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Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Canon Backfires

Giles Fraser, Canon Emeritus of the Guardian, writes to explain why he does not believe in the Virgin Birth.

And I guess the problem I have with this piece is that I agree with a lot of it. Too much is made of Mary's virginity. Took much post-Biblical speculation about her purity - and the rejection of sex that made it kind of weird - is a bad thing. Jesus our Saviour was born into the mess and bullets and muck of this broken world.

But none of that makes the Virgin Birth untrue. Canon Giles has argued back from his view of things to the way he wants things to be.  You could say the Canon has backfired, if you wanted a cheesy pun for your blog post.

Fraser's method is interesting. He argues against the Virgin birth, using those parts of the Bible that liberals would often not believe in. Like John 8. First up, is this the earliest example of a polemic against Christianity? John's Gospel is the last written. Its historical accuracy is doubted by liberals. There are earlier polemics against Christianity, if this is what this is, in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. And it is only by applying the hermeneutic principle that the text means whatever we want it to mean, that Giles Fraser can poke his meaning into this passage.

Then Giles tells us that Jesus was born in a cowshed. Well, call me Ms Cynical. But isn't this in one of the two nativity accounts in the Gospels? One of the accounts that also says Mary was a virgin? So why doesn't Giles say the manger account is a myth as well?

I suspect it's because the birth in a manger fits Giles Fraser's politics. Can you imagine him, standing in front of the Crib there, getting the chance to look sad and serious without his dog collar? Lovely photo op. No, if you're gonna explain away the Virgin Birth, you can do the same with the whole trip to Bethlehem and escape to Egypt. You explain the Gospels were applying Hebrew Bible narratives to Jesus. You don't get to accept just the bits that fit Guardian politics and your photos from trips to Calais.  And put your dog collar on. With your open neck and your professional sad look, you look like a Moomin on Dress-down Friday.

And Giles Fraser tells us that the Virgin Birth stories were a response to a Roman and Jewish claim that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. Now I can see what Giles Fraser has done here. He's confused Jesus with Brian Cohen. I mean, no shame in that. Even Wise Men did that. But again Giles is rejecting a story in the Gospels based upon his greater belief in supposition and rumour. Not a great way of deciding what is and isn't true.

You know what I think. I believe in the Virgin Birth. Partly this saves me from crossing my fingers on those rare occasions when the Beaker Folk say the creeds. But mostly because I take two different Gospel accounts - which go into considerable detail of Mary's problems about the miraculous baby she's going to have - seriously. These two Gospels do not, at any point, get hung up on Mary's purity. They do not start mentioning perpetual virginity. They mention it and they tell how Joseph came to terms with it. It is cross-referenced to a prophecy of ambiguous translation - which beyond doubt in Isaiah's mind had nothing to do with Jesus or to a virgin rather than a young woman. But that's what Matthew's Gospel in particular does - endlessly throws Old Testament quotes at this amazing Saviour, born of a virgin and laid in a manger, because that's how a pious Jew gets the words to reflect the wonders that have occurred. Matthew had no need to invent a Virgin Birth to justify an obscure passage in Isaiah. But a pressing need to find a prophecy to reflect the Virgin Birth.

For me it's not about rejecting sex or this physical world. It's God showing his side of the bringing of this Saviour - child and ageless God - into this world. In the muck and blood and straw. I do believe God could have been incarnate without a Virgin birth - though that ain't a mystery I'd be qualified to poke too much into. But if I've a choice of a loose canon trying to generate clicks or Matthew and Luke trying to save souls, I know which one I'd take every time.

19 comments :

  1. Parthenogenesis is remotely possible I suppose, but then Jesus would have been Jesusa?

    In any case, have a great Christmas AE, congratulations on another sterling year of blogging, and all the best for 2016!

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    1. You're right, Steve. You would expect the result of parthenogenesis to be a female. But then I believe it was a miracle - and only a very small one compared to a resurrection. Happy Xmas to you and yours and thanks for your good-natured contributions to our discussions.

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  2. I read somewhere and argument (sorry, can't remember details so no citation; sloppy scholarship) that in Jewish society (and I believe this is still true in the stricter varieties), a young unmarried woman would be a virgin, full stop. So no need for Isaiah to start specifying the exact status of her hymen; that came later, somewhere between παρθένος and virgo.

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    1. Isaiah wasn't defining a virgin he was describing a young woman. So the NRSV: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." A young woman having a baby wasπαρθένος not all that surprising. The LXX made it parthenos - and then Matthew applied that term to Mary. But was he for no apparent reason making up an unlikely condition to meet a scripture that doesn't really need to have anything to do with Jesus? Or was he reflecting on the story (as told in two traditions) and applying the OT to it? I'm going for the latter on this occasion.

      Modern English translations largely therefore read the NT back into the old, and render Isa 7:14 as saying "virgin" which probably isn't what Isaiah was thinking about at all.

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    1. I just kind of accept it. If there were no virgin birth, it wouldn't stop Jesus being son of God. But if I can believe a massive miracle like a resurrection, I'm happy to believe a little one like a virgin birth.

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    2. No. It does not--and for the life of me, I can't understand all this investment in such a story. Does God--or the Gospel--need a virgin birth? Do we? Does giving giving a sound, critical reading of the story remove the Gospel or somehow relieve us of our vocation as Christians in the ministry of reconciliation? Does demythologizing the birth narratives somehow alter the meaning of the cross? I doubt it. I very much doubt it.

