Saturday, 27 August 2011
Another Chip Falls
I've spoken before about the first "major" Christian belief that I lost faith in, namely the Bible's supposed "inerrancy". I also discussed some of the reasons I had, for changing my mind on that issue at the time. Well, soon afterward, I lost faith in another "major" doctrine of the Christian faith, and this second shift in my thinking was even more significant than the first.
I came to believe that the Virgin Birth of Jesus is, more than likely, a complete fabrication.
It felt like nearly every book I was reading touched on the Virgin Birth, arguing either pro or con, and eventually the evidence against the story's legitimacy just accumulated, inside my mind, until a tipping point was reached and I had no other choice but to let go of it completely. Funny enough, despite some of my other nagging questions, I had never once doubted the truth of the Virgin Birth in more than 25 years as a committed Christian. As a result it hadn't even been on my radar screen, when I started out on this investigation.
I won't take the time to go through all the evidence here but, suffice it to say, I found perhaps a couple dozen or more reasons to seriously doubt the truth of this Biblical tale. Together, they made a pretty strong case against it. For example, there are significant problems with the way that both Luke and Matthew make use of the supposed Old Testament "prophecies", about the Virgin Birth. John Shelby Spong highlights just one of those problems..."Matthew quoted a text from Isaiah to prove the virgin birth tradition. Fortunately for Matthew's integrity, he quoted that Hebrew text in Greek, where the connotation of 'virgin' is present in the Greek word parthenos. However, if he had gone to the original Hebrew, he would have discovered that the connotation of virginity was not present in the original text of Isaiah. The Hebrew word for 'virgin' was betulah. The word used in Isaiah was almah, which means young woman. It does not mean virgin in any Hebrew text in the entire Bible in which it is used." (from "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism").
It's also worth pointing out that neither Paul or Mark (both of whom wrote before Matthew & Luke) bother to even mention that Jesus was born of a virgin. This fact seemed to lend yet more support to my new theory that we can see signs of "legend", developing about Jesus, right there in front of our eyes inside the Gospel accounts themselves (this is something I was becoming increasingly convinced of the more that I read and thought about it). Could it be that Paul and Mark don't mention it, because the legend about Jesus' "virgin birth" had not yet come fully to fruition? Or, did they just not think it important enough to write about? The latter seemed highly unlikely to me.
Matthew and Luke also contradict each other at several significant points in the story. (I was starting to arrive at the stage where I no longer even found such Biblical discrepancies surprising) Listen again to Spong, "Joseph and Mary either lived in Nazareth, as Luke asserted, or they lived in Bethlehem, as Matthew believed. They either returned to their home in Nazareth, as Luke informs us, or they by chance happened upon Nazareth in fulfillment of divine prophecy, as Matthew has related. Both Evangelists may be wrong on these facts, but both Evangelists cannot be right. If one is right, the other is wrong. Biblical inerrancy is once again a casualty of a mutually exclusive contradiction."
I also learned that there are several problems with the Roman census story, if analyzed as a stand alone item, and the census is supposed to be the reason (according to Luke) that Mary and Joseph even went to Bethlehem to begin with. For example, why would they have been compelled to register in the hometown of an ancestor (David) who, according to Luke himself, lived forty-two generations earlier (or perhaps it is a mere fourteen generations, as Matthew says)? I had always just assumed this must have been "the way things worked", when there was a census called in those days, but actually it wasn't at all. Recorded history offers no credence to the Biblical story, of an incredibly odd census such as this one, whatsoever. Imagine the complexities that would have resulted if millions of ancestors had indeed been travelling back to the "hometown" of their very ancient relatives, such as the Bible suggests.
History also fails to support the slaughter of all the Jewish male babies, up to two years of age, as reported in Matthew. No official records of King Herod make a reference to this act (and no other Biblical source seems aware of it).
Anyway, those are just a very few examples, serving merely as an illustration of the numerous challenges involved in my continuing to accept the Virgin Birth story as literal truth. I simply could not bring myself to do so any longer.
As strange as it may seem to us today, virgin birth stories were actually quite common in the ancient world. Included among those said to be born of a virgin are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Alexander the Great, Plato, Cyrus, the Buddha, Hermes, Hercules, Cybele, Vulcan, and so on and so on. In keeping with the rampant superstition of the times, births that avoided any contact with human sexual activity were thought to be more pure and worthy. (And this isn't even to mention the various other savior-gods, like Krishna, Osiris, Dionysus, etc.)
Is it possible, I thought, that the virgin birth story is a legend but the part about Jesus being God is not? How could that be? Can I still believe in some (or most?) of the Bible's other miracle stories? Is it still reasonable to wonder if the Bible is "inspired" in some way (even though I no longer believed it was "inerrant")? I knew this latest development, in my thinking, couldn't be dismissed as a mere quibble about purportedly "minor" contradictions in the Bible's narratives...I mean, the Virgin Birth is part of the Apostle's Creed for crying out loud! If I don't believe that, can I even be a "Christian"??