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Mythicists and the Virgin Birth: Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2017

I’ve been devoting the blog to some autobiography recently, so in this Readers Mailbag I’ll make a shift to a couple of academic questions, one about Mythicist claims on the virgin birth and the other about the usefulness of ancient translations of the New Testament for establishing the original text.

 

QUESTION:

I often read mythicists argue that Jesus was a mythological figure because he (allegedly) has many parallels in pagan gods. One of the parallels, of course, is him being born to a virgin. My question is: do mythicists realize that the concept of the virgin birth is a much later development?

 

RESPONSE:

I have spent time with Mythicist groups, and have always enjoyed myself, finding the people friendly, eager to talk, cordial, and interesting.  But the general lack of basic knowledge about the Bible is shocking, even among the most outspoken among them.  What is shocking is not that they don’t know much about, say, the New Testament – that’s true of most people on the planet  — but that they have so many firmly held misconceptions that are just factually wrong. (I’m not talking about wrong interpretations that can pretty easily shown to be wrong – I’m talking about simply wrong factual information).

Let me say two things about the question.  The first is that there is not in fact a precise parallel anywhere in Greek and Roman religions to the idea of a “virgin birth.”  There are, of course, numerous instances in which a woman is made pregnant by a divine being.  But never in those cases is the woman a virgin.  Most of the time she is a sexually active woman, and even in the cases in which she is not, she has sex with the god who has come to her in bodily form and becomes pregnant that way.  The point of these stories is precisely that the woman has had sex.  In fact, I suppose you could say, she’s had divine sex.

That’s not what you get in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke (the only two books of the New Testament that mention a virgin birth).  The whole point of those stories is that Mary never has had sex.  And God does not assume human (or animal) form in order to have sex with her.  He makes her conceive without having sex.  I don’t know of any parallel to that idea in any other ancient source.

The second point is the one made by the questioner.  This view of a virgin birth is not an early….

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    ftbond  May 18, 2017

    I’d like to offer a different take on this “virgin birth” stuff.

    Let me begin by saying I have no idea at all why “almah” (Heb) got translated to “parthenos” (Gk) in the Septuagint. But, I would submit that the whole “virgin” idea was unimportant to Matthew.

    Matthew is, in his gospel, making reference to Isaiah 7:14 – “Behold, the “almah” [young woman] will become pregnant, bear a son and name him ‘Immanu El [God is with us]” (CJB)

    I would submit this: This passage that Matthew quotes is *not* about the mother, it’s about the child. I submit that what Matthew is doing here is simply referencing a well-known scripture which refers to this specific child (the one to be called Immanu El) as something of a “shorthand reference”: Immanu El is described later in the book of Isaiah with words such as Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, and so on. In other words, Matthew simply uses Isaiah 7:14, referring to Immanu El, as if it were understood by the reader that this was the same *child* that would also be called “Wonderful, Counselor [et al]”. If Matthew was indeed writing primarily for a Jewish readership, then I suspect he was simply counting on his readers to make that “mental connection”. But, in any case, Matthew’s concern was the child, not the mother.

    Matthew brings up the Isaiah reference for a purpose: First, he states simply that “…she [Mary] was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit”. He continues with the story, then says “all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet”. I submit that Matthew mentions this because, as Jews have long known, there is no specific record in the Tanach of the child Emmanuel having ever having been born. The Jews have long discussed and debated the meaning of, and fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, but there has never been a consensus reached about the scripture. Some Jews think Hezekiah was Emmanuel. Others clearly disagree. And, this disagreement continues to this day among the Jews. Matthew very clearly seeks to end that debate, by declaring that *Jesus* is the “Emmanuel” of Isaiah.

    Luke is the one that seems to make a point of the “virgin” thing, but, it’s not central to the story. What is more important in the story is Mary’s declarative question to the angel (regarding her previously foretold pregnancy), “how can these things be, seeing I am not knowing a man”? (not having sex). The angel, of course, then explains that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

    Again, as in Matthew, the emphasis in Luke is on the *child*, and on the fact that the *childs father* would be God Himself.

    Personally, I don’t know why Mary’s “virginal status” is mentioned at all: it would entirely suffice to say (as she reportedly says in Luke), that she wasn’t sexually involved with anyone, thus, having a kid would seem quite an impossibility. (But, hey, maybe she *was* actually a virgin). Nonetheless, whether Mary was a virgin or not, it’s not central to the story, either in Luke or in Matthew. The point of the story is that God was, quite literally, Jesus’ father – his Dad. Jesus was, therefore, quite literally, God’s son. And likewise, it *is* central to the story that Jesus’ conception (according to the gospels) was miraculous. But, one must admit that whether a woman is a virgin or not, *any* instance of a woman conceiving a child without the involvement of a man, then giving birth to that child, is going to be seen as miraculous.

    In any case, I don’t see any particular reason to drag “Greek mythology” (or any other mythology) into the story. Just because something has been said to happen in a myth does not mean that thing cannot happen in real life. Just because the Trojan War was a myth, it does not at all mean that real wars don’t happen.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 19, 2017

      I think the preceding verses (18-21) show that Matthew was indeed concerned to emphasize that she was a virgin and that in part this is about her.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  May 19, 2017

        After re-reading my hastily-written post, and hitting the vastly-overstated line that says that the “whole ‘virgin’ idea was unimportant to Matthew”, I’d very seriously like to suggest that my whole post be removed. I myself really don’t want it out there…

        I didn’t let the reader in on an important “assumption” (belief? notion? theory?) which I operate under, which is that Matthew was originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic. And, that’s (a) a highly disputable “ball of wax”, but (b) perhaps fundamental to whether Matthew would have understood “parthenos” (in Isaiah 7:14) to mean “virgin” or simply “a young woman” (as in the Hebrew).

        So, really, if you’d like to just remove my post, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit offended. In fact, I encourage it. Heck, I’m *asking* you to remove it. II truly see my own post as “very late-night dribble”. About the only thing that might be relevent to the discussion at hand is that last paragraph, where I say “In any case, I don’t see any particular reason to drag ‘Greek mythology’ (or any other mythology) into the story. Just because something has been said to happen in a myth does not mean that thing cannot happen in real life. Just because the Trojan War was a myth, it does not at all mean that real wars don’t happen”.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 21, 2017

          Sorry — it’s already posted! I’m sure everyone who was going to read it has read it already.

          1

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