) to all the books of the NT.

      • Scott  December 28, 2014

        Would what the RSV committee does to soften the family’s statement comparable to what the early scribes sometimes did in “cleaning” up the text?

      • Tom  December 28, 2014

        You read me correctly, Dr. E.

  5. JBSeth1  December 27, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Wow, this is all very interesting. No need to apologize for the grammar lesson, it was fascinating.
    I do have one question though.

    I’ve always thought that this section of Mark was telling us a story about how Jesus was speaking out and behaving in public and how perhaps in doing so, he was speaking and behaving differently than how he spoke and behaved within his family.

    This is not unlike how many young adults, in our age, suddenly begin to speak out against the current establishment. In some cases, doing so can get you killed and certainly, in that culture, at that time, to be accused of blasphemy, was a death sentence.

    I’ve also always believed that in this section of Mark, we are hearing a story of how his mother and his family came to rescue Jesus from this situation.

    However, I’ve never necessarily thought that this meant that Jesus was crazy.

    Do you really think that this means that he was crazy and not just perhaps speaking and behaving differently than how he spoke and behaved within his family?

    John

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2014

      It may be — but the one thing that the text says about their view is that they thought he was crazy.

      • JBSeth1  December 28, 2014

        Hi Bart,

        I’m wondering about the definition of the word EXESTH.

        In your post, you said, you said that this word meant, “to stand outside of oneself.”

        What I’m wondering about is this. Could this word EXESTH have meant that Jesus was speaking and behaving differently in public, than his family knew him to speak and behave in private, or were there other Greek words that would have been used to convey this concept?

        Thanks.

        John

        • Bart
          Bart  December 29, 2014

          I don’t know that EXESTH ever means that. I’m not sure that any single word does — one would have to spell it out instead of simply use a single word.

  6. fishician  December 27, 2014

    Interesting that the earliest Gospel did not regard the (supposed) virgin birth even worth mentioning, even though it later became a bedrock belief of mainstream Christianity. Makes a person think (unless you’re a slave to tradition in which case thinking doesn’t matter).

  7. Cristian Piazzetta  December 27, 2014

    For Mark’s author, where did Jesus come from then?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2014

      Presumably from Joseph and Mary.

      • walid  January 15, 2015

        Dr Ehrman
        with all respect, I don’t really think Mark thought had a jesus before the age of 30.
        For Mark jesus to have come up at that age, born at the age of 30.

  8. Samuel Riad  December 28, 2014

    Dear Dr Ehrman,
    Through a careful parallel reading of the synoptics it becomes obvious that Matthew and Luke polished Mark’s material. Is it possible that they did the same thing to Q? I know there is probably no way to tell unless we do discover a manuscript of Q, but do you personally think that Q contained controversial material that Matthew and Luke omitted or polished?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2014

      Yes, it would be *terrific* to see what Q originally had; if Matthew and Luke “sanitized” it, we’d love to see exactly how they did so!

  9. MaryVogwell  December 28, 2014

    Bart, is it also possible that the writer wants to distance Jesus from his blood family because they did not understand and did not agree with the christology as promulgated by this Marcan community in the years after the death of Jesus? Does this have implications for the underplaying of the role of James after Jesus’ death?

  10. Tom  December 28, 2014

    Can you give us modern examples of languages that have pronouns implied in verb endings?

    I think Hungarian is one.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      Maybe someone else on the blog can help out with this one.

    • paul c  December 29, 2014

      Spanish does. That which Dr. Ehrman described for old Greek could be applied to modern Spanish.

    • sashko123  December 29, 2014

      Spanish. Many other languages conjugate verbs to imply a pronoun (e.g. Russian (speak) — govoryu, govorish’, govorit, govorim, govorite, govoryat; French (go) — vais, va, allons, allez, vont), but Spanish is one that comes to mind in which pronouns are regularly omitted unless for emphasis.

