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Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in the Gospel of John?

I have talked about the virgin birth in both Matthew and Luke, and noted its absence from the earlier Gospel, Mark.  In response, I have been asked about its presence/status in the last canonical Gospel, John.  I’ve posted on this before, even within living memory, but maybe to round out the presentation, it would be good to deal with it again.  Here is the original post from years ago.

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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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Were There *Other* Virgin Births in Antiquity?
Does Mark’s Gospel Actually *Deny* the Virgin Birth?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 28, 2018

    Marcion is believed to have preached that Jesus just came into being as an adult, right? He’s a fascinating figure – I wish we had more of his work preserved.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, for Marcion Jesus descended from heaven as a full adult. Lots of interesting books written on Marcion. You might start with the one by Judith Lieu.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  January 1, 2019

        I read on the Interwebs that “many scholars” believe that rather than Marcion’s gospel being a variation of Luke’s Gospel, it’s the other way around. Someone took the gospel Marcion used and added a lot of stuff to it, such as the first two chapters and the genealogy (possibly? the sources I read were unclear). Is there any truth to this claim apart from it being on the Internet?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 3, 2019

          It’s theoretically possible, but is usually seen as unlikely, since it would mean that Luke was not produced until the middle of the second century, which is surely too late.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 28, 2018

    John’s idea of Jesus may in fact be closer to Paul’s–but it’s not an idea any of Jesus’ disciples would have had while he was alive.

    The more important Jesus became in their minds after his death, the more his miracles became magnified in the retelling, the more they’d need to explain why they weren’t like the idealized Jesus in their heads. So there had to be something about him that was inherently different, even though he had told them they could work the same wonders if they believed enough. Jesus knew he was human, but to others he could seem divine, because of his strange charisma. You can never fully know another person, so you can imagine all kinds of things about them, particularly after they’re gone.

    Paul began that process of deification (without necessarily intending to do so), because he never knew Jesus. And this tends to argue against the notion that the author of John knew Jesus (as Richard Bauckham believes he did). I think it’s possible the author of Mark knew him (perhaps not well), but even there it’s hard to be sure.

    The possible reference to Jesus’ illegitmacy in John is interesting, and typical of John’s obsession with the emnity between Jesus and the Jewish establishment. Obviously by that time there would have been many Jews who routinely slandered Jesus, believing him to be a heretic and a troublemaker. Nobody could have known the precise circumstances of his birth, but people make up stories about those they dislike or fear. The most obvious insult to fling against a man of obscure parentage is to call him a bastard.

    What do you think of this idea–the Virgin Birth was a story cobbled up in response to utterly unsubstantiated claims that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock? It never made sense Joseph would marry a woman who had gotten pregnant by another man, but it makes perfect sense that people (everywhere, always) gossip. Faced with a calumny that could never be definitively disproven, Christians came up with a way to counteract it–claim that God was Jesus’ father. Can’t disprove that either! And it was where they were headed, anyway.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, I think that’s possible.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 30, 2018

        It’s nice to be agreed with (in theory, since we don’t have the facts), but the problem is, then you don’t get to have a fun argument. 😉

  3. Avatar
    nbraith1975  December 28, 2018

    Bart – Not sure what “phases” you went through when you no longer considered yourself a Christian before you became content with your newfound belief – or should I say disbelief – but after the last couple of years of my awakening I’m still upset that I actually believed such nonsense for so long.

    And I’m still aggravated when I find myself debating someone who believes this bologna – especially when I provide or direct them to evidence supporting my position.

    I was wondering if you ever feel this way?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      About five times a week is all….

      12
      • Avatar
        Judith  December 30, 2018

        And I’m fighting with myself to keep from thinking it’s the greatest hoax there ever was or that could ever be. I do not want to think of Jesus that way.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 31, 2018

          I don’t think it was a hoax, not at all. There was no intentional effort to deceive people. Often people proclaim views that are simply not true — but there doesn’t have to be anything malicious about it. That’s how I see both the earliest Christians and their modern advocates.

