Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/The Doctrine of Virgin Birth

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The Book of Mormon and The Doctrine of Virgin Birth

Summary: The Doctrine of Virgin Birth has been presented with history-based criticisms. This article examines those claims and provides a response to the concern over Virgin Birth

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Question: Do historical challenges to The Doctrine of Virgin Birth towards the Bible present challenges for the Book of Mormon as well?

Critics claim that the infancy narratives in the Gospels are historically unreliable and thus threaten or undermine the doctrine of Virgin Birth which is affirmed in the Book of Mormon

The Lucan and Matthean Synoptic Gospels record the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary, portrayed a virgin. Mary conceives Jesus by the power of the Holy Ghost, emphasizing the divine origin of Jesus Christ as the only begotten of the Father in the flesh.

Similarly, the Book of Mormon records in 1 Nephi 11:13-20, 2 Nephi 17:14, and Alma 7:10 that Jesus would be born of a virgin named Mary, at Jerusalem, and that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and allow her to conceive and bring forth Jesus. Thus, Latter-day Saints may be said to believe in the doctrine of Virgin Birth.

Biblical scholars generally do not believe in the historicity of the infancy narratives of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. They generally see that the doctrine of virgin birth was based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in 2 Nephi 17:14) which states (KJV):

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

The word translated as “virgin” in this verse is “עַלְמָה” (ʿalmah). The word is generally translated as “young woman” instead of “virgin”. Most translations of the Bible render Isaiah 7:14 with “virgin” instead of “young woman” because of the importance of the doctrine of virgin birth to Christians and not necessarily because the translation of the word “virgin” is the self-evident meaning of the term.[1] Additionally, the infancy narratives are claimed to have historical and narrative contradictions. The contradictions most frequently cited exist in the genealogies given by Luke and Matthew at the beginning of the Gospels, the historical inaccuracy of a census taking place during the governance of Quirinius in the Lucan narrative, and the omission of Mary’s and Joseph’s flight into Egypt in the Lucan account of the Savior’s infancy.

Thus, we see claimed that the historical reliability of the narratives and the doctrine of Virgin Birth are threatened by these facts. How do we account for them? This article discusses potential avenues of further research and lines of defense for the doctrine.

Response to Claimed Mistranslation

The first issue to deal with is the translation of the word “’almah” as “young woman”. It is true, and we should acknowledge it as true, that the word in Hebrew most commonly means simply “young woman”. NET Bible has informative commentary on the translation:

Traditionally, “virgin.” Because this verse from Isaiah is quoted in Matt 1:23 in connection with Jesus’ birth, the Isaiah passage has been regarded since the earliest Christian times as a prophecy of Christ’s virgin birth. Much debate has taken place over the best way to translate this Hebrew term, although ultimately one’s view of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is unaffected. Though the Hebrew word used here (עַלְמָה, ʿalmah) can sometimes refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun עֶלֶם (ʿelem, “young man”; cf. 1 Sam 17:56; 20:22). The Aramaic and Ugaritic cognate terms are both used of women who are not virgins. The word seems to pertain to age, not sexual experience, and would normally be translated “young woman.” The LXX translator(s) who later translated the Book of Isaiah into Greek sometime between the second and first century b.c., however, rendered the Hebrew term by the more specific Greek word παρθένος (parthenos), which does mean “virgin” in a technical sense. This is the Greek term that also appears in the citation of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23. Therefore, regardless of the meaning of the term in the OT context, in the NT Matthew’s usage of the Greek term παρθένος clearly indicates that from his perspective a virgin birth has taken place.[2]

Thus, as the NET Bible states, although the word doesn’t carry that meaning of the word inherently, it may still be validly translated as “virgin”. Additionally, it was translated as the very word for virgin (Parthenos) in the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible which was produced beginning in the 3 century BC which Matthew quotes in his Gospel). One’s view of the virgin birth does not need to be affected by the mistranslation of this passage.

Response to Claimed Contradictions that Supposedly Undermine the Historicity of the Infancy Narratives of the Matthean and Lucan Accounts.

Next, we should deal with the claimed contradictions that supposedly undermine the historicity of the infancy narratives recorded in the Matthean and Lucan accounts.[3]

The Genealogies

The genealogies recorded in the beginning of the Matthean and Lucan accounts are generally thought to be contradictory.

Craig Blomberg:

Right at the outset of Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter a complicated and puzzling cluster of questions surrounding the genealogies of Jesus. Matthew stats with Abraham and moves forward selectively when compared with the corresponding Old Testament genealogies (Matt 1:2-17). Luke begins with Jesus and goes backward all the way to Adam, who is then called the son of God (Luke 3:23-28). Language of “begetting” (or being the father or son of someone) could often refer to being an ancestor or descendant, so gaps in genealogies prove no problem.[4] Matthew, as the most Jewish of the Synoptics, addressing the most Jewish-Christian audience, understandably stresses Jesus as Son od David (see already Matt 1:1), and arranges his genealogy in three groups of fourteen (sometimes counting inclusively and sometimes exclusively), with David as the fourteenth name, almost certainly because of the numerical value of the consonants in David’s name, which added up to fourteen. Gematria, a Hebrew practice of totaling the numbers to which the letters of a word corresponded (because Hebrew did not have separate symbols for numerals), was a common device among the rabbis, used in this case to highlight the role of David in Jesus’s genealogy.[5] There are also variant spellings in Greek transliteration of some of the Hebrew names and some puzzling textual variants here and there. But the only really difficult issue is the completely different list of names in the two genealogies in between David and Jesus. Matthew’s version, going through Solomon and the kings who succeeded him, would appear to be the legal or royal line of descent,[6] even though from the deportation to Babylon onward, with the exception of Zerubbbabel, the relevant men did not actually reign in Sirael. But we know absolutely nothing about the people on Luke’s list during this time period—Heli, Matthat, Levi, Melchi, Jannai, and so on (Luke 3:23-24).

From the earliest days in church history, two main suggestions have been offered. One is that Mary was also of Davidic descent, given that Jews tended to marry within tribal lineage, so that Heli was Joseph’s father-in-law.[7] After all, the Greek merely reads, “Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat, of Levi…” and so forth. Referring to Joseph, Jesus’s adoptive father, would still carry more weight in a patriarchal world, even if the lineage biologically passed through Mary. The second option is that levirate marriages at one or more points in Joseph’s biological ancestry accounted for the divergence.[8] This was the practice whereby a man died without children so his widow remarried one of his brothers in hopes of raising up an heir for her first husband (Deut 25:5-6). This could lead the royal line, which would follow other rules for the nearest male kin, to diverge from the biological/inhereitance line. In my earlier writings, I leaned in the direction of the latter solution; but the more I reflect on the issue, the more I am inclined today to adopt the former. The Palestinian Talmud refers to the father of Mary as Eli (j. Smnh. 23c and j. Hag. 77d), while apocryphal Christian traditions call him Joachim (Protev. Jas). But Joachim is a Hebrew variation of Eliakim (with Joa and Eli both coming from names for God), from which Heli could have been derived.[9] At any rate we know that ancient Israelites kept written records and oral traditions about their ancestries in meticulous detail,[10]so it is not difficult to envision Luke, or the tradition he inherited, just making up names no one had ever heard of, especially when the Old Testament already gave a list of names to adopt (as Matthew did) down through at least the mid-fifth century BC.

For a similar example of how diverse names may have evolved from one original, see Mark 8:10 and Matthew 15:39. Matthew’s Magadan may well be a variant form of Magdala, a well-known town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Magdala comes from the Aramaic migdal nunya and then Grecized to Dalmanutha.[11][12]

Quirnius/Cyrenius

Quirinus is a man claimed in the Gospels to hold rule as governor of Syria during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It is claimed that a census took place in v 2 of ch 1 of Luke. The problem is that we have good records of who would have been in office when Jesus was born and Quirinus would have been in office at 6 BC which would be after Jesus' birth.

Thomas Wayment writes:

2:2 Luke notes that the census, or enrollment, was carried out under Cyrenius. This Cyrenius is probably Publius Suplicius Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria. That census took place in 6 CE, roughly ten years after the death of Herod the Great (died circa March 4 BCE). Our historical sources do not permit certainty on the issue of whether Luke associated the birth of Jesus with the wrong governor of Syria or whether there was an earlier census at the time of Jesus’s birth. Quintilius Varus was the governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’s birth. Some scholars postulate that the census took a number of years to be completed and was only finalized in Cyrenius’s day.[13]

Craig Blomberg states-- following the route of a census before Qurinius:

For a while it appeared that new archaeological evidence would support a joint rule of some kind between Quirinius and another Roman appointee at an earlier date, but this has not materialized.[14] I am now more included to suggest a straightforward alternative translation: “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria” (NIV mg). Although protos elsewhere in Luke always means “first,” the second most common meaning of the word is “before”[15] and the entire Greek clause is notoriously ambiguous because Luke id not use any articles to help make his meaning more precise. The most literal translation that is still intelligible in English is, “This census was first/before Quirinus governing Syria” (haute apographe prote egeneto hegemoneuontos tes Surias Kureniou). The text certainly can mean, “This census was the first while Quirinius was governing Syria,” but one would normally expect an article before apographe and again before prote if that were Luke’s intetntion. But we could translate, “This census was before [one] when Qurinius was governor.”[16] The census in AD 6 under Qurinius was particularly infamous because it provoked the failed rebellion by Judas the Galilean. So it would be natural for a biographer or historian to refer to an earlier census with reference to the later, much better-remembered one.[17][18]

The non-reference of the flight to Egypt

Craig Blomberg:

Most of Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives focus on different events surrounding [Jesus’] birth and earliest years, fitting well with their theological purposes. Matthew 1:18-2:23 shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of five key Old Testament prophecies,[19] while Luke 1:5-2:40 compares and contrasts the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. At one point in particular, however, it is often claimed that one Gospel leaves no room for what the other narrates. Specifically, it is alleged that Luke has no space for the flight of Joseph, Mary, and their baby to Egypt, their sojourn there, and their return to Israel possibility up to a couple of years later (Matthew 1:13-23.[20]After all, immediately after his description of Jesus’s presentation in the temple, which would have occurred between five and six weeks after his birth (see Lev 12:1-5), Luke announces, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:9). But how long afterwards did this occur? The next two verses in Luke summarize twelve years, a period of time much longer than we would suspect if it weren’t for verse 42 specifying the interval. More dramatically still, 2:52 refers to a period of about eighteen years, as 3:23 discloses, as Luke jumps from the twelve-year-old boy Jesus to his life as a man at about the age of thirty. When we recall, however, that ancient biographers often skipped over large, comparatively unimportant stretches of their subjects’ lives, this should not surprise us. Neither should we balk if a source other than Luke tells us more that occurred in between Mary and Joseph’s fulfilling their legal requirements in Jerusalem after Jesus’ birth and their resettlement in Nazareth. Nor should we assume there is a contradiction between their being guided to Nazareth, which Matthew does not mention until 2:22-23, and Luke’s record of their returning to their original home (Luke 2:39)[21]It appears likely that they initially planned to resettle in Bethlehem because the Magi find them living in a home there possibly up to two years after Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:11,16), no doubt to avoid the stigma and ostracism that would have constantly surrounded them in tiny Nazareth.[22] But, when Herod’s orders to kill the babies in and around Jerusalem force them to flee and when they learned that the worst of his sons, Archelaus, was ruling in Judea after his death, it was clearly better to suffer some social discomfort back in Galilee than to risk the child’s life again.[23]

How Reliable Are Matthew’s and Luke’s Accounts Generally?

The historical reliability of the Matthean and Lucan account continues to be debated. Latter-day Saints should simply seek to study the work of Biblical scholars that seek to demonstrate the Bible's reliability in this regard.[24]

Defending the Doctrine of Virgin Birth from other New Testament Literature

The Virgin Birth doctrine is claimed to have developed in Christian circles likely around AD 65.[25] Around this same time is when many of the undisputed Pauline letters are believed by scholars to have been written including First Thessalonians, Galatians, First Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Second Corinthians, and Romans.[26]In Paul’s epistles, the coming of Christ is seen as the solution to Adam’s sin, and through Christ the righteous will be restored to heavenly paradise in a state of glory.[27]The question is why Christ would be seen as the new Adam.[28]Adam, similar to Christ, was born of God and the dust of the earth and brings death. Similarly, Christ was born of God and brings life. Thus, we may have a potential reinforcement for Matthew and Luke’s ideas about Christ as born of God through the Pauline epistles.

What about the Book of Mormon Itself?

