Rationality, Evidence and The Virgin Birth
by David Glass and Graham Veale
Is it reasonable to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus?
Of all Christian beliefs, none is more likely to be ridiculed and dismissed as a legend than the virgin birth of Jesus. Saints and sceptics alike might be able to agree about certain aspects of Jesus’ life and even have a reasonable discussion about whether the facts relating to the aftermath of Jesus’ death support belief in the resurrection, but typically there is little or no common ground when it comes to the virgin birth. The purpose of this short article is to suggest that belief in the virgin birth is reasonable.
Belief in the virgin birth is based on the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The accounts are not as implausible as some claim. The years after the death of Herod marked a period of rebellion and social upheaval in the Holy Land. A family might well flee to their ancestral home, or to relatives in the large Jewish community in Alexandria. Infamously, Quirinius was governor of Syria from AD 6-9; Herod died in 4BC. However, Luke’s wording in 2 v 2 is unusual. It could be translated:
This was the first registration, before the one the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition, 2007 p.248)
Furthermore, Craig Blomberg notes that Quirinius might well have had some official post in the Eastern provinces during Herod’s reign:
…some ancient sources also speak of Quirinius leading military expeditions in the Eastern Empire a decade earlier in a manner most naturally explained if he held some official post in Syria (Tacitus, Annals 3.48, Florus, Roman History, 2.31) Since some forms of joint rule were common in the ancient world, it is quite possible that Quirinius was some type of ‘governor’ (the word Luke uses, hegemoneuo, is a very general term ‘to rule’ or ‘to lead’) before his more formal, later term of office. (ibid.)
It was not at all unlikely that shepherds worked in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Evidence from Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus tells us that, at the turn of the millennium, there was a belief that a world ruler would emerge from Judaea (Josephus pegged Vespasian with the title). So it is not surprising to hear of Persian wise men scouring Israel for a new born King. And it is amusing that sceptics postulate all kinds of religious visions to explain away the evidence for the resurrection, yet dismiss the nativity accounts because they contain angelic appearances.
It’s important to note that Matthew and Luke used independent sources for their birth narratives. In fact, the two accounts are so different that they are often portrayed in popular sceptical literature as being in conflict with each other. While this claim is unfounded, the fact that they are different is important because having two independent historical sources to the same event lends more credibility…
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