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Really??? Stories of Jesus’ Virgin Birth

COMMENT:

When I bring up the possibility that the original Luke did not have the first two chapters which include the virgin birth narrative, Christians say to me:  “How could such a new twist to the story of Jesus have developed so soon in the first century if some of Jesus’ family, disciples, and friends were still alive to verify its accuracy?  If Jesus had truly been Joseph’s son, wouldn’t SOMEONE have said, “Hey. Wait a minute.  Jesus nor his mother ever claimed that he was the virgin-born son of Yahweh.  This virgin birth story is bogus nonsense.”

 

RESPONSE:

This is an interesting point and one that we should reflect on.  As it turns out, it’s one I’ve reflected on it for some thirty years now!  (And it is related to what I discuss in my next book on how memory affected the oral traditions circulating about Jesus before the Gospels were written.)   It is one of those points that on the surface sounds really convincing: of *course* that’s the case!  No one could make up stories about Jesus’ family if his family was there to correct them, right???

Well, I think the answer is actually just the opposite:  wrong!  Here let me make several points that I do not think are easily refuted.

First, how many people in the first century (since I date the Gospels to the first century) are telling …

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First, how many people in the first century (since I date the Gospels to the first century) are telling stories about the virgin birth?   We don’t actually know how many Christians there were in, say, the year 90.   I wish we did, but we don’t.  We do have some ballpark ideas.  There are more than 10 and fewer then 10,000, almost certainly.  So, let’s pick a number.  My guess is that the answer is probably 3000 or 4000.  Let’s just be conservative and say 3000.

OK, of those 3000, how many do we know for certain are telling a story about Jesus being born of a virgin.   Here there is a clear and certain answer.  We know of two.  (And that’s assuming that Luke originally had chapters 1-2).   What were the other 2998 people saying about Jesus’ birth?  We have no way of knowing.  I would *assume* that the readers of Matthew and Luke would have agreed with what they read: but when it comes to knowing who was actually telling the stories, we know of only two.  How many were telling contrary stories?  We have absolutely NO way of knowing.

We often forget how utterly limited our access to early Christians is, and how woefully ignorant we are about what they were saying to each other.  All we have are the surviving documents.  And the only first century documents we have are the 27 books of the New Testament and probably one book from outside of the NT (the book of 1 Clement).   So, of those 28 books, how many are talking about Jesus’ family life?  Again, two  So that’s 2 out of 28 that we know of.

Why didn’t someone correct the authors of Matthew and Luke and say that it didn’t happen that way? Well, here’s a big question: How do we know that someone WASN’T correcting them???  We simply have no evidence.

But let’s assume, again just to be on the conservative side, that no one bothered to correct them.  How could that be, if there were living members of Jesus’ family who could do so?  Well, let’s think further.  Was Jesus’ mother alive still when Matthew and Luke were written?  Almost certainly not – she would have had to have been a hundred years old.   She had almost certainly been dead for decades at the time of their writing. Who besides his mother could have confidently corrected the story?  Well, presumably his father, but he wasn’t living then either.  And his brothers would not have known anything about their parents’ sex lives.  But even so, they probably weren’t still alive either.

But suppose somehow they *were* very (very!) old men and they *did* know about how Jesus was conceived?  Would they have corrected Matthew and Luke?  Remember: Jesus and his family came from a remote rural area of Aramaic speaking Palestine.  We have no record of them traveling outside their homeland.  And they did not speak Greek.   What about Matthew and Luke?  There is no evidence that they had ever been to Palestine and they did not speak Aramaic.  They were highly educated Greek-speaking Christians living 80-90 years after the event (Jesus’ birth) that they are narrating.   Jesus’ immediate family was almost certainly dead by this time, and there was no one from that family going around Greek-speaking circles of the Roman empire correcting what others were saying about their grandmother’s sex life.

