I think it’s funny how some of the most insignificant verses in the bible became major doctrines while significant ones are largely brushed under the carpet. The fundamental message that we find in the gospels is one of truth. In John’s gospel we find the remarkable statement made by Jesus “I’m the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father but through me.” If there is one revelation in the gospels it is that God is love and that if we love God we love truth and vice versa. In other words, those who want to follow Jesus must make the love of truth the highest priority in their lives.
Early Christians were like scientists, people who dared to challenge the status quo and sincerely enquired into the truth. Nothing was holy to them, not the old religions of their own culture nor the new ones introduced to them by Rome. They searched and questioned everything and took serious the words of Jesus who warned them not to follow blindly: If a blind man follows a blind guide, both will fall into the ditch. How does a blind man determine his guide can see? He must be made to see for himself.
In Matthew we read about Jesus challenging the religion of his own time. He was often confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducee, who were the two leading religious parties of his time. The Sadducee were conservatives, they held that only Moses was the true Prophet to be followed and only the Penteuch to be regarded as authoritative writings. The Pharisees were more liberal. They believed in the royal lineage of David and considered a wider range of books to be authoritative, especially those referred to as the Prophets.
The Pharisees however were deeply divided amongst themselves on various issues. During the time of Jesus there were two major schools many Pharisees followed, those of the house of Hillel and those of the house of Shammai. Shammai was a legalistic leader, Hillel had a more compassionate attitude. The Pharisees that Jesus confronted in the gospels would have been those of Shammai, he himself representing the ideas of Hillel. We do find in Matthew and Luke Jesus quoting Hillel when he says: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus, like Hillel, emphasised the need to get to the heart of the law and not simply follow the letter. The letter kills, he says, but the spirit makes alive. Now there is today a lot of confusion amongst Christians what this exactly means. Many claim that what Jesus meant was the Holy Spirit, the idea that after his death Christians were to be endowed with the Spirit from on high who would lead them into all the truth. There would be no more a need for a teacher because every Christian would be taught by the Spirit himself. It begs the question, though, why did the apostle Paul still see a need for teachers?
There are two types of teachers. There are those who teach their pupils to discover for themselves what is true and there are those who indoctrinate, discouraging students to think for themselves. Since Theodosius the Great, Christianity has been reduced into a legalistic framework of thinking where every deviation from it was declared heresy. It created the foundation on which a political structure could be build to control the masses of people. To unify the faith a method had to be found that made it easy to join the Christian cult and discouraged divisions. This required every effort on behalf of the government to suppress independent thinking and encourage submission to one ideal. Creeds became the perfect media to solder allegiance to the one faith. Instead of enquiry into the truth it was now only necessary to recite a creed and give allegiance to the church and state.
Since the reformation the church however has become more and more divided. In spite of this orthodoxy is still considered the cornerstone of every major denomination. There are certain doctrines any church will uphold if it wants to have the batch of being orthodox concerning it’s teachings. They are the belief in Jesus as son of God, the Trinity, the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, the resurrection and the virgin birth of Jesus. Privately some pastors and priests might admit to deviations to some aspects of these but would generally not admit to it publicly. The virgin birth of Christ is one of those teachings that some find non essential to the Christian faith while for example the resurrection is considered fundamental to the core as without it Christianity would be devoid of meaning.
So let’s consider the virgin birth of Jesus. Both Catholics and Protestants derive their faith from a belief in the biblical scriptures. Both still subscribe to the beliefs that were formulated in the third and fourth century by men who had political interests to run a large empire and saw religion as a way to unify the masses and legitimise central government. Both trust in scriptures that were put together by people who lived hundreds of years after Jesus died and put it upon themselves to judge what belonged and did not belong into the canon.
Many Christians during Constantine’s time when Christianity was made a state religion were nobles and military men. Those men are likely to have converted from the then popular Mithras cult to Christianity. This is important to bear in mind because it gives us an understanding how some stories ended up in the bible. First however let us consider our culture where in spite of knowledge that Christmas and the Christmas tree are relics from ancient Heathen practices most Christians celebrate Christmas and light the Christmas tree each December. There is a strong emotional attachment to this way of celebrating that instead of abandoning this pagan festive season it was Christianised at some point in history.
