An Advent Note On The Virgin Birth

Tony SigIt was inevitable that this year I would ponder the truth and necessity of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are so many irregularities that go with it, from the LXX mistranslation to the historical and mythological precedents, and the science that says you need two kinds of chromosomes to come together to create the emergent properties of human life.

But there it is in Matthew and Luke and the Creeds.

On the one hand I could resort to the back-up plan provided by oh so many RC and EO friends…”It’s a mystery” That surely is true if the doctrine is true, but for your part, it is a mystery legitimized by the authority inherent in the Church, and I am not convinced of that infallable authority.

But on the other hand there is the skepticism which says I myself have all knowledge, I know what is scientific, and I know what happens in the world. In doing so I not only proclaim my pure objectivity, but I sit in judgment on my Church, both past and present.

How many billions have been baptized and/or confirmed to the Creeds?

No, it is not for me to debunk something which is said every week in worship and prayer. The creed, after all, says “WE Believe” So if it changes, it will also say “WE believe” One of the most powerful truths I have learned from contemplating the Catholicity of the Church, is that this whole thing is a lot bigger than ME, and what I think that I know. I say this, not to hold on to an out of date belief, the classic “thoughtful conservative” who finds proof under a rock to justify an incredible belief. I have my doubts.. But I also am part of the One, Catholic, Holy and Apostolic church, and to it I am captive.

In true Advent style, I await the revealing of our coming Lord.

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19 Comments

  1. Why is it we assume that modern science makes it uniquely difficult to believe in a virgin conception? Joseph and Mary lived in close proximity to domesticated animals. They knew how the birds and the bees worked. Why do we assume that a virgin conception would’ve provoked less incredulity in them than in us?

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  2. Scientifically speaking, a virgin birth presents us with no worse of a problem than God resurrecting a crucified man or that same man walking on water. My hangups with the Virgin birth have always been in the textual tradition.

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  3. I’m interested in what Tony calls “the LXX mistranslation.” Why do we assume it was a mistranslation? It’s not as if the LXX was translated by Christians with a theological axe to grind, after all. And it’s not too much of a stretch to see why a Hebrew “maiden” became a Greek “virgin,” especially since a maiden is an unmarried, marriageable female, who is presumably a virgin. Perhaps the LXX represents a “live option” of how Isaiah 7:14 was interpreted in post-exilic, pre-Chrisitan Judaism.

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  4. Good post Tony,
    While I understand where you are coming from, I myself cannot be bound by the tradition of the church. In my humble opinion, the virgin birth makes most sense when understood as a political statement against the Roman emperor cult. Jesus is painted to replace in everyway the Roman savior of the world which was of course Caeser. I also feel as though religion is a living growing entity. The only way for the church to continue to progress is to appreciate its history without being bound by it.

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  5. How does the virgin conception of Jesus make a political statement against the Roman emperor cult when that cult did not claim that the emperor had been conceived by a virgin?

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  6. I could be mistaken but I am pretty sure that at least a strain of teaching within the emperor cult advocated for a virgin birth. At least, this was said of Julius Caeser.

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  7. The emperor cult maintained that upon their deaths (Julius Caesar) or even during their lifetimes (Domitian) the emperor was divinized, but this is not the same thing as saying they were born of virgins.

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  8. I misspoke in my previous post. I was thinking of Augustus not Julius. I am specifically refering to Caesar Augustus’s birth narrative in which it is said that Apollo impregnated his mother. This would compare to the divine impregnation of mary as theotokus.

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  9. Sorry for a delayed response, I am without a computer. In fact George, I am in San Fransisco, how close are you? When I have a chance I’ll respond. Merry Christmas!

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  10. George,

    First of all, this post is more a view into my theological method than anything else. When I mull over a passage or a doctrine I try to come at it from all angles. When in the event that in my limited reasoning I come to a different conclusion – temporary or fixed – I consider whether or not it is something that I feel comfortable disagreeing with “The Church” on. In my AG days, I came to disagree with the notion of separate and subjequent to qualify the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” It seemed to me in Scripture rather clear that we recieve the Holy Spirit upon conversion. It was something that I believe to be not central to Christianity, and so I was not uncomfortable arriving at this position and holding it, not least since I arrived at the historic position. (I am using this as an example, I don’t want to get into a conversation on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit)

    In the case of the Virgin Birth there is a lot more going on. It’s in two Gospels, it’s in the Creeds, it is an integral part of many doctrines: The Incarnation, Last Adam, etc… And so that is why I said that in this case, though it is a struggle for me, I put myself under the Church in this matter.

    As far as the LXX…I am not a lexicologist, I have just heard many times since I began Bible study that it is a mistranslation. Those are the words of the scholars, not mine. Even if it was a “live option” I do not understand how that changes anything. Perhaps, given its Alexandrian and Hellenistic origins, the LXX translators were attempting to make a theological statement. I don’t know, I have not studied it well enough. As far as “science,” it is simply a small part of the multiple reasons why it is difficult, though one should note I did not say impossible, to affirm the position.

    There are of course several mythological precedents in Hellenistic and ANE cultures which I see no reason to dismiss so easily, not least since we are open to such possibilities in our Creation narratives and prophetic utterences.

    All that to say, I affirm the historic position, it is just difficult, that’s all.

    Tony πŸ™‚

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  11. Tony:

    Here’s my perspective.

