Not possible... but... the debate over belief in the virgin birth on my mailing list goes on, and I am puzzled how so many seem to take it for granted that an actual Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and had a baby, when the whole tone of the story seems so clearly mythological to me. They are not discussing the meaning of the story, but which events actually happened, how the events happened, and why they happened they way they did. For example
All Mary needed to do to establish her innocence was to claim she'd been raped in the country while there was nobody else around. I suspect she would have been believed. Instead she claimed something completely incredible. Why?
A bloke called Allan wrote:
I have some thoughts or questions relating to the original questions about the birth narratives that perhaps might add to the discussion.
It has been common to assume that the virginal conception stories were created by the early Christian communities to dispel stories of Jesus conception as being outside wedlock. Has anyone read or thought that perhaps there was another reason why they grew to significance, and that is, that by the time they seem to have appeared, the Christian movement was starting to have a decidedly strong gentile connections and virginal conception stories were commonly associated with the Roman Emperors who were considered to be Gods. Could it be possible that these stories grew out of a desire to persuade the gentiles that Jesus was of divine origin also? Certainly Matthew has gone out of his way to use the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 that uses the term "virgin" rather than "young woman" as defined in the Hebrew scriptures.
Luke no where directly refers to the Isaiah prophecy and the story of the conception itself seems to be really devoid of Jewish cultural norms until Jesus is taken to the temple.
So my question is, are we barking up the wrong tree in trying to link these stories as explanations to counteract the stories of Jesus illegitimate conception?
This seems to be the clearest thinking of all in the thread. No one has yet responded, which I think is very revealing of what the conversation is really about. Another person said, "... this discussion, ... seems [more] to me to be subtly (maybe not even very subtly) about the liberal vs. conservative theology line."
The discussion raises questions about world view. How much must we take on the world view of the original Christians in order to be Christian now? (And how much would a discerning reader of the first and second century think we were rather plebeian in our simplistic (mis)understanding of the stories?!)
Come upon a thought experiment with me. Imagine my mate Rog. After school finished he spent some time working on a gas pipeline as a welder's mate. Then he went up to the Gulf of Carpentaria on a prawn boat for a year or so. On the way home he's in Alice Springs and some how ends up yacking with a bunch of Pitjantjatjara people on the Flynn Church lawns. I don't know how this got to happen, but trust me, it's what the real Rog would do. The upshot, we will imagine, is that he ends up going out to Pitjantjatjara country for quite a few months before he gets home.
This is an eye opening experience! Can you imagine what it is like to be in a beat up Toyota bouncing after a kangaroo which beats you to the safety of the hills. But the old man calmly says, "Go round this way, Nyimi!" and on the other side of the little range you almost meet the same roo coming down to the plains again. On the third dash around a spur you catch it before it crosses one of those flat floored little valleys along the face of the Musgraves, and finally you have the kuka. You realise the men were driving this malu better than the farmers you grew up among could drive their sheep! And when they cook it there is ritual and respect, and almost regret, for the beast.
When you go way-out-west the young bloke who is driving you tells you the name of all the trees and hills, and even the single rocks along the way... for hours! Without warning he pulls off on the faintest of tracks and takes you to a stone which is the same as any other to a white bloke. But this stone is hollowed out by the weather, and forms its own cistern. His people have used it for centuries, and in 200 miles of road it's like there was a great sign post lit up for him to see it!
They sit you down in a shed one hot afternoon and teach you Australian history as it really was. You hear the story of the early explorers, Gosse and Giles... "we showed them where the water was... they'd have died without us." And "my father helped Lassetter. That silly beggar... he died because he wouldn't let my father help him properly. My uncle went down to the whitefellas and told them this bloke over at Docker River was dead..."
Rog hears of the massacres that never made the white history books, and which even now, white Australians want to deny, and the poisonings. They go on to tell him some of the inma, some of the story of the land, and its meaning. Then two of the oldest men have a long discussion on the merits of eating dog, ("Always keep the dogs for the drought times," says old Jimmy,) and he realises they're taking the piss, but can't work out if he's the target, or one of the other young men!
At the end of these months Rog sees life with a new eye, profoundly changed by the notion of living with the land, as part of it, not exploiting it as a thing to be owned. He will never be the same.
In real life Rog came home and started a pottery. He's bought some old land out in the back hills that's barely ever been grazed, and he's preserving it. He's a great bloke. Our imaginary Rog could have done the same, and we could imagine him, deeply moved by his experience, shaping his pottery, looking after the land, and being part of his community. Yet forever changed, and often thinking back and drawing inspiration and direction from his meditation upon his meeting with that other world. But would we expect him to live out on the pottery in a wiltja instead of a farmhouse, eating marku and kamparampa and kanyula and aralapalpalpa instead of bread and mutton?
Wouldn't we think imaginary Rog was just stir crazy if he kept preaching to us about the seven sisters dreaming as the answer to life, circumcised his teenaged sons, drew ritual scars into his back or chest, and periodically wore mud in his hair? We would never expect this.... so why, if he has a life changing experience when he meets the Christian faith, would we expect him to adopt the life style and thought forms of a first or second century Jew or Greek? Is the message so inseparable from its medium? Increasingly I wonder if the church is claiming the two cannot be separated. Certainly, to have our experience of the Divine, and its mediation by the person of Jesus validated and accepted by much of the church, it seems we must adopt the philosophical and religious garb of another age. And the church discusses the minutiae of an unlikely virgin birth completely missing the message, or at least, binding and limiting the message to literal historicity.
We cannot have a "Virgin Worship" in the new church. We must be connected to what has been. But we can be deeply suspicious about what we seek to do in that total worship which is the living out of our discipleship of Jesus in the whole of life. Whilst we remember the lessons of the Reformation about how scripture should be a central core to our theologising, we should also remember the Reformation world view was much closer to the time of Jesus than the 21st century. We face issues that never arose for Luther and Calvin and all the rest. Their necessities may be cultural baggage. Bible in hand, we should keep asking ourselves: "How much is this the message of Christ, and how much is this the medium for the message in another age?" My deep, deep suspicion is that what we would laugh at in an imaginary Rog and his discipleship of the Pitjantjatjaras, we regard as quite OK for our discipleship of the first and second century AD. And that's the key issue... if we are not careful, we disciple ourselves to the thought forms of the time, not to Jesus. We become Galatians:
Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10 You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11 I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.4;9-11
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 5:1
(c) Jan Thomas. January 2003
- Mythological: meaning not untrue, but a story carrying a message. Literal truth is not the point of that story, even if incidentally it is literally true.
- Pitjantjatjara people live around Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and to the south and west.
- Nyimi - literally means an older wiser person, but the old men would use it as a term of ironic affection for a whitefella they liked.
- Kuka - a word for meat.
- Malu - a kangaroo
- Gosse and Giles were early (C19th) white explorers through Pitjantjatjara county.
- Lassetter was a prospector who claimed to have found an enormous reef of gold, and who died trying to find it again.
- Inma - the sacred stories of the land and its meaning. Popular white culture in Australia is used to the term "Dreaming"
- Wiltja - a shelter from the wind
- Marku - the witchetti grub. It grows in Acacia roots and is a delicacy.
- Kamparampa - wild bush tomato
- Kanyula - hill kangaroo, smaller and heavier than the plains malu. It lives in the hills where Rog and I grew up. Often it's called a euro.
- Aralapalpalpa - spinifex pigeon. This is one of the great onomatopoeias of Pitjantjatjara! Pronounce the a's as u in bucket, get the emphasis right, and you can hear the pigeon bursting out of the bush: a-ra-lap-a-lap-a!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.