Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (11): Tom Wright

The first thing to say about Tom Wright's perspective (taken from his book with Borg) is that he agrees with me (and the Pope) that the VB is marginal, beginning his chapter by saying "Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants", and ending it by saying "If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different". Quite so.

He goes on to point out that attitudes to the VB function as litmus tests for orthodoxy as a whole, especially attitudes to the Bible and miracles (a point I'll come back to in my concluding post) and admits that their historicity is suspect, saying "as a historian I cannot use the births stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives."

His more substantial point, however, on which the remainder of his chapter is based, seems to be a) you'll only disallow miracles if you're corrupted by Modernist attitudes [I agree, but this is one of Wright's principal targets in the essay and my position is unaffected by it], b) this is how God chose to do it, c) who are we to disagree? concluding by saying "Nor will the high moral horse do any better, insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips, and gives the elephant a good dressing down."

I think Wright is confused here, and the confusion runs through the whole chapter. The weight of his point depends upon the truth of b); in other words, is the elephant God, or is the elephant a fallible human being? It is the attitude to Scripture which is the fundamental plank of Wright's case, ie these narratives must be understood to be literally true, which drives him to the conclusions he reaches in this chapter. However, it's possible to show that, even on these terms, Wright is inconsistent (see below).

After a quick appraisal of the theological emphases in each account, which Wright ascribes in traditional terms to the differences between Joseph and Mary's recollections, Wright gets to what, for me, is the heart of the matter. He writes "It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not". This misses the point, however (my point, at least). It is not that these people didn't understand the link between sexuality and procreation (which seems to be the burden of Wright's point), it is that they understood the 'humanity' to come through being 'born of woman', not, in material terms, in equal parts from both father and mother.

Wright goes on to outline his substantial position, in three stages:
1. Acceptance of incarnation and resurrection opens up the possibility of something like the Virgin Birth. I agree with this point in principle.
2. "There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7.14 this way before Matthew did... Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk - unless they at least believed them to be literally true?" I think this is an interesting and a strong point, but one which isn't conclusive; that is, it depends upon other factors being more or less probable relative to the unlikelihood of Luke and Matthew inventing the stories.
3. The previously existing models for a VB are all pagan in nature, and it is unlikely that a Jewish mentality would have told the story of a VB for Jesus unless it was true. Wright argues "This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage." I'm not convinced by this, although I can see the logic of Wright's argument. Two thoughts occur to me. One is that the influence from the Hellenic world had already had a few centuries to shape Jewish thought, and so the Jewish world-view was not so virginally pure as Wright needs to suppose (consider what language the stories are written in, after all). The second is that, despite a very well written and witty defence of his historical credentials, Wright by no means has the unanimous support of his peers on this point. It is a matter of weighting the probabilities and it seems to me that on this point Wright is letting his desire to retain a conservative account of Scripture condition his historical judgement.

Which seems a harsh point, and one I am not qualified to render, but for one thing - the argument that Wright makes with regard to apocalyptic language, which is a point I fully agree with and one which seems to have a very large role in his overall historical reconstruction of Christ's life and mission. Wright says (in the first of his major books) "Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not." In other words the writers of the time were perfectly able to use language creatively to make a theological point. Why then are Luke and Matthew not able to do something similar when writing their birth narratives? Where I think Wright is confused is that he seems to be applying different criteria in these two areas, and the reason for applying different criteria appears to be his desire to preserve a traditional understanding of the VB. Yet he hasn't made that case; it may well be possible to do so, but, at least to my understanding, he hasn't achieved it here.

One more post...

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