And even if they were (see how implausible this whole thing is starting to be?), how could they correct what everyone said about their grandmother?   I deal with a related issue in my forthcoming book Jesus Before the Gospels.  The question is: can eyewitnesses correct what others want to say about someone?  Or maybe I should say: is there any way that eyewitnesses can make sure that others tell their stories correctly?  (Remember: none of these grandchildren of Joseph and Mary would even be eyewitnesses to how they conceived Jesus.)  Here’s how I put it in the book:

 

One obvious point to stress, which has not occurred to everybody, is this:  stories about Jesus were circulating even during his lifetime [NOTE: That’s not the case for the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth].  Moreover, even then they were not being told only by eyewitnesses.  When someone who saw Jesus do or say something then and told someone else who wasn’t there, it is impossible to believe that this other person was forbidden from sharing the news with someone else.   Life just doesn’t work that way.   Think about any public person you know: the President of the United States, a movie star, a famous author, or even just a popular university professor.   People tell stories about them.   And other people repeat the stories.  Then other people repeat the stories.  And the stories obviously are told in different words, every time.   Thus, the stories change.   Moreover, stories get made up.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Ask any public figure.  It is true that the people about whom the stories are told might hear a wild version and correct it.  But there is no guarantee that everyone will hear the correction so that from then on they tell the story correctly.  On the contrary, non-eyewitnesses continue to tell the story.  And yet other stories.

This happens even when people are alive and there are plenty of eyewitnesses who can correct things.   If the President has a meeting with his cabinet and word leaks out about what was said there, and it gets reported in the news, and someone in Kansas tells his next door neighbor about it, then that person tells her husband – is there an eyewitness in her living room (someone from the President’s cabinet) to make sure that she tells the story correctly?

Let’s say someone in the year 75 (after Mark’s Gospel was written) told someone else that he heard that Jesus’ mother was a virgin.   The person he told tells his wife, who tells her neighbor, who tells her husband, who tells his business associate who tells his cousin who tells his wife, who tells their children.   Now, in the year 76, when all this telling and re-telling is finished, are we supposed to believe that the descendants of Joseph and Mary are going around and checking with everyone who tells the stories in order to make sure they get it right?  It seems unlikely.

So again, as attractive (and common!) as this view is, I think it is completely implausible and is not an argument against the standard critical view, that the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth appeared relatively late in the oral traditions (sometime after both Paul and Mark were writing).


Reader’s Mailbag on Virgin Birth: 10/29/15
Is Luke’s Christology Consistent?

69

Comments

  1. Avatar
    bknight  October 27, 2015

    Bart: Is the practice of dating one’s correspondence a relatively modern phenomenon? I ask because I was wondering whether any of the manuscripts of the books of the New Testament, the Apocrypha, and the treatises by the church fathers contain the dates they were written? Thanks.
    Bernie

  2. Avatar
    hgb55  October 27, 2015

    Bart,

    Some of the Jesus mythicists such as Frank Zindler argue that the birth narratives about Jesus in Luke and Matthew were known by reliable sources in the first century to be made-up stories or forgeries. According to this claim, the Docetists (who denied that Jesus had a human body) relied on historical memories passed down from early witnesses who had first-hand knowledge that the human Jesus never existed and hence had no birth. Any good reason to think that the Docetists used reliable and early historical information to support their beliefs and that they knew the real “truth” about Jesus and his origins?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2015

      I’m afraid there is zero evidence for these claims.

  3. Avatar
    TomSmith  October 27, 2015

    Do you know the work of Rodney Stark, the sociologist? He is mostly known for having studied new religious movements (Mormons and Unification Church, inter alia). I heard him give a paper (might have been published) wherein he argued that from the data in his research, successful new religious movements grow at a rate of 40% per decade until they finally become well-established. If we take that approach, and posit, say 200 committed followers at the time of Jesus’ death circa 30CE, that would mean 280 by 40CE, 392 by 50CE, 768 by 70CE etc. So by the year 100, we’d be talking about roughly 2,100 people. Chances are that the bulk of those would have been outside of Palestine, scattered across cities of Asia Minor and as far as Italy/Gaul. Hard to know how much stock to put into Stark’s model, and hard to know how to peg an actual number of Jesus’s followers in his lifetime, but it does create an intriguing construct, because one can see, for example, how demographics around the time of Constantine would have been ripe for a public ascendancy of the Christian religion.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2015

      Yes, I know it extremely well. I’ll be interacting with it in my next book (the one I’m researching now). His data are very interesting!

