How Did the Virgin Birth Get So Popular?
The article by James E. Crouch (“How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05) was excellent. In a nutshell the author notes: (1) the early Jewish Christians, Gnostics and Apostolic Fathers (except Ignatius of Antioch), by way of silence or alternate proposals, did not support the idea of the virgin birth, (2) the Fourth Gospel and Paul treat Jesus as preexistent and (3) the records of Mary’s miraculous conception (Luke is not explicit) and virginity (at least until the delivery) in Matthew are theological, not historical, statements. How then did the virgin birth come to take on the historical overtones and presumably widespread adoption inferred from the creeds?
James E. Crouch replies:
Mr. Braganca raises a valid question. Without claiming to offer an exhaustive explanation of the forces that led the virginal conception of Jesus to become the dominant understanding of his origin, I would suggest two factors that played a major role:
1. Emerging orthodoxy’s creation and use of the canon as a weapon in its struggle against other groups. Matthew was the Church’s favorite Gospel, and its portrayal of Jesus’ birth gained acceptance in proportion to the growth and acceptance of the canon. At the same time, as Jewish Christians and Gnostic groups were marginalized their understandings of the origins of Jesus were discredited.
2. The development of Mariology. As popular interest in Mary evolved, the understanding of Jesus’ origin that focused attention on her virginity took on increased importance.
Mr. Braganca also questions how an originally theological story came to take on historical overtones. Is that not a peculiarly modern—indeed scholarly—question? I have trouble imagining an early, unsophisticated hearer of the infancy narratives making a distinction between their theological meaning and their historicity. Matthew and Luke were theologians, but they were also good storytellers. To the degree that their stories were effective, people believed the stories without distinguishing among possible levels of meaning.
Unscholarly Sleight of Hand
Though I am an avid reader of Bible Review, I have never before written, even when I have disagreed vehemently with articles.
However, I’m prompted to write by James E. Crouch’s “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05. I am writing not because I disagree with the author, but because he doesn’t play fair with the reader.
For example, he cites the “cosmic preexistence of Christ” as a “competing” belief with that of the virgin birth. Though obviously the two beliefs are not mutually exclusive, Mr. Crouch implies that such is the case.
Mr. Crouch also cites the Apostolic Fathers as evidence because, with one exception, they are silent on the subject of the virgin birth. “We cannot know,” he says, “whether the silence of the Apostolic Fathers indicated ignorance, or rejection, of the idea of virginal conception.” Such artful phrasing shrouds a third possibility: neither. Modern readers need not infer that the Apostolic Fathers were ignorant of, or rejected, any and all subjects on which they were silent.
I share only these two examples, because I don’t wish to argue Mr. Crouch’s points (though they are arguable). I’m not offended when authors in your stimulating magazine challenge my beliefs and conclusions; I am disappointed, however, when authors attempt to manipulate the reader by shrewdly skirting other possible viewpoints and shrouding their fallacious reasoning with unscholarly sleight of hand.
However, I suppose such disappointment is a small price to pay for the stimulation and education I receive from your pages.
James E. Crouch replies:
Unscholarly sleight of hand, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To argue a consistent and reasonable interpretation of the evidence without listing all other explanations that have ever been offered is not necessarily an attempt to manipulate the reader. What is foreign to scholarly inquiry is impugning the motives of a scholar with whom one disagrees.
In my judgment the evidence supports the conclusion that preexistence and virginal conception were different (and thus, in a sense, competing) ways that early Christians expressed their view that Jesus stood in a special relationship to God. (Nor were these two Christologies the only possibilities. One thinks, for example, of adoptionist Christologies.) That later orthodoxy was able to merge these two views into its creedal statements is, of course, true, and Mr. Hostetler has some basis for his assertion that they were not mutually exclusive. But theologies are like individuals; they often hold competing views at the same time. More to the point of my article is the fact that either a preexistent Christology or a supernatural-birth Christology would be sufficient for establishing a special relationship between Jesus and God and that no early Christian writer offers both images.
