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to Jesus Traditions:
| A number of more
specialized questions require
discussion, in addition to the more general analysis earlier offered in Narratives (2). The reader will understand that the weight of certain
doctrinal standards which many Christians adhere to, together with dearly held
traditions associated with the observance of Christmas, makes objectivity
in addressing the following issues of singular difficulty. The problem is
compounded by certain prevailing views concerning what prophecy in the
Jewish Bible is, and indeed concerning the probative value of such
prophecy. We proceed to these topics: the dating of Jesus’ birth; the
place of his birth; and the virginal conception.
When Was Jesus Born?
It is well known that the dating of history in much of
the western world is divided
by the birth of Jesus, but less well known is the fact that the precise year of his
birth is uncertain. Matthew (2:1) clearly places it during the
reign of Herod the Great (37 - 4 B.C.E.), and Luke implies the same (1:5).
With a modest amount of certainty, we may therefore conclude that Jesus
was born in 4 B.C.E., or earlier. Click on Miscalculation
for an explanation of the chronological anomaly, of Jesus’ being born
four years before Christ!
Some cautionary words are needed concerning Luke’s
reference (2:1-2) to a universal census, when Quirinius was
governor of Syria: (a) there was no empire wide census; and
(b) the provincial census under Quirinius took place in C.E. 6, when Jesus
would have been about ten years of age.
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem seems so firmly grounded in
the accounts of Matthew and Luke that one might think it futile even
to discuss this question. The reasons for opening it to discussion are
two-fold: the indirect but weighty evidence of Mark; and the theological
motivation evident in both Matthew and Luke to locate the birth in
The evidence of Mark.
Jesus is not only a resident of Nazareth (1:9), but when he returns
there it is identified as his home town or native place (patris, 6:1).
From this we would naturally conclude, if we did not have the later
writings Matthew and Luke, that Nazareth was not only his residence but
his place of birth.
this gospel, Joseph and Mary are represented as residents of Nazareth who are obliged to travel to Bethlehem because of
the world wide census when Quirinius was governor of Syria.. But there are
several problems with this report:
• There was no empire wide census under Quirinius,
as we have already noted; moreover,
• People would be placed on the tax rolls where
they lived and paid taxes, not in some presumed ancestral town;
• According to Josephus, the census which did occur
under Quirinius is dated in 6 C.E. Now if Jesus was born
during the reign of Herod (died 4 B.C.E.), he would have been about ten
years of age at the time of the census. The more likely reason for
Luke’s placing the birth in Bethlehem was a theological one, namely, that Jesus
was believed to be “Christ the Lord” (in the words of the angelic
host, 2:11), and it seemed appropriate for the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem,
“the city of David,” in accordance with the prevailing Jewish view (see Micah 5:2).
Matthew. The author, in his usual “fulfillment
of prophecy” mode,
seems to assume that Bethlehem is the residence of Joseph and Mary, and
explains the Nazareth connection as a move from Bethlehem, when Archelaus
was appointed tetrarch in Judea (2:22-23).
Conclusion. The clear
implication of Mark, that Nazareth was the native place of Jesus, makes a
birth in Bethlehem uncertain, and some would say improbable.
The Virginal Conception
There is an understandable reluctance to discuss the
issues involved in the
virginal conception of Jesus, in large part because this belief is
assigned such great importance within many Christian communities, but no
less because it is in itself such a sensitive issue. Only one person could
have spoken authoritatively on the subject, and she is not represented as
saying much (Luke 2:19).
The New Testament Texts
References to the
virginal conception are found in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38,
though a comparison of these texts will show that they are not dependent
upon a common source, Q, but were working independently. There is no
reference to the
virginal conception in Mark. Thus, the synoptic gospels offer no evidence for the belief
earlier than the ninth decade of the first century.
virginal conception is lacking in the letters of Paul, and notably so in a
passage where there was an appropriate occasion to write, “. . . born of
Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of time
had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.
virginal conception is lacking also in the Gospel of John. In contrast to
Matthew and Luke, John sets forth a profound doctrine of pre-existence, which traces the divinity
of Christ back not to his conception and birth but to the eternal Logos, who was in
the beginning with God, and was God (John 1:1-18). Paul has a
similar view of Christ’s pre-existence (Philippians 2:6-11). Thus
two of the writers in the New Testament with the highest Christology
either do not know of the virginal conception, or prefer to use a
different theological approach from that found in Matthew and Luke.
The existence of more than one view in the early church is
confirmed by the genealogies of Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-38),
both of which trace Jesus’ Davidic ancestry back through Joseph, not
To sum up: the texts of the New Testament provide
only modest textual support for the
belief in the virginal conception, and provide evidence that on this point
the early church had not adopted a uniform position.
NOTE ON MATTHEW 1:23
• At first glance, it appears that Matthew’s
narrative of the virginal conception is nicely confirmed in 1:23
by his typical fulfillment of scripture quotation of Isaiah 7:14,
“Look, the virgin (Greek, parthenos) shall conceive and bear a
son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Everything seems to fit
(except that Joseph names the baby “Jesus,” instead of
• Now Matthew quotes, not from the original Hebrew
text of Isaiah, but from the Septuagint,
the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, which he also prefers
elsewhere; and whereas the Greek version reads, “A virgin (parthenos)
shall conceive and bear a son,” the original Hebrew text reads, “The
young woman (Hebrew, ‘almah) is with child and shall bear a son
. . . .” The Hebrew word ‘almah means “a young woman of
marrigeable age,” without specifying whether or not she is a virgin. (Hebrew has
the word bethulah when a virgin is specified.) The Septuagint is thus a mistranslation.
