According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reacting to the Virgin Birth of Mary and the Virgin Conception of Jesus


Of Myth and Science

I have included two articles below that focus on the Virgin Birth of Mary's child Jesus. One from a respected theologian/bishop's viewpoint and the other from a respected scientist-turned-priest viewpoint. Both British. Both believers and servants of God. And each giving their separate arguments for-and-against the Virgin Birth while making no personal claim of disbelief over Mary's exceptional conception. Rather, they wish to affirm their belief despite the lack of supporting scientific evidence.

N.T. Wright starts things off with a "nay-and-yeah" look at this topic's debatable arguments and then proceeds to tick these arguments off one-by-one while creating a larger biblical context for Jesus' immaculate conception and birth. In contrast, John Polkinghorne immediately dives in discussing the scientific difficulties and improbabilities of such a birth. Which is a true statement. Science does not understand this event even though he himself believes it still to be a true, historical event, regardless of science's inabilities to discover the nature of the event. And so do we affirm the virgin birth of Jesus.

But Dr. Polkinghorne then initiates a secondary discussion about the nature of literary "myth" that I found less-than-helpful within his scientific analysis. In fact, it makes me think that a separate article on "Ancient Myth as a Literary Type" should be created to address the many crucial implications brought about by this subject's shaded overtones and misdirections. Or at least how I perceived them to be misdirecting without actually knowing the position of Polkinghorne himself. We all make grammatical mistakes and shaded inferences that on any other day we may wish to take back. I think that we should allow this of our good priest and simply look then at something that he let slip on that particular day or related passages in his book....

Dr. John Polkinghorne's asserts that scientific evidence cannot support the Virgin Birth and thus declares this immaculate birth to be scientifically impossible, but not improbable. To which we can all agree. Yes, science cannot explain this act of God. Then N.T. Wright describes this event by distinguishing whether it was a miracle suspending all natural scientific laws, or as a miraculous intervention of God to Mary herself. To which I might ask, "Is there a difference?" According to Wright there may be, but its beyond my powers of perception to distinguish at present the difference between miracle and God-event. However, it is substantively true that science at its current level of prowess has yet been able to explain this miracle/God-event like many of the other miracles/God-events found within the Bible.

Dr. Polkinghorne continues then upon an alternate explanation that I find to have little appeal... that is, that we should regard this Gospel story of the Virgin Birth as an enacted myth. Now lest I accuse my brother in Christ of factually declaring Jesus' birth as a myth (which he doesn't) as we understand myths today, perhaps I should allow him the point of view that though he considers it a myth, he actually means that its a literary myth that is not a fanciful myth but an historically true myth that has a true historical story behind it. My guess is that is what Dr. Polkinghorne really meant. However, to an outside listener who has heard this statement uncritically and mistakenly believes it to mean something more akin to the popular perception of myth, then we have a problem of communication. Is it fanciful and historically untrue? Or is it descriptive and historically true? Consequently, we as Christians should be more clear with the use of our words by not confusing an already difficult topic with extended hyperbole, whether intentional or not.

So then, regardless of Polkinghorne's theological stance, my argument rests upon the fact that its probable to stretch the ancient Near-Eastern myth paradigm expansively to cover many unexplained events to the ancient mindset. Sometimes uncritically and at other times critically, when science is unable to explain “the unexplainable.” My concern then is that we may be back-filling the definition of myth "as a poetic form of language that has cultural historical context" into a newer postmodern definition of a "superstitious category bearing dubious historicity or truth." Like the old argument that the bible stories are just that, stories, so one might say that many bible stories are mythic and do not mandate necessary belief structures to follow Jesus. The term "myth" then becomes a convenient article of convention that makes the bible stories more magical than true as we begin to delineated between fused enacted myths in the guise of co-opted human language.

