John Beversluis, "The Gospel According to Whom? A Nonbeliever Looks at The New Testament and its Contemporary Defenders" 4

I'm posthumously posting six chapters from an unfinished book sent to me for comment in 2008 by the late John Beversluis (see Tag below). In this chapter Beversluis makes mincemeat of the characters in the Nativity Narratives as being confused and/or irrational if we take the story as historical truth. I've highlighted a few gems from him.


In this chapter I will discuss a cluster of problems in the synoptic Gospels concerning the alleged virgin birth of Jesus. The biggest problem, of course, is the notion of a virgin birth itself. “Virgin birth” is the English translation of the Greek term parthenogenesis, which means “proceeding from or generated by a virgin.” I will not discuss the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth itself because the notion of a pregnant virgin is a physiological impossibility and for anybody seriously to claim that such a thing actually occurred is preposterous. One thing is clear. The burden of proof is not on those who do not believe this scientifically benighted doctrine, but on those who do.

As I mentioned earlier, only two of the synoptic Gospels even mention the virgin birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. Mark is completely silent about it. So is John. So is Paul. So is every other New Testament author. The astounding fact is that this doctrine, according to which Jesus was supernaturally begotten—a doctrine that has been believed by untold billions of Christians down through the centuries—is based on a few sentences written by two unknown authors who provide strikingly different accounts of a scientifically impossible event that could not have been corroborated by eyewitnesses and is confirmed by nobody else. Let us explore their accounts.

1. Matthew’s Account (Matthew 1:18-25)

Matthew starts out by reporting an event that allegedly took place while Mary was “espoused,” i.e., betrothed or engaged, to Joseph. According to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 635, the normal age of betrothal for a girl was twelve and a half; moreover, betrothal included “the right of cohabitation.” Hence Matthew’s far from redundant comment that they had not yet “come together” when Mary was found to be “with child of the Holy Ghost” (v. 18). When the unsuspecting Joseph discovered this, he was understandably troubled and, being a “just” (dikaios) man and “not willing to make a publick example of her, was minded to put her away privily” (v. 19)—the Greek term is lathra, which means “secretly”—by breaking their engagement.

Regrettably, we know next to nothing about Joseph. In spite of his conspicuous presence in nativity scenes and on Christmas cards, he is a peripheral and even shadowy figure in the Gospels. Mark ignores him completely. John only mentions him once (1:45). Matthew and Luke devote a few sentences to him, but they disagree about almost everything—including where he lived. Matthew says (or strongly implies) that he originally lived in Bethlehem, but later took up residence in Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23). Luke says he originally lived in Nazareth (Luke 2:4). They also disagree about other matters, as we shall see in the next chapter.

Although we know next to nothing about Joseph, the little we do know suggests that he was an admirable man—so admirable, in fact, that to call him a “just” man, as Matthew does, is rather tepid praise. The term “just” does not take the full measure of Joseph’s humanity. In the Old Testament, a “just” man is a man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2). That law dealt very harshly with adulterers. According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, if a “damsel” is betrothed to a man and the “tokens of virginity” are not found in her, the men of the city, led by her own father, are authorized to stone her to death “because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house.” These “tokens of virginity” were usually a blood stained sheet or garment that could be produced as proof that the woman was indeed a virgin when the marriage was consummated (Deuteronomy 22:17, 2 Samuel 13:18). If such evidence could not be produced, the woman was stoned to death as a harlot. So if Joseph had been merely a “just” man, he would have been well within his rights as a “wronged spouse” to exact the full penalty sanctioned by Mosaic law and have Mary stoned to death. Instead, he was inclined to resolve this awkward situation privately, discreetly, and compassionately.

Matthew gives him no credit for this. Having brought the subject up, he immediately drops it and solves Joseph’s problem by reporting that “the angel of the Lord” spoke to him in a dream that provides him with information that readers of Matthew’s Gospel already know—i.e., that Mary is “with child” by the Holy Ghost. The angel imparts this information to Joseph, not to prevent him from having Mary stoned to death—an option he had already rejected—but to urge him to stop fretting about the situation and marry her in spite of the fact that she is pregnant. Which he does. As a matter of fact, Joseph’s conduct suggests that he could not have cared less about “what people would think” when they discovered that Mary was pregnant. Actually, they probably said little or nothing. Since betrothal included “the right to cohabitation,” sexual intercourse with one’s betrothed was not considered a sin—at least not a “serious” one (A. E. Harvey, The New English Bible: Companion to the New Testament, p. 19).

