The Miracle of Christ’s Birth

John W Miller. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

It is not generally recognized that there are two views of the miracle of Christ’s birth in the Bible. The purpose of this essay is to point out that this is in fact the case and to indicate when and how these two views originated and came to be included in the same Bible. The better known of these views is set forth in vividly told stories in the Gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-35). Here we learn—in the Greek text of Matthew 1:18—that Jesus was conceived ek pneumatos hagiou (“of the Holy Spirit”) in the womb of a virgin without a human father. Luke describes this event similarly in Luke 1:35. Being conceived in this manner is so extraordinary that we expect it to be referred to again and again in the scriptures that follow, but this is not the case. The miraculous conception of Jesus ek pneumatos hagiou (“of the Holy Spirit”) is never mentioned again in the entire New Testament.

Silence about a miracle of such import is perplexing until it is realized another perspective on the conception of Christ was pervasive in the first Christian communities. This is the view alluded to by the Apostle Paul at the beginning of his letter to the Romans where he writes (Romans 1:1-4) about the gospel he was called to proclaim to the world. It is a gospel, he states, about “God’s Son,” Jesus Christ, “promised beforehand … in the Holy Scriptures who according to the flesh was conceived of the sperm of David” (ek spermatos David). Referring to Christ’s conception in this way reflects the thinking of the time regarding how life begins. A human life began, it was thought, when male sperm was deposited in a woman’s womb where it coagulated like milk (Job 10:10-12) and grew into a child. There was no awareness as yet of the part played by the female ovum. The origins of children were thought to be totally in the sperm of their fathers. This is why the genealogies of children were traced through the sperm-line of their fathers—as in genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38—and why Paul in Romans 1:3 can write of Jesus being conceived “of the sperm of David” (ek spermatos David). Paul was signaling to his readers that Jesus truly is, “according to the flesh,” the “son” or descendent of David.

Exploration of the Issue

So what is miraculous about that? The very question indicates one of the reasons why this view is not as well known as the other. The miraculous nature of Jesus being conceived in the womb of a virgin “of the Holy Spirit” (ek pneumatos hagiou) is at once recognizable, but what is unusual about his being conceived “of the sperm of David” (ek spermatos David)? An explanation is required. We must be reminded that Jesus was a Jew—and first-century Jews were hoping and praying as never before for the coming of God’s kingdom through a divinely anointed descendent of David.3 We need to know as well that David was Israel’s most illustrious king and had been promised a dynasty that would last forever. When therefore Paul states in Romans that Jesus Christ was conceived ek spermatos David he was announcing this promise had been fulfilled and the much hoped for kingdom of God was already dawning and about to appear in its fullness. Hence, this view of Christ’s conception was as miraculous for those who espoused it as was the view of his virgin birth for those who espoused it, but in a different way. The view that he was conceived “of the Holy Spirit” (ek pneumatos hagiou) was a miracle of divine origins, the view that he was conceived “of the sperm of David” (ek spermatos David) was a miracle of providence related to God’s rule on earth.

Two Views Side By Side

How did two such different views of Christ’s miraculous conception originate? The already mentioned fact that only two texts in the entire New Testament tell of or allude to Christ’s miraculous conception “of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38) hints at a possible answer. On closer inspection we observe that these two texts are located side by side with two genealogies—Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38—that trace the paternal sperm-line of Jesus to David and Abraham. This is hardly accidental. It suggests that these two texts which tell of Christ’s miraculous conception “of the Holy Spirit” might have been secondarily inserted where they are in each Gospel to supplement or modify the view of Christ’s conception “of the sperm of David” in the genealogies.

Textual oddities in the genealogies confirm this impression. At the beginning of Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) unexpected words occur between “son” and “of Joseph” (3:23): “Now Jesus himself … was about thirty years old being the son—as was supposed—of Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat, of Levi….” Given their location, the words “as was supposed” cast doubt on the validity of the opinion of those who prepared this genealogy—implied is that they were sincere but mistaken. They “supposed” Jesus to be the son of Joseph but were mistaken about that. It is hard to imagine that those who wrote the genealogy would question the accuracy of their own account in this way. By contrast it is easily imaginable that these words were expressive of the sentiments of those who might have inserted the prior story of Christ’s virgin birth (Luke 1:26-38). When they did this, they were mindful of the discrepancy between their view of Christ’s conception and the view of the genealogy.4 They could have deleted the genealogy—but for reasons to be discussed they decided to retain it. Instead, they modified it with a few words questioning its assumptions.

