by Sean D. Harmon
I would guess that there aren't too many of us not familiar with the Nativity story. We're literally inundated with it months before and up to the holiday season. It's a great seasonal market slogan, and it's funny how every secular marketing outlet suddenly becomes "religious" during this time. But a virgin birth miracle is really no more or less incredible than a resurrection miracle, yet it astounds me that there are Christians out there that will accept the resurrection as historical fact, but reject the virgin birth as mythical legend. But if I can believe that a divine source could perform the regeneration of a three day dead corpse, then the same source could certainly generate an embryo inside a female womb. However, most consider this just using the tail to wag the dog. Something as extraordinary should be provable, and since most people think a virgin birth 2,000 years ago is not provable, it's figurative element is generally taken for granted. Doesn't matter whether it's peppered with at least some possible historicity, there's always that nagging roadblock that abruptly disrupts any credibility… the sublime supernatural. It's cute during the holidays; it's touching, it's symbolic, it might have a deeper figurative meaning, and it might give one a warm and fuzzy Christmas nostalgic feeling inside, but authentic? Not a chance. The spiritual message of "peace on earth" is fine, but angels, mysterious virgin conceptions, guiding stars -- a historical event? Preposterous! And skeptics delightfully feed off this general public skepticism to use as a type of de facto argument for the obvious infiltration of external myths and folklore that permeated early Christian tradition. Even E. P. Sanders, a Christian scholar, describes this story as "the clearest cases of invention in the Gospels."
If it wasn't bad enough for the apologist, what's worse is that not only does the Nativity story appear in only two canon gospels, Matthew and Luke, but the stories told by each also "appear" to grossly contradict each other (I discussed some these so-called discrepancies here: Those Darn Contradictions: Contradiction as the benefit of the doubt).
Of course, the final nail in the coffin that seems to seal the coffin shut, and indeed is fully exploited as the primary critical argument against the story, is that there are arguable historical discrepancies as well. There seem to be problems specifically about the dating of certain rulers in office at the same time during this period, notably between Herod the Great, Quirinius the Syrian governor and the national census, which, for purposes of subject matter, I'm going to avoid in this article (for that discussion go here). Historical discrepancy is merely a surface argument and simply not an adequate criterion to use as a gauge by which to determine whether the overall story is true or not. In other words, even assuming historical error is true, it's not a legitimate case to reject the story in its entirety, particularly when there are plenty of possibilities (often covered extensively by apologists) to solve the so-called discrepancies.
Getting back to the purpose of this article; the primary issue of the story, such as the who, when, how and why it was created is almost always overlooked, with the exception of the latter. However, even the why is usually glossed over with unspecified conjecture that simply doesn't cut the mustard when we dissect the intricacies of the environment wherein the story would have been circulating. It's certainly no surprise why the who, when, how and why issues are typically skirted or glossed over, as these probably are the most challenging to solve about the story, particularly for those with at least some knowledge of first century Judaic culture that entail the story's historical background. Most Christians generally accept the account as a true account on faith alone, so obviously the who, when, how and why is solved for them. To a Christian, there is no who -- or a creator of the story -- because the story is actually a record of an authentic historical event. Matthew and Luke undoubtedly got their information from two different sources (which I'll discuss later) that was based on this core event. The when was at the point of Jesus' conception (2-6 BCE). The how is easy because it was a true account, thus the story was passed around with no issue or contention in the church or outsiders against the story, as they all had the means to determine the truthfulness about the facts surrounding the story. The why is that, since it was a true account, Matthew and Luke wanted to record it in their own documents.
However, this is obviously unacceptable to a critic or secular scholar. Since everyone knows that virgins don't give birth (unless it was induced by artificial insemination or the recent success of parthenogenic science, something the ancient Jews obviously could not have known), everyone else naturally dismisses it as fiction based on the impossibility of it, which obviously takes the who, when, how and why to a different level of solving; something most of them never bother to consider. But for the few critics that do, there are basically two scenarios to explain it:
The first scenario is a broad and very general outline to explain how the story came to be. Matthew (the who) made it up around 80-85 CE (the when), and perhaps Luke either read it from his work or heard it form a secondhand source who read it from Matthew's work, liked the idea, and incorporated it into his own work with a lot of his own editing here and there. The story was accepted by both the Christian communities and the church authority at the time with little qualms because both Matthew and Luke were considered authorities themselves (the how), as well as the fact that they all just liked the idea that their Savior was now a bonafide demigod, and since they could use it to challenge the other demigods around them, they now had a successful evangelistic tool to propel their Christ on the open Roman market (the why).
Though fabrication is typically easy for most skeptics to assume, this is not all realistic in a historical sense. Assuming Matthew made up the story is just begging the question. You would have to assume his readers accepted it as fiction, yet there is absolutely no evidence of this. Otherwise, we're dealing with malcontent here or the intent to deceive, which is a tall order of an accusation. Then to further assume Luke heard the story and also decided to make up his own fiction around it now becomes question begging on steroids. Any time you assume blatant fabrication about historical figures, places, and events that occurred within the same contemporary era he wrote the work, including vary intimate details of Mary and her family, without any support for this becomes problematic to say the least. You would have to disregard Luke's declaration of his investigative prowess in the beginning of his work and his claim that he checked the facts as just blatant lying (Luke 1:1-4), which once again, lifts this to a level of malcontent, and since it involves two sources, you now are dabbling in conspiracy. You would have to disregard Luke's historical detail and accuracy with everything else in his works, including his second work Acts.
