Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 6

Copycat theology is a bad idea


“The Bible is the Word of God.” This is an idea that Christians don’t take seriously—come on, not by along shot. If wisdom from God were right there for the taking, you couldn’t get them to stop reading it. But they do stop reading it—they neglect reading it—because the wisdom of God doesn’t exactly pop out at you. Indeed, Christian theologians have argued endlessly about meanings and interpretations. Pick out almost any Bible text, and you’ll find disagreement and controversy about applications in the modern world.

But here’s my wish list: what I wish Christians would do—and yes I do have ulterior motives. 


Read the Bible. Not just on an anemic chapter-a-day plan, but really get into it. For example, read the gospel of Mark straight through. Take notes, especially on items that are baffling or shocking—and there are plenty in Mark alone.


Study the Bible. By which I mean, go to the books and commentaries written by devout scholar who spend their careers trying to figure out the meaning of texts. But be on the lookout for faith bias; many commentaries are written by apologists determined to knock off all the rough edges. Let’s face it: they want to cover up the embarrassments. There are now many books written by secular scholars who aren’t encumbered by faith bias. Dig for the facts, the truth.


Figure out how some New Testament documents depend on others. What are the implications? For example, that Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark. And how were all of these authors influenced by the letters of Paul? Frankly, the more you understand these relationships—the borrowings and disagreements—the shakier the “word of God” becomes. 


Study Christian origins. Just where did so many of the ideas in the New Testament come from? For example, messiah, heaven, hell, Satan, resurrection, apocalypticism: all these concepts were in circulation when the gospels and epistles were written. There’s lots of homework to do, if you’re trying to come to grips with the supposed Word of God. 


Sometimes a borrowed idea is far more trouble than it’s worth. This is especially the case with virgin birth; attaching this bit of mythology to the Jesus story was a major Bible Blunder.


Christians should be especially curious—and skeptical—about how this happened. Peter Brancazio sums it up pretty well:


“The most reasonable explanation is that the early Christians adapted this belief from the pagan religions of the time. Stories of virgin births or the impregnation of human females by gods abounded in these religions. The prophet Zoroaster, the Persian god Mithra, the Egyptian gods Horus and Osiris were all believed to have been born of virgins. Shortly after his death, the Emperor Augustus was declared to have been the son of a god: the otherwise reliable Roman historian Suetonius, writing in his Lives of the Caesars, described how Augustus’ mother was impregnated by the god Apollo. It seems plausible to believe that the tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus developed as a way of elevating Jesus to a status similar to that of the pagan gods…”  (Brancazio, The Bible from Cover to Cover: How Modern-Day Scholars Read the Scriptures, p. 397)


There are two important questions to consider:


1.    Why is the virgin birth of Jesus a minority opinion in the New Testament? Yes, as Brancazio states, “early Christians adapted this belief,” but it is not well represented in scripture. 

2.   How in the world would two gospel writers know—many decades after Jesus was born—that he had been miraculously conceived? Serious historians want the sources of information that could set this apart from folklore.


Question One: Why Is It a Minority Opinion?


Answering this requires serious Bible study that I included on my wish list. It’s worthy of note especially that the apostle Paul knew nothing of virgin birth, and might have resisted the idea; at least he failed to mention it in any of this voluminous epistles. Paul’s obsession was the resurrection of Jesus as disclosed to him in visions (= hallucinations) of the dead man: Believing in the resurrection was the key to salvation. He might have considered it irrelevant that Jesus was miraculously conceived, even if he had heard such a tale; just as the teaching and miracles of Jesus were unimportant to him. 


In Mark, the first gospel written, Jesus appears out of nowhere to be baptized—John’s baptism for the remission of sins—at which point a voice from heaven declares him to be God’s son. Virgin birth wasn’t on Mark’s radar either, at all.


It was Matthew who pulled this belief into Christian theology, and quite clumsily too. He can be credited with one of biggest goofs in the Bible, trying to convince his readers that Isaiah 7:14 was a prediction of Jesus. Israel 7 has nothing whatever to do with a coming messiah—a few hundred years away—and Matthew used the Greek version of Isaiah that mistranslated “young woman” in verse 7 as “virgin.” Matthew excelled at making things up, e.g., the farfetched account of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to protect the baby Jesus, and his ghoulish story of dead people coming alive at the moment Jesus died, then walking around Jerusalem on Easter morning. Why should we trust Matthew that he got “born of a virgin” right? There are good reasons that I asked the question—and answered it—in an earlier article, “Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?” 