Arguments based on silence are notoriously weak and, had I tried to base more of my case on the silence of the Apostolic Fathers, Mr. Hostetler would have a valid point. The problem with his criticism is that he does not argue how another view would be a better interpretation of the evidence—evidence which includes not only the silence of the fathers on the issue of the virginal conception but also the differing Christologies in the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, which I cite.
Hungry for More
Nice magazine! I’ve been subscribing for a little over a year now, and read each issue cover to cover, usually the same day it arrives. I’ve gotten useful information for sermons from almost every issue.
James E. Crouch’s “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05, was particularly interesting, though (as I’m sure you’re tried of reading in Readers Reply) I tend to accept the historicity of the Gospels a bit more fully than he does. I am not, however writing to vilify higher criticism, or to castigate Dr. Crouch for accepting that approach. Not my style. I just have a few questions and comments.
When Dr. Crouch approached the New Testament for what its authors had to say about Christ’s origins, I was somewhat puzzled to find that though he addressed Galatians 4:4 with regard to the phrase “God sent forth his Son,” implying Christ’s preexistence, he did not address the remainder of the verse, “made [or born] of a woman, made [or born] under the law,” which seems to assert explicitly a natural birth for Christ. While Paul says nothing concerning the woman’s virginity or lack thereof, still it is interesting that Paul too finds Christ’s physical birth important enough to mention while making a point.
I also found it a bit frustrating that Dr. Crouch neglected the Epistle to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 1:2 we read of the Son “through whom he [God] made the universe,” implying preexistence, but Hebrews 7:14 hints at physical birth: “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah.” I would have liked to have seen Dr. Crouch discuss what the early church fathers understood from the Old Testament prophets about the origin of Christ in such passages as Micah 5:2, particularly the phrase, “… whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting.” Also, I would have been interested in an examination of what the Gospel writers understood to be Jesus’ self-understanding of his own origins both from the things they quote him as saying and from the treatment they show 008him extending to his mother and family. I realize such an article would be terribly long, and would have been quite different from the article as it appeared, but I think, that such an article, treating the topics I’ve mentioned, would have been much more balanced and, in the end, more truthful to the title, “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus.”
Second Christian Church.
James E. Crouch replies:
My thanks to Jeffrey Eernisse for the spirit in which he writes. He questions neither in my integrity nor my faith, and he recognizes that the question with which scholarship deals are issues about which reasonable persons may differ.
If I understand his complaint correctly, it is that I should have analyzed all possible early Christian references to the origin or background of Jesus and that, failing to do so, I should have chosen a different title for the article.
His questions may have some justification. What one reads in a semipopular journal such as Bible Review is the result of compromises between the author and the editors. In the case of my article, the final version was much longer than the original draft, and the editors supplied the title. It may be that I should have argued for a different title.
Having said that, however, I would insist that “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05, is an adequate description of the contents of the article. I do discuss the differing early Christian views of the origin of Jesus, and a discussion of the texts Mr. Eernisse cites would not have uncovered still other views. Galatians 4:4, for example, merely underscores, in addition to the preexistence of Jesus, that he was human (“becoming of woman”) and that he was a Jew (“becoming under [the] law”).
That a thorough examination of each of these texts would have doubled the length of the article Mr. Eernisse himself seems to realize. And whether their omission justifies another article on the subject is for the editors of Bible Review to decide.
Dr. Crouch’s article on Jesus’ birth (“How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05) was marvelous! Seldom have I seen so much learned information packed into a popular article. Clearly, it is intellectual suicide to read the Gospels as though they were simple biographies.
No doubt we’re in for another wave of indignant cancellation letters which will loudly toot God’s wrath along with a profound ignorance of the Bible and things scholarly. Alas, their authors are the very ones who stand to benefit most from Bible Review! BR may be their only window on Bible reality, their only chance to weed out mistaken opinions. The robust, healthy mind neither fears nor loathes nor ridicules self-examination.
