Andrew Lincoln’s Book Against The Virgin Birth (Part 5)
If the belief that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus was the majority position among Christians during the first several decades of church history, non-Christians should easily have recognized that fact and would have had reason to make much of it. The change Lincoln proposes, in which there was a shift from claiming natural descent from Joseph to claiming a virgin birth, supposedly occurred shortly before or during the lifetime of the most prominent critics of Christianity in the second century. Does the information we have about the early opponents of Christianity suggest that such a shift occurred?
Lincoln mentions some heretical groups that opposed the virgin birth and supported the notion that Joseph was Jesus’ natural father. But it seems that more heretics accepted the virgin birth in some form. The New Testament documents that teach the virgin birth were widely accepted among the early heretics. Irenaeus tells us that some heretics rejected some New Testament documents (Against Heresies, 3:11:7), but that most “do certainly recognise the Scriptures; but they pervert the interpretations” (3:12:12). Origen notes, “There are countless heresies that accept the Gospel According to Luke.” (Joseph Lienhard, trans., Origen: Homilies On Luke, Fragments On Luke [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 1996], 67) Though the widespread acceptance of documents like Matthew and Luke is significant, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these heretics believed in the virgin birth. What’s more significant is direct affirmation of the doctrine by heretical sources. J. Gresham Machen cites some examples (The Virgin Birth Of Christ [Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2011], n. 22 on 8). On the same page, Machen makes a broader point:
“The virgin birth was attacked by outsiders just because it was known as one of the characteristic Christian beliefs. The silence which early Christian writers preserve about the virgin birth when they are writing against schismatics and heretics, and Justin’s elaborate defence of it against professed unbelievers, are alike indications of the firm position which it held in the faith of the Church.”
Around the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote an account of a dispute with a Jewish opponent of Christianity, a dispute set around the year 135. Justin and his Jewish opponent, Trypho, frequently discuss the virgin birth. Both men treat it as a belief of mainstream Christianity. Trypho brings up a series of objections to the virgin birth in rapid succession (Dialogue With Trypho, 67), suggesting that he and his fellow Jews were familiar with the virgin birth claim and had developed multiple arguments against it. Trypho was familiar with those arguments prior to his encounter with Justin. He didn’t need to develop counterarguments on the spot. Trypho objects to the Christian translation of Isaiah 7:14, offers an alternative fulfillment of the prophecy (by Hezekiah), and parallels the Christian virgin birth claim to pagan mythology. He says nothing, in section 67 of the Dialogue or anywhere else, about a recent major change in Christian belief on the subject, along the lines of what Lincoln proposes. Similarly, when Justin presents arguments in anticipation of Jewish objections (e.g., 43), he never anticipates an objection based on a scenario like Lincoln’s.
Close to the time of Irenaeus, Celsus wrote a treatise against Christianity. He acquired some of his information from at least one Jewish source, so his treatise reflects a combination of pagan and Jewish objections to the religion. Lincoln comments that Celsus draws from some Jewish traditions about Jesus’ conception that go back to at least the early second century (169). Like Trypho, Celsus and his Jewish source comment on the virgin birth repeatedly and raise a series of objections to it, but never on the basis of a scenario like what Lincoln suggests concerning the history of the virgin birth belief. And Origen, in his treatise Against Celsus, never anticipates Lincoln’s position when addressing the virgin birth. Celsus’ Jewish source not only seems unaware of Lincoln’s scenario, but even says that Jesus claimed he was born of a virgin (Against Celsus, 1:28). Instead of claiming that the virgin birth belief didn’t arise until later and was a minority position among Christians for several decades, Celsus’ Jewish source dates the assertion of a virgin birth back to Jesus himself. Celsus and his Jewish source not only seem unaware of Lincoln’s scenario, but even contradict it. Origen goes on to mention that critics of the virgin birth generally attribute Jesus’ conception to a man other than Joseph (1:32). If conception through sexual intercourse with Joseph was the earliest view and the majority position among Christians for the first several decades of church history, supported by such influential figures as Paul and the author(s) of the Johannine literature, why was it such an unpopular position among not only Christians of the second century, but also their critics?
(When it becomes available, I’ll link part 6 in the series here.)