And this concerns me. As example, I think the biblical creation story in Genesis 1-3 is more beautifully told in poetic mythic structure that is both true, and has an historical cultural context to it, than as a cold, sterile scientific account.... And I might pose the additional question, "How might the creation story be otherwise told or described?!" Even today as modern, scientifically-based men and women I think that we would have a very difficult time explaining God's creative handiwork if we were to observe it first hand. Both factually and scientifically without resorting to some kind of mythic poetic structure to make the transfer to the human mind and heart. Which causes me to find the mythic literary structural form more helpful than not when interspersed throughout the biblical narratives making its incredible stories more vivid and culturally relative. But not necessarily fanciful. Nor untrue. Instead it conveys intense, descriptive imagery which is intelligible without demanding that event, or cause, to be fully understood other than as a God-event or as a miracle. An event/miracle which then allows God to reveal something about Himself and His will to man that we need to know. A revelation that is as potent to modern man today as it was to ancient man in years past.

Consider ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese myths that attempt to explain creation's origins and man's interaction with nature. They are attempts to convey unexplainable events, fears, and anxities, that were passed down verbally with minimal loss of translation through the use of songs, ballads, poems and chants, among other forms of communication. Consider also the ancient Near-Eastern Sumerian, Babylonia, Assyrian and Jewish accounts of creation, a world-wide flood, and ancient man's interaction with natural cause and effect. Some are fanciful but others are real attempts to account for oral lores founded upon legitimate historical events. It is our duty then to discern their historic mythic import... whether true, false, or in another category altogether. Science can only help with this effort so far, but at a certain point it cannot. So then we look at such passages anthropologically, linguistically, narratively, sociologically, epistemologically, and etc, and etc. Trying to assay all the varied meanings of the biblical text, and in this case, to ascertain what the Creator God is trying to tell us using this literary forms and paradigms. Which, by way of example, NT Wright does a brilliant job on in his summary effort below explaining the import of Jesus' virgin birth.

And though I expect someday to find a science that can perhaps better explain biblical miracles and God-events, I do not necessitate it, nor require it, of science in its present forms today. Though advance as a human discipline, it has a long ways to go, and till then we must be content with God’s handiwork as it has been historically conveyed to us. While at the same time not audaciously perceiving every such literary type to fall under the umbrella of “fanciful myth.” It confuses the literary types with inspecific assertions. It also questions the ancient mindset in its oral – and later, written – histories through shaded overtones and nuanced linguistical meanings. We need better clarity herein when speaking to the Bible's literary types known as myths.

Consequently, I respect Dr. Polkinghorne, but renown scientists, no less than renown philosophers, do not necessary make for the best theological re-interpreters of biblical events, even though their trained minds are more perceptive to some areas of study than many of our own. And yet, this does not release us, as biblicists (or as theologians) from listening to Christianity’s grand proponents and delving into their mindsets to discover substantive thoughts and insights, including scientific viability. And thus, my argument does not rest upon personages or their rhetoric, but upon the usages of idiom and imaginative re-expressions of our cultural heritage of faith and worship. I think it to be wise to be more specific with our language and less indistinct with our insinuations.

R.E. Slater
January 27, 2012


Legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important.
But by comparison with other legends about other figures, the gospels' accounts of Jesus look restrained.

Suspending Scepticism:
History and the Virgin Birth

N.T. Wright
December 28, 2011

Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind.

Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 we would know nothing about it. Paul's gospel includes Jesus' Davidic descent (Rom. 1:3), but apart from that could exist without mention of his birth. One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. Likewise, John's wonderful theological edifice has no need of it: God's glory is revealed not in the manger; but on the cross.

If you try to express any New Testament theology without Jesus' death and resurrection, you will find it cannot be done. "Man shall live for evermore," says the song, "because of Christmas Day." No, replies the New Testament; because of Calvary, Easter and Pentecost.

Nevertheless, the birth stories have become a test case in various controversies. If you believe in miracles, you believe in Jesus' miraculous birth; if you don't, you don't. Both sides turn the question into a shibboleth, not for its own sake but to find out who's in and who's out.