  4. Avatar
    Eric  October 28, 2015

    I find its an odd assumption for someone to think that anyone who wrote anything about Jesus would have necessarily looked for and consulted his relatives for accuracy and fact checking purposes. I am guessing ancient writers didn’t really use any kind of rigorous fact checking process and that that is very modern thinking? Even odder to me, would be assuming that if such measures were in place, that the author of Luke would be able to successfully locate surviving relatives, and for argument’s sake, even if he did, have any way of verifying or vetting them as authentic Jesus relatives. Further, if an early Christian writer did find and interview those very close or related to Jesus, isn’t that likely something that they would have made mention of in their writings as a marker of accuracy and ‘the real truth’ and doesn’t the author of Luke in fact name-drop Paul for that very reason? He doesn’t mention hearing any stories from Jesus’s relatives. I imagine they likely were not available to him, which although isn’t proof or evidence that ‘corrections and corroboration’ from them didn’t occur (if said relatives were even still alive), makes it at the least seem improbable that the author of Luke ever met them or consulted with them on anything he wrote (or didn’t include as well), as he likely would have mentioned, ‘by the way, Jesus’s mom told me that…or this I learned from his brother…etc.’

  5. Avatar
    Nick_Peters  October 31, 2015

    It looks like this assumes a sort of privacy in the ancient world where stories were told individually instead of in a group setting and thus, the stories were changed quite easily at times. I really don’t see that from my study of the oral tradition.

    The silence of Paul really isn’t telling to me. If we follow that route consistently, down that road eventually lies mythicism, a position we should all want to avoid.

    Finally, the virgin birth as put would also carry good degree of shame in fact as it would be giving credence to an idea that the Messiah was illegitimate and then that YHWH was to blame for it. David Instone-Brewer has a short piece on this in “The Jesus Scandals.”

    • Avatar
      flcombs  November 3, 2015

      Welcome, Nick!

      On stories and oral tradition: if you accept the claimed authors for the NT, then it is clear that even the people that knew Jesus and were personally taught by him couldn’t keep the stories straight. At least the people that heard them recorded differently. You can just read the bible for that knowledge. They even disagreed over some doctrinal things!

      Shame: you make a GREAT point as to why they would make up the virgin birth story. What is more shameful: bastard of God or just a normal bastard or by the time the stories were written, of a Roman soldier perhaps? If Jesus was already known by his town to be a bastard, they certainly needed a story to cover for the shame of it and couldn’t undo what people already knew. Shame would be a great reason to make it up!

      • Avatar
        Nick_Peters  November 4, 2015

        Fl. You made a claim about me. Do you have any backing of it?

        As for keeping the stories straight, how exactly were they to be kept straight? Do you know how oral tradition worked in the ancient world? It didn’t mean that every little detail had to be right. It meant the main thrust of the story couldn’t be changed. Note also my position does not depend on inerrancy.

        As for shame, it would be far better to say a Roman soldier than for a Jewish author to try to implicate YHWH Himself in the birth of Jesus. Frankly, it would have been better for Matthew to do what Mark and John did and avoid it altogether, but he had to say something. Why would a good Jewish author implicate YHWH Himself?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2015

          Oral tradition is a big issue. It is the subject of my next book, due out in March. Most people simply assume things about oral cultures that are not true, as I’ll understake to show.

        • Avatar
          flcombs  November 5, 2015

          Claim: sure. Posted an example where you asked. There is always some extra delay as a moderator reviews posts before they are published.

