John Spong's Born of a Woman.

In the book, Spong argues against the traditional understanding of the virgin birth (more accurately deemed the virginal conception). He considers it mythological and thinks it contributes to an unhealthy perspective on women (identified in terms of their sexuality rather than individuality). I know that this book has disturbed the faith of a lot of people, so I thought I might review it.

First of all, let me say that Spong isn't completely whacko. Of course there are a few places where he might as well be writing a novel as commenting on history. But I would say that after finishing the book, the difference between him and me is mostly one of "cup half empty" versus "cup half full." I would not dispute a good deal of the "data" he discusses in this book. What I dispute is his dismissal of faith in the virgin birth as ignorant, irrational, or impossible given the evidence. By the way, I'll continue to use the phrase "virgin birth" in reference to the conception of Jesus apart from human sex, just because that's how we all use the term.

What is at stake in the virgin birth?
It seems to me that two things are at stake. One appears to be a view of the biblical texts as straightforwardly historical or as mostly historical. The other is that we would be rejecting something the church has believed for nearly two thousand years, a unanimous element in Christian belief that is a part of the Apostle's Creed. It seems to me that is pretty significant.

What is not at stake?
1. The divinity of Christ is not at stake. This is very important to note. Orthodox Christian faith believes that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. We don't believe that Jesus was a demi-god: half man, half God. Whatever the divine part is, it is not a matter of human sex. It is something different from his humanity. As far as I can tell, Jesus could have been just as divine if he had come by way of human sex as he was via the miraculous way God chose. The only difference is where the Y chromosome comes from. By human sex it would have come from Joseph. As it was, God made it ex nihilo, out of nothing.

2. The sinlessness of Jesus is not at stake. Surely no one who knows genetics today seriously thinks that sin is based in any simple way on a Y chromosome or interaction with a Y chromosome. Paul certainly did not process sin in this way. To him, sin was a power with a foothold in my flesh. However we might translate this concept into our worldview (with cerebral cortexes and such), the Y chromosome is certainly not to blame. Otherwise, all women would be without sin.

Spong may be correct that the early church saw a woman as an "incubator" and the man as the exclusive provider of seed. Certainly they did not process the virgin birth the way we do, and they did not understand genetics and "the flesh" the way we do. (By the way, I don't think that we necessarily consider the thought processes of the authors that did not make their way into the text to be inspired anyway. This statement raises a lot of fascinating issues about whether the original meaning of the text is the inspired meaning, but I'll let it go.)

Does that mean the virgin birth didn't happen? No, it just means the stakes were higher for them than they are for us. While I disagree with Wolfhart Pannenberg, I think he'll be in heaven. Pannenberg believes that Jesus rose from the dead and was God in the flesh. But he does not believe in the virgin birth.

Spong is probably correct when he implies that the virgin birth plays no significant theological role in the original meaning of the New Testament as a whole. It is never mentioned outside a few verses in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. In other words, the virgin birth does not affect any of the theological claims of Paul, Mark, John, and not really any of those even in Matthew or Luke (the significance of the birth narratives is borne out theologically by other parts of these gospels).

While I consider the virgin birth a core belief of Christianity, I do so because of the gospels and the long standing belief of the church. But Christianity does not rise or fall on this belief. It seems to me that historic Christianity rises or falls on the incarnation and the resurrection.

Spong's Half Empty Cup
As I moved through Spong's book, I found a lot of data that seems fairly clear from the New Testament (for example, that the focal point of calling Jesus Lord was the exaltation of Jesus to God's right hand). In these cases, the difference between Spong and me is the significance and implications of the data to each of us more than what the data actually is. He consistently takes the "half empty" conclusion. I take the "half full" one.

For example, it is very difficult to fit the two birth stories together. If all we had was Matthew, we would think Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem and only went to Nazareth because of political circumstances. If all we had was Luke, we would think that they were from Nazareth and only went to Bethlehem because of a census.

Can we fit the two narratives together? There have of course been ingenious suggestions of how to do it. Can we fit the two together without violating one of the texts or the other, twisting it to say something it probably does not? That's a more difficult question.

But Spong himself mentions a significant overlap between the two accounts (page 47-48). Here's a point of choice. Spong sees the cup as half empty--because they disagree he assumes all of it is "myth." But you could also see the cup as half full: given the tensions between the two accounts, it seems all the more likely that their common points are historical.

