Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is It Essential for Christians to Accept Jesus' Virgin Birth?

Was Mary, the mother of Jesus, a virgin when the One Christians believe is God-in-human-flesh was conceived in her womb?

Christians have always confessed that Jesus was born of a virgin.

This has nothing to do with notions of sex being unclean or beneath human dignity. It's neither of those things. After all, God created sex. Sex is part of the creation which God declared to be "very good" before humanity's descent into sin (Genesis 1:31).

The conception of Jesus in a virgin's womb is an act of new creation that anticipates the new creation of which Jesus makes all who repent for sin and entrust their lives to Him become a part: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The world has always objected that Jesus' virgin birth is impossible. My grandfather used to tell me when we weren't around the rest of the family that the Biblical teaching about Jesus' birth was a cover-up. "You know," he would say, "Joseph just got lonely out there in the desert. Things happened."

Cynics like my grandfather overlook that the creator of the universe specializes in the impossible.

Today, some of the virgin-birth skeptics reside in Christ's Church.

For example, the web site of my own denomination has a section called, "Dig Deeper," which has, since about 2009, been shorn of content. An "explanation" states:
The pages in this section have been removed while they undergo a comprehensive review to improve their usefulness as a resource for study and discussion with others.
But it's difficult not to suspect that this long period of review was precipitated by the outrage that some Lutherans felt when the official denominational web site equivocated on a basic teaching of Christian faith. Someone has restored the pages and in the section on the virgin birth, here's some of what we read:
When we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirt and born of the virgin Mary ...," and in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father ..." we are not making a gynecological assertion. We are saying that God entered into Christ and, in him, is fully revealed to humankind. This is God’s graceful act of reconciliation with creation and humankind’s redemption.
What ELCA Lutherans believe in common is that Jesus was
  • born "by the power of the Holy Spirit"
  • declared God’s "beloved son"
  • sent to the world to redeem God’s creation
and that born of a woman, he
  • died at the hands of death’s powers
  • overcame and defeated death
  • reigns as Lord over all — together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever
By omitting any firm assertion of what has been deemed a central teaching about Jesus for two-thousand years, the web site apparently sought to make the scandalous message about Jesus being born of a virgin more acceptable to cynics whose numbers have increased since the days when my grandfather whispered his "truth" to me knowingly.

Whoever wrote this piece is not alone in my denominational family. And they're not being challenged by bishops charged with ensuring that the Gospel is proclaimed in purity either. For example, in 2006, one ELCA pastor wrote in the pages of The Lutheran, our denomination's official publication:
One way to understand virginity is to think of it as a spiritual possibility, rather than as a physical condition: there is a place in each of us that the pride, power and wealth of the empire cannot touch. It’s that place, call it soul as Mary did, or spirit or heart, that remains “virgin”—untouchable and pure. And it’s from this place that God speaks to us and calls us to new possibilities.

It’s this “virginity” that enables Mary to say, “Here I am” and so face off against all the powers that said she was nobody, the lowest of the low—a young, peasant woman, expendable and of no account. It’s from this “virginity’ that she dares sing the words of the hymn of praise we know and love as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
How's that for sleight of hand?

According to this view, Jesus was conceived in a "virgin" place in Mary like the virgin places that reside in each of us. This isn't Biblical thinking. It's Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson-style thinking. It ignores the reality that we are born in sin, utterly turned in on ourselves and selfish.

Mary's declaration of "let it be unto me" to the angel Gabriel's announcement that she would give birth to Jesus is not the statement of a good person with an innocent side to her nature. It was the declaration of faith of a person who, like Abraham before her and like centuries of believers in Jesus since, was a sinner empowered to believe the promise of God. That simple belief, not any virtue she may have possessed, not some virgin place in her soul, is what God counted as righteous. It's how we are counted right with God to this day.

If there is any virgin element to our souls, we wouldn't need a sinless Savior to bear our sins on the cross to make those who repent and believe in Christ one with God. Human beings conceived in the usual way are born in sin (Psalm 51:5). A Jesus born of human parents by the usual means, of parents who bear original sin, could not be the pure and sinless Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

For the sake of His mission of dying and rising for sinful humanity, a Jesus born into the human race had to be born of a virgin.

Beyond that, does anyone really believe that when Matthew and Luke wrote their narratives of Jesus' birth they thought that as they wrote the word virgin, they had in mind a place in Mary that was "untouchable and pure." It would have violated their understanding of human nature.

