026 Commentary

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This page forms part of the resources for 026 Name of Page in the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation

Crossan Inventory | 026 Literature | 026 Parallels | 026 Commentary | 026 Poetry | 026 Images | 026 Synopsis


Bruce Chilton

In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circumstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural paternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-identity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

John Dominic Crossan

In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus.

Jesus Seminar

Matthew 1:18-25
Mary was the name of Jesus' mother.
Joseph was the name of Jesus' father.
Jesus was conceived while Mary and Joseph were betrothed.
Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived.
Mary conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse with a man.
The statement "Jesus was conceived of the holy spirit" is a theological and not a historical statement.
Mary conceived of some unnamed man by rape or seduction.
Mary conceived of Joseph.

The Seminar reported its findings on the "Birth & Infancy Stories" in The Acts of Jesus (1998) and in a thematic issue of Forum (NS 2,1. Spring 1999).

The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:

  • Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
  • Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
  • Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
  • Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]

The commentary relevant to the conception of Jesus reads as follows:

The Seminar doubted, without denying, the possibilities that Jesus was conceived while Mary and Joseph were betrothed and that she was a virgin at the time she conceived. The account in Matthew seems to reflect the marriage customs of first-century Palestine where marriage took place in two stages: first, the engagement, or betrothal, during which time sexual intercourse and conception might occur; and secondly, the marriage proper, which involved the transfer of the bride to her husband's home.

With regard to the manner of Jesus' conception, the Fellows were unequivocal. With a virtually unanimous vote, the Fellows declared that the statement "Jesus was conceived by the holy spirit" is a theological and not a biological statement. They accordingly rejected the notion that Mary conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse with a man. That Jesus was generated by God without human male involvement goes beyond what historical, or scientific, reason allows. Jesus certainly made no such claim about his origin; and there exists no first-person testimony by Mary his mother. Furthermore, not even the theological confession of Jesus as "son of God" requires a virginal conception: Paul, Mark, and John affirm Jesus' divine status without recourse to a miraculous conception. The confession of Jesus as "God's son," in association with Old Testament stories of God's control of the womb, may have been influential in the development of the belief that Jesus was miraculously conceived, in tandem with pagan stories in which one divine parent unites with a human counterpart. The New Testament birth stories appear to walk a fine line between the crass pagan versions, such as Plato's conception by Apollo, and the Hebrew accounts in which an infertile womb is somehow made fertile by divine decree, such as Sarah's conception of Isaac. In any case, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar consider Jesus to have had a human father.

The Fellows of the Seminar were divided on who that father was. Roughly half of the Fellow think it probable that Mary conceived by the agency of Joseph, in spite of the explicit denial in the stories themselves. The logic of the genealogies supports the paternity of Joseph. The other half held the view that Mary conceived by some unnamed man through rape or seduction. The latter possibility is suggested by some evidence that the birth stories were designed to cover up some scandal regarding Jesus' paternity. The stories themselves insist that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus and there is the strange inclusion, in the genealogy of Matthew, of the four disreputable women: Tamar, who conceived twins of her father-in-law after seducing him (Gen 38); Ruth, the Moabite woman who claimed Boaz as her husband under dubious circumstances (Ruth 4); Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who aided the Israelite spies when prospecting for the invasion across the Jordan (Josh 2); and Bathsheba, who was raped by King David (2 Sam 11). There is also the old Greco-Roman and Jewish tradition that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. [Acts of Jesus, 504-506]

Gerd Lüdemann

Lüdemann Jesus, (122-24) presents four (4) reasons for regarding the miraculous conception of Jesus as unhistorical: (1) Numerous parallels in the history of religion; (2) it represents a rare and late NT tradition; (3) Synoptic descriptions of Jesus' relations with his family are inconsistent with such an event; and (4) scientific considerations.

More positively, Lüdemann concludes that we can extract as a historical fact behind Matt 1.18-25 the existence of a hostile rumor about the illegitimacy of Jesus. Lüdemann suggests that rape by an unnamed man, possibly even a Roman soldier, is the most likely explanation. He notes that while such an event would have disqualified Mary from marriage to a priest, it would not have prevented from marrying and have other children.

Lüdemann Jesus, (261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception.

John P.Meier

Meier Marginal Jew (I,220-22) discusses the virginal conception as part of his larger chapter on Jesus' origins. He earlier notes that both infancy narratives "seem to be largely the product of Christian reflection on the salvific meaning of Jesus Christ in the light of OT prophecies (p. 213). At the end of his examination, Meier concludes:

The ends result of this survey must remain meager and disappointing to both defenders and opponents of the doctrine of the virginal conception. Taken by itself, historical-critical research simply does not have the sources and tools available to reach a final decision on the historicity of the virginal conception as narrated by Matthew and Luke. One's acceptance or rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one's own philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one gives to Church teaching.