Archive for the ‘Conspiracy Theories’ Category

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Doubt Jesus

There are many stories in the Bible that elicit skepticism. The one that seems to draw the most attention is most definitely the resurrection of Christ, due in part to its significance within the framework of salvation from sin and reconciliation with God. Yet, what I find very intriguing about skepticism of the resurrection is that it didn’t start in the halls of prestigious universities or the courts of Rome. Doubts of the resurrection originated from the people most devout to Christ: His disciples.

Doubt among the Disciples

Throughout Jesus’ ministry we read of numerous times when disciples had doubts in Jesus’ claims. These doubts only escalated when Christ’s crucifixion began. One might immediately think of Peter’s multiple public denials of Christ, or the fact that only a handful of Christ’s followers were present at the time Christ’s death. But no doubts seemed more profound than those that followed Jesus’ death.

What we read of in scripture is a full and complete acceptance of Christ’s death among His followers. There is no inclination what so ever that any of the disciples thought they’d see their Messiah alive and well again. Why would the women go to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body unless they honestly believed He was dead. Why did many of the disciples that saw Jesus resurrected think He was a ghost unless they honestly thought He was dead. We can rest assured that the disciples were certain Jesus was dead.

Thus, we would naturally expect strong skepticism from the disciples when reports began to trickle in that Christ had risen from the dead. And this is exactly what we read of. The disciples continually did not believe the testimony of those that claimed they saw Jesus (Mark  16:11; Luke 24:11, 41; and John 20:25). To me, this is a very important line of evidence in the authenticity of the Gospel accounts because it shows the same logical thought that any rational skeptic today would have upon hearing of a dead man’s resurrection. And what follows is even more profound: That such skeptics would immediately do a 180 and begin boldly preaching of their risen Messiah.

Naturally, skepticism remains today, and a variety of theories have been developed to explain away the disciples’ behavior at this important juncture. There is a theory that Christ rose again spiritually not physically, another that Jesus actually survived the crucifixion and escaped alive without ever dying, and there is a theory that the disciples stole the body. It is not worth discussing such theories in this article because the conclusive doubts of the disciples already disproves them and they are, for lack of better term, ridiculous, as the Gospel accounts in no way support such theories and they would require feats so miraculous it would defeat the whole motive behind these theories, which are to explain away the miraculous. But there are two theories worth exploring that are commonly used to explain the disciples change in behavior after the death of Christ: The Hallucination Theory and the good old fashioned Liar Theory.

Hallucinations

The hallucination theory maintains that the disciples were so distraught at the death of their leader that they hallucinated his return as a coping mechanism. Thus, the disciples went on preaching what they thought to be true, though it really wasn’t. To anyone who doesn’t know the particulars of the gospel narratives that may seem like a plausible scenario, but when the content of story is analyzed its feasibility is remote.

The first thing to consider is the cause(s) of hallucinations. According to the National Institute of Health hallucinations are caused by the following: Drug or alcohol intoxication, dementia, epilepsy, fever, narcolepsy, psychiatric disorders, sensory impairment, and sever illness (1).  Next we need to account for the supposed appearances of Christ after His death. Reappearances of Christ occurred to multiple people at multiple locations, at one point occurring to 500 people. And therein lies the problem with this theory: The causes of hallucination would need to apply to all the witnesses (over 500) at various different times and locations. It is incredibly unlikely for so many people at different times and locations to suffer from these symptoms. It is even more incredible that all these people would, at different times and locations, hallucinate in their own minds, the very same thing. Such a claim seems so preposterous it would necessitate a miracle, which is exactly what the theory looks to dismiss.

Now one might try to escalate the plausibility of this scenario by downplaying the amount of people that hallucinated of the resurrected Jesus. After all, we were told that 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus, but that could very well be an exaggeration. The visions may very well be limited to the disciples alone, and thus, the plausibility of the hallucination theory remains.

This rebuttal, however, overlooks Paul’s declarations regarding these hundreds of witnesses, of which Paul declared that half of the people that had witnessed these events were still alive and could testify of them (1 Corinthians 15:6). Apologist Timothy Keller writes, “Paul indicates [in this text] that the risen Jesus not only appeared to individuals and small groups but he also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing and could be consulted for corroboration. Paul’s letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up, since during the pax Romana travel around the Mediterranean was safe and easy. Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist,”  (Keller, pp. 204).

So considering Paul’s very public declaration of Christ’s resurrection it is unlikely that he would embellish on the number of witnesses, leaving the original problem of such a wide variety of people suffering the same hallucinations. With that, it would be rational to conclude the hallucination theory holds no weight.  The late apologist and associate professor of evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois, Paul E. Little, writes, “To hold the hallucination theory in explaining the appearances of Christ, one must completely ignore the evidence,” (Little, 56).

A Foundation of Lies

With the hallucination theory out of the way the only other scenario skeptics can resort to is the very basic and commonly held notion that the disciples flat out lied about Christ’s resurrection. The theory goes that the return of their Messiah is a concocted tale with motive ranging from saving face to emotional shock. Yet this theory does not hold under pressure either.

A major criticism comes from Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “It will not do… to say that Jesus’ disciples were so stunned and shocked by his death, so unable to come to terms with it, that they projected their shattered hopes onto the screen of fantasy and invented the idea of Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ as a way of coping with a cruelly broken dream. That has an initial apparent psychological plausibility, but it won’t work as serious first century history. We know lots of other messianic and similar movements in the Jewish world roughly contemporary with Jesus. In many cases the leader died a violent death at the hands of the authorities. In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They know better. ‘Resurrection’ was not a private event. It involved human bodies. There would have to be an empty tomb somewhere. A Jewish revolutionary whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest himself, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. We have evidence of people doing both. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was,” (Wright, pp. 63).

Additional criticism stems from issues in motivation. What motivation did the disciples have for concocting this lie? They surely would not financially or physically prosper from it as they had already left their lives behind to follow Jesus.  Lastly, and most obviously, would the disciples have willingly sacrificed themselves for something they knew to be untrue? A majority of the disciples were killed for their beliefs. It is one thing to die for something you believe to be true, it is quite another to die for something you know to be a lie. The fact that many disciples died painful deaths after a duration of being tortured, without recanting, testifies to the fact that they believed in what they preached, that their leaders was alive. If they had made the whole thing up, they surely would not have willingly died in such ways, or at the very least would have recanted during torture. With that said, the liar theory is not adequate either.

Indirect Evidence

One very interesting source of authentication of this story comes from world famous philosopher, and skeptic, David Hume. Though Hume questioned the claims of scripture in general, he found value in the disciples’ actions after Christ’s death. He writes,

“The direct testimony for this event appears to me to be very feeble… But the indirect evidence is much stronger. We have testimony to the effect that the disciples were exceedingly depressed at the time of the Crucifixion; that they had extremely little faith in the future; and that, after a certain time, this depression disappeared, and they believed that they had evidence that their Master had risen from the dead. Now none of these alleged facts is in the least odd or improbable, and we have therefore little ground for not accepting them on the testimony offered us. But having done this, we are faced with the problem of accounting for the facts which we have accepted. What caused the disciples to believe, contrary to their previous conviction, and in spite of their feeling of depression, that Christ had risen from the dead? Clearly, one explanation is that he actually had arisen. And this explanation accounts for the facts so well that we may at least say that the indirect evidence for the miracle is far and way stronger than the direct evidence,” (Broad , 142-143). To Hume, it is the very change in behavior among the disciples from depressed doubters to highly motivated evangelists is what provides the strongest evidence for Christ’s resurrection.

Little further expands on this, “What was it that changed a band of frightened, cowardly disciples into men of courage and conviction? What was it that changed Peter who, the night before the crucifixion, was so afraid for his own skin that three times he denied publicly that he even knew Jesus. Some fifty days later he became a roaring lion, risking his life by saying he had seen Jesus risen from the dead. It must be remembered that Peter preached his electric Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem, where all the events took place and his life was in danger. He was not in Galilee, miles away where no one could verify the facts and where his ringing statements might go unchallenged. Only the bodily resurrection of Christ could have produced this change,” (Little, 56).

Conclusion

In conclusion, the actions of the disciples after Christ’s death provides compelling evidence to support the claims they made. And with all other conspiracy theories debunked, we’re left with only one explanation that is reasonable, which is that Christ did rise from the dead. Though this will obviously be difficult for skeptics who do not believe in the supernatural to accept. Dr. Jared M. Compton, Assistant Professor of the New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary explains, “If the facts are patiently considered and one’s worldview is not illegitimately predisposed against the miraculous, then Scripture’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead is at least a possible conclusion. In other words, the Resurrection could be historically reliable. We might even say, for the moment, that since no better alternative explanation of the facts has arisen, Scripture’s explanation is presently the most satisfactory or plausible. The trouble is, Scripture, not least its divine Author, is not content with the Resurrection being deemed ‘possible’ or ‘most satisfactory.’ In fact, Scripture is not even content with ‘definite’ and ‘best,’ because its purpose points beyond belief in historical events. Scripture’s goal is not simply assent to history but, rather, conversion. As such, Scripture not only demands the events it records to be recognized as historical, it wants the explanations it gives those events to be believed (e.g., “Jesus was raised for our justification,” Rom 4:25),” (Compton).

British Bishop, scholar and theologian Brooke Foss Westcott once declared, “Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it,” (Westcott, pp. 4).

Alas, doubt of Christ’s resurrection may have originated with the disciples, but it is this same doubt, and the actions that followed afterwards, that go great lengths in authenticating the story.

References:

(1) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003258.htm, accessed 6-22-2013.

-Broad, C.D., (1965) “Hume’s Theory of the Credibility of Miracles,” as written in Alexander Sesonske and Noel Fleming’s Human Understanding, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).

-Compton, J.M., (March 2010) “Is the Resurrection Historically Reliable?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org

-Keller, T., (2008) The Reason for God; Christian Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (New York, NY: Dutton).

-Little, P.E. (2000) Know Why You Believe, 4th Edition, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).

-Westcott, B.F. (1879) The Gospel of the Resurrection, (London).