Upon seeing those shrill letters, you must realize that you’re seeing individuals at their worst. Frankly, I like most Bible believers. Often they are interesting and warm individuals. However, when their Bible button gets pushed they tend to go berserk. But push it we must. When a group feels they have a monopoly on truth, when intellectual competition is frowned upon and conformity required, then buttons must be pushed and intolerance challenged.
This Is the Bible, not Star Trek
The heart of the problem of this controversy on the birth of Christ (“How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05) is that educated and sophisticated scholars cannot accept a God who came down from Heaven to be born of a woman and to partake of flesh and blood. Rather they would more readily accept a God who would command “Beam me down, Scotty.” In due time, Scripture will be proven to be accurate in its original composition.
Birth of the Virgin Birth
There is a persuasive reason why Paul never mentioned the virgin birth when he wrote 50 or 60 years after the birth of Jesus (“How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05). It had not yet been invented.
Great But Disturbing
BR is great. My hardest decision is whether to make its back issues available to my parishioners or to keep them on my exegetical shelf for reference!
BR is also disturbing, as well-evidenced by the letters to the editor. The information and explanations are often new, even to the seminary-trained person. But they are frequently at odds with traditional perspectives. It would be helpful in my attempt to bridge the gap between academia and the pulpit to have more “faith conclusions” offered in each article. I need the constructive as well as the destructive, both personally and as a preacher. I appreciated Rev. Crouch’s efforts (“How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05) to do just that.
Geyserville Christian Church
Two Views of Jesus’ Existence Not Inconsistent
The article on the Virgin Birth of Jesus James E. Crouch, “How Early Christians Viewed the Birth of Jesus,” BR 07:05, and the one featuring cartoons (Leonard Greenspoon, “The Bible in the Funny Papers”) were jokes. The misfortune is that the former was intended to be serious.
An article Christian doctrine should 009be written by a Christian who believes the doctrine. Having Crouch write this article is like having Fidel Castro write on “The Advantages of Capitalism.”
Crouch says: “One of these competing beliefs was the cosmic preexistence of Christ.” The belief in the eternal preexistence of Christ is not inconsistent with the virgin birth. It may be to Crouch, but it is not to any believer in the Bible. The Bible affirms that Jesus already was “in the beginning” (John 1:1, 17:5). He already was before Abraham’s time John 8:58). He is before all things (Colossians 1:17). The same Bible affirms that Mary was a virgin until after the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:27–35).
The accepted view of the leaders of the early Church was consistent with the Scriptures, namely, that Jesus Christ existed from all eternity as begotten of the Father, or as the Son of God, and in time was also the virgin-born son of Mary. Note, for example Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to the Trallians as it exists in the longer recension, speaks of Christ being “begotten of God” (gennao), and as also “from the Virgin” (parthenou); as the eternally preexisting One He “became flesh” (sarx egeneto).
Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnians 1:4 reads: “Our Lord who truly was of the race of David according to the flesh, but the Son of God according to the will and power of God; truly born of the Virgin …”
Irenaeus (c. A.D. 180) in Against Heresies, Bk. I, chap. 10, also speaks of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh.” If He became something, He existed, previous to the time He became that something. This asserts His preexistence.
In the same book, Irenaeus says that these are truths believed by all the Church “throughout the world,” namely that “God made heaven and earth and all that is in them through [by] Jesus Christ” (therefore His eternal preexistence). A few lines later he adds that Jesus came “by a birth from a Virgin.”
In Tertullian’s book of rules, Christians’ Relations to Heretics, chap. 13, we read “God produced His universe … by His Word … who was sent down by the Spirit and power of God … into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and was born of her.”