Matthew, who never misses a chance to cite some Old Testament prophecy (however unlikely or obscure) of which Jesus was the alleged fulfillment, thereupon asserts that Jesus was born of a virgin in order to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” There are three serious textual problems here. First, this prophecy had nothing whatever to do with the birth of Jesus and had, in fact, already allegedly been fulfilled in Old Testament times. If those millions of Christians who (perhaps encouraged by Handel’s Messiah) believe that Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of the birth of Jesus would take the trouble to read the next two verses, they would discover their error. Second, Isaiah 7:14 is indeed prophecy but, as verses 15 and 16 make unmistakably clear, not of Jesus, but of an unidentified boy whose birth will be preceded by the defeat of the warring kingdoms of northern Judah and Syria who were threatening Jerusalem and King Ahaz. That this prophecy had already been fulfilled is confirmed in 2 Kings 15:29-30 and 2 Kings 16:9. So the suggestion that it had anything to do with the birth if Jesus is without foundation. Third, Matthew mistranslates the passage from Isaiah, using the Greek term parthenos, which means “virgin,” whereas the passage from Isaiah does not contain the Hebrew term for “virgin” (betulah) but the term “young woman” (almah). Finally, the passage could not possibly have been a prophecy of the birth of Jesus because it got his name wrong. The child to whom Mary gave birth was not called Emmanuel, but Jesus. As A. E. Harvey candidly acknowledges, Matthew’s methods as a Gospel writer “were not always such that modern scholarship would countenance” (The New English Bible: Companion to the New Testament, p. 19).

Matthew concludes his account by saying that after receiving the reassuring information in a dream that the child in Mary’s womb was supernaturally begotten by the Holy Ghost, Joseph woke up and went ahead with his plans to marry Mary “and knew her not until (heos) she had brought forth her first son” (v. 24)—a remark that decisively refutes the Roman Catholic Doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. The parental proclamation, “You can’t have dessert until you have eaten your vegetables” does not mean “You can’t ever have dessert.” The same conclusion is forced upon us by Matthew 1:18, according to which Mary was found to be pregnant “before they [she and Joseph] had come together.” Why say before they “had come together” if they never did?

That is all Matthew has to say about the incident. The angel appears to Joseph but not to Mary. How she discovered that she was “with child” by the Holy Ghost is left unexplained.

2. Luke’s Account (Luke 1:26-38)

Luke tells a very different story. Unlike Matthew, who says that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph after Mary was found to be “with child” to allay his suspicions about her presumed infidelity and to urge him to marry her, Luke says that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary before she was found to be “with child” to tell her that she was “highly favored” and “blessed “ among women (v. 28) and that she would soon “conceive in her womb” and bring forth a son and shall call his name “Jesus.” It must be granted at once that these statements, considered by themselves, are perfectly consistent and could both be true. From the fact that Matthew is silent about the alleged celestial announcement to Mary reported by Luke, it does not follow that there was no such announcement. The same applies to Luke’s silence about the alleged celestial announcement to Joseph. The argument from silence is always weak. If you believe that an angel appeared to Joseph, nothing prevents you from believing that one also appeared to Mary. As J. Gresham Machen put it, Mary and Joseph could have been notified on different occasions and in different ways (The Virgin Birth of Christ, p. 194). Most evangelical Christians endorse Machen’s solution.

I do not think it is very satisfactory. The statements “An angel appeared to Mary” and “An angel appeared to Joseph” are perfectly consistent and could both be true, when considered in themselves and in isolation from the contexts in which they are found. But if we take those contexts into account, these two statements give rise to a series of awkward questions that can only be answered in ways that impugn the intelligence, the memory, and the moral character of both Mary and Joseph.

For one thing, Machen’s solution makes the behavior of “the angel of the Lord” who appeared to Joseph, as reported by Matthew, very hard to explain. The angel does not ask Joseph whether Mary had ever told him about an earlier angelic announcement to her and, if she had, why he did not believe her. In fact, the angel never alludes to any earlier announcement (by himself or some other angel) to Mary about her conception “by the Holy Ghost,” as recorded by Luke. On the contrary, the solemnity and confidentiality of the angel's announcement to Joseph (which takes place in a dream!) suggests that “the angel of the Lord” is providing him with information possessed by nobody else and intended for his ears alone. It would have been completely superfluous to impart this information to Joseph if Mary had already known about it for months.