-Wright, N.T., (1993 ) Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

flat earth

There is a widely known criticism that the Bible teaches a flat earth and that Christians in the past used to all believe in a flat earth, bullying any poor rebellious scientist or explorer the argued otherwise. It is a very prominent accusation leveled against Bible believing Christians with some very reputable figures behind it. Robert J. Schadewald, former president of the National Center for Science Education, claims that many of the early church fathers were flat-earthers.[1] Massimo Pigliucci, chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College, claims that for most of western history Christians believed in a flat-earth.[2]  Famous medical officer and historian Charles Singer writes, “The sphericity of the earth was, in fact, formally denied by the Church, and the mind of Western man, so far as it moved in this matter at all, moved back to the old confused notion of a modulated ‘flatland’, with the kingdoms of the world surrounding Jerusalem, the divinely chosen centre of the terrestrial disk.”[3]

I’m sure you are, like myself, reminded of the story of Columbus, in which our history textbooks taught us in elementary school and onward that Columbus was the one who discovered the earth was round and that he had to convince his superiors that he would not sail off the edge of the world in order to get funding for his expedition. But Columbus lived in the 15th century, so that must mean that prior to the 15th century everyone (including the authors of the Bible from the first century and earlier) thought the earth was flat too, right?

Naturally, pictures like this come to mind when thinking of Columbus and declaration that the earth was round.

Naturally, pictures like this come to mind when thinking of Columbus and his declaration that the earth was round.

So I began to research the issue myself and found that the vast majority of Christians maintained the same views, but a few were divided on the issue. There are Christians that do believe in a round earth and do not believe the Bible teaches a flat earth. But there are also Christians who maintain that, yes the earth is round, but agree that the Bible teaches the earth is flat.[4] Worse, there are Christians that do not believe in a round earth, but do believe the Bible teaches a flat earth. They are known as the Flat Earth Society, www.flatearthsociety.org. So to find clarity on the subject I researched the history of the flat earth myth as well as what the Bible actually says about the subject. Here are my findings:

Is the Earth Flat?

No, the earth is not flat, obviously. It is round and spherical, with a slight bulge at the equator due to the earth’s rapid rotation.[5] So then the question naturally follows; where and when did the flat earth myth originate?

History of the Flat Earth Myth:

When we look back at history it is easy to speculate that people thought the earth was flat, since it obviously appears to be flat and they did not have the ability to fly at high altitudes or travel into space to see earth’s curve. However, such speculation is shallow and inaccurate. Some ancient civilizations actually did understand the earth to be curved, especially those civilizations that were sea faring nations. After all, their boats and ships were traveling over the horizon and not falling off the edge of the earth. Additionally, the curve of the earth could be seen in that when ships appeared on the horizon, their mast would appear first, then the hull. Likewise, from the sailors perspectives, the tops of mountains would appear on the horizon before the shores did, evidence of the earth being curved.

Outside of how objects appeared on the horizon, there were other inclinations to the ancient Greeks that the earth was round. For example, during a lunar eclipse the earth casts a circular shadow on the moon as it slips into the shadow regardless of the earth’s orientation. This would only be possible if the earth was round.[6]

The first documented claim that the Earth was round came from Pythagoras in the sixth century BC.[7] Aristotle (384-322 BC) reasoned the earth was round.[8] As did Euclid, Aristarchs, Crates, Strabo, Ptolemy, and so on and so forth.[9]  Eratosthenes (276-196 BC), director of the great Library in Alexandria, Egypt, actually calculated the circumference of the earth! One day he read that in the Egyptian town of Syene the sun cast no shadows on vertical objects every year on June 21, meaning the sun was directly overhead. So naturally on June 21 Erathosthenes placed vertical sticks in the ground to see if the same results would happen in Alexandria. But in Alexandria, the sticks did cast a shadow. He figured the shadows must be due to the curve of the earth, so he measured the degree of divergence from the shadows on the ground to the sticks, which was about seven degrees. He then hired a man to pace out the distance from Syene to Alexandria, which came out to 800km. Since seven degrees is roughly 1/50 of the circumference of a circle, all one must do is multiply 50 x 800 and you get 40,000 km for the circumference of earth.[10] The current estimate of earth’s circumference is 40,075 km at its widest, and an average circumference of 40,041km.[11] It is remarkable how close Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth in the 3rd century BC with basic geometry.

According to physicist and cosmologist Dr. John Hartnett, “There is a common myth that ancient peoples thought the earth was flat. Some may have thought so, but most others certainly did not.”[12]

You may be thinking to yourself, well that is ancient Greece and Rome, but when Christianity came around in the first century everything changed, right? Wrong. When considering Christian early church fathers and theologians, only two within the entire history of early Christian theology can be accused of believing in a flat earth: Lactantius of the 4th century (200+ years after the origin of Christianity), and a 6th century Egyptian monk named Cosmas Indicopleustes (400+ years after the origin of Christianity).[13] Both men’s writings were almost completely ignored by the church, their writings having very little to no impact in medieval scholarship.[14] It should also be noted that Cosmas’ writings, being from Egypt, were not in Latin. His writings were not translated into Latin until 1706,[15] so no one in Europe would have been influenced by his writings until 1706.

In the 7th century lived Venerable Behe, an English monk known for his scholarly work in history, theology and science. More importantly, Behe considered the earth a spherical orb.[16] Saint Hildegard (1098-1179), Roger Bacon (1220-1292), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), John Buriden (1301-1358) and Nicholas Oresme (1320- 1382) all maintained a round earth.[17] University of California Santa Barbara emeritus professor of history, Jeffrey Burton Russell, writes, “A few–at least two and at most five–early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.”[18]

This image comes from Saint Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum from the 12th century, showing the four seasons on a curved earth.

This image comes from Saint Hildegard’s Liber Divinorum Operum from the 12th century, showing the four seasons on a curved earth.

13th century scholar and astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco wrote, “If the earth were flat from east to west, the stars would rise as soon for Westerners as for Orientals, which is false.”[19] Clearly there was no widespread notion of a flat earth among scholars. As world renowned paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould writes, “There never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”[20]

The following image appears comes from Johannes de Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphaera (On the Sphere of the World) written in 1230 AD. It showcases the knowledge that the appearance of ships on the horizon testified to a curved earth.

The following image comes from Johannes de Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphaera (On the Sphere of the World) written in 1230 AD. It showcases the knowledge that the appearance of ships on the horizon testified to a curved earth.

Furthermore, the claim that 15th century explorer Christopher Columbus was the first to discover that the world was round is, and by now you should agree, false. Also false, is the claim that Columbus’ expedition was opposed because the royal authorities thought he was going to sail off the edge of the planet. Columbus’ expedition was actually opposed because it was widely known that the earth was round, but more importantly it was known how large the earth was (remember the works of Eratosthenes). What wasn’t known was the existence of North and South America. So it was assumed that traveling west from Europe to India would mean traversing one large super ocean, and thus, be too far of a journey. In other words, Columbus’ voyage was opposed because no one thought he could logistically make it across such a vastly massive ocean. As Samuel Morrison, a renowned maritime historian, wrote on the subject, “The sphericity of the globe was not in question. The issue was the width of the ocean.”[21] Gould agrees, “As a major critique, they argued that Columbus could not reach the Indies in his own allotted time, because the earth’s circumference was too great.”[22]

Even NASA’s website, in explaining the curvature of earth’s surface, makes reference to the claim that Columbus’ expedition being opposed due to belief in the earth being flat is a false notion.[23]  Additionally, Columbus was a Bible believing man.[24] So surely there would be some conflict between his faith and his knowledge of the earth being round, if the Bible taught such. There, however, was no such conflict, because the Bible does not teach a flat earth. So where did this historically-incorrect myth come from? It can be sourced back to 19th century American writer Washington Irving, who concocted the flat earth claims in his 1828 biography about Columbus called,  History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.[25] This biography has since, in more modern times, been highly criticized for its false claims.

 

Russell writes, “It was he [Irving] who invented the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a ‘simple mariner,’ appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate. Well, yes, there was a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving’s version of it, to quote a distinguished modern historian of Columbus, was ‘pure moonshine. Washington Irving, scenting his opportunity for a picturesque and moving scene,’ created a fictitious account of this ‘nonexistent university council’ and ‘let his imagination go completely…the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.’”[26]

This picture is taken from the 16th century astronomy textbook, On the Sphere of the World.

This picture is taken from the 16th century astronomy textbook, On the Sphere of the World.

So we’re up to the 15th century and still there is no case for Christianity propagating a flat-earth cosmology. There is hardly any mention of it anywhere in history at this time. Moving onto the 17th century, there is still no history of flat earth claims and Christianity. There is however historical record that Jesuit missionaries introduced the round earth cosmology to Ming China, which was still at that time under the impression earth was flat. That is, Christian missionaries introducing the round earth to other parts of the world, which doesn’t sound like the works of a religion that believes in a flat earth. Moving onto the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, where there was popular skeptical inquiry of religion from all of academia. Yet no where during this time do we see Christianity criticized for flat-earth cosmology.[27] Not one word from Franklin, Condillac, Condorcet, Diberot, Gibbon, or Hume about a flat earth? It seems rather odd that these men would not have used such a fallacy as ammunition against Christianity. That is, unless, there was no grounds for making such a claim.

Russell writes, “In my research, I looked to see how old the idea was that medieval Christians believed the earth was flat. I obviously did not find it among medieval Christians. Nor among anti-Catholic Protestant reformers. Nor in Copernicus or Galileo or their followers, who had to demonstrate the superiority of a heliocentric system, but not of a spherical earth. I was sure I would find it among the eighteenth-century philosophes [sic], among all their vitriolic sneers at Christianity, but not a word. I am still amazed at where it first appears.”[28]

So where did it first appear? Claims that Christianity maintained a flat earth mentality did not appear until the 19th century, which alone should raise some scepticism being 1,800 years after the origin of the religion. Irwing’s Columbus biography, though the beginning of published flat-earth claims against Christianity, did not take hold until the time ofAntoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), who was an academic with anti-religious prejudices that were evident in his 1834 book On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers.[29] This was subsequently followed by William Whewell’s 1837 book History of the Inductive Sciences, in which Whewell points out Lactantius and Cosmas to prove that the entire medieval period adopted a flat-earth cosmology, ignoring the overwhelming majority of other Christians that did not maintain a flat-earth cosmology.[30]

 

Also during the 19th century, Darwin’s Evolution theory began to take shape, which naturally met opposition from Christians. And so it was claimed that religion and science were at odds with one another. At least, that is what was declared by John Draper’s 1874 book The History of Conflict Between Religion and Science, and Andrew Dickson White’s 1896 book, A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In both books gross exaggerations are made of Christians, including the claim that Christianity is a flat earth believing religion. Unfortunately these claims have persisted today in academia, despite modern academia’s criticism of both books for their false dichotomization of western history as a war between science and religion.[31]

Russell writes,The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism. The answer is really only slightly more complicated than that bald statement. The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?’ But that is not the truth.”[32]

Biologist, chemist, and geologist Dr. Jerry Bergman writes, “This history clearly supports, not a war of religion against science, but instead a war of evolutionary propagandists against religion.”[33] Gould writes, “I would not be agitated by these errors if they led only to an inadequate view of the past without practical consequences for our modern world. But the myth of a war between science and religion remains all too current, and continues to impede a proper bonding and conciliation between these two utterly different and powerfully important institutions to human life.”[34]

If one searches the history books for flat-earth believing Christians they might be put off at the miniscule amount that can be unearthed. If it is so transparent that the Bible taught a flat-earth, then why would the overwhelming majority of Christians in the entire history of Christianity NOT believe in a flat earth? The most reasonable and obvious answer is that the Bible does not teach that the earth is flat.

