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Luke 1, Matthew 1:18-25, & Luke 2:1-40

09.28.2010

Debunking time!  Actually, it’s time to debunk the debunkers – Christmas edition.  As culturally prominent as the Christmas story is, it’s not surprising that there are a number of questions raised about the consistency and credibility of the narrative at this point.  I’ll try to tackle three of them here:

Matt 1:19 | I got this one from CS Lewis.*  There’s a general arrogance that probably extends throughout human history that every generation thinks it is smarter and somehow more advanced than its ancestors.  This manifests itself with regard to the Christmas story in something approximating this fashion:

Well, of course people thought that Christ was born of a virgin.  People in those days didn’t have our understanding of science and the reproductive system to know that such a thing was biologically impossible.  This religious nonsense of the virgin birth is born out of ignorance and backwardness.

As Lewis points out, this verse disproves that theory.  For starters, people don’t need to know about the human genome and the biological mechanics of conception to know that babies come from sex.  It’s a universal cause-and-effect that has been observed throughout history.

In this specific case, the fact that Joseph decided to divorce Mary indicates that he could conceive of no other cause for her pregnancy than infidelity.  His logical reasoning went, ‘I didn’t do that, therefore someone else must have.  QED.’  If he was too ignorant to realize that conception requires sex, he wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.  The miraculous nature of the event was something that he had to take on faith after angelic intervention and explanation.  In other words, Joseph had every motivation to divorce Mary and minimize the shame the episode had brought to his family.  The fact that he didn’t indicates not that he didn’t know any better, but that he was convinced of the divine nature of the event.

Matt 1:23 | Here Matt namechecks Isaiah and the latter’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin…or at least that’s what tradition says.  MacCulloch introduced to me an argument that the Hebrew in this passage is mistranslated, which gave rise to ridiculous claims of a virgin birth.  He points out that the Hebrew word, ‘almah, really means ‘young woman,’ not specifically ‘virgin.’

This is technically correct, but the most accurate translation is ‘maiden.’  This doesn’t specifically mean virgin, of course, but the connotation is strongly in that direction (maidenhead, maiden name, etc.).  When the Jewish scholars in Alexandria were translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek 200 years before the birth of Christ, they chose to translate ‘almah as parthenos, which is the specific term for ‘virgin’ in Greek.

Now, I’ll use this opportunity to address another misconception that comes from this belief in the virgin birth.  Contrary to what many people say, Christian doctrine does not necessitate a virgin birth because sex is dirty and sinful and Jesus must be free of the taint associated with such a foul deed.  On the contrary, most Christians assume that Adam fully enjoyed the bounty of God’s provision in Eden (if you catch my drift), and that was in a sinless state before the Fall. 

What Christ’s virgin birth does, doctrinally, is it breaks the inheritance of sin passed down through the father that Adam introduced via the Fall.  The concept is that original sin contaminates our nature not because of sex, but through biological lineage from our fathers.  Christ, by having a mother but no earthly father, is thus free of the stain of original sin and therefore able to die for our sins, since He had none of His own. 

At least that’s how I’ve always understood it.

Luke 2:2 | The final quibble to address here is the historical one of Quirinius.  Luke claims that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, and that it took place in Bethlehem because of the first census during Quirinius’ term as governor.  Quirinius was governor of Judea in AD 6 and 7, and he did order a census in 6.  However, Herod died in 4 BC.  What gives?

The ESV Study Bible folks give a possible solution.  Many times, the Greek protos is translated ‘before’ rather than ‘first’.  This would mean that the passage as written by Luke refers to the census done before Quirinius’ term.  The most likely date for the census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem is late 6 or early 5 BC.

– The last point to make about this passage is for those who have ever listened to the entirety of Handel’s Messiah.  I defy you to read these first two chapters of Luke without elements of the song getting stuck in your head.

————

* Shocker, I know.

** (scroll cursor over picture of angel and Joseph for referent)  I told you I make no promises about blasphemy.

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From → [canon], [cs/gk]

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