Matthew’s Gospel posed a similar dilemma to the person or persons who inserted the virgin birth stories in this Gospel. In this instance the original text likely said that Joseph “begot” Jesus, as Joseph was “begotten” by a line of fathers before him beginning with David and Abraham (Mt 1:1-16). So in their case too they faced a choice of deleting the genealogy or changing it at the point where it stated, “Joseph begot Jesus who is called Christ.” They too chose to retain the genealogy but changed it in the following way: After the word “Joseph” they deleted the word “begot” and between “Joseph” and “Jesus who is called Christ” substituted for the deleted “begot” the words, “husband of Mary who gave birth to” (Mt 1:16). By doing so, they erased the fact that Jesus was Joseph’s son and emphasized instead that Joseph was nevertheless Mary’s husband—a fact referred to in the story they placed right after the genealogy, relating how Joseph and Mary were engaged, but before coming together, Jesus was conceived “of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). With these changes Matthew’s genealogy is made to dovetail with the following virgin birth story.

Origins of the Older View

As to the origins of these two views, it seems evident that the view reflected in the genealogies is the older of the two. Where did that view come from? From various sources it can be concluded that this was the view of Jesus’ family and first disciples. Since Jesus did not object to being called David’s son (Mt 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lu 18:35-43), it may be that the Davidic descent of his family was common knowledge. Paul’s letters, which were written in the middle of the first century and circulated widely among the churches of that period, indicate as much. They were among the earliest extant writings of the Christian movement—hence, that Paul could write as he does in his letter to the Romans that Christ’s conception was “of the sperm of David” (Rom 1:3), and take for granted that he would be understood, indicates this was the accepted view of the time.

But from where did Paul obtain his views in this regard? He was not personally acquainted with Jesus or his family before his conversion. He likely would not have known of Christ’s descent from David unless someone had told him. Who might have told him? In one of his letters Paul writes of going to Jerusalem to spend time with the “pillars” there, to consult about the message he was preaching (Gal 1:18-2:10). Among the “pillars” he mentions was Jesus’ brother James, who was their leading elder (Acts 15:13-20). How James would have felt about his brother’s sperm-line is indicated in an incident recorded by the church historian Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History he mentions an attempt by the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) to execute “all who were of David’s line” among the Jews of Jerusalem. Quoting from an older historian, he describes Domitian’s action as follows: “And there still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David’s line, and brought … before Domitian Caesar who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian asked them whether they were descended from David, and they admitted it.” After interrogating them further—and discovering the “kingdom” they were hoping for was no threat to his own—“Domitian found no fault with them … and issued orders terminating the persecution of the Church” (Ecclesiastical History 3.20). Eusebius concludes his report with these words: “On their release they became leaders of the churches, both because they had borne testimony and because they were of the Lord’s family; and thanks to the establishment of peace they lived on into Trajan’s time” (98 CE).

From this report it seems apparent that the brothers of Jesus and their children and grandchildren were utterly convinced of their descent from David. In all likelihood, this was the reason that Jesus’ conception “of the sperm of David” (ek spermatos David) was the taken-for-granted view of the Christian movement from its inception—and also why, later on, this Judean sector of the church stubbornly rejected the notion of Christ’s virgin birth when it arose. It was not their “vanity” that made them do so, as Irenaeus would assert in Against Heresies in 185 CE when it was published—but their integrity. Being convinced of their family’s descent from David, his brothers and their offspring had no other option—they knew for a fact that Jesus was of “David’s line” too.

Origins of the Later View

When and how then did the alternative view of Christ’s conception arise—that he was conceived “of the Holy Spirit” (ek pneumatos hagiou) without a human father? And when and why was this view included in two Gospels of the Bible? We have come to a point of considerable uncertainty among researchers of these issues. A respected Catholic biblical scholar has recently concluded that all proposals to date regarding the origins of the “virgin birth” stories are “meager and disappointing”—and that he too, does not know where these traditions originated (Meier 222).

My own view is that more can be known about this matter than is generally acknowledged. The two blocks of virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke are themselves suggestive in this regard. It can be readily observed how different they are. While they agree on certain core details (name of Jesus’ parents, miraculous conception, birth in Bethlehem) their accounts of what occurred before and after his birth are astonishingly different. Matthew’s version begins with Jesus’ parents living in Bethlehem—and there is where his miraculous conception occurs; then, when Jesus is born, fearing he might be killed by soldiers of Herod, they flee to Egypt and from there go to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. In Luke’s version Jesus’ parents were living in Nazareth before Jesus was born—and Nazareth is where his miraculous conception occurs; then the parents go on a brief trip to Bethlehem where the birth takes place; shortly afterwards they return to Nazareth with a stopover in Jerusalem to visit the temple. What shall we make of these differences? At the very least they testify to a lack of fixed traditions.

Do we have any clues as to who might have composed these accounts? I have begun to think that we do. Several decades ago in a meticulously researched essay, a respected church historian, Hans von Campenhausen (1964), traced the origins of the theology of virgin birth in the ancient church to a church leader named Ignatius, who was bishop of the church at Syrian Antioch from about 69 to 107 CE. This church was one of the oldest and largest of the time. It was made up of Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). Here Christ’s “disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26) and it was from here that Paul and Barnabas started on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). This too was the church where a controversy erupted over whether Gentiles should be circumcised (Acts 15:1-2). This led to the first consultation of church leaders in Jerusalem in 49 CE (Acts 15:4-29). Another controversy at Antioch was over food laws and this time there were sharp differences between Paul and Peter that could not be resolved (Gal. 2:11-14). It was over this large conflict ridden church that the man presided—Bishop Ignatius—who was the sole source of the virgin birth theology of the early church according to Campenhausen.

When reading Campenhausen’s monograph I sensed its insights might be relevant for discovering the source of the virgin birth stories as well. To understand why, it will be necessary to understand why he came to believe Ignatius is the sole source of the virgin birth theology in the early church. His reasoning is as follows. “It seems to me,” he writes, “that too little account is taken of the fact that all the so-called ‘apostolic fathers’—with one important exception—do not seem to know of the virgin birth…. The exception is Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, the Bishop of Syria as he calls himself … No other fragments of Christian writings up to the middle of the second century that have been handed down to us, other than his writings, speak of the virgin birth” (Campenhausen 1964, 19).

To get the full weight of Campenhausen’s argument we must ask what “fragments of Christian writings” he is referring. They are not mere “fragments,” as he calls them, but substantial documents like the long letter Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote (in 96 CE) to “the Church of God” at Corinth; the letter Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, wrote to the Philippians; the Epistle to Diognetus, a treatise on the beliefs and customs of Christians; the strident Epistle of Barnabas; the imaginative Shepherd of Hermes. These copious writings were written by contemporaries of Ignatius, yet in none of them is there a single reference to Christ’s virgin birth. The only writer in the first century to even mention this miraculous birth is Ignatius, bishop of Antioch.

Even more remarkable, Campenhausen goes on to point out, is the fact that Christ’s “virgin birth” is not just mentioned in the writings of Ignatius, but is at “the centre of his conviction.” For him, Campenhausen continues, “The virgin birth is the very special sign of salvation in the Christian faith. Indeed, the whole of Ignatius’ theology revolves around the great contrast between the human and the divine, the realm of death and the realm of life … The primary miracle of redemption depends on the incarnation, on the paradoxical fact that Christ was both the Son of God and, in a new sense that expressly emphasizes the earthly aspect of his being, the Son of man, or, what comes to the same thing, that he is descended on the one side from the seed of David, but on the other from the Holy Spirit” (29). In summary, before Ignatius, there was not a whisper of Christ’s virgin birth in the extant writings of his contemporaries; by contrast, in the writings of Ignatius, Christ’s virgin birth is at the center of an innovative theology.