Oh, how I wish that was the end of the story for the flat earth. But it is not. In the late 19th century John Dowie began a campaign in the little town of Zion, Illinois to propagate the theology of a flat-earth. After he died in 1906, Wilbur Voliva took over as the organizations leader until he, himself, died in 1942. It is noteworthy that the movement was very unsuccessful in converting most of the Zion residents to their flat earth dogma, and after the death of Voliva, the movement died.[35]  They were, however, not the only flat earth organization.

Another flat earth organization is the one founded by Charles K. Johnson of LancasterCalifornia, who died in 2001. The organization is known as the Flat Earth Society of America. Again, like that of Zion’s small organization, they never had more than 100 members.[36] Johnson also went onto to claim that the sun was as far from earth as San Francisco is from Boston and that the sun and moon were both the same size, about 51 km in diameter.[37]

The Flat Earth Society today is led by Daniel Shelton, who oddly enough believes in evolution and global warming, but not in a round earth…[38] This is troubling for those who claim that creationists believe in a flat earth (aside from the fact that creationists don’t make this claim), since Shelton believes in evolution, something creationists do not adhere to. So out of the few remaining flat-earth believers, we see a belief in evolution. Both are theories that creationists do not adhere to. With all this considered, it can be concluded that claiming creationists preach a flat earth is incredibly false. However, as troubling as it might be to know that there are Christians that still maintain that the earth is flat, it is worth while to note that Shelton’s following is only in the hundreds, maybe a thousand.[39] While the rest of the Christian population in America totals 228 million as of 2008.[40] A thousand flat-earthers versus over two hundred million Christians that don’t believe in a flat earth (not counting the billion other Christians worldwide) should be enough to convince skeptics and critics, that a flat-earth cosmology is not a part of Christianity.

Lastly, before I end this segment on the sad history of the flat earth myth, I think it would be appropriate to share one humorous quote from Shelton: “I haven’t taken this position just to be difficult… To look around, the world does appear to be flat, so I think it is incumbent on others to prove decisively that it isn’t. And I don’t think that burden of proof has been met yet.”[41] That is, the work of countless astrophysicists, cosmologists, and other bright minds amidst rigorous scientific disciplines for the last 100 years in combination with the countless photos of earth from space, have yet to provide Shelton with sufficient proof. It is humorous to say the least. But it is even more laughable when people try to project this dogma onto Christianity as a whole.

What The Bible Doesn’t Say:

So we can agree that the flat earth myth isn’t rooted in Christianity. Yet, still, those that maintain a flat earth in modern times are almost solely Christian. Clearly there is a connection, and that has lead many to thumb through the Bible and point out the many verses that seem to suggest the earth is flat. After all, even if Christians have historically not believed in a flat earth, if the Bible teaches a flat earth and the Bible is supposed to be the inherent word of God, then we have a serious problem, don’t we? How can the Bible be the word of an all-knowing God if it describes the earth as flat?

Schadewald points out the versus he believes testifies to a flat earth, “Disregarding the dome, the essential flatness of the earth’s surface is required by verses like Daniel 4:10-11. In Daniel, the king ‘saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth…reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth’s farthest bounds.’ If the earth were flat, a sufficiently tall tree would be visible to ‘the earth’s farthest bounds,” but this is impossible on a spherical earth. Likewise, in describing the temptation of Jesus by Satan, Matthew 4:8 says, ‘Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [cosmos] in their glory.’ Obviously, this would be possible only if the earth were flat. The same is true of Revelation 1:7: ‘Behold, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye shall see him…’”[42]

The following verses (all NIV) are used to support the claim that the Bible teaches a flat earth:

 

Job 37:3- “He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth.”

Job 38:13- “…that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?”

Psalm 104:2-3- “He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.”

Daniel 4:11 – “The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.”

Matthew 4:8 – “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”

Revelation 1:7 – “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.”

Revelation 7:1 – “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.”

At first glance, yes, these verses seem to convey a flat four cornered earth. But as with all situations involving quoting the Bible one should always take into consideration context and use of language, and never isolate verses by themselves to pass judgment on them. Alone and out of context, a verse can mean whatever you want it to. So with that said, here is an explanation for these verses.

“He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven and sends it to the ends of the earth.” (Job 37:3): This verse, and others like it that refer to the “ends” or “edges” of earth, are commonly brought up as evidence of a flat earth since a round earth obviously does not have edges or ends. In the case of this verse, and others like it in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word used is “nk”[43] which is translated into, “ends” or “extremities” meaning lands far away. Which in proper context would denote a meaning of lighting striking all over earth, even in the remote far away regions. According to prominent apologist James Patrick Holding “… Job 37:3 hardly requires a flat-earth reading — it merely states that lightning occurs all over the earth. Even if it did teach a flat-earth reading, it would prove only that Elihu believed such a thing — not everything reported in the Bible is endorsed in the Bible.”[44] Holding makes a point to bring up that Elihu was speaking when this was said, and as is commonly pointed out, Job’s friends (one of which is Elihu) came to confide him with theology which proved to be inaccurate. So even if this verse is taken as the earth being flat (which it should not), it would then only be chalked up to the inaccurate theology of Elihu.

“…that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?” (Job 38:13): Theologian Paul H. Seely, who believes the Bible DOES teach a flat earth, argues, “In a clearly cosmological context, not just local, this verse speaks of dawn grasping the earth by its ‘extremity or hem’ …and shaking the wicked out of it. The verse is comparing the earth to a blanket or garment picked up at one end and shaken. A globe is not really comparable to a blanket or garment in this way. You cannot pick up a globe at one end. It does not even have an end.”[45]

However, Holding argues that the verse is being taken out of context, and when the previous verse (12) is taken into consideration the context can be clarified, “Are the wicked literally ‘shaken’ by the sunrise? Is the bringing of dawn accompanied by the sight of nighttime burglars rolling through the dusty streets of villages like tumbleweeds? Clearly this verse refers to no more than the visible horizon that the dawn ‘grasps’ as the sun rises. It is phenomenological and poetic in every sense of its expression.”[46] Holding’s argument is on point. If we are to take the description of the earth having edges literally, then one must also take the rest of the verse literal, which would necessitate wicked people being shaken from a flat earth after the sun somehow grabs a hold of its edges to shake it. Though no one would honestly believe the author meant this.

Methodist bible scholar and theologian Adam Clarke takes a different approach: “That the wicked might be shaken out of it? – The meaning appears to be this: as soon as the light begins to dawn upon the earth, thieves, assassins, murderers, and adulterers, who all hate and shun the light, fly like ferocious beasts to their several dens and hiding places; for such do not dare to come to the light, lest their works be manifest, which are not wrought in God.”[47] Thus again, we see a more proper use of this verse is that of a poetic and metaphorical nature, not literal.

 “He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 104:2-3): Anyone who has read Psalms knows it is a book of symbolic poetry. Beams of chambers on waters, wind with wings, wrapped with light as a garment; all metaphors one would expect in poetic writings, not literal descriptions.

“The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.” (Daniel 4:11): This verse provides probably the most imperative lesson on context. That is, if one were to actually read all of Daniel 4 they would see that this verse is describing a vision, a King’s dream. Do the fantastic details of YOUR dreams constitute literal reality? Of course not. So we should not therefore penalize the Bible for containing the description of a King’s fantastic dream. Furthermore, the King was not a Jew, but a pagan. According to Holding, “The Daniel passage is actually a statement by a pagan king, which doesn’t mean that the Bible endorses that view. And it is a vision, and is therefore not intended to be a picture of reality…”[48]

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” (Matthew 4:8): How could Jesus see the all the Kingdoms of the world from a high mountain unless the world was flat? Theologian Albert Barnes explains, “It is not probable that anything more is intended here than the kingdoms of Palestine, or of the land of Canaan, and those in the immediate vicinity. Judea was divided into three parts, and those parts were called kingdoms; and the sons of Herod, who presided over them, were called kings. The term ‘world’ is often used in this limited sense to denote a part or a large part of the world, particularly the land of Canaan. See Romans 4:13, where it means the land of Judah; also Luke 2:1, and the note on the place.”[49]

Expositor John Gill takes another approach, pointing out the supernatural aspects of Satan’s visit to Jesus, “Now the view which Satan gave Christ of all this, was not by a representation of them in a picture, or in a map, or in any geographical tables, as some have thought; since to do this there was no need to take him up into a mountain, and that an exceeding high one; for this might have been done in a valley, as well as in a mountain: and yet it could not be a true and real sight of these things he gave him; for there is no mountain in the world, from whence can be beheld anyone kingdom, much less all the kingdoms of the world; and still less the riches, glory, pomp, and power of them: but this was a fictitious, delusive representation, which Satan was permitted to make; to cover which, and that it might be thought to be real, he took Christ into an high mountain; where he proposed an object externally to his sight, and internally to his imagination, which represented, in appearance, the whole world, and all its glory.”[50]

So we have two different possibilities, one in which Jesus is literally taken to a mountain top to see the regions of Canaan which was commonly referred to as the kingdoms of the “world.” The other possibility being a supernatural apparition from Satan which corresponds to their instantaneous arrival to a mountain top, which is only possible via the supernatural. Besides, even if the earth was flat, you still couldn’t see all the kingdoms of the world on the simple premise of atmospheric haze preventing visibility to far off lands. Something any ancient man standing on a hill or mountain top would be aware of. That is, visibility is not infinite and cannot go as far as one may physically travel.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen.” (Revelation 1:7): Here is another verse being taken far from context. The book of Revelation is a book of prophecy for the end times and the second return of Christ. Thus there are a few ways that this verse can be understood. The one popular explanation is that the return of Jesus will be widely publicized on television, internet, etc. It is today, in this modern time, very possible for “every eye” to see Jesus. The other, more agreed upon, explanation is related to the Day of Judgment in Revelation 20 when God judges the entire earth, and thus “every eye” would see Jesus sitting to the right of God’s throne, clothed in the clouds, a common symbol for majesty and glory. Obviously, Jesus’ second return will have supernatural implications, and thus it may be very possible for Jesus to appear to every individual at a supernatural level when He returns. Just as it is possible for God to be anywhere and everywhere at once since He is not bound by our natural dimensions, likewise Jesus would not be either, and it would therefore be possible for everyone to see Him at once.