Since we know the maximum date of Luke's work was well within 60 years of the event (even for a late post-70 date), you would have to disregard the fact that his work was written at least within a generation or two and that it included information that would have been general knowledge to this generation (i.e. the census). In other words, imagine someone today, even 200 years later, fudging general facts and figures about Abraham Lincoln, much less within just a generation or two of the event. We can assume that people would know it's false just based on general knowledge about Lincoln (and without having to search for this information on the Internet). There’s no reason for us to assume the ancients lived in some historical vacuum or were no more proficient in common historical knowledge and able to recognize historical inaccuracy than us today.
You would then have to disregard the likelihood that if Luke heard of such a Matthean story, he would have probably investigated it further as to get the details right, thus we would have to conclude he just didn’t care that it was based on fiction, or the community of believers he wrote the work for. Needless to say, none of this is realistic or plausible. In addition, it would face stark conflicts with the criterion of similarity patterns we find in the gospel traditions against such free and wild embellishment and carelessness of the facts, particularly a fabrication of this magnitude (discussed here: The Evangelists). There's simply nothing not only to support this conjecture, but numerous mounting problems that come with the conjecture one has to consider. However, there is a second creation scenario to get around at least some of these issues:
And viola! The two Nativity stories were forever set in canon scripture. Seems sound on the surface, right? Only there are a few problems. First of all, we still haven't really solved the issue of who -- who actually invented it (more on that in a bit). Moreover, if it was just based on swirling rumors and legends that had formed, the issue of why Matthew and Luke believed it was true is still not very plausible, unless we assume they knew it wasn't true and were okay with writing fiction. But this takes us back to the problem of not just the integrity issue with the two, but why there were no contentions with church authorities at the time. Secondly, #1-4 will only work smoothly if one of two criteria beforehand are presupposed as a foundation:
I'll discuss #2 in a bit. The problem with #1 is that this did not gradually occur over three or four generations after the crucifixion, but, as I already mentioned, within a contemporary timeframe and almost instantly. Even post-70 proponents propose that the latest date for Matthew is in the 80s, well within five decades of the event, and still within a generation or a generation and a half at best. Moreover, there are simply no textual or tangible traces of any virginal tradition formulation to be found -- i.e. incomplete versions or references, rough drafts, earlier strands or partial traditions cited by either the New Testament epistle writers or early church fathers. The earliest reference is Ignatius (Ephesians 19), towards the end of the first century, and is a brief reference indicates nothing that isn't found in the gospels, particularly the heavenly "chorus" that is uniquely Lukan (2:13-14). In fact, the only other gospel source that even mentions it is the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, dated no earlier than the second century (probably later), which was most likely a legendary extension based on its dependence on Matthew and Luke.
In other words, to argue gradual evolution, we need earlier traces to support this argument, otherwise the story is not a gradual formulation or development, it's just a blatant fabrication that came about in quite the abrupt manner. Moreover, the assumption that Matthew and Luke were even written well after 70 CE is in and of itself carelessly taken for granted in this case. According to the evidence I laid out in my six part series about the gospel conception date (which starts here: Gospel Date: Introductory), the indication is that they were both actually composed around 44-62 CE, based on evidence that cannot be easily dismissed. Acts is the virtual smoking gun for this date (discussed here: The Acts of Luke), which automatically pushes the first work -- the gospel of Luke -- much earlier. But for now, I'll put the gospel date issue aside.
It's also important to note here that not only do we know for a fact that the gospels themselves have a pre-70 CE Judaic underlying that is saturated throughout all four works (discussed here: The Jesus-myth Myth, A Judaic myth?; and Gospel Date, A Jewish Messiah in a pagan world; and The Q Conundrum, Problem #3), and that the author of Matthew himself was Jewish who wrote his work specifically to a Jewish audience, but that there are strong Jewish elements starkly ingrained in the two Nativity stories themselves. In the case of Matthew, this intrinsic Semitism peppered throughout his virgin birth story is more subtle but unmistakable, and includes things such as:
Scholars agree that Matthew was not only an educated Jew, but using a sophisticated form of pesharim (interpretation/meaning/explanation), which was an rabbinic exegetical methodology that is reflected not only in some ancient rabbinic writings but in the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls.
We must account for Luke, who also used more direct Semitic elements in his version (see Luke 1:32-35, 1:46-55, 1:57-59, 1:68-79, 2:21-24, 2:29-32), and these elements are probably the most concentrated area of Semitism in Luke's entire work. What's highly unusual about this is that Luke was most likely a Gentile himself writing to other Gentiles. In the case of Matthew, pesharim only really confirms how Matthew interpreted some of the Jewish scripture in relation to the story. This still doesn't solve the primary problem, because Jews inventing the entire story about Joseph and Mary and the historical and political scenario surrounding that event, if untrue, is outright fabrication. This would have been quite unique to any typical style reflected in ancient Jewish literature, to say the least (more on that in a bit).
