Sunday, December 03, 2006

A bit more on the virgin birth.

In my previous post on the inaccuracies of the nativity story. In the process of writing that post I read several Christian web sites to see what they claim. And I came across one which specifically tries to defend the idea that Mary conceived as a virgin.

Now what specifically is claimed in regards to the virgin birth. Is it merely that Mary had never had sex prior to the birth of Christ? Some Christians think so. For instance this site retorts that such conceptions are very possible: “Where have you been for the past 21 years? Ever since in vitro fertilization and embryonic transfer came on the scene in 1978 (not to mention artificial insemination), it is quite possible for a woman who has never experienced sexual intercourse to give birth.”

But in all these cases the author of this retort ignores the fact that male sperm is still required. Now those two gospels that mention the virgin birth, were they only claiming that Mary was a virgin or were they claiming that no human sperm was involved?

No one says that children born through artificial insemination don’t have fathers. They have a father. I guess it is possible that what these Christians are claiming is that sperm was involved and that the gospel accounts only claim Mary was a virgin. If that is the case then whose sperm was used to impregnate Mary? Are we expected to think that Jehovah jerked off into a test tube and the Holy Ghost acted like a divine turkey baster?

Somehow I don’t think this is what these Christians are implying. When they assert the virgin birth they are asserting far more than this retort implies. They are implying that no human sperm was involved in the birth at all.

So in fact this retort does not defend the claim they are making. The question is not fundamentally whether a woman can give birth without intercourse. The question is whether she can conceive without sperm. And so far the answer to that, in practice, is no she can’t.

But there is also another issue here. This author implies that because we can do things with modern technology today then the same thing was possible two thousand years ago. This would be like claiming that there really were flying carpets in Persia thousands of years ago because humans today have air planes.

Some day, in the future, it may be possible to clone a child without the use of sperm -- unless the Christians ban the technology first. But what we are talking about is not the same thing as claiming that a woman conceived without sperm two thousand years ago where the newest technology was a wheel and a hoe.

Our Christian defender simply ignores these major differences. After referring to modern alternatives that help conception he quotes the line about the Holy Ghost and writes: “Sound miraculous? Of course. But these days, who would deny that miracles occur?” But medicine is not a miracle. It is science. And it is one thing to say that modern technology allows us to do something that nature denied us for all of recorded history and another to claim that the same thing happened thousands of years ago in the absence of that knowledge and that technology.

The Christian apologist then responds to the point that the other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t mention this miracle and that the letters of Paul don’t refer to them either. He says that is weak because “Paul and John were alive and quite familiar with the Gospel accounts written by Matthew and Dr. Luke (a physician!) -- and yet never either questioned or refuted it. (sic)”

So he ignores the gospel of Mark entirely. He claims that Paul and John were alive and knew Matthew and Luke and he assumes Luke wrote the gospel attributed to him by tradition. Luke is claimed to have written both Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. But no where does either book claim to have been written by Luke.

Now Paul made a passing reference to Luke but did not say Luke wrote any letters on Christianity. In fact Luke is only mentioned two times in the entire New Testament. Neither indicates Paul knew anything about the writings attributed to him. In Colossians Paul wrote: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.” Nothing else. And in 2 Timothy he writes: “Only Luke is with me.”

That’s all the New Testament says about Luke. He sent greetings and spent some time with Paul. And since neither Luke nor Acts mention Luke as the author we simply don’t know who wrote these two accounts though there is reason to believe they were written by the same person. We just don’t know who was that person.

Contemporary scholars argue that much of Luke is based on or copied from the book of Mark which was written around 70. But if that were the case then Luke was only written after Paul died. (In fact there is good reason to believe that all the gospels were written after Paul’s death and thus he was not familiar with any of them.) This could easily explain why Paul never repudiated them. They didn’t exist when he was alive. A small matter perhaps but one which this apologists seems unaware of. No copies of Luke prior to the 3rd century have been found and even these were only fragments. The first full version of Luke is no earlier than the 5th century.

As for John, well the book of John doesn’t say he wrote it either. Paul at least had the decency to mention he was writing the books attributed to him. Luke and John neglected to do that. Whoever wrote the book of John is probably not the disciple of Jesus named John. The reason for that is it was written about 70 years after the death of Jesus. Jesus was a young man when he died and if we assume his disciples were of similar age, and not young children, then John would have been around 100 years of age when wrote the book. Not likely in that day and age. The earliest fragment of John dates to the first century

The last point I will make about this silly defense of the virgin birth is the apologist’s noting that Luke was a physician (with an exclamation pointed added for emphasis). Of what relevance is this? Remember that a physician in the first century is pretty close to a witch doctor. The term has little meaning regarding understanding the human body. It has been said that for most of human history physicians had so little understanding of actual medicine that they were more likely to kill patients than save them. I suggest the apologist is making far too much with the credentials of this Luke.

Even if he were the author of the gospel of Luke why is his being a physician important? Now if we assumed he actually knew medicine -- not likely two thousand years ago -- this does not make his claims of the virgin birth any more relevant. He would not have been a physician when Mary conceived, he did not give her an examination. Had he been a physician at the time he would have had to be around 25 years older than Jesus. And that would make him about 125 years old when the gospel bearing his name was written.

You can claim that Luke wrote the gospel and Acts and that he did so about seven decades after the death of Jesus. But you can’t claim he has any personal knowledge of that about which he is writing. And given his introduction to Theophilus in Acts he seems to be saying that he collected what others taught him into one place. He was not an eyewitness. He merely collected stories together. That some came from the other gospels is clear. That some came from unknown sources is equally clear since he mentions incidents unknown to the gospel writers.


Blogger Publius II said...

Two quick statements here, and I'm done for the day....

"Luke is claimed to have written both Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. But no where does either book claim to have been written by Luke."

This is incorrect. Luke's gospel is titled at the top of the manuscript, in the original Greek, "Of Luke" or "From Luke" or "By Luke" depending on how you want to translate it. And at the beginning of Acts, Luke comments on why he's writing it, as well as who it's written to, and makes reference to his first writing, which would be his Gospel account. On top of this, it's fairly certain both books were written by the same person due to the style and tendencies of language use.

Secondly, the "apologist" if they could be called that, that you've chosen to critique is extremely weak. A better commentary on the matter can be found here, (the same one I cited in your first article on the subject).

December 05, 2006


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