It must be either Christmas or Easter, because one of the major newsweeklies is featuring New Testament historian Bart Ehrman in its pages. You know Ehrman—the former self-described fundamentalist-turned-agnostic. Several years ago, he was the go-to Bible guy for the New Atheist movement. His defection from the ranks of Christian believers gave him extra credibility in their eyes. (Never mind that traffic on that particular highway flows in both directions.)
Still, Ehrman proved to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution. For example, his book-length defense this year of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (a proposition, by the way, doubted by no serious historian) rankled many erstwhile skeptic friends. And, truth be told, he doesn’t say anything about the virgin birth in Newsweek that any mainline Protestant seminarian isn’t exposed to in the first semester of New Testament class. There’s nothing new or startling here—only a rehash of 200 years of modernist thinking.
Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Ehrman was just another friendly liberal Christian, like so many others in academia. For him, the virgin birth is pious legend communicating theological rather than historical truth—you know, if you go for that sort of thing.
On the other hand, how else is Ehrman going to come across in Newsweek? The editors must imagine that they have more than a handful of Christian readers, and heaven knows they need all of them they can get!
What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.
I’m no historian or Bible scholar, but I spot a couple of problems with Ehrman’s point of view. First is his insistence that evidence within the Bible itself doesn’t count—that we need independent corroboration. This is a double-standard. Modern historians who study the ancient world accept single-sourced evidence all the time. From what I’ve read, if we required independent corroboration before we believed anything in the ancient past, we would have to be skeptical of much of what we otherwise take for granted.
Besides, except for Mary herself—who we know for sure was a member of the early church—who else could have possibly witnessed the Annunciation and reported what happened? Were those shepherds abiding in the fields supposed to call the New York Times or something?
Also, to what end would the early church invent a virgin birth account? The premise behind the so-called “pious legend” theory is that Matthew and Luke (or the people behind their traditions) invented the Christmas story in order to sell the idea that Jesus was the Son of God—that they were adding an extra layer of divinity to Jesus to really hammer home the point. Look—here’s a rather literal way in which Jesus is God’s Son: God impregnated Mary!
To which I say: As if!
As if people living in the first century were really gullible. As if the ancients didn’t know the facts of life. As if they didn’t know that babies were only conceived by a human father. The premise behind the pious legend theory is obviously wrong. Why else does Matthew report that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary? Because this naive first-century carpenter of course had no trouble believing his fiancée when she told him about her pregnancy? Hardly! The New Testament writers knew that they weren’t helping their cause by including a difficult-to-believe story about Mary’s conceiving a child without a human father. Moreover, given that the Church could have arrived at most of its theological commitments about Jesus without the virgin birth (both the Gospel of Mark and John have no Christmas story, and Paul makes only a passing reference to it), why introduce a new problem into the story unless—oh, yeah—you happen to believe it’s true?
No, what’s beneath Ehrman’s point of view, I fear, is the chronological snobbery that people in the ancient world were dummies, and now we know better. I don’t buy it.
But Ehrman isn’t a believer, so what else is he going to think? What about those of us who are believers? Is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth? As with most miracles in the Bible, if we already believe that a good God created this universe—which requires a rather large intervention in the physical world (without which, obviously, there would be no physical world)—is it really so much harder to believe that God intervened in Mary’s life in this way? If so, why?
In his wonderful new book on the first Christmas, Pope Benedict puts his finger on the answer. Regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection, he writes:
These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?
Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[†]
† Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.