The Virgin Birth (Part Two): Origins

In Part One of Joseph and Mariamne, I discussed, at a very high level, the background of Herod the Great’s rise to power and his marriage to a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne I.  His turbulent relationship with the Hasmoneans and Mariamne led to his trial in Rome, which catalyzed the relationship between his wife Mariamne and Herod’s uncle, Joseph (who seemed to have a role as a treasurer).

In this post, I will begin discuss the background that contributes to my assumption that Joseph and Mariamne were the historical characters leveraged by Christian writers to construct the infancy story, particularly the tradition found in the Infancy Gospel of James (which was later infused into a more Docetic Matthew).

Background on Christianity, pre-Birth Story

In my model of early Christian development, the birth story was not original to the Synoptic narrative; this is *not* a terribly radical idea.  Of course, Mark and John completely omit the birth story; but even Matthew, which borrows heavily from Mark while injecting an anti-Paul polemic, did not originally have this birth story.

Therefore, in the earliest versions, Joseph and Mary were not terribly important players in the Gospel.  It was specifically because of the virgin birth that Joseph gained any importance at all (though his role was arguably still marginal); Mary had a slight role absent the virgin birth; her role became much more prominent with the virgin birth and Jesus’ inherent divinity.

I believe the birth story was a later addition by a sect (somewhat) generically referred to as the Nazarenes, which had split from the Ebionites over various theological differences; the contribution the Nazarenes made was to add a birth story to the Gospel their Ebionite predecessors had reworked.  My speculation is that it was the Cerinthians who were some of the earliest users of Mark…perhaps they, or someone like them, wrote it.

The Nazarenes might very well have had members in Samaria, as they might have been partially derivative of the Netzarim of Samaria, as described in Jeremiah 31:5-6.  The reason why this detail is important is because Mariamne I seems to have had some attachment to Samaria; she and Herod were married in Samaria, as well.

The birth story in the earlier Marcan version of Christianity was not only wholly unnecessary and omitted, but it also would have obfuscated the theology, because the whole idea behind Mark’s version of Docetism was that the thing that made Jesus so special was that the Christ was embodied by him.  In other words, Jesus was not divine by birth; such a concept precluded the ability for the Christ to inhabit anyone else – that was problematic because the current leader of a sect would have had less claim to a Spirit encapsulation, which seems to be inherent in Acts of the Apostles, where the apostles were endowed with the Spirit to heal the sick, and to perform other magic tricks.

In the Marcan version of Christianity, we see early inklings of an antipathy towards the material realm, which manifested more blatantly in Gnostic Christianities.  Certainly, Mark’s writer(s) had some sort of philosophical dichotomy between the divine realm and the material realm, as would any educated Jew, but the fact that a separate spirit was necessary, and descended onto a regular human was (in my opinion) indicative of a theology that believed it was a God higher than Yahweh who sent the Spirit.*  The implication here is that Yahweh did not have the ability or the motivation to fix the problems Christianity’s earliest practitioners suffered: wars, enslavement, political marginalization, etc.

*Note:  Of course, the Ebionites retained the notion of the dove descending onto Jesus.  In other words, the Ebionites saw Jesus and the Christ separate as well; however, Matthew’s reliance on Mark leads me to suspect this view originated with the Cerinthians, who proposed that the Earth was created by inferior angels, and that it was a higher God who sent the Christ.  I do not rule out alternatives to this trajectory, but this is my current hypothesis

Irenaeus makes it clear that the Ebionites, who were some of the earliest consumers of a Matthew-like Gospel, had views similar to Cerinthus and Carpocrates, who I propose used proto-versions of Mark and Luke, respectively.  The Ebionites were also said to hate the Apostle Paul; their specific gripe was his advocacy of alterations to and rejection of Jewish law.

It might not be surprising then that Irenaeus made reference to Carpocrates’ use of Paul’s epistle to the Romans in AH i.25.  This detail, coupled with their use of Luke and their similarity to Cerinthus (who I suggest used a proto-Mark), makes the Carpocratians clear relatives to the Marcionites.  Indeed, Stephan Huller has proposed that a Carpocratian named Marcellina was the person who Marcion was based on.  This speculation is entirely plausible in my mind.

As far as I can tell, the first reliably dated text which makes reference to the virgin birth was Justin Martyr’s 1st Apology.  In it, Justin reminds Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) that his worldview allowed for virgin births – after all, Perseus was born under similar circumstances.  Likewise, it was no alien concept that a savior should suffer; the sons of Jupiter also suffered.  Justin also linked the Johannine notion of the Logos (which might very well have originated with the Valentinians – see AH iii.11.7) to Mercury, who played a similar role as Hermes and Anubis as a messenger between the Gods and transporter between the divine and material realms.

