Friday, December 25, 2015

Re: 'Skuzzy Ruins Christmas'

Response to Gabriel.[1]

>>Even if you are a Christian, or at least accept Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus) as a historical figure, the virgin birth is not a tenable position.<<

You have charged that belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth (hereinafter the "Virgin Birth") is "untenable." According to my lexicon, an "untenable" position is one that is "not able to be maintained or defended against attack or objection." To show that a belief is untenable, it is plausible to think that at least three things must be shown.

(1) One argues that a belief, b, is more likely to be false than its negation.

(2) One at least surveys the strongest available defenses of b, and then one shows that these defenses, one and all, are inadequate.

(3) One provides some reason to think that no other defenses will be successful.

Now you have clearly argued that the doctrine is false. Thus, in the words of the definition for "untenable," you have mounted an attack on, and brought forth objections against, the doctrine of the virgin birth.

But attacking the Virgin Birth is not obviously sufficient to establish that it is "untenable." You have neither sampled the standard rejoinders to your objections, nor provided surrejoinders. In other words, at best, you have performed the step outlined in (1), but not the steps outlined in (2) or (3).

You have not shown, therefore, that the Virgin Birth is unable to be defended. In order to show that it is tenable, I merely have to show that the Virgin Birth is "able to be maintained or defended against" your attack and your objections.

My defense is interspersed between your previous remarks.


>>1.) The Silence of Paul. The epistles are the earliest surviving documents of the Christian faith, and Paul is blissfully ignorant of any such thing...<<

One problem that cuts across several of your points is a failure to take full cognizance of the relevant literary genres.[2]

As you know, an epistle is a letter. Paul's letters were, as most letters are, written for particular recipients and concerning specific circumstances.

What a writer chooses to include in his letter is, thus, indexed to his audience and to his topic(s). Contrariwise, what a writer does not include is also relative to his writing aims.

It is apparent, then, that there is no forced march from the fact that a proposition is not included in a given letter to the conclusion that the author was "ignorant" of the proposition. For it may still be - both in theory and for all that you have said - that the author, given his audience, goals and subject matter, simply had no reason to mention the proposition in question.

For example, Paul nowhere mentions the fact that torturing children for fun is morally wrong. It is by no means clear, however (nor even remotely plausible), that Paul was "blissfully ignorant of any such thing."[3]

The point can be made straightforwardly. Imagine taking every email, letter and text message (etc. – add in whatever else you wish) that you have ever composed, and creating a massive conjunction containing all your epistolary assertions. Could we conclude that you were "ignorant" - blissfully or otherwise - of any fact not explicitly represented by its own conjunct? I think not. But then why think that Paul is “blissfully ignorant” of a doctrine, evident in the writings of his bosom pal and associate, Luke,[4] merely because he nowhere mentions it explicitly in the surviving copies of a dozen or so of his letters? You have given no reason.

>>...--which is telling, since it would have frequently bolstered his argument.<<

In order to show that a proposition's lack of inclusion in a letter has any significant bearing on the question of the extent of an author's belief set, we must have a reason to think that it is more likely true than not that, if the author had the piece of information in question, then he would have mentioned it.

You owe us an example of instance for which Paul's express articulation of the Virgin Birth "would have ...bolstered his argument." You assert that this occurred "frequently," but do not scruple to provide even a single concrete illustration.

For all that you have said, that Paul did not include any mention of the Virgin Birth may signal nothing more than that none of his letters concerned any topic that would have been usefully advanced by its mention.

Later, you make similar mistakes handling the Gospel data. For instance, you complain that Mark does not say anything about a Virgin Birth, but Matthew does. However, this discrepancy is explicable in virtue of their divergent intentions.

According to the received analysis of Mark's audience, Mark wrote for Gentile Christians - in particular, Christians living in Rome.[5]

On the other hand, Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience.[6] The Virgin Birth would have had meaning for Jews that it would not have had for Romans. This is so due to the fact that the Virgin Birth had a distinctly Jewish context. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah had prophesied: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."[7]

Therefore, it is apparent that a mention of the Virgin Birth would be more expected in a communication addressed to Jewish as opposed to Gentile believers.[8]

>>For a guy who was nipples-to-nosehairs with the Force Ghost of the Almighty for who-knows-how-long, Paul actually doesn't seem to know much at all regarding the Divine Biography. It must not have come up.<<

Of course, Paul was raised and trained in a Jewish theological context. From an ontological point-of-view, the "Divine Biography" extends to infinity-past; from a textual vantage point, it ranges back to the Old Testament books beginning (in terms of arrangement and not necessarily dating) with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Paul knew quite a lot about the "Divine Biography." In fact, he would have known so much that, had it been his project to do so, he likely could have written volumes on the subject.

Had it been his project to do so. It was evidently not his project. He wrote letters to specific churches and persons, addressing specific issues. And for all that you have said, nothing precludes the judgment that these audiences and topics simply would not have been relevantly enriched by any mention of the Virgin Birth.

>>2.) Its Absense in the Earliest Gospels. Mark was likely penned anywhere from 60-75ad. It never mentions it.<<

I will stipulate the dates and simply reiterate that Mark's audience and purpose differed from that of Matthew's. What each author excludes and includes is relative to, and must be evaluated in the light of, these different intentions and readership.

>>Matthew followed, roughly 5-15 years later. This time, we see the tale clearly as an insertion in the text, to correspond more closely with the Lucan narrative.<<

This second sentence is doubly problematic.

Firstly, the phrase "clearly as an insertion in the text" is at best misleading and at worst well beyond your academic competence to pronounce upon definitively - let alone dogmatically.

As to its being misleading: To those unfamiliar with the lingo of textual criticism, calling the Virgin Birth an "insertion," sounds like whereas Mark wrote that "Jesus was born," Matthew shoehorned in a descriptor to get "Jesus was virgin-born."

In fact, as I have been repeating, the differences between Mark and Matthew are understandable only when due consideration is given to their divergent audiences and goals. The simple fact is that Matthew's Gospel is addressed to Jews for whom the opening genealogy[9] and the Isaiah reference[10] would have had meaning that neither would have had for the Gentiles to whom Mark was writing.

Secondly, the idea that Matthew smuggled in the Virgin Birth in order "to correspond more closely with the Lucan narrative" depends, as you surely realize, upon the truth of some non-standard analysis of the "Synoptic problem." For those who are unaware, the "Synoptic problem" is the so-called "problem" of the similarities between the "Synoptic Gospels": Matthew, Mark and Luke.

According to the most widely accepted accounts, Mark was written first - possibly utilizing a mysterious, possibly oral and now-unavailable source labeled "Q." Matthew and Luke were written later. But on the most popular version, Matthew and Luke were written separately and, thus, would not have purposely rejiggered their materials "to correspond more closely" with the other's narrative.

Of course, it is open for you to argue for some non-standard resolution to the Synoptic problem. But you must actually do this heavy lifting before your claims about alleged collusion register as anything more than speculation.

>>The style of Greek is more polished and the tone is slightly different.<<

In your concluding remarks you mention being able to "source it if you like." Up until now, much of what you have written can be addressed at a fairly general level and without the need for attestation. But unless you have some demonstrable credentials in the analysis of the writing styles of Koine Greek and are prepared to explain your judgments about "polish and ...tone" - with examples - I should say that comments of this sort are mere hand waving.

In this case, if you are deferring to the judgment of some other critic, I will have to know who he or she is (and, more importantly, what his or her arguments are) before I can make heads or tails of this assertion.

But let me say in any case, and without agreeing that there even is a style change that needs to be explained, that writing style changes can be explained in many ways. I will simply list one obvious example.

When one writer quotes another there will be a discernible change in style. For instance, Matthew 1:23 is an allusion to Isaiah 7:14. It is entirely reasonable to think that a style change with respect to Matthew 1:23 - as contrasted to other verses in Matthew - will be explicable in virtue of the fact that that verse hearkens back to a text from an entirely different author. My suspicion would be that many so-called style shifts could be satisfactorily accounted for with this observation alone.

>>It was not presumably written by the same hand that penned the remaining chapters. Unless this was the result of scribal changes, Matthew's gospel most likely begins with its genealogy.<<

Readers are owed a whole lot more than a mere assertion if the underlying point is to be established that such-and-so passages were "not presumably written by the same hand that penned the remaining chapters."

As were your comments immediately above, this is a highly detail-dependent claim. Everything turns on the quality and content of the analysis that stands (or purports to stand) in its support. What is the analysis?

>>Matthew was written with the clear intent of selling the gospel to the Jews...<<

Yes, Matthew likely had a primary Jewish audience.

>>...--hence its often ersatz usage of the Septuagint to bolster its claims.<<

"Ersatz usage" like what, pray tell?

>>A gospel written for the Jews would not necessarily contain this narrative in its original form, since the very concept would have been quite alien to their collective mindset.<<

I either do not understand this claim, or you are simply saying that Matthew wouldn't have mentioned Virgin Birth to Jews because Jews were not used to virgin births. If the latter, then, for what peoples would virgin births been old hat?

Of course it was "quite alien to their collective mindset" - as it seems "quite alien" to the "collective mindset" of the "IFLScience" brigade these days.

The claim was included because Matthew: (a.) believed it to be true and (b.) believed it to have been prophesied by Isaiah, thus situating it in a Jewish context.

If this is not what you were saying, however, what were you saying?

>>3.) The verse from Isaiah used to justify the "miracle" is a mistranslation.<<

Firstly, it is not entirely obvious what "the verse" is that you have in mind (you neither reproduce nor cite it). My best guess is that you are thinking of Isaiah 7:14, as it is alluded to in Matthew 1:23. Since you do not say for sure, the best that I can do is hope that my guess is correct.

Secondly, the phrase "[t]he verse from Isaiah a mistranslation" is ambiguous. On the one hand, and implausibly, you could be asserting that "the verse" as-it-appears-in-Isaiah is a "mistranslation" of some, heretofore unspecified, source material. I doubt that you mean this, however, so I will ignore this possibility. On the other hand, you might really be trying to communicate the thought that "the verse" in Isaiah is mistranslated by someone (presumably Matthew?). For what follows, I will assume this second option.

