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Jesus as God and Distinct from God: A Reply to Kegan Chandler

Sat, 02/23/2019 - 19:13

In his book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma, Kegan Chandler repeats Dale Tuggy’s critique of Richard Bauckham’s “divine identity Christology,” which is essentially that the idea is logically contradictory. As part of his critique, Chandler offers the following quotation from the book Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, which I co-authored with Ed Komoszewski.[1] Here is how Chandler presents the quotation:

One pair of evangelicals who subscribe to Bauckham’s thesis admit:

The New Testament makes a distinction between [Jesus and God the Father]… sometimes as God and the Son of God. Although it’s hard to understand, the New Testament both distinguishes Jesus from God and identifies him as God—sometimes in the same breath.

But does the data really force the conclusion that the New Testament positively identifies Jesus as “God” and “not God” at the same time? Is this conclusion only “hard to understand” as these apologists claim, or is it impossible?[2]

Chandler’s footnote to our book cites page 1 and credits Tuggy for the citation. The second-hand nature of the citation shows, since the quotation actually comes from page 21 of the book.

As is very often the case with Chandler’s quotations from Trinitarians, he characterizes the statement he quotes here as something we “admit,” as though it were somehow contrary to or in tension with our theological position. This is not at all the case. Chandler has made it seem as though we were making an embarrassing admission by a highly selective, partial quotation of what we said. Here is the complete statement with the omitted material restored:

Third, we take for granted that Jesus is not God the Father. Rather, Jesus is “the Son of the Father” (2 John 3 nasb). The New Testament makes a distinction between the two, sometimes as the Father and the Son, sometimes as God and the Son of God. Although it’s hard to understand, the New Testament both distinguishes Jesus from God and identifies him as God—sometimes in the same breath (e.g., John 1:1; 20:28-31; Heb. 1:8-9; 2 Pet. 1:1-2). It is this fact about New Testament teaching—paralleled in what it also teaches about the Holy Spirit—that led Christian theologians to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. We will not be discussing the Trinity in this book, although Jesus’ identity as God is a key part of that doctrine.[3]

Far from something we are forced to “admit,” the New Testament distinction between the Son Jesus Christ and God the Father is basic to the doctrine of the Trinity.

In addition to obscuring the point we were making by his selective partial quotation, Chandler excises from the quoted sentence the biblical references we cited as exemplifying our point that Jesus is both called God and distinguished from God “sometimes in the same breath.” Those texts we cited—John 1:1, John 20:28-31, Hebrews 1:8-9, and 2 Peter 1:1-2—are all discussed in some detail later in our book.[4] Chandler does not engage or even mention our treatment of those texts anywhere in his book.[5] Nor does he engage the exegesis of those texts from other orthodox Christian scholars, though he offers a few citations from such scholars on John 1:1, generally shorn of context, without even commenting on how those scholars handle the texts in question.[6] Trinitarian studies of the other texts do not get even this much attention.[7]

Chandler asks, as quoted above: “But does the data really force the conclusion that the New Testament positively identifies Jesus as ‘God’ and ‘not God’ at the same time?” This is not quite what we said, but let it stand. Chandler excised our reference to “the data” from his quotation of our book, ignored much of “the data” in the rest of the book, and never engaged any orthodox treatment of the exegesis and interpretation of any of those biblical texts. In a book of more than 500 pages boasting over 1,500 footnotes, about 200 pages of which are focused on the biblical teaching about the person of Jesus, these omissions are really inexcusable.

The point being made here is simply this: If a critic of the doctrine of the Trinity is going to cite Trinitarian scholars, he ought to engage their arguments. With rare and mostly fleeting exceptions, this is something Chandler does not attempt in his book. Rather, for the most part he attempts to wring admissions out of orthodox scholars by selective quotations that appear to support his position.

NOTES

[1] Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007).

[2] Kegan A. Chandler, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma: The Recovery of New Testament Theology, foreword by Anthony F. Buzzard (McDonough, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2016), 434.

[3] Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 21.

[4] Ibid., 138–44, 148–56.

[5] Chandler has only two other references to Putting Jesus in His Place in his book, neither dealing with any of these biblical texts: God of Jesus, 440, 511.

[6] Chandler devotes 26 pages to John 1:1-3 (God of Jesus, 469-94) and only briefly quotes A. T. Robertson, F. F. Bruce, and most notably Murray Harris without engaging their exegesis of the text (God of Jesus, 487, 493). This appears to be the only reference in Chandler’s book to Harris’s important monograph: Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

[7] Chandler devotes three pages to John 20:28 without citing a single orthodox scholar or engaging any Trinitarian perspectives on that text (the 18th-century Hebrew scholar J. D. Michaelis does not count); God of Jesus, 418–20. He dismisses Hebrews 1:8 very quickly without even mentioning any Trinitarians or engaging any orthodox exegesis of the text (God of Jesus, 416). 2 Peter 1:1 and Titus 2:13 are dispatched in a footnote (God of Jesus, 413 n. 1301).

Enoch, Jude, the Canon, and the Sons of God: Some Notes for the Curious

Mon, 02/04/2019 - 14:41

God took Enoch, Gerard Hoet (ca 1700)

In an odd coincidence, I was asked twice in one day to comment about the canonicity of the Book of Enoch and some related matters. I will not attempt to resolve all of the issues here, but instead will offer a brief overview and some references for those who would like to pursue the matter in further depth.

In the epistle of Jude, we read the following:

It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying:
“Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousand of his holy ones,
to execute judgment on all
and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness
that they have committed in such an ungodly way,
and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14-15 ESV).

Compare Jude’s quotation of Enoch with the following passage from the Book of Enoch:

And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones
To execute judgement upon all,
And to destroy all the ungodly:
And to convict all flesh Of all the works of their ungodliness
which they have ungodly committed,
And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him. (Enoch 1:9)

By the way, the closest any passage in the canonical Old Testament comes to the statement in Jude is in a different context, that of God’s revelation to Israel in the wilderness:

“The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran;
he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deut. 33:2 ESV).

The odds are very good that Jude’s quotation of Enoch (Jude 14-15) came from the Book of Enoch. The quotation is very close to what is found in the book. The matter is complicated by the fact that the book was probably written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jude’s quotation is in Greek, and our earliest substantial manuscripts of the book are later translations in other languages (especially Ethiopic). Given these language differences, the similarities between the two passages are surprising. Most scholars think Jude is quoting from the book, and this seems likely to be correct. If Jude is quoting a “tradition” found also in the Book of Enoch but got it from a different source, that source would either be oral or written. I don’t think it’s plausible to argue that it was oral only, so we would likely be talking about a different book. If so, that different book is also not in the canon of Scripture, so we have not gained anything by denying that Jude was quoting the Book of Enoch. Perhaps one could maintain that Jude was quoting from an earlier version of the Book of Enoch.

Besides the quote explicitly attributed to Enoch, there are quite a number of significant points of contact thematically and verbally between Jude and the Book of Enoch. These commonalities further support the conclusion that Jude drew upon the book.

As for the Book of Enoch itself, all scholars agree that it was not written even close to the time of the Genesis patriarch some 3,000 or more years before the NT era (before the Flood, and as best we know before writing had been invented). (My own view is that the Flood must be dated more than ten thousand years before Christ, but that’s a subject for another day!) The standard view is that the Book of Enoch that has been preserved in a later Ethiopic translation was a compilation or composite work with material dating from the third century BC through the first century AD (with possible interpolations even later, though these are debated).

Obviously, these conclusions leave us with a bit of a question as to what to make of Jude’s quotation. One common idea is that the statement attributed by Jude to Enoch was really spoken by Enoch and somehow the knowledge of what Enoch had said was preserved for three (or more) millennia and recorded in the Book of Enoch. This is possible but awfully difficult to prove or even to show is the most likely scenario. It is also possible that what Jude meant was that Enoch in the Book of Enoch prophesied with the statement that Jude quoted. That is, Jude might not have been affirming or intending to say anything about what the historical patriarch Enoch had said thousands of years earlier. It is difficult to justify any dogmatic statement on the matter.

Then there is the question of the canon. Here I think the issue is fairly clear. The Book of Enoch was a Jewish work (not a Christian work) and yet was never part of the Jewish canon of Scripture. It was also not accepted as canonical by Christians other than in Ethiopia (where the only complete manuscript originated); the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a related group in Eritrea are the only denominations accepting it as canonical, to the best of my knowledge. Interestingly, a Jewish sect in Ethiopia is the only segment of Judaism that accepts the Book of Enoch as canonical. This evidence shows that the book was not excised or removed from the canon by mainstream ancient Jews or Christians. Rather, it was added to the canon by Jews and Christians living in Ethiopia. Christians may find the book to be of value in understanding the Bible while still denying that it was or should be canonical Scripture.

Finally, the Book of Enoch does provide some strong external evidence in support of the view that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 were understood as fallen angels or the like by Jewish and Christian writers during the NT era. But there are good exegetical arguments for this interpretation that do not depend on the Book of Enoch. I myself arrived at this understanding of Genesis 6:1-4 (and the relevant NT texts) many years ago without knowing anything about the Book of Enoch. For example, the precise expression “sons of God” occurs in the Book of Job in clear reference to heavenly or spirit beings (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Genesis 6:1-4 appears to be the OT background to Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4. I admit this is all quite strange, and I am not saying we should accept all of the ancient Jewish speculations in the Book of Enoch (far from it). However, as a hermeneutical principle I expect to find things in the Bible that are strange to me, especially in Genesis 1-11 dealing with the preliterate period of human history.

Some references for those wanting to study these things further (list updated 2/5/19):

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Includes a short discussion on Genesis 6:1-4 and the possibly related NT texts.

Brown, Michael. “Why Isn’t the Book of Enoch in the Bible?” YouTube video with comments from visitors to Brown’s website. Brown gives an intelligent, well spoken explanation of the standard conservative Christian response to the issue. I agree with much of what he says in this short video.

Godowa, Brian. “The Book of Enoch: Scripture, Heresy, or What?” Brian Godowa takes a position similar to that of Michael Heiser. He emphasizes evidence that the epistle of Jude was heavily dependent on the Book of Enoch beyond the one quotation. A good introduction to the issue even if one does not agree with everything he says. You might need to sign up for an account with academia.edu to access this paper.

Heiser, Michael S. “The Book of Enoch in the Early Church” (PDF document). This is a transcript so it has some formatting and other mistakes. Heiser argues that the Book of Enoch should be studied as helpful background to the NT even though it’s not canonical.

Heiser, Michael S. Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers, and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ. Defender Publishing, 2017. Heiser’s recent book on the same topics. I haven’t read this though I have read earlier writings by Heiser on these subjects. I tend to agree with a lot of what he says and disagree with some of it.

Kirby, Peter. “1 Enoch.” Early Jewish Writings (website), 2013. Useful source of quotations about the Book of Enoch and links to texts and resources about it.

Potter, Douglas E. “The Book of Enoch: Canonical, Authoritative, or What?” (2018). Fairly lengthy academic paper by an evangelical author, available on academia.edu.

 

Don’t Know Much about Book of Mormon Geography

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 22:59

John Clark’s Mythical Geography View of the Book of Mormon

On January 29, 2019 (yesterday as of the time of this writing), the LDS Church published an article online entitled “Book of Mormon Geography,” another installment in its series of innocuously titled “Gospel Topics” essays. Begun in 2013, this series has addressed such problematic issues in Mormonism as the conflicting First Vision accounts, race and the priesthood, the Book of Abraham, the LDS doctrine of becoming Gods, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, Joseph’s use of a seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, and DNA and the Book of Mormon. The articles are all anonymous and, in most cases, appear to have been composed by BYU scholars. The typical Gospel Topics essay is heavily footnoted[1] and ends with a vague acknowledgment of “the contribution of scholars.”

The new essay on “Book of Mormon Geography” is something else. It is only five short paragraphs in length, has only four footnotes, and contains no acknowledgment of scholarly input. Evidently there simply is not much that the LDS Church has to say on the matter. The essay itself confirms this impression. It begins with the following paragraph, which it sets in all italics:

The Church takes no position on the specific geographic location of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas. Church members are asked not to teach theories about Book of Mormon geography in Church settings but to focus instead on the Book of Mormon’s teachings and testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel.

This directive is not new. A 2012 curriculum manual contains an abstract diagram of the lands of Zarahemla and Nephi with the caveat, “As you use this diagram, explain that the Church has no official position about Book of Mormon geography except that the events occurred in the Americas.”[2] LDS leaders and writers have cautioned many times for over a century against placing too much confidence in any particular theory about the lands where the Nephite civilization was located.[3]

Although the directive expressed in the new essay is not itself new, the essay makes some noteworthy statements, as we shall see.

Geographically Neutral

One might wonder why the LDS Church is unable to take any sort of stance regarding the geography of the Book of Mormon. Is this reticence due to some uncertainty about the exact locations of specific cities or the precise sites of specific events? Is it because they have a generally good idea where the Nephites lived but cannot pinpoint the location of the city of Bountiful? Not at all. Rather, the LDS Church refuses to commit itself to any “Book of Mormon geography” because Mormons are currently sharply divided among themselves as to the general part of the world where the Book of Mormon civilizations supposedly lived. As the statement quoted above from the 2012 manual indicates, the only thing the LDS Church confidently asserts is that the Book of Mormon events occurred somewhere “in the Americas.” Beyond that extremely general claim, Mormons advocate widely disparate theories as to the regions of the Western Hemisphere occupied by the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations described in the Book of Mormon.

The traditional view held by most Mormons in the nineteenth century, is that the Book of Mormon peoples occupied essentially the entire Western Hemisphere. BYU scholar John Sorenson, who adamantly rejected this model, admitted it was the traditional view even from the first decade of Mormonism.[4] The Gospel Topics article similarly acknowledges, “The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America.” Nevertheless, today this “Hemispheric model” has largely fallen out of favor. In its place at least three very different regional theories are vigorously defended by various factions within the LDS movement:

  • Mesoamerican models place the entire civilizations of the Book of Mormon within a part of Central America (usually in what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico).
  • The Heartland model places the Book of Mormon civilizations in North America, especially around some of the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys.
  • The Andean model identifies the Book of Mormon lands as South America, with the major civilizations largely along the Pacific coast (Peru, Chile, and Ecuador).

To put these differences in perspective, imagine Christians strenuously debating among themselves whether the ancient nation of Israel occupied the entire Mediterranean region (southern Europe, the Near East, and North Africa), the Italian peninsula, southern Arabia, or a thin Mediterranean coastal strip in the Levant. Imagine being unsure whether ancient Jerusalem was in modern-day Israel, Yemen, or France. This is a fair comparison, since Mormons debate whether the Book of Mormon location called Cumorah was in upstate New York, southern Mexico, or the Andes mountains near Ecuador. Upstate New York and Ecuador are more than 3,000 miles apart by air and over 4,000 miles apart by land.

Is it not the case that there is uncertainty about many biblical locations? Yes and No. Yes, there is uncertainty about many specific places mentioned in the Bible, mostly small villages or towns referenced only once or twice in the Old Testament. No, there is no uncertainty about the regions occupied for centuries by the major nations or societies that figure in Old Testament history. Those unidentified villages? We don’t know exactly where they were, but we typically can narrow it down to within fifty or a hundred miles or so (sometimes much less). We know where Israel was. We know where the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans lived. The most famous specific site mentioned in the Bible for which we have any significant uncertainty as to its location is Ur, Abraham’s ancestral city. Most scholars think it was located in southern Iraq, but there are traditions and theories suggesting locations as far away as eastern Turkey, roughly 800 miles to the north. That’s just one location, from four thousand years ago, about as “bad” as it gets for any historical location in the Bible, and yet it’s five times worse for every place in the Book of Mormon because Mormons themselves place the Nephite civilization in regions as much as 4,000 miles apart.

In 1985, when John Sorenson published his landmark book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,[5] many Mormon scholars thought he had firmly established a workable Mesoamerican model for Book of Mormon geography. For the past three decades most of the defenses of the Book of Mormon’s historical authenticity coming out of BYU, FARMS (later the Maxwell Institute), FairMormon, and more recently Interpreter presupposed and built on Sorenson’s model or one like it. The LDS Church has a cadre of scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians passionately interested in validating the Book of Mormon, most of whom advocate some form of Mesoamerican model. Yet instead of this model gaining ground and becoming the dominant view it has if anything lost “market share” among Mormons in the last twenty years or so. The “Heartland model” especially enjoys considerable, enthusiastic support from many rank-and-file Mormons and is supported and promoted through conferences, videos, websites, books, and even tours to locations thought to support this alternative model.[6]

After years of vigorous debates between advocates of the Heartland and Mesoamerican models—with the Andean model seemingly emerging in recent years as a significant alternative—no model appears to be likely to win the day. The LDS Church has therefore reiterated its stance that it has no official view on which of the many models of Book of Mormon geography is correct. The hope that as the evidence accumulated one viewpoint would emerge as clearly superior has faded.

Book of Mormon Central is an independent LDS organization focused on defending the authenticity and truth of the Book of Mormon. In 2016, it adopted a “policy on Book of Mormon geography” in which it stated, “Book of Mormon Central at this time is officially geography neutral. We seek deep understanding of the Book of Mormon text. We hope diligent students work together to achieve working consensus on the geographic correlation issue.”[7] Its article commenting on the Gospel Topics article reiterated its neutrality on the subject.[8] “Geography neutral” is another way of saying, “We don’t know where any of it happened.”

Geography Today, History Tomorrow?

Although the LDS Church is officially “neutral” on Book of Mormon geography, it is not neutral on the historicity of the Book of Mormon narrative. It has been a cardinal doctrine of the religion that the Book of Mormon is an authentic collection of texts written by ancient prophets somewhere in the Americas recounting actual events in their history. The LDS Church has stiffly resisted proposals to regard the Book of Mormon as a modern scripture utilizing the fiction of ancient civilizations as the vehicle for conveying spiritual truth.

It probably seems unthinkable to most Mormons today that the LDS Church would ever abandon its position that the Book of Mormon is literal, historical fact. However, one should not forget that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), decades before it became the Community of Christ, had gone through a transition in which most members went from belief in the Book of Mormon as history to a liberal view of its narrative as inspired, spiritually edifying fiction. Might the same thing happen in the Salt Lake City based LDS Church?

The Gospel Topics essay ends as follows:

Speaking of the book’s history and geography, President Russell M. Nelson taught: “Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.”

One should not miss that the essay applies this statement not just to geography but to the Book of Mormon’s “history and geography.” That is, at least as written, this statement appears to treat both history and geography in the Book of Mormon as merely “interesting” and even “incidental” and not as essential to “its primary purpose.” A check of Russell’s message (a General Conference address in 1999) confirms the accuracy of the essay’s quotation. Before saying that “these matters” are merely interesting and incidental, Russell had commented about authors writing about the Book of Mormon who “focused upon its stories, its people, or its vignettes of history” or such matters as “its language structure or its records of weapons, geography, animal life, techniques of building, or systems of weights and measures.”[9]

Of course, Russell (who is now the Prophet and President of the LDS Church) was not questioning the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, his statement does seem to indicate that its historical content is not essential to its purpose “to testify of Jesus Christ.” It might not be too many steps from this stance to the conclusion that one may question its historicity without losing its gospel message. If it is possible to be “geography neutral” with regard to the Book of Mormon, perhaps it is possible to be “history neutral” as well.

NOTES

[1] For example, “Becoming Like God” has 56 footnotes; “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” 53; “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” 46; “Book of Mormon Translation,”34; “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” 30; “Race and the Priesthood,” 26. “First Vision Accounts” is relatively sparing with just 13 footnotes.

[2] “Lesson 56: Mosiah 7–8,” in Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual (2012), 196. This statement was cited in the 2014 Gospel Topics essay “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” (n. 6).

[3] See the series of quotations from 1903 to 1993 at “Book of Mormon Geography and Revelation,” FairMormon (n.d.).

[4] John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Sourcebook, rev. ed. (Provo: FARMS, 1992), 9-11.

[5] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret/FARMS, 1985).

[6] See especially the website of the FIRM Foundation (Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism), led by Rod Meldrum, at https://BookofMormonEvidence.com.

[7]Policies,” Book of Mormon Central.

[8]Church Releases Statement on Book of Mormon Geography,” Book of Mormon Central, Jan. 29, 2019.

[9] Russell M. Nelson, “A Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Nov. 1999.

Six Hints that the “Baby Jesus Stories” of the Gospels Were Not Late Additions

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 12:42
Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

 

Every December, articles circulate online (and often in major news magazines) calling into question the truth of the virgin birth of Christ. This year, a blog article posted on December 19, 2018, by former fundamentalist Christian turned atheist Valerie Tarico has been making the rounds, boosted by various progressive “news” websites such as Alternet and RawStory. Tarico’s post is entitled “Six Hints that Baby Jesus Stories were Late Additions to Early Christian Lore.” Let’s look at her six hints.

Paul’s Silence about Jesus’ Miraculous Nativity

According to Tarico, Paul’s epistles, the earliest New Testament writings, “give no hint” about Jesus’ virgin birth or the other miracles associated with his nativity. “Paul simply says that he was a Jew, born to a woman.”

Well, yes. Paul makes no mention of a number of significant events mentioned in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, his cleansing of the temple, or any of Jesus’ miracles. His omission of these events does not call any of them into question historically. Paul was not writing a biography of Jesus; he was writing letters to churches and church leaders to address specific pastoral and theological issues as they arose in those churches. Tarico’s “hint” here is no more than an argument from silence, a fallacious form of reasoning.

That having been said, the very statement Paul makes to which Tarico alludes may in fact be a “hint” that Paul was aware of Jesus’ miraculous conception:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law (Gal. 4:4).[1]

Three aspects of this passage are at least possible hints at the virgin birth of Christ. First, the expression “born of woman” is rather suggestive. If this simply means that Christ had a biological mother, the observation would seem to be rather trite. Now, it is true that one can find this expression in other contexts, as in a few statements in the poetic speeches in the Book of Job in which “born of woman” expresses the physical and moral weakness of human beings (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4). However, this does not seem to be Paul’s point about Jesus.

Second, Paul refers to Jesus here as God’s “Son.” Paul does use this title for Jesus elsewhere but not often (a total of just 17 occurrences in eight of his thirteen epistles); the titles “Lord” and “Christ” are by far his most common titles for Jesus. What is striking here is that Paul refers to Jesus as God’s “Son” in the immediate context of referring to his being “born of a woman.”