    Translation philosophies span the spectrum from formal equivalence to functional equivalence, basically, from word-for-word to thought-for-thought. The notion that Isaiah 7:14 LXX is a “mistranslation” rests on formalist presuppositions. But what if the LXX translators were rendering the verse functionally, rather than formally?

    Second, it’s not clear to me that “virgin” is a mistranslation of “maiden” rather than a narrowing of a legitimate meaning. In Hebrew culture, after all, an unmarried young woman was presumed to be a virgin. In other words, there was significant semantic overlay between the concepts of “maiden” and “virgin,” even if they were not identical in meaning.

    Third, if the concept of a virgin conception were totally alien to the straightforward meaning of Isaiah 7:14, why did the LXX interpreters opt for it? And, indeed, why was it allowed to stand as an authoritative translation for Hellenistic Jews in the centuries preceding Christ, unless it reflected a consensus (at best) or permissible (at worst) interpretation of the text? That’s a question I don’t see scholars grappling with in their all too easy dismissals of the Christian use of a Jewish translation.

    Fourth, following J. Gresham Machen, I’m unimpressed by history-of-religions interpretations of the virgin birth as an analogue to pagan myths. For one thing, most of the pagan myths revolve around the gods taking human form and having intercourse with (in some cases outright raping) the woman who gives birth to some significant figure. For another thing, at least some of the pagan myths postdate the biblical story, which means that the line of influence is from Christ to the myths, not from the myths to Christ.

    Your point about the creation story and ANE myths suggests an interesting line of inquiry. Perhaps, just as the creation story demythologizes the theogynies and theomachies of ANE myths, so perhaps the virgin birth dymthologizes the intercourse/rape myths of Greece and Rome. Perhaps that’s what Jeremy was hinting at when he saw the virgin birth story as a political debunking of the imperial cult?

    George

    P.S. I hope I’m accurately communicating tone in these comments. I’m pretty much full-steam-ahead in dialogue, which sometimes comes across as personally dismissive or insulting. I don’t mean to dismiss or insult any of your intelligences. The reason why I read Theophiliacs is because you guys are so bright. The reason I push so hard is because I want to challenge what I perceive to be sloppy thinking or needless dysjunctive logic in some of your posts. And, of course, I fully expect to get as well as I’ve given. Just remember, I’m an old man who’se been out of college for 17 years, so go easy on me. LOL.

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  12. On what basis do you think that the LXX is based on a text that is later the the Masoretic.

    We have copies of the LXX from the 4th century A.D. which was based on manuscripts from the 4 & 3 B.C.

    The MT was from 9th century A.D. based on manuscripts from the 2nd century A.D.

    Isn’t it possible that the LXX is drawing from the Babylonian captivity and the MT drawing from a post Babylonian period?

    If so can we say that the LXX is a mistranslation?

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  13. Quickbeam,

    Just a couple of things. This would have been true up until the discoveries of texts at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls). There were both Greek and Hebrew texts recovered here, and the Hebrew ones went back just about as far as the LXX. So there are Hebrew texts now which reach back as far or nearly as far as our existing LXX manuscripts.

    Second, regardless of manuscript date specifically, textual criticism uses different criteria sometimes and it seems that most regard “young woman” as earlier. I know way more about NT textual criticism than Old, so I couldn’t say how exactly they do TC on the OT.

    Thirdly, the historical context of the passage seems to indicate that Isaiah is pointing out a living woman at the court, saying in essence “she is going to give birth…” It is thought that she is either the wife of Isaiah or the mother of Hezekiah.

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  14. “the Hebrew ones went back just about as far as the LXX. So there are Hebrew texts now which reach back as far or nearly as far as our existing LXX manuscripts.”

    Yes but those text were not used in the development of the MT. Additionally those also contain many of the books which are listed in the LXX (which Catholic and Orthodox Bibles hold inspired) but which the MT does not.

    I guess my point is that the assumption is that because the LXX comes from the Hebrew, does not imply that another Hebrew copy (in this case MT) is truer or closer to the orginal based on language.

    For me the fact that the LXX was used by the Apostles is enough for me.

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  15. Well, some of the Apostles anyway. The LXX was not really used in Palestine. Poor Jewish men would have only really had the opportunity to learn to read Hebrew, perhaps Aramaic. The extent to which they knew Greek would have been from hardly anything at all, to conversational “common” Greek. They certainly would not have been able to read it.

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  16. The argument about whether Jesus was conceived by a virgin is usually predicated on the assumption that Matthew and Luke said this was so.

    But is this the case, or has Jewish idiom been twisted to fit the mentality of the Greek interpreters of the Bible?

    The interpretations theologians give to the birth narratives run into problems at every instance: Matthew supposedly did not quote Isaiah’s prophecy, but a translation which says something different to the original; supposedly the NT has 2 genealogies of Joseph (who is irrelevant) and none of Jesus; a ridiculous interpretation is given to Mary’s question; it is claimed the angel’s assurance confirms a virgin birth in Mary’s case, but not in Elizabeth’s case; certain expressions common to many are given an unique interpretation when they are applied to Jesus; and so on.

    You may find these articles on virgin birth of interest and share some common ground with your own comments –

    http://www.wallsofjericho.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=26

    and, similarly the debate on TheologyWeb:

    Forum β€” General Theistics 101
    Thread β€” Does the Bible teach that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived?

    http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/forumdisplay.php?f=160

    Reply

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