However, thirdly, I am also unclear as to how you are using the word "justify." As far as I can see, "justify" has three senses, which I will designate philosophical, theological and typographical. Let me consider them in reverse order.[11]

In its typographical sense, "justify" designates the action of "adjust[ing] the spaces between words" so as, for example, to end up with margins that are "flush with" (that is, aligned straight against) their left or right sides (or both). Obviously, this usage is completely irrelevant and may be set aside.

In its theological sense, the word has to do with God "declar[ing a person] innocent; absolv[ing a person] from the penalty of sin." If I substitute this meaning into my re-creation of your sentence, I get something like this: "Matthew mistranslates the verse from Isaiah that he uses to declare the Virgin Birth innocent." This does not seem quite right. For one thing "justify," in its theological sense, is an action that God is supposed to perform upon persons. It seems to make no sense, therefore, to speak of God declaring an event - like the virgin birth is supposed to have been - "innocent." It seems that this meaning, too, must be set aside.

Finally, we come to the philosophical sense. On this sense, to "justify" a claim is to "show [it] to be right by providing justification or proof." We can put this slightly differently by saying that "justification" is that which "is offered as grounds for believing an assertion."[12]

Plugging this into our reconstructed sentence, we get something like: "Matthew mistranslates the verse from Isaiah that he use to prove the Virgin Birth." This appears to make better sense than any of the other possibilities surveyed. The problem is that it appears to me to be doubly false.

Number one, you have not established that Matthew's "translation"[13] of Isaiah 7:14 is a "mistranslation." You merely say:

>>The word "almah" can mean "virgin," but most frequently does not.<<

Showing that some passage, x, is a "mistranslation" involves a bit more than noting that one of the words in x "frequently does not ...mean" what it is said to mean in x. This is especially the case when the word in question could mean what it is said to mean x.

You admit that "[t]he word 'almah' can mean 'virgin'...". Therefore, you implicitly admit that it could well mean this is Isaiah 7:14. Hence, the best that you have shown is that it might be a mistranslation. But since "x might be mistranslated" does not entail that "x is mistranslated" your assertion cannot stand, as it is.

>>Actually, in at least seven other instances in the Old Testament, it simply means 'young woman,' and to the translators of the Septuagint, a young woman was likely a virgin. It was simply taken for granted.<<

As James Orr has pointed out: "the term rendered 'virgin' in Isaiah ...denotes ...a young unmarried woman. The context, however, seems clearly to lay an emphasis on the unmarried state, and the translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) plainly so understood it when they rendered it by parthenos, a word which does mean 'virgin.'"[14]

The point should be underlined. Matthew did not "translate" Isaiah at all. The scholars responsible for producing the Septuagint translated Isaiah this way. And their translation was in place perhaps as early as the 3rd century B.C. but, in any case, by the 2nd century B.C.

Hence, the assertion simply won't do that the translation of almah as parthenos/"virgin" is due to Christian wheedling or special pleading.

>>And--like most verses used to "prove" Jesus was the Messiah--it should be noted that this verse is being taken out of its context.<<

Of course, this is somewhat backwards. It's not that Jews, looking forward, understood Isaiah 7:14 as a clear Messianic prophecy and then, come now the Apostles to say, "Hear ye, we have found the virgin-born."

"It is ...singular that the [pre-Christian-era] Jews do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah...".[15]

Rather, it was the circumstances of Jesus's birth that disclosed to attentive viewers the import with which this ancient passage had been invested. Or as Orr says: "The germs now indicated in prophetic scriptures had apparently borne no fruit in Jewish expectations of the Messiah, when the event took place which to Christian minds made them luminous with predictive import."[16]

>>...this prophecy was an omen granted to King Ahaz regarding the impending Aramite invasion.<<[17]

One thing that astonishes me is that, for all of your reading, in your post you evince no awareness of the often subtle views that Christians have advanced regarding prophecy. Since I hesitate to ascribe ignorance of this topic to you, I must conclude that you have chosen to ignore such niceties for the sake of your presentation.

But these things cannot be responsibly excluded.

In the first place, theists of all hues typically hold that God is superior to human beings in intellect and power. If one follows the stream of thought that owes its name to Saint Anselm, then one holds that God simply "is that than which nothing greater can be conceived." This can be cashed out in several ways, but usually it involves the recognition that any candidate for God must be (i.e., is essentially) all-knowing (omniscient) and all-powerful (omnipotent).

Given these basic background assumptions, however, it seems to me incredible (i.e., not-credible) to suppose that God's prophecies must be understood by the people to whom they are given and at the time when they are given. Even in George Lucas's fictional Star Wars world we have a "prophecy" (about a Jedi destroying the Sith) that was not understood until it was fulfilled (ostensibly by Anakin killing the emperor). However, the fact that Lucas could come up with the idea of an initially-obscure prophecy that is only fully-understood upon fulfillment - and the fact that most audiences seem to understand this story-component perfectly well - seems to show that it is not nonsense.

Therefore, even if "almah" did usually mean "young married woman," one answer is: So what?

Yes sure, a Christian could say. "Almah" merely meant "young married woman" to Isaiah and generations of Jews - until God brought out the full significance of it in the Christ event. Once the Virgin Birth occurred, the "virginal" meaning - always secondarily present in "almah" - was seen in its full importance.