The phantom fabricators
Since we so far have a pretty good idea of the when the tradition came into being (at least within a generation or two, if not much earlier) the most important issue now becomes the who. Who invented this story in the first place? We have very little room for options here since this could not have been an unintentional and gradual evolutionary process within the church (no traces of this tradition in any earlier premature stages, or even in Jewish literature). There is also not enough time to plausibly assume that the authors of Matthew and Luke would not have known the story wasn't true because not even five or six decades is enough time for such ignorance (assuming a post-70 date here); certainly not enough time to get some of the historical facts so skewed; facts that would have been based on historical generalities everyone would have known at the time (as per my previous example of Lincoln). Moreover, the most notable problem is that on top of the differences, both versions of Matthew and Luke have stark commonalities:
As you can see, and though these are often ignored while all the focus is on the supposed discrepancies between Matthew and Luke, there are stark similarities between the two throughout. In fact, it would be a monumental coincidence just to believe that the writers of the gospel of Matthew and Luke both invented two independent virgin birth stories even if these commonalities were absent. The fact that there are both differences and commonalities leaves this issue highly complex and with an even a smaller amount of room to work because now we have but a few options:
The primary problem with #1 and #2, the virtual nail in the coffin to these options, is that there is simply no avoiding the strong indications from the divergences of other similar accounts between the works of Matthew and Luke -- such as the uniqueness of both resurrection accounts -- aside from the Nativity story itself, that Luke never saw Matthew's work and wrote independently. This suggests that #3 is our only option. In other words, the story came from two separate places that were both connected to a core traditional source evident by the commonalities I listed above, rather than invented by one and then copied directly by the other. However, even though option #1 and #2 are highly unlikely, I'll focus on it in more detail.
Did either Luke or Matthew or perhaps both take on creative license themselves? This would seem the best route for us to take in order to bypass the issues I just raised. Actually, as critical options become alarmingly narrow here, this is the only route for us to take other than the only other option left -- they both shared a broader and common tradition that they obtained from an outside source tradition (whether oral or written; but most likely oral); a tradition that was obviously circulating early enough to have been independently accessible to them in the particular locations they were evangelizing, undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart from each other.
However, we still have the problem of the differences between the stories. There is really no other reason why Luke would have consciously diverged so dramatically from Matthew's account if he had simply been copying from Matthew, especially considering how closely he followed the tradition found in the gospel of Mark, in many cases practically verbatim. This is unless, of course, Luke copied it from Matthew and intentionally diverged (as well as his whole gospel in this respect in comparison to Matthew).
Therefore, either they both mutually conspired it into creation and perhaps intentionally changed it to cover this up, or one of them (undoubtedly Matthew) made it up and the other (undoubtedly Luke) copied it from him and intentionally added his own spin to either cover up his own collusion or just show off his unique creativity or theological perspective. However, if Luke was just being creative, once again, there is an inconsistency with the fact that Luke stuck so closely to the tradition found in Mark. Collusion seems the only logical route here. However, collusion also presents problems that I'll break down fourfold:
1) Neither of the two give us any sort of graphic illustrations how the birth actually took place, much like we see in every other mythological God/mortal woman copulation where the scene is explicitly described (this is even evident in the Hebrew culture and the graphic detail in how Adam and Eve were created into existence by the divine being). Holding back the graphic details in both stories is highly unusual of two ancient writers surrounded by the Greco-Roman world if we are to believe this was their own invention.
2) We have the same problem as we previously had. As I mentioned in another article (here: Those Dang Contradictions: Contradictions as the benefit of the doubt; and The She Seed: The curse of Jeconiah), some of the variations just in the Nativity story alone between Matthew and Luke present correlation issues, and as it stands, remain unsolvable, such as the genealogies (at least solutions that even various apologists can mutually agree on).
It's unlikely these elements would have been intentionally created this way, or without at least one of the two offering some explanation to these problematic areas in order to clear up inevitable confusion. Eusebius stated that the Nativity differences were an issue of much debate even in his day. Some of the issues include:
The account of the resurrection in both Matthew and Luke is another example, which critics argue is a contradiction between Jesus' appearances in Galilee in Matthew and his appearances at Jerusalem in Luke (I also discussed this here: Those Darn Contradictions: The resurrection conundrum). Once again, this starkly contradicts the rigid consistency both Matthew and Luke display in keeping with the tradition of Mark. So many instances of this make it easy to see why most scholars deduce that their works were composed completely independently of the other, much less entertaining an argument of willful collusion.
3) Matthew's Semitism, which I previously touched on, has lead scholars to conclude he was using a literary device that was prevalent in first century Judean culture known as pesharim. Matthew's Semitism is subtle indeed, but Luke's more direct Semitism is particularly intriguing since he was most likely a Gentile.
Craig Evans states that Luke's language about the coming Messiah in certain areas of the Nativity, especially his proclamations (examples: Luke 1:32-35, 1:46-55, 1:57-59, 1:68-79, 2:21-24, 2:29-32), is "entirely consistent with Jewish Palestinian knowledge and expectation." Let's look at one of these passages from Luke where Zacharias (John the Baptist's father) prophesies about the coming Messiah after his son John the Baptist was born…
Luke 1:67-74 "And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant-- As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old-Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; To show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear."
These canticles in Luke not only flow like Hebraic psalms, but this particular one emphasizes a Jewish deliverer, primarily for the Jewish people (not exactly a compatible or attractive theme to a bunch pagan Gentiles). The scene takes place around the child of John the Baptist, during which time Jesus was not yet born according to Luke's narrative, implying that Zacharias is actually exalting John as the "horn of salvation." It could have easily been misconstrued this way, in addition to creating ammunition and unnecessary friction between Christians and followers of John the Baptist as to who the true Messiah was (an early conflict that was possibly occurring during the time Luke wrote this, discussed here: The Evangelists: Jesus vs. John the Baptist).
