N.T. Wright on the Virgin Birth

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Henry Imler posts some arguments from N.T. Wright in favor of the historicity of the virgin birth accounts. I don't think I've seen these arguments before. He lists three. The first is more an argument against arguments against the virginal conception. The other two actually support the historicity of the virgin birth passages in Matthew and Luke, and those are what caught my interest:

2. Isaiah 7 was never part of any pre-Christian Jewish view of the Messiah being born of someone who was still a virgin by the time of the conception. Everyone who read the passage took it in the way that an ordinary person would. It says that a virgin would engage in sexual relations, conceive, and then give birth. In its immediate context about the children whose names are mentioned in that very passage, it had to mean exactly that. So no one thought of this as a messianic passage about someone who would conceive and then give birth, all while remaining a virgin. But what that means is that it's extremely unlikely that someone would concoct this legend about Jesus being born of a virgin to fit a prophecy that no one interpreted that way. When people invent circumstances to fit a prophecy, they don't usually recast an already existing prophecy in a way that no one interpreted it. It would be one thing to look back on Isaiah 7 if a virginal conception happened. It would be quite another thing to interpret it anew without any such an event. Why insist on taking a passage in a way no one had before if it's not to explain an event that makes much more sense with the newfangled interpretation?

2. Matthew and Luke record two very different sets of traditions about the birth of Jesus. If they were importing a pagan myth because of some theological value, it would be surprising to find no theological hay made of it in either of the two very different literary traditions. But yet that's what we have. Even if the authors of the two accounts didn't think it was a pagan importation but believed it, it would be strange that this was done earlier for theological purposes and yet neither account would actually include such reasons or any sign that there ever were any. What would be more likely is that they didn't believe it because of its theological significance but believed it simply because it had its basis in actual events.

2 Comments

I've never understood why people who have no problem believing that God could create the entire universe from nothing get hung up on the virgin birth. That just doesn't make sense to me. Doesn't a miracle by definition defy natural laws?

Karl, I agree with your general point. It makes no sense to believe in the resurrection and yet to deny the virgin birth.

I don't actually think your closing comment is correct, though, because there are several different conceptions of what counts as a miracle. Miracles don't have to defy natural laws. It might be that the natural laws are not the same as the laws of physics, and all the things that seem to go against what physics tells us still conform to the larger set of natural laws that determine when physics laws don't apply. They would be cases when the laws of physics are suspended simply because God has set up natural laws to exclude the physical laws from interfering at that point with some other laws that take precedence. In this way, everything that happens may result from the laws God has set up at the beginning, but these laws are not the laws of physics. Those do not always apply. Miracles would then be the ones that conform to natural laws but not physical laws.

The other way this can go is on the more standard view that natural laws just are the laws of physics. I still don't think miracles have to break the laws on that more standard view. For instance, some things we call miracles are not physically impossible but just extremely improbable. We call them miracles not because they would be impossible without divine intervention but because their occurrence is so unlikely that we think it counts as really strong evidence that God intended that particular outcome.

I would contend that God works far more often through events that occur in the natural world without violating the laws of physics than he causes the laws of physics to be suspended (assuming the more standard picture and not my earlier suggestion). I think of those as miracles just as much as violations of the laws would be miracles. They're all equally acts of God. Why is it a miracle only if it involves a violation of the laws?

As I said, I think your point is right, but I don't think we should limit our conception of miracles to the kind that violates the laws of physics.

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