Assuming Christian commitments, what is wrong with this answer?

The fact that the word can mean "young, unmarried woman" could be said to hint strongly that the story was not a fabrication. For had the entire story been a fable, there would have been no need to introduce the friction-inducing notion of a Virgin Birth.

Your earlier claim that "the very concept would have been quite alien to their collective mindset" militates against you here. For this statement of yours is really an admission that anyone fabricating a Virgin Birth story could hardly have hoped to sucker anyone into believing it.

You later admit this by stating: "There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time" (on which, more below). Why include the element then? Were the authors saboteurs?

The fact that so many Jews did believe in a miraculous Jesus, and subsequently abandoned many of their ancient (even for that time) traditions - despite it being thoroughly un-Jewish to do so - strongly suggests to me that they believed the events in question really happened.

You seem unable to account for these sincere beliefs.

In the second place, and similarly related to the remarks above, there is a depth to be expected of any text that purports to issue from an omniscient and omnipotent God. Your complaint that Isaiah 7:14 was "taken out of context" is simply misplaced.

There are two things that I can say about this, but it is important to note that the issue is fundamentally one of worldview orientation. One thing is perhaps less "offensive" to non-Christian ears. The other will be more "offensive." But both are likely to be dismissed by the non-Christian. However, remember my project. My project is not presently to convert into believers any non-believers reading this thread. It is to rebut the allegation that the Virgin Birth is "untenable" by producing a defense of it and thereby showing it to be tenable after all.

To "defend" a belief it is surely unnecessary to convert any and all hearers to it. Or else it might appear that no belief is "tenable," which seems to abuse the word.

As to the less offensive, I have in mind the notion of partial fulfillment. It is open to the Christian to argue that initial context - the message to Ahaz - was only a partial fulfillment of a prophecy that would later be totally fulfilled in Jesus.

As to the more offensive, I have in mind invocation of the doctrine of inspiration. To take a statement "out-of-context" primary indicates a misuse of language whereby the hearer or reader of a message ignores the author's intention in writing. However, it is the historic Christian conviction that the numerous books of the Bible were, if not "authored" directly by God, then superintended by God in their authorship such that God guaranteed that his message was adequately communicated. Of course, in the present case we have two passages - Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 - that, according to the Christian view, were both written by human authors being superintended by God. Therefore, the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 that was identified by Matthew[18] was superintended by God not only when it was included as the fullest, but still-obscure intention of Isaiah 7:14, but also when it was brought out clearly by Matthew.

Again, I remind the reader that in mounting a defense of one Christian doctrine (e.g., the Virgin Birth), I am permitted to marshal other resources included in the Christian worldview. This is not special pleading. It is no fairer to forbid the Christian from invoking other elements of Christianity in defense of one of its doctrines than it would be to forbid a proponent of biological evolution from invoking other elements of biology in defense of Darwinism.

To be sure, this does not mean that the other elements invoked are unproblematic. But it means that the conversation cannot proceed until the expanded context is taken into account.

>>As an aside, does anyone in the New Testament actually call Jesus by "Immanuel"...ever? As in, "Hey Immanuel, can you pass me that wine?" or "Hey Immanuel, I can see your house from here!" No?<<

I was tempted to relegate this comment to a footnote, both because I view it as insubstantial and because you yourself deem in "an aside." Still, because the confusion that it embodies is worth clearing up, I have left it in the main text.

I will make two points here as well. Though here the points divide into easier-to-understand and harder-to-understand. Let's tackle the harder one first.

The harder point is that there is a distinction between an object and a (common or proper) name and a distinction between first-order names and nth-order names. Here is a colorful illustration from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.

"'You are sad,' the Knight said in an anxious tone: 'let me sing you a song to comfort you.'

"'Is it very long?' Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

"'It's long,' said the Knight, 'but very, VERY beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it--either it brings the TEARS into their eyes, or else--'

"'Or else what?' said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

"'Or else it doesn't, you know. The name of the song is called "HADDOCKS' EYES."'

"'Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?' Alice said, trying to feel interested.

"'No, you don't understand,' the Knight said, looking a little vexed. 'That's what the name is CALLED. The name really IS "THE AGED AGED MAN."'

"'Then I ought to have said "That's what the SONG is called"?' Alice corrected herself.

"'No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The SONG is called "WAYS AND MEANS": but that's only what it's CALLED, you know!'

"'Well, what IS the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"'I was coming to that,' the Knight said. 'The song really IS "A-SITTING ON A GATE": and the tune's my own invention.'"[19]

In Carroll's text we have an object (the song itself, "A-Sitting on a Gate") and a proper name ("The Aged Aged Man") and each of these bears a second-order name that it "is called" (the object, "A-Sitting on a Gate" is "called" "Ways and Means" while the name, "The Aged Aged Man" is "called" "Haddock's Eyes.") Similarly, we have an object (the Second Person of the Trinity-become-man) and a name "Jesus." "Immanuel" is, using the vocabulary introduced a moment ago, a second-order name on either the name "Jesus" or on the Person of the God-man Himself.

Although it is confusing, there is nothing the matter with this.