    • Gary  February 22, 2015

      In Spanish, pronouns are also often optional:

      English: I eat apples
      Spanish: Yo como manzanas. (“Yo” is the Spanish pronoun for “I”)
      or: Como manzanas. (the -o- ending of the verb “comer” indicates that the subject of the sentence, although not expressed with a proper name or a pronoun, is first person singular. The pronoun is not necessary for a Spanish speaker to understand who is eating the apples.)

      English: He eats apples.
      Spanish: El come manzanas.
      or: Come manzanas. (The -e- ending tells you that the subject of the sentence, even though not mentioned by a proper name or with a pronoun, is the third person singular. The pronoun is not needed to tell you who is eating the apples. However, you would need to be able to remember which third person singular proper name or pronoun had just been mentioned in the previous discussion to know specifically which third person singular individual this verb is referring to.) Their is yet another verb ending for the plural pronouns (we, they, and you-plural) and for the singular (familiar) second person. In casual conversation, Spanish pronouns are usually omitted if the subject has already been mentioned in a preceding sentence.

      It sounds as if this is how it works in Greek.

  11. LCNielsen
    LCNielsen  December 28, 2014

    When I read Mark 3:20-34, there’s something about it that sticks out like a sore thumb in my mind. The scene seems like it’s setup for Jesus to deliver his “parable” in 23-29 (indeed, this is the better portion of the entire text), but the author still seems to make hoops around it. Mark makes an effort to not only set up the context and provide a quote to describe the state of mind of the Pharisees, and furthermore makes sure to point out that this is a parable, and STILL in 3:30 has to justify why Jesus even starts recounting this parable (and frankly, it needs some pretty generous interpretation to make any sense at all to me). It kind of seems like it’s a well-known quote in the community with a disputed meaning, and Mark is going through some obvious effort to make sure that it is understood “correctly”, but kind of struggles with getting the point across himself. Is this a justified interpretation of the text?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      Yes, there are a lot of places in the Gospels where a saying of Jesus appears to be “framed” by a narrative context devised for the occasion….

  12. Wilusa  December 28, 2014

    Another question has occurred to me. Jesus, in this story, had supposedly been performing miracles? How, then, can those of us who don’t believe he could really do that accept *any* part of the story as non-legendary? Just on the grounds that early Christians wouldn’t have *wanted* to say his kin thought he was crazy, so they wouldn’t have said it unless it was true?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      It’s possible for part of a story to be accurate and other parts to be inaccurate. The trick is figuring out which is which…. But if there is a story, or part of a story, that early Christians would not have invented, then that story or part of a story does seem more likely to be historical.

  13. Wilusa  December 28, 2014

    I submitted my previous post before I read all the comments…the suggestions that “Mark” was actually trying to create a negative impression of Jesus’s family, because of rivalries in early Christianity. Fascinating!

  14. Wilusa  December 28, 2014

    A further thought: If “Mark” did make up this story as a way of discrediting James, his *including* Jesus’s mother – which he didn’t have to do – shows that he had no great reverence for her!

    • talitakum
      talitakum  December 31, 2014

      Correct, the mother of Jesus plays no role in Mark’s gospel – she’s just mentioned twice so that we know that her name was Mary and she apparently thought that Jesus was nuts. 🙂
      However, you may also read the episode as a mother truly concerned for his son.. In my opinion it was Jesus who was less concerned about his family.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 31, 2014

        Is she called Mary in Mark’s Gospel?

        • talitakum
          talitakum  January 2, 2015

          Mark 6:3 “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James […]”

          I guess you owe me a beer, prof ! 🙂 Happy 2015.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 3, 2015

            Woops! My bad.