The problem is that "miracle," as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not a normally [nominally] absent God who sometimes "intervenes." This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so.

Likewise, if you believe the Bible is "true," you will believe the birth stories; if you don't, you won't. Again, the birth stories are insignificant in themselves; they function as a test for beliefs about the Bible.

The birth stories have also functioned as a test case for views of sexuality. Some believers in the virginal conception align this with a low view of sexuality and a high view of perpetual virginity. They believe the story not because of what it says about Jesus, but because of what it says about sex - namely, that it's something God wouldn't want to get mixed up in. This, too, has its mirror image: those who cannot imagine anything good about abstinence insist that Mary must have been sexually active.

More significantly, the birth stories have played a role within different views of the incarnation. Those who have emphasized Jesus' divinity have sometimes made the virginal conception central. Those who have emphasized Jesus' humanity have often felt that the virginal conception would mark him off from the rest of us.

None of these arguments bears much relation to what either Matthew or Luke actually says. But before we turn to them, two more preliminary remarks.

First, we are of course speaking of the virginal conception of Jesus, not, strictly, of the "virgin birth." Even if I come to believe in the former; the latter would remain a different sort of thing altogether. Neither, of course, should be confused with the "immaculate conception," a Roman Catholic dogma about the conception not of Jesus, but of Mary.

Second, some things must be put in a "suspense account" - in Marcus Borg's happy phrase - while others are sorted out. The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus' public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.

There might just be a case for saying that if his birth was as Matthew and Luke describe it, and if Mary had told him about it, my argument about Jesus' vocation to do and be what in scripture YHWH does-and-is might look slightly different. But as a historian I cannot use the birth stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives.

I can, however, run the process the other way. Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this God, Israel's God, my worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included.

There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics. The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth. The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.

It is all very well to get on one's high metaphysical horse and insist that God cannot behave like this, but we do not know that ahead of time. Nor will the high moral horse do any better insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips and gives the elephant a good dressing down.

The stories in question are complex and controversial. I simply highlight certain features.

Matthew's story, told from Joseph's point of view, reminds one of various biblical birth stories, such as that of Samson in Judges 13. Matthew's whole hook is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. The angel, the dream, the command not to be afraid, the righteous couple doing what they are told-all is familiar.

Like Samson, the promised and provided child has a dangerous public future: here, the true king of the Jews is born under the nose of the wicked king, Herod. This is a major theme in Matthew's Gospel. His picture of Jesus' messiahship has both feet on the ground of first-century realpolitik.

Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfils at least three biblical themes:
  1. He brings Israel into the promised land ("Jesus" is the Greek for "Joshua");
  2. As Immanuel, he embodies God's presence with his people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23);
  3. As the new David, he is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).
In the genealogy [of Matthew], Jesus is the point toward which Israel's long covenant history has been leading, particularly its puzzling and tragic latter phase. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will "save his people from their sins" (1:21), liberation from exile is in view. Jesus, David's true descendant, will fulfil the Abrahamic covenant by undoing the exile and all that it means.

Well-known problems abound. Why does the genealogy finish with Joseph if Matthew is going to say that he wasn't Jesus' father after all? This cannot have been a problem for Matthew or he would hardly have followed the genealogy so closely with the story of the virginal conception. It was enough that Jesus was born into the Davidic family; adoption brought legitimacy.

Further, anyone can say that Matthew made it all up to fulfil Isaiah 7:14 ("the virgin shall conceive"). Since Luke doesn't quote the same passage, though, the argument looks thin. Is Bethlehem mentioned only, perhaps, because of Micah 5:2-4?

Again, Luke doesn't quote the same passage, but still gets Mary to Bethlehem for the birth. Some have questioned whether Herod would really have behaved in the way described in Matthew 2; the answer, from any reader of Josephus, would be a firm yes.