The easier reply has two sides. Number one, I simply note that the verse in question says that they will call his name "Immanuel," not that he would be assigned the proper name "Immanuel."[20]

Number two, "Immanuel" is simply a word that means "God with us." If a Christian were asked questions such as "When was 'God with us' on earth?" or "Who was 'God with us'?" I am confident that you would agree that the answers would probably be, respectively, "When Jesus incarnated" and "Jesus." This suffices to show, I think, that the referent of "God with us" is indeed unambiguously fixed on the God-man, Jesus.[21]

>>4.) There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time. In the 1st Century, the adopted son was as or more likely to be given the birthright. In fact, the adopted son was most frequently regarded as the "chosen one"--the thinking being that you could not choose your own flesh and blood, but you could choose whom you adopted.<<

Once again, I have to confess myself unable to determine your meaning.

Start with the sentence: "There was no need among the thinkers and seekers of the time." You seem to mean that "People living in Jesus's day would not have required Jesus to have been born of a virgin in order to accept his claims to Messiahship."

I think that this is probably true. I already favorably quoted Orr to the effect that pre-Christian-era "Jews do not seem to have applied [the Virgin Birth] prophecy at any time to the Messiah."

Why think that this should have been a "need" for "thinkers and seekers of the time"? You don't say. More importantly, why should any "thinker"/"seeker" "needs" have constrained God's actions? Are we talking about actual, physical or psychological "needs" like food, love and water? Or are we talking about desires like the pervasive, modern-day desire to see evidences spelled-out in conformity with the canons of naturalistic science? I would like to know more about these alleged "needs" - whether or not they were exemplified by the thinkers and seekers of Jesus's day.[22]

But maybe you did not mean to assert (what I take to be implausible, namely) that God would, if he existed, have been constrained to conform his incarnation to the evidential or psychological desires of the thinkers of the time. Perhaps you meant that Jesus Himself did not need to incarnate in a Virgin Birth scenario in order to receive the "birthright" of God. Perhaps you're saying that God could have "adopted' Jesus.[23]

Let me first try to clarify what you might mean.

Do you mean to endorse one of the following claims?

(4) Possibly, incarnation can take place without Virgin Birth.

(5) Possibly, an "adopted" savior can atone for humanity's sins.

If so, what are your arguments for these claims? Why think that these are indeed possible?

After all if, as some Christians maintain, the only acceptable sacrifice for human sin had to be made by a being who was both man (and thus part of the class of persons who owed God a debt) and God (and thus part of the class of persons who could pay off a debt to God), then it follows that (4) and (5) are impossible, metaphysically speaking.

>>The most obvious example of this from the time period would be Tiberius Caesar.<<

Just when I think I am on the track of your intention, you throw in a curve. Of what does Tiberius Caesar serve as an obvious example?

Possibly, you mean that he is an example of a human being who claimed adoption by a divinity.

However, how far does this example get you?

Are you saying the following?

Jesus did not have to be Virgin Born in order to be accepted by the Jews as the Messiah, since Tiberius was accepted [by whom? the Jews? the Romans?] as something [as what? emperor? a god?] without having been virgin-born.

Besides the ambiguities highlighted by my bracketed text, I should say that this is a maladroit comparison.

Number one, Tiberius was not accepted by the Jews as a god. It is doubtful whether the Romans "accepted" (from a psychological point-of-view) him as such either. Clearly, the Jews and Romans had to treat him with outward respect, and this might be difficult to distinguish from "acceptance" of the relevant sort. But in Tiberius's case, the explanation for his treatment is close at hand: he commanded the Roman army. A best, I should say that Tiberius serves as an example of the fact that a person can be treated-as-god provided that he or she has an army to enforce their claims. Jesus had no such army. So I fail to see the force of the example.

Number two, your entire point rests on your un-argued assumption that Virgin Birth was a fabrication calculated to make Jesus an "acceptable" Messiah. Even if your points 1-3 go through - and I have argued that none go through - at best you are able to show that John, Mark and Paul didn't know about the Virgin Birth and that Matthew "mistranslated" Isaiah. You have not even remotely shown that the Virgin Birth was an intentional fabrication. Who did the fabricating? Mathew? How do you move from "mistranslation" to fabrication? Was he by himself? How did he obtain the assent of the early church?

It is especially interesting to ask how a fabricator would obtain the assent of the early church on a point that you claim was not "needed" by thinkers and seekers at the time. Why would any fabricator wish to risk rejection of his claims by including an element that was not grounded in psychological desires and expectations and which was likely to strike hearers as outlandish?

The Christian view is that, like the claim or not, it was simply true.

Is it your view that Matthew and Luke smuggled into the Gospels an unnecessary flourish that was probably as scandalous then as it is now? Are you saying that Matthew and Luke tried to sabotage Christianity?

If not, your point does not make much sense to me.

>>5.) Its very nature is legendary.<<

On at least one interpretation of this, you are here taking back with your left hand what you earlier put forward with your right. You opened by stating: "Even if you are a Christian, or at least accept ...Jesus a historical figure, the virgin birth is not a tenable position."

Yet here you speak of the "very nature" or something as "legendary."

The nature of what?