Crouch says: “Eusebius of Caesarea presented the creed of his church, which, instead of the virginal conception, spoke of Christ as ‘begotten before all ages from the Father.’” I think we can say this is a dishonest (or unscholarly) example of picking what you want and ignoring what you don’t want. The same document from which Crouch quotes continues, that Jesus Christ was not only “ begotten before all ages,” but He also “for our salvation was made flesh.” Eusebius presented his statement to the Council at Nicea. He then signed his name to the final document of the Council, know as the Nicene Creed, which reads: “I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ … begotten of the Father before all worlds … and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man ….”
Crouch refers to the Epistle of Barnabas 12:10, but in my edition his reference must be 11:13, where the author refers to David’s Psalm 109:1 (KJV 110:1), using the quotation also found in Matthew 22:44–45, Mark 12:36–37 and Luke 20:42–44. In both the Gospels and the Epistle of Barnabas, the quotation is a cryptogram. In both cases the purpose of the quotation is to verify the deity of Jesus (cf., Barnabas 11:15). In no case does the cryptogram deny the Virgin Birth, as is evident in Matthew and Luke. The Epistle of Barnabas also declares that Jesus “came in the flesh” 043(cf., 4:10, 15), which is a phrase often used by the church fathers of the birth of Christ.
Crouch says, “the Shepherd of Hermas (Similitudes 6.5–7) states that the son was the preexistent Holy Spirit that came to dwell in the flesh.” In my edition the cited reference has nothing to do with the Son or the Holy Spirit. However, in 5.45–46 and 54 I find mention of both. We need to notice that this book is filled with strange dreams and fanciful parables which are sometimes interpreted enigmatically. In one of his vision parable interpretations, a certain farm owner represents the Creator; the farmer’s son represents the Holy Spirit, and the farmer’s servant represents Jesus. A casual reading of the words, “The son is the Holy Spirit,” might lead a person to the erroneous conclusion that the writer identified Jesus as the Holy Spirit, which he does not. In no case does the passage imply anything concerning the Virgin Birth, or that Jesus is a never-begotten Holy Spirit.
Crouch says, “We cannot know whether the silence of the Apostolic Fathers indicated ignorance, or rejection, of the idea of virginal conception.” Let us suppose that a man graduates from Harvard University. We approach him on graduation day and ask, “Sir, can you give me some quotations from your professors on their beliefs as to whether the earth is flat, or if it is globe shaped?”
After meditating, he answers: “ I cannot remember any of my professors at any time commenting on this question.”
We prepare our survey report with these words: “I do not know if the silence of the Harvard professors indicates ignorance, or rejection of the idea of a globe-shaped earth” (as if these were the only alternatives!).
The point is, some of the Apostolic Fathers did not mention the Virgin Birth in some of their writings (e.g., the apostle Paul), but this does not indicate that they were ignorant, nor does it indicate that they rejected the doctrine.
Crouch says, “two Christian groups of the second century explicitly rejected the virginal conception: the Gnostics and the Jewish Christians, sometimes called Ebionites.” Ebionites were considered heretics by the mainline Christian Church.
To curry favor for the views of the Ebionites, Crouch says, “it is the Jewish Christians who have the most valid claim to be the heirs of early Palestinian Christianity.” This is true of the apostles and their followers. But the Ebionites! May the Lord help us!
Gnostics were generally gentiles who mixed Greek philosophy with some Christian terminology. Numerous diverse categories of Gnostics existed, making it difficult to list identifying characteristics. To cite the teachings of Gnostics as an indication of the beliefs held by early Christians would be similar to a scholar citing the beliefs of Mormons as indicative of the beliefs of 20th-century Christians.
Crouch writes that Justin Martyr, “who wrote in the first half of the second century, acknowledged in his Dialogue with Trypho (48:4) that a number of Christians claimed that Jesus was of human origin. While he himself believed in the virginal conception, for him the idea was not essential to Christian faith.”
