Posts Tagged ‘myth’

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.

“When the first molecular geneticists worked out the details of transcription and translation in the 1960s, they never imagined that only 1.5 percent of human DNA encodes protein. What does the “other” 98.5 percent do? It includes viral sequences, sequences that encode RNAs other than mRNA (called noncoding or ncRNAs), introns, promoters and other control sequences, and repeated sequences… Most of the genome is transcribed- it isn’t ‘junk.’”[1] –Dr. Ricki Lewis, Geneticist and Genetic Counselor for CareNet medical Group

 

 

“When James Watson and Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA in 1953, Crick formulated the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology, often stated as “DNA makes RNA makes protein makes us.” This implies that mutations in protein-coding DNA provide the raw materials for evolution. In the 1960s, however, biologists discovered that about 98% of our DNA does not code for protein. Some — including Crick — called the non-protein-coding DNA “junk” and attributed it to the accumulation of molecular accidents during evolution.

Since the mid 1990s, some defenders of Darwinian evolution — including Richard Dawkins, Kenneth R. Miller, Douglas J. Futuyma, Michael Shermer, Francis S. Collins, Philip Kitcher, Jerry A. Coyne and John C. Avise — have argued that “junk DNA” provides evidence for Darwinian evolution and against intelligent design. (Intelligent design, or ID, is the view that we can infer from evidence in nature that some features of the world, including some features of living things, are better explained by an intelligent cause than by unguided natural processes.)

By 2007, however, it was clear that most of the mammalian genome is transcribed into non-protein-coding RNA. Since organisms struggling for survival would presumably not invest so much energy in producing junk, this implied that most non-protein-coding DNA is probably not junk after all.

Since then, specific biological functions have been discovered for many non-protein-coding RNAs. Although functions have not yet been identified for many parts of our genome, the list of specific functions for so-called “junk DNA” is already long, and it grows longer every week. Defending Darwinism and criticizing ID on the grounds that most of our genome is junk amounts to a “Darwinof the gaps” argument that has to retreat with each new discovery.”[2] –Jonathan Wells, Molecular and Cellular Biologist

“…molecular taxonomists, who have been drawing up evolutionary histories (‘phylogenies’) for everything, are going to have to undo all their years of ‘junk DNA’-based historical reconstructions and wait for the full implications to emerge before they try again. One of the supposedly ‘knock-down’ arguments that humans have a common ancestor with chimpanzees is shared ‘non-functional’ DNA coding. That argument just got thrown out the window.”[3] Dr. Alex Williams, Botanist and Radioecologist

 

“‘Junk’ DNA is thought by evolutionists to be useless DNA leftover from past evolutionary permutations. According to the selfish or parasitic DNA theory, this DNA persists only because of its ability to replicate itself, or perhaps because it has randomly mutated into a form advantageous to the cell. The types of junk DNA include introns, pseudogenes, and mobile and repetitive DNAs. But now many of the DNA sequences formerly relegated to the junk pile have begun to obtain new respect for their role in genome structure and function, gene regulation and rapid speciation. On the other hand, there are examples of what seem to be true junk DNAs, sequences that had lost their functions, either to mutational inactivation that could have occurred post-Fall, or by God-ordained time limits set on their functions.

Criteria are presented by which to identify legitimate junk DNA, and to try to decipher the genetic clues of how genomes function now and in the past, when rates of change of genomes may have been very different. The rapid, catastrophic changes in the earth caused by the Flood may also have been mirrored in genomes, as each species had to adapt to post-Flood conditions. A new creationist theory may explain how this rapid diversification came about by the changes caused by repetitive and mobile DNA sequences. The so-called ‘junk’ DNAs that have perplexed creationists and evolutionary scientists alike may be the very elements that can explain the mechanisms by which God is at work in His creation now and in the past.”[4] –Dr. Linda K. Walkup, Biochemist and Molecular Geneticist

.

“We are now seeing the majority of the rest of the genome is active to some extent… This is a remarkable finding, since most prior research suggested only a fraction of the genome was transcribed.”[5] –Dr. Tim Hubbard, Head of the Human Genome Analysis

 

“A number of studies have now confirmed that this “junk DNA” is functional. A 2004 study suggested that this class of DNA, comprising more than 1/3 of mouse DNA, is involved in controlling the complex sequence of events during embryo development. A study in 2009 showed that retro-transposons are located before and after protein coding genes; they do not occur at random. Ones located before the protein-coding genes enable multiple readings for the genes: the genes can produce different proteins using different starting points in the supposedly “junk” DNA. Some enable genes to be ‘read’ in the opposite direction to normal, again producing an entirely different protein. Ones that follow the genes regulate the gene activity, controlling how much of the protein the cell produces. The researchers found some 23,000 such likely regulatory regions in the ‘junk’. Clearly, the idea of junk DNA is junk science. Not only is evolution bad for theology; it’s bad for science as well.”[6] –Dr. Don Batten, Horticulturist and Plant Scientist

