It is that time of year again; time to dust off the family manger scene and prime the kiddos for the annual Christmas Eve pageant story of Jesus’s birth. Is virgin birth historical or is it out of control religious fervor designed to embellish Jesus’s divinity? The Christian doctrine of Virgin Birth has issues. Only two of the four Gospels (Matthew and Luke) report it. Curiously, Paul ignores it altogether. Even so, a 2013 survey by prestigious Pew Research found that 73% of American adults believe in Jesus’s virgin birth.
Matthew, the leading champion of virgin birth, staked his claim by referencing an Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14. In arriving at his claim, Matthew relied on the Septuagint, the 2nd century BC Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. And, that is a problem. When the Septuagint was translated, the Hebrew word “almah,” meaning “young woman of marriageable age,” was translated to the Greek word “Parthenos,”meaning “virgin.” Now, understand, the Hebrew language has a word for virgin. It is “bethulah.” If Isaiah meant virgin he would have written “bethulah,”not “almah.” But he didn’t. He wrote “almah,” a “young woman of marriageable age.” Furthermore, the Isaiah verse is not even remotely connected with messianic prophecy. It concerns a sign that will be given to Ahaz, the King of Judah, by the time an unspecified “almah’s” son is of young age. In short, there is no credible connection between virgin birth and the Old Testament.
The mistranslation is known as the almah/bethulah controversy and has long been the lightening rod in the virgin birth debate. The Catholic Church has always vigorously defended Matthew’s use of the Septuagint and its Hebrew to Greek translation. That is, until lately. In 2011, with issue of a revised edition of the St. Joseph Edition of The New American Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Catholics relented and finally agreed with the dissidents that the Hebrew word “almah” does in fact mean “a young woman of marriageable age.” Catholics however continue to defend Matthew’s claim of a virgin birth on the basis that Matthew was divinely inspired to write what he wrote. In other words, either intuitively and/or through his sources, the author of Matthew understood Jesus was born of a virgin. This claim gives me heart-burn. It implies that God’s inspiration always works in the direction of penning something on a piece of paper, parchment in this case. The claim discounts the possibility that the other authors of New Testament books, excluding Luke, were inspired to not write what they didn’t write. For, as said, none knew of the virgin birth, or if they did, thought, hard to believe, it was not important enough to mention. The matter raises a question in my mind about what it means to be inspired?
Did Matthew really believe in virgin birth? I wonder. His genealogy connecting Jesus to King David includes the names of four women (five counting Mary). In ancient times the names of females were not normally included in ancestral lineage as women were considered as simple carriers of the baby, making no genetic contribution to the child.
The four women in question are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Bathsheba is not named directly but is identified as the wife of Uriah. These are not nice women. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks Judah into having sexual relations with her (Genesis 38); Rahab is described as a harlot (Joshua 2);Ruth asks Boaz to have sex with her (Ezekiel 16); Bathsheba cheated on her husband and became pregnant by David. (2 Samuel 11). With respect to Mother Mary, Matthew ends the lineage by saying that Jacob, the second to last male in the genealogy line up, fathered Joseph. But, he then breaks the father/son flow by not saying that Joseph fathered Jesus. Instead Joseph is mentioned simply as the husband of Mary who is identified as having given birth to Jesus.
In other words, Matthew tells us that Joseph is the not the father of Jesus although he is married to Mary (Matthew 1:24), and that Mary is Jesus’s mother. Is Matthew delivering a stealth message to his readers? Perhaps his sources told him of the virgin birth and he included it as a sense of obligation but doesn’t really believe. So, he references a totally unrelated source in the Old Testament to validate, as best he can, the lore but sends a different message through the ancestral lineage to indicate there may be more to the story.
There was a speculation in the early Church that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier and made pregnant in the incident. The soldier was supposedly named Panthera (or Pantera in some translations). Archeological finds have confirmed that the name “Pantera” was used by real people in 1st century Palestine and was particularly favored by Roman soldiers. The matter acquired interest amongst scholars when a grave complete with marker of a Roman soldier was accidentally unearthedin Germany in 1859. The soldier is identified as Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, a freed slave.
Sidon, the home of Pantera according to the grave marker, is one of two famous ancient cities in what is now Lebanon near the Israel-Lebanon border. The other city is Tyre, about 20 miles away. The district of Tyre is mentioned in Mark 7:24. You may know the story. Jesus and the apostles traveled there and met a Greek (pagan) woman who begs Him to drive a demon from her daughter. Jesus refuses, initially, saying the children (meaning the Israelites) need to be fed before the dogs (the non-Israelites). Later, He reconsiders and drives out the demon. With Jesus’s initial, crotchety response to the woman, one must ask the question; “What was He doing in the district of Tyre amongst the gentiles in the first place?” Did He have a reason for being there? Then, Mark adds intrigue to the visit, telling how Jesus on arriving in the district “…entered a house but wanted no one to know about it…” Now there is an interesting tidbit of seemingly trivial information. Why did Mark take the time to point out “…entered a house but wanted no one to know about it…”Was there someone in the house Jesus wanted to visit in secret? Possibly a relative?
Additional intrigue shows up in John’s Gospel. In a raucous exchange reported in John 8:41 the Pharisees tell Jesus they are not bastard sons, as if to say [to Him], you are but we are not.
The Pantera tradition also shows up in two places in ancient Jewish texts. One involves a famous Rabbi of the late 1st century-early 2nd century who tells of a teaching he heard near Nazareth which was conducted in the name of “Yeshu ben Pantera.” In another reference, a Jewish healer, attempts to heal a snake bite wound in the name of “Yeshu ben Pantera.” Yeshu ben Pantera refers to Jesus son of Pantera. Note also that the term is not used in a derogatory sort of way and suggests that Yeshu ben Pantera may have been a common way of referring to Jesus in His lifetime.
The Greek philosopher Celsus in a scathing late 2nd century criticism of Christianity relates that he found written evidence that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. The 2nd century Christian theologian, Origen, acknowledges the tradition but says it was concocted by those who could not accept that Mary was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The 4th century Christian apologist Epiphanius also knows of the story. He explains that Pantera is a nick-name for Joseph’s father, thus, Jesus came to be known as Jesus, Son of Pantera.
It bothers me also that Jesus never referred to a virgin birth. To me, that would be a very large trump card to use in His frequent debates with Jewish leadership, as well as for communicating His teachings.
The sum of all of this is thus: Jesus’s birth certificate, were there such a thing, would state “Father Unknown.” The virgin birth story is best handled as a matter of blind faith; the facts on the ground do not support it.