Reconceiving the Virgin Birth with Andrew T. Lincoln (part 1)
Last year my Church asked me to present a short apologetic for the virgin birth. Whilst I would usually leap at such an invitation, the subject matter provoked some hesitation. During my undergraduate degree, I had become aware of the critical issues surrounding the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives, and I felt that I could not possibly resolve these difficulties in a short talk — perhaps I could not resolve them at all! In the end, I took up the invitation but felt disappointed about what I had conceded: whilst there may only be meagre historical attestation to the virginal conception, it remains an integral part of Christian belief. We accept it, therefore, as a necessary part of a wider theological system (which is compelling when considered as a whole). Or to put it differently: we accept the history because we accept the theology, not the other way around.
Since then, the virgin birth has remained like an itch on my back. When Professor Alister McGrath came to Magdalen to give a public lecture last Hilary, I managed to capture him briefly on the subject. I mentioned that I could not fully appreciate Lewis’ image of Christianity as the sun which illuminates reality; after all, one of the central tenets of Christianity seems to call for a leap into the dark: Jesus’ virginal conception. To my surprise, Professor McGrath did not entirely disagree. However, he did suggest that Lewis’ image merits further reflection: the sun enables us to see in an expansive way, but not to see everything. Even as the sun illuminates reality, it also produces shadows, which we have to learn to live within our Christian walk. A little faith is fair enough, I thought, and stored the problem away.
Recently, however, my curiosity was stirred once again when I came across Andrew T. Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin? (2013), a monograph attempting to ‘reconceive’ the virginal conception from a whole sweep of exegetical, historical, and theological perspectives. I knew Lincoln to be a careful Christian scholar, and so it pleased me to see him set out two non-negotiables in chapter one. First, that scripture is the supreme, authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and second, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. These non-negotiables are important to bear in mind as Lincoln leads us to some heterodox, if not unorthodox conclusions, about Jesus’ virginal conception, for I had the abiding impression that Lincoln is led by these convictions throughout the book, not in spite of them.
The second chapter begins the argument proper, exploring how the New Testament imagines Jesus’ birth outside of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives. It is easy to imagine that the ‘virgin birth’ is only addressed in these accounts and that the rest of the NT simply assumes them. However, Lincoln sees this as mistaken. The ‘silent witness’ of the rest of the NT offers a starkly different picture. Paul, for example, describes Jesus as the ‘seed (sperma) of David’ (Rom. 1:3) and speaks of Jesus as being ‘born of a woman,’ (Gal. 4:4) with no reference to any remarkable birth. This language of Jesus as the ‘Seed of David’, ‘Son of David’, or ‘Root of David’ appears elsewhere in the New Testament (Mark, Revelation, Hebrews, Luke), and Lincoln argues that it always assumes patrilineal rather than merely judicial descent. Remarkably, even John, who speaks most clearly of Jesus’ incarnation as the ‘word became flesh’ (1:14), provides no virgin birth story but implies that Jesus had a normal father (6:42).
By framing this ‘silent witness’ as a counter-witness to the infancy narratives, one is left asking whether it is wholly unbiblical to prefer one set of biblical perspectives (those which assume Jesus’ normal conception) to the particular version proffered by Matthew and Luke. Some might protest that Paul, or John, or Mark, do not explicitly narrate the conception, whilst Matthew and Luke do. Yet this seems to miss the point, for the reader who maintains the testimony of Matthew and Luke will have to say that Paul and others were, in fact, wrong in stating that Jesus was patrilineally descended from David. Others might protest that the Virgin Birth is integral to the Incarnation; references to the virgin birth, therefore, take precedence over rest of the wider NT witness, since the rejection of the virgin birth’s historical occurrence is tantamount to a denial of Christianity. If Lincoln is right, however, the majority NT witness simply does not share this view of its significance. The high Christology of NT writers such as Paul, John, and Mark was not dependent upon the virgin birth. This raises the questions of whether ours should be either.
In the third chapter, Lincoln discusses three aspects of the Infancy narratives: their Christological purpose, use of Jewish scripture, and relation to the Graeco-Roman biography. He begins by noting that the resurrection was the watershed which led early Christians to recognise Jesus as the Son of God. When it came to telling the story of Jesus’ life, however, it is unsurprising to find the evangelist’s making this point in the very beginning of their biographies, whether that is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with his baptism in the river (Mark), the pre-existence of Jesus (John), or the beginning of Jesus’ earthly conception (Matthew and Luke). It is also unsurprising to find the infancy narratives saturated in scripture. For Lincoln, this use of scripture comprised a “two-way movement.” On the one hand, events in Jesus’ life fulfilled the scripture; on the other, scripture was studied by early Christian to explain the ministry of Jesus, on the assumption that all scripture points toward him. It is yet unclear whether this means, for Lincoln, that the infancy narratives have been composed out of scriptural material, rather than history. But already, he notes that the earliest part of a “life” is often the most obscure. That the ancient “lives” of Matthew and Luke should herald their hero’s birth with the great pomp and circumstance of other ancient biographies, then, is not unique to the lives of Jesus; these narratives share that in common with the genre in which they fall.
The fourth and fifth chapters take a closer look at Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives respectively. It surprised me to find — in both chapters — a discussion of whether either gospel present a sustained view of Jesus’ virginal conception. Beginning with Matthew, Lincoln notes that for Mary to be found with child ‘from the Holy Spirit’ may not, as is traditionally supposed, refer to a virginal birth. All normal births in antiquity were believed to involve three parties: a man, a woman, and God. Other births are spoken of as ‘in’ or ‘from’ God without reference to the male when the male’s activity is assumed. Things get interesting when this is born in mind. For when Joseph makes plans to quietly divorce Mary (assuming she is illegitimately pregnant), the angel does not deny Joseph’s suspicions but assures him that the child is from God. Of course, this raises the question: would God use an illegitimate conception to achieve his purposes? Yet Matthew’s genealogy seems designed to answer precisely this question in the affirmative! As commentators have long realised, it is through the illegitimate conceptions of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, that the David line is perpetuated. What is more, the overwhelming purpose of the genealogy is to show Jesus’ Davidic descent.
