Episcopal priest and mother of two, Chloe Breyer, speculates about the illegitimacy of Jesus in her Slate.com article, The Earthly Father – What if Mary wasn’t a virgin? [H/T: T-19]
The allegations as to Jesus’ illegitimate birth go way, way back, to the Jewish leaders of the first century, and the anti-Christian polemicist, Celsus. Such charges have been revived in our day via the “historical Jesus” quest and its postmodern manifestation in the Jesus Seminar. The claim is that Mary was pregnant with Jesus by another man than her betrothed, Joseph–in one accounting by Panthera, a Roman soldier. The Christians, then, to cover over this embarrassing detail for one who was supposed to be the Son of God, claimed a miraculous virgin birth.
But what’s at stake in all this? Why does the Creed insist on asserting the virginity of Mary? Is this just a bunch of dogmatic fundamentalism? Is it really necessary to Christian faith to believe in the virginity of Mary? Is this a core Gospel doctrine? What would it really matter if we allowed some good-hearted quibbling on Mary’s virginity?
After all, if Orthodoxy insists on a virginal conception so as to safeguard Jesus’ divinity by excluding human paternity, then, according to Rev. Breyer:
The illegitimacy tradition, by contrast, holds that the Holy Spirit supplemented, rather than replaced, Jesus’ human paternity.
And isn’t that sort of what the Holy Spirit does for us?
Therein lies the most important of two immediate problems for those who want to deny Mary’s virginal conception: Jesus then becomes just like us. Period. Full stop. Just: Like us. This is the problem that makes this some other Gospel than the one received from the Apostles: it means Christ is not by nature God. He is only God by adoption. And if he is not really God by nature, we are not really saved.
More on the implications in a moment.
First a little background on how a minister, claiming the Christian faith, can boldly argue for the legitimacy of this as an alternative form of Christian faith. Breyer gets the bulk of her ruminations here from Dr. Jane Schaberg’s 1987 book (excerpts of which can be found here).
In 1987, Schaberg, a biblical studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, published The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Her central argument was that Matthew and Luke’s Gospels originally told of an illegitimate conception rather than a miraculous virgin one.
Breyer then rehearses the “few short passages in two of the four Gospels” which provide the sources for the virginal conception of Mary.
In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph, who is perplexed about his fiancee’s pregnancy. Should he divorce Mary or have her stoned her to death, as the law of Deuteronomy requires? “Joseph, Son of David,” says the angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” The angel then goes on to quote the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (In fact, “virgin” comes from Matthew’s use of a Greek mistranslation; the Hebrew in Isaiah reads “young girl.”) The version in Luke is similar.
One first of all notes the simple assertion that parthenos “mistranslates” the Hebrew. Of course Rev. Breyer fails to note that the texts of the Greek Septuagint, from which Matthew takes his citation of Isaiah, are generally a millennium older than our Hebrew manuscripts. She also fails to note that of all the instances of “almah” in the Hebrew, of which there are seven, none refer to a married woman or one who has had sexual relations. In fact, in Gen 24, both “almah” (young woman, v. 43) and “bethulah” (virgin, v. 16) are applied to Rebecca. And the Septuagint translates “almah” in Gen 24:43 with “parthenos” just as it does in Isaiah 7:14.
But this is the necessary method of operation for those who are offering interpretations alternative to and opposing the tradition: first instill skepticism and doubt. Call “parthenos” of Isaiah 7:14 a mistranslation–which also calls into question the inspired nature of the biblical text–and the wedge of doubt has been set.
So far, the Scripture sounds pretty clear. But the infancy narratives from Matthew and Luke must be squared with some startling silences, alternative Greek translations, and a couple of snide comments from Jesus’ hometown critics. Paul never mentions the virgin conception and in Galatians describes Christ as “born of a woman.” John’s Gospel says nothing on the subject of Jesus’ conception. And Mark describes the shocked response of the synagogue-goers of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth when Jesus as an adult returns to preach and teach as God’s chosen one. The Nazareth Jews presumably would have known better than anyone about the irregular timing of Jesus’ birth. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” his parents’ neighbors ask one another. Since Jewish men of the time were identified in relationship to their father, Schaberg and other scholars take this remark as an insinuation about Jesus’ parentage—one that was so offensive that the later Evangelists Luke, Matthew, and John changed it.
Note that this alternative interpretation has exploited the opportunity that “silence” affords to fill in the gaps. There is no evidence whatsoever in silence. It is just that: silence.