One can investigate, as many have, whether there really was a star. One can challenge the flight into Egypt as simply a back-projection from a fanciful reading of Hosea 11:1. These are the natural probing questions of the historian.

As with most ancient history, of course, we cannot verify independently that which is reported only in one source. If that gives grounds for ruling it out, however, most of ancient history goes with it.

Let us by all means be suspicious, but let us not be paranoid. Just because I've had a nightmare doesn't mean that there aren't burglars in the house. Just because Matthew says that something fulfilled scripture doesn't mean it didn't happen.

What then about his central claim, the virginal conception itself, dropped almost casually into the narrative, with no flourish of trumpets? Some have argued, of course, that there is instead a flourish of trumpets: Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities (to put it no stronger) of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba, presumably in order to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God's strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary's being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to "fulfil'" this theme.

What about Luke, who tells the story from Mary's point of view? His setting is just as Jewish as Matthew's, with verbal and narrative allusions to, and echoes of, the Septuagint. Like Matthew, he insists that with this story Israel's history is reaching its God-ordained climax. But his emphasis, unlike Matthew's, is on the very Jewish point that this birth is a direct challenge to the pagan power: in other words, to Caesar.

This fits with Luke's whole emphasis: the (very Jewish) gospel is for the whole world, of which Jesus is now the Lord. Israel's god is the king of the world; now, Jesus is the king of the world.

Attention has focused on the census in Luke 2:2 - whether it took place and could have involved people travelling to their ancestral homes. But Luke's point has been missed. The census was the time of the great revolt - the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, which Luke not only knows about but allows Gamaliel to compare with Jesus and his movement (Acts 5:37).

Luke is deliberately aligning Jesus with the Jewish kingdom-movements, the revolutions which declared that there would be "no king but God."

The census is not, of course, the only query that people have raised about Luke's birth stories. Jesus' birth at Bethlehem seems to have been a puzzle to Luke, which he explains by the census, rather than something he invents for other reasons. The fact that Luke does not mention the wise men, nor Matthew the shepherds, is not a reason for doubting either; this sort of thing crops up in ancient historical sources all the time.

Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterwards become important. As historians we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus, and some reasons to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look, after all, quite restrained.

Except, of course, in the matter where the real interest centres. Matthew and Luke declare unambiguously that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. What are we to make of this?

It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not. Mary and Joseph hadn't seen diagrams of Fallopian tubes, but that doesn't mean they didn't know where babies came from. Hence Mary's question to Gabriel (in Luke), and Joseph's determination to break the engagement (in Matthew).

Nor can we say that if we believe this story we should believe all the other similar ones in the ancient world as well. Of course, the argument "miracles are possible therefore virginal conception is possible, therefore Jesus' virginal conception may well be true," also commits one to saying, "therefore Augustus's virginal conception may well be true." But that is not my argument.

My argument, rather, works in three stages.

First, the position I have reached about the resurrection and incarnation of Jesus opens the door to reconsidering what we would otherwise probably dismiss. "Miracle," in the sense of divine intervention "from outside," is not in question.

What matters is the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, bringing Israel's story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether or not it happened, this is what it would mean if it did.

Second, there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this?

The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk - unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?

Third, if the evangelists believed them to be true, when and by whom were they invented, if by the time of Matthew and Luke two such different, yet so compatible, stories were in circulation?

Did whoever started this hare running mean it in a nonliteral sense, using virginal conception as a metaphor for something else? What was that "something else"? An embroidered border, presumably, around the belief that Jesus was divine. But that belief was a Jewish belief expressed in classic Jewish God-language; while the only models for virginal conception are the nakedly pagan stories of Alexander, Augustus and others.

We would have to suppose that, within the first fifty years of Christianity a double move took place: from an early, very Jewish, high Christology, to a sudden paganization, and back to a very Jewish storytelling again. The evangelists would then have thoroughly deconstructed their own deep intentions, suggesting that the climax of YHWH's purpose for Israel took place through a pagan-style miraculous birth.