One can go still further to say that even if the earth was flat, Jesus appearing in a cloud in the sky would still not make it possible for everyone to see him considering the horizontal distance of the known land. Even the ancients were well aware of the vast size of the earth regardless of whether the earth was flat or round. A vision in the skies in one area would hardly be visible at all a thousand miles away. It is therefore more appropriate to understand this verse in a supernatural sense.

“After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree.” Revelation (7:1): This verse seems to suggest a flat rectangular earth with four corners. The four corners are not in relation to corners on a flat surface, but are in fact reference to the four points on a compass.[51] This is supported by Ezekiel’s similar reference to the four corners of Israel (Ezekiel 7:2). Gill agrees, “Four angels are mentioned, in allusion to the four spirits of the heavens, in Zec 6:5; and though the earth is not a plain square with angels, but round and globular, yet it is said to have four corners, with respect to the four points of the heavens; and though there is but one wind, which blows sometimes one way, and sometimes another, yet four are named with regard to the above points, east, west, north, and south, from whence it blows.”[52]

At that, it is clear to see that the charges of flat-earth cosmology leveled against the Bible can hardly stand in the face of critical analysis of the text. The Bible doesn’t speak of a flat earth. But then why do modern flat earthers tend to be Christians? A key consideration is that people who believe in a flat earth draw their conclusions from their own visual experience regardless of whether they’re Christian or not. Those who are Christian however, will come across particular verses, like those mentioned above, and fit them into their pre-conceived opinion of the earth being flat. Others are roped into it by the teachings of their pastors. Either way, they are, unfortunately, all the more brazen about it since they feel justified in their beliefs since (in their opinion) the word of God agrees with them, and are much less likely to change this opinion on the earth since such a change could be perceived as compromising on God’s word. This is the reason why the few remaining flat earthers tend to be Christian.

What the Bible Does Say:

So if the Bible doesn’t preach a flat earth, does it preach a round earth? Some would argue that it does:

Isaiah 40:22- “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

Now granted, in context, this language is metaphorical. So then what is meant by the “circle” of earth? It could be a genuine remark at the sphericity of earth, since the word used for circle; “chud,” refers to a circular, spherical or round object according to Barnes.[53] Gill writes, “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth,…. Or, ‘the globe’ of it; for the earth is spherical or globular: not a flat plain, but round, hung as a ball in the air; here Jehovah sits as the Lord and Sovereign; being the Maker of it, he is above it, orders and directs its motion, and governs all things in it.”[54]

Seely disagrees, arguing that if Isaiah wanted to describe the earth as a sphere he would have used the word “dur” which means “ball.”[55] The counter argument, however, is that dur can have multiple meanings as well. Case in point: Dur is used in Isaiah 29:3 to describe camping around a city to lay siege to it. In this context, dur must be used in accordance with encircling or rounding around the city, since one cannot obviously camp spherically over a city, at least not in ancient times. Therefore one cannot argue that Isaiah would have used “dur” if he wanted to convey a sphere, since it too has multiple meanings. So it remains possible that Isaiah was referring to earth as a spherical object.

The last reference I would like to make that the Bible supports a round earth is a deduction from the following verses:

Job 26:10- “He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.”

Luke 17:31-34- “On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.”

Matthew 24:47- “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

After reading those verses we can establish from Job that as one side of the earth is in daylight, the other is in night, from Luke that when Jesus returns some will be in bed while others will be working out in the field, and from Matthew that Jesus’ return will be in an  instant, like a flash of lightening.  The implications are this; that the sudden instance Jesus returns there will be people in bed at night and others out in the field working during the day. This could only be possible if earth was spherical with people experiencing daylight while others experienced night.

Thus, between Isaiah 40:22 and a deduction from Matthew 24:47, Luke 17:31-34 and Job 26:10, one could assert that with some confidence that the Bible speaks of a round spherical earth.

Final Thoughts:

It is my hope that after reading this you can agree that Christianity has never been one that maintains a flat earth cosmology and that the Bible does not teach a flat earth. Unfortunately, this myth has spread like an infectious disease, being gladly accepted by those with a predetermined dislike for Christianity and religion in general. Dr. Danny Faulkner, Chair of the math and Science Dept and Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the University of South Carolina, declares, “Many critics of creationists attempt to malign by suggesting that what creationists teach is akin to belief in a flat Earth. This attack is easy to refute, because the Bible does not teach that the Earth is flat, and virtually no one in the history of the church taught this. In fact, the belief in a flat Earth is a 19th century myth that was concocted to discredit critics of Darwinism. The supposed lesson of this myth was that the Church got it wrong before, so the Church has a chance to redeem itself by getting it right on the issue of evolution. This false lesson has been indelibly impressed upon common perception.”[56]

Bergman writes, “The idea that Christians once commonly believed in a flat earth for theological reasons is a myth. The story was invented to promote the claim that Christians have widely resisted scientific advancement due to doctrinal constraints.”[57]

Unfortunately, historically and scripturally inaccurate portrayals of Christianity (or in this case Intelligent Design, which is not affiliated with any religion) remain today.

Unfortunately, historically and scripturally inaccurate portrayals of Christianity (or in this case Intelligent Design, which is not affiliated with any religion) remain today.

Russell writes, “Contortions that are common today, if not widely recognized, are produced by the incessant attacks on Christianity and religion in general by secular writers during the past century and a half, attacks that are largely responsible for the academic and journalistic sneers at Christianity today. A curious example of this mistreatment of the past for the purpose of slandering Christians is a widespread historical error, an error that the Historical Society of Britain some years back listed as number one in its short compendium of the ten most common historical illusions. It is the notion that people used to believe that the earth was flat–especially medieval Christians. It must first be reiterated that with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.”[58]

 flat earth t shirt

With that I’m left with the image of a thought provoking T-shirt from an anti-religious T-shirt brand. The T-shirt shows a flat earth and reads, “Teach the Controversy.” I completely agree! Even though the T-shirt is obviously under the influence of the false notion that Christianity teaches a flat earth. I say, let us indeed teach the controversy. The controversy that Christians never maintained a flat earth cosmology which was unfairly smeared on them by a handful of biased historians in an effort to propagate an unnecessary and unwarranted war between science and religion. Let us all become properly educated on the controversy and put an end to this ignorance of religion and history which blemishes our culture.


[1] Schadewald, R., (Winter 1981) “Scientific Creationism, egocentricity, and the flat earth,” Skeptical Inquirer, Pp. 44

[2] Pigliucci, M., (2002) Denying Evolution; Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science, (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates) pp. 38.

[3] Singer, C., (1917) Studies in the History and Method of Science, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) pp. 352

[4] Seely, P.H. (1997) “The geographical meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 59(2): pp. 231-256.

[5] Cain, F., (September 2009) “Earth’s Circumference,” http://www.universetoday.com

[6] Williams, A. & Hartnett, J., (2005) Dismantling the Big Bang, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 24.

[7] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[8] Williams, A. & Hartnett, J., (2005) Dismantling the Big Bang, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 23-24.

[9] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[10] Sagan, C., (1980) Cosmos, (London:MacDonald & Co.) pp.14-15.

[11] Cain, F., (September 2009) “Earth’s Circumference,” http://www.universetoday.com

[12] Williams, A. & Hartnett, J., (2005) Dismantling the Big Bang, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 23.

[13] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 116.

[14] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 3, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[15] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 3, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[16] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 1, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[17] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 3, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[18] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[19] As quoted in Robert Kulwich’s “What Columbus Already Knew,” (Oct 2010) http://www.npr.org

[20] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 2, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[21] Morrison, S.E. (1942) Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.) pp. 89.

[22] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 2, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[23] www-spof.gsfc.nasa.gov/stargaze/Scolumb.htm

[24] Lang, J.S. (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible but Never Thought to Ask, (New York, NY: Thomas Nelson, Inc.) pp. 19.

[25] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 117.

[26] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[27] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 3, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[28] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[29] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[30] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 3, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[31] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 5, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[32] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

[33] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 120.

[34] Gould, S.J., “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” pp. 5, which can be accessed here: http://www.inf.fu-berlin.de/lehre/SS05/efs/materials/FlatEarth.pdf

[35] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 115.

[36] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 116.

[37] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 116.

[38] Wolchover, N., (June 2011) “Ingenious ‘Flat Earth’ Revealed in Old Map,” http://www.livescience.com

[39] Wolchover, N., (June 2011) “Ingenious ‘Flat Earth’ Revealed in Old Map,” http://www.livescience.com

[40] This is according to the 2012 Census, Table 75, which can be accessed here: http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

[41] Wolchover, N., (June 2011) “Ingenious ‘Flat Earth’ Revealed in Old Map,” http://www.livescience.com

[42] Schadewald, R.J. (1995) “The Flat-Earth Bible,” http://www.lhup.edu

[44] Holding, J.P. (December 2000) “Is the ‘Erets (Earth) Flat?” http://www.answersingenesis.org

[45] Seely, P.H. (1997) “The geographical meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 59(2): pp. 239.

[46] Holding, J.P. (December 2000) “Is the ‘Erets (Earth) Flat?” http://www.answersingenesis.org

[47] Clarke’s commentary can be accessed here: http://bible.cc/job/38-13.htm

[48] Holding, J.P. (December 2000) “Is the ‘Erets (Earth) Flat?” http://www.answersingenesis.org

[49] Barnes’ Notes can be accessed here: http://bible.cc/matthew/4-8.htm

[50] Gill’s Exposition can be accessed here: http://bible.cc/matthew/4-8.htm

[51] Hodge, B., (2006) “Don’t Creationists Believe in Some ‘Wacky’ Things?” as written in Ken Ham’s The New Answers Book 1, (Green Forest, AR: Master Books) pp. 199.

[52] Gill’s exposition can be accessed here: http://bible.cc/revelation/7-1.htm

[55] Seely, P.H. (1997) “The geographical meaning of ‘Earth’ and ‘Seas’ in Genesis 1:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 59(2): pp. 238.

[56] Faulkner, D., (August 2001) “Geocentrism and Creation,” http://www.answersingenesisi.org

[57] Bergman, J., (August 2008) “The Flat-Earth Myth and Creationism,” Journal of Creation, 22(2) pp. 114.

[58] Russell, J.B. (August 4, 1997) “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” http://www.veritas-ucsb.org

The virgin conception is a highly scrutinized event within the nativity story. As with other biblical miracles, the virgin conception has been explained by a whole host of conspiracy theories devoid of actual supernatural cause. Was the story copied from other pagan mythologies? Copied from Old Testament scripture? Was Christ simply the result of a shameful affair, the virgin conception concocted to hide His illegitimate origins? Is Jesus the result of an extremely rare but possible asexual reproduction? The theories are abundant, yet all try to find a way to rationalize the story without consideration that what is written in Matthew and Luke is actually plausible.

