Part of my seasonal reading included a book by Andrew T. Lincoln, entitled, Born of a Virgin?, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 2013. Lincoln is a Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, and the author of commentaries on Ephesians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John. Perhaps the title should have alerted me that reading it would also form part of my seasonal literary masochism, but I couldn’t resist. After all, the glowing endorsements adorning the back cover promised that it was “a groundbreaking book that arrives like a breath of fresh air and allows us to see the familiar with new eyes”. It turns out that the air wasn’t all that fresh after all, but breathed the same old stale atmosphere of theological liberalism that I had been inhaling all throughout my distant college days.
There were some good bits that didn’t give me gas. I especially enjoyed his description and deconstruction of J.D. Tabor’s claim to have “solved” once and for all “the Mystery of Pantera”—i.e. the idea that Jesus’ biological father was a Roman soldier named Pantera who was once stationed in Palestine in the first century and who died and was buried in Germany. Lincoln demonstrates that Tabor’s dates don’t add up, and that the soldier Pantera would have been either a newborn or no more than ten-years old when he allegedly fathered Mary’s child. But most of Lincoln’s work left me alternately exasperated or simply wondering why a man as intelligent as Lincoln clearly was would write such stuff.
His main thesis is that the New Testament contains not only assertions of Christ’s virginal conception, but also another view of Christ’s birth as the fruit of a non-virginal conception. He finds evidence for this other view in the frequent description of Jesus as “of the seed of David” (e.g. Romans 1:3), which he insists on regarding as evidence that this was intended as a description of the physical means of Christ’s conception—i.e. that it involved the use of Joseph’s sperm. He further highlights Peter’s description of Jesus as “of the fruit of [David’s] loins in Acts 2:30 as proof that Peter (or perhaps Luke) regarded Jesus as the biological fruit of the loins of David’s descendent Joseph. He further cites descriptions of Mary and Joseph as “His parents” (Luke 2:41) and of Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (e.g. John 1:45) as examples of an ancient tradition of Jesus’ non-virginal conception.
He is aware of course that Luke offers a tradition of Christ’s virginal conception in his first two chapters, but contends that Luke leaves the two mutually-contradictory views standing side by side in his Gospel. For Lincoln, Luke “holds with the earliest Christian formulations that Jesus was of the seed of David and Joseph’s son, but [Luke] also holds that in the light of his resurrection Joseph’s son was vindicated as God’s Son. To stress that conviction he includes an annunciation story in which the conception of this Son of God is narrated in a fashion similar to that of other figures in the ancient world who were thought to be sons of gods, omitting any participation on the part of a human male.” This, Lincoln says, was simply one of the “literary conventions of ancient biography”. In other words, Luke didn’t believe that Christ was virginally conceived, but included the annunciation story of a virginal conception as a way of making a non-historical theological point. It was just Luke’s bad luck that everyone ever afterward insisted on reading the annunciation as containing the same kind of history as found in the rest of his Gospel.
But of course Luke himself sets us up for such a literal, historical, and non-legendary reading of his first two chapters. Luke’s Gospel does not begin with the annunciations to Zachariah and Mary, but with a clear statement that he had researched the whole story and was grounding his narrative upon the testimony of eye-witnesses. Thus Luke’s Gospel begins: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” It is of a piece with Luke’s famous historical carefulness found in Acts (such as his designation that the rulers of Thessalonica had the title “politarch”).
These words in Luke 1:1-4 are not the words of someone who is about to treat his readers to a series of concocted legends, “the literary conventions of ancient biography” and then switch back to sober and precise historical reportage with nary a clue that the reader had moved from legend to history, from the heavenly realms of the gods to Palestine in fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:1). If Luke offered chapters 3-24 as history, we may be sure he intended us to regard chapters 1-2 in the same way. Lincoln, not surprisingly, finds in the ending of Luke’s Gospel evidence that Luke did not intend to offer history, for Lincoln regards the story of Christ’s Ascension as simply another borrowing from the legends of the gods and ancient worthies such as Romulus. (Wait for Lincoln’s next book, possibly to be entitled, Ascended into Heaven?) It seems as if any parallel with pagan mythology can serve to undermine the historicity of Luke’s narrative, despite his plain assertion that he was offering sober history so that “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Of course Lincoln’s whole thesis falls to the ground if Luke did not in fact hold with formulation that Jesus was Joseph’s physical son, and if references to Mary and Joseph as “His parents” were simply the usual way of describing the couple who were raising him, something no more significant than a couple describing their adopted child as their own son or daughter. It is, I submit, pedantic and perverse to insist that the Messianic title “son of David” or “of the seed of David” must refer to the physical mechanism of generation. In the first century the Messianic issue was not physical sperm, but legal right to claim participation in the covenant God made to David. That is why Matthew, who is emphatic that Joseph was not the father of Jesus (Matthew 1:18), was also equally emphatic that he was the “son of David”, sharing Davidic lineage (Matthew 1:20). Sperm was not the issue; legal lineage was.
It is when Lincoln expounded at length an alternative non-virginal interpretation of Matthew that I really began to reach for the Gaviscon. He acknowledged that the “traditional” interpretation of Mary conceiving virginally was one possible way to read the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. But he offered another possible interpretation as well. In this alternate interpretation, the phrase “found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” did not mean that the Holy Spirit alone was responsible for the pregnancy to the exclusion of human agency. It simply meant that the Holy Spirit was also involved along with the sexual act, and in support of this he cites divine involvement in the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel and Ruth as proof that “divine causality was never understood as excluding the woman’s intercourse with a man”. In this reading of the text, the angel tells Joseph that although Mary was pregnant through union with another man, Joseph should marry her anyway, since God is going to use the pregnancy for His own redemptive purposes. Verse 25, which says “Joseph did not know her [i.e. refrained from sex] until she gave birth to a son”, simply showed how Joseph “remains righteous throughout the whole affair. He behaves precisely how someone concerned to uphold the law strictly should do”. In this reading, “The angel does not tell [Joseph] he was wrong in thinking that Mary was pregnant by another man; but does tell him that he was wrong in the conclusion he has drawn from this, namely that he should divorce her”.
It is an extraordinary reading of the text, for a number of reasons. A careful look at the text reveals that the sole issue in the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy was her chastity and character—i.e. the question of whether or not she had sex with someone else while betrothed to Joseph. Given this specific context the statement “that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (v. 20) can only mean that she did not in fact have sex with someone else. It is eisexegetical in the extreme to read into the verse the idea that she was unchaste, but don’t worry about it; God has it under control. God’s redemptive purpose was not the issue; Mary’s chastity was. That is the obvious reason for including verse 25: it shows that Jesus must have been virginally conceived because Joseph did not touch his wife throughout the entirety of the pregnancy.
There is much more, of course, but dealing with it even inadequately would take us well beyond what is possible in a blog. Suffice to say that Lincoln finally lets the shoe drop in his final section, entitled “Tradition, critical loyalty and saying the creed”. In it he acknowledges that “in the context of the tradition Irenaeus and other pre-modern readers rightly assumed that interpretation of Scripture was a corporate project, taking place within the community of the Church”. Lincoln goes on to claim that such a process of interpretation is still taking place so that all questions are open ones, and we must therefore now reinterpret the creedal formulation that Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” as meaning only that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain [Christ’s] life and that this God was wholly present in his fully human life from its inception”. He acknowledges that “Irenaeus and his pre-modern readers” (do I detect of whiff of disdain?) interpreted the creedal formulation otherwise and as meaning also that Christ had no human biological father, but we now know better. Accordingly we must reinterpret the creeds in the same way that we reinterpret the Scriptures they summarize, as mere symbols for generalized truths.
A truly traditional Orthodox approach will recognize this as a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit through the centuries, and as a counsel of despair. For who can say whether later on some even more enlightened academics will regard Lincoln and his readers as “pre-modern” and suggest that the view that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain Christ’s life” also needs to be reinterpreted? The corporate project of interpreting the Scriptures and formulating the rule of faith has already been accomplished by the community of faith. The choice is between the fixed faith of the Church throughout history or the ever-shifting conclusions of liberal academics.
Lincoln ends his volume with the bold and defiant words that to insist on a belief in the virginal conception of Christ involves being “totally resistant to serious engagement with biblical and theological scholarship”. It is not so. It only means that one prefers the biblical and theological scholarship of the saints which produced the rule of faith and which has guided the Church for two millennia to the scholarship published lately by Wm. B. Eerdmans today. I value contemporary scholarship, but I know which of the two to choose when disagreement arises. But at the end of the day it is not about what I or anyone else thinks, but about how Christ regards him and what Lincoln will say when he finally meets His Mother, the Queen of Heaven. I suspect from what I have read in Born of a Virgin? that, in the words ascribed to a lesser monarch, she will not be amused.