  15. sashko123  December 28, 2014

    My parents who raised me in The Church of Christ were visiting me during the Christmas holidays, and over a period of two weeks, we had many conversations about science and religion. We talked about how we know (i.e. it is very highly probable) that the universe is 13.5 billion years old, because that’s how long it takes for light to travel here from the farthest galaxy, how we know the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old because of radiodating and other evidence, how we know the Earth orbits the sun (not the other way around), how the Earth is a spheroid. I got them a book called “1001 Inventions that Changed the World,” and they read about several inventions of homo heidelbergensis, homo ergaster, and homo neanderthalensis from between 1-2 million years ago. Every time one of those large numbers came up, my dad would remark, “That number is incredible” or “It’s hard to believe.” After I read this post, I asked my parents if they believed in the Virgin Birth. They said, “Of course we do!” I asked “How is it you find the millions and billions of years supported by evidence incredible, but accept the Virgin birth without any evidence for it and all evidence against it.” They said it was because they have faith and that I don’t understand faith. I said they were right, I don’t understand that kind of faith, which isn’t simply unsupported by evidence but also conflicts with all evidence. They said that since they accept the Bible as God’s Word, they must believe everything in it. I asked why they couldn’t accept what was supported by evidence and reject what was not supported by evidence? Maybe interpret inaccurate passages as allegorical or poetic or otherwise symbolic. They said that was picking and choosing. When I pointed out that they pick and choose what to believe — geocentrism, spherical earth — my dad said when he looks up to the sky all he sees are distant objects, suggesting that maybe the universe is geocentric after all if the Bible says it is! Am I in the matrix?? It is foolish for me to have these conversations, but I am compelled to have them anyway to try to figure them out. I appreciate your posts, because you support what you have found to be probably true with real evidence, and I also appreciate the posts, because they are written for me and others like me, not for true believers, to whom evidence and reason mean very little. Happy New Year!

  16. rbrtbaumgardner  December 28, 2014

    Your interpretation of Mark 3:20-21 makes sense in the context of Mark 3: 31-35:

    31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters [ 32 ] are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers ! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

    and Mark 6:4:

    4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown , and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

  17. AGK527  December 29, 2014

    Does Mark calling Jesus “the son of Mary” in Mark 6:3 (as opposed to “the son of Joseph”) mean anything special?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      Yes, I should have brought this up. This surely also means that his mother was known, but not his father.

  18. jhague  December 29, 2014

    Those who want to believe that Jesus was married use a version of this argument. As you state, Mark’s silence of a virgin birth means that it was not known.
    The other argument is that the silence of Jesus being married means that he was married. If Jesus was not married, it would have stated that he was not married. We only know that Paul was not married due to Paul stating that he is not married. Otherwise, it would be thought that he was married. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2014

      That’s not my actual argument about Mark. I’m arguing that he has a story that seems to show that he didn’t know anything about a virgin birth.

      On marriage: there are lots of reasons for thinking that Jesus wasn’t married. Maybe I’ll deal with this on the blog at some point (I lay them out in my book on the Da Vinci Code).

  19. JoeWallack  December 29, 2014

    “You’ve got no theological strings
    To hold you down
    To make you fret, or make you frown
    You had strings
    But now you’re free
    There are no strings on thee”

    “In the Greek the passage literally says that “those who were beside him came forth” in order to seize him, because they were saying, EXESTH.”

    The word EXESTH literally means “to stand outside of oneself.” It is a phrase comparable to the English phrase “to be out of your mind.” In other words, it means “he has gone crazy.”

    JW:
    It seems to me that you are pricking against the Literary Gods here. The Greek is saying:

    “Those with Jesus wanted to bring Jesus with them because he was not with himself.”

    Now that your mind has been skeptically expanded, are you open to the possibility that “Mark” was trying to be literally stylish and entertaining here?

    Additionally the offending word can also be found in 2 Corinthians with the exact same theme. Are you open to the possibility that “Mark” intentionally is referencing Paul?

    Joseph

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2014

      I don’t think a “literal” translation of the Greek is a real translation — it’s simply using comparable words in English. And I’d be hesitant to say that the recurrence of a reasonably common Greek word would demonstrate literary dependence.

  20. Adam Beaven  January 5, 2015

    Doctor Ehrman

    Have you done any posts on markan priority?

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