Even in the church, skepticism is present, spreading, slowly but surely. Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopalian Church believes the virgin birth as written in Matthew and Luke is not literal truth.[1] Protestant theologian Wesley Wildman of Boston University believes that Jesus must have gotten his Y chromosome from Joseph, so what He received from God was more spiritual than physical.[2] Anglican Bishop John Arthur Thomas Robinson, former Dean of Trinity College in Cambridge shares similar beliefs, “… we are not bound to think of the Virgin Birth as a physical event in order to believe that Jesus’s whole life is ‘of God.’”[3] Doubt is clearly creeping into the nativity story and it is leading to explanations of spiritual analogy instead of literal acceptance. These compromises on the scripture all stem from doubt in something that seems too impossible to be true.

Yet, we all seem to overlook that it was just as impossible and hard to believe then in the first century as it is today. Luke and Matthew seem to have trouble writing of it. Even Mary noted of its impossibility when she was standing in front of the angel telling her it would happen! And it was additionally a target of skepticism then just as it is now, being doubted by the Pharisees and the Greek philosopher Celsus himself, among others. So we should not assume that skepticism of the virgin birth belongs only to a more modern and intelligent generation of people. Doubt was present right from the beginning, across two thousand years, to the present.

Here I will present the most popular arguments against the virgin birth that have emerged over these thousands of years. It is my hope that after exploring these issues you will see that they do not stand to refute the story of the virgin birth. In the end, you will find that the only way to deny the virgin conception is to deny the supernatural all together.

PAGAN MYTH THEORY

The most modern rebuttal to the virgin birth is a conspiracy that the gospel writers copied the story from other pagan mythologies. The train of thought is that only two of the gospels mention the virgin birth, and of these two there are shocking similarities to other mythologies commonly known in the first century. The motivation being that Matthew and Luke wanted to better promote Jesus to the gentiles, and giving Him attributes that resembled popular pagan mythologies would give Christianity more appeal.

Dr. Gerald Larue Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and Biblical Studies at USC, writes, “Sexual relationships between divine beings were common in hero stories. The Greek god Zeus impregnated women to produce heroes like Hercules, Perseus, and Alexander the Great. The god Apollo had intercourse with human females, who bore such heroes as Asclepius, Pythagoras, Plato and the emperor Augustus. Some of the women were said to have been virgins. The use of mythological symbolism was part of the first century literary tradition. The gospel writers simply used it to exalt Jesus.”[4] Even scientists like Dr. Aarathi Prasad, a former cancer researcher, have an opinion on the subject, “Hers [Mary’s] is the best known story of a virgin birth in the world, but it is by no means the only one. From the mothers of Buddha to Genghis Khan, most cultures tell the tale of a maiden untouched by man who gives birth.”[5] Other theories refer to influences from Greco-Roman deity (Perseus- Romulus, Mithras, Apollonius of Tyana), Egyptian deity (Horus, Osiris), and even oriental religions (Buddha, Krishna, and son of Zoroaster).

Right off the bat a discrepancy should be easily recognized here. How could the nativity story have so much in common with mythology from Greece, Rome, Egypt and even the orient? The nativity story is not that long! Most certainly not long enough to be capable of borrowing from all these other religions. Furthermore, even if intense similarities were to be found, that doesn’t in any way prove that the gospel writers copied from them. In fact, to make such a claim would be a genetic fallacy, the error of trying to disprove a belief by tracing it to its source. Regardless, an examination of each one shows that there is hardly any comparison to be made!

Alexander the Great: Born of King Philip II of Macedonia and Queen Olympia,[6] there are no records of Alexander being conceived from a non-sexual divine source.

Apollonius of Tyana: Apollonius was born after his mother fell asleep in a meadow where swans began to dance around her causing her to give birth prematurely. But more importantly, the story of Apollonius was written down no earlier than AD 217, well after the gospel accounts were already written down and being circulated.[7] Thus no claim of copying can be placed on Matthew or Luke.

Buddha: To declare the story Jesus was copied from Buddha is incredibly hard to substantiate considering the histories of Buddha are contradicting, convoluted and written hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years after the supposed events took place. For example, research when Buddha was born and you’ll get a wide range of answers ranging from 1700 BC to 400 BC. Regardless, the details of Buddha’s birth are not similar to Jesus in that Buddha’s mother Maya was a married woman to which there is no original declaration of her being a virgin. Historical scholars maintain Buddha’s birth has no hints of any abnormality. A tradition from the first century did emerge later in which Maya is declared a virgin and became pregnant after dreaming of a white elephant.[8] Hardly comparable to the gospel account.

Genghis Khan: Was born in AD1155,[9] thus no one can claim the gospel writers copied from a man not born for another one thousand years.

Hercules: The myth of Hercules is that Zeus fell in love with a married woman named Alceme, they had sexual relations, and Hercules was conceived.[10] Though Alceme had not yet slept with her husband (her cousin), the encounter between her and Zeus was sexual in nature, and therefore in contrast with the gospel narrative. It should additionally be noted that Alceme slept with another God, Tiresias, at a later date.[11] Other story details bring incredible contrast to the gospel narratives.

Horus and Osiris: This one is slightly more complicated because many pharaohs were named Osiris and Horus after the gods Osiris and Horus. Egyptian mythology holds that Pharaohs were thought be the result of their mother in union with a God.[12] This however would make the mothers non-virgins. The wife’s encounter with a God is sexual in Egyptian tradition, were as the account from Matthew and Luke is not. Even the mythologies of the original gods doesn’t match up; Horus was not born of a virgin. In fact one depiction is that of his mother Isis in falcon form hovering over the erect penis of Osiris. Scholars agree that Egyptian mythology maintains Isis had sexual intercourse with Osiris.[13]

Krishna: Krishna was born as the eighth son of princess Devaki. She was apparently impregnated by her husband god Vasudeva via “mental transmission.” And though one can argue the conception was non-sexual, the fact remains that Devaki had already had seven children and was therefore not a virgin.

Mithras: Mithras was born as an adult, not a child. Mithras was also born out of rock, not a virgin mother.[14] More importantly, the birth stories of Mithras come AFTER the gospels were being circulated.[15] Therefore, one cannot accuse Christianity of borrowing from it.

Perseus: Perseus was not really virginally conceived at all, but was the result of sexual intercourse between the god Zeus and Danaë. Zeus had previously turned himself into a shower of gold to reach the imprisoned damsel.[16] This is in high contrast to the gospel narrative.

Romulus: Romulus was born one of two twins to the virgin Rhea Silva after having sexual intercourse with Mars, and were thrown into the river Tiberinus where they were rescued by a she-wolf that reared them.[17] Though Rhea Silva may have been a virgin, she wasn’t considered one after being impregnated by Mars. Thus, it is not comparable to the gospel narrative.

Zoroaster: Like Buddha, Zoroaster is difficult to pin point as well, living any where from 1,700 to 600 BC. The details of the conception are vague and can only be sourced to a time after Christianity had already originated.[18]

To claim Matthew and Luke copied from pagan myths either comes from a lack of historical knowledge of these other mythological characters, or from a direct intent to mislead others. Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, AKA Pope Benedict XVI, writes, “Extra-biblical stories of this kind differ profoundly in vocabulary and imagery from the story of the birth of Jesus. The main contrast consists in the fact that in pagan texts the godhead almost always appears as a fertilizing, procreative power, thus under a more or less sexual aspect hence in a physical sense as the ‘father’ of the savior-child. As we have seen, nothing of this sort appears in the New Testament: the conception of Jesus is a new creation, not begetting by God. God does not become the biological father of Jesus.”[19]

Reverend Raymond E. Brown of the Roman Catholic Church writes, “In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus.”[20]

Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, a chemist and national chess champion, writes, “The earliest Christians were Jews who abhorred paganism (see Acts 14), so would be the last people to derive Christianity from paganism.”[21]

Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou , a Jesuit theologian, historian, cardinal and member of the Academie Francaise, writes, “… such attempts (to compare the Christian nativity to pagan mythology) are foiled by the absence of any precise element of comparison.”[22]

In summary here are some main points to consider regarding this poor theory:

A.         There is no proof that first century Christians knew of, or were at any point exposed to these pagan myths and stories.

B.         If they were known, what is the attraction to them, or motivation to borrow from them? Especially considering the NT’s aversion to anything pagan.

C.        When extra-biblical stories are compared to the virginal conception from Matthew and Luke there is arguably no similarities what so ever.

With these points considered, it becomes very clear that this theory has no legs to stand on and should be abandoned by skeptics.

COPIED FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT

Another theory holds that Matthew and Luke didn’t copy but pagan mythologies, but instead copied from the Old Testament. The motivation is the same for the pagan mythologies in that they wanted to make Christ more appealing. But instead of making Him more appealing to gentiles, they instead wanted to make Him appealing to Jews. And what better way to do this then to connect the nativity story with other Old Testament stories and attach a prophecy to the virgin conception.

The first concept of appealing to Jews was to copy from the stories of Isaac and Samson in which through the miracle of sexual reproduction God makes the conception of these heroes possible, much like Jesus. This theory is easily refuted though. Mary was a virgin, unlike Isaac and Samson’s mother. She was also very young whereas the other mothers were very old. The miracle is thus of a completely different nature since the other mother’s pregnancies were miracles in that they were too old to conceive. Mary’s pregnancy, conversely, was a miracle in that she was a virgin. Additionally, the other mothers conceived through sexual intercourse between two humans, with God only making the conception possible. Mary on the other hand had no sexual intercourse, and was made pregnant via the Holy Spirit. The nature of these miracles is different enough to refute the notion that Matthew and Luke fabricated the story from Old Testament scripture.

The second concept is that of prophecy. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 as prophecy of the virgin conception: “Therefore the Lord himself will give youa sign: The virginwill conceive and give birth to a son, andwill call him Immanuel” (NIV). Since this prophecy already had a historical fulfillment unrelated to Christ, many argue that Matthew was forcing prophecy on the nativity to convince Jews of Christ’s authenticity. Many scholars, still to this day, argue on the meaning and usage of this OT text by Matthew.

