The Historical Virgin Mary – I

After discussing Simon Peter, Ben Witherington, in his book What Have They Done with Jesus? proceeds to deal with the information we have available on the Mary, the mother of Jesus. This continues with chapter 5. (Previous entry in this series is Search for the Historical Simon Peter – II.)

I should make it clear that while I have been complaining about some of the historical claims that have not been backed up adequately in my view, Witherington is doing an excellent job of covering the details and connecting them. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this work is careless or poorly written. I have a certain tendency to focus on points of disagreement.

Mary and the virgin birth is another point of disagreement. While I believe one can make somewhat of a historical case for the resurrection, or at least that something extraordinary did happen Easter morning that changed the disciples from cowards into courageous men. It’s harder to demonstrate just what that must have been. I don’t believe a miracle can be proven historically, but one can point to something that was not ordinary.

But the virgin birth is much harder to demonstrate or suggest historically. Witherington makes the claim on page 99 that this is all too improbable not to be true. I think this is an odd claim. First he appeals again to the criterion of embarrassment. Why would the disciples make up a story that involved embarrassing information? This use of the criterion is quite good. Indeed, there must have been something to explain. Then Witherington suggests that an easier way to counter the charge of an illegitimate birth would be to propose Joseph as the father. But I’m guessing that Witherington hasn’t worked in politics. I doubt that suggestion would have done anything to counter the original charge.

As a point of faith, one can accept a virgin birth. For those who accept Jesus as the Christ, it becomes much easier to accept the idea of a virgin birth rather than an illegitimate birth. But as a matter of historical probability, I think we must admit that, even for the mother of an extraordinary person premarital sex is a more probable explanation than a virgin birth. This seems to me to be a place where one must clearly separate the “faith view” from a simple statement of historical probability.

Witherington continues with some excellent material correcting common misconceptions about the meaning of the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, and the early life of Jesus. He quickly and effectively outlines the material we have, and notes the things that we don’t know.

Of course the goal of the chapter is to place Mary as an eyewitness to Jesus, and thus to find what we can learn about Jesus from what we have heard about Mary. Witherington even notes that if Luke 1 & 2 comes from any witness, that witness must most probably be Mary.

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