If you answer, "the nature of the Virgin Birth," then you beg the question.

Apparently, the question under dispute is: Was the Virgin Birth actual or not?

You seem to be arguing that it is it not actual. But you cannot non-fallaciously argue:

(6) If the Virgin Birth is non-actual, then it is non-actual.

(7) The Virgin Birth is non-actual.

(8) Therefore, the Virgin Birth is non-actual.

But what does the assertion "[i]ts very nature is legendary" come to if not the claim that "the Virgin Birth is non-actual"?

This is not an argument for the Virgin Birth being non-actual, it is simply a restatement of that claim.

But if you say instead, "the historical Jesus," you renege on your opening provision. It turns out that you are trying to mount a full assault on the historicity of Jesus.

>>It is an expansion or adaptation of rival god myths.<<

As it stands, this is pure speculation. You merely assert this; you do not argue for it.

I will leave you to make an actual case for this claim before I argue against it. But I will say a couple of things, in advance.

Firstly, similarity between two things, x and y, does not entail that one caused the other.[24]

The similarity between x and y could be explicable any of the following four ways (at least).

(9) x caused y (the similarity is due to x).

(10) y caused x (the similarity is due to y).

(11) a caused x and y (the similarity is due to a).

(12) a caused x; b caused y (the similarity is accidental).

Moreover, it is not enough to merely catalog comparisons. If serious study is to be done, we must take stock of contrasts as well.

The fact - even if it be granted, which I am not prepared to do - that there are "similarities" between elements of Jesus's life (as disclosed in the four Gospels) and elements of pagan mythology is, by itself, an incomplete analysis. We need some accounting of the dissimilarities as well. Otherwise, it's simply shoddy scholarship.

I enumerate other problems with this sort of "Parallelomania,"[25] here.

>>...the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of "entrance myths"... My favorite was always Zeus fornicating as a giant serpent, but that probably just ruins "Clash of the Titans" moreso than Christmas.<<

Once again, "the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of 'entrance myths'..." is a mere assertion. To assert something, of course, means to declare it to be true without argument or evidence. It is not the obligation of a hearer to argue against an assertion; it is the obligation of the asserter to defend the assertion with argument and evidence.

Therefore, I will wait for an analysis that presents "the virgin birth is a reconstruction of any number of 'entrance myths'..." as a conclusion, not as a premise.

>>...Krishna, Romulus, Heracles, Dionysus, Zoroaster, Attis of Phrygia, Horus, etc., were all born of a "virgin" under miraculous circumstances.<<

Of course, I included the above under the description "assertion." Listing seven names followed by two vague descriptors is hardly adequate to the task of demonstrating that the Gospel accounts are "adaptations" or "expansions" of myths.

In my above-mentioned weblog post I go into more detail about the pitfalls associated with unrestrained speculations about parallels between the Bible and pagan mythology. I will here summarize some of my main points, taking Attis as a case study.

Firstly, according to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Attis's "story is related in different ways."[26]

It is disingenuous for proponents of parallelomania to assert anything that implies that "the" story of [insert pagan god name] has parallels to such-and-so aspect of the Gospels. Many times, the parallel-fixated have simply cherry-picked the one version of the myth in question that displays some interesting parallel and ignored variants that lack the feature in question.

This is not a case of one Gospel endorsed by the selfsame Church recounting different aspects of Jesus's life or emphasizing different themes. This is a case of various localized cults with radically divergent accounts of the relevant god.

In Attis's case, Pausanias, the second-century Greek traveler and writer, gives two different accounts of the god's parentage. According to one account, bereft of even the fainest whisper of a "virgin birth," Attis "was the son of Galaos the Phrygian" - period.

The second account is more amendable to a parallel-cataloging program. On this account:

"Zeus, it is said, let fall in his sleep seed upon the ground, which in course of time sent up a demon, with two sexual organs, male and female. They call the daimon Agdistis [Kybele]. But the gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ. There grew up from it an almond-tree with its fruit ripe, and a daughter of the river Saggarios (Sangarius), they say, took of the fruit and laid it in her bosom, when it at once disappeared, but she was with child."

Now there are perhaps two poles of reaction to this.

On the one hand, someone (like me) might not perceive much of any "parallel" to the Virgin Birth.[27]

On the other hand, I will suppose, someone might exclaim: "Wow, that's uncanny. Zeus ejaculated on the ground, spawned a demon who was then castrated and whose detached sexual organ blossomed into an almond tree, the fruit of which subsequently impregnated 'a daughter of the river'? Where have I heard something like that before? Oh, right! The Christmas story, of course!"

However, this second, hypothetical enthusiast has missed two key things.

"Firstly, responsible 'comparative religious study' is carried out by noting contrasts as well as comparisons. Typically, however, in Zeitgeist-style presentations, contrasts between Jesus and the various pagan deities are seldom (if ever) acknowledged."[28]

I tried to bring these contrasts out in the tongue-in-cheek dialog, above. But the serious point is that there are numerous contrasts that need to be examined before the overall level of "parallelism" can be responsibly gauged.