What are these common points? The most important ones are that Jesus was born in Bethlehem before Joseph and Mary had marital relations and that Jesus then grew up in Nazareth. Note that this common data is adequate to support the virgin birth. Such a belief from our perspective requires faith in miracles and supernatural intervention, but the data allows for it. I conclude that belief in the virgin birth is rational, even if it requires faith.

Indeed, it is surely noteworthy that Spong himself acknowledges the historical possibility that Jesus' birth was scandalous in some way (e.g., 21, 181). Take the following comment: "Perhaps there was an early memory that supported the tradition that Jesus was born too soon after Mary and Joseph came together to live as husband and wife" (73). Without intending to do so, Spong here inescapably implies that the virgin birth is possible given the evidence.

Therefore, if he were fair, he would say that he finds the virgin birth unlikely, although theoretically possible given the evidence. This is the case even if one adopts his hyper-pessimistic reading of the data.

Spong's Tone
Spong is incredibly dismissive in this book. He has a kind of "everyone who disagrees with me is stupid" air about him. Take the following quote: "Is there any possibility that the narratives of our Lord's birth are historical? Of course not. Even to raise that question is to betray an ignorance about birth narratives" (59). Wow! What a statement! He so much as says, you'd have to be an uneducated ignoramus to believe in the virgin birth. I know Tom Wright cried for months after he read this quote and discovered how stupid he was.

On the one hand, I agree that "origin tales" were primarily "commentaries on adult meaning" (59). What this means is that ancient biographers told the stories about a great person's birth and childhood in such a way as to evoke who they were as adults.

However, if I might adopt Spong's tone, you'd have to be completely ignorant of how oral tradition is passed on in an oral culture to think traditions like these didn't usually have a core of historical basis to them. Spong's generation of thinkers, since they view these things through the eyes of a literary culture, assume that stories get completely messed up when things aren't written down for a few years.

Let me note the important differences between Jesus' virgin birth and the other virgin births Spong mentions on p. 56. First, most of these names are about gods who no one ever claimed to be humans (Krishna, Horus, Mithra...). Secondly, I have a strong feeling that the legends of these individuals' births arose centuries after they were supposed to have lived. I personally think that Spong is one to two decades too late in his dating of Matthew and Luke. For Matthew in particular, I think we're less than 10 years after Mark and less than fifty years of the resurrection. In an oral culture--and a document probably produced in or around Antioch--this is not much time.

A Point of Strong Disagreement
One point where I want to take strong exception to Spong is in his explanation of resurrection faith. He argues that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus being exalted to heaven, not resurrected in a way that would involve an empty tomb. Let me say that it is at this point that I find Spong's perspective highly problematic, even if many scholars continue to express this point of view.

Since this review is about the virgin birth rather than the resurrection, let me just make two points:

1. First, I find ludicrous Spong's suggestion that "Easter broke, I believe, not so much with a supernatural external miracle but with the dawning internal realization that this life of Jesus reflected a new image of God, an image that defied the conventional wisdom, an image that called into question the exalted king as the primary analogy by which God could be understood" (39). With due respect to this beautifully worded thought (not original to Spong), I find this "cause" entirely insufficient to account for the "effect" we find in the early church.

Let me explain further by recourse to the second point:

2. One cannot easily dismiss Paul's claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that Peter saw the risen Lord along with many others, nor Paul's insistence that Jesus was the first of the general resurrection. We cannot dismiss them because the Corinthians seem to know of Peter and his movements, not to mention Barnabas (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:5-6). Since Paul had opposition at Corinth and indeed since some of them didn't even believe in a resurrection, a lie about something like this would have made him a sitting duck. He would have been stupid on the highest level to make up something like a resurrection appearance to Peter.

And of course Dunn has recently debunked the whole "gap theory" that Spong, the Jesus Seminar and all of these "sixties seminarians" have long used to propose a complete difference between Jesus and Paul (it's actually a much older suggestion). The little book A New Perspective on Jesus is very helpful in this regard.

I personally believe that the best an atheist can really claim with integrity is that Peter only thought he saw the risen Christ. Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, Peter certainly thought that he had seen the risen Jesus, and he was willing to die for that convinction.

