I was recently invited to an acquaintance’s Evangelical mega-church. I responded “thanks, but I’m not a believer.”
He was taken aback – he must not be accustomed to such heresy.
He was defensive and asked “why not?”
I’m very tentative about real world interactions such as these. I don’t want to alienate people or torpedo burgeoning friendships. So in this case, I tried to leave it at “none of it seems very convincing.”
I understand the ultra-religious well enough to know that the apologetics constructed for these events make perfect sense to them, so I wasn’t too surprised at his continued pushback.
“Fine,” I thought, “welcome to my odd universe (AKA Tim’s undertanding of Jesus).”
I brought up to my friend the problem with the virgin birth. My first impulse when I think about the virgin birth is that it was evidently an evolution of an earlier theology which lacked such magic, but included an invisible spirit which permeates the community and lives within the Christian practitioner. For the sake of flowing conversation, I avoided such tedium.
Instead, my inner rationalist came out.
“Isn’t it an obvious case of Occam’s razor?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we ask questions like: is there a simpler explanation?”
“Such as?” my antagonist goaded.
“Such as it was simply an invention by Iron Age primitives? Or a cynical church high on their congregation’s credulity? Or an add-on that came decades after Christianity’s advent? Magic proposed to embellish Jesus’s biography?”
My friend muttered something about faith, and we let the topic die. It was probably enough pushback to signify the death of that friendship…you can’t win them all, I suppose.
I’ve thought a lot about the virgin birth. We learn from Irenaeus of Lyon (AH i.26.1-2) that the Ebionites and Cerinthians did not believe in the virgin birth. Yet we are led to believe, both by Irenaeus in AH iii.11.7, as well as later church fathers, that both groups used some Gospel which looked like the Gospel of Matthew.
If we imagine what such a Gospel would have looked like, we might conclude it looked something like Mark’s Gospel. Indeed, this puts us in-line with the Marcan priorityhypothesis (the notion that Mark was the first-written of the Synoptic Gospels, followed by Matthew and Luke), which currently enjoys majority scholarly consensus. Thus, a discernible trajectory becomes evident: Mark was written with its own agenda, and copies of it were made which eventually evolved, as a result of competing agendas, into Matthew and Luke.
Given attributes of the Synoptic problem, specifically that there are occasional disagreements between Gospels, even though one relied on another, we might presume that there was intellectual flow between the communities which were appending to the core narrative, and when disagreements arose, such disagreements were codified in each respective Gospel. Thus, we might be able to tease some truth out of Irenaeus’s assertion about the 4-Gospel canon (which he himself put forward): “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars…”
In other words, each Gospel represented the agenda of the sect and geography in which it was interpolated and redacted.
I have often asked the question: who invented the virgin birth? Based on Irenaeus, it could not have been the Ebionites. Based on what little we know about them, it probably was not the Cerinthians, either. The best I can do is to consider the schism (not necessarily political, but more time and distance) between the Eastern and Western Valentinians. This quasi-Gnostic group, who (curiously) elevated Paul as their Apostle of choice, had a Western sect which did not recognize the virgin birth; yet their Eastern sect did.
Two potential candidate hypotheses emerge:
1. The original virgin birth Valentinians traveled West to Rome, encountered Christians (or other philosophies) who rejected the virgin birth, and the Westerners redacted the virgin birth out of their theology.
2. The Western Valentinians never believed in the virgin birth, and when traveling west retained the original philosophy. The Easterners evolved the virgin birth philosophy later, independent of the westerners.
Given that the virgin birth represents the more complicated philosophy, and that we can already presume virgin-birth-less Mark preceded Matthew (and its virgin birth narrative), the 2nd hypothesis seems more likely correct: that the western Valentinians brought to Rome an earlier theology, and the Easterners later evolved the original philosophy. This specific evolution might help to explain, and indeed be at the root of the ferocious in-fighting which arose in the early Christian church between 100CE and 155CE.
But why should such a theology as the virgin birth have sprung up?
A rationalist might rely on some of my earlier thoughts expressed in my conversation with my zealous friend: that it was simply an enhancement to the narrative invented by someone intent on increasing congregation size.
In my opinion, the virgin birth solved a perception problem.
A late Jewish polemical text, the Toledot Yeshu, asserts that Jesus lived in the time of Jannaeus, and was a result of Joseph ben Pandera tricking and raping Mariamne. Though the earliest extant copies of this text date to the 11th Century CE, the text itself is aware of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (“He spoke the Ineffable Name over the birds of clay and they flew into the air”), which was written perhaps sometime in the mid-2nd century. This narratives is also echoed in some manner by Celsus, against whom Origen wrote in the mid-3rd century CE.
A story was circulating in the non-Christian world in its early days that Jesus was an illegitimate son – a consistency problem for even the most credulous believer. This story ran contrary to a solidifying narrative within the New Testament that Jesus was conceived through divine intervention.
Though we do not know how Jesus would have responded to such accusations in real life, we have tales of a contemporary competing savior type, Simon Magus, constructing a tale similar to Jesus: “For before my mother Rachel and [my father] came together, she, still a virgin, conceived me…”
This is not the only parallel between Simon Magus and Jesus, but it is interesting we see some evidence of Simon constructing a story which parallels the eventual Orthodox story of Jesus, let alone such a critical component of the Orthodoxy.
In my mind, this parallel suggests a few possibilities in terms of the Orthodoxy’s evolution:
1. The two are mutually exclusive
2. There were accusations of Simon plagiarizing pre-Orthodoxy Jesus attributes
3. There were competing leaders in the early church who had their own attributes, and those attributes eventually were merged into a single Jesus character in the subsequent generations by church fathers.
My personal opinion, given the blurring of other lines and characters in early Christian history, is that Jesus’s attributes were merged with other Christian and pre-Christian leaders to eventually synthesize the Orthodox Jesus we have today.