Six Hints that the “Baby Jesus Stories” of the Gospels Were Not Late Additions

Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

 

Every December, articles circulate online (and often in major news magazines) calling into question the truth of the virgin birth of Christ. This year, a blog article posted on December 19, 2018, by former fundamentalist Christian turned atheist Valerie Tarico has been making the rounds, boosted by various progressive “news” websites such as Alternet and RawStory. Tarico’s post is entitled “Six Hints that Baby Jesus Stories were Late Additions to Early Christian Lore.” Let’s look at her six hints.

Paul’s Silence about Jesus’ Miraculous Nativity

According to Tarico, Paul’s epistles, the earliest New Testament writings, “give no hint” about Jesus’ virgin birth or the other miracles associated with his nativity. “Paul simply says that he was a Jew, born to a woman.”

Well, yes. Paul makes no mention of a number of significant events mentioned in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, his cleansing of the temple, or any of Jesus’ miracles. His omission of these events does not call any of them into question historically. Paul was not writing a biography of Jesus; he was writing letters to churches and church leaders to address specific pastoral and theological issues as they arose in those churches. Tarico’s “hint” here is no more than an argument from silence, a fallacious form of reasoning.

That having been said, the very statement Paul makes to which Tarico alludes may in fact be a “hint” that Paul was aware of Jesus’ miraculous conception:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law (Gal. 4:4).[1]

Three aspects of this passage are at least possible hints at the virgin birth of Christ. First, the expression “born of woman” is rather suggestive. If this simply means that Christ had a biological mother, the observation would seem to be rather trite. Now, it is true that one can find this expression in other contexts, as in a few statements in the poetic speeches in the Book of Job in which “born of woman” expresses the physical and moral weakness of human beings (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4). However, this does not seem to be Paul’s point about Jesus.

Second, Paul refers to Jesus here as God’s “Son.” Paul does use this title for Jesus elsewhere but not often (a total of just 17 occurrences in eight of his thirteen epistles); the titles “Lord” and “Christ” are by far his most common titles for Jesus. What is striking here is that Paul refers to Jesus as God’s “Son” in the immediate context of referring to his being “born of a woman.”

Third, Paul goes on to say that having “sent forth his Son,” God has now “sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts” (Gal. 4:4, 6). Paul’s statements here describe the sending of two divine persons from heaven: the Son, who came by being “born of woman,” and the Spirit, who came by indwelling the hearts of believers in the Son.[2] The fact that Paul here speaks of the Son as a preexistent divine person who is then “born of woman” adds further plausibility to the view that his statement reflects some awareness of Christ’s miraculous entry into the human race.

This evidence does not prove that Paul knew about the virgin birth of Christ. However, it is a far more plausible “hint” in this regard than Tarico’s simplistic argument from silence.

Mark’s Silence about Jesus’ Birth

Tarico’s second “hint” is that the Gospel of Mark, widely thought by scholars to have been the earliest Gospel, says nothing about Jesus’ birth. At best, this is another fallacious argument from silence. The fact that Mark does not mention something does not prove he knew nothing about it, let alone that it did not happen. Mark starts his account of Jesus with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. Although the Gospel of Mark is “biographical” (unlike Paul’s epistles), it is more like ancient Greco-Roman biographies than it is like modern Western biographies. Such ancient biographies often gave little or no attention to their subject’s birth or childhood.[3]

Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, though similar in many ways to ancient Greco-Roman biographies, was evidently written on the basis primarily of one man’s personal knowledge about Jesus. According to information dating from the early second century, Mark wrote his Gospel based on the recollections of the apostle Peter, who had traveled with Jesus from shortly after his baptism by John right up to the time of his crucifixion. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has shown that there are good reasons to think this information is reliable. Simon Peter is the first of the disciples to be mentioned by name in Mark’s Gospel as well as the last one to be mentioned (Mark 1:16-18; 16:8), and Mark mentions Peter more often than the other Gospels do. Other aspects of the Gospel of Mark also suggest it was written from Peter’s perspective.[4]