Third, Paul goes on to say that having “sent forth his Son,” God has now “sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts” (Gal. 4:4, 6). Paul’s statements here describe the sending of two divine persons from heaven: the Son, who came by being “born of woman,” and the Spirit, who came by indwelling the hearts of believers in the Son.[2] The fact that Paul here speaks of the Son as a preexistent divine person who is then “born of woman” adds further plausibility to the view that his statement reflects some awareness of Christ’s miraculous entry into the human race.

This evidence does not prove that Paul knew about the virgin birth of Christ. However, it is a far more plausible “hint” in this regard than Tarico’s simplistic argument from silence.

Mark’s Silence about Jesus’ Birth

Tarico’s second “hint” is that the Gospel of Mark, widely thought by scholars to have been the earliest Gospel, says nothing about Jesus’ birth. At best, this is another fallacious argument from silence. The fact that Mark does not mention something does not prove he knew nothing about it, let alone that it did not happen. Mark starts his account of Jesus with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. Although the Gospel of Mark is “biographical” (unlike Paul’s epistles), it is more like ancient Greco-Roman biographies than it is like modern Western biographies. Such ancient biographies often gave little or no attention to their subject’s birth or childhood.[3]

Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, though similar in many ways to ancient Greco-Roman biographies, was evidently written on the basis primarily of one man’s personal knowledge about Jesus. According to information dating from the early second century, Mark wrote his Gospel based on the recollections of the apostle Peter, who had traveled with Jesus from shortly after his baptism by John right up to the time of his crucifixion. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has shown that there are good reasons to think this information is reliable. Simon Peter is the first of the disciples to be mentioned by name in Mark’s Gospel as well as the last one to be mentioned (Mark 1:16-18; 16:8), and Mark mentions Peter more often than the other Gospels do. Other aspects of the Gospel of Mark also suggest it was written from Peter’s perspective.[4]

Although Mark does not refer directly to the virgin birth of Christ, his Gospel happens to contain a “hint” that suggests some awareness of the matter. Consider the following passage:

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)

It is rather surprising that the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth would have referred to Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than “the son of Joseph.” Gerd Lüdemann, an atheist New Testament scholar, has observed, “…the phrase ‘son of Mary’ remains all the more unusual since a Jewish male would normally be associated with the name of his father.”[5] Lüdemann concludes that Jesus was an illegitimate son, a conclusion shared by many if not most of the leading critics of the Virgin Birth today. These skeptics deny the Virgin Birth but agree that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.

The fact that Mark calmly reported the townspeople’s implicitly disparaging reference to Jesus as “the son of Mary” hints at the possibility that he knew that Jesus was not really an illegitimate son after all. There is no way to know for sure, but here again there is more of a “hint” here in support of the Virgin Birth than there is in the mere lack of any narrative of the event in Mark’s Gospel.

The Lack of Overlap between Matthew’s and Luke’s Infancy Narratives

Tarico next claims that the “remarkably little overlap” between the infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 somehow calls both accounts into question historically. She asserts, “In both, Jesus is born in Bethlehem of a virgin Mary who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. That’s where the similarity ends.” She speculates that the reason for the differences between the two accounts “is that they represent two different branches in the tree of oral tradition.”

First, the similarities between the two accounts go much deeper than Tarico acknowledges. The many points of contact between the two narratives include the fact that Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but not yet married, when Mary became pregnant with Jesus—a very specific point in the timeline of events (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:27-38; 2:5). Both Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born toward the end of the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1:1-22; Luke 1:5). Both accounts emphasize the Davidic heritage of the child and report that angels announced the birth and explained that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:16-24; Luke 1:32-38). Both Gospels report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and yet was raised as a child in Nazareth (Matt. 2:1, 23; Luke 2:4-7, 39, 51).

Second, if the two infancy narratives “represent two different branches in the tree of oral tradition,” then the elements they have in common must have originated earlier than either Gospel. Indeed, the less the two accounts have in common, the further back in time the two “branches” must have separated and therefore the earlier those shared elements of the two accounts must be dated. Without realizing it, Tarico has presented evidence that actually supports an early origin for the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin!

Third, the best explanation for the differences between the two narratives is that they originally had different narrators. If we compare the two accounts, Matthew’s account is clearly told from Joseph’s point of view while Luke’s account is just as clearly told from Mary’s point of view. Matthew tells about the angel appearing in Joseph’s dreams and about Joseph taking the family to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Luke tells about Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah and about Mary seeing the angel Gabriel and then going to stay with Elizabeth when her son John was born. Their different perspectives nicely account for the little overlap in the two narratives.

