Monday, 17 December 2007

The Myth of a Virgin Birth

Around this time of year I begin to see buttons, broaches or badges that declare, "Jesus is the reason for the season." It makes me laugh a little at the historical inaccuracy of it. For all we know, we could just be celebrating the dedication of the temple to Saturn. More importantly to me, I think we need to reconsider what is claimed by the Virgin Birth.

Let's begin by looking at our sources for the claim: the gospels. Of the fifty or so gospels that are out there, only four are currently considered canonical. The rest make for interesting academic reading, but Christians have never been encouraged to learn doctrinal or theological truths from them. Among the four in canon, only two of them make mention of Jesus' birth. Neither Mark or John talk about Jesus' parentage. Admittedly, John's prologue is all about drawing a line between the man Jesus and the logos of God, but it still doesn't create a biological conundrum.

The Virgin Birth is a myth that can be found in various cultures. It's nothing novel to Christianity, and is almost certainly an attempt by the writers of the day to give credence to the life of Jesus. Bishop Shelby Spong has identified that the introductions to the various gospels grow more and more elaborate as time passes. Mark makes no mention of it. Matthew and Luke refer to it, along with extensive genealogies to prove Jewishness and a link to a prophetic promise. John's version is the most lofty of them all. Clearly, the early theologians wanted to put some weight behind the claims of the divine man, and the claims made by his followers.

But let us suppose that some of the historical secular criticisms of this are taken seriously. Suppose that "virgin" in the Biblical Greek just meant a woman who was engaged to be married. That implies that Jesus was conceived by a human pair, outside of wedlock. This is a scandalous option for the time. Adultery would have required stoning. There's no reason to assume that Joseph was the father of such a coupling, perhaps giving Joseph some reason to "put her away quietly" as the gospels record. If he was more interested in keeping up the appearances of his Jewishness than he was for Mary's well-being, it leaves open the suspicion of whether he was in it for love. Either way (Joseph or another man), it's quite a scandal.

Now, I've painted an hypothetical picture that is more than a little unorthodox, but it is just for the sake of an argument. If Jesus was born into such cultural disgrace, does it make a difference to his message, or to the Pauline message that followed? Not in the slightest. Preachers have gotten a lot of value from the idea that Jesus became shame on behalf of the world. Who is to say that this shame couldn't have begun from before he was born? Should we take any value away from the gospel message, if the original preacher was the product of an adulterous human union? Not at all. The message is still the same. The actions are still the same. From out of the shame of our culture - even because the culture considers it shameful - comes the salvation of the world.

This is, I think, at the heart of the gospel message. This salvation came through willingly taking on shame in the name of unconditional love (the act, not the feeling). Jesus went to a shameful death, the death of a failed messiah, the death of a failed insurgent, the death of a trouble-maker. As far as the systems of the world were concerned, Jesus failed in every respect and was publicly shamed in his execution. A less shameful execution would have been beheading in a prison cell, for example. But crucifixion is something that puts the condemned on display as one who failed. Shame is at the heart of it.

Now come back to the key question: how does the claim of a virgin birth affect this? If Jesus was born as the result of an illegitimate union of Mary with a human man, does it take away from his words? No. If his origin is in shame (according to Jewish and Roman structures), does it devalue his message or his death? No. Ultimately, the question of the claim of a virgin birth has very little effect on what Jesus said or did. Therefore, it is entirely possible and entirely plausible that Jesus had parents who were fully human and that his conception was fully biological. This does not mean that it is now part of my personal creed or doctrine, only that it is a doctrine that makes no difference to the gospel. It makes no difference to the daily manifestation of the Church whether Jesus was conceived through biological or transcendent means.

So, this Christmas I won't be reflecting on the miracle of a virgin birth. Instead, I will be reflecting on the one who, through shame, brought salvation to the world.
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