Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Was Jesus Born of a Virgn?

In his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell asked us to imagine that someone had finally proven that Jesus was not born of a virgin. In fact his father was named "Larry" and DNA tests proved "beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births." (026) Bell's point was not to deny the virgin birth (he made it clear he believed in the virgin birth) but to ask the larger question would "the whole faith [fall] apart when we reexamine or rethink" one item of faith. (027) The question sparked a firestorm of reaction. See here for one example.

What most layman don't realize is that this is nothing new. Oh, sure they know that liberals don't believe in the virgin birth but most are not as familiar with how much the doctrine is increasingly being undermined by Christian scholars. One example is James D. G. Dunn in his book Jesus Remembered.

In Dunn's discussion of the virgin birth he is careful to note that while Jesus' birth was "special--'from the Holy Spirit' (Matt. 1.20), by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.35). That of itself need not imply a virginal conception, but a virginal conception could well have been an elaboration of the basic affirmation, especially when Isa. 7:14 was brought into play." (347, emphasis mine). He further comments that the notion of an illegitimate birth cannot be excluded as a "historical judgment" though the inference for this is "exceedingly thin." (346) In a footnote Dunn says we "also need to be aware of the biological and theological corollaries on insisting that the virginal conception/birth was a historical fact." (347 n.48) What does this mean? He follows this with a quote, which Dunn describes as nothing more than being "blunt" from Arthur Peacocke. It reads, "For Jesus to be fully human he had, for both biological and theological reasons, to have a human father as well as a human mother and the weight of the historical evidence strongly indicates that this was so--and that it was probably Joseph. Any theology for a scientific age which is concerned with the significance of Jesus of Nazareth now has to start at this point." (347 n.48)

It is true Dunn himself never comes right out and says "the virgin birth didn't happen" but there isn't much here to give confidence in the historical veracity of the virgin birth. In fact, he offers many reasons why it would be reasonable and justifiable to deny its historicity. So, you might be thinking "who's going to read this book of 900+ pages anyway?" Answer: students who will soon be filling the pulpits of tomorrows churches. Dunn is professor of divinity at the University of Durham, England. It takes a while for the fruits of scholarship to filter into the pew. But it will come.

Those interested in learning more about the virgin birth should consult J. Gresham Machen's classic The Virgin Birth of Christ. One final thought. In my initial quote from Bell he mentions that the "followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults" had gods who were also born of a virgin. This is a myth that seems to perpetuate itself in the popular skeptic materials. I'm not saying Bell believes this to be true. He was just making an illustration. But let's set the record straight: according to Edwin Yamauchi, a specialist in Mithraism, Mithras was born "out of a rock." (In "Christianity's Beliefs about Jesus were Copied from Pagan Religions" in The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel, p. 171). As for Dionysus, Yamauchi says, "There's no evidence of a virgin birth for Dionysus." (180) Christians have nothing to fear from the alleged parallels to pagan religions and have better reasons than those afforded by Dunn in accepting the virgin birth.

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