• We may note further that the mistranslation in
the Septuagint was perpetuated in the Latin Vulgate, which in turn
influenced the Authorized Version of 1611.
• We have no way of knowing whether the author of
Matthew realized that his Septuagint Bible was a mistranslation of this
text, nor can we tell whether the author’s account of the virginal
conception of Jesus was perhaps shaped by the Isaiah text. But it seems
clear that Isaiah in writing chapter 7 was addressing the international
crisis in eighth century B.C.E. Judah, not predicting Jesus’ birth of
a virgin seven centuries later.
There are problems for those in the modern age who come from a
tradition of belief in the virginal conception, problems which Christians
in ancient and medieval times did not have to face. It is not so much a
question of religion against science, as it is theological problems which
arise out of our current knowledge of human generation. We do not need
to be reminded that a human being’s genetic make-up is accounted for by
chromosomes originating from both a human father and a human mother. It is
not clear how a person could be fully human otherwise.
It is also useful at this point to offer two
§ Virginal conception is not to be
confused with parthenogenesis, or spontaneous conception. Purported
occurrences of parthenogenesis do not justify believing in the virginal
conception of Jesus, since the gospels do not speak of spontaneous
conception but rather of the action of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20;
§ Nor is virginal conception to be
confused with cloning, which involves the duplication of a
person’s genetic material. Jesus was not a copy of some one else:
he was unique.
It should be added that this part of the discussion is not
intended to deny the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention, or to
discount the words of Luke 1:37, “For nothing will be impossible
What we have attempted here is rather a necessary preliminary step
to the discussion of theological matters which will be discussed below.
Is a belief in the virginal conception of Jesus something
unique to the Christian religion? Many people of the Christian faith may
assume that such a conception does make him unique, unless they consider
that the union of deities with human women was
a familiar part of prevailing mythology in the Greco-Roman world. (And
then, there is that puzzling fragment in Genesis 6:1-4.) What is
more, although Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God, they do include
Jesus among the prophets, and also believe that Jesus was born of a
virgin. Thus, instead of making Christian belief about Jesus unique, the
virginal conception seems to suffer under the liability of having too much
in common with other religions.
§ The major theological issue in discussing the birth of
Jesus is to maintain a Christology (or doctrine of Christ) which
acknowledges both the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus Christ.
Historically, this Christology has been threatened on one side from those
who questioned his divine nature, and on the other side, especially in the
early Christian centuries, from those who were reluctant to acknowledge
his humanity; these latter were to be found among those who held docetic views,
namely, that Christ did not corrupt his divine nature by assuming flesh,
and thus only seemed (Greek, dokein) to be human. It was therefore of the highest
priority for the church in its creeds to affirm, against the docetic
heresy, the true humanity of Jesus Christ: his birth, his suffering and death, and his
discussion of theological issues presupposes an interest in
continuing a historic position in Christian thought which takes seriously
the work of the Church Fathers of the first five or six centuries and of
the first seven ecumenical councils, but especially the Council of Nicea
and the Council of Chalcedon. Those who do not share these postulates may
wish to read on, in order to observe one way of doing a theology of the
incarnation and the virginal conception.
At first glance, a belief in the virginal conception of
Jesus seems to be an ideal way of expressing the reality of the divine and
human natures of Jesus by attributing to him both divine and human
parentage: “. . . conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin
Mary . . . .” In an age when it was assumed that fully human nature
could be inherited from a mother alone, there was no perceived difficulty
in tracing the human nature of Jesus to a virgin mother.
But today we labor under difficulties which the Fathers of the
church could not anticipate since, as previously explained, true humanity
would seem to be possible only if a person derived chromosomes from father
as well as mother. Given this condition, it would seem that the doctrine
of the virginal conception might have some difficulty in accounting for
the humanity of Jesus Christ.
We now consider a theological issue which we have earlier introduced. In early Christian thought
there were various views of when Christ became divine.
• According to some, it was after his birth:
at his baptism, or at his resurrection (see Romans 1:4, which
likely refers to a pre-Pauline credal formula).
• Another view traced his divinity back to
conception, as in the affirmation of the virginal conception already
referred to in Matthew and Luke.
• There was also the view found in the Johannine
prologue (John 1:1-18), that as the pre-existent Logos or Word he
was in the beginning with God, and was God; similarly,
Philippians 2:6-11; and Hebrews 1:1-4. This is the
view which prevailed at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) and the Council of
| § Further,
it is useful to maintain the priority of a real incarnation in the
hierarchy of theological claims. The Chalcedonian formula of Jesus Christ
as truly divine and truly human requires a real humanity; a real
incarnation is prior, and the manner or mode of incarnation is secondary.
The New Testament was not of one mind about the mode of incarnation, as we
have noted above. It
seems arbitrary to declare that God could have entered into human life in
only one manner. Whether by natural generation, or virginal conception, or
some other means unknown to us, the incarnation is no less supernatural,
no less a mystery.
The Honoring of Mary
The Council of Chalcedon confirmed the title which had already been
widely used, declaring Mary to be THEOTOKOS, a Greek term meaning
literally, “God-bearer,” usually rendered “Mother of God.” Though
it may sound strange to the ears of some, it is an appropriate way of
acknowledging something, not only about Mary, but about the divine and
human nature of Jesus Christ. Mary has surely deserved the honor she has
received for her remarkable role.
Over a period of many centuries
certain beliefs were added (or clarified, as one’s theological
presuppositions may suggest) to that of
the virginal conception: a belief in the perpetual virginity of
Mary; a belief in the immaculate conception of Mary, i.e. that she
herself was conceived without the taint of original sin; a belief
in the assumption of the Virgin into heaven; and the belief in Mary
as co-mediatrix. This is not, however, the place to undertake a discussion
of these matters.
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