On July 31, Byron Bangert, who had an article in the Religion section of the Herald-Times entitled, “Truthfulness in religion a challenge,” concluded that he does not believe in the “literal truth” of the virgin birth of Jesus.
While not holding to the perpetual virginity of Mary, nevertheless, I believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Yet a question arises: why do people reject the notion of a virgin birth and why do people accept it?
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One reason for the rejection of the virgin birth of Jesus is the concept of analogy. The basis of this analogy-argument as defended by critics is that in order for a modern reader to accept anything as true from the ancient past, such an event must possess a corresponding analogy to present human experience. If there is no analogy or correspondence, this event is consigned to the status of a myth or simply naive gullible thinking by people incapable of critical reasoning. In such a model, scriptural expressions such as the virgin birth are considered as fiction.
The analogy-argument presumes that the supernatural must be rejected in light of a scientific attitude and in view of normal human experience. A tangential argument is that ancients were not capable of such a scientific point of view. However, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus shows, ancients could penetrate through myth to truth. In his Critical Essays: Thucydides (7), Dionysius is aware that an uncritical view of history can lead to deceiving the people. Among his examples of incredible and ignorant tales is the idea of the sexual union between mortals and gods. Hence, the sweeping claim that ancients could be duped by the story of a virgin birth lacks consistent and convincing evidence.
The biblical text of Matthew 1:18-25 presents the reader with a striking test case. Within the account itself, the description opens by showing Mary expecting a baby (“with child from the Holy Spirit”). If we read between the lines, there obviously has been a conversation between Mary and Joseph in which she explained the cause of her pregnancy. As she gives her version of the event, Joseph must have thought, “And the cow jumped over the moon, too.” It appears that he is thinking that Mary is either blinded by this mythological mist or, conversely, she is conniving to take advantage of it in order to cover up a suspected act of unfaithfulness. Joseph, however, does not buy it.
He questions her version of events because he does not see an analogy. In short, he does not believe in virgin births, sees no analogy and, therefore, considers her unfaithful to him. According to Matthew, it takes an intervention from God to help Joseph overcome his worldview of natural law.
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Of course, it may be countered that this biblical narrative is simply a fictional disguise to mask the unpleasant truth of a promiscuous pregnancy. This criticism, however, does not stand up to scrutiny since Joseph is clearly described as rejecting Mary’s explanation for her conception. Initially, he thinks that he sees through the fabrication and concludes there is a legitimate basis for breaking off the engagement.
Joseph’s initial resistance to Mary’s account is based upon his belief in the analogy argument; his eventual acceptance of the virginal pregnancy is based upon divine intervention — the only means available to him which would allow him to set aside his analogy preconceptions. The modern view that ancients, such as Joseph, could offer only a palliative diagnosis of the real situation does not accord with the facts.
Preston T. Massey holds a Ph.D. in classical studies (Greek and Latin) from Indiana University. He recently retired from teaching at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife live in Bloomington.