Justin wrote: “There are some of our race who admit that he is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men.” The words, “our race,” elicit extensive discussion, since Justin was a gentile, and some believe he referred to the Ebionites. If Justin meant the Ebionites, he wrote of a known group of heretics who were few in number compared to nonheretical Christians. If Justin meant a gentile group, we do not know who they were. In either case, Crouch gives a wrong impression by saying “a number of …,” which implies “an indefinite, usually large total, a numerous group, a numerical preponderance” (Merriam-Webster Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 578). He should have said the group was a small minority, a group not even recognized as Christian by the majority of those in that faith.
Crouch then makes the astounding statement that the idea of the virginal conception was, for Justin Martyr, “not essential to Christian faith.” What caused Crouch to make such a statement? Did Justin ever imply anything like this in his writings? Did he ever suggest that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth was a nonessential? If he considered it to be nonessential, why did he speak of it so strongly and frequently in his dialogues with a Jew? Why offend a Jew with a nonessential?
I do not have an index for Justin’s writings, but I am sure there must be at least twice as many references to the 044Virgin Birth of Jesus as those that I found by a quick run through of his Dialogue. One whole chapter is devoted to the subject. A person could say that the doctrine of the deity of Christ was not essential to Justin Martyr, with equal absence of reason.
Emmanuel Baptist Church
Pummer’s View At Odds with the Bible
Reinhart Pummer (“The Samaritans—A Jewish Offshoot or a Pagan Cult?” BR 07:05) tries to refute the view that the Samaritans emerged from a mixture of northern Israelites and foreign settlers brought to Israel by King Esarhaddon of Assyria in the seventh century B.C.E. Pummer claims that 2 Kings 17 only implies that this occurred. In fact verse 24 of the same chapter is more than an implication. Most interesting, though, is that verses 26–28 might give Pummer the clue why the Samaritans have so many Jewish customs.
When the foreign settlers (consisting of Babylonians and other nations) were brought by the king of Assyria to Samaria, they were attacked by lions. Messengers came to the king of Assyria advising him that: “The nation which thou has carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner of the God of the land; therefore He (God) hath sent lions among them… Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying: ‘Carry thither one of the priests whom ye brought from thence; and let them go and dwell there, and let him teach them the manner of the God of the land.’ So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Beth-el and taught them how they should fear the Lord” (2 Kings 17:26–28). Perhaps this indicates why the Samaritans have many Jewish customs.
These same Samaritans are described in Ezra as wanting to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem together with the Jews returning from Babylonia in the fifth century B.C.E. “Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up hither” (Ezra 4:2). The reply of the Jewish leaders was negative: “Ye have nothing to do with us to build a house unto the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 4:3). As a result of this refusal, the Samaritans (apparently a powerful group already) harried the Jews for 14 years while the Jews were rebuilding the Temple. They even wrote in Aramaic to the king of Persia complaining of the Jewish efforts to rebuild the Temple.
If Ezra mentions the Samaritans in the fifth century B.C.E. as a force to reckon with how can Pummer place their origin as a separate sect of Judaism in the second century B.C.E.? To substantiate his claim he takes as proof the way they celebrate the festivals, the square 046Hebrew script and the spelling. These are not proof of their late arrival. The holidays were celebrated as the Bible prescribed long before the second century, and the square letters of the Hebrew alphabet date from the return of the Jews from Babylon in the fifth century B.C.E. The Jews acquired this square alphabet in the Babylonian Exile.
It seems that Pummer’s view that the Samaritans are an offshoot of Judaism from the second or first century B.C.E. is not congruent with the biblical evidence.
Palo Alto, California
Reinhard Pummer replies:
Haya Fried reiterates the traditional view of the origins of the Samaritans. As I indicated on the first page of my article, modern biblical scholarship has arrived at and showed that not only was 2 Kings 17:24–41 inserted into the books of Kings after the Babylonian Exile, but also that there are different strata of tradition in the text that reflect consecutive phases of reinterpretation.