Defending the Virgin Birth from the New Testament is difficult in large part to the lateness of the narratives describing it. But what if we had an earlier source that was thought of as authentic demonstrating that earlier Jews understood that Christ would be born of a virgin? The consensus would be demonstrated overwhelmingly in the other direction. If we assume the Book of Mormon as authentic, then the tradition gains more traction. This simply requires that we defend the Book of Mormon as an authentically ancient document which has been done vigorously through Latter-day Saint scholarship for the past 8 decades.[29][30]

Conclusion

It does not appear that the Latter-day Saints have to struggle greatly to defend the doctrine of Virgin of Birth.[31]

Notes

  1. See Bible Hub, “Isaiah 7:14” <https://biblehub.com/isaiah/7-14.htm> (accessed 19 August 2019); See also footnote 25 for Isaiah 7:14 on Net Bible, “Isaiah 7” <https://netbible.org/bible/Isaiah+7> (accessed 19 August 2019).
  2. NET Bible, “Isaiah 7” footnote 25.
  3. The ideas for apologetics to address this issue are derived from Craig L. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament” (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016) 57-62, 100-8; and Thomas A. Wayment, “The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints” (Provo and Salt Lake: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2019) 4-5, 108-12.
  4. Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 200), 58.
  5. W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 163-65.
  6. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 32-33.
  7. John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 170.
  8. D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 88-90.
  9. Robert Geis, Divinity of a Birth (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2011), 109010, 173-74 n. 20. See also Jacques Masson, Jesus fils de David: Dans les genealogies de saint mathiew et de saint luc (Paris: Tequi, 1982), 365-66.
  10. See the survey of scholarly literature on ancient Jewish genealogies in Jason B. Hood, The Message, His Brothers, and the Nations: Matthew 1.1-17 (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 9-62.
  11. A.H. McNeile, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915; Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1980), 234.
  12. Blomgberg, “The Historical Reliability” 57-9. Citations retained for easy reference
  13. Wayment, “The New Testament” 112.
  14. For a full discussion of the scholarly options, see Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 903-9
  15. BDAG, 893.
  16. Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights in the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1965), 23-24.
  17. Brook R.W. Pearson “The Lucan Censuses, Revisited,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61 (1999): 281.
  18. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability” 60-1. Citations retained for easy reference.
  19. See esp. France, Matthew, 40-45.
  20. E.G. C.F Evans, Saint Luke (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 221.
  21. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Milton Keynes: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 122.
  22. See esp. Scot McKnight, “Jesus as Mamzer (‘Illegitimate Son’(),” in Who Do My Opponents Say I am? An Investigation of the Accusations Against the Historical Jesus, ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 133-63.
  23. Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability”, 61-2.
  24. For good defenses of them as eyewitnesses or at least reliable witnesses to events of Jesus’ life, see Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability” 3-148. Esp. 100-8; Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” (Ada: Eerdmans, 2017); Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels” (Downer's Grove: IVP Academic, 2007). Most recently and most persuasively see Craig S. Keener, “Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels” (Ada, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).
  25. Larry Hurtado, “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” (Ada: Eerdmans, 2005).
  26. For a brief but effective survey, see Wikipedia, “Pauline Epistles” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_epistles> (accessed 19 August 2019).
  27. Ronald S. Hendel, “Adam” in David Noel Freedman (ed.), Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 19.
  28. For a brief but effective overview of the theological idea, see Wikipedia, “Last Adam” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Adam> (accessed 19 August 2019).
  29. Written 19 August 2019. See Brant A. Gardner, “Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History” (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, “Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon” 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, “Mormon’s Codex” (Provo and Salt Lake: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2013); John Welch et al., “Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True” (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds (ed.), “Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins” (Provo: FARMS, 1997).
  30. As it regards The Book of Mormon’s view of the virgin birth, it’s important to realize that Nephi’s interpretation of Isaiah was more than likely influenced by his vision of Lehi’s dream and not the other way around. For ancient evidence that can support the authenticity of Nephi’s Vision, see What Does the Virgin Mary Have to Do with the Tree of Life? on Book of Mormon Central’s website. We also shouldn't discount the role that other restoration scripture can play. See, for instance, the astounding evidence for the Book of Abraham. For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, "In God's Image and Likeness" (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2009).
  31. For an excellent scholarly response to this and for more information see Robert S. Boylan, "Behold the Mother of My Lord: Towards a Mormon Mariology" (Charleston: Create Space, 2017) esp. 208-12.