It’s comical when some Christian realise this and being ‘holier than thou’ forbid celebrating Christmas and have long church services instead where they deride the superstitious beliefs of other Christians. It’s comical because they don’t take the next logical step which is to realise that the whole idea of a virgin birth is derived from pagan beliefs to make the Christian doctrine more palatable to the masses.
The emotional aspect is an important psychological aspect that we can’t ignore when we want to understand scriptures. There are millions of modern stories now about Christmas that include a Christmas tree and make it a central theme because it has become a symbol of the Christian faith. In the same way in ancient history when Rome was still an empire and the Mithras cult popular it would have been unthinkable to forbid people to celebrate on the 25th December the virgin-birth of Mithras in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and visited by shepherds. It was easer to keep the celebration but replace Mithras with Jesus.
Early Christians did not believe in a virgin birth. How do I know this? It’s really very simple. A virgin birth was no requirement for a messiah. The verse quoted in Matthew that ‘a virgin shall be with child’ is taken from Isaiah and can only work in a society where Greek is spoken and the Septuagint bible was used. Jews in Israel (and later the diaspora) would have consulted a Hebrew bible and in Hebrew the word translated virgin is ‘almah’. There is only one problem here, ‘almah’ does not mean virgin but young woman. Although a young woman can be a virgin the word is often used for women who clearly weren’t.
It is obvious from this fact alone that either the church fathers didn’t do a proper job in analysing the scriptures or they disingenuously allowed it into the canon to provide spurious proof they clearly knew was wrong. Even if they didn’t understand Hebrew and relied on the Septuagint, it still begs the question, did they ever read the context of that verse in Isaiah?
Then the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!” Then he said, “Listen now, O house of David! Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well? “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin (almah, should be young woman) will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. “He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. “For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
Clearly, reading the context it should make it obvious to everybody that this is not prophesy into the far future but has a clear remit, it was to be fulfilled in the life of Ahaz. There is no correlation in any way from this passage to Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew had a bad habit of quoting scriptures out of context and making them fit in any way he wanted.
Now, if this is not enough to convince anybody that the virgin birth is a sham, consider the contradictions between the accounts of Luke and Matthews. According to Matthew Mary and Joseph lived both in Bethlehem. When the child was born they were visited by wise men from the east and afterwards were warned to flee with the child to Egypt because Herod was after their child. When Herod died they returned to Israel but hearing that Herod’s son Archelaus ruled Jerusalem didn’t go back to Bethlehem but to Nazareth instead. This is Matthew’s explanation, why Jesus was called a Nazarene. According to Luke however Joseph and Maria lived both in Nazareth. An edict of Augustus required that every male had to go back to their place of birth (an unusual edict). He travelled with the highly pregnant Mary to Bethlehem and as soon as they arrived Mary gave birth to Jesus. After the birth they went to Jerusalem for the circumcision and than back to Nazareth. No talk about Herod or fleeing to Egypt.
What both accounts have in common is the virgin birth and the need to explain why Jesus was called a Nazarene – everything else contradicts. Consider on top of this that at that time there didn’t even exist a town of Nazareth (if anything of that name existed it would only have been a small settlement). Apart from these stories there is no other mentioning that Jesus was born of a virgin. Neither John, Marc, Paul, Peter, James ever mention anything about a virgin birth and in fact if one reads Paul’s letters careful and without religious blinkers, one can only come to the conclusion that he clearly believed that Jesus had an earthly father.
It is only because most Christians go into the scriptures with religious blinkers on that they can’t see the truth even if it stares them right in the face. Instead of enquiring into the truth they simply accepted something as true because they were told to. Pastors and priests alike have become blind guides leading the blind. Instead of instilling a love for truth into their followers and thus freeing them to become independent and responsible adults they bind them to themselves in their ambitions to build their church empires and keep them in a perpetual state of childhood. Although in the scriptures Jesus was stressing the need for growth and being fruitful, congregations are imbibed on a milky soup of Christianised fairy-tales.