Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Born of a Virgin

Long before anyone knew anything about X and Y chromosomes, the Church Fathers held that God had made up whatever had been lacking in order to make it possible for a woman to bear a male child without any male human involvement.

Forget the assertion that until the nineteenth century, people thought that heredity was purely on the paternal side. The Greek urban, homosocial leisure class thought that. But the Hebrew writers seem to have been unaware that any such fantasy even existed.

Well, of course they were. They were working farmers who spent their time with their wives and children. Accordingly, their purity and incest laws presuppose a biological relationship with both parents. I employ the present tense because those laws are still in daily use, and may be read in the best-selling book in the world.

The view that miracles are absolutely impossible is not compatible with agnosticism. Nor with science, which is purely descriptive. What if a miracle did occur?

There is an old stand-by of middlebrow, pub bore professional atheism, that the Virginal Conception has numerous mythological parallels. Nothing could be further from the case.

What occurs over and over again in mythology is the impregnation, by otherwise normal sexual means, of a woman by a god; a god, therefore, with a physical body. Exactly that does not happen in the Gospels.

However, it is held in Mormonism that this was how Jesus was conceived, one among many reasons why the enormous popularity of the Mormons within American religion  numerically third only to the Catholics and to the Southern Baptists, and the clear direct or indirect originators of numerous ideas such as "Manifest Destiny"  raises very serious questions about whether the American Republic, as such, is any sort of bulwark of Christianity. Not unanswerable questions. But very serious ones.

Both Jews and pagans made all sorts of contrary claims, but one was completely unknown to either, namely that Jesus had been the natural child of Mary and Joseph. No such suggestion was ever made by anyone in the first eighteen centuries of Christianity's existence.

Even the Qur'an has the "Prophet Isa" born of the "Virgin Mariam". Apart from that partial retelling in the Qur'an, the Biblical account is unique, and could not be less like any of the parallels that are routinely alleged. 

That Islam  a Semitic reaction against the recapitulation in Christ and His Church of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism, and the Roman Empire  depicts Jesus as both virgin-born, and the Messiah foretold by the Hebrew prophets, is an important insight into the debate as to whether or not the circumstances of His conception described in the New Testament really are the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

Of course, had there been no expectation that the Messiah would be virgin-born, then there would have been no reason for the Evangelists to have invented it. And that would have been just as strong an argument in the doctrine's favour.

But the Islamic view, staunchly Semitic and anti-Hellenistic as it is, adds considerable weight to the belief that the Virgin Birth is, as the New Testament writers maintain entirely matter-of-factly that it is, the fulfilment of the words of the Old Testament prophets.

It is often contended that it is not clear that the prophecy in Isaiah actually refers to a virgin. Well, it certainly does in the Septuagint, and, contrary to what used to be asserted, first century Palestine is now acknowledged to have been profoundly Hellenised.

So either the Septuagint prophecy is indeed being fulfilled explicitly, or else there was no expectation that the Messiah would be virgin-born, and thus no reason to make up that Jesus had been.

The doctrine works either way.

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