Second, Machen’s solution makes the behavior of Mary equally hard to explain. If she had known before getting pregnant that she would soon be “with child of the Holy Ghost,” she would–or, at least, should—have told Joseph as soon as possible. She had three excellent reasons for doing so: to spare him the shock—not to mention, the heartbreak—of learning about this from somebody else, to spare him the scandal of being betrothed to a woman who had been unfaithful, and to spare herself the very real possibility of being stoned to death. If she had told him, he would have known she had not been unfaithful and, therefore, would not have needed to be cautioned against about dissolving their relationship secretly, almost as an afterthought, by an angel. However, according to Matthew, that is exactly what he Joeseph was considering—a fact which reveals that Mary did not tell him about the earlier announcement by her celestial visitor and was content to let him find out that she was pregnant through the grapevine and suspect the worst.

So we are left with five equally unacceptable possibilities: (1) Either the supernatural cause of Mary’s pregnancy had not been previously explained to her but only to Joseph; or (2) it had been previously explained to her but she had forgotten the explanation; or (3) it had been previously explained to her but she had forgotten to tell Joseph, or had decided not to tell him for some reason unknown to us that we can only speculate about; or (4) she had told Joseph but he did not believe her; or (5) she had told Joseph but it does not matter whether he believed her or not, because he forgot. In short, if Luke’s account is correct, we must conclude that, for reasons known only to herself, Mary kept quiet about the whole thing, thereby deliberately leaving Joseph in the dark and in need of being informed by “the angel of the Lord.” Why would a loving wife-to-be—not to mention, a women “highly favored” by God and “blessed’ among women—do such a thing?

Various attempts have been made to explain this conundrum: (1) Mary did not tell Joseph because of her deep faith in God and her earnest desire to keep this secret between herself and Him. (2) Mary did not tell Joseph because he was in Bethlehem and she was in Nazareth and unable to communicate with him. (3) Mary did not tell Joseph because she wanted to consult her older cousin Elizabeth (who was pregnant with John the Baptist) as to the best way of breaking the news to her betrothed. (However, if she had no trouble going straight to Elizabeth to tell her, what prevented her from also going straight to Joseph to tell him?) (4) Mary did not tell Joseph because she was too modest. And so on. None of these explanations has any foundation in the texts and all are clearly ad hoc maneuvers motivated by the transparent desire to make Mary’s silence less cruel and Joseph’s ignorance less inexplicable.

On the other hand, if Mary had told Joseph, why did he not believe her? Again, no satisfactory explanation has ever been forthcoming. It is unlikely that a “just” man like Joseph would have instantly concluded that his betrothed and soon wife-to-be was a sexually promiscuous woman or an unscrupulous liar. Moreover, if she had told him and he had refused to believe her, surely “the angel of the Lord” would have taken him severely to task for his suspicious nature and deplorable lack of trust. It is even more unlikely that she had told him and he had believed her at the time, but later forgot what she had said. Such a suggestion saddles Joseph with an astonishingly feeble memory. Since all these “solutions” are more problematic than the radical solution, which claims that the two accounts are incompatible and mutually exclusive, that seems to me not only the most reasonable conclusion but the only conclusion that answers all the relevant questions. In short, a celestial visitor appeared either to Joseph or to Mary but not to both.

This solution also enables us to answer the questions that alternative solutions leave unanswered. On the one hand, if “the angel of the Lord” appeared only to Joseph, then Mary did not know the cause of her pregnancy, so she had nothing to tell him. This explains both Joseph’s ignorance of her pregnancy and why the angel had to intervene to prevent him from breaking their engagement. On the other hand, if the angel appeared only to Mary, then, as one “highly favored among women,” she might well have concluded that since Joseph had not been informed, this was news for her ears alone and decided to leave Joseph in God’s hands. Both solutions are far more convincing than any of those predicated on the assumption that the accounts of Matthew and Luke are both true. Of course, a rational person would not countenance the idea of a virgin birth in the first place. So there would be no need for a messenger, angelic or otherwise, to announce it.

Evangelical Christians are free to call this “destructive” criticism or “picking the Bible apart.” I prefer to call it an honest attempt to take the synoptic Gospels seriously and an honest refusal to resort to dishonesty and subterfuge in order to harmonize them.

