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Reader’s Mailbag on Virgin Birth: 10/29/15


Many thanks to everyone who responded to my queries about how we could make the Blog better.  I received some very good ideas, and one in particular that I want to implement, starting with this post.  That involves a weekly Reader’s Mailbag. 

I get a lot of questions each week, and usually can only devote an occasional post to them.  Otherwise, all I can do is give a one-sentence or so response in my Comments.   But the idea that several people suggested was:  why not have a feature where, in a short directed response, I address interesting questions people raise?  I could do this every week.  The comments would not be as long as a full post, let alone a thread, but much fuller than I can make in my Comments section.

I think it’s a great idea.  So I’m gonna try it.  My idea is that the questions should be short and to the point.   They can be on any topic involving the New Testament, the history of early Christainity, or any related topic.  I will try to write replies that are compact but full of information.  In some instances I may later decide to devote posts to one of the questions.

I will simply pick two or three of the questions I get each week to give in the following week’s post.   So if you have questions that I can address, ask them now.

I have chosen three questions I received last week to get us started with this feature.   Here they are.


QUESTION:  What do you think was the source for the virgin birth story?

RESPONSE:  I think it is really interesting that in our…

You Can See the Rest of My Response, and the Other Questions and Responses, by JOINING!!! Do so!  No one in the history of the human race has yet regretted it!!!

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Jesus as the Son of God in Mark
An Irritating Criticism: My View of Paul’s View of Christ



  1. Avatar
    Curt Underwood  October 29, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I know that you think all 4 gospels were written in the 1st century while others like Dr. Robert Price place them as late as the middle of the 2nd century. Obviously you don’t agree with that theory on the whole, but is there any bit of evidence for later dating of the Gospels that you feel may be legitimate or difficult to argue against ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2015

      They do appear to be referred to and quoted by church fathers already at the beginning of the second century, so they must have been written before that.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  October 29, 2015

    But again, why then cobble together a family tree that traces Jesus’ heritage back to David, through Joseph?

    Rumors of illegitimacy are, more often than not, untrue. Many royal heirs were rumored to be illegitimate, to try and undermine their claim to the throne.

    If Jesus had siblings, and we know he did, that means somebody married his mother. Presumably Joseph. The penalties for getting pregnant out of wedlock would have been pretty severe. I still think the best explanation is that Joseph and Mary jumped the gun while still betrothed, and had to get married sooner than they normally would have.

    This could easily have led to rumors Jesus was fathered by someone else, while his own family knew Joseph was the father. It’s hard to believe any man of that era would marry a girl with no money who was carrying someone else’s child–but nothing is impossible when it comes to the human heart.

    Of course, for the purposes of this theory, all that is necessary is for some people hostile to Christianity to have repeated this story, embroidering on it, making up a Roman soldier named Pantera to give it more credence. And in time, the story was neutralized by the creation of the virgin birth myth, which in no way offended the increasingly gentile Christian community.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 29, 2015



      Christianity was being founded right in the middle of a major shift in how Jews came to think about who was really Jewish. Now, seeing as that we agree that the fact that we have a quote in the gospels doesn’t mean anybody ever actually spoke those exact words, it’s entirely possible that the quote “Is this not the son of Mary?” is not something anybody ever actually said. Though of course somebody might have. But how would the gospel writer know that? Suppose he just made that up?

      So we get a mixed tradition–genealogies referring to Joseph as Jesus’ natural father, and insisting Joseph was of the line of David (my mother used to say all the Irish are descended from Kings and Princes, so it’s entirely likely that very humble Jewish families likewise claimed royal blood). But also references that focus on Jesus’ lineage through Mary, because it would be through Mary that he was truly a Jew. Not Joseph. Let alone Pantera, if there ever was such a person.

      So this may not mean anything with regards to the Virgin Birth at all. Except that it would have been a tempting way to get out of the whole genealogy mess. Obviously God being his father trumped everything else. Though as we all should know, “Son of God” was a common honorific applied to Jewish holy men of that era.

    • Avatar
      RGM-ills  October 30, 2015

      First. Maybe Mary was “HOT” and Joseph was “NOT”.
      Second. Maybe you are uncovering the “CORE” reason why Jesus was empathetic to prostitutes and insensitive to accepted current laws of Judaism. Maybe even the Core to why Jesus wanted to override the dogmatic Jewish law. His mother HAD endured harsh treatment for her teenage condition and he was stigmatized throughout life for it. Those severe penalties you mention, might have been the catalyst for him to argue against treatment from following the law.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 1, 2015

        Seems like a stretch to me. It’s possible, sure. But it seems a bit–I dunno–scripted? You could just as easily say that kind of disgrace growing up would make him less sympathetic, more obsessed with sexual purity (Jesus just did not seem to care much about sex, one way or another). And there is no evidence Jesus hung out with prostitutes. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. That’s just something that got tacked on after the fact. Jesus did reportedly show sympathy for women who had sex outside of marriage (because, again, he just didn’t care). He was strongly against the existing Jewish tradition regarding divorce, because it strongly favored men–who would often leave the women who had worked besides them and marry a young woman, leaving the first wife with nothing–I don’t see how that links up to Joseph marrying a pretty young woman.