So, two Gospels mention it, as do the earliest accounts we have outside the Scriptures. But because two Gospels don’t mention, nor does St. Paul, then one apparently is justified in flatly contradicting the explicit evidence of the other Gospels, for the sake of a speculation.
And there’s more. When Mary responds to the angel’s good tidings in Luke, one translation of her speech is, “How can this be, I do not know a man?” But in the Greek, the word for man is anthropos, which also means “husband.” Schaberg suggests that if this is the meaning Luke intended, the text could imply that Jesus had a human father who was not Joseph. Finally, in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving to God, she says, “God has lifted up his humble maidservant.” The Greek word for “humble” is the same one that the Septuagint (the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) uses to describe the rape of Dinah in Genesis and other incidents of sexual violation. From this, Schaberg discerns the possibility that Mary’s “humility” could be “humiliation” from a sexual assault.
Here is the second tactic after one exploits the silences. Note secondary meanings, and assert them as primary ones. I haven’t done a linguistic check on the use of “humility” in the Septuagint, but I suspect it is used of more than just persons violated sexually. No matter: it’s a possible meaning. And since it is possible, it must be legitimately viable.
But this is tantamount to saying that, since the statement “Clifton claimed that God had made him rich with many blessings” could mean that God had made me financially wealthy, then it must be the fact that I’m financially wealthy. (Won’t Anna be surprised!) Or since “blue” can mean sad, one could suggest that saying “The sky is blue” means the heavens are sad. To claim, in the face of the evidence and the history, that it’s possible that Jesus was not conceived virginally, is to make possibility tantamount to lunacy.
But of course, it’s all just conjecture. No harm in a little speculating right?
Admittedly, Schaberg’s conjecture that the Gospel writers were obliquely conveying an illegitimacy tradition—one in which Mary was the victim of rape or seduction—is just that: conjecture. It lacks positive corroboration within the Gospels or other Christian writings. Schaberg acknowledges that she cannot prove that early Christians read the infancy narratives in the way she proposes. Still, if the Gospel writers did assume that their readers knew of an illegitimacy tradition, their words could support a figurative, rather than literal, reading of the angel’s annunciation. It seems rash to rule out that historical possibility when theologically it works so well.
Ah, but here’s the thing: Theologically it doesn’t work so well. In fact, it doesn’t work at all.
For the Gospel is about each of us being made one with God through Jesus Christ (John 17:20-26), to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). God is utterly holy and other. Even if human beings were not sinful, God’s holiness would utterly set him apart from us. We would be and are always other than God, we are creatures and he is the Creator. But Jesus says we are to be one with God. And St. Peter claims we are to be partakers of the divine nature. The only way for this union to happen is for humanity and divinity to be fully united in the Person of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was not virginally conceived by the Holy Spirit, then he is not fully God. If he is fully but only a man who has been granted God’s likeness but not his essence, then not even he can unite us to God, for even Jesus remains always wholly other than God as a creature. If Jesus is fully man, then there is no one in whom we can be united to God.
Only the virgin conception allows for Jesus to be both essentially, by nature, God and essentially, by nature, man. Only the virgin conception allows for Jesus to bring union to the human and divine natures. And only in our union with Jesus, who is both God and man, can we have union with God.
Secondly, if Jesus is wholly humanly begotten, and is not therefore God in essence or nature, and if he was only adopted by God through the Holy Spirit, then humanity is not really fallen or sinful. We can, as we are, be adopted by God–though not united to him. Human nature does not need to change, since it can be adopted by God, as he did in Jesus Christ. But if human nature need not change, then we are ever condemned to our sinfulness and to our mortality and death.
Breyer then asks a series of questions:
Can a loyal Christian believe that Christ was not born of a biological virgin?
No. It removes any possibility of union with God in Christ.
Perhaps it’s worth posing a different question: Why is church authority so intent upon Mary’s virginity as a historical fact?
Because it is the only Gospel which saves us and does not leave us in sin and death.
Would Jesus be any less God’s son if he had an earthly father?
Yes, because he would lack the nature and essence of God the Father.
The central message of the Gospel is that God raised up and redeemed his servant from death by crucifixion—the Roman style of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. Why couldn’t God have sent the same message of divine solidarity with the world’s outcasts by making a Messiah out of a man whose conception was also taboo?
Because divine solidarity does not happen by fiat, but by participation. And only Jesus is the perfect union of God and man in which we can have that participation.
Good news to remember at this time of the year. I may be getting ahead of myself liturgically, but in light of the examination of the heresy examined above perhaps I may be forgiven:
Christ is born! Glorify Him!