It’s December! So it’s time for an obligatory blog post on the virgin birth of Christ (by which I mean, of course, the virginal conception of Christ; not the Catholic belief that Mary gave birth to Jesus with her virginity still intact, i.e. without her hymen breaking).
It is not too uncommon for modern theologians to reject the historicity of the virgin birth (Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Küng, Gerhard Ebeling, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Karl Rahner are a few who come to mind). Many theologians who do reject the virgin birth nevertheless maintain it has some sort of theological meaning (out of those five aforementioned theologians, I think Pannenberg is probably the only one who rejects both the historicity and theological meaning of the virgin birth); also, some think that the virgin birth actually carries with it an implied docetism (Emil Brunner would fall under here I think).
Personally, I don’t buy into the virgin birth either. Why? It isn’t because of an anti-supernatural bias but is rather just because it doesn’t add up. What I mean is, it seems like the doctrine of the virgin birth is one of those late secondary accretions that happens to religious figures and men of renown. Take for instance the resurrection of Jesus. If the belief that God resurrected Jesus from the dead had not occurred to some of his followers, Jesus would have be relegated to a footnote of history as just another purported miracle-working itinerant Jewish preacher. But the belief in Jesus’ resurrection did arise soon after his death and, whether you believe in it or not, it was the central impetus behind the early Christian movement; the belief in Jesus’ resurrection is foundational to early Christianity and cannot be disentangled from it.
The same cannot be said of the virgin birth. From a historical standpoint, there is the deafening silence regarding the virgin birth outside the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is treated as a preface in those two canonical Gospels and neither of them, nor any other text in the New Testament, ever mentions or alludes to it again. The Apostle Paul, whose authentic epistles are the earliest Christian writings we possess, also knew nothing of it (or if he did know of it, he didn’t think it was important enough to mention). The earliest Gospel written, the Gospel of Mark, evinces no knowledge of the virgin birth. Neither does the much later Gospel of John. Interestingly, both the Gospels of Mark and John, while not demonstrating knowledge of the virgin birth, are nevertheless possibly aware of an accusation concerning the illegitimacy of Jesus’ birth (see Mark 6.3 and John 8.41). New Testament scholar Raymond Brown uses this (i.e. the fact that questions surrounding the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth can be traced back to the earliest Christian tradition) as support for the historicity of the virgin birth, though he sees the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as fictive theological narratives, not history. (I wonder if his book, The Birth of the Messiah, would have received the imprimatur if he had of denied the historicity of the virgin birth?) Though, not all NT scholars think that these two verses in Mark and John are indicative of an early tradition concerning the illegitimacy of Jesus’ birth (e.g. John P. Meier), but are rather instances of retrojecting later theological debates back onto an earlier text that is about something entirely different.
Looking at the doctrine of the virgin birth from a historical-critical viewpoint lends credence to the idea that the virgin birth was a later theological development about Jesus, either being a pagan syncretistic addition or perhaps just a natural development of Christological thought that arose with good theological intentions. So even if the virgin birth was merely a piece of heuristic theologizing by some first-century Christians, the question remains as to why this belief arose in the first place.
As I’m sure many who are reading this are already aware, when you place the New Testament documents in a chronological order of when they were written (as best we can ascertain), there is a readily apparent development in first-century Christology. The earliest Christian texts that we possess — the authentic epistles of the Apostle Paul — linked Jesus’ status as the “Son of God” to the resurrection, which is seen in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (written ca. AD 55-57) where he says that Jesus was “appointed the Son of God in power by the Holy Spirit by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1.3-4). Yet as time went by Jesus’ divine sonship was thrown back to earlier in his life. In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of our Gospels typically thought to have been written ca. AD 70, Jesus is declared the Son of God at baptism (Mark 1.9-12). Compare this to the Gospel of Luke, which is generally viewed to have been written 20-30 years after Mark, where in the birth narrative it is said that, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you [Mary]… and for that reason [Jesus] shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1.35). So whereas the earliest Christian tradition we possess (i.e. the Apostle Paul) places Jesus’ divine sonship at the resurrection, over the decades his divine sonship ends up getting pushed back further into his life: the Gospel of Mark placed Jesus’ divine sonship at his baptism, then the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (both written late first-century) threw Jesus’ sonship back to his birth, and finally, the fourth canonical Gospel, the Gospel of John (written ca. AD 90-100), one upped all of them and made Jesus the Son of God from all eternity (see John 1.1-18).
While this may indeed be an interesting case for there being a straightforward linear development in the first century regarding Jesus’ divine sonship, it is a bit foolhardy to place too much stock in it considering that it rests upon dates for New Testament texts that could ultimately be wrong, not to mention that even if we have the dates of the composition of these texts correct, we cannot be certain as to the dates of the actual traditions themselves. I brought all this up, though, in order to show that there was a theological development in thought about Jesus because I think that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection — the primordial Christian belief — was the stimulus for the belief in the virgin birth. The belief in Jesus’ divine sonship, which according to earliest Christian tradition was believed to have been bestowed upon him at the resurrection, compelled some early Christians to believe that this divine sonship was not just something he received at the resurrection, but that he must have been the Son of God all along – at his birth and even in preexistence. Yet, keep in mind that the belief that Jesus was the Son of God did not, in earliest Christianity, depend in any way upon a belief in the virgin birth; on the contrary, the belief in the virgin birth arose from a prior belief in Jesus’ divine sonship. To put it another way, if there had been no belief in Jesus’ resurrection and the concomitant belief in his divine sonship that transpired from it, there never would have been the impetus for a belief in his virgin birth.
What is the point of this long-winded post? I’m definitely no theologian but I am hoping to show that belief in the historicity of the virgin birth is not a critical part of the Christian faith and, furthermore, is in fact a superfluous and entirely dispensable Christian doctrine (and I think Pannenberg and Bonhoeffer would agree). Of course, someone reading this may think that one has to adhere to historical-orthodox Christian beliefs in order to be a Christian or to be “saved”, and that to do otherwise is only indicative that one is an arrogant dissenter who thinks they are smarter than Matthew and Luke and are happy with glibly setting aside centuries of historical-orthodox Christian belief (whereas the believer in the virgin birth is just humbly accepting the biblical text and Church tradition). This is, to put it mildly, self-sycophantic twaddle. Sure, for some who reject the virgin birth, it may well be due to an “I’m-a-liberal-Christian-so-I’m-going-to-reject-any-mainstream-historical-orthodox-Christian-doctrine”-attitude. For others though, like some of the theologians I’ve mentioned in this post, the rejection of the virgin birth is simply the result of an honest examination of the evolution in early Christianity.
To finish my heretical meanderings, I will close with a quote of Jürgen Moltmann from his book, The Way of Jesus Christ:
The virgin birth is not one of the pillars that sustains the New Testament faith in Christ. The confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord, is independent of the virgin birth, and is not based on it. As we know, the faith of the New Testament has its foundation in the testimony to Christ’s resurrection.