There are other problems with Luke’s account. According to Luke 1:11-22, Gabriel’s visit to Mary was preceded by a visit to Zacharias to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would also bear a son and that he was to be named John. Since Zacharias was old and his wife “well stricken in years,” he was understandably puzzled by this news and wondered how he could be sure that it was true. In short, he asked for a “sign.” The angel is noticeably peeved by this response and goes to some lengths to point out that he is, after all, Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and that he was sent by God for the express purpose of telling Zacharias of these things. Having gotten this off his chest, Gabriel punishes the old man by striking him dumb "until the day these things occur" (v. 20). In view of Zacharias’s advanced age and the eminent reasonableness of his question, any punishment seems ridiculous. His punishment of being struck dumb for months seems excessive and even unjust. As a matter of fact, the length of the sentence imposed by Gabriel was also inaccurate. For when the eight day-old John is brought to the temple to be circumcised, poor Zacharias still cannot speak and has to write “His name is John” on a tablet (Luke 1:63).

Six months after this exchange between Gabriel and Zacharias, Gabriel is sent on another errand—this time to tell Mary about her soon-to-be pregnancy. Having been informed that she will conceive and bear a son, she is as puzzled as Zacharias and asks a question of her own: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man” (Luke 1:34). That is a very odd response. Recall the situation. Mary and Joseph were already betrothed and soon to be married. Why on earth did she assume that Gabriel meant that she would conceive and bear a son before having sexual intercourse with Joseph? Why did she not make the much more natural assumption that he meant after having intercourse with him and simply say, “Oh, how delightful! I’m looking forward to being married and having a baby”?

Given his peeved reaction to Zacharias, we expect Gabriel to grow even more peeved with Mary and lament the fact that the credibility of angels among Palestinian peasants seems to have undergone a sharp decline. But we are in for two surprises. First, he takes her question in stride and proceeds to give her an elaborate explanation: “The Holy Ghost will come upon thee, and the power of the Highest will overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (v. 35). Second, unlike Zacharias, who had asked for a “sign” but was not given one, Mary does not ask for a “sign” and is given one. Gabriel tells her that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be “barren,” is six months pregnant with John the Baptist and assures her that this is confirmation of the fact that “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). The intended moral is clear: if a barren woman can get pregnant, so can a virgin.

The arbitrariness and unpredictability of Gabriel’s opposite reactions to Zacharias and Mary raise serious questions about morality and justice. Many have tried to avoid (or block) these questions by piously explaining that Zacharias responded to Gabriel’s announcement with doubt whereas Mary responded to it with faith. But that is just another ad hoc rescue operation based on pure psychological speculation about their respective states of mind for which the texts provide absolutely no support. Textually, both scenarios are identical: Zacharias and Mary are both told that something physiologically impossible was about happen and both respond with bewilderment; however, one is punished and the other is not. If that is not arbitrariness, what is?

Of the untold billions who have read these accounts by Matthew and Luke, few pause to ask why anybody should believe them. Joseph did not write a Gospel and he died long before Matthew and Luke wrote theirs. Mary allegedly did write a Gospel, but it was not deemed worthy of being canonical—surely one of the great oddities in the history of the world. Inconsequential material like the Book of Jude and unintelligible material like the Book of Revelation make it into the New Testament canon, but not a Gospel written by the mother of Jesus!

There are several very good reasons for not believing the accounts of Matthew and Luke. First and foremost, a virgin birth is a scientific impossibility. Even those who accept it because it is in the Bible would reject it if they came across in any other book. So they better have unshakeable evidence for believing the synoptic Gospels. Part of my purpose in this book is to show that they do not. Second, the genealogies assume that Joseph was Jesus’s father. If they did not, there would have been no point in compiling them to trace his lineage back to David through Joseph. Third, as we have seen, the earliest Gospel, Mark, does not so much as mention the virgin birth of Jesus. Nor does John or Paul or any other New Testament writer. That in itself is enough to call both stories into question. Finally, there were no eye witnesses to either story. Josh McDowell falsely asserts that Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus (Ready Defense, p. 188), but not even he can bring himself to say that they were eyewitnesses to Mary’s alleged encounter with Gabriel or to Joseph’s dream, although he still manages to imply that they were. According to Luke, Mary was alone when the angel appeared on the scene. According to Matthew, Joseph was asleep! Matthew tries to explain this by saying that an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. But that is just another way of saying that Joseph dreamed that an angel spoke to him.

Thomas Paine saw all these problems very clearly:
When I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or nor; such a circumstance requires a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this—for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so—it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence” (The Age of Reason, p. 52).
And here is Thomas Jefferson on the same subject:
The truth is, that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those, calling themselves expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (“Letter to John Adams,” April 11, 1823).
This foundation of sand is incapable of supporting any report—not to mention, the report of an event that is scientifically impossible and reported differently by people who could not have been present as eyewitnesses.
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