Although Mark does not refer directly to the virgin birth of Christ, his Gospel happens to contain a “hint” that suggests some awareness of the matter. Consider the following passage:

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)

It is rather surprising that the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth would have referred to Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than “the son of Joseph.” Gerd Lüdemann, an atheist New Testament scholar, has observed, “…the phrase ‘son of Mary’ remains all the more unusual since a Jewish male would normally be associated with the name of his father.”[5] Lüdemann concludes that Jesus was an illegitimate son, a conclusion shared by many if not most of the leading critics of the Virgin Birth today. These skeptics deny the Virgin Birth but agree that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.

The fact that Mark calmly reported the townspeople’s implicitly disparaging reference to Jesus as “the son of Mary” hints at the possibility that he knew that Jesus was not really an illegitimate son after all. There is no way to know for sure, but here again there is more of a “hint” here in support of the Virgin Birth than there is in the mere lack of any narrative of the event in Mark’s Gospel.

The Lack of Overlap between Matthew’s and Luke’s Infancy Narratives

Tarico next claims that the “remarkably little overlap” between the infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 somehow calls both accounts into question historically. She asserts, “In both, Jesus is born in Bethlehem of a virgin Mary who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. That’s where the similarity ends.” She speculates that the reason for the differences between the two accounts “is that they represent two different branches in the tree of oral tradition.”

First, the similarities between the two accounts go much deeper than Tarico acknowledges. The many points of contact between the two narratives include the fact that Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but not yet married, when Mary became pregnant with Jesus—a very specific point in the timeline of events (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:27-38; 2:5). Both Matthew and Luke report that Jesus was born toward the end of the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1:1-22; Luke 1:5). Both accounts emphasize the Davidic heritage of the child and report that angels announced the birth and explained that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:16-24; Luke 1:32-38). Both Gospels report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and yet was raised as a child in Nazareth (Matt. 2:1, 23; Luke 2:4-7, 39, 51).

Second, if the two infancy narratives “represent two different branches in the tree of oral tradition,” then the elements they have in common must have originated earlier than either Gospel. Indeed, the less the two accounts have in common, the further back in time the two “branches” must have separated and therefore the earlier those shared elements of the two accounts must be dated. Without realizing it, Tarico has presented evidence that actually supports an early origin for the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin!

Third, the best explanation for the differences between the two narratives is that they originally had different narrators. If we compare the two accounts, Matthew’s account is clearly told from Joseph’s point of view while Luke’s account is just as clearly told from Mary’s point of view. Matthew tells about the angel appearing in Joseph’s dreams and about Joseph taking the family to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Luke tells about Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah and about Mary seeing the angel Gabriel and then going to stay with Elizabeth when her son John was born. Their different perspectives nicely account for the little overlap in the two narratives.

Tarico asserts without explanation or any references the claim that the infancy narratives each contain dubious historical claims, “an impossible census in one and an unlikely mass infanticide in the other.” The issue with the census (Luke 2:1-2) is primarily regarding its date, not whether it was a possible event. The difficulty arises from the fact that sources outside the Bible indicate that Quirinius was governor of Syria about a decade after Herod the Great died. Several explanations of this apparent discrepancy have been advanced by scholars. One proposal is that Luke’s statement might be better translated that the census was “before” the one under Quirinius.[6] Another theory is that the Jewish historian Josephus, the main source for dating Quirinius’s census a decade later, was the one who made the mistake.[7] No consensus on this problem has yet emerged—not even among secular scholars. A fair assessment would be that there is an apparent difficulty here and at present we may not have enough information to settle the issue. This conclusion does not, however, warrant the claim that Luke’s account is fiction or that the Virgin Birth never happened.

As for Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16-18), there is no mention of it outside Matthew but it would have been perfectly consistent with Herod’s character. According to Josephus, Herod the Great had hundreds of his real or perceived enemies killed including one of his wives, several members of her family, two of his brothers-in-law (one of whom was the high priest), a group of Pharisees who supported a rival family, and three of his own sons (Jewish Antiquities 15-17). Centuries later it was remembered that Augustus Caesar himself commented, “It is better to be Herod’s pig [Greek, huos] than his son [huios]” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4). Here again, Tarico has stumbled into evidence that Matthew’s account is rather plausible after all.

