Great stuff! That’s why I’m in Japan and have been here for over 30 years–to make known this amazing story. It’s actually very difficult to believe, isn’t it. But when I read the gospel accounts with my Japanese friends there is something about the internal integrity and connectedness of these books that convinces.
I could be mistaken, but it is my understanding that the Christian story of the virgin birth is not that different from several other “miraculous birth stories” that circulated widely in the ancient world.
Zoroaster was described as having been born to a virgin as was the Buddha. The avatars of the Hindu deity Vishnu were born of virgins as was the Egyptian deity, Horus who was born to Isis or Hathor (depending on which story you read).
It is also my understanding that several of the Gnostic Gospels which were suppressed by the early church, including the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas, make no mention of either the virgin birth or the Immaculate Conception and that Gnostics scoffed at both concepts.
Professor Mead’s description of the story of Mary as feminist in nature is interesting but I am not sure that it is quite right. In actuality it is the Gnostics who were the feminists. Their Gospels, which the early church ordered destroyed, ascribed a feminine side to G-d. They also emphasize the importance of the relationship between Jesus and the other Mary in his life, Mary Magdalene, in a different and far more robust way than Synoptic Gospels or the Gospel of John.
Following in the feminist line of the post, Christ’s genealogy also included Tamar, Ruth, Rehab,& Bathsheba.
@wigwag: and Zeus impregnated anything with 2 legs and a skirt. But just as other cultures have tales of great floods, just because the birth of Christ isn’t the 1st time in literary history that the idea of a virgin birth is used doesn’t mean it’s false. Your examples also have some problems as Zoroaster doesn’t come from a virgin (his mother glowed), buddha was born later than the Isaiah prophesy concerning the virgin birth (and his mother didn’t become a virgin in Buddhism for a couple centuries), Krishna or Isis-Horace might be the closest, but arguing for Hindu or Egyptian religious influence on Isaiah or Matthew would be difficult, I think. Nevertheless, my point remains. Just because someone had thought up the idea of a virgin or miraculous birth, doesn’t invalidate the story of Jesus’ birth.
“I would only observe that if you believe (as I do) that God made the universe and everything in it, and if you believe that he upholds the universe and cares passionately about the well being of each individual person on earth, then to reject the Virgin Birth as a physical impossibility seems a little forced.”
Conversely, Dr. Mead, if ‘God made the universe and everything in it and cares passionately about the well being of each individual on earth,’ then it would seem irrational for God to deviate from an normal and orderly procedure of birth by throwing a wrench in the workings of that universe. It gives God’s orderly universe a tinge of irrationally that fosters the image of a deity that does things on a whim – or at least one that is not very far-sighted.
I do believe, however, that if you wish to believe an impossibility, that is your right.
“…then it would seem irrational for God to deviate from a normal and orderly procedure of birth by throwing a wrench in the workings of that universe. It gives God’s orderly universe a tinge of irrationally that fosters the image of a deity that does things on a whim – or at least one that is not very far-sighted.” (Hubbub: December 27, 2011, 11:29 am)
In fairness, Hubbub, what seems rational to man and what seems rational to the deity may not be the same thing; we may operate by different standards of rationality or perhaps G-d does not revere rationality the way that humans have come to. Given the deity’s omnipotence and infinite knowledge, applying human standards of rationality to him/her/it is in itself illogical.
If you apply standards of “rationality” to religious beliefs, regardless of the faith tradition in question, they all quickly fall apart. The Immaculate Conception, the idea that by a special blessing from God Mary was born without original sin, proves the point. Much of Christian theology would quickly become unnecessary if God merely granted the special blessing that he granted to Mary to all human beings. While this might appear logical to some people, apparently it didn’t seem like the way to go to G-d.
