I was going to begin my article today by pussyfooting around with equivocations about how hard it was to put yesterday's article together. But when I logged in to Examiner.com today there was a prominent notice that three people had "unfriended" me, following yesterday's article about Jesus' father.
I don't know if this was a coincidence, nor do I care. I don't write this column to make friends on Facebook. But if I have to take a stand, that doesn't faze me at all. This wouldn't be anywhere near the first time that I have felt obligated to say or do something that I believe is right or true.
So I will spell it out: if there is one thing that Christianity must do as a faith, it is to enter into the reality-based community. If you prowl the Internet reading articles about religion--not crank sites but real forums like the Huffington Post--you will see that the complaints about Christianity cluster around the miracle stories, the ones that claim that extra special treatment was given to Jesus and Mary, and that they are some kind of superior non-human beings.
In the Jesus story, that starts with a simple physical fact: virgin births don't happen in the real world. They happen in mythology. Jesus had a father. That father was not Joseph, so it must have been someone else. If a reader can't handle that, I take the position of Bishop John Shelby Spong, which he took on the subject of the "God is dead" debate of the Sixties. It is this: Any God who can be killed, ought to be killed. When you are living in a dream world, the thing to do is wake up.
Christians need to learn their history. A specifically-referenced discussion of the Virgin Birth from Jonathan Sarfati says this:
"When biblically-informed Christians talk about the Virgin Birth they really mean the Virginal Conception (Virginitas ante partum), i.e. that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate, had no human biological father. The doctrine is scriptural and affirmed by early Christians such as Ignatius (d. AD c. 108), Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 212). This true doctrine must be distinguished from some false views:
Virginitas in partu: Mary gave birth in such a way as to avoid labor pains and leave her hymen intact. This was first found in the gnostic Ascension of Isaiah (late 1st century), and also found in the late 2nd century Protoevangelium of James. Among early Christian writers it was cited first by Clement of Alexandria in the 3rd century, but was rejected by Tertullian (c. 155/160–220) and Origen (c. 185–254). It is inconsistent with Luke’s quotation of 'every male that opens the womb' (2:23)."
Sarfati writes from the perspective of one who believes the doctrine, as we can see when he writes about "this true doctrine." Nevertheless, the historical context into which he places the belief is important.
The individuals that Sarfati describes as "early Christians" are Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian. All of them lived in the Second Century; none were members of the emerging Jewish Church in Jerusalem. Specifically, Ignatius lived in Antioch, Justin Martyr lived in Palestine and was born into a Pagan family; Irenaeus was European, from Gaul; Origen was Egyptian and Tertullian came from Carthage. Their lives overlap from the First into the Second Century. All of them were familiar with Neo-Platonic philosophy.
St. Paul, on the other hand, who lived and wrote just after Jesus' life, was a Jew and a Pharisee, or a Jewish legal scholar. Paul knew nothing about a virgin birth: he wrote simply that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the Law."
It is not Judaism that denies and belittles normal human conception and birth; it is the Pagan philosophy that pronounces the flesh as evil and the spirit as good. This thought crept into Christianity in Europe after the early Hebrew Church was overwhelmed by conversion from the various Pagan communities of Palestine, Greece, Rome and Africa. There is no justification for considering a virgin birth desirable or virtuous; it is an insult to every mother that Jesus had to get special treatment.
The Council of Nicaea codified Christianity in the Nicene Creed, overwhelming the Hebrew Church and cutting theological ties with them as the members adopted the Neo-Platonic interpretation of Christianity. Ever since, we have been stuck with a Platonic Jesus/Mary interpretation of events.
The non-believing and unchurched will point to our insistence as Christians that Jesus and Mary were somehow above the common clay of mankind as an insult to all normal human beings that forces us into more and more convoluted rationalization. It leads to stupidity like the belief that Mary gave birth through her ear canal so that her hymen would be intact as well as her virginity. This is ridiculous.
But the larger question is this: what does the doctrine of the Virgin Birth contribute to Christianity? What do we get out of believing that Jesus was born in this unnatural way? You see, I disagree with the premise. There is nothing evil or fallen about sex, pregnancy and childbirth to begin with. There is nothing in the flesh to rise above; the flesh is fine as it is.
As fallible human beings, we often long to rise above the dreary aspects of our lives. Looking at religious figures as above us is an understandable tendency. But it undercuts true religion, because if Jesus were as far above normal human beings as the Gnostics taught, his life and death would be irrelevant to us. So can we expect that Jesus got special treatment and miracles? Preachers can tell us that we will, but in real life--where we live--people are born, live, get sick, get hurt, age and die. We leave them behind and go on without them. I am not speaking theoretically; I buried one of my children.
What does it mean if Jesus was not a man like other men? We are all human like each other...except Jesus? Was Jesus one of us or not?