Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The pope and the virgin birth

Pope Benedict XVI's new book "The Infancy Narratives - Jesus of Nazareth" is out. It is even available in a Kindle edition as of today. I am not sure whether I will read it or not. The stack of books I am trying to read right now is pretty tall. (Except some are electronic; I am not sure what terminology will replace the "stack of books" now that we are reading eBooks.)

The news reports about the new book are interesting. According to Reuters, the pope insists on the truth of the virgin birth.

The pope is quoted as writing: "The accounts of Matthew and Luke are not myths taken a stage further. They are firmly rooted, in terms of their basic conception, in the biblical tradition of God the Creator and Redeemer."

He asks: "Is what we profess in the Creed (a Christian prayer that includes belief in the virgin birth) true?"

He answers: "The answer is an unequivocal yes."

On the other hand, the story of the magi is not necessarily factual. 

The Reuters article says: "Benedict says that while he believes in the story of the adoration of the Magi, no foundation of faith would be shaken if it turned out to be an invention based on a theological idea."

So my question is how the pope decides which parts of the birth narratives are unequivocally true and which are possibly theological  constructs.

I have said in sermons that I personally believe that almost all of the birth narratives, including the virgin birth, are theological stories intended to express post-resurrection faith convictions. I even preached a sermon once based on the argument that the magi being a later addition to the birth narratives is part of what makes it such a powerful story. I said pretty much the same thing in this essay.

I actually suspect that the early church may have disagreed about these stories. The reference to "cleverly devised myths" in Second Peter 1:16 may be about some of the birth narratives. Peter suggests that the heavenly announcement made at the transfiguration: "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," was the actual origin of Jesus' authority rather than the birth narratives.

The birth narratives are no less precious to me. They are the early church's expression of its faith in Christ, their savior, liberator and hope. They are wonderful, poetic expressions by early Christians of their experience of the unique power of Christ in their lives.

My question is how the pope decides which parts of the story are unequivocally true and which are possibly inventions based on theological ideas.

What is the principle that allows us to make this distinction? Based on the news articles, the distinction seems to be how much the pope considers a particular part of the story to be a central tenant of the faith. The virgin birth is in the creed so it must be unequivocally true while the magi story is more peripheral so it might be an invention. 

This seems to me to be a mistake. Basing our evaluation of the truth of the story on our theology rather than on scholarship will, I think, eventually catch up with us. It is like saying this part of the story must be unequivocally true because I really, really want it to be. This other part of the story could be an invention based on a theological idea because I don't care as much if it is true.

I don't think this is a good way to understand the Bible.

But perhaps I shouldn't judge the pope's book based solely on newspaper reports. 

Darn, I've painted myself into a corner. Now I guess I will need to add the pope's new book to my electronic stack and read it after all!



  1. Having not read the book either, I don't have any answers, but I suspect the Creed is a central issue for the Pope.

    I am curious about your faith in scholarship as a higher authority than church and theology. Most biblical scholarship is not that much different from academic scholarship in the humanities in general. Fads come and go and the certain truths of 50 years ago are openly ridiculed today.

    1. John, interesting question. I wonder if the norms on this have changed. I prepare to teach or preach by doing my exegesis of the passage to understand it in its context as fully as possible and then do interpretation. I do not start out by adjusting my exegesis to the conclusion I want to reach. In my day we used to call that isogesis, meaning making my study come to the conclusions I already hold.

  2. Even in the sciences, ideas change. I am so old that I remember not only when Pluto was a planet but when it was bigger than Mercury. Still, although ideas come and go, even in science, the wheat of truth is eventually sifted from the chaff of speculation. Even in Biblical scholarship.

    By the way, Dean, in the IT world, information backed up in memory is referred to as "stacked," so it's probably okay to refer to your backlog of ebooks the same way.

    1. Us, you Re right about ideas changing. Good to hear I can still have stacks of books.

  3. Apparently a chapter in Pope Benedicts’s new book is titled: Virgin birth – Myth or Historical Truth?

    This question falls over from the start if the virgin birth story doesn’t appear in the New Testament. And it doesn’t.

    With the missionary activities of Paul and others, the passing of the original followers of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem, the NT soon fell into the hands of the Greeks and Latins.

    They interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures through the prism of their own culture, and gave unique meanings to words and phrases never intended by the NT authors.

    For example the Holy Spirit coming “upon” Mary is read as a virginal conception. However there are dozens of instances in the Bible where the Holy Spirit came “upon” individuals, usually men, but only in Mary’s case is it read as God impregnating someone.

    Also a ridiculous interpretation was given to Mary’s question to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" It interprets these words as Mary saying that she does not know how she could get pregnant in the future because currently she is a virgin!

    There are many defects in the virgin birth claims, but to cut a long story short, the NT says nothing about a virgin birth. What it does say is that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Luke 3:23, when properly translated, names Heli as the father of Jesus.

    The few passages about the birth of Jesus in the NT are analysed comprehensively on —