And then there is the concept of original sin itself (which necessitated the Immaculate Conception). Both Judaism and Islam reject the idea of original sin for good reason; the reason is not that it is irrational, it’s that the idea itself is odious. It seems to me that the doctrine of “Original Sin” (in any of its numerous versions) turns G-d into a bully. The idea of original sin, which as far as I know all believing Christians accept, seems almost as unfortunate to me as the doctrine of predestination which only a minority of believing Christians buy into. For a fascinating discussion of this, I recommend Peter Berger’s blog which also appears at the American Interest website. You can find Professor Berger’s thoughts about some of this here,
Mary is truly one of the great heroes of the Scripture, because she made one of the great statements of faith and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38) Consider this verse and the depth of Mary’s devotion to her God (whose names are Jesus Christ, Yahweh, El Elohim, etc.) in the cultural context of what she faced, namely possible stoning for being pregnant without being wed. The Scriptures make no bones about it: Mary was a virgin when she bore Jesus.
But Scripture makes no bones about this too: that she was NOT a virgin when she died. See for example this passage from Matthew 12:46
“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.” And again in Matthew 13:55 “‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?’
Now many peoples actually worship Mary as some form of deity. This is not only not Scriptural, it is heresy. It is a nasty form of Idolatry. The fact that people hold Mary in this high regard does not make it right, What it does do is stain their souls and makes it harder for them to enter into a true relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ.
you’re over thinking this. Jesus had to be free from all sin, including original sin as a descendant from Adam, so that He could expiate the sin of His people as the pure, unblemished lamb required by the Law.
So what does God do about Original Sin? This “bully” lives a humble, kind, and blameless life, then submits to a be brutally murdered for the sake of those He is “bullying”.
Something about your point of view just doesn’t hold together.
Also… can you really say with any integrity that you’d prefer a world where humanity hadn’t Fallen, a world where you were not free to do, say, (or even think, really) whatever it is you prefer to do, say, and think that is inconsistent with Christian morality?
That is what a world without Original Sin would be like. Christ’s sacrifice — God’s personal sacrifice, as Christ is God — is the price of your freedom. He came to Earth to repair what abused freedom had damaged. Without that redemption, Free Man is Damned Man.
He created the world, allowed us our freedom, and when we abused it, and paid the full price. Look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling again. Look at how God reaches out, full of energy and will. Look at how Adam reaches – weak, halfhearted, uninterested.
It’s all part of the whole story, and it starts at Christmas, with the Creator of the universe and its laws creating again, the Son He promised through Isaiah.
Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!!!! It really hurts to read these posts that are fatally flawed by such an obvious anachronism. Using the word “marriage” with specific modern expectations is leading to some fundamental confusion here. Mary was in a betrothal marriage to Joseph before the Angel Gabriel visited her with the invitation for her to freely choose to bear the Messiah. She was married, but it was before the time that she was to live in Joseph’s household. Consider Matthew 1:19, “and her HUSBAND Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away (divorce her) quietly.”
Yet, despite being married, Mary makes a puzzled response to Gabriel’s announcement of her election, “How can this be…?” We can safely assume that young women of the time knew that women who are married bear children. So, the only way this puzzlement makes sense is that Mary was already pledged to the life of a virgin. This institution of consecrated virginity in the Jewish community is attested to overwhelmingly in the Essene community, which she is connected to by circumstantial evidence, and in the New Testament itself.
The modern accusation/label of “unmarried mother” against Mary is a classic example of value blindness and cultural myopia. The enthusiastic embrace of fornication as a social good in today’s culture seems to require antipathy toward virginity, and especially virginity freely entered into out of dedication to God. But that has nothing to do with the fact that it happened in Mary’s case, or how it happened for that matter, however much it might soothe uneasy modern consciences.
We do not have to be prisoners to the ignorance characteristic of the past. Recent archeological and historical discoveries in the Holy Land have been abundant and entirely consistent with the definitive teachings of the apostolic churches. An underinformed 19th century rationalist critique of the Christian narrative is way behind the times. This is the 21st century, and those who make astonishing claims against Mary and her perpetual virginity, simply must keep up if they are to have any credibility at all.
Born of a what and looks like a what has contextual meaning WRM for many believers; yet, Yule Blogs enliven Christian sense of Christmas: “he came, the gospel writers believed, because history revealed the failure of the ‘moral approach’ to the problem of evil, and God decided that something more and something different needed to be done.” …something new had come into the the world – thanks annual Yule Blog/Via Meadia.
Holy Mary, our hope, seat of wisdom, pray for us.
I wish I had something to add, or take away, but I’m in a slump. So I’ll link to something old I did on the subject of original sin:
It’s not very good I’m afraid.
