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The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John

I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother knew that his birth was miraculous, unlike the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is striking to note that even though these two later Gospels know about a virgin birth,  our latest canonical Gospel, John, does not know about it.   This was not a doctrine that everyone knew about – even toward the end of the first century.

Casual readers of John often assume that it presupposes the virgin birth (it never says anything about it, one way or the other) because they themselves are familiar with the idea, and think that John must be as well.  So they typically read the virgin birth into an account that in fact completely lacks it.

As is well known, John’s Gospel begins …

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Widespread Claims of Pagan Virgin Births
Does Mark’s Gospel Implicitly Deny the Virgin Birth?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    tawfiq  December 28, 2014

    I just finished reading James Dunn’s Christology in the Making so your comments are especially relevant. I usually avoid books written by theologians and this was a poor choice for me.

  2. Avatar
    Tom  December 28, 2014

    Wonderful material, Dr. E. This thread has been fascinating.

    It’s amazing what people come up with when they apparently have too much time on their hands.

  3. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  December 28, 2014

    My only issue with this article is that it depends too much on the argument from silence. The evangelical views are admittedly different, but they are not necessarily contradictory at that point. The creed does add up doctrines from different authors but is that a weakness? Is it a problem to say Jesus said the quotes mentioned in John as well as those mentioned in the synoptics? I liked Mark vs the virgin birth better.

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  June 30, 2015

      I think the implication is that they are incongruous, and so how is that supposed to support any kind of unity of doctrine?

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  December 28, 2014

    The Gospel of John calls Jesus God’s only begotten son.
    In an historical account of Josephus, the only begotten son is Izates, royal incest child of King Monobazus and Queen Helena. We couldn’t possibly let accurate history of royal incest appear in the New Testament. Virgin birth is an alternative. Both Mary-Queen Helena and Jesus-Izates or Iesus-Izates were Jewish purists as they were proselytes to Judaism. Jesus gives indication of this when he tells the pharisees, It is written in your law instead of saying It is written in our law.

    An angel appeared to Joseph to speak with him about the baby Jesus; and a voice spoke to King Monobazus about Izates.

    “But as he was in bed with her one night, he laid his hands upon his wife’s belly, and fell asleep, and seemed to hear a voice which bade him take his hands off his wife’s belly, and not to hurt the infant that was therein, which, by God’s providence, would be safely born, and have a happy end. The voice put him into disorder: so he awoke immediately and told the story to his wife; and when his son was born, he called him Izates [Izas, Angel].

    He had Monobazus, the elder brother by Helena also… Yet he openly placed all his affections on this his ” ‘only’ begotten son” Izates.
    Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 2, Section 1, 18-20

    As Jesus went on to feed 5,000, King Izates went on to feed 5,000, also, during the famine in Judea, year 47 Common Era.

    Tomb of Queen Helena http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/a-royal-return-1.316609

  5. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  December 28, 2014

    Interesting note here: There are four schools of thought in traditional Islamic law: Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, and Maliki. I once spoke to an Islamic law specialist who had been asked to file a sort of amicus brief in the case of a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death for fornication. That fornication had been committed seems obvious, as the woman was pregnant, but according to the Islamic law specialist, in the Maliki school prominent in Nigeria, pregnancy is actually not considered prima facie evidence of coitus. The reason is that there is one theologically known case of a Virgin Birth – that of Jesus. Unfortunately, the woman in Nigeria was stoned to death before the woman I knew could write her brief.

    • Avatar
      Malik  January 7, 2018

      You might find this interesting, it is an authentic account from our hadith(https://sunnah.com/muslim/29/34):
      Then a woman of Ghamid, a branch of Azd, came to him and said: Messenger of of Allah, purify me, whereupon he said: Woe be upon you; go back and beg forgiveness from Allah and turn to Him in repentance. She said: I find that you intend to send me back as you sent back Ma’iz. b. Malik. He (the Holy, Prophet) said: What has happened to you? She said that she had become pregnant as a result of fornication. He (the Holy Prophet) said: Is it you (who has done that)? She said: Yes. He (the Holy Prophet) said to her: (You will not be punished) until you deliver what is there in your womb. One of the Ansar became responsible for her until she was delivered (of the child). He (that Ansari) came to Allah’s Apostle (ﷺ) and said the woman of Ghamid has given birth to a child. He (the Holy Prophet) said: In that case we shall not stone her and so leave her infant with none to suckle him. One of the Ansar got up and said: Allah’s Apostle, let the responsibility of his suckling be upon me. She was then stoned to death.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 28, 2014

    Most people – *if* they took time to think about it – would realize that *re*incarnation of humans is a widely held belief. That which incarnates is variously described as a preexisting soul, mind, entity, or “wave of being.” A noncorporeal part of the total person. Whether or not someone believes in that, they should be familiar enough with the idea that that’s how they’d imagine Jesus’s “incarnation.” But as you say, they assume a virgin birth because of their familiarity with the other Gospel accounts.