The Hebrew word used for virgin in Isaiah 7:14 is “almah.” When translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the word used is “parthenos.” “Parthenos” can be translated to “virgin,” but it can just as easily mean “young woman.”[23] Another Greek word “neanis,” could have been used and has closer meaning to “almah.” But it was not used, so the Septuagint translator interpreted “almah” to represent “parthenos.”[24] Others believe virgin is an accurate translation for “almah” since it is used in many other places in Old Testament for young women that were unmarried (virgin) women.[25] Many theologians argue why the Septuagint translator(s) used “parthenos.” But whether Isaiah 7:14 pertains to a woman being a “virgin” or “young,” it should be noted that Mary was both, so there is no contradiction no matter which way you put it. The issue is not so much as whether the woman mentioned was a virgin or not, but more so, the reason for Matthew’s use of it.

Some theologians believe that the virginal conception was so unexpected that it forced Matthew and Luke to interpret Isaiah 7:14 in a way very different from how Jewish tradition did.[26] Thus, Isaiah 7:14 is used out of context to be assimilated to the virgin conception of Christ. This is troubling for many to accept. However, there is another approach to this issue. The literal prophecy is directly linked with a past historical event, the birth of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, which is directly followed by disasters in Israel. This has led other theologians to counter that Matthew is using the prophecy within context, but that we’re reading the wrong part of the prophecy. The purpose of Isaiah 7:14 (when read in context with 7:13) is that there will be a descendant of David that is a “sign.”[27] This prophecy should not be used to “prove” the virgin birth that fulfills the prophecy, but instead to indicate a parallel with offspring from the lineage of David born unto a “young” or “virgin” woman. After all, Isaiah 7:14 says the child would be named Immanuel, and Jesus is named… well… Jesus. Yet there is a parallel meaning between what the names mean; Immanuel meaning “God is with us,” and Jesus meaning “Savior.” So it can be argued the reference to Isaiah is not for fulfillment, but to establish a parallel.

Danielou concludes, “…the point of the reference to Isaiah 7 in Matthew is to support the central statement of the episode that Jesus is to be of the house of David… It does not base faith in the virgin birth on the fact that it is the fulfillment of a prophecy; on the contrary, it provides a Christian exegesis of the prophecy in the light of the virgin birth.”[28]

Further refutation of the original conspiracy in general can occur if we put ourselves in Matthew and Luke’s shoes for a moment, as first century Jewish men. Let us hypothetically say we were going to fabricate Jesus’ birth story to make it contextual to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. They would have said the Messiah came down from heaven, or was the Son of David through Joseph. Yet, they went with virginal conception from Mary, a woman from the lineage of David. This is not expected. Clearly the gospel writers did not fabricate the virgin conception from Old Testament scripture.

LATER ADDITIONS

Both the pagan mythology theory and the theory of borrowing from the OT have a similarity in that they are additions to the gospel accounts. This leads to another theory that the virgin conception (and nativity story overall) was added long after the gospels were originally written. The theory proposes a multitude of motivations, some pertaining to the two previous theories of trying to make the story of Christ more appealing. Other motivations lie in trying to force sexual restrictions on men and women through lessons learned from the virgin birth. The case to me made is, why else would such an important story be found in only two gospel accounts and yet nowhere else in the New Testament. Since the books were written in the second half of the first century, it is argued they could have been added at any point during this time. Some believe that Mary was never even considered a virgin until the middle ages!

However, there is strong evidence that the gospels were written prior to the Pauline epistles in 70AD. In fact, famous archaeologist Dr. William F. Albright writes, “There is no reason to believe that any Gospels were written later than A.D. 70,”[29] Additionally, the composition of the infancy gospels in Matthew and Luke is archaic, Judaic, Old Testament character that preserved the first Judeo-Christian community traditions. And furthermore, the virginal conception doctrine is scriptural and affirmed by early Christians such as Ignatius (d. AD c. 108), Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 212).[30] Lastly, by the 3rd century or after, the gospel accounts were so wide spread it would be literally impossible to track down every single one to add in the nativity story.

French theologian Rene Laurentin writes, “A closer investigation of the prehistory of the oral traditions or written sources of the gospels reveals that there is no reason for considering the infancy gospels as late.”[31] Indeed, considering that the text is consistent with that of first century writing, it is consistent with the rest of the gospel text all dated prior to AD70, it would be impossible to add to every copy at a later date and was affirmed by first and second century Christians, it is unquestionably accurate to say the nativity story is not a late addition to the gospel accounts.

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER… AND RECORD

Ok, so maybe we can conclude the gospel writers didn’t copy or add in the nativity story later. But that still doesn’t prove the virgin conception. How do we really know Mary was a virgin? Maybe Joseph and Mary had pre-marital relations? Maybe Mary had an affair? This is of course neglecting the gospel accounts themselves.

Here is what we first need to establish. The gospels are clear that Mary was committed to Joseph. Matthew writes that Joseph was “husband of Mary” (1:16) and that she was “his wife” (1:20, 24) Luke says she was his “betrothed” even at the time of birth (1:27, 2:5). Therefore to suggest Mary had an affair with someone else presents a significant obstacle: Why did Joseph stay with her? Even in today’s culture that is a tall order, but in first century Jewish culture, that is unacceptable. There is no way Joseph would stay with Mary if she was pregnant with another man’s child. There would be at the very least be a divorce. Yet Joseph stays with Mary, clearly indicating there was no affair.

This leads the argument to another possible theory that Joseph and Mary had sex and conceived Jesus. This isn’t as shocking, but it contradicts the gospel accounts of Mary being a virgin. In addition, It was not Joseph who begot him (Mt 1:16, 18-25, Lk 1:31, 34-35, 3:24). Mary is Jesus’ only human source (Mt 1:16, 18, 20-23, Lk 1:27, 35). The origin is not referred to the Father, but to the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18, 20, Lk 1:35). Furthermore, if Joseph was Jesus’ father, why the need to concoct a story of virgin conception?

The only way to suggest the conception of Jesus was not supernatural is to deny the gospel narratives all together which affirm a virgin conception. To go further and propose an affair or normal human conception is to do so with no evidence and a denial of other historical facts.

SKEPTICISM AND EXTRA-BIBLICAL EVIDENCE

Skeptics argue, however, that there IS evidence of an affair or other illegitimate origin for Christ. Evidence that is extra-biblical and thus takes us into the realm of testimony from those who were skeptical of the virgin conception.

Ancient Jewish tradition maintains that Jesus was born of adultery.[32]  In the late 2nd century Celsus, a second century Greek philosopher, wrote, “[Jesus] came from a Jewish village and from poor country woman who earned her living by spinning… She was driven out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, as she was convicted of adultery. After she had been driven out by her husband and while she was wandering about in a disgraceful way she secretly gave birth to Jesus.”[33]  And, “The mother of Jesus is described as having been turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera.”[34]

Even in the Bible we see skepticism of Jesus’ father from the Pharisees in Mark 6:3 when they refer to Jesus was as the son of Mary, not the son of Joseph. This would be an insult in Jewish culture, unless of course they believed Joseph was not His father, and the real father was unknown.

The skeptics seem to provide evidence that the origin of Christ is questionable. Or do they? Consider the source; Jews and Romans skeptical of Jesus being the Son of God. The only value this evidence has is evidence of doubt from others. The doubt being no different than the doubt experienced today as a way to rationalize Christ’s origins without the supernatural. The inclusion of these doubts in the gospel accounts themselves only solidifies this notion.

Celsus was far removed from the events in question by about one hundred years. His only knowledge of the nativity story coming from what the gospel writers had already established. Hence, his critique of the story is based on what he thinks really happened under the presupposition that the virgin conception did not occur. Case in point is his claim that Mary was convicted of adultery, something Joseph would surely divorce and leave her for, and something Mary most likely would not have survived. He also claims Joseph turned her away, which is not found in the nativity stories, and in fact contradicts them as both Mary and Joseph went to find Jesus in the temple at age twelve. Then there is his claim that the father was a soldier named “Panthera,” which he obviously derived from “pantheos” (virgin).[35] Thus, Celsus’ testimony only proves that there was doubt of Christ’s origins among the Romans, but there is nothing to substantiate these doubts other than preconceived opinion.

These records of doubt additionally defend three points made earlier; the virgin conception was not a later addition, not copied from pagan myth and the gospel writers did not copy from the Old Testament. If the virgin conception was added at a later date how come we see Jews and Romans challenging it so early on? If copied from pagan myth why did the Romans challenge it? If copied from Old Testament scripture why would the Jews challenge it?

Likewise, we must also consider the difficulty and skepticism encountered from Matthew and Luke while writing virginal conception story as further testimony to its accuracy. Why would Matthew and Luke write of it, unless it actually happened? The strange conception of Jesus would only lead to criticism and attempts to discredit the miracle from those who heard of it, as it subsequently did receive from both Jews and Greeks, which is testimony it was not invented by the disciples.

Laurentin writes, “…the virginal conception was, for Luke and above all for Matthew, a crucial difficulty, indeed a scandal. It ran counter to their apologetic concern, to establish that Jesus was son of David, which was the very reason that had inspired Matthew to begin his Gospel with a genealogy. It was a tradition that came to them from reliable Jewish Christian circles, and nothing prepared our evangelists to resolve it. They managed to do so, however, in a more convincing way that Paul himself (Gal 4:4), not by choosing an easy route, but by accepting the very originality of this significant novelty.”[36]

Let us, for the moment, assume the virgin conception did happen as written in the gospels. If so, we would naturally expect opposition from skeptics since the claim of a virgin conception is extreme. We would naturally expect some form of mention of the virgin conception outside the bible. Which we do find this extra-biblical support in the form of skepticism. Thus, the factors we naturally expect to find in the event the story is true, we do indeed find.

A RELIABLE SOURCE

All the rebuttals to these conspiracy theories relies on a foundation that proposes the gospels are reliable texts. As can be shown by the overly abundant other historical events confirmed by the Bible, the gospels themselves present many cities, people and events which have been substantiated by archaeology and other extra-biblical histories. Luke’s gospel alone proves to be rich with details that testify to his objective to provide an accurate account of Jesus’ life. Also consider the historical accuracy of events surrounding the birth. The references to Quirinius’ census, the accuracy of the genealogies, the mention of Herod, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc., all historically verifiable people and places. Details of the nativity story in general, like there being no room at the inn, child laid in a manger, etc., have no real theological value other than being straightforward historical details. This adds more teeth to the reliability of the nativity story overall.