Luke, your letter to Professor Goody was quite interesting; I am curious if he replied and, if he did, how he responded. Your suggestion that Genesis had its genesis in a combat myth of Mesopotamian origin is quite interestng.
I would like to recommed two books to you that you may already be familiar with; they are both authored by Neil Forsyth, an emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Lausanne. The books are:
“The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth”,
and, “The Satanic Epic”,
The second book is Forsyth’s critical analysis of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and is meant in part as a rebuttal to Stanley Fish’s famous analysis of Milton’s epic in his book “Surprised by Sin.” Specifically, Forsyth suggests that Milton deliberately crafted “Paradise Lost” as a combat myth with Satan and G-d’s son as the chief protagonists and Adam, Eve and the Angelic host as warriors.
If you haven’t seen these books I suggest you take a look; I suspect you will find them interesting. “The Satanic Epic” is available for the Kindle; unfortunately “The Old Enemy” is not.
The story of Christmas is loved by all Christians, and its cultural influence is felt far and wide, not only in the art and literature of the Church but also in the Qur’an. Much of the original story, however, is not found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and so some of the detail in Christian art and literature is not always understood.
Margaret Barker uses her knowledge of temple tradition and Jewish culture in the time of Jesus to set the story in its original cultural and literary context. By examining the widely used Infancy Gospel of James, and by uncovering layers of allusion in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she reveals what the Christmas story originally meant. She then goes on to show how this understanding can be found in later texts such as the Arabic Infancy Gospel and legends known in mediaeval Europe.
Thanks, WigWag. You’re probably the only person who ever read it. Goody is in his late 80’s, so, no, I didn’t hear back. I’ll try to have a look at those books if and when my spirits rise.
Incidentally, WigWag, I forgot to define “allegory” in that letter to Goody:
“Allegory. From Greek allos meaning “other” and agora meaning gathering place (especially the marketplace). In times past, it was common to do one’s chatting at the marketplace. Some of the topics discussed were clandestine in nature and when people spoke about them, for fear of being punished, they would speak indirectly. That is to say, they would speak about one thing in such a way as to intimate the actual information to the listener. Thus, the persons discussing clandestine matters were said to be speaking of “other things” in the marketplace. Eventually the words joined and became associated with the act of speaking about one thing while meaning another.” hat tip Limbicnutrition.
“She is the Second Eve, the one who said ‘yes’ to God when he asked him to be the mother of his son.”
I think Professor Mead means “when he asked her”, i.e. when God asked Mary. A typo, no doubt. But setting the typo aside, this version doesn’t seem to me to hold water. It sounds more like a proposal of marriage: it implies, firstly, that God made Mary an offer, and secondly, that she was free either to accept it or to decline.
The Biblical account does not describe any kind of offer, proposal, or question being put to Mary. In Luke 1:31, the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger of the Lord, who has appeared unannounced, simply tells Mary, “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” Gabriel doesn’t put a request to Mary; rather, he announces to her what is going to happen, which is why the whole episode is called the Annunciation.
Mary responds by accepting the will of God, as Gabriel has revealed it: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” She graciously accepts the role laid down for her. But the possibility of her declining to go along with what Gabriel has announced is simply not there.
None of this is to deny Professor Mead’s larger point. The reverence for the Virgin Mary played a big part in establishing and upholding the rights of women in the ancient and medieval worlds, probably to an even greater extent than Professor Mead acknowledges, and this continues today. However, Mary is important not because she said yes when God ‘popped the question’, but because, unlike the first Eve, she was obedient to the will of God when it was made known to her.
Cheer up, Luke. It’s not unusual to feel a little blue around the holiday time but the good news is that they are almost behind us.
One thing that always lifts my spirits is actually going back to reread “Paradise Lost”. In Milton’s poem G-d (Father and Son) is a bit of a bummer, but Satan is a real hoot. Like Hamlet, Milton’s Satan has a fascinating inner life that is happily revealed to the reader. I always find that no matter what’s bugging me my problems seem trivial compared to the problems faced by Shakespeare’s and Milton’s heroes.
Keep smiling and happy new year!
[Drat it], WigWag, I thought you were Jewish!