All of these intricacies within just this passage alone make it extremely unlikely Luke invented it this way himself, and it even works against the idea he was embellishing the traditions for this reason. Moreover, most notable of all is what I specifically bolded, which runs contrary to
Another one of the many pro-Israel passages in Luke that raises issues in regards to the period was the angel's annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:30-33), which not only has stark pro-Judaic implications, but made this an impossible prophecy after 70 CE. "Ruling over the house of Jacob (Israel) forever" was a messianic prophecy specifically proclaiming Jesus not only as the corporeal ruler of Israel but when the twelve tribes of Jacob (descendants of his twelve sons) would have been gathered into this location and restored as a whole nation, and the Jews "being rescued from their enemies" grossly contradicted the time Roman legions, the enemies of Israel, had crushed and scattered the Jews, destroyed their Temple and left Jerusalem -- the most pivotal city of Judaism and the Jewish people -- decapitated and desolate as a nation in 70 CE. In the aftermath of 70 CE, this leaves Micah's prophecy that Matthew cited, the angel's annunciation, and Zacharias' spirit-filled prophecies in Luke all essentially bankrupt and quite the embarrassment after 70 CE.
What I've established with issues #1-3 are a couple of certainties, or at least almost certain; that Matthew and Luke were not in collusion, and that they did not invent the tradition themselves. We can also conclude that the tradition was undoubtedly a pre-70 CE external source because:
Of course, there is also another critical aspect to this that further widens the problems of the story creation.
The notorious virgin prophecy in Matthew has raised a slew of debate that has gone on for literally 2,000 years...
Isaiah 7:13-14 "Then he said, "Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."
Matthew took this scripture from Isaiah and tied it to Jesus' miraculous birth…
Matthew 1:22-23 "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet [Isaiah], saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,' which being interpreted is, God with us
I'm guessing by now anyone familiar with the history of this story is aware that the Hebrew word Isaiah used for "virgin" is almah, which is generally translated as "young maiden." The present debates and contentions rage on to this day about the real meaning of almah, since there is no way to conclude what Isaiah actually intended. The debate certainly is not a modern one, but goes as far back as even the second and third century between Celsus and Origen, and Justin and Trypho.
The apologists argue that Isaiah intended a virgin, while the critics argue young maiden, and despite the speculations by both camps that the meaning is emphatically one or the other, neither one is conclusively right or wrong because, though almah means a young marriageable maiden and never technically used to describe a virgin per se, it is not used in the bible ever to describe a young married woman either.
Moreover, Isaiah wrote this in a time when virtually all unmarried young women were virgins and all virgins were young women, so this clouds what Isaiah intended even more. To make matters even more confusing, there is another possibly "better" alternative Hebrew word for virgin that Isaiah seemed to oddly pass up, which is betulah. However, not only is the argument that this is in fact a better word also up for debate, but to argue that Isaiah would have unquestionably used a certain Hebrew word a certain way is clearly an assumption since we obviously cannot read the mind of an 8th century BCE prophet. The Greek translation used by both Matthew and Luke for the Hebrew word is parthenos, and this denotes a woman without sexual contact much more explicitly in the Greek than almah does in the Hebrew, which is also the word used by Jewish scribes of the 2nd century BCE Septuagint translation.
However, the purpose here is really not to join in the never-ending debate, the point of this is to convey that if the debates have unceasingly raged on between scholars for 2,000 years about the meaning to this day, imagine what this would have been for the monotheistic Jews in the first century. As I pointed out earlier, we know Matthew wrote specifically to Jews, and from a theological perspective of first century Judaism, the fact Mathew ties this unconventional Jewish scripture to a myth he and Luke supposedly fabricated is a sinking ship.
The irony is that critics recognize there is a problem and use it as an attempt to debunk the whole virgin birth story as a creation by Matthew, and the fact he interpreted scripture erroneously -- they argue -- proves this fact beyond a doubt. However, even to assume he intentionally misinterpreted it actually backfires. First of all, even if it was a misinterpretation on his part, this obviously does not prove the story itself was invented; and since Luke does not reference that passage, it also doesn't prove that the story was invented just to fit around that supposed misinterpretation. Critics don't seem to grasp just where the problem lies.
Matthew was obviously an educated Jew, well versed in Jewish scripture and rabbinic methodology, and from the theme and content of his gospel, we know he was writing to Jews. He obviously knew the Isaiah scripture was unconventional (at least from Hebrew scripture), and that equating it to an incomprehensible act of Yahweh would have raised issues and questions about it even more. It would have been enough for Matthew just to assert that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and equate it to Micah's (5:2) prophecy about the Messiah's birthplace and left it at that. Even if we propose this as Matthew's embellishment of the story, the argument we would have to put fourth is that Matthew didn't care that his unconventional interpretation had the potential to unravel at the seams and raise even more skepticism than he wanted -- yet did it to try and sell the Son of David as an incarnated deity of Yahweh, which Matthew knew was fiction, specifically to Jews?
It clearly makes more sense in this case to assume Matthew was equating an unconventional interpretation of Jewish scripture to a story he believed was true, in spite of the controversy it would have raised. Human nature would not drive us to do something unnecessarily controversial or that was easy to refute to sell something we knew was not true or something we may have some doubt or even reservation about. An unfaithful wife that became pregnant wouldn't make up a story about being abducted by aliens in order to explain her unscrupulous pregnancy. We are instead compelled to eliminate any such potential controversy around a story we know is false. However, we are more prone to use something we know is controversial to convince others of what we believe is true. We could argue that this was Matthew's overreaching attempt to try and convince Jews of an incredible and improbable act of Yahweh, which he believed was true, but highly doubtful he used his interpretation to convince them of something he knew was false. Thus, the cumulative evidence is firm enough to believe the following:
From this, we may not be able to estimate exactly when the virgin birth tradition was circulating, but it's almost certain it was circulating before 70 CE among Jewish Christians who accepted it as true. Though the when has essentially been solved, the who and how has hit a concrete barrier as a result of these issues we've raised thus far, as well as the issues we will discuss next.