In his First Apology, Justin expresses familiarity with both a Synoptic Gospel-looking version which integrated the virgin birth, and the Logos, which is almost exclusively found in John (one might argue that the introduction of Luke is aware of the Logos, but this would also seem to be a later addition to the Gospel).

Justin’s First Apology would seem to be one of the first instances where someone leveraged multiple dissonant theologies.  Considering the fact that the official 4-Gospel formulation was not canonized until decades later (C 180), coupled with the fact that it was (claimed that) Justin’s student Tatian who (after Justin died) became a Valentinian and attempted a harmony Gospel known as the Diatessaron, it stands to reason that Justin was also familiar with the Diatessaron.  The implication I make here is that Justin Martyr might very well have been a Valentinian.

Considering the fact that Irenaeus makes reference to Justin as an Orthodox actor (AH i.28), and that the Diatessaron was later deemed heretical, this authorship attribution was probably a lie invented by Irenaeus.  One can only speculate Irenaeus’ motivation to save Justin’s legacy, but my suspicion, aside from staunch anti-Valentinian polemic in Against Heresies, is that the core of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies was actually authored by Justin.  This is supported by Justin’s passage in his First Apology:

But I have a treatise against all the heresies that have existed already composed, which, if you wish to read it, I will give it to you.

The virgin birth was clearly introduced in order to fulfill the prophesy in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

The subtext that the birth story was considerate of Isaiah is that its writer was still, in some meaningful way, attached to their Judaism, and felt that Christianity ought to fulfill prophesies put forward in the “Old Testament”.  This profile evidently contrasts the Cerinthians and the Carpocratians, who had shown obvious signs of increasing antipathy towards Judaism via their proposals that the highest God was not the creator of Earth (AH i.25-i.26.1).

Given this matrix of data, the virgin birth seems to have been injected into Christianity sometime between 120 and 155.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

11 thoughts on “The Virgin Birth (Part Two): Origins”

  1. So, the virgin birth story is inserted to attach the prophecy in Isaiah. Of course, early Christians didn’t have a copy of Isaiah right in front of them and if they did they probably could read but if they could, if you read the text around the quotation you provided it clearly is no a prophecy regarding Jesus or any of his ilk. This is the problem with the Bible. So many people had axes to grind and did not have the scholarship to do their amendments at all transparently, so you end up with this bollocksed up bullshit text that no one can understand!

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    1. The virgin birth makes no sense at all – the Ebionites wouldn’t have liked it, the Marcionites wouldn’t have liked it, the Cerinthians and Carpocratians wouldn’t have liked it.

      It gets to look like a politically motivated invention. In his 1st apology, Justin Martyr made reference to the virgin birth, and how it’s similar to pagan religions (Perseus). He also lamented at how Rome persecutes his sect, but not the Marcionites. 30 years later, Irenaeus was responding to criticisms that Marcionites made about his sect, specifically that they (Irenaeus) were in Rome’s pocket.

      It seems to me that Christianity was defanged and synthesized between 145 and 185 in order to become more acceptable to Rome…that explains the mass emigration from Syria and Roman Asia to Rome beginning in the 120s or 130s (Marcion, Valentinus, Cerdo, Polycarp, etc)

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  2. It’s not too late Tim. Get rid of this heathenism and repent to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who’s going to celebrate his birthday in a few days, which also a reminder that he slept with his own mother. It’s time to make Christmas great again!
    [/s]

    Justin Martyr is obviously aware of the virgin birth but it’s probably from apocryphal/non-canonical gospels that have similar themes like Matthew and Luke. In his Dialogue with Trypho, he said that Jesus was born in a manger inside a cave which is absent in all four canonical gospels. I think someone from your blog commented that Tatian and Justin Martyr are one. I don’t know if I’m buying that yet but both of them are not aware of any of the four gospels. In fact, the allusions to the gospels only became visible during the middle of the second century.

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    1. Ha ha!

      I’m not sure if Tatian and Justin Martyr are one-in-the-same…Tatian might have simply been an invention to assign blame for the Diatessaron, and to make it seem like it was a new phenomenon, when in fact, it was used by highly esteemed church fathers, such as Justin and Polycarp.

      The West/East split in Valentinianism might be playing a role in the virgin birth’s origins, as well.

      But the more I think about it, the more I think the virgin birth was a later boutique addition without any particular political agenda aside from appeasing Rome, which was clearly a concern for Justin Martyr…it’s also interesting that Irenaeus shrugs off Marcionite criticism of him and his church that they were too close to Rome – Irenaeus didn’t even bother to deny the accusation.

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    2. Not sure if you’re alluding to me but I do not think Tatian and Justin are the same person. I do however think that Justin and perhaps several other figures are one and the same (like Ignatius), but Tatian/Theophilus is another person completely. Just to clarify.