Tarico asserts without explanation or any references the claim that the infancy narratives each contain dubious historical claims, “an impossible census in one and an unlikely mass infanticide in the other.” The issue with the census (Luke 2:1-2) is primarily regarding its date, not whether it was a possible event. The difficulty arises from the fact that sources outside the Bible indicate that Quirinius was governor of Syria about a decade after Herod the Great died. Several explanations of this apparent discrepancy have been advanced by scholars. One proposal is that Luke’s statement might be better translated that the census was “before” the one under Quirinius.[6] Another theory is that the Jewish historian Josephus, the main source for dating Quirinius’s census a decade later, was the one who made the mistake.[7] No consensus on this problem has yet emerged—not even among secular scholars. A fair assessment would be that there is an apparent difficulty here and at present we may not have enough information to settle the issue. This conclusion does not, however, warrant the claim that Luke’s account is fiction or that the Virgin Birth never happened.

As for Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16-18), there is no mention of it outside Matthew but it would have been perfectly consistent with Herod’s character. According to Josephus, Herod the Great had hundreds of his real or perceived enemies killed including one of his wives, several members of her family, two of his brothers-in-law (one of whom was the high priest), a group of Pharisees who supported a rival family, and three of his own sons (Jewish Antiquities 15-17). Centuries later it was remembered that Augustus Caesar himself commented, “It is better to be Herod’s pig [Greek, huos] than his son [huios]” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4). Here again, Tarico has stumbled into evidence that Matthew’s account is rather plausible after all.

Alleged Pagan Parallels to the Virgin Birth

Almost invariably, critics of the Virgin Birth claim the idea was borrowed from pagan stories. Tarico does not disappoint. “The idea of gods impregnating women was a common trope that many Jews and Christians have recognized as pagan…. According to Roman imperial theology, Augustus had been conceived when the god Apollo impregnated his human mother, Atia.”

The truth is that stories like the one about Augustus are not about virgin births at all. The gods of Greco-Roman mythology were anthropomorphic beings capable by nature of coming into physical contact with humans (sometimes in the form of an animal) and engaging in sexual activity with them. The Roman biographer Suetonius reported a story, without endorsing it, about Atia becoming pregnant when a snake came into her bed while she slept (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 94.4). This story is so far from the Virgin Birth as to underscore just how lacking in pagan elements the Gospel accounts are. Bart Ehrman, a famous agnostic New Testament scholar, makes the point as emphatically as anyone:

In none of the stories of the divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin. This is one of the ways that the Christian stories of Jesus differ from those of other divine humans in the ancient world. It is true that (the Jewish) God is the one who makes Jesus’s mother Mary pregnant through the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35). But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies. The gods of the Greeks and Romans may have done such things, but the God of Israel was above it all.[8]

If the Virgin Birth did not derive from paganism, then we have yet another “hint” or reason to think that there might be something historical to it after all.

Tarico suggests, following Marcus Borg, that Luke tells the story of Jesus’ virgin birth in order to encourage his readers to make their allegiance to Jesus rather than Caesar. There is likely a half-truth here. Luke’s account does implicitly contrast Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) with Jesus Christ, who was born during the reign of Augustus (2:6-7). Luke’s message might be fairly interpreted as being that Jesus, not Caesar, is the true, rightful ruler of the world. But this interpretation concerns Luke’s presentation of why the Virgin Birth was significant; it does not tell us whether that event happened or not.

We saw earlier that Matthew’s infancy narrative was independent of Luke’s account as seen in their substantially different contents (while agreeing on a surprising number of facts), most likely because they drew on different sources. This means that Luke could not have invented the story of Jesus’ virgin birth in order to contrast Jesus with Caesar.

Did Mary and Joseph Forget?

Tarico’s fifth “hint” purports to uncover a “bizarre narrative glitch” in Luke’s account, but it is her argument that is bizarre. According to Luke, when Jesus was twelve his parents lost track of Jesus for three days and scolded him when they found him in the temple. Jesus replied to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke then observes, “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (Luke 2:49-50). Tarico comments that this story suggests that Joseph and Mary had “forgotten the astounding signs and wonders that accompanied his birth.”

There is not much of a problem here. Mary and Joseph might well have remembered Jesus’ birth, the angels, and so on, and still not have understood Jesus’ meaning. It seems likely that when Jesus said “I must be in my Father’s house” they misunderstood him to be referring to Joseph’s house. This confusion would have been natural enough, especially for two frantic parents.