The only fact we've firmly established is the when, yet the who, why and how are actually the major sticky points of this investigation. The how takes on a whole life of its own once we probe deeper into the mind of a first century Jew. We know that the tradition was a pre-70 source when the movement still had a strong Judaic foundation and background, and as we have noted, both stories in Matthew (who was Jewish himself) and Luke are saturated with Semitic elements, something we would expect in light of this fact. The circumstances also imply that Luke and Matthew, especially Matthew, believed the story to be true, yet why he personally believed it was true remains the big mystery and suggests that there was very little, if any, contention or controversy surrounding the earlier traditional source he apparently used.
The first Christians were Jews, and the gospels are the best attested source to this fact, something I thoroughly covered in detail in another article (The Jesus-myth Myth, A Judaic myth?). Jews were not fiction artists or myth-mongers of this capacity, which is why you don't find these types of consistent legendary patterns at all in Judaic culture. You don't find supernatural virgin births associated with great historical Jewish men such as Hillel, Shammai, John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteousness, Gamaliel, Honi the Circle Drawer (who did have at least minor miracles attributed to him), the myriad number of influential rabbis mentioned in the Talmud or even the prophets of old with the exception of Moses and Elijah, neither of whom were men that had divine origins directly attributed to them (in other words, they were merely God's agents through whom such miracles occurred), nor were they conceived by supernatural means.
Ancient Judea was a theocracy based on religious fundamentalism, like most Islamic countries in the Middle East today. Throughout the New Testament works (gospels and epistles), Josephus' works and some references in Philo and secular writers such as Tacitus, Cassius, Philostratus, and Suetnoius the Jewish people guarded their religious sanctity with an unshakable and often fanatical conservatism, willing to either kill others or die themselves than give in to circumstances that ran contrary to Judaism, including Hellenized Jews (also discussed here: The Body Snatchers, Potential martyrdom). This became even more of a factor once the second Temple was built, in addition to the aftermath of the post-Maccabean revolt that gave birth to a Hasmonean renaissance that unified them into a strong sense of nationalistic zeal, and indeed this very zeal ended up being the primary catalyst of their ultimate demise in the great revolt of 70 CE. Larry Hurtado states...
“In the continuing experience of devout Jews in the religious environment of the ancient Near East in the Persian period and thereafter, an exclusivist monotheism became so fully identified with Jewish piety that by the Roman period failure to maintain such a stance was perhaps the greatest sin possible for a Jew. It is likely that the religious crisis generated in the second century BCE by the attempt of Antiochus IV to impose a programmatic religious and cultural assimilation of the Jews made devoutly traditionalist Jews thereafter even more sensitive to any challenge to the exclusivity of the God of Israel.”
W.D. Davies argues that not only were the Jews even at Alexandria especially devout, but that the Pharisees had a dominating role in first century Judean culture, with powerful influences both in the communities and politics. We see the Pharisees persistently monitoring and scrutinizing Jesus and his activities throughout the gospel accounts, criticizing him whenever they believe he missteps the law, and ultimately the instigators of his fate. Davies adds...
"... contrary to the almost universally accepted view, there is no inconsistency between the rabbinic sources regarding the leaders of the Pharisees from the time of the Maccabean revolt and the non-rabbinic sources, such as the New Testament and Josephus. On the contrary, Josephus and the record in the New Testament supplement and confirm the rabbinic tradition with regard to these teachers" (p.245).
The New Testament documents are in perfect historical harmony with extrabiblical sources when it comes to first century Jews and is just what we would expect to find of these people directly interacting with the followers of Christ and how they would behave. The entire New Testament, especially the book of Acts as well as Paul's letters, document unrelenting hostility against the movement throughout Judea and even the Mediterranean within this fundamentalist environment (see: Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18, 6:8-14, 8:1, 9:22-24, 12:1-4, 13:50, 14:4-6, 17:2-9, 21:26-31; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13; 2 Corinthians 4:8-10; Galatians 4:29, 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 2 Timothy 3:11-12). In fact, the first Jews that converted to Christianity themselves were very discriminative with the new faith. Most Judeo-Christians showed characteristics that we would expect, regarding outsiders and non-proselytes with extreme skepticism. Apparently it required a divine intervention from God himself just to get Peter to break this Judaic norm (Acts 10:1-23).
It was through much contention within the early church that Gentiles were accepted into the fold, and probably decades later (most likely post-70) until they were totally accepted without being pressured into total adherence to Judaic customs. We also know from extensive evidence that the pre-70 CE church was controlled by an apostolic front at Jerusalem, where information and activity throughout the region was relayed via communication networks back to this front, and though these communication networks were ancient, they were still very effective (discussed here: The Evangelists, Chaos theory). Obviously this front was primarily Jewish, evident by the Judaic elements in both gospel works and the virgin birth tradition itself, which I previously discussed.
Point being, a supposed virgin birth legend ladened with Jewish elements throughout the legend needs to be considered within a historical framework; a framework that is conservative, discriminative, and a controlled environment wherein this supposed fabricated virgin story was formulated. Are you beginning conceptualize an inevitable socioreligious conflict here?
