Jewish Testimony: Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season.  I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David.  You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect.  The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus.  But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment.  Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases.  But hold your verdict!  The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.

It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion.  Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident.  But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident.  Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.

In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus.  In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp.).  In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   The hostile witnesses agree on this point.

What about being born of a virgin?

Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David.  After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Virgin or Young Maiden

It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind.  If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.

Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born.  How did these Jewish

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls
Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (LXX) is translated ca 250 BC

rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’?  What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint.  When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος  (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’.  In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible.  No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

And now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.

And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this.  If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.

Mary’s Context

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.

If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him.  But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.

But the story does not even end there.  Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level.  People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality.  And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask:  Where did he get this different morality from?  The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.

Did Jesus have a wife?

I have been exploring the creation and fall of man and Lucifer in this series of posts. I plan to continue but some recent headlines in newsites around the world are beckoning a side post. A professor at Harvard University has announced the discovery of a business card-sized papyrus fragment dating from the 4th Century (300’s AD). The fragment (in Coptic) contains the phrase ”Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’”. Here is a smattering of headlines about this:

“An ancient scrap of papyrus makes explicit reference to Jesus having a wife, according to a renowned expert in Christian history.” BBC

“Papyrus fragment quoting ‘wife’ of Jesus raises questions for Christianity” – The Australian

“Was Jesus married? Papyrus fragment fuels debate” – Jerusalem Post

So what are we to make of this? