Friday, 18 December 2015

A Virgin Birth?

With Christmas so near, I thought it would be interesting to review the evidence for the virgin birth.


The earliest writing we have is Paul, who says nothing of a virgin birth, but then again says nothing of Jesus' life at all, so we cannot really draw any conclusions there.


I think it is more significant that the virgin birth is missing from Mark, who, afterall, wrote a lot about Jesus' life. Mark is supposedly the account of Peter told through Mark. Peter was not there at the birth, so one might excuse Mark on this basis, but Peter was also not there at Jesus' baptism, and that is present in Mark.

The reason, as argued here, is that Mark believed Jesus was adopted the Son of God at the baptism. To Mark, Jesus' birth was of no great significance, and when Mark was writing it is likely that the story of a virgin birth had yet to appear in the Christian community.

None of the early texts mention a virgin birth because no one had heard of it at that time.

The Awaited Messiah

It is worth pointing out that the virgin birth contradicts the Jewish expectation. The JHews were awaiting a messiah, that is a new Jewish king. This man necessarily had to be a direct, male-line descendant of David. That means it could not be someone born of a virgin.

All the gospels agree that Jesus was of the line of David, and Paul agrees too.


Okay, so Matthew. You probably know what I am going to say here already. Matthew tries to link Jesus to Old Testament prophecies numerous times.

The Prophecy in Isaiah

 In Isaiah 7, as discussed here, two great kingdoms, Israel and Syria, are threatening Jerusalem, and Isaiah prophesies that both will soon fall - before the unborn Immanuel can tell right from wrong. That prophecy is the basis of the virgin birth, when you add in the LXX using the Greek for virgin, when the Hebrew said young woman.

This article by Greg Rhodea is arguing for the virgin birth, and yet concedes:

It seems that a majority of scholars, while acknowledging that ??? at times refers to a virgin (see especially Gen 24:43, cf. 24:16), hold that “virgin” is not the essential meaning. Rather, the central idea involves youth and nubility,with glosses akin to “marriageable girl”(Gen 24:43; Exod 2:8; Ps 68:26), “a girl able to be married” (Prov 30:19), or “youngwoman” here in Isa 7:14.

The time frame of Isa 7:14 is also pertinent. As Walton notes, ??? and thepredicate adjective ??? (“pregnant”) form a verbless clause, the timeframe of which is usually present or past, depending on the surrounding verb forms.28 In Isa 7:14 we only have the active participle (????), and the timeframe of participles is either action in process or about to begin.29 So the ???? may in fact already be pregnant at the time of the oracle, just as the TNK translation renders it: “Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son.”30

Matthew's Take

It is very doubtful the author was the apostle Matthew (see here). Instead we have an anonymous author writing a polemic perhaps 90 years after the birth. The author of Matthew's gospel likely got the virgin birth from a story that had been circularing since Mark published his gospel, likely borrowed from pagan mythology and certainly not from Jewish mythology. He then supported that with his own spin on Isaiah 7, based on a poor translation

As mentioned earlier, the Gospel of Matthew makes a big deal about Jesus being a descendant of David, even going so far as to include a genealogy, taking Jesus' lineage via Joseph! Christians have found various ways to rationalise this, but the most likely is that they were invented by different groups, and the author felt obliged to include it all.


The account in Luke is rather strange:

Luke 1:6 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed[b] to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[c] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
It was actually very common back then for virgins to become pregnant, all they had to do was have sex with a guy a few times. Did Mary really not know that?

Indeed, Mary was already betrothed to Joseph; her role in society was to bear him children. She would have expected to become pregnant, and yet when the angel tells her tha will happen, she is shocked!

Suppose we exclude that sentence from the account... Let us suppose she is not as dumb as a sack of hammers, and she had a clue about the birds and the bees. Is it possible the verse was added later, to agree with Matthew?

Without that one verse the virgin birth becomes less certain. The passage continues:
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[e] will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
I see nothing in there to indicate sex was not also involved. No one thinks John the Baptist was the product of a virgin birth, and the angel is relating the two pregnancies.

I well may be wrong here, but the fact is that the gospel of Luke does not actually make Mary a virgin when Jesus was conceived; it only makes Mary look very naive about how babies are made.

Like Matthew, Luke offers a  genealogy for Jesus, and again this is via Joseph. This is vital to show Jesus was a descendant of David, but entirely contradictory tothe virgin birth,

Of course, the Gospel of Luke was written around the time the Gospel of Matthew was. Stories of a virgin birth were circulating in the Christian community sometime between Mark's gospel, and Matthew's and Luke's, and so both authors adopted it into their narratives.


There is no mention anywhere in Acts of the apostles talking of Jesus' virgin birth. They cite all sorts of evidence of Jesus' significance to the crowds they preach to, but none of them mention the virgin birth.

Perhaps because none of the disciples had heard of it.

Why Did Mary Claim A Virgin Conception?

The simple answer is that she never did. The virgin birth story only circulated after she was dead, and so unable to refute it, some time after Mark's Gospel was written.

Jesus might have been born out of wedlock, but if we believe the nativities, she was already betrothed, and in that culture betrothal was as big a deal as marriage. I am not aware of anything in the OT that prohibits sex between a man and woman once they are betrothed (and the story of Ruth gives a precedent even outside of betrothal). If it was not forbidden, it is sure to have happened, and if it happened, there are sure to be times when the girl ended up pregnant.

Mary's Reaction to Jesus' Ministry

 The evidence for the virgin birth is therefore pretty slim. Is there any evidence against it? The best evidence is from the Bible itself.
Mark 3:21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."
According to Christian doctrine, an angel appeared to Mary saying Jesus was the Son of God, and she conceived him whilst still a virgin. And yet when Jesus is healing people and casting out demons, she somehow forgets that, and declares he is mad!

Remember, this was supposedly the woman who was selected for her faith,and yet despite the appearance of an angel and having a virgin birth, she still does not believe Jesus is the messiah!

Perhaps we should hail Mary as the greatest skeptic ever...

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Did the Author of Mark Believe in Adoptionism?

Modern Christianity asserts an eternal Jesus, existing through all time as part of the trinity, however, groups of very early Christians believed Jesus was adopted by God, originally around the time of his crucifixion/resurrection or ascension, and later at his baptism. The Gospel of Mark indicates that its author subscribed to the latter view.

The Adoption Account

From the first chapter:

Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;[d] with you I am well pleased.”
This is a description of the adoption. God is choosing Jesus, and then the dove descends to confirm or bestow Jesus' special status.

Bear in mind that Mark explicitly states that the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ was John the Baptist preparing the way, quickly followed by the baptism of Jesus. The good news did not begin with Jesus' birth, according to Mark.
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[a]
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,[b]
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare[c] the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The prophecy says the messenger, John, would be around before God appears. Jesus was already around before John was preparing the way, but it was only after that that Jesus as the Son of God appeared.

Furthermore, why would God incarnate even need to be baptised? The Gospel of Matthew gives an answer to that thorny problem. Because the author believed that Jesus was divine from birth, he needed to explain it. For Mark, however, no explanation was necessary; Jesus was just a man getting baptised until the dove descended.

Precedents in the Old Testament

This was not a one-off! The Ancient Hebrews believed all their kings were adopted by God as his sons (everyone had divine kings back then). This is made clear here:

2 Samuel 7:12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.[c] Your throne shall be established forever.’”

 Look at Psalm 2:

2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you
 Here is Mark again:
Mark 1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;[d] with you I am well pleased.

God's Anointed, the messiah, is the King of The Jews, a man adopted by God as his son.

This parallel was noted by Paul, by the way, as recorded in Acts 13:33.
Acts 13:33 God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.

How Jesus' Family Reacted

The fact that Mark says his family thought him mad indicates no miraculous birth, or indeed anything miraculous at all until his baptism.
Mark 3:21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."
If we believe the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, an angel appeared to Jesus' mother and on another occasion to his step-father stating that Jesus will be God incarnate, and then Mary got pregnant from the holy spirit whilst still a virgin, and yet, when Jesus starts preaching, healing and casting out demons, his family think "He is out of his mind."

It only makes sense when we realise that, in Mark's gospel at least, Jesus become the Son of God at the start of his ministry, and his family had no hint of his divine destiny until then.

Other Verses

Some other verses of note:
Mark 2:10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—
Jesus forgives because he has been given that authority from God, not because he is God.
Mark 2:27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The connection between these two verses is the word ὥστε, indicating that the second verse is a consequence of the first. But the first verse is talking about a man not a god, and so that only makes sense if Jesus is human, rather than God Incarnate.

But Jesus Says "I have come..."

Some apologists point to verses in Mark where Jesus says "I have come...". They argue they only makes sense if Jesus has come from somewhere, specifically from heaven. However, this is the standard phraseology of the prophets. See here for example:
Isaiah 61:1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;[a]
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
In a prophetic sense, Isaiah was sent by God to the Jews, but he did not actually come from anywhere. In Jeremiah too we see that God "sends" prophets to his people (or at least false prophets are not sent from him):
Jeremiah 14:14 And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.
When Jesus says "I have come..." he means he is here as God's representative, not that he has travelled from some distant place.

Differences in Early Manuscripts

It is pretty well established that the ending of Mark was a later addition, but there is evidence of other tampering. Some early manuscripts omit "the Son of God" from Mark 1:1:
Mark 1:1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,

This could be a copying error, but it could reflect the fact that Mark did not believe Jesus was the son of God at that time, as this was before the adoption. Several early church fathers (eg Origen) quote Mark 1:1 without the "son of God" phrase (though Irenaeus quotes it with).

An Expression of the Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is evidence against Christianity because it highlights a major inconsistency in the belief system.

Christianity posits a morality system in which rape is wrong, and in which it is wrong to stand by and allow evil
Christianity posits an all-powerful, perfectly good God who stands by and allows rape

These two claims are contradictory.