          • Avatar
            Judith  December 31, 2018

            Thanks. Maybe I can learn to understand it that way.

    • NulliusInVerba
      NulliusInVerba  December 30, 2018

      You are not alone.

  4. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 28, 2018

    All of this assumes ancient people understood reproductive biology, which might be a big assumption. The story of Noah and the Ark is the first well-known example that it takes two to tango, but I can’t see explicitly where ancient people understood the egg and sperm biology as the mechanism, rather than that magic moment repeated over time. There are other dynamics to consider also, such as any social premia or stigma associated with virginity or non-virginity (Don’t you dare look at Webster’s online for suggested antonyms. Dictionary compilers are a judgmental bunch.). It’s an enthralling topic of discussion, well-suited for online analysis where people can safely hide behind screen names as they sort through the dirty laundry of antiquity from the standpoint of their own cultural quagmires.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      They certainly didn’t have a modern understanding of reproduction (or of anything connected with biology, anatomy, or … well, anything connected with science). But they also certainly understood that people had babies by having sex!

  5. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  December 28, 2018

    How could one know whether John held to the doctrine of the virgin birth? How could we know he did not. The best it seems we can say is that we don’t know what he thought about it. Right?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, end of the day that’s right. But there may be *hints* in his text, and that’s what I was looking for.

  6. Avatar
    jhague  December 28, 2018

    ” Is this a suggestion that Jesus was known to have been born out of wedlock?”

    I know we can’t know for sure what happened but I wonder what your thought is, do you think that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock and Joseph married Mary anyway?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      I think that’s a possibility, but I don’t really know.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 30, 2018

      It’s possible Jesus was conceived out of wedlock with Joseph as the father. Mary was probably a bit young to get married when they became betrothed, in an arranged marriage, as was common then. Bethrothal was a state not equal to marriage, but still a very significant commitment on both sides (much more than an engagement). Joseph might have jumped the gun, exercised his marital prerogatives before the marriage happened, and Mary got pregnant. This would lead to various social complications, as has happened innumerable times in peasant societies throughout all history (and not just peasant societies).

      This could have led to gossip about who the father was, and Joseph couldn’t very well admit what he’d done, but neither could he disavow his first-born son, or put Mary aside for something that wasn’t her fault.

      Most would have realized what really happened, but it would have been difficult to just come out and say “Okay, fine, they got a little ahead of themselves, where’s the harm, mazel tov!” (I am well aware ancient Palestinian Jews didn’t speak Yiddish, but couldn’t resist, and the phrase is derived from Hebrew.)

      Gossip is an everpresent part of all societies. Mary might well have been very religious, and might have said some things about how God had blessed this pregnancy, and then time passes, and memory does its magic. All of a sudden, it’s a miraculous birth. Then Matthew needs to believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Then Luke does his take. Then it becomes a religious doctrine. But it could all have started when an eager young bridegroom couldn’t wait for the wedding day.

      Or that might not be it at all. But the most likely culprit in a young Jewish woman who is betrothed getting preggers would be the man she was betrothed to. And Joseph wasn’t wriggling his way out of that. They didn’t have shotguns then, but they had plenty of other methods of inducement. 😉

  7. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  December 28, 2018

    All the Gospel of John addresses is His pre-existence as LOGOS.

    It does not address the birth of Jesus.

    It should not be used to argue either for or against the belief of the Virginal birth.

    So great post, Dr. Ehrman.

    However, you included a reference to the Gospel of Mark as providing support for the notion that Mary was unaware of a miraculous birth. What are you talking about?

    If this is a reference to your blog post of yesterday discussing how modern scholars equate the term “those around Him” as being His family, then you are doing exactly what you would correct your students for doing. Bending a text to mean what you want it to mean. You are illustrating, in my opinion, the problem with narrative-crafters who seek to undermine the faith of others, as well-intended as they may be in doing so.