The how (how a fabricated story was accepted) probably becomes the most problematic at this point. Disregarding what we've established about the when -- that the virgin birth is undoubtedly a pre-70 Jewish tradition -- even though the gospel of Luke was a post-70 work (assuming the post-70 date is correct), the post-70 proponents argue that the latest for Luke was around the 80s. This is but 50 years after the fact, close enough to contemporaries able to challenge any skewed history about this story, such as Theophilus, the individual Luke was writing his work to (Luke 1:3).
Where were the individuals to refute the tradition, especially the political and historical scenario revolving around it -- i.e. the reign of Quirinius, the birthplace registration, Herod's violent actions, Jesus' genealogy -- things that would have been highly disputed by anyone living in this generation; a generation that would have been just as privy to the historical facts as we are about facts 50... even hundreds of years ago in history?
This is probably the single most problematic roadblock to a supposed fabricated virgin birth myth. Today, we're in a position to determine whether even facts about a historical person as far back as Abraham Lincoln are skewed just based on general information about him no less than 200 years ago, let alone a generation or two ago. We're in a position to know whether Lincoln was shot or poisoned, whether he was for or against the emancipation, whether the Civil War or the American Revolution occurred during his tenure, and most people would not have to search for this information to verify these general historical facts because it's just common knowledge. Where were the hostile witnesses, both of the first century and the later centuries, including the educated men of these times that were in a position to refute the virgin birth and the history surrounding it?
Celsus was one of the most outspoken second century skeptics against the virgin birth. Celsus indeed criticized theological aspects of the story and even accused Mary of adultery and the early Christians of using the story to cover up the supposed scandal of her infidelity, yet he never questioned the historical aspects of the story itself, something he would have unquestionably done had this information been proven false by either those who preceded him, his own knowledge, or against Roman records and archives he had access to at the time.
What about Justin's debates with Trypho, a Jewish man, which most likely occurred in the early second century. Trypho clearly had knowledge of the gospels in this debate with Justin, yet never questioned its supposed twisted historicity. The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who had direct access to Roman archives and who also challenged many aspects of Christianity, including the supposed contradictions, never brought up its skewed historicity. How very odd that 21st century skeptics of today, 2,000 years removed from the actual history readily question the historical aspects of it, yet the critics and skeptics who were closest to the actual history never did.
Another puzzling silence is the silence within the church itself among its own proponents. There is only one sect ever recorded in the historical records that refused to accept the virgin birth tradition, and that was the Ebionites. Their beliefs are described by various church fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Eusebius. Eusebius even claimed there were different sects of Ebionites, some of which accepted the virgin birth story and others that did not (note the significance that the fathers even bothered recording such a controversy!). Even though it is uncertain why they rejected the story (it could have been for theological reasons rather than historical ones) this is actually of little relevance. What period this sect actually existed remains unsubstantiated, but we know specifically that this issue is not brought to our attention until the second century (also discussed here: The Messiah Dilemma, The claims). We've already established that the common core of the virgin birth tradition between Matthew and Luke was an independent external source that undoubtedly existed pre-70 CE, at least before the fall of Jerusalem if not earlier, and we know that Matthew and Luke's gospels themselves existed well before the turn of the first century.
The Judaic first century culture was typically an oral culture, meaning nothing was written on a hidden text or buried within the pages of a daily newspaper to some subscriber indifferent to the story. Everything was relayed via word of mouth, thus very little was hidden from the public. The majority of the culture was illiterate. There were no printing presses and copies of written works were expensive, thus the news of the day wasn't read from mass papyrus copies distributed throughout the community to each individual, but proclaimed in the public via word of mouth. Christianity also wasn't an exclusive or sectarian movement or mystery religion, but a public evangelistic movement from day one. The movement was based on oral reports about a contemporary Jewish man, what he did and what he taught prior to his execution and proclaimed resurrection.
This is a vital piece of historical fact in play here. The traditions of Jesus would have been shared and proclaimed on the streets, in the synagogues, in the Temple, in the market places, from the rooftops (Matthew 10:27), in the Senate and town hall meetings, in the royal halls, proclaimed and debated on the streets from Christian to Christian and from Christian to non-believer; everything discussed and shared in the open for many decades. The pre-70 CE Christians also themselves did not live in a vacuum, nor were they a disorientated and unmonitored community scattered throughout the Empire, each living in its own isolated shell of oral pseudo-traditions. There was no chaos theory within this framework. As I discussed in another article (here: The Evangelists, Chaos theory), the early church corresponded back and forth with each other on a frequent basis. Communication protocols were followed and major feedback controls would have corrected significant aberrations -- or at least made the attempt -- from the standard oral and written Christian message. Any accounts about Jesus' life not approved collectively by the apostolic eyewitnesses and communities they monitored would have been challenged, thus we would expect a tradition that found its way into two Christian written texts to have inevitably stirred up some controversy.
In other words, if a religious cult that worshiped a prominent figure in pop culture and that started even 60 years after the figure had died (I'm picking a max date here; remember we're dealing with a tradition that very likely dates pre-70, 40 or less), touting a belief that he was miraculously born of a virgin, one would expect quite a controversial uproar from their foes and his supporters both within and outside the movement. Even if the movement wanted to cover up these controversies, it would have been impossible to completely cover it up. Inside members of the cult would naturally be driven to engage in damage control of their beliefs either via public defense against their opposition or shared private correspondents between themselves about these controversial issues.