Ezra 4:1–5 also has to be looked at closely in order to see its precise import. A thorough study of the relevant texts makes clear that the population in Samaria at that time was not homogeneous but consisted on the one hand of Israelites who later became the Samaritans proper, and, on the other, of gentile Samarians, i.e. inhabitants of Samaria, who practiced a syncretistic cult. It was the latter group that was repulsed.1
Although the origin of the Samaritans is now dated in the second/first centuries B.C.E., it is true that tensions between the northern and southern communities go back to earlier times, as I pointed out in the article. There was no sudden “schism” but a gradual estrangement that led to the emergence of two different groups, both descended from the same root.
Nowhere in my article do I state or imply that the Samaritan script is the square Hebrew script. If the Samaritans had used it in antiquity, which is possible, they have long discontinued this practice. My remark regarding “the form of the Samaritan script” refers to the fact that is derived from paleo-Hebrew the ancient Hebrew script. Samples of the Samaritan script can be seen throughout the article (see photos of Torah scroll case and section of the Abisha Scroll). It branched off from paleo-Hebrew around the turn of the eras.2
Let me also take this opportunity to correct a mistake in my article, where I wrote that the Passover sacrifice takes place in a location “about 2,500 feet below the highest peak of Mt. Gerizim.” This is almost the total height of the mountain, and obviously it was on my mind when I wrote this sentence. I should have written “about 500 feet” from the top.
An “Ever Virgin” Mary
I am writing in connection with the response of Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., to the letter regarding the siblings of Jesus in Readers Reply, BR 07:05.
Although I agree with Professor Fitzmyer that Mark 15:40 suggests that adelphos as used in Mark 6:3 means “kinsman” rather than “blood brother,” there is stronger Gospel evidence indicating that the opposite is actually the case the case. Luke 2:7 refers to Jesus as the “firstborn son” of Mary and Joseph, implying that other sons followed, and Matthew 1:25 tells us that Joseph “had no marital relations with her [Mary] until she had borne a son,” suggesting that he had marital relations with her afterward. Given Professor Fitzmyer’s acknowledgment that the most natural translation of adelphos would be “blood brother,” it is clear that the question of whether or not Jesus had siblings is only problematic in light of the belief by some Christian denominations in an “ever virgin” Mary.
As to the reason that Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to a friend in John 19:26–27, it is possible that Jesus was uncertain as to the fate of his brothers after his arrest and the dispersal of his disciples. Despite the tradition that Jesus’ brothers joined his movement only after the resurrection, it is more likely the brothers had become disciples by the time of the crucifixion: the brothers traveled with Jesus during his ministry (John 2:12), Joseph’s brother Cleopas was a disciple (Luke 24:18 and Eusebius, History of the Church 4:22 and 3:11) and Jesus’ brother James was given control of the Jerusalem church over Peter after Jesus’ death. Since the last time Jesus saw his disciples they were fleeing from an armed band of Temple guards, and only the beloved disciple and Jesus’ female followers showed up at the crucifixion, Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to the only male disciple he knew for sure to be alive. To argue against Jesus’ omniscience in this case is not to deny his divinity but rather to recognize his humanity during the severest trial of his career.
How to Achieve Balance?
Rev. Clark Mankin (Readers Reply, BR 07:04) says that BR should be renamed “Heresy Review”—this, because “[it] does not carry a balanced presentation…” Mankin charges that BR has a “duty to present one fundamental/evangelical article for each article from the critical school.”
This all sounds pluralistic and democratic, but it has no basic in intellectual reality. The “fundamental/evangelical” position needs no hearing because all know what it is: no amount of reason, scholarship, study, research, knowledge or any other intellectual endeavor can ever shed light on the fundamental/evangelical stance. For the Rev. Mankins of this world, BR is just another tool for Satan’s mischief.
We do not “balance” modern physics with early Greek philosophy. It is not balance to put fundamental/evangelical beliefs alongside the best scholarship. It is intellectual emasculation.
San Jose, California
How Did the Virgin Birth Get So Popular?