    Neither the Gospel of John nor the Gospel of Mark address in any way, shape or form, the birth of Jesus. To argue otherwise is not scholarly but rather reflects a bias that is either theological or anti-theological in nature. These two gospels should not be included in a discussion of the biblical evidence for or against a virginal birth. They simply do not address it and doing so only confuses or muddies the issue.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Well, I *may* be doing that, but I don’t think so. I didn’t come to this passage having this view ahead of time. I acquired this view only after studying the passage. (Before that I didn’t have a view on the matter — never even occurred to me.)

  8. Avatar
    ddorner  December 28, 2018

    How do we know that the gospel writers were writing down existing oral traditions rather than making it up as they go?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Lots of reasons. One is that Gospels that appear not to be familiar with one another (e.g., Mark and John) tell the same stories. So neither one of them could have made them up.

    • Avatar
      GregAnderson  December 30, 2018

      Clearly they were doing both. Many of the Gospel episodes were obviously invented. Someone, somewhere, invented the idea that at the moment of Jesus’s death, zombies walked the earth (Matt 27:50-54). It’s possible that the inventor spoke his invention to others, creating an oral tradition, or that he wrote it down directly into a Gospel document. Either way, it was certainly invented from whole cloth. Not knowing the identities of the Gospel writers, I don’t see why we should assume that every story written into the Gospels was first an oral tradition.

  9. Avatar
    meltuck  December 28, 2018

    The writers of the gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the doctrine of the virgin conception, or for that matter, of Jesus’s birth at all. It seems, therefore, that these writers either have not heard of the doctrine, or if they have they do not accept it. This is particularly noteworthy in the case of the Gospel of John. When the author writes in chapter 1:45 about Jesus calling his first disciples, he has Philip refer to Jesus as “son of Joseph from Nazareth.” He tells us in chapter 20:31 that his purpose in writing the book was “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Had he known about and accepted the doctrine of the virgin conception, would this not have been an appropriate place to mention it? The writer tells us in chapter 21:24 that he got much of the information for his gospel from one he calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He had written in chapter 19:26,27 that Jesus on the cross had instructed this disciple to look after his (Jesus’s) mother, and “from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” Since any information about the circumstances of Jesus’s conception would have had to come first from his mother, is it conceivable that she would have revealed this information to someone else and not to “the beloved disciple?”

  10. Avatar
    fishician  December 28, 2018

    I believe Origen cites Celsus as saying that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. Do you assign any credibility to that idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Ah, long story that. But what is usually thought is that this charge resulted from a confusion in the Christian stories that Jesus was born from a Parthenos (= virgin), that in Jewish polemic came to be transformed into a firth from “Pantera”

  11. Avatar
    mkahn1977  December 28, 2018

    Is John’s theology here influenced by the Two-Powers in Heaven belief?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Some interesting debate about htat, but it certainly seems possible.

  12. Avatar
    JohnKesler  December 28, 2018

    1) From where do you think John and Paul got their idea that Jesus was the personified Wisdom of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Proverbs 8) and the Apocrypha (e.g. Sirach 24)? 2) Do you think that Philo influenced either or both authors or that they came to this identification on their own?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      1. My guess is that any Christian who read Proverbs 8 could well come to think that, since it is referring to a divine being with God in the beginning who was a separte being from him, it must have referred to Christ. I don’t know if Paul was teh first to come up with the idea or not. 2. I doubt it. Certainly not Paul, who was writing too early. My sense is that hte views embodied by Philo were not distinct to him and the same *kinds* of thought entered into the Christian traditions early on.

  13. Avatar
    darren  December 28, 2018

    Great post! It makes me wonder why the story of the virgin birth evolved in the first place. I had assumed the stories about Jesus being born out of wedlock emerged after the virgin birth stories, as a way to mock early Christians. Is there reason to believe, historically, that Mary actually had premarital sex and Jesus was conceived before she married Joseph? I’ve heard the stories about a Roman soldier being his father, but thought that was pure legend.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, that’s certainly possible.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  January 2, 2019

      As always, “Life of Brian” (in, for me, its most hilarious sketch) has the answer.