    If “John” didn’t mention Jesus’s mother later in the Gospel, his saying the Word had become Flesh *could* mean even that Jesus simply *appeared*, as an adult, without ever having a human birth and upbringing.

  7. Avatar
    John  December 28, 2014

    Why didn’t God just take some more clay and make a new man from scratch?

    1
  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 28, 2014

    Good illustration of the point you frequently make about how each of the four Gospels must be understood on its own rather than mashing them together into a composite Gospel.

  9. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 29, 2014

    If Mary was impregnated by the Holy Ghost, would this not an incarnation? And she would still be a virgin because she had not known a man.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      It’s not an incarnation unless Christ existed *before* she became pregnant. Otherwise “he” hasn’t “become flesh” (from being non-flesh).

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  December 29, 2014

        Well, the “Word” presumedly pre-existed and became flesh as the holy sperm grew into a child.

  10. Avatar
    armerarmer  December 29, 2014

    You state that the traditional Christian doctrine views Jesus as a “pre-existent human being.” While I understand the idea of the pre-existence of the Son of God (the 2nd person of the Trinity), I thought that Christian doctrine taught that the Son didn’t become a *human being* until a particular point in history. So that the Son of God (or Logos according to your post) is pre-existent, but Jesus (the human being that is union of God the Son and man) was not. While I am aware that people like Justin Martyr read Jesus back into the OT (which assumes a pre-existent *human* form), I am not aware of this view being taught in the NT. Maybe I am missing something. What are your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      Yes, you’re right. I was speaking imprecisely: “Jesus” pre-existed (but not actually as Jesus; he wasn’t human until the incarnation — in traditional theology. Though often theologians will talok about “Christ” as a pre-existent being)

  11. Avatar
    jdmartin21  December 29, 2014

    Regardless of the reason why a virgin birth story originated in the oral tradition, it seems clear that one of reason the story was able to gain traction and eventually become perpetuated in Matthew and Luke is that the ancient understanding of the process of conception was totally unlike the modern biological understanding. Knowledge of chromosomes and haploid cells and their role in conception has only been available since the late 1800’s. First century understanding was probably something like the male provides the essence and the female the nurturing environment for the baby to grow. They would have had no problem accepting the concept that Holy Spirit provided the essence in lieu of a male. Today we know that for Jesus to be a normal human male Mary’s haploid egg cell would have had to have been fertilized with the male equivalent carrying a Y chromosome. So, the annunciation and the Holy Spirit causing Mary to become pregnant had to involve a physical component. The male complement of chromosomes had to have been physically joined with the chromosomes in Mary’s egg cell. My question is, where did God get the chromosomal material used to impregnate Mary? Since church doctrine is that Jesus was “begotten, not made”, it seems clear that God did not create a whole new set of genetic material, and since God himself is not “material”, he could not have been the donor. In what sense then is Jesus the son of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      I think the sense is that if God could create the universe he could create chromosomal material.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  December 29, 2014

        But, if God “created” chromosomal material wouldn’t you say that Jesus have been “made” as opposed to “begotten”?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2014

          When the framers of the creeds came up with their language (“begotten not made”), I don’t think they had a clue about chromosomes….

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 29, 2014

        I’ve sometimes been amused by the thought that if, by some fluke, true parthenogenesis were to occur, the child would necessarily be female!

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  December 29, 2014

    Since the figure of Joseph hardly appears outside of the parts of the Gospels I assume most scholars would consider the least historical, do you think his presence in the tradition was a historical memory, or a literary creation to “legitimize” a certain view of Jesus (since presumably a husband who was not the biological father was better than no husband at all)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you asking whether Jesus actually had a father? (I think the answer is yes.) Or whether his name was Joseph (again, I think yes). Or whether the stories told about him in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2 are historically accurate? (There I think the answer is no).

  13. Avatar
    HighlandUnitarian  December 29, 2014

    As a unitarian Christian (as opposed to a trinitarian) I absolutely agree with your thoughts on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, I would also say that John does not teach any kind of incarnation either. For some reason it has become practise to read “Word” in the prologue of John’s gospel as though it were synonymous with “Son”, so that saying that the “Word” existed with God in the beginning is the same thing as saying that the “Son” did. This is of course encouraged by over a thousand years of “orthodox” tradition, but also by more subtle things like the fact that “Word” is always capitalised, which is highly suggestive to the mind of the reader.

    Whenever the word of God came to someone in the Old Testament, it was the plan and intent of God. I see no reason to think that the author of the Gospel of John would have had a different understanding than this. So for me, when he talks of the Word becoming flesh (for example), he is not talking about a being becoming incarnated, but rather God’s plan being realised in the material world in the form of the very human Jesus of Nazareth. Every other deity “proof-text” in the Gospel of John has a similarly simple alternate explanation.

