Thursday, December 11, 2014

Virgin Doesn't Mean Virgin

One of the most common facts about the Christmas story and the birth of the baby Jesus is the miraculous nature in which He was born—to a virgin.

In both Testaments of the Bible the virgin birth is mentioned; it is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14, then fulfilled in Matthew 1:23. The word virgin is peppered throughout Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth, as well as in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Some like to point out that the word virgin doesn’t just refer to a person who has never had intercourse, but that it can also simply mean a young girl or bride. Does this present a problem to the biblical account? If Mary was not a virgin then the birth of Jesus doesn’t involve the supernatural elements of divinity.

But the truth is that it really doesn’t matter what the word virgin means. Consider a few things.

First, since it was against the law for any unmarried people to engage in intercourse, all young girls were virgins. The terms were interchangeable, and Mary would have been both an abstinent virgin and a young girl.

Second, the prophecy in Isaiah was actually about a young girl, not a virgin. The prophecy wasn’t about Mary at all. Isaiah gave this prophecy to King Ahaz as proof of his message that God would destroy the king’s enemies. The sign of the promise would be that a virgin (or young girl or bride) would have a son and name him Immanuel—“God is with us.” Matthew saw the birth of Jesus as the second fulfillment of this prophecy. If Isaiah’s prophecy were only about Mary, she would have named her baby Immanuel instead of Jesus. Jesus is rightly thought of as Immanuel because God came to mankind, thus making Matthew’s reference all the more meaningful. Isaiah’s prophecy was not a miraculous virgin birth, but a natural birth to a young bride.

Third, Mary referred to herself as a virgin when she asked the angel, “How can this be, seeing I have not known a man (Luke 1:34)?” Forget what the word virgin means for a second—Mary had never slept with a man. We can debate the original word all day, but Mary had never been with Joseph or anyone else.

Finally, if the Bible only teaches that Mary was a young bride and not a virgin, then why did the Holy Spirit place the baby inside her (Luke 1:35); why did Joseph seek to divorce Mary (Matthew 1:19); and why did Joseph refuse to sleep with her until after the baby was born (Matthew 1:25)? Each of those events points back to a virgin birth. Joseph knew he had not impregnated Mary, and he chose to not sleep with her until after Jesus was born so that it could still be a virgin birth.

Skeptics can play word games to undermine God and His Word, but there is no merit to the claim that the Bible teaches anything other than the virgin birth.


Anonymous said...

Allow me to rebut point by point:

-First, you claim that because it was against the law to have intercourse prior to marriage that necessarily all young girls were virgins. This is a heavy assumption. You assume that laws were never broken. It is refuted, however, within your own post. In your last point, you mention that Joseph sought to divorce Mary. It is implied that the reason was that he thought she was lying about being a virgin.

Second, I don't actually want to rebut this, I would just like to point out that by your own admission, Christ does not fulfill the Isaiah prophecy in this case.

Third, it is not necessarily true that this all happened as linearly as we think of it. The narrative of the Biblical story does not provide that this all took place in one night as the traditional Nativity story tends to assume. When the angel came to her, sure, she was a virgin. That's as may be. But ultimately, and this brings me to the final point...

Finally, you are neglecting to mention that these texts were written many decades after Jesus' death. You have created a straw-man argument. You assume that those who disagree still hold to the Biblical narrative. I would suggest that the Biblical narrative itself should be called into question. Those decades after Christ's death and before the gospels were written are plenty of time for reality to become legend, especially among a community of people who were familiar with the power of stories, myths, and legends. I guarantee you if you ask a rabbi today how he interprets Genesis 1, he will tell you that it is a story, not scientific fact. The need for scientific, concrete evidence is a recent trend in human history. Maybe the writers understood that some of this was necessary embellishment. It doesn't take away from Christ if He wasn't born of a virgin. He was still a revolutionary figure who taught us that love is bigger than religion.

A Word Game Playing Skeptic

Tommy Mann said...

Dear Too Afraid to Use Your Real Name, I mean, Word Game Playing Skeptic,

First, I don’t assume laws were never broken. A person who had intercourse before marriage would have been the exception to the rule. As I said in my post, the terms virgin and unmarried girl would have been interchangeable, and this is true whether or not laws were broken.

Second, Christ did fulfill Isaiah. By my own admission, I said it was a second fulfillment of the prophecy.

Third, I have no idea what you meant in your third point.

Finally, yes, these texts were written a few (not many) decades after the Resurrection, but that does not change their reliability (Mark was in circulation 30 years after the Resurrection). I have never heard a skeptic question the validity of the writings of Ovid, Homer, Dante, Socrates, Josephus, or any of the other writers of that time. There are far more copies of manuscripts of the Gospels than there are of The Divine Comedy or Metamorphoses, for example, and yet the secular writings go unchallenged. Josephus is regarded as an important historian; why don’t people claim that others added to his work over time? Why do no professors throw in an asterisk about Socrates and say, “But it is possible his followers changed his works in the decades after his death”? The Gospels were in circulation during the time of the apostles and the many dozens of people associated with Christ; they would have refuted any circulated errors.

You seem to believe in Christ and be familiar with His words, but how do you know His words? If you reject the validity of Scripture, from Genesis through the Gospels, then how do you know for sure anything He said? Once you claim Scripture is not true, how do you decide what parts to believe and what parts to dismiss as simply “a story”?

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of these things to respond to, so I will stick with just the last two paragraphs.

The main difference between the writers you've mentioned and the Gospel writers are that no one takes the writings of Homer, Ovid, Socrates, et al, to be a literal story. Among the authors you mentioned are all kinds of genres. The Divine Comedy is clearly an allegorical fiction, so are the Odyssey and the Illiad. Ovid wrote some history though it, too, was full of anachronistic embellishment. Josephus is typically cited as being historically accurate, but his writings are frequently questioned and criticized so I am not sure why you insisted antithetically.

Not to mention the fact that you claimed Josephus, Ovid, Socrates, Homer, and Dante to all be "of that time." None of those writers were contemporaries of the gospel writers. The closest were Ovid and Josephus who were both Roman, but they were both born around 40 AD. Homer was 8th Century BCE, Socrates was 4-5th century BCE, and Dante was a 15th century Florentine. I don't mean that in anyway nitpicky, but it is important for our discussion.

I think that there are plenty of inconsistencies, both historical and inter-textual, that cause us to at least begin to question the gospels, at least as much as we question the works of Ovid and Josephus.


Tommy Mann said...

The only thing I have ever heard Josephus questioned on was his claim that Jesus was “called the Christ” because of his miracles. He is generally relied upon for history. I know you aren’t trying to be nitpicky, but when we are talking about writings over 2,000 years old, a few hundred years does not change the point. No one claims that fans of Dante amended his work after he was gone. The genre doesn’t matter; it seems to be a copout used by people who don’t want to believe that the Bible is true, but it is inconsistent to only apply that improvable claim to the gospels.
Thank you for your comments.