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  3. @Daniel
    Yes I was referring to your comment before. Oops I got the reference wrong, my bad. However, I don’t know if I’m buying it yet that Tatian and Theophilus are the same person. Theophilus was a chief magistrate/bishop of Asia Minor (Antioch) whereas Tatian is from Syria. I think that the guy Luke is addressing is indeed the Theophilus from Antioch which is a sign of its late date. Theophilus was said to have written the polemical apology called “Ad Autolycum” but that primarily contains majority of OT citations and scanty NT references. It was even said that Theophilus was a pagan who converted to Christianity by reading Hebrew Scriptures which doesn’t make sense. For Tatian, we barely know anything about him aside from the disagreeing comments from Eusebius and Jerome about the Diatessaron, which in my opinion is falsely attributed to Tatian. But that is just me and if someone in the future will provide more information then I will change my opinions. 😊

    @Tim
    It was indeed a later addition especially if we follow the Markan priority. I can’t think of a valid reason why theologians and ministers are still thinking that the four gospels are authentic eyewitness accounts if they agree that Mark came in first. Mark is absent of the genealogy and virgin birth which makes Mark as the template of the two other synoptics and yet Matthew is considered an eyewitness. I’m not sure where I have read it but another’s theory posits that all three synoptics are using a common source text named “Ur-Markus/Proto-Mark” instead of having Mark as the source of Matthew and Luke. One argument for this theory is that even though alot of the stuff Mark says are found in the other two, there are passages that are Mark exclusive. It is also pointed that Matthew’s Greek is more refined unlike Mark who’s writing in rough Hebraistic Greek. Some may even add the Q Theory but all I think about the Q/Quelle source is a summaey of Hebrew or Aramaic sayings like the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach. I know Richard Carrier endorses the case against Q.

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    1. @Adversus Apologia I can understand your hesitation completely. For me it all comes down to simplifying Christianity in the second century as much as possible. With Theophilus and Tatian: here are two men living at roughly the same time in roughly the same region. Whereas we know a thing or two about Theophilus, we have scanty information about Tatian, other than that he was a student of Justin’s who later converted to the Valentinians (according to Irenaeus). Much like Theophulis, Tatian also claimed to have been raised in paganism. Both their works are Polemics, but Tatian is heavy in Johaninne theology.

      My belief is that the Address to Theophilus in Luke should not be thought of as Lucan, but Johannine, which originally introduced Theophilus to John. Just read Luke 1:1-4, and then go right to John, and see how the two sync up.

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      1. The reference to “the word” in Luke’s introduction seems out-of-place to me, as well, within the Synoptic framework. The logos was more aligned with Johannine theology, which the Valentinians “copiously” consumed, according to Irenaeus.

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      2. Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4, Revised Standard Version)

        It could be that the Lukan prologue is Johannine. However the word “λόγος” appeared multiple times in Luke with a similar context like that of the Lukan prologue. That’s were my personal hesitation of the theory comes from.

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      3. @Adversus Apologia Do keep in mind that this is contingent on other pieces of the puzzle:

        1) The late dating of Luke

        As far as I can see at the moment, Luke doesn’t appear on the scene until Irenaeus. Before him there is only Marcion’s Gospel, and how similar to Luke that is is unclear. (With Bob Price believing that his text was more of a sayings source, which Marcion never even knew of; or that Marcion’s text is similar to John and Mark in construction, and Marcion being closer to Mark in length). No one knows of a Lucan Gospel, and I suspect the gospel Irenaeus pinned on the Carpocratians was simply Marcion’s text.

        2) A matter of interest

        If Theophilus was the receiver of this gospel, it needs to be explained why he was interested in this text, or why he wanted it? There was already Marcion’s text, whatever Apelles had, and Justin’s Memoirs, along with G-Peter, G-James and G-Nazarenes. The opening even acknowledges that other texts are in circulation and have been for some time. But, having Theophilus receive John makes all the sense. After all, Antioch boarders Syria, and both the Roman and Syrian churches had been at odds for sometime. So it simply becomes a matter of Theophilus trying to open relations, and bridge the differences between the two. This also explains “Tatian’s” Diatessaron, which is simply Justin’s Gospel harmony with John, and which was widespread among the Syrian community, even after the four canonical Gospels had been established.

        3) External evidence

        If the codex which George turned me onto is indeed real, even if it is late, here is a witness for John following the Address to Theophilus.

        4) Internal evidence

        I am only aware that Theophilus in his apology makes only a casual reference to a verse in Luke. However, he directly quotes from John, indicating he was aware of it at that time. This follows Tatian’s Address to the Greeks, which is even heavier on Johannine theology.

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