        I think the whole Virgin Birth thing is mainly made up out of nothing, but there could have been some rumors that got garbled over the decades. I don’t believe Jesus was illegitimate, and I don’t believe he thought that was anything unusual about his birth.

  3. Avatar
    Adam0685  October 29, 2015

    Great idea!!

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 29, 2015

    Good luck with the mailbag feature. … All of your sample questions & responses were interesting!

  5. Avatar
    thelad2  October 29, 2015

    Hello, Bart. I would like to add one of my own questions for a future Readers Mailbag: what evidence, if any, is there that Peter died in Rome or ever visited Rome? Thanks.

  6. Avatar
    ComputersHateAndrewLivingston  October 29, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, here’s a question. Since Revelation was probably written around the year 95 why does it seem to share the imminent Armageddon view of the earlier books like Mark and the Pauline epistles? The Gospel of John came around that time and seemed to counteract the “this generation” idea due to the late date. So why is it in Revelation?

  7. Avatar
    dgdelta  October 29, 2015

    Great idea. I enjoyed your three responses very much.

  8. Avatar
    john76  October 29, 2015

    I think the “Jesus stories” were so successful because they were simply “made up” to support “political” or “social ethic” ideals. The Jesus story was used as a spiritual conqueror, like when Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), for example, was instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. An elaboration of these ideas are made in the four or five comments I make at the bottom of this blog post on Vridar: http://vridar.org/2015/09/21/comments-open/#comment-73290

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 30, 2015

      That makes no sense at all. When these stories were first told, they were not a source of power for anyone, and at most they only unified a handful of believers–even there, the unity was mainly illusory, since they were clearly debating the identity and nature of Jesus almost from the moment he was taken down from the cross.

      Yes, temporal politics enters into it later, but only well after the gospels have all been written.

      You can’t seem to explain why these other myths you mention did not withstand the test of time. Why do so many people–really, most of the world’s population, since Muslims revere the gospels as well–still find inspiration in these four books? Because they are inspiring. They obviously can’t be completely true. But the people who wrote them did not think they were making them up. There is a foundation there–of things that really did happen, deeds and words that actually transpired in history. To deny that is to deny reason.

  9. Avatar
    Joshua150  October 29, 2015

    The Triumph of Christianity. Excellent choice of subject, that I look forward to buying!

  10. Avatar
    Tnewby4444  October 29, 2015

    This new weekly feature is an outstanding improvement to the site.

  11. Avatar
    nacord  October 29, 2015

    Pumped for your next book!

  12. Avatar
    Ronhenn  October 29, 2015

    Love this format! I’ll be thinking of questions I’ve always wanted to ask.

  13. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 29, 2015

    Why do you think Jesus remained single his whole life? Could that have been part of the reason he was seen as a divine being? Ordinary people marry, not highly esteemed divine beings?

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 30, 2015

      If I may presume to respond (not being any kind of scholar in this arena)–no. Many people never married in the ancient world, for a variety of reasons, material and religious. Vestal Virgins, for example. Nobody thought they were divine beings, though they were linked to the divine.

      Jesus never seems to have explicitly ruled out marriage. He was a relatively young man when he died. We don’t know if he had any romantic relationships–he certainly enjoyed the company of women, and treated them as equals in a way few men of his era did. Very strange to have him scold one sister for scurrying around to fix him a meal, while praising another for listening to him teach.

      He was eventually seen as a divine being, I think, because he was such an exceptional person, others had to find some excuse for falling so far short of the standard he’d set. If he was the Son of God, and he was born of a virgin without original sin, and he was omnipotent and omniscient, that could explain how he could be the way he was.

      But maybe we all could. That certainly seems to be what he said. If any of us had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. He believed we could all be like him. Some of us have been. Not many.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  November 1, 2015

        Thanks for your input. I don’t know how he managed to stay single with so many female followers.

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 4, 2015

          Given that he clearly believed the world as he knew it was coming to an end in his lifetime, and perhaps coming to believe that he had to die for this to occur……

  14. Avatar
    doug  October 29, 2015

    The weekly Readers’ Mailbag is a great idea – an interesting variety of topics.

    “The Triumph of Christianity” is a fascinating topic. I’m going to hop in my time machine and go to the future to buy a copy right now!

  15. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 29, 2015

    Great questions. I’m glad you implemented this idea!

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 29, 2015

    Great new feature. All these questions and answers are interesting…and your response to the third is terrific! I’ll be very eager to read that book.

  17. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  October 29, 2015

    Did Matthew change it to “son of the carpenter” to *set the record straight* that the father of Jesus was known?

  18. Avatar
    Dan  October 29, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What are your thoughts on the women in the genealogy of Matthew and this first question about Mary and the virgin birth? Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah or Bathseba each have some interesting stories. Do you think their inclusion by the author of Matthew means he considered Mary in similar company, i.e. she got pregnant outside of marriage and that he did not (originally) consider the virgin birth story?

    Dan Mangum

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2015

      Yes, he seems to want to show that women with sexually dubious pasts (or at least rumors told about them) were always part of the divine plan for his messiah.

  19. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  October 29, 2015

    I really like this addition to the blog.

  20. Avatar
    willow  October 30, 2015

    I am deep into research on the next book…..

    I hope old age doesn’t over take me, and that my eyes don’t give out, before its published, Professor.
    Considering the extent of such an undertaking, does 4-5 years seem about right?

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