Alleged Pagan Parallels to the Virgin Birth

Almost invariably, critics of the Virgin Birth claim the idea was borrowed from pagan stories. Tarico does not disappoint. “The idea of gods impregnating women was a common trope that many Jews and Christians have recognized as pagan…. According to Roman imperial theology, Augustus had been conceived when the god Apollo impregnated his human mother, Atia.”

The truth is that stories like the one about Augustus are not about virgin births at all. The gods of Greco-Roman mythology were anthropomorphic beings capable by nature of coming into physical contact with humans (sometimes in the form of an animal) and engaging in sexual activity with them. The Roman biographer Suetonius reported a story, without endorsing it, about Atia becoming pregnant when a snake came into her bed while she slept (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 94.4). This story is so far from the Virgin Birth as to underscore just how lacking in pagan elements the Gospel accounts are. Bart Ehrman, a famous agnostic New Testament scholar, makes the point as emphatically as anyone:

In none of the stories of the divine humans born from the union of a god and a mortal is the mortal a virgin. This is one of the ways that the Christian stories of Jesus differ from those of other divine humans in the ancient world. It is true that (the Jewish) God is the one who makes Jesus’s mother Mary pregnant through the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:35). But the monotheistic Christians had far too an exalted view of God to think that he could have temporarily become human to play out his sexual fantasies. The gods of the Greeks and Romans may have done such things, but the God of Israel was above it all.[8]

If the Virgin Birth did not derive from paganism, then we have yet another “hint” or reason to think that there might be something historical to it after all.

Tarico suggests, following Marcus Borg, that Luke tells the story of Jesus’ virgin birth in order to encourage his readers to make their allegiance to Jesus rather than Caesar. There is likely a half-truth here. Luke’s account does implicitly contrast Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) with Jesus Christ, who was born during the reign of Augustus (2:6-7). Luke’s message might be fairly interpreted as being that Jesus, not Caesar, is the true, rightful ruler of the world. But this interpretation concerns Luke’s presentation of why the Virgin Birth was significant; it does not tell us whether that event happened or not.

We saw earlier that Matthew’s infancy narrative was independent of Luke’s account as seen in their substantially different contents (while agreeing on a surprising number of facts), most likely because they drew on different sources. This means that Luke could not have invented the story of Jesus’ virgin birth in order to contrast Jesus with Caesar.

Did Mary and Joseph Forget?

Tarico’s fifth “hint” purports to uncover a “bizarre narrative glitch” in Luke’s account, but it is her argument that is bizarre. According to Luke, when Jesus was twelve his parents lost track of Jesus for three days and scolded him when they found him in the temple. Jesus replied to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke then observes, “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (Luke 2:49-50). Tarico comments that this story suggests that Joseph and Mary had “forgotten the astounding signs and wonders that accompanied his birth.”

There is not much of a problem here. Mary and Joseph might well have remembered Jesus’ birth, the angels, and so on, and still not have understood Jesus’ meaning. It seems likely that when Jesus said “I must be in my Father’s house” they misunderstood him to be referring to Joseph’s house. This confusion would have been natural enough, especially for two frantic parents.

There is no evidence that the passage about Jesus in the temple at age twelve was somehow “tacked on at a later time,” as Tarico speculates. All of the textual evidence we have supports its having been a part of the Gospel of Luke from the beginning.

An author inventing a fiction of Jesus being born of a virgin is not likely to have also invented a story about his childhood that might be misunderstood as implying that his mother did not know the truth about him. To the extent that the passage about Jesus in the temple at age twelve presents a more complicated picture of Jesus’ relationship to Mary, it weakens the claim that Luke made it all up. So here again what Tarico envisions as a hint of later fiction turns out to be more likely a hint of the historical accuracy of Luke’s account.