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    3. Demythologising the birth narratives has no effect on the Cross. Giles Fraser however wasn't giving a sound, critical anything. He was quoting the sort of people you would expect to be making up antichristian propaganda, as if they were credible sources. And he's doing it deliberately at a time of maximum offence to more orthodox Christians.

      Out of interest, do you demythologise the Resurrection as well?

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  4. I believe in the entire Christmas story, including the virgin birth, because it's a lovely story that points to eternal truths, whether the story is literally true, or not. I agree we do tend to make too much of Mary's virginity, and I hope to heaven that Joseph was not required to "respect" Mary's virginity throughout their marriage.

    I have no difficulty believing in the virgin birth, because I believe in what seems to me the more impossible Incarnation, God become human. The virgin birth seems a detail in the larger story of the Incarnation. Problem solved, at least for me.

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    1. I feel the ambivalence of rather insisting that God COULD have performed this miracle, w/ my distaste for those who insist it MUST be true.

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  5. Can I make it clear I agree with all of you: to deny the virgin birth while claiming to uphold the idea of a personal God Who sent His Son to redeem us seems to me like straining at a gnat etc. If that is what Giles is in fact doing. I have read his piece several times and I still can't work out what he does believe in as opposed to what he does not.

    May he and all of you have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

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  6. I suppose that I am in a paradoxical situation. Having been raised Catholic, where the Virgin Birth was one of the the tenets of faith, I rejected the whole doctrine, along with that faith in the mid-eighties, when I became a militant agnostic.

    When 25 years later, I became an Anglican, I was comfortable with the the doctrine on the BVM, because it's didn't have the overtones of the Marian devotional, of the RC Church, which at times, seemed to replace God and Jesus by placing Mary on such a pedestal that it became outrageous.

    But, now, a few years later, I have become much more accepting and believe in the Virgin Birth and the whole incarnation story, because, for me, it's entirely credible, but has that hint of the mystery of God,exercising his power through the Holy Spirit and Angels, that just underlines for me convincingly the story, particularly Mary's obedient reaction to what for her, might have been thought to be bad news in her culture and context.

    For me the nativity story is one of blessed hope and a reaffirmation of that faith, that I espoused in 2008 and which grows stronger as I learn more about it, while appreciating that I will never know enough to write in the way that Giles Fraser does with such conviction.

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  7. My take is more sympathetic to Giles. I think the most convincing interpretations of the birth narratives are the ones by Crossan and Borg. The stories were made up, and made up to make points about the character of Jesus. Matthew first proposes virgin birth, which located Jesus among other people born of virgins, Alexander the Great and Augustus: that is, Jesus is our king. Throw in Herod and massacres in case anybody misses the point. Luke is the leftie who reads Giles' articles and prioritises the poor. The trouble with stories like these is that over the centuries other meanings get attributed to them. Until the sixteenth century, when they have to be taken as literal history, and to make things even worse, the seventeenth century when miracles stop being 'miracula' - things to be wondered at - and instead become events which break the laws of nature and therefore must have been performed by God. From then on the VB, like the Resurrection, loses all other meanings and becomes simply a slogan of intellectual assent: if you are a Christian you believe in miracles, if you believe in science you know miracles can't happen.

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    1. Yes, there are two nativity stories and in Matthew's take on it, Jesus was presumably born at home, since the family lived in Bethlehem........

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    2. I happen to be a christian who definitely does NOT believe in miracles. Any claim for a miracle has as its basis that God acts capriciously, choosing for example to save the one soldier from a bullet by virtue of 1 millimeter, but allowing the death of another by the same measurement. That sort of magical belief makes a monster of God, makes God unworthy of any kind of trust. Who wants to put faith into a capricious deity? Not me.

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    3. I happen to be a christian who definitely does NOT believe in miracles. Any claim for a miracle has as its basis that God acts capriciously, choosing for example to save the one soldier from a bullet by virtue of 1 millimeter, but allowing the death of another by the same measurement. That sort of magical belief makes a monster of God, makes God unworthy of any kind of trust. Who wants to put faith into a capricious deity? Not me.

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    4. As a Christian I believe miracles can happen. As a science MA I know that whether or not a miracle happened is not a question science can answer.

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    5. I honestly don't understand the "Miracles [and/or Answered Prayers] Show God is a Capricious Monster" argument. As if Benificence is ITSELF a Zero-Sum Game...

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  8. Whether I'm a Christian will depend on the context and who's asking. I suspect history would conclude that I was probably Christian, were it at all bothered. Being "a Christian", on the other hand, seems a pointless identification. I don't see value in getting caught up/bogged down in claims and counter-claims about interpretations of the stories in my religious tradition.

    Giles Fraser is sometimes inspired, often interesting, but also on occasion just muddled. Which is understandable given the pressures of his day job. In this he reflects the state of the Church of England: desperate to recover some semblance of credibility but clueless about what that might require. God as revealed through scientific exploration and the stories we tell is beyond religious belief. A national Church at the dawn of an internet age really ought to have a handle on the reality by now. Yet still we carry on with the same old same old political posturing, talking about what we happen to believe, as if anyone should count that as evidence in their decision-making.

    Ah, sorry. I'm going on. Thanks for the blog through 2015. It's one of the best I wander through.

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