Quote of the Day: The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John by Bart Ehrman

birth of christ

I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother knew that his birth was miraculous, unlike the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is striking to note that even though these two later Gospels know about a virgin birth,  our latest canonical Gospel, John, does not know about it.   This was not a doctrine that everyone knew about – even toward the end of the first century.

Casual readers of John often assume that it presupposes the virgin birth (it never says anything about it, one way or the other) because they themselves are familiar with the idea, and think that John must be as well.  So they typically read the virgin birth into an account that in fact completely lacks it.

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Many people will respond (some of you are responding right now, in your heads!) by saying that if Christ was the Word of God [John 1] who became a human, his mother must have been a virgin.  Right?   Well, no, I’d say, not right.  The idea that the incarnation implies a virgin birth makes sense only if you already think that Jesus’ mother was a virgin.  If you don’t know about a virgin birth, there would be absolutely no reason to think that an incarnation requires a virgin birth.

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Scholars have often thought that there is an indication in John’s Gospel that there were questions floating around about Jesus’ “unusual” birth.   In the controversy that Jesus has with his Jewish opponents in John 8, they make a comment that is often taken to be directed to Jesus paternal lineage, when they say “WE (emphasize the “we” here) were not born from an act of fornication” (8:41).   Is this a suggestion that Jesus was known to have been born out of wedlock?

If so, is it possible that the virgin birth stories that appear in other traditions (Matthew and Luke) was a response to this charge against Jesus?   “You nonbelievers say he was born out of fornication.  It’s true that his mother was not married when she conceived, but that’s because it was God who made her pregnant.”   It is interesting that in pagan circles we have stories of women who were charged with extra-marital sex, leading to pregnancy, who claimed that in fact a God had made them pregnant.  This is precisely what legend says about the mother of Romulus, the founder of Rome.

My point:  John’s Gospel does not mention a virgin birth.   And it does not presuppose a virgin birth.   It indicates that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word of God.   The only way to get a virgin birth into the Gospel of John is to read it into the Gospel of John.  Because it’s not there.

And this now is the yet bigger point.   Matthew and Luke do not say a THING about Jesus being the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God.  In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is not a pre-existent being.  He comes into existence when he is conceived of a virgin.  John’s Gospel is just the opposite: it does not have a virginal conception of Jesus.  It has Jesus as a pre-existent divine being who becomes incarnate.

The traditional Christian doctrine takes the view of Matthew and Luke, and smashes it together with the view of John, and creates a view found in NONE of the Gospels, namely, that Jesus Christ was a pre-existent human being “who became incarnate through the Virgin Mary” (as the Nicene Creed states).

That is often how Christian doctrines are created out of the Bible, by combining disparate views of different authors and through that combination creating something that precisely none of them subscribed to.   I’m not saying these doctrines are wrong.  I’m simply saying that they are not the doctrines held by the authors whose writings are used to create them.

— Bart Ehrman, The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John: A Blast from the Past, December 28, 1997

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2 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    Actually, the whole virgin birth thing was solved by a Star Trek: Next Generation episode in which Counselor Troi gets entered in the night by a glowing light. That morning she discovers she is pregnant. It is a breathtakingly fast pregnancy, followed by trying for a few days to raise a boy child that is growing by years each day. At the end of the episode the now teenager basically says, “Thanks, Mom!”, turns into a ball of light, and disappears.

    Of course, the Bible doesn’t remark on any accelerated growth of Jesus (though there is that incident at the temple when he was only just a teen). But I see so much commentary on whose egg, whose sperm, if the birth really was virgin why wasn’t Jesus a woman (no parent to provide a Y chromosome), etc. I kind of like John’s solution better. If the incarnation was in a womb, it didn’t have to require either human egg or sperm (though it did require some hormone fiddling for the mother).

    Also, if Jesus was such an incarnation, what about those genealogies in some of the gospels?

    I believe the modern term for all of this is a “mashup”. I don’t think there’s good evidence that a single itinerant preacher named Yeshua was the basis for all of these stories anyhow, but the virgin birth is particularly mashed up.

    (Oh, and for you non-Catholics out there, Catholic dogma, IIRC, holds that Joseph never got any, Jesus was an only child, and Mary was still a virgin when she was lifted up into heaven, sparing her death. Which pretty much sums up the opinion of the Catholic Church about us ordinary women in a nutshell.)

    Reply
  2. Lynn123

    Learning from Erhman that you must consider the gospels separately was huge for me, quite enlightening

    Reply

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