          Stories: You assume a lot. It can also easily happen as: A person originally taking a story to a new town A would give the first and only version there and would establish a tradition. Another person going to another town B is the first there and whatever he says is the tradition there. At some point a person from A talks to a person from B or a new visitor and they each have their own oral tradition from different “true” sources. They argue over who is correct and naturally the local one is “true” and the tradition. As you can see in the bible and other sources, there were apparently different doctrines in the early church, even between apostles who should have had the “one truth” from Jesus himself. When writing the stories down, obviously it would be the local “true” version. If everyone had one story Paul and others wouldn’t be complaining about all the differences already in his lifetime. The stories were changing even with the original people.

          Shame: Either way, it may be one of the reasons Jews didn’t flock to Christianity or think of Jesus as the Messiah. But first it wasn’t god physically, it was claimed to be his spirit. That’s different than the many physical impregnation and seduction stories of the many demigods of the period. Unless you are going to claim that what god of the bible does is immoral, then obviously there is no shame to be born of god or certainly less than illegitimately born of a Roman soldier. Are you claiming that God is in fact capable of committing immoral acts and the Jews would judge his actions as immoral? That certainly isn’t the mainstream Christian position or one I’ve ever seen claimed historically, although many non-Christians point to the immorality in the Bible. Usually God is considered always moral by definition no matter what he does. Certainly it was much better for the NT writers to create a story that “god did it” than to admit Jesus was born of sin, especially a Roman. By the time the Gospels were written and with Christian gentile groups around the Med, it was also good to place Jesus on par with the many other demi-gods. If as you say shame was a major factor, then there were good reasons to make the story up along with fighting adoptionist views, etc. But then there’s no Messianic prophecy for a virgin birth anyway.

          • Avatar
            Nick_Peters  November 5, 2015

            Yes. I saw you gave the information in another thread so my apologies on that point. Let’s look at what you said here:

            Stories: You assume a lot. It can also easily happen as: A person originally taking a story to a new town A would give the first and only version there and would establish a tradition. Another person going to another town B is the first there and whatever he says is the tradition there. At some point a person from A talks to a person from B or a new visitor and they each have their own oral tradition from different “true” sources. They argue over who is correct and naturally the local one is “true” and the tradition. As you can see in the bible and other sources, there were apparently different doctrines in the early church, even between apostles who should have had the “one truth” from Jesus himself. When writing the stories down, obviously it would be the local “true” version. If everyone had one story Paul and others wouldn’t be complaining about all the differences already in his lifetime. The stories were changing even with the original people.

            Reply: Actually, Paul isn’t talking about different stories. He’s talking about different views of what is meant. The debate is never over issues about the life of Jesus. Most of these are taken for granted. Also, I do not assume. I go with scholars like Ken Bailey who have directly watched oral tradition going on. In oral tradition, there were always guardians of the tradition who kept it from getting out of hand. Did some different stories rise up? Yes. Many of these came in the second century. Differences in some accounts in the Gospels I think can easily be shown by looking at the fact that Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He would no doubt tell the same story many many times. I’m a speaker and I have used the same sermon at many different churches.

            Flcombs: Either way, it may be one of the reasons Jews didn’t flock to Christianity or think of Jesus as the Messiah. But first it wasn’t god physically, it was claimed to be his spirit. That’s different than the many physical impregnation and seduction stories of the many demigods of the period. Unless you are going to claim that what god of the bible does is immoral, then obviously there is no shame to be born of god or certainly less than illegitimately born of a Roman soldier. Are you claiming that God is in fact capable of committing immoral acts and the Jews would judge his actions as immoral? That certainly isn’t the mainstream Christian position or one I’ve ever seen claimed historically, although many non-Christians point to the immorality in the Bible. Usually God is considered always moral by definition no matter what he does. Certainly it was much better for the NT writers to create a story that “god did it” than to admit Jesus was born of sin, especially a Roman. By the time the Gospels were written and with Christian gentile groups around the Med, it was also good to place Jesus on par with the many other demi-gods. If as you say shame was a major factor, then there were good reasons to make the story up along with fighting adoptionist views, etc. But then there’s no Messianic prophecy for a virgin birth anyway.