To put it another way: What would have to have happened, granted the sceptic's position, for the story to have taken the shape it did? To answer this, I must indulge in some speculative tradition-history. (Bear with me in a little foolishness.)

This is how it would look: Christians came to believe that Jesus was in some sense divine. Someone who shared this faith broke thoroughly with Jewish precedents and invented the story of a pagan-style virginal conception. Some Christians failed to realize that this was historicized metaphor, and retold it as though it were historical. Matthew and Luke, assuming historicity, drew independently upon this astonishing fabrication, set it (though in quite different ways) within a thoroughly Jewish context, and wove it in quite different ways into their respective narratives.

And all this happened within, more or less, fifty years. Possible? Yes, of course. Most things are possible in history. Likely? No.

Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult - unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don't.

Maybe, after all, it is the theory of the contemporary sceptic that is metaphor historicized. The modernist belief that history is a closed continuum of cause and effect is projected onto the screen of the early church, producing a myth (specifically, a tradition-historical reconstruction which sustains and legitimates the original belief so strongly that its proponents come to believe it actually happened).*

This foolishness is, of course, a way of saying that no "proof" is possible either way. No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't. Science studies the repeatable; history bumps its nose against the unrepeatable.

If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different.

But since they do, and since for quite other reasons I have come to believe that the God of Israel, the world's Creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazareth, I hold open my historical judgment and say: If that's what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?


Formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham, in 2010 the Rt Revd Dr N.T. Wright was appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is one of the world's most distinguished and influential New Testament scholars. Among his many books are The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), Surprised by Hope (2007) and Virtue Reborn (2010).


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *



 Why Would a Scientist Believe the Virgin Birth?
January 27, 2012

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many of our disagreements, especially the most heated discussions of science and faith arise because we respect and wrestle with scripture as inspired by God. As Paul tells Timothy, the scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. They are not to be taken lightly.

For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – from Exodus with the story of parting of the Red Sea to the Gospels with the virgin birth and the resurrection – to name just a few. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take these seriously on any level? Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. In the book he isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously. Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture?

How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?

Chapters five and six of Testing Scripture look at Israel’s Bible and at the Gospels. Israel’s Bible consists of many forms of literature. Dr. Polkinghorne mentions myth telling deep truth in the form of symbolic story, history, law, wisdom writings, apocalypse, and more. Most of the text was edited and shaped in post-exilic Israel. But this does not mean that it was fabricated with no roots or history. In fact Dr. Polkinghorne finds it difficult to believe that most of the material is not rooted in sources that date far earlier. He sees this in Genesis 14 with Melchizedek of Salem (not a text that would be constructed in a post-exilic history) and in the book of Judges to give just two examples. The origins of these passages must lie in very ancient texts. Within the historical conventions of the time Israel’s Bible records the history of God’s revelation of himself through his particular relationship with his chosen nation.

Even the Exodus, dismissed by many scholars as impossible, Dr. Polkinghorne sees as rooted in history. The text has been elaborated and shaped for theological and national impact for sure. In particular Dr. Polkinghorne feels that numbers have been exaggerated as is common in ancient texts   [acutally, the Hebrew term has been scribed with a typo in it making the number larger than it is - res]. But this reshaping does not undercut the historical roots of the incident or the importance of this event as God’s revelation of his divine nature through his relationship with his people.

The Gospels likewise record a reliable history. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. Dr. Polkinghorne works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. One of the most interesting, though, is the one he leaves for last.
I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi.… Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68)
As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Virgin Birth. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.“ Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
The very idea of a miraculous conception, that a virgin conceived and bore a son, hits a nerve in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. How can an intelligent, educated, experienced person believe in a virgin birth? Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:
Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69)
One of the most important criterion for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.

It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense. Separate from this they will never make sense.

What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense?

Why do you believe in the virgin birth? Or if you don’t, why not?

What arguments are persuasive on this, or any other “difficult to believe” event?


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