And so, for Spong's explanation of resurrection to work in reality, over time Peter would have had to mistake a "dawning internal realization" he had for having had an actual vision of the risen Jesus. Wow, I don't think I could do that.

Spong and Speculation
As someone who likes to play at novel-writing, there are points where Spong's book gets really "fun." So Spong wonders whether the story of the woman caught in adultery was placed where it was because people thought of Jesus' mother as an adulterer (170). Spong suggests that the accusations of Jewish leaders might imply Mary was raped (171). He wonders if Jesus' words about tying up a strong man were reminiscences of something that happened in his childhood (162). Of course I can't prove that the Jewish leaders didn't think such things, but we lack far from enough evidence even to argue for these kinds of things. It is Spong gone speculative.

One funny thing about all this speculation is that Spong pretty much assumes that John gives us straightforward historical portrayals of events and the things people said and did in Jesus' life. Remember, he called anyone ignorant who would do this with the birth narratives. He took great pains in previous chapters to argue that the gospels are not historical but "midrashic" (which he basically defines as imaginative retellings of stories in the light of the Old Testament). So why does he take John so historically--if he is consistent with his own method? Indeed, John is more often considered by scholars the least straightforwardly historical of the gospels!

For example, Spong says at one point that John "was written, as most scholars believe, by a disciple of John Zebedee" (192). Ha! Fine with me and many conservative scholars! Nice of Spong to side with us conservatives. It seems deeply ironic to me that Spong is uncritically literal with what "most scholars" take to be the most symbolic of all the gospels!

One feature of John that is very important when reading these texts is irony. Sometimes John tells of people saying something where the audience is meant to smile because they know something the people in the story don't.

So when Caiaphas says it is better for one man to die than for all the people to (John 11:50), the audience should smile--we know that the one man Jesus did die so that the whole world wouldn't. Similarly, when the crowds suggest that Jesus can't be the Christ because he isn't from Bethlehem (7:42), it is very likely that John means the audience to smile as well--we know that Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem.

By far the most entertaining part of the book to me are Spong's speculations about whether Mary Magdalene might have been Jesus' wife. This is a really popular idea today with the Da Vinci Code and what not. Spong suggests that the wedding at Cana was Jesus' own wedding because "I have never attended a wedding with my mother except when it was the wedding of a relative" (192). I'm having fun with Spong, but this is really the stuff of a novel.

On the one hand, I'm not sure it would affect any doctrine of the church or the inerrancy of the Bible if Jesus had been married. The Bible doesn't say he wasn't! And we only find out that the disciples were married because of a completely unnecessary side comment Paul makes (1 Cor. 9:5). If anything, we get the impression that the wives of these men were so irrelevant to the biblical writers that no one bothered to mention them. There is no conspiracy of suppression--only the possibility that these men undervalued their wives.

At the same time, I don't see why Luke wouldn't go ahead and say Mary was Jesus' wife if she was (I don't buy Spong's conspiracy theory of suppression here). And the scandal of an illegitimate birth would have played right into Luke's emphasis on Jesus' ministry to the poor and the oppressed. So why doesn't Luke go ahead and portray Jesus this way? Why does Luke present the virgin birth and refrain to tell us of a marital association with Mary Magdalene?

Could it be because Jesus was born of a virgin and wasn't married to Mary?

Closing Remarks
In closing, I didn't quite see the connection between the portrayal of Mary in the gospels and the ongoing oppression of women today. I will readily admit that the New Testament is often patriarchal in its assumptions. I am willing to admit that church history has often filtered the words of the Bible through a sexual lens that is inappropriate to the gospel. But I don't see how the virgin birth is to blame for all this. Just because someone abuses something doesn't mean that it isn't legitimate. "Abuse is no excuse.

In the end, Spong's argument is all too familiar. We have seen it in the eighteenth century Hume, the nineteenth century Renan, the twentieth century Bultmann. These individuals have come to the data with an antisupernaturalist presupposition. Clearly the data can be interpreted coherently in terms of such a presumption. But since none of these individuals have disproved that God exists and sometimes acts in history, the data can also be interpreted coherently with a supernaturalist presupposition as well.

It is the same data, but the interpretation is different in accordance with two different faiths.