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A Look Into Jesus’ Conception

“The Nativity”, Lorenzo Lotto (1480 – 1556/57), 1523, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


This week, we will take a mini-break from Confessions and discuss the topic of the Virgin birth and Christology.


We will be going over an article from the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archeology Review titled “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” by Andrew Lincoln.  A brief synopsis of the article can be found here; for the complete article you have to order from the website.


Please write a brief essay about the article based on one of the following questions:


  1. Prior to reading this article, have you always considered Jesus’ virgin birth to be a non-negotiable doctrine? Why or why not?  If so, why is Jesus’ virgin birth so important and critical?  Can you be a Christian and not believe in a virgin birth?  Why or why not?  Now that you have read this article, has your view changed or are you more resolved in your prior convictions?  Explain why. What are some of your disagreements with Lincoln, if any?
  2. On page 42, the article lists numerous verses “giving him patrilineal descent from David (cf. John 1:45; 6:42; Acts 2:30; 13:23; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Hebrews 7:14; Revelation 22:16).” Read these verses and see if you can give solid exegetical support and or reasons that these verses SUPPORT a virgin birth of Jesus.  Is the author taking them out of context?  Or is this solid biblical evidence for a pure natural conception of Jesus?  What does this say about the New Testament’s accounts of Jesus’ parental lineage?  Are they in conflict or contradiction with each other?  Do they give evidence that there were perhaps various competing claims as to Jesus’ parental lineage?  Or does it give credence to the fact that perhaps the doctrine of the virgin birth/conception was a later addition to Christian belief?
  3. Summarize the Aristotelian theory of conception that was dominant in ancient culture. What was the “larger understanding of sexuality…[that] prevailed until the eighteenth century”?  How were human bodily discharges viewed during this time?  Discuss how this scientific understanding of this time (especially of Galen and even that of Hippocrates) shaped the understanding of Jesus’ conception.  What was the Jewish understanding of conception during this period?  In light of this reading, does this change your view of the virgin conception narrative in Matthew and Luke?
  4. On page 45, the author states, “[W]hile on ancient views of biology the virginal conception was thought to safeguard the humanity of Jesus, present-day biological understanding of such a conception undermines the notion of Jesus’ being fully human. We no longer think that a mother’s genetic input alone is sufficient to produce a fully human male.  For Jesus to be fully human, he would need to have had both a father and mother.  A Jesus without complete human DNA would now actually be the sort of docetic figure the patristic writers refused to accept- a semi-divine or a wholly divine special creation that only appeared to be human.”  Do you see how modern-day understanding of genetics poses a problem as to the traditional orthodox view of Jesus’ identity as the literal “Son of God”?  Can Jesus be counted as being fully human without a biological father?  Should we dismiss current scientific understanding of genetics and biology and say that Jesus was a special case or that it was a miracle?  Or is that just a convenient cop-out or excuse not to think deeply about such matters?  Do you have any problems with Jesus being fully human – i.e. that he wasn’t divine?  Is that enough to abandon your belief in the Christian faith?  Why or why not?
  5. On pages 45 – 46, describe the mixture of Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology when it came to understanding God’s involvement during the conception process. What was the later rabbinical understanding of conception and God’s role in it?  How did they interpret Psalm 51:7?  But what of Job 31:19 and Psalm 139:16?  What about the case of Samson’s birth in Judges 13?  Could that be interpreted as a virgin birth as well?  How was male involvement portrayed in other divine conception narratives in the Bible?  Does this show perhaps a more “pro-female” angle to the Bible rather than the dominant patriarchal or male dominant reading of the Bible?  Knowing this, does this affect your reading of the annunciation narratives in Matthew and Luke or not?
  6. On pages 48 – 49, what do you make of the author’s conclusion that Matthew and especially Luke, were borrowing heavily from other Greco-Roman myths or depictions about unions between gods and a human mother and the conception of semi-divine beings? Or are the New Testament accounts totally different and bear no similarities whatsoever with these Greco-Roman myths?  If so, state your reasons and clear evidence as to why.  What do you make of Luke’s somewhat conflicting viewpoints that Jesus was a physical descendant of David (Acts 2:30; 13:23) but that he had a virginal birth (Luke 1:34)?  Is there a conflict or contradiction here?  Or is he being consistent throughout?  Is Luke giving a historical account here and wants the reader or audience to believe that what he wrote about Jesus’ birth was exactly the way it happened, or does he have a different agenda?  Was he making it up to make a point?  If so, does that trouble you?  Why or why not?
  7. On page 49, the author references that in Matthew’s narrative, “It stresses that, while Joseph was not Jesus’ actual human father, he – by naming Jesus (Matthew 1:21a, 25b)- adopts him as his own and thereby enables the child to inherit his Davidic lineage (see the adapted genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17).” However, in Luke, it is Mary who does the naming (Luke 1:31).  Do these “minor” literary discrepancies pose a problem for Christians reading and interpreting the biblical text?  Or can they be harmonized in some way?  What does the author say about how the original readers may have interpreted these narratives?  Should we adopt this understanding of the narrative or is our traditional understanding too ingrained in church culture that it is almost impossible to adopt?  Or, to look at it the other way, is the author incorrect and the traditional way (i.e. a more literal reading) truly the correct way to read the conception and birth narrative of Jesus?
  8. After reading this article do you see two conflicting accounts or understandings of Jesus’ identity: that he had a natural father in Joseph found in writers like Paul (Romans 1:3; cf. also 2 Timothy 2:8) and John (John 1:45; 6:42) when compared with the virginal conception in Matthew’s account? Or do you see no conflict whatsoever and all the biblical references harmonize?  If so, then how do you reconcile such seeming discrepancies in the text?  How would your faith be affected if Jesus was fully human with a human father?  Would you stop praying or worshiping him?  Is it blasphemous to worship Jesus?  Does the doctrine of the Trinity still stand?  Does it matter?  Was Jesus “elevated” to a divine status after his death and resurrection as a reward for his obedience to God?  What difference would it make if Jesus was actually the “adopted” Son of God (aka “adoptionism“)?  Did his believers bestow upon him a divine identity later on?  Does it matter whether or not Jesus was divine or human-divine?  What are the implications of a purely human Jesus?  What about salvation?  Does salvation necessitate the divine nature of Jesus?  Does a purely human Jesus negate salvation?  Discuss you reasons as to why or why not in light of what you have read in this article.
  9. Based on your reading of the article, what are your views if Mary was NOT a virgin? Does her perpetual virginity matter for the Church (not just the Catholic Church and other traditions) at large?  How do you think the Church’s views of sexuality would change if it adopted a position that she was not a virgin?  How would it change views on the priesthood, or for monks and nuns?  What about views on celibacy?  Pre-marital sex?  Or even views on abortion?  Or is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary too embedded within Christian tradition to amend or discard?



Please submit your essays by this Saturday.






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