  14. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  December 28, 2018

    Does John use the term “The Word” to symbolize Jesus at least partly because it is reminiscent of the New Covenant? Or would that distract from his insistence about preexistence?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Hard to say. The idea of Jesus being the new covenant is found in the Synoptics, but offhand I’m trying to think if it’s in John — and nothing comes to mind. His Logos doctrine seems to have other roots: Genesis 1 and, possibly, Hellenistic philosophical traditions.

  15. Avatar
    MaryPetra  December 28, 2018

    The term “smash it together” always makes me smile. Yet it is a rather sad smile. I have to think of little children in their sand-pit. Aren’t we all (a bit more or less) up to “baking our beautiful cakes” no matter how!? What a tragicomedy!!

  16. Avatar
    forthfading  December 28, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What is your educated guess to why a stream of tradition included the virgin birth? Was it to boost the “memories” of Jesus as divine? Was it remembered in order to fulfill prophecy? The tradition that Mark pulled from did not include that memory, nor did the stream of tradition for John. So is there a connection somewhere that helps explain why the tradition started?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      I think one or both of those reasons, for one author or another. And possibly to cover over the unusual circumstances of his birth that were otehrwise being talked about.

  17. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 28, 2018

    Matthew 1:21 tells us Jesus is given his name because he will save his people form their sins. 2:6 tells us these are the Lord’s people. So Jesus is given a name meaning yahweh saves because he will save his/the lords people.
    1:22,23 tells us Jesus fulfills the prophesy “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”. Jesus is never called Immanuel so the only way he can fulfill the prophesy is by fulfilling the meaning of the name, which Matthew has helpfully told us means “God is with us”.

    Luke chapter one “Lord” clearly refers to God. However 1:76 tells us of John the Baptist “will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” ; which clearly refers to Jesus.

    I think Matthew and Luke speak of Jesus in the same terms as John’s prologue.

  18. Avatar
    anvikshiki  December 28, 2018

    Very interesting. There is of course also John 1:45, where Phillip refers to Jesus as the “son of Joseph,” which is echoed in 6:42 by “Jews” who decry Jesus’ claim that he has come down from heaven by calling him the son of Joseph (and his mother). But my question is actually about John 1:14 that you mention. I can’t read Greek, but have heard it said that the verse actually reads something like “the Word became flesh and pitched its tent among us.” If this “tent-pitching” reflects the notion of tabernacling, then it of course has great precedent in the Biblical tradition. But does the Greek of John 1:14 say this? Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, the word literally means something like “pitched his tent among us”

  19. Avatar
    tomruda  December 28, 2018

    I have a question about the “Word” as in John. This refers to the “Logos” in Greek which has a somewhat different or fuller meaning than our English “Word” has. My understanding is that there are different subtle meanings that have been used by Greek Philosophers. In what sense would you see how Logos is being used in the text of John? How could the first line be re-written to reflect the fuller meaning?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Ah, entire books written on that one! Shortest story: I think it is an allusion to Genesis 1 (God creates the world by speaking a word) with philosophical overtones (e.g., Stoics who think that “word” or “reason” infuses all of existence as a divine element in all there is)

  20. Avatar
    alanpaul  December 28, 2018

    Hi Bart, You make a very good case for John not believing that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but do you think that John may also not have accepted that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? He’s clearly aware of the scriptural tradition that the Messiah will come out of Bethlehem (John 7:42) but puts this tradition in the mouths of people who are ignorant of the Bethlehem birth story and therefore deny Jesus’ messiahship. This could be Johannine irony. Or it could just mean that John assumes that his readership of believers already know that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, and had no need to be reminded of this fact. But I still find it strange that, if he believed it and thought it important, John would not have taken this or other opportunities to assert Jesus’s Bethlehem birth and Davidian lineage.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2018

      Yes, it could go either way, and I’ve never been completely sure. (Either he’s denying it or showing he doesn’t know the tradition or using irony; my guess is that he simply doesn’t know the tradition.)

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