The conclusion Campenhausen draws from this remarkable fact is paradoxical. He believes Ignatius to be “the starting point” of the ancient church’s theology of virgin birth but not of the accounts of Christ’s virgin birth in the Gospels (Campenhausen 1964, 25). He is persuaded that the Gospel accounts of Christ’s virgin birth predate Ignatius and were already part of the version of Matthew’s Gospel which he and others of this region were reading. As such, he speculates, these Gospel accounts were the starting-point of all later expositions of virgin birth theology in the early church. This is the point at which I find his research flawed but relevant for an understanding of the origins of the virgin birth accounts in the Gospels as well—for I want now to indicate why I believe it was the other way around. The starting point of Ignatius’ theology was not the Gospel accounts of Christ’s virgin birth but Ignatius’ theology was the starting point for the Gospel accounts. The total silence about Christ’s virgin birth in the extant writings of his contemporaries would alone suggest this. If the virgin birth stories were already part of Matthew’s Gospel, why would Ignatius be the only one in his time to comment on them? Moreover, we know of Jewish-Christians living in this region and time who were devoted to Matthew’s Gospel but opposed to the idea of Christ’s virgin birth when it arose—so obviously, in their version of Matthew’s Gospel these stories were missing.

However, the most compelling reason for thinking Ignatius did not derive his virgin birth theology from the stories in Matthew’s Gospel is that he never even hints at doing so, but on the contrary, gives every indication that the source of his thoughts in this regard was himself. Virtually all that we know about Ignatius is found in seven letters written while he was on his way to a martyr’s death in Rome (in 107 CE). Most of them were drafted on the spur of the moment in response to delegations from the churches who visited him during this momentous journey. Like Paul, whom he admired and sought to emulate, he wrote candidly about his fears, thoughts, and concerns. Also like Paul, he was a man of exceptional talent who felt called by God to foster the unity of the churches of his region in a time of strident conflicts due in large part to the fact that they did not yet have a set of agreed upon scriptures—and those they did have only acerbated their disagreements. Among these were scriptures Christians inherited from Judaism, the letters of Paul, and the Gospel of Matthew.

All Christians, more or less, respected the scriptures of Judaism but they interpreted them in increasingly different ways. One faction embraced the perspective on these scriptures in the writings of Paul, the other faction embraced the views in Matthew’s Gospel. The faction devoted to the letters of Paul inclined more and more to an interpretation that viewed Christ as a God of grace that had come to earth from a totally different realm to liberate human beings from the material world and its laws for a spirit-home in heaven where Christ now lived. The faction that embraced the Gospel of Matthew viewed Christ as the divinely anointed Son of David who had come as a messianic teacher to fulfill the law and prophets and bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it was in heaven. These two groups were increasingly in conflict with each other. Those who espoused Matthew’s Gospel regarded Paul and his letters as subversive of the Law of Moses and the promises of the prophets; those who espoused Paul’s letters thought the adherents of Matthew’s Gospel were fostering a kind of legalism and materialism that was the exact opposite of the spiritually liberating Gospel of Paul.

We know from his letters that Ignatius was searching for a way to unite these divided factions.12 An aspect of his strategy was to exalt the role of the bishop in each and every church—but in what would the bishops be united? From his letters, we sense this was the question preoccupying him and he was excited by the answers welling up within him. It would be a shared new perspective on the centrality and importance of Jesus Christ as both God and man. It was of this that he began to write at the end of his letter to “the deservedly happy church at Ephesus in Asia,” as he calls it. He characterizes his thoughts in this regard as a “preliminary account for you of God’s design for the New Man, Jesus Christ. It is a design for faith in Him and love for Him, and comprehends His Passion and Resurrection” (Letter to Ephesians 20). He adds, “I hope to write you a further letter—if in answer to your prayers, Jesus Christ allows it, and God so wills—in which I will continue this preliminary account….” He had previously written in this same letter about the “mysteries” of Christ’s Death and Resurrection as set forth in the letters of Paul (Letter to Ephesians 12), but Paul did not have much to say about Christ’s birth. His own thoughts about this, is what Ignatius now wants to share. And so, perhaps for the first time (in the middle of paragraph 18 of his letter), abruptly and without forewarning, he begins to put down on paper a “preliminary account” of his thinking in this regard. He writes as follows:

[18.] Under the Divine dispensation Jesus Christ our God was conceived by Mary of the seed of David and of the Spirit of God; He was born, and He submitted to baptism, so that by His Passion He might sanctify water.