    Anyway, I just subscribed to this blog as a member because I’ve just consumed those debates of yours that are available on YouTube over the last few months. The last one I watched was where you were speaking at the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. When you mentioned this blog and the good cause it’s for, I just knew I had to join. I love your work and I look forward to more of it.

    God Bless You.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 29, 2014

      Interesting thought. The problem is that John 1 itself talks about the Word as a personal being prior to becoming flesh. He was “with God” and he “was God” and “through him” all things were made. So there was a separate existing hypostasis of God, which at some point, then, became a fleshly being. No?

      • Avatar
        HighlandUnitarian  December 29, 2014

        You’d know better than myself being more highly educated and better informed, but it was my understanding that the Greek is less than clear-cut and that “He” in that context could just as easily be translated as “it”, which would of course change the nature of the passage.
        For example, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Sir Anthony Buzzard at all, but he’s a highly esteemed unitarian biblical scholar who recently released his own New Testament translation. His prologue for the Gospel of John reads:

        “In the beginning there was God’s Grand Design, the declaration of His Intention and Purpose, and that declaration was with God as His project, and it was fully expressive of God Himself. This was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through it, and without it nothing of what came into being existed. In it there was life and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.”

        I personally do not belong to any religious group and never have, just for the record. I’m only interested in the facts, and it just seems to me that unitarians have an extremely strong case when it comes to the Gospel of John.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2014

          The personal pronouns in the passage, in reference to the Logos, are masculine (“him / his”) not neuter (“it / its”) — but possibly that’s because the word LOGOS itself is masculine. I think Buzzard’s translation is needlessly paraphrastic and interpretive.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  December 29, 2014

        So was the Word both God and the Son of God? How and when was the Son begotten? Was there a time before the Son was begotten? And where did the Holy Ghost come from? Was he, she, or it also the Word?

        I love these theological questions. My definition of theology is: a set of untestable hypotheses unconstrained by logic or reason and explained as a Divine Mystery.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 30, 2014

          These are questions that later theologians wrestled with interminably; but they are not questions that appear to have occurred to the author of John’s Gospel.

  14. Avatar
    GokuEn  December 29, 2014

    Prof Ehrman, although I am inclined to believe that the synoptics do not present an incarnational christology, what are we to make of them identifying Jesus as the Son of Man? Isn’t the Son of Man a pre-existent being?

    Or what to do with Mark 12:36? Doesn’t the evangelist imply that King Davis “saw” the Messiah making it a pre-existent being as well?

    Thanks for your time!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2014

      He is a pre-existent being in some traditions — at least he pre-exists his appearance as judge of the earth. For the Synoptics, so too did Jesus — he lived before he was exalted and made the Son of Man.

      • Avatar
        GokuEn  December 30, 2014

        Would that apply too to Mark 12:36? Does the evangelist think David saw the Messiah in the future somehow?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 31, 2014

          I’m not *quite* sure what you’re asking; but that verse sometimes *is* taken to mean that Mark did not think Jesus was descended from David (since the messiah did not have to be, for him). I’m not sure I buy that….

  15. Avatar
    JSTMaria  December 30, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Does the study of Astrology come into play anywhere here with the “virgin birth?” Some who speak of the precession of the equinoxes discuss the notion of twelve distinct “ages” through which the world revolves and have made the claim that Jesus ushered in the “Age of Pisces” (the fish) whose opposite, yet counterpart sign is Virgo (the virgin). I have definitely read that you can’t take the study of the stars out of the Bible. What do you say to these claims?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2014

      I’ve never seen this worked out in a scholarly reconstruction, so I don’t really have an opinion.

  16. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  December 31, 2014

    Brigham Young, the second president of the Mormon Church, taught God had sex with Mary–to the considerable discomfort of the modern Mormon Church.

  17. Avatar
    ajhuff  January 9, 2015

    I almost visualize “incarnation” as if Jesus was beamed to earth a la Star Trek. Maybe not so unreasonable.

    • Avatar
      Eric  January 29, 2015

      This is where I thought Bart was going, perhaps do to my ignorance of the totality of John. Is there anything in John’s Gospel specifically requiring a birth or even childhood in his concept of incarnation 9that is, does he refer to his birth, childhood, growing up, family, etc). If not, the “incarnation” could simply be the materialization (as an adult?) of the previously only spiritual being.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 30, 2015

        I suppose the only thing is that in John he is known to have “come” from Nazareth (1:45-46); that seems to presuppose a life earlier than his appearance on the scene. And the statement of 9:41 is often taken to indicate that he was reputed to have had a birth out of wedlock (unlike his opponents, who are using the rumor against him).

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