Shuck and Jive

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Born of a Virgin?

If you or someone you love likes books for Christmas, and
if you are a non-professional but enjoy reading scholarship of the Bible, and
if you have always wondered about how to read the stories of Jesus' birth,

then...the perfect gift is Robert J. Miller's Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion at Juniata College and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He is author of The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics and is the editor of The Complete Gospels.

In the preface he writes:

This book is designed for the general reader. Since it is neither short nor easy, it demands a high level of interest in the subject matter; yet it does not presuppose any specialized knowledge. While I hope this book will make its contribution to the field of biblical studies, and while I hope that my academic colleagues find this book helpful, I have not written it for them. Rather, my goal has been to share the benefits of scholarly work on the infancy narratives with non-specialists.

He succeeds. The book is provocative, engaging, well-written, and accessible. Miller writes that his deepest debt is to John Dominic Crossan:

Although he has not written extensively on the infancy narratives, it is from him that I have learned the most important concept that informs the present book. According to Crossan, the Christian claim that Jesus was the son of God was originally put forth primarily to counter Roman propaganda about the divinity of Caesar. This insight is for me the key that unlocks the basic message of the infancy narratives and the original meaning of the belief in the virgin birth.

Crossan's 1994 book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, introduced the world to that concept. I remember and have oft repeated his statement that the scandal was not that

Jesus was Son of God
but that

was Son of God.

In other words, the uniqueness of early Christianity was not that a human being could become divine, afterall many claimed that, including Caesar. The scandal, the insult, and threat to the powers of the world (including Caeser) was that this nobody, a peasant, was called son of God.

Miller's book is divided into six sections:
  • The Biblical Infancy Narratives (an analysis of Luke and Matthew's narratives and the Moses Haggadah)
  • Pagan Sons of God (a comparison with other Hellenistic infancy narratives)
  • Historical and Theological Questions (Did Jesus fulfill prophecy? Are the infancy narratives historical?)
  • Born of a Virgin (What is a virgin? Is there a virgin birth in Matthew? Is the virgin birth historical? Was Jesus illegitimate?)
  • Understanding the Virgin Birth (an analysis of other "sons of God" in the Bible as well as a study of the virgin birth in context and its meaning)
  • Infancy Gospels (analysis of other infancy gospels including, The Infancy Gospel of James, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, two Docetic birth stories, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and The Gosepl of Pseudo-Matthew)
After this, you will have a fuller understanding of the birth of Jesus. It is a great gift for your fundamentalist friends!

It is also a good book for a class. You can download a study guide.

Read an excerpt here.

Here is an interview with Miller in the Juniata College newspaper, "Jesus' Birth: Did We Get the Story Straight?"


  1. Sounds like a good read John...have a great Christmas holiday with all of your family.

  2. Have a great holiday, Society! Nice to have met you (I guess that is what we say when we meet people in Blogworld)!

  3. It's sad that Dr. Miller doesn't take into account the arguments made by Dr. J. G. Machen in his learned account on The Virgin Birth of Christ. One of the most important critiques Machen offers is why it would be that the earliest Christians would co-opt the schemes of a paganism they were rejecting. Let's face it, the Jewish Christians wouldn't have it, and the Gentile converts would recognize it for the paganism it was and thus reject it (cf. 1 Cor. 8).

    Moreover, it makes little sense to contend that a philosopher of the caliber of Justin Martyr - who was well acquainted with Greco-Roman myths - would doggedly defend the literal physical virgin birth if he knew it to function in a way similar to the myths he lambasts. What makes more sense? That Justin - who lived under the same Roman domination and was murdered because he refused to sacrifice to Caesar - would defend the historicity of the virgin birth as the fulfillment of predictive prophecy because he believed it to be a convincing fact? Or that he would use Romanized religious language - the language of his oppressors - when trying to argue the reasonableness of the faith to both Jews and Gentiles?

    Dr. Miller sadly misses the whole point of Justin's argument (which he cites - or, better, slights in his book). Justin - who began defending the faith in the late 140s - believed in the historicity of the virgin birth. Ignatius, who was martyred no later than 117 and sat at the feet of the Apostle John, also held to literal virgin birth (and he wasn't known for suffering spurious genealogies). Which would be strange if a mere 40 years (or less!) was enough to let him forget that Luke's genealogy and virgin birth account were written as a snub to Caesar.

    The more I read the stuff by the folks doing "historical" research to reconstruct a "historical Jesus," the less historical awareness I find.

  4. Knowing that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke are obviously fictional has always made it hard for me to get into the Christmas season. I managed to swallow my objections this year and attend a Christmas evening service, and as long as I took the stories as mythological, I was actually able to enjoy the service this year. It probably didn't hurt that the pastor came right out and said that these stories were probably untrue, but that we were just going to ignore those issues for the evening. Having the pastor on the same page as I am (more or less) goes a long way towards making the whole process more palatable.