[19.] Mary’s virginity [he continues in a new paragraph] was hidden from the prince of this world, so was her child-bearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All three trumpet-tongued secrets [literally, “these mysteries of a loud shout”]14 were brought to pass in the deep silence of God. How then were they made known to the world? Up in the heavens a star gleamed out, more brilliant than all the rest; no words could describe its luster, and the strangeness of it left men bewildered. The other stars and the sun and moon gathered round it in chorus, but this star outshone them all; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its deathblow. The age-old empire of evil was overthrown, for God was now appearing in human form to bring in a new order, even life without end. Now that which had been perfected in the Divine counsels began its work; and all creation was thrown into a ferment over this plan for the utter destruction of death.

The theological premise with which Ignatius began this “preliminary account”—namely, that “Jesus Christ our God was conceived by Mary of the seed of David and of the Spirit of God”—is exactly what is conveyed through the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel, showing Jesus to be “of the seed of David,” and its follow-up account of Christ’s virgin birth, showing him to have been conceived “of the Spirit of God.” Either Ignatius found this theological premise when reading Matthew’s Gospel, or he created it. In the light of the fact that none of Ignatius’s contemporaries testifies to finding it in Matthew, nor does Ignatius, the probability is that he created it and the follow-up stories in Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-23) about Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem and the “star” that led the magi to worship the newly born “Emmanuel” (“God with us”; Mt 1:23). All are themes touched on by Ignatius in his “preliminary account of God’s design for the New Man, Jesus Christ.”

There can be little doubt as to Ignatius’s motives for wanting to divulge his novel thinking in this regard, for after doing so he spells them out. At the very end of his letter he writes of his desire to write further about these matters “if the Lord reveals to me that you are all, man by man and name by name attending your meetings in a state of grace, united in faith in Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David according to the flesh and is the Son of Man and Son of God, and are ready now to obey your bishop and clergy with undivided minds” (Letter to Ephesians 20). To unite the churches of his time in his newly coined vision of Jesus Christ as both Son of David and Son of God was right then, as his martyrdom in Rome approached ever nearer and nearer, his passion and calling.

The Creation of the Bible

When and why was a block of virgin birth stories inserted in Luke’s Gospel; and when and why were Matthew and Luke assembled along with other writings and published in a one-volume Bible such as we have today? There is evidence that both actions, the insertion of virgin birth stories in Luke’s Gospel and the creation of the first one-volume Bibles, were made in response to the same controversies in the churches of the first half of the second century. These controversies were similar to those Bishop Ignatius had to contend with at the end of the first century. As a first step toward understanding them it is important to note what the results might have been of his efforts to address them.

There is evidence that soon after his death a new edition of Matthew’s Gospel, with the virgin birth stories added, was accepted by a growing number of churches. The chief witness to this development is to be found in the writings of Justin Martyr (110-165), born shortly after Ignatius’ martyrdom in Rome. Justin is the first to mention these stories as they appear in the Gospels (Campenhausen 1964, 30-33). He accepts them at face value, and makes ample use of them as proof of Christ’s divinity, even while acknowledging that there are Christians who reject them (Dialogue with Trypho48). So in this sense the endeavors of Ignatius appear to have been successful.

At the same time the theological proposals he had made did not reconcile the contending Christian factions of his time: namely, the adherents of Matthew’s Gospel and the devotees of Paul’s letters. Above all, Ignatius’s endeavors did nothing to deter those devoted to Paul’s letters from developing their theology in new, more radical directions that would turn out to be more divisive than ever.

The writings of Justin Martyr also bear witness to this development. They are not only the first to mention the virgin birth stories in the Gospels but the first to warn of a new, more virulent threat to the unity of the churches in the teachings of Marcion, “a man of Pontus,” as Justin refers to him. He describes this threat as follows: “And there is Marcion,” he wrote, “… who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of the universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works” (First Apology 26). What Justin is referring to is a theological movement that was arising from within the church and threatening to take it over. The “god greater than the Creator” that Marcion was proclaiming was Jesus Christ. Marcion had come to believe in him as such through studying the letters of Paul. In other words, the churches of Asia Minor, and the world, were now, with Marcion on the scene, more bitterly divided than ever and facing an unprecedented crisis. How had this happened?

From all that we can know about Marcion, the “man from Pontus” must have been an extraordinary individual. He was a pastor’s son who had become a wealthy shipbuilder. He was also an innovative and assiduous student of the church’s older and newer scriptures, the letters of Paul in particular. When studying the latter, Marcion was struck by what Paul wrote in Galatians about the revelation of Jesus Christ from which he derived his Gospel, a Gospel of grace and forgiveness that stood in sharp contrast with the Law of Moses in the scriptures of Judaism. This is what likely led Marcion to the radical conviction that there were two Gods: the just, law-obsessed God of Judaism, who created this miserable world; and Jesus Christ the God of grace who came to rescue those who believed in him for a totally different spirit-world in heaven where he now lives.

Utterly convinced of his insights, Marcion felt compelled to act. First, he wrote a book called Antitheses in which he tabulated the differences he observed between Jesus Christ, as revealed to Paul, and the law-obsessed God of Judaism as he perceived to be portrayed in the scriptures of Judaism. Next, as a replacement for the scriptures of Judaism, which he called upon Christians everywhere to stop reading, he created a first Christian “Bible” consisting of a version of the Gospel of Luke, a companion of Paul, and ten letters of Paul (nine to seven churches: Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians; plus Philemon). Then Marcion went to the church at Rome, the leading church of the time now that Jerusalem was destroyed. After giving its elders a large sum of money, he presented his ideas in a bid for their support. His ideas were rejected and his money returned, whereupon he began propagating his teachings on his own.

His teachings and Bible, a single codex, spread like wildfire to all parts of the church. Scholars estimate that Marcion’s followers outnumbered non-Marcionites in the decades of the 160s and 170s (Miller 2004, 49). His success stunned and energized those who opposed him. They rightly sensed a definitive moment had come. Marcion had called upon the churches to get rid of their Jewish scriptures and embrace as their scriptures his own newly created Bible. Instead, those who opposed him did an amazing thing. They quickly produced an alternative Bible by having the entire body of Jewish scriptures, still on scrolls, copied onto the pages of a single codex (as Marcion had done) and then added, in the same codex, many additional Christian writings, including those that Marcion had in his Bible. By this act alone those who did this were saying in effect: Jesus Christ is not a new God; Christianity is not a new religion. Christians believe in God the Creator, Maker of heaven and earth. Christianity is part of the same story, guided by the selfsame God that is witnessed to in the scriptures of Judaism (Miller 2004, 60-75).

This alternative Bible, a prototype of Bibles today, was huge! Nevertheless, it too was disseminated and embraced by more and more churches worldwide (Trobisch 106). It was at this time, for example, with this alternative Bible in hand, that Irenaeus (130-200 CE), bishop of the church in Lyons, France, wrote Against Heresies in which he subjected the teachings of Marcion, and other like-minded teachers, for the first time, to a thorough theological critique. Fifteen years later Tertullian of Carthage (160-230) did the same in a treatise entitled Against Marcion. Three manuscript copies of these first alternative Bibles have survived. They are known as Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Vaticanus.

Usually dated to the fourth or fifth centuries, they are examples of what the “first edition” Bibles of the second century looked like (Trobisch 24; Miller 2004, 52-54). A treatise of Tertullian (160-230 CE), Prescription against Heresies, published at the end of the second century indicates not only when but where these first one-volume Bibles were first published (Miller 2004, 130). In it he praises the church at Rome for having at some point earlier in that century “united the law and prophets” (scriptures of Judaism) with “the writings of evangelists and apostles” (Christian scriptures) in a volume from which the church “drinks in her faith” (Prescription 36).

Vibrant testimony to the creation of a compendium of this kind in mid second-century Rome is also to be found in an ancient text called the Muratorian Fragment. It reports on a conclave to draw up a list of books that would be read “publicly to the people in the church” (line 78).17 It refers to disputes over scriptures that were being discussed and settled. The “heresy of Marcion” is mentioned. The name used for the scriptures under discussion is “Prophets” (“Old Testament”) and “Apostles” (“New Testament”). The list of “Apostles” to be read publicly is one that resembles the list of books in the New Testament of Bibles today. The document’s first lines were destroyed. So it begins as follows: “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke”—and then we read the following: “The fourth of the Gospels is that of John.” So we can surmise that the four Gospels in the order we have them in Bibles today were being singled out for a collection of books that would be read publicly in those churches that agreed with this conclave.

Two Views In One Bible

We have confirmation of the work of this conclave in the three codices referred to above: Codex Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus. In all three the four Gospels are grouped together at the forefront of what would become known as the “New Testament” of this Bible. The Gospel of Matthew is first, undoubtedly because some version of this Gospel had played a vital role from the beginning of the Christian movement—but also because of its opening genealogy. That genealogy, linking Jesus to a line of fathers going back to Abraham, now serves a dual purpose within this newly formed one-volume Bible: showing the ancestry of Jesus—but also now connecting his story (and the story of the world-mission of his disciples) to the story recounted in the prior scriptures of Judaism beginning with creation (Genesis 1). So with Matthew’s Gospel now an integral part of this one-volume Bible, the story of Christ’s virgin birth, which follows, is now also an integral part of this larger story extending from creation to the world-mission of Christ’s disciples. Hence, as it turns out, the lofty goals that Ignatius had in mind for its theological perspectives were being realized—to unify and strengthen the churches of the whole world (and the world itself) with a “preliminary account of God’s design for the New Man, Jesus Christ … a design which provides for faith in Him and love for Him and comprehends His Passion and His Resurrection” (Letter to Ephesians 20).

What then are we to make of the quite different stories of Christ’s virgin birth a few chapters later in this same Bible, in Luke’s Gospel? When were these stories added to Luke’s Gospel—and why were they also included in the first one-volume Bibles? As previously indicated, this may have occurred at the time this one-volume Bible was created and for similar reasons—to combat Marcion’s teachings and Bible. A similar thesis is proposed by veteran biblical scholar Joseph B. Tyson in a recently published study (Tyson 2006). Marcion taught that since Jesus is God, it was absurd to think that he was born as a baby or really died. He was eternal, but manifest on earth as a fully grown man. So in all likelihood, Tyson suggests, the version of Luke’s Gospel Marcion had in his Bible did not begin with infancy stories. Marcion’s version may have been the original version of Luke’s Gospel, Tyson argues. “Quite apart from the Marcionite issues,” he writes, “there are good reasons to think that the infancy narratives of Luke’s Gospel were late additions to an earlier version of Luke’s Gospel” (Tyson 90). The earlier version began with the third chapter where Jesus is introduced, as he is in Mark’s Gospel, as an adult. So the infancy stories in Luke 1:5-2:52 were inserted into Luke’s Gospel, Tyson suggests, after Marcion’s Bible was published and in circulation, with the intent of combating his mistaken ideas about Jesus only appearing to be human.

How, in Tyson’s opinion, do the infancy narratives of Luke’s Gospel do this? Tyson points to three ways. First, “Above all, the narratives maintain that Jesus was born of a woman; he did not suddenly descend from heaven to Capernaum…. For the author of canonical Luke [Tyson observes], although Jesus was born without the agency of Joseph … his is nevertheless a human birth. The language that the angel Gabriel uses in addressing Mary in Luke 1:31 seems to have been selected specifically to offend the Marcionites: Mary is to conceive in her womb and produce a son…. Anatomical references are also stressed in the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1:39-45), when the child of Elizabeth leaps in her womb (Luke 1:41-44)…. The language throughout Luke 1:5-2:52 emphasizes the humanity of Jesus” (Tyson 98-99).

Secondly, “The Lukan infancy narratives also stress the relationship of Jesus to Israel,” Tyson writes. “Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish people is made clear in the references to Joseph and Jesus as of the house of David (Luke 1:27; 1:69; 2:4) and to David as Jesus’ father (Luke 1:32)…. The fidelity of the family to Jewish practices is shown in Luke 2:22-24, the stories of the presentation of Jesus and of Mary’s purification…. The author also implies that Jesus himself incorporated these practices, noting that as a child he was obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51). But Jesus’ Jewishness is nowhere more emphatically signified than in the story of his circumcision (Luke 2:21)…. Together with others, this passage indicates that the legitimacy and right of Jesus to speak and act in the name of the God of Israel for salvation on behalf of the people and nations is beyond doubt. For our purposes,” Tyson summarizes, “it is important to observe that the vital link with Judaism signified by Jesus’ circumcision would have been highly offensive to Marcion and his followers” (Tyson 99).