            Reply: I think God is good and what He does is good and the Jews would not have disagreed likely, but they would have seen Mary and said “You got yourself knocked up and rather than accept responsibility, you’re trying to blame God for it.” Furthermore, it would not be good to put Jesus on par with the demi-gods out there. Why would they want to do that? That would lower Jesus in the eyes of the people. Not only that, Matthew is thoroughly Jewish and the last thing a Jew would want to do is treat YHWH in a way that would imply He had some part in a sexual union with someone.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 6, 2015

            I think it’s great that you guys are going back and forth — but maybe you should take it over to the Forum, which is set up for *precisely* this kind of exchange of ideas (unlike these comments, where they won’t be read as much, especially if they are fairly long). C’est possible?

  6. Avatar
    Boltonian  November 1, 2015

    I am not a biblical scholar so I may be talking nonsense but, as Jesus cannot be both Messiah and the son of God (if he were the Messiah then Joseph, ‘of the line of David,’ would have to be his father and, therefore, God couldn’t be), might these two versions of his status have come together as a political compromise in the early church. For example, If there were two distinct but competing traditions (as with the two accounts within Genesis) who were compelled to agree a common story in order to ensure the survival of the Jesus movement, this would then become official doctrine and all other versions could be suppressed. I find it difficult to believe that the early church fathers could not see this fundamental contradiction; after all it is central to the idea of being a Christian.
    I have put this to churchmen of all kinds, including bishops and theologians, but none seems either willing or able to offer an explanation.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2015

      Yes, the messiah was indeed sometimes (often?) considered the son of God. Keep reading my posts for the next few days, where I try to explain it all.

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  November 2, 2015

        Thank, Bart. The eyes are peeled!

  7. Avatar
    spiker  December 3, 2015

    Bart:

    Thanks for articulating something I have always thought when people insist that the disciples or “eye witnesses”
    were running some sort of 24 X 7 gospel clearing house. Isn’t Marcion’s Bible precisely an example of existing copies of Luke without a birth narrative?
    Next, it’s no surprise that the virgin birth story is a later development. If I recall correctly, your position is that people started believing he was the messiah after they were convinced that he was the first fruits of the general Resurrection. It sounds like that in the process of telling and retelling, you might have a conversation similar to

    Story teller: And that is why Jesus is the Messiah
    Listener: Ok, but the prophets say X, Y and Z about the Messiah, are you sure Jesus was X Y and Z?
    The story teller at some point comes back with Isaiah’s suffering servant for example. Since he was already convinced Jesus is the Messiah, he reads things like “he was …. blah blah blah as applying to Jesus situation.
    He reads other prophecies the same way. He accepts stories and details in terms of that conviction. Jesus is the messiah so it follows he was born of a virgin, etc etc

    BTW Looking forward to the new book!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yes, I’m pretty sure Marcion lacked chs. 1-2 of Luke. The Fathers said he omitted them. But I suspect he didn’t know about them.

  8. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  April 26, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, are you familiar with the commentaries of Heinrich Meyer (Meyer’s Commentaries)? If so, how is Meyer’s work generally regarded today by current mainstream scholarship, or is it regarded at all given its age? I’ve read his commentaries on Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Romans, in which he (collectively) lays out a (very) comprehensive and compelling case against the virgin birth claims. He flat-out rejected them, in fact. I respect that. Meyer was a Christian; nevertheless, he candidly acknowledged the myriad problems within the virgin birth narratives. What I often find in more recent commentaries, however, is an apparent reluctance by scholars to deal with the various problems head-on (though some do, occasionally).

    So, I suppose my inquiry has multiple parts: (1) Do scholars today view Meyer as just an old crank, and (2) why don’t many scholars today see the problems Meyer saw, or do they neglect to comment too specifically on these matters out of fear of losing their jobs, etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2016

      I’m afraid I haven’t thought about them for many years, and don’t really have an opinion.

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