Amongst the features of Jesus's birth narrative that have no echo in the Attis legend are: the main characters (two human beings engaged to be married), a dream, a longstanding prophecy, a census, a king, some actual towns, etc. Among the features of the second Attis myth that have no analog in the Jesus story are: a god spilling his seed on the ground, the generation of a "demon," a castration, an almond tree, a river demigoddess, and a possibly-unmentionable maneuver with an almond, etc.

I lay all of that on my balance on the "contrast" side. (I suppose that you might be trying to lay it on the "comparison" side by slapping the label "miraculous circumstances" on it. But, I hope not.)

On the comparison side you want to say that Attis was "born of a 'virgin'." Pausanias nowhere relates that the relevant "daughter of the river Saggarios" was a "virgin." But even if I ignore this and allow you to lay "virgin-born" on the "comparison" side of the scale, on any reasonable standard the contrasts outweight the comparisons. Why then should anyone who is relying on the actual, available evidence conclude that the Gospel account of Jesus has been borrowed from the Attis myth? I am hard-pressed to see why anyone should think that there is any interesting comparison to be found at all![29]

Secondly, the parallelomaniac has seemingly missed the fact that Pausanias called the only interesting variant of the Attis myth "the current view about Attis." Current when? Well, it turns out that Pausanias lived in the second century, roughly A.D. 110-180. This means that the only Attis tale that yields any interesting comparisons to the Jesus story actually dates from a period of 75 to 100 years after Jesus's death.

It is not at all clear, therefore, that the Attis myth itself was not changed in order to conform more closely to, or to incorporate elements of, the story of Jesus, rather than the other way around. And, as I have said so often in this response, nothing that that you have said impels me to prefer your explanation over the alternative that I just sketched.[30]

As a final point, I mention that some of Pausanias's near-contemporaries would have been the Christians St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred ca. A.D. 110), St. Justin Martyr (martyred A.D. 165) and St. Irenaeus (possibly martyred ca. A.D. 200).

In all of these early writers, part of the group known as the Post-Apostolic Fathers, the Virgin Birth is upheld. This is notable for at least two reasons.

Firstly, St. Ignatius was himself an associate of John the Evangelist. Now, John does not mention the Virgin Birth, but if Ignatius knew of and endorsed it, then it is plausible to think that John did as well. Similar comments can be made about Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp (who had been an associate of John). Thus, it is reasonable to hold that the Johannine apostolic stream contained the Virgin Birth despite the fact that John never mentioned it explicitly.

Secondly, these three early Christian doctors went to their deaths (certainly two of them did - along with many hundreds that I have not listed) in attestation of the Christian faith. Many of them, especially St. Justin, had come out of paganism. It strains credulity to the breaking point to think that these early churchmen would have been martyred for rejecting Roman paganism while espousing a belief set that was, to hear you tell it, virtually shot-through with paganism anyway. Come to think of it, why should the Roman Empire have had a problem with Christianity if it was indeed just paganism warmed over?


But my project has been modest. In summation, let me just rehearse my purpose.

You began by charging that the Virgin Birth was "untenable" - that is, not able to be defended.

My purpose, therefore, was to show that a defense of it is possible and, thereby, establish that the Virgin Birth is tenable after all.

Having, in my estimation, fulfilled this limited purpose, the defense rests.


Merry Christmas.

Matthew J. Bell


[1] Gabriel 'Skuzzy' Zolman, "SKUZZY RUINS CHRISTMAS, vol. 1," Facebook, Dec. 24, 2015, 3:44am, <>.

[2] Note: For what follows, I will stipulate your general comment about the dating of the epistles.

[3] Some might immediately object that "torturing children for fun is morally wrong" is at least a candidate for an absolute moral truth or, at least, a moral truth for which little to nothing need be said.

I would insist that my general point holds nevertheless: lack of mention in a letter does not entail ignorance on the part of the author

Still, numerous other examples could be suggested. For instance, according to the Acts of the Apostles (see, e.g., chapter 9, verse 2), at least some early Christians called their nascent movement "the Way." Paul never mentions this, despite the fact that we are even told: "[S]ome of [Paul's Jewish audience] became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them." (Acts 19:9, NIV.)

Are we forced to conclude that Paul was "blissfully ignorant" of the fact that at least some early Christians were called followers of "the way"?

Not at all. All we must do is suggest a plausible reason why Paul wouldn't mention this. Here are two possible reasons, given, as you say, "off the top of my head."

First, it might have been that the name "the Way" was not in use for long and that, by the time Paul wrote his epistles, the Jesus movement was called by other names. (It makes no difference to this point that Paul's epistles are dated earlier that the date of the authorship of Acts. Acts is written about a period of time that was before Paul wrote his epistles.)

Second, it may be that the information about an early name for Christianity was simply irrelevant to the topics Paul was broaching in his letters. Nothing that you have said casts any doubt on either of these possibilities.

[4] Colossians 4:14. It is worth mentioning that "Paul's silence" cuts both ways. Paul explicitly declares that Luke was his "dear friend." It might be thought odd, therefore, that Luke would have had information of this magnitude that Paul lacked. Additionally, Paul nowhere challenges the Virgin Birth despite the fact that he moved in the circle of those disciples who would later write about it.