 

 

“It is hoped that studying the non-coding sequences will lead to a greater understanding of disease processes. The likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes has already been linked to mutations in non-coding sequences… Unfortunately, for many years this notion that non-coding DNA was not functional (“junk”) actually inhibited science.”[7] -Dr. Georgia Purdom, Molecular Geneticist

 

“These new discoveries are prompting scientists to think twice about dismissing such a large portion of the genome as nothing but ‘junk.’”[8] Dr. Leslie Pray, Population Geneticist


[1] Lewis, R. (2008) Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications, McGraw-Hill,New York; NY, pp. 208

[2] Wells, J., (October, 2011) “The Receding Myth of ‘Junk DNA,’” Evolution News and Views, www.evolutionnews.org.

[3] Williams, A., (June 2007) “Astonishing DNA Complexity Uncovered,” creation.com

[4] Walkup, L.K., (August 2000) “’Junk’ DNA: Evolutionary Discards or God’s Tools?” Technical Journal, 14(2); pp. 18

[5] (June 2007) “Human Genome Further Unraveled,” BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk

[6] Batten, D., “The Lingering Death of Junk DNA,” creation.com

[7] Purdom, G., (August 2007) “’Junk’ DNA- Past, Present, and Future,” Answers in Genesis, www.answersingenesis.org

[8] Pray, L., (2008) “Transposons, or Jumping Genes: not Junk DNA?” Scitable by Nature Education, http://www.nature.com

 

Why not? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. All legends, folk lore and myths that have some obscure roots in true history, but overtime became seriously embellished to what they are today. As adults we easily pass off these characters as fictitious, but with Jesus how can we not? Why is Jesus Christ, the miracle messiah that resurrected from the dead, believed to be a true character in history by many adults when He could just as easily fit into the same categories as the tooth fairy?

This is an outlook many skeptics have the real person of Jesus. Famous books on the issue is John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, and then of course there are books by Eliane Pagels, Bart Ehrman and the famous Jesus Seminar. These scholars and authors use the gap in the appearance of the New Testament gospels after the death of Jesus as their leeway. Since the gospels didn’t begin circulating until sometime around 60AD and 70AD, who is to say legend hadn’t completely distorted and taken over real historical events? According to these scholars the accounts of Jesus are not eyewitness testimony but concocted legends and myths.

According to Burton Mack, “The first followers of Jesus were not interested in preserving accurate memoirs of the historical person… Each group created Jesus… in the image appropriate for the founder of the school it had become or wanted to become.”[1] Bart Ehrman claims, “Stories were changed with what we would strike us today as reckless abandon… They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up.”[2] According to skeptics, Jesus was just a great speaker or teacher. One that would be exaggerated into legend years after His death.[3] Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar writes, “We have been betrayed by the Bible. In the half-century just ending [written in 2000], there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking or caring person is any longer willing to endorse… Jesus needs a demotion.”[4] Ouch! Tough words from tough critics.[5]

First what we must ask is, is it true the gospel accounts were written so long after Christ’s death? Yes this is correct. Matthew was written sometime between AD 65-85, by Matthew an eyewitness of Jesus’ life. Mark was written sometime between AD 65-70, by John Mark, a translator for Simon Peter taken from Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Luke was written sometime between AD 65-90, by Paul’s physician Luke. Luke’s writing was based on a collection of eyewitness accounts. Lastly, the gospel of John was written around AD 65-95 by John, an eyewitness of Jesus.[6] But does a time gap alone immediately prove that the story was concocted? After all, they’re basing this entire conspiracy based off the written records we have. There very well could have been written records of Jesus written only a few years after His life that either no longer exist, or have yet to be discovered. After all, Luke did write in the opening of his gospel account that many others have set out to write detailed accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Either way, when one formulates theories from speculation they can be just as easily refuted with additional speculation.

That’s still not good enough though. Lets work with what we have and for the time conclude there were no other accounts recorded prior to the gospels. This time gap is still troubling. As Ehrman asks, “Where did these people get their information from?”[7] The answer is of course, oral tradition. But oral tradition is one aspect of history that many scholars praise and trust, yet other scholars scoff at.