There is no evidence that the passage about Jesus in the temple at age twelve was somehow “tacked on at a later time,” as Tarico speculates. All of the textual evidence we have supports its having been a part of the Gospel of Luke from the beginning.

An author inventing a fiction of Jesus being born of a virgin is not likely to have also invented a story about his childhood that might be misunderstood as implying that his mother did not know the truth about him. To the extent that the passage about Jesus in the temple at age twelve presents a more complicated picture of Jesus’ relationship to Mary, it weakens the claim that Luke made it all up. So here again what Tarico envisions as a hint of later fiction turns out to be more likely a hint of the historical accuracy of Luke’s account.

Did the Doctrine of Jesus’ Divinity Develop Gradually?

Tarico’s final “hint” that the infancy narratives are fictional has to do with the order in which the Gospels were written. The usual view among scholars is that Mark was the earliest Gospel (in the 60s), followed perhaps ten to fifteen years later by Matthew and Luke (in the 70s or 80s), which were followed perhaps another decade later by John (in the 90s). Tarico repeats the common claim that these three stages of Gospel composition parallel three stages of development in the way Jesus is presented as divine. In Mark, Jesus’ divinity is revealed at his baptism; in Matthew and Luke, at his birth; and in John, his divinity is pushed back to the time of creation. “This sequence suggests that theologies explaining the divinity of Jesus emerged gradually and evolved as Christianity crystalized and spread.”

This plausible-sounding theory falls apart on close examination. Recall that Tarico herself expressed the opinion that Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives are so different because they represent two branches of the tree of oral traditions about Jesus. If this is so, then the oral tradition must have included the basic claims that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit while she was betrothed to Joseph and that Jesus was later born in Bethlehem. This oral tradition could not have been invented after the Gospel of Mark was written and then diverged into two very different narratives in a period of just ten or fifteen years in time to be written down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Tarico herself argued that “one or more generations” must have passed in order for the two accounts to have diverged as much as they did. This means we may confidently conclude that the shared elements of the two accounts originated well before the Gospel of Mark was written. Those shared elements include the revelation of Jesus as the divine Son at his conception and birth. Therefore, the neat and tidy sequence Tarico and others have constructed of Christians dating the revelation of Jesus’ divinity earlier and earlier (first baptism, then birth, then creation) simply will not work.

The high view of Jesus Christ as deity in Paul’s writings also undercut Tarico’s evolutionary theory. Paul, writing in the 50s (before Tarico dates Mark), speaks of Jesus as the preexistent divine Son (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4), refers to Jesus as “God” (Rom. 9:5), and identifies him repeatedly as the “Lord” of the Old Testament, that is, as Yahweh (e.g., Rom. 10:9-13; Phil. 2:9-11).[9]

What we find in the New Testament is not a gradual evolutionary development of the belief in Jesus as divine over a period of several generations. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado described the emergence of devotion to Jesus as “a veritable ‘big bang,’ an explosively rapid and impressively substantial development in the earliest stage of the Christian movement.”[10] The rapidity with which the early church came to recognize Jesus as divine and worthy of religious devotion is another “hint” that the Virgin Birth was not a “late addition” to the Christian faith.

Some of the popular images or motifs of the Christmas story originated after the time of the New Testament. For example, Matthew does not say how many magi visited Jesus; it may have been three, but it may have been two or four. The number three is a plausible but not necessary inference from the three gifts they presented. The celebration of Jesus’ birthday on December 25 originated much later and there is no evidence that would support that specific date as Jesus’ actual birthday. However, the important theological elements of the story—that Jesus was the divine Son of God, that he was conceived and born of the virgin Mary, that he came into the world to redeem humanity from their captivity to sin and death—were part of the story from the earliest period of the Christian movement.[11]

 

NOTES

[1] All biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] See Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 88–89, for a more detailed comment on this point.

[3] See especially Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed., with a Foreword by Graham Stanton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), especially 124–27, 155–82.

[5] Gerd Lüdemann, Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998), 51.

[6] See Wayne A. Brindle, “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984): 43–52; Brook W. R. Pearson, “The Lucan Censuses, Revisited,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999): 262–82. For an evangelical scholar who disputes this interpretation, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 304–305.

[7] John H. Rhoads, “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 65–87.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 24.

[9] On the divine Christology in Paul’s writings, see Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007); George Carraway, Christ Is God Over All: Romans 9:5 in the Context of Romans 9-11, Library of NT Studies 489 (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2013); Chris Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015); Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[10] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 135.

[11] For a detailed defense of the historicity of the Virgin Birth, see the chapter I contributed to the new edition of Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), especially 319–39.