Andrew Lincoln – Born of a Virgin?

Andrew Lincoln – Born of a Virgin? September 11, 2013

The title is (I hope obviously) not asking whether Andrew Lincoln was born of a virgin. It is about the book which Andrew Lincoln has written, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology.

I had the privilege of reading the book in advance of publication, and have already mentioned it a couple of times here on the blog.

Here is what I wrote for the purpose of providing an endorsement:

There are topics which are such a focus of controversy and attention that eventually we come to feel that all has been said that can or should be said. Then along comes a groundbreaking volume that arrives like a breath of fresh air and allows us to see the familiar with new eyes. Lincoln’s volume on the virginal conception is such a work. It not only offers insightful explanation of what the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke say, but also identifies and explores the contrasting perspectives on the topic from other New Testament authors. In discussing the stories about Jesus’ birth, Lincoln also clarifies the relevance of these to the genre of the Gospels and historians’ use of them, and finally brings the historical data and its interpretation into dialogue with the contemporary church and theology. Lincoln’s excellent, clear, and comprehensive treatment is sure to be considered the volume to turn to on this topic for many years to come.

Here is a quote from the book that I think sums up nicely its message for today’s Christians:

For some, to cast doubt on the historicity of any biblical account is already to reject the authority and truth of the Bible. In regard to the virgin birth, their argument runs – the New Testament is authoritative as divinely inspired, therefore the Gospels should be accepted as historically reliable, therefore we should accept the claim of a virginal conception. It is a theological argument in which historical claims are embedded. But it is a fallacious one. Its initial premise, though one that would be accepted by a Christian approaching our topic, is incomplete and the consequences it draws from the premise simply do not follow. It omits from its premise the corresponding Christian belief about Scripture that it is the word of God through the words of humans, humans who lived in particular historical contexts and who used the modes of communication available to them in their particular cultures. As a consequence, it holds to a historical virginal conception by simply ignoring the issues of interpretation and genre, and with them the results of the serious study of the documents by New Testament scholars. Such study enables us to discern how specific parts of the Gospels are constructing the past, whether as reliable memories of events or in a way that is consonant with the conventions for writing the life of a subject in the first century CE or in some combination of these alternatives, and therefore also to discern the nature of the divine claim that is being made through such narratives. Again, this does not detract from their authority or truth but is simply to recognize the form in which divine revelation has been given us. When a theologian, such as Crisp, inveighs against the findings of historical critics about the infancy narratives by asserting, ‘And the fact is, the birth narratives are canonical Scripture. This means that there is a very good theological reason for trusting them: they are divine revelation’, he is confusing what is at stake. That they are part of canonical Scripture tells us nothing about their literary genre and therefore what sort of history they may or may not contain. Trusting them as divine revelation entails trusting their witness to the significance of Jesus and does not necessarily mean taking them literally as straightforward historically accurate accounts.

As I said on a previous occasion, I fully expect Lincoln’s volume to become for a new generation what Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah was for a previous one. He gives full exploration to key issues related to the diversity of the New Testament witness, the possibility that Mary was raped and/or that Jesus was illegitimate, and all the other difficult aspects of the evidence and the questions raised by it. And by not trying to offer a full-fledged commentary on the infancy narratives as Brown did, Lincoln’s volume ends up being significantly shorter, a book that one might actually read from cover to cover – as I enjoyed doing – and not merely as a reference work

I highly recommend Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology by Andrew Lincoln and look forward to the discussions it will generate!

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