DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Virgin Birth

Modern Westerners are well informed enough about the science and mechanics of human conception to know that virgin birth is impossible. They may be less clear that to accept a virgin birth also compromises the vast stretch of many other modern disciplines - though this is no doubt instinctively understood.

So while the tale of the virgin Mary giving birth in a stable is dutifully proclaimed and sung about, few regard it as something "which really happened just as the Bible says".

What they may not know (or care about) is that the birth narrative of Matthew 1.18-25 was never intended to be history in the modern sense. The gospel authors were not giving an historical account as a modern historian would do. Rather, they intended to teach theology about the eternal meaning of Jesus of Nazareth for the Hebrew nation and the world.

The lack of good history in the Nativity accounts has long been known to Christian academics and well educated clergy. Here are some of the main points, briefly put.

  • The author uses the words "Jesus Christ" here and only once more in his whole Gospel (1.1). The title "Christ" is, of course, the Greek for "Messiah" or "The Anointed One". The point is again made that Jesus was special - and this should alert us to the strong possibility that Matthew is making a theological point rather than necessarily giving us the history of "what really happened".

  • The name "Jesus" is Greek for the Hebrew name "Joshua" (Yeshua in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus), which means "God is salvation" or "God saves". 

    This is probably why Matthew 1.21 reads, "... and you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins". The name later lost this meaning when it was translated into Greek and when Christianity became primarily a non-Jewish religion. 

    But, once again, the author of this Gospel is making a theological point as well as recording a name. The "Christ" part isn't really a name - though that's what it later became - but a title. In more modern times it was, in effect, turned into a patronym or surname, rather like "Smith". It was initially Chrestus, the Latin equivalent of the Greek word for the Hebrew title "Messiah". 

    The name Yeshua was quite common at the time, which is why the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus refers to him as "Jesus, who is called the Christ" to distinguish him from others with the same name. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the early second century, uses "Christ" as though it were the surname of Jesus.

  • Most translations render the discovery of Mary's pregnancy as coming about after she and Joseph were betrothed (engaged) but before they had been formally "married". 

    The Greek word actually means "before they came together". This could denote either "before they moved in together" or "before they had sex". Jewish couples of that period were probably usually married about a year after their betrothal. There is some evidence that a couple might live together until they could afford a dowry. 

    But pious Jews warned that a godly man would not sleep with his fianc�e before the wedding. Unlike recent times a suggestion in this case of immorality or sexual sin would have been quite unlikely. 

    This is because most people lived not in the so-called "nuclear family" of today but as part of an extended family. Living together before marriage would therefore usually have been a well-supervised arrangement.

  • The author of Matthew's Gospel may have been familiar with the many narratives from ancient literature. They tell how famous men were conceived in mysterious circumstances in which the gods participated by fertilising the mother and passing on special powers to the offspring. 

    This doesn't imply, as some have suggested, that the tale of the birth was lifted or copied from another religion or other source. All that can reasonably be concluded is that the author of the Gospel used a literary device from folklore, perhaps prompted by orally transmitted tales, which were common in the ancient world. 

    Today we would usually distinguish carefully between fact and fiction, or between history and myth. These categories were unknown in the first century, when this Gospel was written. The story was understood as history by later generations and until modern times. 

    It was the advent in the nineteenth century of biblical criticism,  that analytical discipline which "tortures" the biblical texts to discover their true nature, which first brought the realisation that the narratives of Jesus' birth are not history.

  • Analysis of the Hebrew and Greek terms translated "virgin" in English texts may imply virgo intacta. But many scholars conclude that the quotation of Isaiah 7.14 in verse 23 most likely means "young girl" rather than "virgin". 

    The possibility of a woman conceiving a male child without sexual intercourse (parthogenesis) is, I understand, scientifically impossible since the female can't supply the necessary male chromosome. The traditional idea of a virgin birth could easily, however, be inferred from this word by generations which came later. Greeks and Romans were more likely to draw the traditional conclusion than were Jewish people. This may explain why the Nativity tale was more easily taken up in the early Church whose members were mainly non-Hebrews.

    The tradition of a virginal birth is recounted only here and in Luke 1.26-38. But the two accounts are so different that some scholars think they derive from different sources. The Catholic scholar J P Meier thinks that each "... certainly goes back earlier than the two Gospels that now contain it" [1].

  • That these verses are a construction of the author is reinforced by the first verse of Chapter 2, which doesn't follow from the information in the previous chapter. Many scholars have observed that it appears in fact to be the beginning of another birth narrative altogether.

The early emphasis on this story as "proof" that Jesus was born of a virgin, without his parents having had sexual intercourse causes great, if not insurmountable, difficulties for most people today. J P Meier's conclusion is sensible. He writes:

Taken by itself, historical-critical research simply does not have the sources and tools available  to reach a final decision of the historicity of the virginal conception  ... One's acceptance or rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one's own philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one gives Church teaching.

The doctrine of the virgin birth remains enshrined in the Church's creeds, and as a teaching that must be assented to by Roman Catholics on pain of censure. 

But it no longer looms important in the contemporary mind. I suspect that this is because Jesus himself and traditional Christianity at large is also relatively unimportant to the great majority of human beings in the West and elsewhere today.
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[1] A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, Doubleday, 1991

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