Did the Doctrine of Jesus’ Divinity Develop Gradually?

Tarico’s final “hint” that the infancy narratives are fictional has to do with the order in which the Gospels were written. The usual view among scholars is that Mark was the earliest Gospel (in the 60s), followed perhaps ten to fifteen years later by Matthew and Luke (in the 70s or 80s), which were followed perhaps another decade later by John (in the 90s). Tarico repeats the common claim that these three stages of Gospel composition parallel three stages of development in the way Jesus is presented as divine. In Mark, Jesus’ divinity is revealed at his baptism; in Matthew and Luke, at his birth; and in John, his divinity is pushed back to the time of creation. “This sequence suggests that theologies explaining the divinity of Jesus emerged gradually and evolved as Christianity crystalized and spread.”

This plausible-sounding theory falls apart on close examination. Recall that Tarico herself expressed the opinion that Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives are so different because they represent two branches of the tree of oral traditions about Jesus. If this is so, then the oral tradition must have included the basic claims that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit while she was betrothed to Joseph and that Jesus was later born in Bethlehem. This oral tradition could not have been invented after the Gospel of Mark was written and then diverged into two very different narratives in a period of just ten or fifteen years in time to be written down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Tarico herself argued that “one or more generations” must have passed in order for the two accounts to have diverged as much as they did. This means we may confidently conclude that the shared elements of the two accounts originated well before the Gospel of Mark was written. Those shared elements include the revelation of Jesus as the divine Son at his conception and birth. Therefore, the neat and tidy sequence Tarico and others have constructed of Christians dating the revelation of Jesus’ divinity earlier and earlier (first baptism, then birth, then creation) simply will not work.

The high view of Jesus Christ as deity in Paul’s writings also undercut Tarico’s evolutionary theory. Paul, writing in the 50s (before Tarico dates Mark), speaks of Jesus as the preexistent divine Son (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4), refers to Jesus as “God” (Rom. 9:5), and identifies him repeatedly as the “Lord” of the Old Testament, that is, as Yahweh (e.g., Rom. 10:9-13; Phil. 2:9-11).[9]

What we find in the New Testament is not a gradual evolutionary development of the belief in Jesus as divine over a period of several generations. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado described the emergence of devotion to Jesus as “a veritable ‘big bang,’ an explosively rapid and impressively substantial development in the earliest stage of the Christian movement.”[10] The rapidity with which the early church came to recognize Jesus as divine and worthy of religious devotion is another “hint” that the Virgin Birth was not a “late addition” to the Christian faith.

Some of the popular images or motifs of the Christmas story originated after the time of the New Testament. For example, Matthew does not say how many magi visited Jesus; it may have been three, but it may have been two or four. The number three is a plausible but not necessary inference from the three gifts they presented. The celebration of Jesus’ birthday on December 25 originated much later and there is no evidence that would support that specific date as Jesus’ actual birthday. However, the important theological elements of the story—that Jesus was the divine Son of God, that he was conceived and born of the virgin Mary, that he came into the world to redeem humanity from their captivity to sin and death—were part of the story from the earliest period of the Christian movement.[11]

 

NOTES

[1] All biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] See Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 88–89, for a more detailed comment on this point.

[3] See especially Richard A. Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd ed., with a Foreword by Graham Stanton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), especially 124–27, 155–82.

[5] Gerd Lüdemann, Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998), 51.

[6] See Wayne A. Brindle, “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27 (1984): 43–52; Brook W. R. Pearson, “The Lucan Censuses, Revisited,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999): 262–82. For an evangelical scholar who disputes this interpretation, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 304–305.

[7] John H. Rhoads, “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 65–87.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 24.

[9] On the divine Christology in Paul’s writings, see Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007); George Carraway, Christ Is God Over All: Romans 9:5 in the Context of Romans 9-11, Library of NT Studies 489 (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2013); Chris Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015); Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[10] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 135.

[11] For a detailed defense of the historicity of the Virgin Birth, see the chapter I contributed to the new edition of Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), especially 319–39.

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