[5] For instance, "...the Gospel of Mark reaches its climax in the confession of Jesus' deity by a Roman centurion (Ch. 15:39)," etc. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1974, p. 25; archived online at <>.

[6] R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1985, pp. 17f et passim,; archived online at <>.

[7] The Holy Bible, Isaiah, chapter 7, verse 14, New Intl. Vers.

[8] It must be recalled that the Gospels are, to some degree, fairly characterizable as audience-specific "introductions" to Christianity. For Jews whose scriptural upbringing would have been steeped in Isaiah references, the significance of the Virgin Birth, and its place in Jewish history, would have been readily apparent. Since Roman Christians did not share this Old Testament heritage, considerably more explanatory effort would have had to be expended in order that the significance of the Virgin Birth would have been clear. In future eras, this effort would be the work of catechesis. However, it is arguably out-of-place in an introduction.

[9] Matthew 1:1-17.

[10] Matthew 1:23.

[11] "Justify," Princeton WordNet, <>.

[12] Garth Kemerling, "Justification," Philosophy Pages, Dec. 28, 2011 [1997], <>.

[13] in chapter 1, verse 23.

[14] James Orr, "The Virgin Birth of Christ," R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon et al., The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, vol. 2, reprint ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003 [Los Angeles: Bible Inst., 1917], p. 252.

[15] Orr, op. cit., p. 252. This "fact ...disproves the theory that it was this text which suggested the story of a Virgin Birth to the early disciples," ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 253. Other relevant passages that situate Jesus's birth in the context of salvation-history, include Genesis 3:15 and Micah 5:2-3.

[17] Footnote: >>Just as how verses about "Lucifer (Venus) falling from Heaven" was about the king of Babylon and not the Devil (who did not properly exist as a singular concept yet), << I am ignoring this, because it is: (a.) not evidenced and (b.) off-topic.

[18] At 1:23.

[19] <>.

[20] In fact, in Philippians 2:9 we read that "...God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name...". The name that is above every other name is of course God's own name, Yahweh.

[21] Call it a nickname, if you like.

[22] Or again, why would I, or anyone else, think that there was a "need" for Jesus to have been Virgin Born? To be sure, it might be thought that Jesus needed, in a metaphysical sense, a non-standard origin to escape the taint of Original Sin. But I will not tease this out, here. I will examine it at such time as any critics formulates an argument against it.

[23] Of course, there was an ancient view - subsequently declared heretical - known as "adoptionism," which held something similar. But I will leave it to you to expound upon the view, if it was your intention to invoke it.

[24] In science, a similar warning is phrased "correlation does not entail causation."

[25] That is, in general terms, the drawing of alleged comparisons with no regard for contrasts.

[26] "Attis," reproduced at <>.

[27] More on this, below.

[28] Matthew Bell, “Zeitgeist-Style Polemics,” Church Bell [weblog], Aug. 22, 2012, <>.

[29] Of course, some may reply: "Well, you see, the Jesus myth was built out of numerous pagan myths. So even though a single myth might not display any sustained comparison, when you look at the right ones - and squint really hard - everything comes out on the side of the Jesus story being borrowed from paganism." Well, I admit that I have never bothered to carry out a detailed inspection of all the variations of all the myths of all the gods that have been named herein - or that could be named. But, again, it is not my obligation to bear. Let the person making the assertion produce an actual analysis - as opposed to typing hand-waving remarks about similarities and vaguely gesturing toward unspecified "miraculous circumstances."

[30] Footnote: >>Just as the story of Lazurus rising from the dead is an adaptation of the earlier Arabic myth of Al-Hazurus<< I am ignoring this, also, for the same reasons given in footnote 17.


  1. Intricate Discussion Quite Useful, Well-Founded

    This was incredibly intricate, detailed discussion on a fine pt. of what's properly understood as literature. The whole pt. of New Test. is to deliver a theologic lesson to Pharisees and Jews who'd ruined the original Torah, Christ figure now re-stating and clarifying for folks, but esp. the Judeans (NOT NOT NOT NOT merely and only "Jews," defined as followers of Pharisees, according to Hoffman,

    Of course historical accuracy is necessary for good literature, but New Test. was not meant as history, except as precedent for New Test. theology. And the lesson of New Test. is to emphasize TRUTH (= Christ) IS ONLY WAY TO GOD, in accord w. most philosophic Gosp. JOHN 14:6. Equally important then is the philosophic lesson for emphasis upon OBJECTIVITY as the necessary basis/premise/criterion for such truth.

    Finally, the ethics follows fm truth and hence honesty, Christ teaching by example, showing the way, treating people as children, members of the flock, the leaders charged, as was St. Peter, w. "feeding" the "lambs" of Christ.

    Hence the CORE of Christianity and its philosophy is that Christ = truth, and it's something anyone and everyone can easily agree upon. Presently we suffer fm "Tower of Babel" syndrome within a satanically hubristic society collapsing now among false prophets, the Roman "Vatican" prominent among them. Thanks again for ur excellent discussion; it won't be lost for the many worthwhile pt.s u made and elucidated for us.

  2. >>Intricate Discussion Quite Useful, Well-Founded<<

    Your kind words mean a great deal to me. Thank you :-)

    And ...Merry Third Day of Christmas!