Insert Pun about the Virgin Birth – My take

First, it begins here with comments by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, an expert in the Hebrew bible. T. Michael Law, the expert in the Greek Old Testament, known in the heavenly tongue as Septuagint, weighs in about the mistranslation part. Mark Goodacre finds his mic. John Barton, a colleague of Jim’s via SOTS, weighs in as well.

Dr. Stravrakopoulou suggests that Matthew reads Isaiah 7.14 as a mistranslation resulting in the understanding a virgin birth. The Law is laid down on whether or not the LXX Isaiah is a mistranslation or not. The LXX is not a mistranslation (in part, as there is no real whole translation theory until after the time of Jesus) but a re-authoring. That’s my pet theory, I guess. Anyway, Goodacre does a great job (warning, British accent that lulls you in) of discussing the use of Scripture in telling the story.

However, Barton is the focal point for me.

that no one would have translated parthenos as virgin unless there had ALREADY been a virgin-birth tradition.

There is a very important virginal/extra-natural birth tradition pre-dating Matthew’s retelling the story of Jesus. Noah, at Qumran and in Enoch (an obviously important book to early /an/Christians, is presented as havingmiraculous birth. I am also going to go into my other pet theory, that the genealogy has something to do with Stoicism, etc… although this is not well-defined and thus, I’ll leave this for later.

A few other areas to look:

  • Virgil in the fourth Eclogue, recognized by the Patristics as problematic so re-interpreted. 
  • Augustus was said to have had his birth announced by portent among other supernatural occurrences

There iss a fertile ground in Matthew’s world not for a mistranslation, but for the use of portents, births out of the natural order to explain surprise births, and to highlight the divine qualities of a person. This is not, in anyway, required to be connected to a Greco-Roman schema of demigods and the such. Matthew, no doubt, intended his audience to understand that Mary was impregnated according to God’s will, the first factor in the greatness of Jesus and used his bible, the LXX (because, as T. Michael Law would have it, God Spoke Greek), to do so. He was not the first Jew to promote the divine-ordained, and free of the sins of this world, birth of a prophet to other Jews, but followed a rather Jewish pattern as seen in the Genesis Apocryphon and Enoch, books and thoughts closer to the authors of the Gospels and much more palatable to their audience than Greco-Roman myths.

This gets into the post-/structural debate of placing emphasis. Either we place it on Matthew or the audience, although I like the middle ground myself. We can reasonably identify certain qualities of Matthew and we can reasonably identify the audience in a certain social situation, but not the initial reception beyond that of acceptance. My supposition is that Matthew very well intended that the audience would understand the story as meaning that Mary was impregnated by an angel/holy Spirit but accepting a presented literary structure is not the only goal of the author — I would contend that Matthew would rather have wanted his audience to receive what he meant by the inclusion of this story. An example I used in discussing this with a friend via phone was Virgil reading his poem about the ascendency of Rome and Augustus to the Emperor Augustus who knew very well many of the events enshrined did not occur as written and more than likely, if reception history is the judge, understood the intended allegory.

Anyway, here is my 2.5 shekels.

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

6 thoughts on “Insert Pun about the Virgin Birth – My take”

  1. One correction- John isn’t a friend via facebook- he is a friend through SOTS and i’ve had the pleasure of chatting with him on numerous occasions in the flesh at various meetings.

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