There are two key objections to this minority interpretation of Matthew. The first is that Mary is said to be a ‘virgin’ (parthenos; Isa. 7:14). Lincoln assures us, however, that whilst parthenos has connotations of virginity, it need not necessarily refer to a virgin. Moreover, Matthew may be attracted to the verse primarily for its use of Immanuel: it is through Jesus, ‘God with us’, that God’s presence and purposes will be achieved. The second objection, however, is more fatal: whilst the Jewish scriptures speak of God’s activity in a birth (when the male activity is assumed), the notion that gods impregnate women without the involvement of a male was not uncommon in the Graeco-Roman world. The familiarity of these stories in the genre in which Matthew is writing, alongside the reception of Matthew’s narrative as one of virginal conception, tips the balance in favour of the traditional interpretation of his infancy story.
In Luke’s infancy narrative, it is less ambiguous that Jesus’ conception is virginal. Not only the beginning but also the end of Luke (with the ascension) reflects the conventions of Graeco-Roman biographies, and readers are prompted to see here a story of the sort with which they are familiar. The parallel-structure comparing John the Baptist with Jesus is a common technique (synkresis) used in ancient biographies, and the fact that Jesus is greater than John surely merits an even more miraculous birth than John’s, confirms a virginal interpretation of the annunciation. Moreover, the fact that the angel appears to Mary prior to her falling pregnant, when she ‘knows no relations with a man’ (1:34), obviates the possibility (present in Matthew) that Mary has already found herself pregnant illegitimately.
However, returning to a point made in ch.2, Lincoln notes that the virginal conception is not the only tradition about Jesus’ conception in Luke’s writings. Elsewhere in Luke-Acts it is assumed that Jesus is descended from David (Acts 2.30; 13:23). We might be tempted to harmonise these separate traditions; however Lincoln argues that we should not. For one thing, the virginal conception has no lasting effect upon Luke’s narrative; this fits with the common view that his infancy narrative was the last part of the gospel to be written. More importantly, it is not unusual for biographers to contain two different (contradictory!) accounts of a woman’s conception: one human, and one divine. Biographers were quite clearly content to let different views of a subject’s origins sit side-by-side; sometimes, they even consciously reflected on the contradictory nature of their accounts. Plato may have had a human father; but how could he not have been born of God, given his eternal wisdom? These kinds of questions asked by ancient people might give us pause for reading these infancy accounts as the product of serious interrogation of eyewitnesses — in this case, that of Mary.
Having laid the ground work in the preceding chapters, Lincoln goes on in chapter six to provide a judicious discussion of the historicity of the diverse witnesses he has already identified: the virginal conception, the ‘Son of David’ tradition, and the tradition that Jesus was conceived illegitimately. An oft-discussed question in relation to the historicity of this material is whether Matthew and Luke independently know of a virginal conception. Whilst some think Luke may be using Matthew (the so-called Farrer-Goulder hypothesis), Lincoln argues that the little verbatim dependence between the texts is easily accounted for by independent reliance upon Old Testament parallels. Lincoln’s discussion may have benefited further, however, from a consideration of ancient literary imitatio. This practice could involve fluid and creative reworking of previous material. To demand verbatim dependence to see Luke’s creative reworking of Matthew does not take this into account.
Lincoln’s answer to this question is nonetheless intriguing. Following his argument in chapter three, he argues that it is ambiguous whether Matthew was himself relying upon a tradition of a virginal conception. Indeed, assuming that Matthew’s story goes back some way to a Jewish Palestinian (not a Graeco-Roman one) Mary is found to be with child and Joseph’s supposal that something illicit has occurred is never denied. On this view, it is perhaps Matthew himself with his redaction (Isaiah 7:14), or even Luke, who may have been the first to turn this story into one of a virginal conception. Of course, one cannot be certain about this, a point about which Lincoln is emphatic. Moreover, to repeat an old criticism of the form-critical paradigm, one might question whether Lincoln is sensible to maintain any clear-cut divide between a Jewish Palestinian and a ‘Graeco-Roman’ context, in light of the Hellenised nature of early Christianity. If Lincoln has shown anything, however, it is that the independent attestation of Matthew and Luke to the virgin birth tradition is by no means as clear cut as sometimes suggested.
In terms of chronological priority, Lincoln argues that the ‘Son of David’ tradition, found in traditional pre-Pauline material (Rom. 1:3) wins the day. This tradition is superior to Jesus’ conception by illegitimate means, which is only hinted at within the New Testament (Mk 6:3), and receives its fullest expression in the Second Century, most likely as a response to the virgin birth tradition. Of course, ‘earliest’ does not necessarily mean ‘historical;’ it may be, for instance, that Luke was privy to some historical memory of Mary unavailable to other writers. However, the lack of verisimilitude of aspects of Luke’s infancy account, coupled with the way in which it has been shaped heavily by the tropes of the genre and his own redactional interests, render this supposition highly unlikely.
For some Christian readers, much of what Lincoln argues in the first half of the book may seem a tough, if not wholly indigestible pill to swallow. It will seem as though the conclusion that Jesus was not born of a virgin is a reductio ad absurdum, which signals something has gone wrong somewhere along the way with his reasoning. After all, does the virgin birth not remain integral to Christian belief? For now, however, we must wait to see how Lincoln addresses this theological stumbling block in the second half of the book.