We don't see any of these controversies about a false virgin myth in the correspondents between the early Christians. Paul never addressed any such contentions or controversies about the facts of Jesus, his tomb burial, or his history in any of his letters that were written to multiple churches scattered abroad. Plenty of issues, or issues about formality and church conduct were addressed, but nothing pertaining to skewed or challenged facts about Jesus and his life.
A fabricated virgin birth tradition could not have been invented without at least some reverberation, discussion, in-fighting or schism about it within the early church community. Yet Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, Papias, Ignatius, Clement I, Polycarp, all of whom were early contemporaries and who wrote letters to various churches addressing various issues within the first century church said nothing about this issue. Early church historians, such as Eusebius and Tertullian, who often cited early traditions and controversies from that period, were also dead silent.
We indeed see the early church rife with controversy and disputes over other issues, such as the contention over the Mosaic law illustrated both in Acts and in the epistles, in addition to hints of it in the epistle of James, just as we would expect with such controversies that existed in the early church. We see the first signs of theological controversy with the possible infiltration of docetism in some of John's late epistles, which he wrote around the end of the first century and his stern warning against such doctrine (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7).
In light of this historical framework I laid out here, it is simply inexplicable that controversy surrounding a supposed fabricated virgin birth myth is dead silent. That no one addressed the issue of storytellers intertwining myth, a supposed myth that independently found its way into two first century canon gospel works clearly falls into problems of unrealistic and unbelievable acquiescence, particularly since Jesus' genealogy, which appears in both stories, would have forced even more unwanted attention from skeptics that were exceptional sticklers to such genealogical claims to Davidic messiahship.
When, who and how?
Thus far, the only issue we've settled is the when. It was undoubtedly a pre-70 Judaic tradition circulating well before Matthew and Luke independently incorporated it into their works, but this just raises unmovable barriers for the who and how. Who could possibly invented such a story in a church run by apostolic Jews, and how could it have gone totally uncontested, with no opposition or even discussion about it in an environment rife with discussions about controversial church issues? With this aside, in light of these issues, surely there must have been a necessary and justifiable REASON for such an improbable invention.
The idea that the virgin birth was a fabricated myth demands a motive for such a fabrication. There are two arguments that attempt to explain the why in this regard, and they include:
Though these might seem related, they can be separated as two very different issues. Both are actually not only pure conjecture, but contrary to everything we've just discussed, and quite frankly -- in light of the non-illustrative detail about the miraculous conception itself, not very logical. There are two primary messianic issues that were relevant to the first century Christians, the apostles and the early evangelists that we clearly see expressed throughout the written works of the New Testament:
There were no theological contentions raised specifically about Jesus as both messiah and Son of God that we find in the New Testament records. The only controversy that can come close to a theological issue concerned docetism -- whether Jesus actually appeared in the flesh or not. Of course, a virgin birth was not needed for this issue one way or the other. The virgin birth narrative certainly didn't reject that Jesus was born of the flesh, just that he was born without a human father that fertilized Mary's egg.
The theological contentions specifically about Christ's deity we would expect to find are only apparent in works of the second century. Jesus as Son of God needed no apologetic among early Christians, of whom the New Testament material was written to. Luke certainly wasn't one to hide the debates that went on between the apostles themselves in Acts. There were debates about Gentile acceptance, baptism, money, charity, nationalistic and religious discrimination, how to deal with Judaism, circumcision, kosher foods, Christian blasphemy, even heresies, yet there is no indication from Acts or any record in the New Testament of debates, questions, or confusion about Jesus' divinity between his followers or any hints that verifying Jesus as the Son of God was a necessity between the adherents of the movement, certainly none to visibly justify a fabricated story to emphasize this belief.
As I noted earlier, we don't see these types of issues or feuds in the epistles, hence the writers took Jesus' status as Lord (kyrios) and Savior for granted. Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude never even hinted at any issues regarding Jesus' status as the kyrios or Son of God. So, when we don't find any instances of this question being raised or controversies regarding the nature of Christ echoing from the written works, the view that they just created it to prove something that was apparently never an issue in the first place has no real merit, let alone in spite of the numerous barriers against the story that we discussed previously in this article.
If we're dealing with invention, we don't even find the theological reason for it in the Nativity stories themselves, and this could have easily been made known to us through the angels and their announcement of it. If we assume the tradition was used as a device to connect Jesus to the messianic expectation of the Bethlehem prophecy predicted by Micah (5:2); Luke does not point out this prophecy and he was most likely writing to Gentiles. Luke obviously had no reason for the virgin birth, in fact, neither him nor Matthew had any reason to prove this particular prophecy since it had nothing to do with his actual birth location (the census that dragged them to Bethlehem wasn't associated with the actual supernatural method of birth). As far as Matthew's "virgin" citation of Isaiah, we know that Matthew undoubtedly believed the virgin birth was true, thus he was merely using Hebrew scripture to support that belief, as opposed to Matthew finding a necessity for a creation story to support the passage in Isaiah itself.
Moreover, as we previously mentioned, the virgin birth actually raises issues about Jesus' heritage, complicating his royal ties to the Davidic line (if he didn't have a human father, how was he the rightful Son of David?); titles that were always focused on the Jewish father. Therefore, we must blindly invent some reason that inspired the non-father creation that not only complicates inheritance and birthright issues, had the potential to create fierece contention among Judeo-Christians, but simply has no basis of necessity as a fabrication that we can find in any of the early Christian documents that we would expect to find. Apparently the resurrection and that alone set the record straight about who Jesus was and what his purpose was.
