Book Review: Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin?

Lincoln, Andrew T. Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 322 pp. Pb; $35.00.   Link to Eerdmans

Lincoln begins the book with a fairly strenuous defense for the need for another book on the virgin birth. First, Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah seems to have said all that needs to be said on the topic, and there are another dozen shorter studies on the virgin birth. Second, what is there really to write about?  One cannot examine the Birth Narratives in the same way as the sayings and parables of Jesus. A writer will always bring their faith commitments about the nature of Jesus to these stories, making “history” in the modern sense of the word impossible. Lincoln is clear that he believes that Jesus as fully human and fully divine is a “non-negotiable element in Christianity’s ‘scandal of particularity’” (18). Is it possible to believe in a fully incarnate Son of God (with all of the theology that entails) without a belief in a historical “virgin conception”?

Lincoln VirginLincoln first lays a foundation for the study of the infancy narratives with two chapters by examining the sources for these stories. First, he explores the so-called “silent witness” of the New Testament to the virgin conception (chapter 2). In this chapter Lincoln examines the handful of references to the birth of Jesus outside of the two Birth Narratives. Paul, for example, simply mentions that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4) and was in the line of David “according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3). Mark knows nothing of the Birth Narratives, although he mentions Jesus’ mother and brothers (3:20-35 and 6:1-6a). John’s Gospel seems to go beyond the Birth Narratives theologically in his Christological prologue. He briefly surveys various “illegitimate birth” explanations as a part of this chapter as well. Lincoln makes the point that outside of the annunciation stories, Jesus is the “seed of David through Joseph as his biological father” (33) and there is no evidence for a virginal conception outside of the Birth narratives (40). Both of these issues are the subject of chapter 6 of this book. Essentially the earliest traditions about Jesus’ conception are varied: he is the son of Joseph; he is an illegitimate child; or he was conceived by a virgin. But no one tradition is dominant in the canonical documents.

If this is the case, then perhaps the genre of the Birth Narratives has a bearing on our understanding of these two stories. In his third chapter Lincoln presents the two Birth Narratives as expressions of “Christological belief,” but also as anticipations of what Jesus will say about himself in the Gospel which follows (42). Matthew, for example, uses the birth of Jesus as a way to read the Hebrew Bible. This is not a midrash (as is sometimes claimed) nor a “proof from prophecy” apologetic for the birth of Jesus. Rather, the Gospel writer begins with what he believes about Jesus and reads the prophecies in the light of that belief, employing Scripture to “fill out the tradition” and express his beliefs about Jesus in narrative form (49). Similarly, Luke uses the model of Scripture to develop a comparison between John the Baptist and Jesus. In fact, Luke’s narrative is “saturate in Scripture” (55). Lincoln recognizes the use of Imperial language in Luke’s story to highlight the fact that “pax Christi will be quite different than pax Augustus” 57). Both gospels are influence by Greco-Roman biographies of great men, especially Augustus. While a virginal conception is unknown in Judaism, it is common in these sorts of biographies that include legendary birth narratives. Lincoln develops the details of this thesis more fully in chapter 4 (Matthew) and chapter 5 (Luke). In both cases there is some ambiguity about what the birth story actually declares with respect to a virgin conception. In Matthew, Lincoln points out that it is not clear that Matthew intended a virginal conception.

Since Luke is writing a Greco-Roman biography, in Lincoln’s view he the miraculous birth story is provided because that is the sort of thing expected in a great hero’s story.  The difference, of course, is that Jesus is far greater than a hero of the Greco-Roman world. First, the idea Luke created a miraculous birth for Jesus because he was writing something like Greco-Roman biography is valid only if it is show that Luke is writing such a biography. I think that Lincoln dismisses Luke’s prologue too quickly and perhaps overlooks the connection of Luke and Acts. Luke may not be a biography of Jesus parallel to the literature described because the Luke’s topic goes beyond Jesus to the development of the church and its arrival in Rome.

Chapter 7 moves into historical-theological territory. How is it that the traditions found in Matthew and Luke developed into the doctrine of the virgin birth eventually included in the Creed of Chalcedon? Since there are three or four ways to explain the origins of Jesus, Lincoln traces these explanations first through the second century (where all are still in evidence) and the third century (where virgin birth begins to dominate). By the time of Augustine, the virgin conception of Jesus is fully developed theologically and will continue to develop into the hypostasic union of Chalcedon, and later, the Immaculate Conception.

The final three chapters of the book attempt to “reconceive” the virginal conception tradition using what Lincoln calls a “post-critical” reading of the text. Lincoln uses Schleiermacher as an “agenda setter” because he made a “strong case” for seeing the virgin conception as both “superfluous and possibly harmful” for the modern Christian who wants to maintain faith in the incarnation (238). Rather than debate the details of Schleiermacher’s views, Lincoln uses him to draw attention to the main problems raised by this book. If scripture is the primary source for theology, what happens when literary and historical criticism is applied to the diversity of tradition concerning the physical origins of Jesus?

There is a struggle in these chapters to remain close to the creeds while fully employing the tools of historical criticism. Lincoln expresses admiration for Machen’s defense of the virgin birth at the height of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies, but ultimately wonders why the doctrine of the virgin birth became the main test of orthodoxy when it was never that at any time in church history (246).

Lincoln is not arguing that Jesus was not fully human and fully divine. He expresses a clear and robust belief in the incarnation, but does not think that the virgin birth is necessary for that full incarnation. In fact, there are two “unfortunate consequences” of the over-emphasis on the virgin birth. First, the debate over the virgin birth can reduce the complexity of the incarnation to only Jesus’ conception. The incarnation refers to Jesus’ life in its totality, not merely his birth. Second, the modern emphasis on the virgin birth has (sometimes) implied that Jesus’ divinity depends on the virgin birth. In other words, if Jesus is not literally born of a virgin, then he cannot be fully God.  Again, this simply does not follow. John can speak of Jesus as fully God and fully human without even mentioning the virgin birth.

Conclusion. Lincoln struggles at times to balance historical criticism and exegesis with theological statements about the incarnation.  For example, if it can be shown that for Matthew and Luke, Mary was a literal virgin when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, then that what the text says. How that “fits” into a creedal system is another altogether. I struggle with the “theological interpretation of scripture” because I want to do exegesis and historical research. What the theologians do with that exegesis will vary depending on creedal assumptions. I think Lincoln struggles with this as well; his comments aimed at Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew express some frustration at the lack of exegetical and historical reflection in favor of theological explanation (252).

Lincoln certainly provides a fresh and thought-provoking reading of the Birth Narratives, although his conclusions on the “literal virgin birth” are unlikely to convince many on the conservative side of the theological spectrum.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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