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Jesus Traditions

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Birth Narrative Issues

 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.

     

Where Was Jesus Born?

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 Bethlehem.

     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.

     Luke. In 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; and,
   •  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.

The 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 a virgin”:

Galatians 4:4  But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.

The 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 Mary.

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.
     

A 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 “Emmanuel”). 
   •  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.

     

Scientific Considerations

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 clarifications:
   §  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; Luke 1:31-35).
   §  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 with God.” 

What we have attempted here is rather a necessary preliminary step to the discussion of theological matters which will be discussed below.
     

The Comparative Religion Question

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. 

     

Theological Issues

   §  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 resurrection.

This 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 Chalcedon (451).
     
   §  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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