TF: A partial list of famous people born of virgins in Bethlehem

TF: A partial list of famous people born of virgins in Bethlehem May 31, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 391-393

There’s little quite as mortifyingly horrible as the church speaker who attempts to “reach the young people of today” by incorporating what he imagines to be their lingo into his message.

The result, almost always, is something wincingly awful and embarrassing for all concerned. The speaker usually sounds like a tourist trying to pretend to be a native speaker while relying on a guidebook of common phrases from 1953. His every over-earnest attempt to convey the idea “I’m one of you” winds up, instead, screaming “I have no idea who you are.”

Something similar is going on here in Tribulation Force as the authors attempt to portray the rabbinical studies of Tsion Ben-Judah. The reader gets the impression that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins don’t understand Judaism any better than those church speakers understand youth culture.

It’s probably worse than that, actually. The reader gets the impression that LaHaye and Jenkins have never met or spoken to or even seen anyone who was actually Jewish. Ben-Judah doesn’t speak or think like any actual Jew who ever actually walked the face of the actual earth.

But that’s not to say I don’t recognize this character. I do. He’s a dead ringer for Josh McDowell, the cheerfully dim self-styled “apologetics” expert and author of books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict in which he purports to show that the Christian faith can be easily proved and that unbelievers are therefore just being ornery.

The resemblance to McDowell is so uncannily exact in this section that whenever Ben-Judah speaks I get this urge to run up to him to tug at his beard and sidelocks. I’m convinced they’re fake, held on by little bits of elastic looped over McDowell’s ears.

Like McDowell, Ben-Judah seems to imagine himself as St. Paul on Mars Hill, engaged in intellectual debate with the best minds of Greece and Rome. The big difference, of course, is that Paul was actually interested in what the best minds of Greece and Rome had to say. He read their poets and philosophers and was so familiar with them that he could quote them from memory. Those same poets and philosophers wouldn’t recognize themselves in the crude caricatures drawn of them by folks like McDowell.

This systematic construction and destruction of strawmen is bad enough when it’s presented as “apologetics,” but it’s just bewildering when the character presenting such strawmen is supposed to be, himself, a follower of the religion he can’t be bothered to understand. Ben-Judah seems wholly unfamiliar with even the most basic ideas of Judaism. He’s supposed to be a Jew — a great rabbinic scholar, no less — but he comes across as the least Jewish rabbi in all of literature. He’s about as Jewish as an Easter ham.

Thus we have Ben-Judah explaining that the first year of his three-year research project into Jewish messianic beliefs was spent studying a 19th-century Christian. And he follows that up with a summary of “the very first qualification of Messiah” that is taken entirely from St. Augustine of Hippo.

Ben-Judah doesn’t credit Augustine by name, but that’s where this next bit of his argument comes from. It’s nothing that you’ll find in the Hebrew scriptures or in the writings of any actual rabbi, ever:

“The very first qualification of Messiah, accepted by our scholars from the beginning, is that he should be born the seed of a woman, not the seed of a man like all other human beings. We know now that women do not possess ‘seed.’ The man provides the seed for the women’s egg. And so this must be a supernatural birth, as foretold in Isaiah 7:14, ‘Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.'”

This is why Ben-Judah’s broadcast couldn’t be in Hebrew. Only by speaking in English (or Latin) could Ben-Judah repeat the revisionist translation that turns this passage into a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth. That was, eventually, a Christian idea, but it was never a Jewish one. It absolutely was never “the very first qualification of Messiah” and it was not “accepted by [Jewish] scholars from the beginning.”

Think again of Paul, who was deeply concerned with making the strongest case he could that Jesus was “the Christ” — the Messiah. Yet Paul never cites Jesus’ virgin birth as supposed evidence of this. Actually, Paul never mentions the virgin birth at all (and may not even have been aware of the idea). Paul’s argument for Jesus as Christ wasn’t based on any of the sorts of things that Ben-Judah is repeating here on behalf of the authors.

Same goes for me, personally. I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. But I do not believe that for any of the reasons that the authors present here. And I do not understand that to mean anything like what the authors seem to think it means.

But it’s not just that Ben-Judah’s argument is not Pauline. It’s also not Sauline. Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was apparently a devastating foe of the early Christians, putting his encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures to use to refute their claim that Jesus could have been the Messiah. Saul’s persecution of the first Christians involved his marshaling all of the same passages that Ben-Judah was supposed to have studied here in order to disprove that claim.

Later, of course, Saul famously changed his mind. But his mind was not changed due to his studying the scriptures. Indeed, once he changed his mind, he began to radically reinterpret those scriptures because his new beliefs required that he do so. But what changed Saul’s mind wasn’t the prophecies about the Messiah, it was his personal encounter with the risen Jesus.

There’s no indication in Tribulation Force that Ben-Judah has ever had such an encounter. But then there’s also no indication that Rayford, Buck, Bruce, Irene or  the Rev. Billings ever had such an encounter either.

The idea that Isaiah prophesies a virgin birth is wholly alien to Judaism. Even more alien to it is the rationale Ben-Judah gives for this belief, which is the bit he takes directly from Augustine:

“Our Messiah must be born of a woman and not of a man because he must be righteous. All other humans are born of the seed of their father, and thus the sinful seed of Adam has been passed on to them. Not so with the Messiah, born of a virgin.”

This is Augustine’s infamous notion of original sin as a sexually transmitted disease. This perniciously destructive idea — one that, tragically, continues to haunt branches of the Christian church that Augustine reshaped in his image — is the perfect distillation of all the Manichaean and Neoplatonic ideas and lustful obsessions that drove Augustine before his conversion. It was introduced into the church several centuries on. But it was never introduced into Judaism.

So, having established the utterly non-Jewish idea of a prophecy of the virgin birth as the foremost of all “qualifications” of the Messiah, Ben-Judah moves on to qualification No. 2:

“Messiah, according to the prophet Micah, must be born in Bethlehem.” The rabbi turned to the passage in his notes and read, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”

We Christians are familiar with that one. We read it every Christmas. But if a friendly Christian were to ask an actual rabbi what they make of it — not Josh McDowell in a fake beard and payot, but an actual Jewish rabbi — they’d likely just say, “OK, keep reading. What does the rest of the chapter say?

I’m not arguing here that our Christian ideas about messianic prophecies regarding Jesus are all illegitimate. All I’m pointing out is the obvious — that Christianity and Judaism are not identical. Christians and Jews read the Hebrew scriptures differently just as Paul and Saul read them differently. Having Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah approach those scriptures as a Christian, treating them as a collection of verses about Jesus of Nazareth, is weirdly out-of-character, ignorant and offensive.

But all of that may only be the second-weirdest thing in this chapter.

Ben-Judah still has half an hour or so to go before the Big Reveal at the end of his broadcast where he shocks the world with his surprise announcement of the identity of the Messiah. He and the authors imagine that he’s still being coyly secretive, that no one watching the broadcast knows what he might say next. But he’s already told them that he believes the key facts are that the Messiah must be born of a virgin in Bethlehem.

How many more hints would anyone need? Tsion’s just about halfway through Linus’ speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas Carol — is it really possible that anyone in his audience doesn’t already know where this is going?

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