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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. Avatar
    godlymathew  July 27, 2015

    Hi Bart, I hope you don’t mind me making comments critical of your ideas and more generally to the methodologies and presuppositions of ‘textual criticism’ over the next few weeks. In the comments section you state:

    QUOTE> “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 .. That’s the way the Christian mission in Mark’s day was working. Only outside Gentiles were buying it.”

    It sounds as if you are asserting that ‘not even his disciples’ acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ). However we read in Mark the following confession of Peter:
    “And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.” – Mark 8_29

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2015

      Yes, you should read my full discussion of Mark in, say, my textbook. Peter DOES understand half way through Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is the messiah. But when Jesus, in the next sentence, says that he has to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter rebukes him for it. He doesn’t understand yet that Jesus is to be the suffering and dying messiah. And he never *does* get it (in Mark’s Gospel).

      • Avatar
        Adam Beaven  August 9, 2015

        Doc, do you agree with Koester

        v33: Koester (2004) argues that Peter is depicted as rejecting Jesus’ statement that he will suffer and die not because he has strong feelings for Jesus, but because he knows that the Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die.

        ?

  2. Avatar
    Zboilen  March 1, 2017

    Hi Bart, I recently read something about the virgin birth in Mark and wanted to know your thoughts. In Mark 6:3 Jesus is referred to as the son of Mary which would have been unusual in Jesus’ culture. Is this unusual? Is it possible that people referred to Jesus as the son of Mary since they thought Jesus was illegitimate or had heard stories about the virgin birth? What do you think? The source I was reading says this,

    “It is highly unusual for the “many listeners” in this first century Jewish culture to describe Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph”. These first century eyewitnesses of Jesus apparently knew something about Jesus’ birth narrative and chose to trace Jesus’ lineage back through His mother rather than through His father (as would customarily have been the case). This early reference in the Gospel of Mark may expose the fact that Mark was aware of the “virgin conception” and that the first eyewitnesses of Jesus were also aware of Mary’s marital status at the time of her conception.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2017

      Yes, it would have been unsusual, and may indeed suggest that Mark had heard stories of Jesus’ unnatural birth.

      • Avatar
        barryjones  December 14, 2017

        Mark says nothing about the virgin birth despite how it apparently strongly supports his goal to prove Jesus to be the divine Son of God, so it is reasonable to deduce that he doesn’t mention the virgin birth because he thought the story false.

  3. Avatar
    James Cotter  May 4, 2017

    Dr ehrman , your thoughts on this :

    quote :

    Of course being beside yourself is temporary rather than permanent insanity, but so must be an expression that would woodenly translate to “to stand outside of oneself.”

    Fact is that “he is beside himself” is the best translation in English. Its closest to the Greek expression. Its clear what it means. It doesn’t overstate its case like “He’s crazy” which implies a permanent condition.

    end quote

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2017

      The problem is that in English “beside himself” usually means something like “really aggravated” rather than “temporarily insane”

  4. Avatar
    barryjones  December 14, 2017

    I personally think the fundies who deny Markan priority, do so for no other reason than that they know if the gospel lacking the virgin birth story is earliest, it will provide skeptics a reasonable historical justification to classify the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew as legendary embellishment. All “objective” attempts by Christians to establish some other gospel as earliest, are nothing but sleight-of-hand and pretext. Keeping skeptics accountable in conformity to Romans 1 is priority # 1.

    I say there are several more historical justifications for saying the virgin birth is nothing but fable:

    1 – Matthew 28:20, it is the risen Christ who says what future Gentile followers must be taught. They must be taught to obey all that Jesus had taught the disciples. Nowhere in the bible does Jesus teach the apostles that he was born of a virgin, or that his birth has some type of significance to Christian faith. The fact that the virgin birth story AND this limitation to what Jesus himself taught, are found in Matthew, either suggests Matthew was no less inconsistent than the fools seen in TBN, or suggests that the virgin birth story was added to Matthew very early near or after the time Matthew died.

    2 – Luke 11:27-29. Despite Luke recording the virgin birth, he also records Jesus deliberately changing the subject when somebody says something positive about his infancy and his mother. Either Luke was inconsistent, or somebody additional to Luke was involved with Luke’s gospel than Luke himself.

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