Saturday, June 21, 2008

Was Jesus fathered by a Roman soldier? Through rape?

Some eternally seem to wish to think so. The notion seems to come up every Christmas. And the point has its merits. Christ incarnates the Father's love for humanity, and in so doing Christ reverses the expectations of the world. The high will be brought low, and the poor will become rich. That the salvation of the world could come through a rape victim and her child could have a certain appeal. It would certainly reverse the stigmas commonly afflicted upon the victims of heinous acts.

However, there is no basis for a claim. The thinking that leads to this almost always presupposes that a virgin birth could not have happened. If this is so, then we can look for other ways in which the texts relating to the nativity depart from history. When we see that they do, we can assert that the story of a miraculous birth is likewise a retrospective gloss over a more common and brutal fact. It is the kind of thinking that humans do nearly every day. We fudge the details, we repaint the facts in a certain light- usually in ways that are more or less self-serving. Mary's innocence of willful participation in a premarital sexual affair thus become Mary's willing service of God and, for Catholics, innocence of sin altogether.

The nativity could thus be a mytholization of balder historical facts. The same suspicion guides the search for scientific explanations for the biblical Exodus and the plagues that came before it.

Of course, by the standards of traditional Christianity, neither explanation excludes the other. Scripture and tradition are both clear that God uses history itself as allegory- according to a scriptural worldview, the bald, scientific or historical facts, no matter what they were, would themselves be less significant than the spiritual realities they signified. The virgin birth as such (or not), can certainly be of no more import than the Father's recognition of his Son at baptism, or Christ's continuous submission to his Father's will.

Furthermore, the very concern driving this, the concern over what can and cannot be a miracle, would be quite different in the context in which the scriptures were written. We moderns often understand miracles as a breaking through, or a transformation of, the natural laws that govern the universe. Yet the ancients lacked our awareness of natural principles. They do not pause once while telling of Egyptian magicians going toe-to-toe with the Supreme Being for several rounds of serious plague- making.

Still, the ancient peoples insisted on miracles: as signs pointing to the power and fidelity of God. This is the point of unnatural narratives: the realities of the Judeo-Christian God subvert and overwhelm the realities of opposing kingdoms. Within the Christian faith, there can be no doubt that the birth of Christ was certainly this. As was the rest of his life.

And for non-believers? In the absence of historical evidence outside of scripture, one fails to imagine what non-believers would do with the Virgin Birth at all, or why they could care to. Having dismissed our only functional sources, and not accepting the Christian witness to Christ's life as a whole, there seems a lack of sensible things to say on his humble beginning.

Of course, that sort of thinking fails to sell books. And it's nice to sell books.


brd said...

The presupposition that there is a God, a good God, and that God has communicated to humans is a hefty but necessary element to the Christian faith. Miracles and a virgin birth are fairly easy to digest after you eat that.

Ever see the movie Agnes of God?

Curious Monk said...

No, on the Agnes. did hear about it though, sounds interesting. at any rate, i'd go further, maybe...sometimes i don't even think we need the supernatural for the miraculous.

i mean, i get up in the morning, and look out the window, and think about all the cells in my body, and all the atoms in the bricks, and all the motion of all the people, and the abundance and diversity and interdependence of animal life, and the infinite complexity of every human endeavor...

and i just about fall over. i don't know how we get through the day. virgin birth? there are frogs that change sexes. we all simultaneously and individually believe that money matters, or it wouldnt work. imagine!

so, no, personally, virgin birth, or resurrection of the dead, for that matter, doesn't particularly strain my credulity.

sometimes i think our culture suffers from an insufficient sense of awe.

welcome to curious monk, though!

brd said...

I agree that without the supernatural, we still have "gosh darn" amazing to enjoy, however, I think the historic meaning of the word miracle implies that something is happening that is distinctly apart from what normally happens when the laws of human experience are applied.

I think that stories of the Bible are, in many instances, talking about that kind of miracle (virgin birth, resurrection) though, occasionally, perhaps not, eg, feeding the 5,000, where a miracle of human generosity might have been at work and could be considered the greater miracle in the broader scope of things.

Curious Monk said...

Oh, to be sure, most people over the ages, i'm certain, would have seen miracle as the extraordinary breaking through into the ordinary, or some such approximation.

the point i was making in the post though was that ordinary changes: in the OT it seems to me mostly YHWH shattering magic/ cultic religion and the worldly structures that supported it.

that was what they understood was normal, so it had to go, or YHWH would't have seemed transcendent.

and so the naturalist/scientific vs. miraculous distinction of today seems overly narrow, and misleading, despite it being the paradigm for our particular time. and the one that most people would adopt.

does that make sense? i wouldn't be about to foist my own "there is no ordinary!" perspective on others- though as science explains more and more of how the universe works, i do offer it as a helpful way of thinking about God generally.

i suppose i don't think God and miracle can remain synonyms just for what we can't yet explain.

ever see Pulp Fiction? "what mattered was it's effect on me" heh. the broader point of what i was saying was that miracles are signs that point to God- whatever their explanation.