A third feature of these stories that would have been offensive to Marcion, Tyson points out, is “the pervasive influence of the Hebrew Scriptures … notable in Luke 1:5-2:52. Allusions to a number of books may be found throughout the narratives, but the author makes prominent use of Daniel and Malachi…. These considerations make it highly probable,” Tyson concludes, “that the Lukan birth narratives were added in reaction to the challenges of Marcionite Christianity. It would be very difficult to explain why Marcion would choose a gospel with these, to him, highly offensive chapters at the beginning only to eliminate them. Further, it would be difficult to imagine a more directly anti-Marcionite narrative than what we have in Luke 1:5-2:52…. The author of Luke 1:5-2:52 wants his readers to know that Marcion is wrong in denying the human birth of Jesus, his Jewish connections, his fulfillment of Jewish expectations, and the role of the prophets in predicting his coming. In a relatively short span our author has succeeded in challenging and rejecting major Marcionite claims” (Tyson 100).

Tyson’s thesis includes more than the infancy narratives in Luke’s Gospel. He believes other inserts were made to this Gospel at this time and an additional volume was created, the New Testament book of Acts, to produce a work “that would clearly and forcefully respond to the claims of the Marcionites” (Tyson 120). He visualizes this as a stand-alone project. He does not consider what, in my opinion, is the more likely possibility, namely, that the infancy narratives were added to Luke’s Gospel in the process of adding this Gospel to a one-volume Bible that the church was preparing to combat Marcion’s teachings and Bible. Viewed in this light, the infancy narratives in Luke’s Gospel can be seen as a corrective response not only to the mistaken ideas of Marcion but as a corrective supplement as well to the infancy narratives in Matthew’s Gospel, which are located just a few pages earlier.

In any case, in their present setting, as part of a one-volume Bible, these two blocks of virgin birth stories will inevitably be compared and it will be noticed how the infancy narratives in Luke’s Gospel do in fact supplement and correct certain possibly wrong impressions that might be taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew’s Gospel. For all their differences, Luke’s virgin birth stories are sufficiently like the stories in Matthew’s Gospel that it can be assumed that Matthew’s account served as a model for the stories in Luke, but the stories in Luke are more human, more realistic, more credible, conveying a picture of Jesus’ family as it really might have been in the times in which Jesus grew up. In this way the stories in Luke serve to humanize and historicize Jesus not only vis-à-vis Marcion’s Bible but vis-à-vis Matthew’s infancy narratives.

Do we have any clues as to who might have written the stories in Luke’s Gospel? There is one possible candidate—it turns out to be someone Ignatius of Antioch knew and admired. On his way to his martyrdom in Rome Bishop Ignatius arranged for a prolonged stopover at the port-city of Smyrna, where a much younger man was bishop. Over the next fifty years, until his own martyr’s death, this young man, Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, would become the pre-eminent leader in the whole of Asia Minor and Rome, in the struggle against Marcion. That stopover in Smyrna was the setting in which Ignatius received his first church delegations, and where he drafted his letter to the Ephesians (cited above). In that letter he went public for the first time with a “preliminary account” of his new thinking about Christ’s virgin birth (Letter to Ephesians 20). During that stopover a bond was formed between Ignatius and Polycarp that is evident in their subsequent letters (Staniforth 126).

Polycarp not only went on to lead the fight against Marcion in Asia Minor and Rome but there is evidence that he may have had a hand as well in helping design the first one-volume Bible to combat Marcion. History is an inexact science, but sources at hand all point to Ignatius as having shaped, if not written, the virgin birth stories in Matthew’s Gospel, and to Polycarp as having influenced, if not written, the virgin birth stories in Luke’s Gospel. The older view of the miracle of Christ’s birth, that he was conceived ek spermatos David, is also still present in this one-volume Bible, but in modified form. Even so, this older view continues to serve as a reminder that the story of Christ’s virgin birth is not to be interpreted too literally, but, to repeat, in the way Ignatius hoped it would be read, namely, as “a preliminary account of the New Man, Jesus Christ … which provides for faith in Him and love for Him” (Letter to Ephesians 20).