With so many facets of Matthew and Luke’s gospels validated, why would one immediately move to a position of doubt when they mention the virgin conception? For the disciples to accept this event as accurate, it is because it imposed itself as fact. Additionally, between Luke and Matthew we see many divergences, yet they both share a similar account of the conception. Laurentin remarks, “… the virgin birth stands as a serious and solid datum. It is affirmed in an independent way, as we have seen, by the two infancy Gospels. There divergences at other points corroborate this remarkable agreement.”[37]

Danielou agrees, “… it is important to notice how Matthew and Luke converg- which indicates at the very least that the virgin birth is an element in a tradition that antedates them both. And if it is further true, as now seems incontestable, that the infancy narratives are based, not just on the preaching of the apostles, but on the traditions in Jesus’ family (traditions related in Luke to Mary’s side, and in Matthew’s to Joseph’s) then we are faced with two independent witnesses fully in agreement with one another.”[38]

But what about the fact that only two places in the New Testament mention such a significant event as the virgin conception? The resurrection was a very significant, and we see it mentioned numerous times in the NT, and definitely in all four gospels. Why is the nativity story so scarce?

Well such might not be the case. Some theologians argue that John 1:13 confirms the virgin conception, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (NIV)”  Mark 6:3 seems to also support the virgin conception in that it testifies to skepticism among the people as they referred to Jesus was the son of Mary, not Joseph, which was not custom at the time to reference the mother instead of the father, unless there was doubt of who the father was. This likewise is shown in John 8:41, where the Pharisees tell Jesus that they were not born out fornication (ek porneias). Was this an insult to Jesus?

Some suggest Paul confirms the virgin birth in Galatians 4:4, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law…” (NIV). Declaring Jesus was born of a woman in that time in place is substantial to say the least. And thus it appears we have confirmation from Matthew, Luke, John, Mark, and Paul that Jesus was conceived from a virgin woman. The claim that the nativity story should be rejected because it only appears in two places in the NT was refutable originally, but now it would appear to be an unquestionably spurious claim to make.

Laurentin writes, “…Paul’s theology of Christ’s origin contains nothing that conflicts with the idea of virginal conception, but in fact, contains some surprising traits which harmonize with it.”[39] Scholar Antonion Vicent Cernuda writes, “His [Paul’s] archaic formulas confirm that [the virginal conception], often considered illusory in these times, did belong to the most ancient Christian tradition.”[40]

One factor that troubles some skeptics is the fact that Matthew and Luke did not witness the events described in the nativity story. How could they know the details of Mary and Joseph being visited by an angel? The story of the conception of Jesus is believed to come from Mary herself, since Luke makes reference to her prayerful recollection. Mary is of course the only witness to the annunciation.[41] Thus, Luke received the story from Mary’s testimony.[42] It should be likewise considered Matthew received it from the same source.

Considering the historical accuracy of the Bible in general, and more specifically Matthew and Luke, it is rational to presume the stories told are accurate. In addition, other books within the Bible confirm the tradition of a virgin conception. Again, if we assume for the moment that the virgin conception did happen in the first century, the evidence we would expect to find from the first century is supporting eye witness testimony and skeptical testimony from those that did not witness it. And this is indeed what we find.

SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM

The most common objection to the virgin conception I often hear myself, is that of scientific impossibility. Such an event is a miracle, considered impossible, and thus rejected unless it can be proven otherwise. Usually the skeptic requires scientific proof, ignoring the fact that there are many truths we all accept everyday without a shred of scientific proof. Yet, this has not prevented many from drawing up explanations for the virgin conception that are supposedly scientifically sound. Just as the previously mentioned conspiracy theory of an affair looks to find a simple and scientifically acceptable explanation, there are others to consider as well, such as Parthenogenesis.

A few years ago, discover magazine posted an article on Parthenogenesis which stated, “Virgin birth may sound like the stuff of myths and miracles, but now it’s the stuff of science, too. In recent years, asexual reproduction, aka virgin birth, has been confirmed in a number of organisms.”[43] Parthenogenesis is the capability for an organism to reproduce without the need for fertilized eggs. It has been observed in pythons, sharks, bats, and even lab mice.[44] So if it is possible for these animals to give birth without sex, then maybe it is possible for humans too. Maybe such was the case for Jesus. This would serve to provide scientific plausibility for the skeptics and maintain the virgin birth for believers. In fact, many Christians have indeed adopted Parthenogenesis into their theology. Problem solved! Right?

Wrong. There are theological and scientific implications to parthenogenesis that prove to be anything but harmonious with scripture. The theological problem: Parthenogenesis removes any need for God, the Holy Spirit, or anything supernatural, chalking up Mary’s pregnancy to incredible, but still natural, causes. The denial of any divine influence renders the event non-miraculous and pointless to the Gospels. As Dr. Prasad confirms, “…when it comes to having babies without males, the hand of God now seems redundant.”[45] The scientific problem: parthenogenesis works by giving the egg an X chromosome from the mother, creating an XX combination which results in a female. Jesus was a male however. Meaning he required a Y chromosome which mothers cannot give, but fathers can.[46] As Prasad clarifies, “In humans, a virgin birth would mean that a woman’s eggs develop successfully without sperm. This presents a sex chromosome problem. In mammals, females are XX while males are XY so a woman should never be able to provide the necessary Y chromosome genes to produce a son. They can only come from a father.”[47]

However, some argue it could still be possible for Jesus to have been conceived this way if Mary had a condition called “testicular feminization syndrome.” Meaning, Mary had an X and Y chromosome (like that of a man) but her X chromosome was mutated preventing her body from being sensitive to testosterone, and thus, would develop like a female.[48] Normally the syndrome leaves the carrier sterile, but if she were to spontaneously become pregnant, she would have a Y chromosome to give, making it possible to have a male child.[49]

This, however, leads to another problem. Such a case of parthenogenesis among a carrier of testicular feminization syndrome would mean the offspring would inherit the same X chromosome mutation, and subsequently develop like a female as well. The only way around this problem is to propose a “back mutation,” in which the X chromosome mutation mutates back to the original gene that doesn’t cause testicular feminization. The odds of a back mutation are, however, “highly unlikely.”[50]

Another theory maintains that Mary didn’t have testicular feminization, but was instead a genetic mosaic caused while she herself was in her mother’s womb. This scenario involves a twin embryo (with a Y chromosome) fusing with Mary’s at a very early stage.[51] Thus, Mary is a female, but has the Y chromosome from her unfortunate fused twin. Yet problems emerge just as before; why is that Y chromosome not expressed in Mary’s phenotype? Whatever would suppress that Y chromosome allowing Mary to be female, would likewise prevent Jesus from being male as well.

Furthermore, the processes required for natural virgin birth are extremely unlikely. Parthenogenesis has never been observed in humans. Testicular feminization syndrome is very rare, only effecting one in 20,000 to 64,000 births in modern times.[52] The possibility of females with testicular feminization syndrome giving birth is very rare. Mary being a genetic mosaic is also very rare. And a back mutation is also very rare. When you stack unlikely scenarios upon piles of other unlikely scenarios, you’re left with an overall scenario so unlikely, it might as well be a miracle! As Prasad writes, “You could be forgiven for thinking that the scientific possibilities are no more plausible than a miracle.”[53] Clearly, the purpose of parthenogenesis to provide a scientific explanation for the virgin conception absent of miracles completely fails in this regard.

This is naturally where the argument heads into the realm of miracles and the question of whether or not miracles can or have happened. There is obviously a great deal that can be written on this subject alone, but I will only briefly attend to it. I will start by suggesting that it is a fallacy to claim that science disproves miracles. Science can only measure and study the regular natural order of things. A miracle, being a suspension of the regular natural order, would thus not be detectable by science. Ergo, to argue that science leaves no room for miracles is to argue that science has a monopoly on determining what truth is. However, the process of science is the data collected from observable repeatable experiment. Thus, science is limited as to what it can prove or disprove.

We also need to recognize that science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not determine what is possible, it only recognizes what is possible, and hence is always changing as we discover and understand more and more. Things that once defied science in the past are now standards in science. So if we recognize the limitations of science it becomes clear that the assumption it disproves miracles, is ultimately, false. After all, if science absolutely disproved miracles we should see a complete absence of Christian scientists. Such is not the case though.

Here, I believe, it is important to understand God’s role between miracles and natural law. Philosopher and apologist Norman L. Geisler does a wonderful job in identifying this, “Natural law is a description of the way God acts regularly in and through creation (Ps. 104:10–14), whereas a miracle is the way God acts on special occasions. So both miracles and natural law involve the activity of God. The difference is that natural law is the regular, repeatable way God acts, whereas a miracle is not… Natural law is the way God acts indirectly in and through the world he has made. By contrast, a miracle is the way God acts directly in his creation from time to time… Natural law describes the gradual activity of God in the world, whereas miracles manifest his immediate actions.”[54]

Overall, attempts to reconcile the virgin conception through pure natural causes devoid of divine intervention have to be recognized as attempts to remove God from the picture completely. And to remove God from the event, ultimately leads to an even easier denial of it. Brown writes, “It [virgin conception] was an extraordinary action of God’s creative power, as unique as the initial creation itself (and that is why all natural scientific objections to it are irrelevant, e.g., that not having a human father, Jesus’ genetic structure would be abnormal). It was not a phenomenon of nature; and to reduce it to one, however unusual, would be as serious a challenge to deny it altogether.”[55] So there should be no interest for Christians to search out natural explanations for it in an effort to make the story more plausible to skeptics.

Yet, the removal of any natural cause might be the deal breaker for you, yourself. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, I could never believe in miracles! I can, however, argue that you most likely all ready do. Atheists and agnostic skeptics tend to have more in common with Christians than they would like to think. The virgin conception proves this greatly in that it involves the spontaneous generation of Jesus’ first embryonic cell. Scoff and mock this notion if you wish. But it is no different than the first spontaneous generation of life on earth. Think of the parallels: Both involve a spontaneous generation of a cell. Both unobserved by modern science. A purely natural origin of life on this earth involves the same degree of miraculous cellular formation we see in the virgin birth. Yet skeptics will scoff and mock the notion of the virgin birth (of which we have eye witness accounts) and yet religiously adhere to the natural origin of life on earth (in which there is no eyewitness account, and additionally no conclusive evidence)! Such irony!

So from a scientific perspective there is no valid excuse to deny the virgin conception unless you wish to throw out every other miraculous non-observable event in history like the spontaneous generation of life on earth, the big bang event, etc. etc. Yet, if we believe these events to have occurred, than you no longer have any scientific grounds to refute the virgin conception.

