Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Another Look at the Virgin Birth

Pastor Jason recently preached on Matthew 1:18-25, a key passage on the virgin birth (perhaps more accurately called the virgin conception). I have recently been reading Michael Bird's Evangelical Theology, so I thought it may be good to share some insights I gained from Bird on the virgin birth.

The virgin birth is embedded in the earliest Creeds as an essential historical event in the Christian faith. But it has not always been an easy thing to believe and many have doubted it. Exploring the objections can give us a fresh perspective, helping us to realize there is nothing new about people's skepticism today.

The first is an exegetical objection. The reference to Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 seems rather dubious as if Matthew didn't know his Bible very well and needed a proof text for covering up Jesus' scandalous birth. The word rendered "virgin" in Is. 7:14 more commonly refers to a young maiden, a woman of marriagable age (who in that day was likely a virgin). In the very next chapter of Isaiah, his son is born of a "young maiden" and is given the name Immanuel. The child was also supposed to be born during the time of Ahaz and Isaiah's son fits the basic qualifications. So where does the word "virgin" in our translations come from? Centuries later, when Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek in the 2nd century BC (aka the Septuagint, abbr. LXX), they translated it as virgin and nearly all translations carry on with this tradition.

This criticism overlooks how the New Testament writers and first century Jews read scripture; Matthew was Jewish after all. It is basically imposing modern interpretative methods too rigidly on ancient people. It neglects that Old Testament prophecy was often read typologically. Meaning there are patterns and types that appear throughout the canon of Scripture. God's people get in trouble and God's sends a deliverer for them (Moses and Judges). He acts in human history to save his people (the Exodus). Each event points forward typologically toward an ultimate deliverer. Thus, the translation is not without merit. What Matthew is doing with Isaiah 7:14 is saying that God is acting again just like he has before, but now with the ultimate Deliverer. It is a narrow reading of Isaiah 7:14 to merely look at it through the lens of precise predictive prophecy and miss the literary elements within Isaiah and typological elements in the OT. The identity of the servant of God in Isaiah doesn't end with 7:14. More and more pieces fit together as the book progresses and lesser servants are ruled out until a more complete picture comes into focus.

A second criticism is that the ancient world commonly had stories of divine and human intercourse producing heroes (Hercules). Bird puts it rather humorously, "You can guess what ammunition this gives the skeptics: the birth of Jesus is an early Christian plagiarism of pagan mythology, blah, blah, blah … Jesus never existed …blahcetera, blahcetera." (Kindle location 8158).

The problem with the second criticism is simple. There is no evidence that Matthew or Luke are dependent on other sources for the birth narrative. It's pure speculation. Just because there are similarities in other accounts does not mean they share sources. What works against this criticism is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are distinctively Jewish, thus giving no indication of other sources. Other ancient mythologies have a god having sexual intercourse with a human. The Gospels have nothing like this. There is no divine-human hanky panky going on. It is just saturated with a thoroughly Jewish and Old Testament worldview.

Bird argues that what we need to look at is how others have denied the virgin birth. On the one hand, a denial of Jesus' human origins reinforces a worldview that denies the goodness of creation and makes Jesus some kind of visible ghost. More importantly, this view strips Jesus of his Jewishness. It reinforces Greco-Roman philosophy and prejudices among the cultural elites against Jews and Christianity's distinctively Jewish origins. It makes the message of Jesus one of "clicking our intellectual shoes together and by repeating three times, 'I can be all I want to be,'" (Bird). On the other hand, a denial of Jesus' divine origins makes him some kind of spiritual guru giving sage advice and denies that God acts in history through the story of Israel for the whole world. It means to deny that God has begun remaking the world already. Here Bird quotes NT Wright,

Actually, the strange story of Jesus’ being conceived without a human father is so peculiar, particularly within Judaism, and so obviously open to sneering accusations on the one hand and the charge that the Christians were simply aping the pagans on the other, that it would be very unlikely for someone to invent it so early in the Christian movement as Matthew and Luke. But there’s more to it than just that. The virginal conception speaks powerfully of new creation, something fresh happening within the old world, beyond the reach and dreams of the possibilities we currently know. And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect, however tremblingly, if and when this God decides to act to bring this new creation about. The ordinary means of procreation is one of the ways, deep down, in which we laugh in the face of death. Mary’s conception of Jesus has no need of that manoeuvre. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The real objection to the virginal conception is not primarily scientific. It is deeper than that. It is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old, leaving us with the stark choice of birth or death; leaving us, like the Magi, no longer at ease: leaving us, in other words, as Christmas people faced with the Herods of the world. (Kindle Locations 8222-8233).

What we lose with denying the legitimacy of Jesus' peculiar and miraculous origins is the triumph of God over evil. Reducing it to something explained through a biological conundrum is to lose part of the story's transcendent power. Reducing it to some spiritual platitude we lose its power to speak against death, evil, Satan, and the "Herod's of the world."

Bird points out there is another nativity scene in the Bible (Revelation 12:1-11), which is often overlooked. He likens to something directed by Quentin Tarantino: a woman writhing in labor (who represents Israel's entire story of struggle) before a dragon seeking to destroy and devour the child. Yet the dragon is defeated and the child ascends to the throne.

Nearing a conclusion, Bird says it so well.
"The annual celebration of the birth of the Savior that Christians around the world commemorate year after year is a bold profession that the despots of this age, political or spiritual, are living on borrowed time. What is more, the victory of God’s Messiah in Bethlehem and Calvary is replicated in the triumph of God’s people, who conquer evil through the strength of their testimony. The birth of Jesus is God reaching down into human life so that humanity can become the fist that shatters the dynasty of evil, once and for all." (Kindle Locations 8266-8270).

The reason Christians have affirmed the virgin birth, is not because they can explain exactly how it happened, but because they cannot deny it historically, experientially, or theologically. All the evidence surrounding the virgin birth reveals no one would have invented it. We are left to merely testify to it. It is a story too real to be easily believed, and too powerful to be easily denied.
Bird, Michael F. (2013-10-29). Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Kindle Locations 8069-8295). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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