Telephone, the game that never works…

 

Do you remember the game “telephone?” Ya know, the one where you line up with friends and a message starts at one end of the line and then works it way to the other end via whispering in each other’s ears. The point being to see how much the message had changed by the time it got to the other end. And every time the end of the line was reached, the message was completely different. Not just a little off, but completely different. Somehow “Mary had a little lamb,” ended up as “Andy was kissing Maggie in the hallway,” thirty children later.

Well, this is why skeptics doubt oral tradition. They think of lessons we all learned as kids from the game “telephone,” that messages overtime are considerably altered due to being misheard or misunderstood. The further down the line, the worse it gets. Although the lesson from the “telephone” game is true to a certain degree, skeptics of oral tradition are overlooking one minor and one major problem.

The minor problem: The telephone game fails with kids. Mostly because the kids are just being silly kids. They know the point of the game and are clever enough to intentionally alter it. Play the same game with monitored adults in serious situations and the message comes out much more accurate than with children.

The major problem: We often tend to think of oral tradition among people in today’s culture and society. What we have to understand is that people in the first century lived a life vastly different from ours today. Today we live in a written culture where everything can be written down virtually anywhere; computer, phone, notepad, napkin, etc. We’re very literate and have very easy access to writing material. We are so accustomed to being able to save our thoughts on or in physical objects that historian B. Gerhardsson refers to it as “the dethronement of memory.”[8]

The first century by contrast was an oral culture. At best, maybe one-fourth of the population could read. And of those that could read, only a very small percentage could write (scribes).[9] So naturally this oral culture was one in which information and truths were passed down orally. When important events would occur, history shows that communities would rally together and had systems on how to retain the information. There were even separate systems for oral histories and oral traditions.[10] Community members would often recite the information among a large number of their peers, who all would in turn correct the speaker if any errors were heard. Rabbis of the time would try to repeat teachings, sometimes as often as 400 times, in front of their peers to ensure it was correctly etched in their memory.[11] This practice was very common in Jewish tradition. And with Jesus being a Jewish teacher with Jewish disciples, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say the disciples maintained the same discipline in retaining information. One thing we can be sure on is that people in the first century had regimented memory retaining techniques that would surpass the memory capabilities of any lay person today.

The Oral History of Jesus

 

Oral histories of Jesus were circulating in the Roman Empirelong before any written accounts (that we know of) were created. When reading First Corinthians, Paul uses the words paralambano, or “I received,” and paradidomi, or “I passed on” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25, 15:3-7).[12] Testimony that Paul received his education in Jesus orally, since the four gospels as we know them had not been created yet.

 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NIV)

 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…” 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (NIV)

Now if we look at a timeline of when Paul’s ministry began we can determine when it is that he heard these traditions. Acts 9 describes Paul’s encounter with Jesus marking the beginning of his ministry, which is dated to the year AD 33. Acts 9-12 describe Paul’ travels to Damascus, Jerusalemand Tarsuswhere he learned these oral traditions, which are dated to  AD 35-47.[13] So it is possible Paul learned these traditions within a few years from when Jesus died. If Paul learned it within a few years that means the tradition was well known and circulated by that time, meaning the traditions and histories themselves originated within months of Jesus’ death. The circulation of these traditions and histories being amongst the eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life.

 So that huge and massive gap from between when Jesus lived to when the gospels were written is no longer such a daunting thought when one understands the oral traditions of the Jewish people at this point in history. Considering the methods by which these oral histories and traditions were maintained one cannot assume that fairy-tail legends of Jesus became the story of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels. Paul’s recital of these histories in Acts which do not contradict the gospels is testimony of this. Scholar A. N. Sherwin-White among other theologians points out that two generations is simply too short of time for any legends to emerge of Jesus anyways.[14] Legends take hundreds upon hundreds of years to become main stream.

“…the oral histories emerged early, they emerged in the context of the eyewitnesses, and they remained relatively unchanged as they spread across the Roman Empire. Eventually, these oral histories made their way into the documents that we know as the Gospels. Perhaps most important of all, this movement from oral history to written history occurred before the end of the first century, while eyewitnesses of the original events were still living.” –Timothy Paul Jones, Theologian.[15]

To answer Ehrman’s earlier question, that is where they got their information from!


[1] Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, (New York, NY: Harper One 1990) Pg 46

[2] Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The followers of Jesus in History and Legend (New York,NY: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pg. 259

[3] Note that prominent skeptics do not doubt Jesus existed. They just doubt the miraculous accounts of his life. No prominent and well educated scholar believes that Jesus never existed.

[4] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus (New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, 1996) Pg. 306.

[5] Other famous critics that maintain this conspiracy are Thomas Jefferson, David Friedrich Strauss, and James Cameron… yeah the guy who made Titanic and Avitar.

[6] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 91

[7] Bart Ehrman, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman,” March 28, 2006.

[8] B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 123

[9] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 95

[10] Ken Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) Pgs. 34-51.

[11] B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 135

[12] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis,MN: Fortress Press 2003)Pgs 318-319

[13] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008)  Pg. 98

[14] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, UK; Clarendon, 1963) Pg. 190

[15] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg.99

So something came to my attention recently that took me off guard big time. There are unicorns in the Bible! Ya know,  those beautiful majestic horses of legend with one gigantic horn sticking out of their heads. There in the Bible! What? Where? Deuteronomy 33:17, Numbers 23:22, 24:8, Job 39:9-12, Psalm 22:21, 29:6, 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7. Yikes! 

                Skeptics often use these verses referring to a mythical animal to further support their claims that the Bible is just a book of legends or made up mythology. But after some thorough research I found  these claims to be unwarranted. The first thing we must address is the word unicorn. It is found in these verses in the early King James Version of the Bible, but not in newer versions like the NLT, NKJV or NIV. These versions instead say Wild Ox, not Unicorn. Why would the newer translations say Wild Ox, when the older translation says unicorn?

                Well don’t jump to the conclusion that it was altered to make the Bible appear more legit, because this is not the case. The original Hebrew scripture uses the word re’em. So what does re’em mean? Well the exact meaning isn’t 100% clear, and scholars still debate its exact meaning to this day. The word has been translated to mean wild ox and in some cases einhorn or eenhorn, which means “one horn.”[1] Though we do know why the word was translated as such.

                The translation of re’em to wild ox comes from the bible’s usage of the word. Every time the re’em is mentioned in the Bible, it is referred to as a horned animal that was large, powerful, and untamable. Furthermore, the word re’em also resembles the ancient Assyrian word rimu. Assyrian Archaeologists know that the rimu was a wild ox, now extinct, that we now refer to as Aurochs. Aurochs were incredibly large oxen. There are many ancient writings about from the Assyrians and Romans which described them as slightly smaller than elephants but very fast and powerful.[2] Most importantly, Aurochs had symmetrical horns. Their horns were so symmetrical that when viewed from the side the aurochs appeared to have one single horn, this made them highly prized in the ancient world and could  be where the single horn of the unicorn stems from. Although the words re’em and rimu appear similar, this is only after it’s anglicanized translation into English. Yet the Auroch fits the bible’s description and usage for re’em, so that is why you see “wild ox” in newer Bible translations.

The skeleton of an extinct Auroch (AKA Rimu)

              

  The Auroch brings up an important topic in this discussion though. The Auroch is now extinct, and has been since 1627.[3] When most of us think of animals in existence we tend to limit our thinking to animals that are alive today, and completely overlook the fact that vast types of animals that once lived on earth are now extinct, including animals that were well known and alive during the time the Bible was written. Extinction happens every day to this day for many animal species. So the next question is, if the re’em in the Bible really was a unicorn, were unicorns once in existence, but now extinct? Well, not exactly.

                If when you think of a unicorn, do you think of a white horse with a twisty horn on its head? That’ not necessarily correct. A unicorn is simply an animal with one horn. It being a horse comes from European legends. But the legend of unicorns can be found all over the world from China to India, and guess what, in some cultures it is a sheep, goat or in one culture a rabbit.[4] So if we identify unicorns as just one horned animals then it’s not so crazy is it? Especially when we consider extinct animals. Take the male Narwhal for example, though not a land animal, has one large horn. The Indian Rhino has one large horn as well and could fit the Biblical description. The extinct elasmotherium, had one large massive horn on top of its head. The elasmotherium was basically a large rhino, which would fit perfectly with the Bible’s description of a large, powerful, wild beast as well.

                So in conclusion, though we don’t know exactly without a doubt what the word re’em in the Bible means, it is more accurate to say it is pertaining to an Auroch, or at the very least a Elasmotherium, not a mythical horse that was conjured up as a legend hundreds of years after these books in the Bible were written.[5] The Bible gives no reason to speculate the re’em is a mythical animal, and therefore we should not think of it as such.


[1] Carl Wieland, “The Unicorn” http://creation.com, March 2004

[2] Brittanica Concise Encyclopedia, 2007, s.v. “Aurochs.”

[4] Carl Wieland, “The Unicorn” http://creation.com, March 2004

[5] Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell “Unicorns in the Bible?” www.answersingenesis.org June, 25th 2008.