Indulge me a bit and take a few moments to read and consider the two passages in the Gospel that overtly assert Jesus' virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18-25
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  

Some skeptics look at this passage and point to verse 23 as proof that Mary was not necessarily a virgin, one who had not engaged in sexual intercourse. The skeptics are right in pointing out that, in citing passages from Isaiah, Matthew doesn't quote from the original Hebrew Scripture, but from a Greek translation dating back to the second-century BC, the Septuagint. The Old Testament passages Matthew cites, Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6, in the original Hebrew don't use the term usually used for virgin, but a more generic term that means young woman (which can also mean virgin).

If that's all that this passage told us about Mary's virginity, skeptics would have a good case. But, notice several other things:

1. Verse 18 says that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." This isn't definitive, of course, but it certainly strongly implies that the child is not necessarily conceived by the normal means.

2. Verse 19 tells us that Joseph knew that he Mary's fiance, at least was not the father of the child. Mary, from what both Matthew and Luke tell us, seems to assert that she has not had sexual relations. Anyone who has read the Bible from cover to cover knows that its authors are not inclined to sugarcoat the moral shortcomings of believers: Abraham and Sarah had such failures of belief that they resorted to having Abraham make love to Sarah's slave in order to conceive a child they thought God was tardy in sending; David murdered and committed adultery; Solomon faithlessly worshiped foreign deities; Moses whined to God about his responsibilities; Saul/Paul persecuted the Church. If Mary's pregnancy was the result of fornication, that is, sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the Bible would tell us. After all, the Bible is not a book of Christian heroes; it's a witness of God's actions to save sinful humanity from sin, death, and the devil.

3. Verse 25 seems to underscore Mary's sexual purity, saying that Joseph had "no marital relations" with Mary until after Jesus was born.

4. Finally, Matthew's use of the Septuagint's rendering of the Isaiah passages indicate that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it was his understanding that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb.

Luke 1:26-38
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

The "sixth month" of verse 26 refers, of course, to Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, who, thought to be barren, was now pregnant with John the Baptist. So, what does this passage say to those who are skeptic about Jesus' virgin birth?

1. In the original Greek in which Luke (and all the New Testament writers) wrote, verse 34 has a better translation than that of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) above. Let me give you the literal Greek first:
1:34   είπε [said] δε [And] Μαριάμ [Mary] προς [to]  τον [the]  άγγελον [angel], πως [How] έσται τούτο [will this be], επεί [since] άνδρα [a husband] ου γινώσκω 1I know not [or, not I know].
A more literal translation of the passage then, might read:
But [or and] Mary said to the angel, "How will this be since do not know a husband?"
From Old Testament times to know another person was to know them intimately, sexually. Mary was mystified as to how she could possibly be pregnant since had not known anyone sexually. She understands that babies aren't usually born of virgins. Here, Mary asserts her virginity without using the term translated variously as maiden and virgin, the Greek term parthenos

2. In verse 35, the angel says that Mary will conceive when the Holy Spirit "overshadows" her. Episkiazo, the term translated as overshadow can also mean cover. When, earlier in Luke 1, the angel visits Zechariah to say that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, there is no indication that the conception will happen in any other than the ordinary way: Zechariah will have sexual relations with his wife and God will cause the conception of John by that usual means. The child to be born of Mary though, will not, apparently, possess the genes of either Mary or Joseph. The Spirit will overshadow Mary and be conceived in her womb.

3.  In verse 38, Mary accepts the word of the angel on faith in God. She does this in spite of the scandal likely to attend her pregnancy. The angel offers the pregnancy of Elizabeth as proof that God can accomplish the impossible, even conceiving the Savior of the world in the womb of a virgin.

Is the teaching about Jesus birth of a virgin an essential element of Christian belief? 

Apparently so. When the early Church set out to express the basics of Christian faith in both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, it held that essential to faith in Jesus is acceptance that He was born of a virgin. The Church has held to this belief for 2000 years because it has believed it to be the revealed truth of God.

But its importance has nothing to do with the virtue of Mary. Jesus Christ could have chosen to enter our world and bring new life to those who repent and believe in Him by any means He chose. But if Jesus were to be born of a woman, it was essential for our salvation that while He must share our humanity, He must not share our common human inheritance of sin, our inborn alienation from God. (Hebrews 2:14-17, 4:15)

For us to receive salvation. Jesus had to be, in Paul's phrase, "the second Adam," the new human being, as sinless as Adam and Eve when God first created them, the only human being Who could take the death sentence we deserve and yet remain worthy of being raised from the dead so that sin, death, and the devil would be conquered for all who "loved [Jesus'] appearing," repented for sin, and believed in the only name given by which we can be saved, the Name of Jesus. (2 Corinthians 15, 2 Timothy 4:8, John 1:12-13, Acts 4:12).

No comments: