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Advent and the Virginal Conception Challenged

Advent and the Virginal Conception Challenged November 16, 2013

Every Spring a book or two appears contesting the resurrection or the atonement, so it is not surprising Advent shows a similar questioning of orthodox Christian faith about Jesus’ birth. Andrew Lincoln published a book questioning the virginal conception, and Larry Hurtado gives the book an appreciative summary and review, including this clip:

Andrew Lincoln, a respected NT scholar (former President of the British NT Society), most recently serving as Portland Professor of New Testament in the University of Gloucestershire, has written an important book on the early Christian tradition that Jesus was conceived without the aid of a human father:  the “virginal conception” tradition (often popularly referred to as “virgin birth”):  Born of a Virgin?  Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition and Theology (SPCK, 2013).  Having reviewed the book for a journal, I want to bring it to the attention of other readers.

Emphasizing his own Christian faith-stance, and writing particularly for fellow Christians, Lincoln offers some serious and impressive reasons for what will be for many/most a major re-thinking of the matter.  Of course, others (often from critics outside the circle of Christian faith) have urged that a virginal conception is incompatible with “modern” thinking.  But Lincoln repeatedly aligns himself as a practicing Christian, and offers observations that involve both a careful, historical approach to the NT writings and some serious theological reasons that a virginal conception (if taken literally) could actually pose a serious problem for Christian beliefs about Jesus’ role in salvation.

One of Lincoln’s major emphases is that the idea of a virginal conception is actually reflected explicitly in only two NT writings:  the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  So far as we can tell, he urges, Paul did not know the idea, nor did the writers of Hebrews or Gospel of John, for example.  So, Lincoln’s first point is that we appear to have a certain variety of views or assumptions about Jesus’ birth, these latter texts suggesting a view that he was conceived in the normal manner, and emphasizing his Davidic lineage.

I would say that the absence of a virginal conception tradition in Paul, John and Hebrews proves nothing about whether they knew or did not know about the virginal conception.

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