The Nativity Tradition

In a recent Email dialogue with a follower of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I expressed my lack of belief in the "Holy Trinity"—the concept shared by nearly all Christian denominations that Jesus was part of a tripartite relationship that embodies the Christian God. In response, he posed the following question: If Christ was not God, why was it necessary for the Holy Spirit to impregnate the Virgin Mary (the Incarnation)?

In order to better answer the question, I'll forego my feelings about the Trinity and specifically address the Virgin Birth:

The image of the Nativity has become so ingrained in our culture that no one thinks to question its validity. But two things have always disturbed me about the story of Jesus's birth. First, the accounts given by Matthew and Luke are completely contradictory on their face. I have heard apologetic arguments claiming that the two versions are reconcilable, but I find them unconvincing if not downright silly. Second, it is well documented in the gospels that Jesus's family never followed his teachings during his lifetime; not even his mother (see Mk 3:21, Mt 12:46-50, Lk 8:19-21, Jn 7:5). This kind of behavior seems rather strange for a God-fearing Jewish woman who had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and personally told of her son's identity by an angel.

Then I began to research the background of the prophecy of the Virgin Birth in Isaiah 7:14. The original Hebrew reads, "Look, the almah is withchild and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Emmanuel." The Hebrew word almah literally translates to "young woman"—it could be used to mean "virgin," but not imperatively so. However, the writers of the NT gospels did not have access to any Hebrew texts. All of their quoted passages from OT scripture are lifted directly from the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation commonly circulated during the period. And the authors of the Septuagint had mistranslated the word almah into the Greek parthenos, which quite literally means "virgin."

What's more, the passage in Isaiah has absolutely nothing to do with the Messiah. The prophet is speaking to King Ahaz about a future leader named Emmanuel who will prevent Judah from going to war with Syria and Ephraim. Jesus had nothing to do with this conflict (which was back in the seventh century BCE), not to mention the fact that his name isn't Emmanuel!

It is easy to understand why the early gospel writers were compelled to quote these passages out of context. By the time Matthew and Luke penned their gospels, it had become obvious that the Jews had rejected Jesus as their savior, and that the future of Christianity lay with the Gentiles. Nearly all the pagan religions of the time (i.e., Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and much of Greek mythology) professed a belief in a leader who was born of a virgin, and the Gentiles simply would never have accepted a savior who had been conceived any other way. (The same can be said of the supposed "tripartite" nature of God, which is not ever stated in the gospels, and which any orthodox Jew considers to be a violation of the first commandment.) This is not to say that the gospellers were being deliberately deceptive. Little, if anything, was known about Jesus's birth, and this void had to be addressed. Matthew and Luke simply authored scenarios that were in keeping with the expectations of the period. What harm was done by a bit of romanticizing?

Unfortunately, the pagan influence only grew stronger, and by the time of the Chalcedonian Definition in 451 C.E., Jesus's identity had evolved, from the lowly son of a poor carpenter in Nazareth who was anointed by God's Spirit to bring salvation for all humanity, to a physical manifestation of God himself. And I cannot understand how Jesus's baptism, temptation, death on the cross and resurrection in the flesh could possibly hold any meaning if he himself was the God for whom he professed such faith. The Jews were expecting a fully human Messiah, and I believe Jesus of Nazareth was exactly that, albeit the greatest human ever to walk the Earth.

Geoff Trowbridge, 12/96 (rev. 6/97)

We do not claim affiliation with any particular religious denomination, but quote freely from the literature provided by various religious groups when we feel they've hit the proverbial nail on the head. Our position on the Trinity closely mirrors that of the Watchtower Society.

For a more radical but equally interesting viewpoint, try Mark Lerner's Trinitarian Dogma page.

A more comprehensive essay on the Virgin Birth can be found at the site of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

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