Critics apparently have no problem with this, ignoring the complex framework I previously pointed out in this whole article and assume that either points #1 or #2 (pointed out above) MUST be the reason for the why regardless of no support for either one. However, as we have analyzed, the ramifications against the story within this culture create even more friction with the why, particularly when the why is not readily evident to us, at least anything we can prove or substantiate beyond mere conjecture.
We must obviously figure out a reason for the story to justify its improbable creation, yet if we are not able to at least find an adequate why that we can verify from within the written works themselves, this just further bolsters the argument that it was a factual account. Thus, if it was a factual account, this is a logical reason why we find absolutely no controversy about it nor a specific reason expressed in the records for its creation necessity.
The competitive Roman market
Were they just trying to compete in a Roman market that was rife with pagan legends of miraculous births?
The method of conception in almost every mythological story about demigods and great men who became legend is fantastically illustrated. To the contrary, there is no God-Mary mating, no lightening bolts, pillars of fire, accidental spilling of divine semen or any lustrous rendezvous between an immortal god and mortal woman in the Nativity story. We don't see how Jesus is conceived, nor are we even sure it happened at all other than the nondescript versions we get from Matthew (1:20) and Luke (1:34). The angel declares that Mary would be "overshadowed by the Holy Spirit" in Luke (1:35); whereas Matthew (1:20) has this declaration given to Joseph in a dream, yet neither describe how it was done or illustrate any of the juicy detail, nor do they even explain the theological significance of the virgin birth -- the why. In fact, the Greek phrase Luke used for "will overshadow you" in other areas of the Septuagint merely implied being empowered or protected by God.
So, with a canvas, a potential pagan-myth craved audience and with an opportunity to really let loose, which is what critics would assume as a possible explanation for the why, this showed unusual constraint and indifference, hence we are left with a Nativity that's hardly anything for anyone to get excited about in comparison to the other legends and myths in the pagan world that made a pagan proud. The who and how remain unsolved, but one of the essential factors we need as the driving force for such an improbable story also runs into difficulties no matter how you look at it, because if it was not a true account, it goes against any explanation we can use to justify it.
Simply put -- there is no why we can verify from any source. The only thing left is secular prejudice and bias against the very notion that a mother can become impregnated without a human father, therefore, regardless of the complex problems against fiction, it must be fiction, hence we must then ignore the who, downplay the how and create a why from pure conjecture. This is just circular reasoning, and as most of us know, circular reasoning has no place in historical methodological analysis.
I've really only scratched the surface. At some point we must put these internal problems aside and figure out where this outside foreign influence came from and how it infiltrated into the culture of a Jew if the birth of Christ was not based on historical fact. There are five additional external problems specifically with a Nativity-myth argument in this particular case, which I'll discuss in Part II.
1. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg.85; 1995.
Philip W. Comfort, Jason Driesbach, The Many Gospels of Jesus, p.335; 2008.
3. Craig S. Keener, A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p.40; 2005.
Paul Foster, Community, law, and mission in Matthew's Gospel, pp.1-6; 2004.
Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, pp.1-2, 8-9, 20; 1991. p.8.
Daniel B. Wallace, Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline: #3 Internal Evidence (www.bible.org).
Michael L. White, Who Was Matthew Writing For? (www.pbs.org).
Marilyn Mellowes, The Gospel of Matthew (www.pbs.org).
Papias , as quoted by Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 39:16 (www.newadvent.org).
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, chap. 1:1 (www.newadvent.org).,
Jerome, On Illustrious Men, chap. 3 (www.newadvent.org).
Eusebius, ibid., book 3, chap. 24:6 (www.newadvent.org).
Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, book 6, chap. 17 (www.newadvent.org).
4. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, pp.29-30; 2005.
5. Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, p.148, 151-152; 2010.
6. Craig A. Evans and John J. Collins, Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp.101-110; 2006.
Also see Pesher.
7. Matthew - Daniel B. Wallace, Matthew: Introduction, Argument, and Outline: C. Place of Composition and Destinationwww.bible.org
Luke - ibid., Introduction, Outline, and Argument: D. Destination.
8. Eusebius, Church History, book 1, chap. 7 (www.newadvent.org).
9. James D. G. Dunn and Doris Donnelly, Jesus: a colloquium in the Holy Land, pp.49; 2001.
10. Evans, The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary, p.53.
11. Bruce J. Malina, Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p.25; 2003.
12. Origen, Against Celsus, book 1, chap. 34 (www.newadvent.org).
13. Zhava Glaser argues that Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden? (http://jewsforjesus.org).
14. Jennifer Mary Dines, Michael Anthony Knibb, The Septuagint, pp.3-5, 27-38; 2004.
15. Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence, pp. 34-37; 1998.
16. Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, p.30; 2005.
17. Louis W.D. Davies, Louis Finkelstein, The Cambridge history of Judaism: Volume 2, p.245-277; 2005.
18. Edward E. Ellis, The making of the New Testament Documents, p.200; 2002.
20. Eusebius, Church History, book 3, chap. 27 (www.newadvent.org).
21. Martin S. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth, pp.15-16; 2001.
Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency, p.113, p.144; 2005.
22. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, pp.30-31; 2000.
William D. Mounce, Greek for the Rest of Us, pp.216-217; 2003.
23. Apis - Herodotus, The Persian Wars, book 3, 3:38 (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/).
Alexander the Great - Plutarch, 2:1-6 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html).,
Augustus Caesar - Suetonius, Life of the Deified Augustus, 94:4 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/home.html).
Dionysus - Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much about Mythology, pp.207; 2005.
Horus - Horus: Conception.
24. Bruce J. Malina, Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p.228; 2003.