CONCLUSION

My research has lead me to conclude the virgin conception story as recorded in the Bible can stand up to the refutations skeptics attack it with. As Laurentin concludes, “After so many hypotheses, which have on examination turned out be as many impasses, the obvious critical solution is to recognize that the virginal conception is a datum of tradition, handed down in Judeo-Christian circles. The two evangelists received it by different routes as a statement of fact… This is the conclusion to which an objective study of the text leads.”[56]

Through out the course of researching this topic it occurred to me that in arguing for and against the virgin conception of Christ, the issue will always boil down to a single question: Is there a God? This is ultimately the issue at hand. If there is no God then the virgin conception becomes null and void. If there is a God, then miracles are possible, and the virgin conception possible and confirmed. This is the question one must decide for themselves first, as the virgin conception debacle will only lead back to it. For Christians who claim to believe in God there is absolutely no reason to deny the literal accuracy of the virgin conception. To do so would be to pull on the thread of God’s capability that is tied to all Biblical events, unraveling the entire Bible itself.

Although this article does not alone prove whether the virgin conception actually happened or not, it does bring up two significant points: First, that if the virgin conception did occur in the first century as expressed in the gospels, all the evidence we would expect there to be of this event are indeed found. Second, if God exists as expressed in the Bible, then the virgin conception is possible, tied to the first point that there is evidence of the virgin conception, it can then be concluded it did occur. Alas, we are left with one final question then; does God exist? If your answer is yes, then I believe it is necessary to conclude the virgin conception is a historical fact.


[1] Spong, J.S., (1992) Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, (San Francisco, CA: Harper)

[2] Flam, F., (May 2006) “What would Jesus’ DNA do?” seattletimes.com

[3] Robinson, J.A.T. (1967) But That I Can’t Believe! (New York, NY: The New American Library, Inc.) pp. 44.

[4] Larue, G. (1983) Sex and the Bible, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books). Pp. 70.

[5] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[6] “Alexander the Great,” http://www.biography.com

[7] Hold, J.P., “Was the story of Jesus stolen from Apollonius of Tyana?” http://www.tektonics.org

[8] Hold, J.P., “Was the story of Jesus stolen from Buddha? (Part 2)” http://www.tektonics.org

[9] “Genghis Kahn Biography,” (2012) http://www.biography.com

[10] “The Life and Times of Hercules,” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu

[11] “Alceme,” dante.udallas.edu

[12] Cazelle, H., (1959) “La mere du roi-Messie dans l’Ancien Testment,” Maria Ecclesia 5, pp. 39-56.

[13] Hold, J.P., “Was the story of Jesus stolen from that of the Egyptian deities Horus and Osiris?” http://www.tektonics.org

[14] Hold, J.P., “Was the story of Jesus stolen from that of the Persian deity Mithra?” http://www.tektonics.org

[15] Sarfati, J., (1994) “The Virginal Conception of Christ,” Apologia, 3(2) pp. 9.

[16] Sarfati, J., (1994) “The Virginal Conception of Christ,” Apologia, 3(2) pp. 9.

[17] Lindemans, M.F., (March 2002) “Romulus,” http://www.pantheon.org

[18] Hold, J.P., “Was the story of Jesus stolen from that of Zoroaster?” http://www.tektonics.org

[19] Ratzinger, J.A., (1969) Introduction au christianise. Translated, Queriniana, Pp. 207-208

[20] Brown, R.E., (1977)  The Birth of the Messiah: a commentary on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, Garden City, NY: Doubleday) pp. 523

[21] Sarfati, J., (1994) “The Virginal Conception of Christ,” Apologia, 3(2) pp. 9.

[22] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 53.

[23] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 48.

[24] Larue, G. (1983) Sex and the Bible, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books). Pp 69.

[25] Bott, M. & Sarfati, J., (1995) “What is wrong with Bishop Spong? Laymen Rethink the Scholarship of John Shelby Spong,” Apologia 4(1):3–27

[26] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 403.

[27] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 50.

[28] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 52.

[29] Quoted in, Little, P.E., (2000) “Know Why You Believe,” 4th Ed., (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) pp. 41-42.

[30] Sarfati, J., (1994) “The Virginal Conception of Christ,” Apologia, 3(2) pp. 4.

[31] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 410.

[32] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 405.

[33] As quoted from Chadwick, H., (1953) Origen: Contra Celsum, Cambridge, The University Press, 1:28, pp. 28

[34] As quoted from Chadwick, H., (1953) Origen: Contra Celsum, Cambridge, The University Press, 1:32, pp. 31.

[35] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 539 (ref 13).

[36] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 416.

[37] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 402.

[38] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 42.

[39] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 409.

[40] Vicent Cernuda, A., (1978) “La genesis humana de Jesucrist segun S. Pablo,” Translated, EB 37, pp. 289.

[41] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 23.

[42] Danielou, J., (1968) The Infancy Narratives, (New York, NY: Herder and Herder). Pp. 58-59.

[43] Bai, N., (January 2009) “The Science of Virgin Birth,” blogs.discovermagazine.com

[44] Bai, N., (January 2009) “The Science of Virgin Birth,” blogs.discovermagazine.com

[45] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[46] Bai, N., (January 2009) “The Science of Virgin Birth,” blogs.discovermagazine.com

[47] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[48] Kour, V. & Abrol, A., (January-March 2005) “Testicular Feminization Syndrome,” Vol. 7, No. 1, http://www.jkscience.org

[49] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[50] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[51] Bai, N., (January 2009) “The Science of Virgin Birth,” blogs.discovermagazine.com

[52] Kour, V. & Abrol, A., (January-March 2005) “Testicular Feminization Syndrome,” Vol. 7, No. 1, http://www.jkscience.org

[53] Prasad, A., (December 2008) “Virgin conception would be more plausible if mary was a man,” http://www.theguardian.co.uk

[54] Geisler, N.L., (1992) Miracles and the Modern Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker) pp. 111.

[55] Brown, R.E., (1977)  The Birth of the Messiah: a commentary on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, Garden City, NY: Doubleday) pp. 531.

[56] Laurentin, R., (1982) The Truth of Christmas; Beyond the Myths, Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 416.

While reading Reza Aslan’s book, How To Win A Cosmic War, I came across a paragraph that mentioned Herod the Great. Aslan writes, “History has not been kind to the man called Herod the Great. Best known for his slaughter of Bethlehem’s children in a vain search for the infant Jesus- an implausible event attributed to him solely by the Gospel of Matthew, for which there exists not a single corroborating source in any of the other chronicles or histories of the time-…”[1] Clearly Aslan doesn’t believe the event that is historically known as the “Slaughter of Innocents,” ever occurred. A position maintained by a great number of skeptics.

 

One can’t blame Aslan I suppose. Killing thousands upon thousands of children in Bethlehem alone seems ridiculous in itself… if you overlook the many times such atrocities have occurred in world history (just look at Hitler or the infanticide of the Spartans or modern day abortion) But for the Book of Matthew to be the only one source from which this historical claim is made… can we even consider Matthew to be a reliable source? You think someone else would have documented such an outrageous event. Not just a reformed tax collector that wrote about it some 50 years later or so. The whole premise relies on the assumption that the story of Christ is a true story to begin with. But this skepticism is really just a shallow denial without a thorough logical examination of the event in question when you really look into it.

 

Now of course, whether or not the story of Jesus and his existence is true I will not address here for sake of time and space. I’ve covered it a large number of times in many other articles I’ve written. So for you skeptics reading this, let’s assume for the moment the story of Christ is indeed accurate as recorded in the gospels. The gospel of Matthew reads as follows, When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape toEgypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left forEgypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out ofEgypt I called my son.’ When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:13-16 NIV).

 

From this passage take note of the requirements Herod gave for his soldiers. He told them to kill just boys. He also told them to kill only those 2 years of age or younger. This is a significant difference from the generalized notion that all the children were killed in Bethlehem, a tradition that maintains a number of anywhere from 3,000[2] to 64,000[3]. But only boys 2 years of age or younger were killed. Now consider that Bethlehem was not the decent sized city it is today. During the time of the events in question, Bethlehem was a very small village, hence why the prophecy that Christ would be born in such an insignificant location is so significant. Though we don’t know the exact population of Bethlehem at the time it was probably in the hundreds, maybe even a few thousand. Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people.[4] So considering that the order was to kill only the boys of two years or younger in such a small village, how many children were actually killed? Fifty? Twenty? Who knows for sure? But we do know that it was not thousands of children killed becauseBethlehem was simply put, not big enough. In the eventBethlehem only had a population of 300 it is likely that no more than 10 children were killed.

 

The great historian Josephus wrote that Herod often killed people and was so cruel that his subjects considered the dead to be fortunate.[5] Many critics of the New Testament claim that a biased portrait of Herod is painted in the Bible because of untrue killing of innocent children. But outside of the Bible, every historian that wrote of Herod the Great remarked on how ruthless he was and that there was not a day during his reign when someone wasn’t executed. He once burned two Jewish rabbis alive and then killed all the rabbis’ students. He killed his brother in law, mother in law, three of his sons and his second wife Miriamme.[6] So Herod wasn’t exactly such a nice guy, but in historical fact a King responsible for the deaths of a great many people under his authority. So in the big picture, would the murder of a few baby boys in the littlevillage ofBethlehem be a significant historical event or be out of character for Herod? Doubtful. Would any Jewish or Roman historian take particular note of the small scale of the murders amidst Herod’s long record of murders? Doubtful. But for followers of Jesus in which it indicated fulfilled prophecy it was definitely an important event. One that needed to be recorded, and subsequently was.

 

King Herod

In addition, child death was not notable for the Roman culture either. Infanticide was widely practiced in Rome, especially in Sparta.[7] The slaughter of a few children in a Jewish province would have hardly turned any heads.  Furthermore, we must not overlook the possibility that a Jewish or Roman historian did write about the baby murders in Bethlehem, but the records were destroyed at some point or have yet to be unearthed. As the old saying goes; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As historian Gordon Franz writes, “Even though secular history is silent on this event it does not mean it did not occur.  When the life of Herod the Great is examined, this event is very consistent with his character and actions so this is pointing to the fact that it did happen as recorded in Holy Scripture.”[8]

 

In conclusion, Herod’s character would make the slaughter of innocents very plausible. The event itself was a small event and therefore not likely to get any “press” with Jewish or Roman historians, so we shouldn’t expect any historical record outside the Bible. And the event is recorded in the Book of Matthew which has been found historically accurate on all archaeology related accounts as noted in my other articles. In knowing this, it is hardly logical to dismiss the Slaughter of the Innocents as implausible myth.


[1] Aslan, R., (2009) How To Win A Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Random House,New York: NY, pp. 32.

[2] Traditional count from the Martyrdom of Matthew.

[3] Traditional count from Syrian tradition.

[4] Albright, W., & Mann, C.S., (1971) The Anchor Bible, DoubledayNew York: NY, pp. 19.

[6] Franz, G., (December, 2009) “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org

[7] Maier, P., (1998) “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem,” as written in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Mercer University Press, Macon; GA, pp. 179

[8] Franz, G., (December, 2009) “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org