Matthew took just two verses to describe Joseph’s dream in which an angel told him that Mary was pregnant by the holy spirit. Luke couldn’t let it go at that; he wanted to nail it: he reports in eleven verses—not a dream, not a vision—but an angel’s visit to Mary, and their conversation. He also imagined that Mary, who would have been an illiterate teenager, recited the ten-verse Magnificat. Luke devoted two giant chapters to these beginnings of Jesus.


The author of John’s gospel would have none of this. He is, of course, famous for his line, “The word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), so it is striking that he had no use for virgin birth. His Jesus had been present at creation, was indeed one with God, so perhaps he felt that Jesus arriving on earth through a virgin just wasn’t necessary. Whatever his reasons, he skipped it, just as he omitted Jesus being baptized and instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper.


The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke—so thoroughly embedded through art, music, and church pageants in the celebration of Christmas—are seldom analyzed critically by laypeople. The failure of Bible study is largely to blame. Scholars—well, those outside evangelical circles—know that these birth narratives fail utterly as history; nor can the Matthew and Luke accounts be reconciled. When Matthew and Luke wrote their stories they had no idea that their gospels would one day be bound together, making comparisons easy—and embarrassing.  


So Mark, John, and all of the epistles were unaware of virgin birth—or chose to ignore it; they are the majority opinion.    


Question Two: How Would Anyone Acquire Knowledge of a Miraculous Conception?


“Well, God told the authors, didn’t he?” This works for those who believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. But they react with proper skepticism when other religions claim the same thing for the Qur’an and Book of Mormon—which they don’t accept for a moment. Historians know very well that “God told them” doesn’t work; it’s faith-bias out of control, claiming far more than can be objectively known. John Loftus pointed this out in his Christmas day post in 2016: 


“How might anonymous gospel writers, 90 plus years later, objectively know Jesus was born of a virgin? Who told them? The Holy Spirit? Why is it God speaks to individuals in private, subjective, unevidenced whispers? Those claims are a penny a dozen.”


Those “private, subjective, unevidenced whispers” are not objective evidence, but religions get away with this, as perfectly expressed in Alfred Henry Ackley’s hymn, “I Serve a Risen Savior”:


He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.


You may fervently believe within your heart, but there are no data by which virgin birth can be confirmed; it is a feature of ancient folklore.


And surely this is a blunder for Christian theology, especially when we see how Mary has been exaggerated. While she remained a minor, seldom-mentioned figure in the New Testament, she became a central figure in a cult of purity. In Matthew 1:25 we read that Joseph had no marital relations with her until after the birth of Jesus, and of course the brothers of Jesus are mentioned in the gospels. But the idea caught on, especially in Catholicism, that she always remained a virgin; those brothers, so Catholic apologists argue, were half-brothers from Joseph’s first marriage! Anything to keep her pure, as if God’s invention of the penis was a dirty but necessary mistake. As tokens of her purity, Mary has been depicted wearing blue and white, with halo. 


She attained the status of saint, dwelling in the spiritual realm with many other saints—along with the angels and demons mentioned in the New Testament.  In 1854, the Catholic Church announced that her soul was free of original sin—how’s that for purity! Her conception in her mother’s womb had been miraculously cleansed of original sin: it had been an Immaculate Conception. How many Catholics have paused their adoration of Mary long enough to ask: How do theologians know what was happening in the womb of a first century Galilean teenager? 


Mary attained status as Queen of Heaven, can be prayed to and puts in appearances around the world. In 1950 the Catholic Church got around to announcing officially that her body had ascended to heaven—just like Jesus did. Mary serves as a female deity, a kindly goddess to balance the wrathful God depicted by Jesus and Paul. 


This theology thrives among those who never ask—who have been taught not to ask—How do you know all this? All this is fueled by theological imagination, and a fair amount of craftiness too, that is, digging for texts that can be construed to support flights of fantasy. Why do people take it seriously? 


I doubt that theology can be grounded in reality; objective evidence for god(s) has never been found. Priests and preachers fall back on “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart,” which might seem harmless enough if critical thinking doesn’t matter much. But yes, there is bad theology, e.g., that which exploits magical thinking, champions a human sacrifice to enable God to forgive sins, and embraces superstitious folklore that gods use virgins to beget human children.  


My brief video commentary on Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 6 is here



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.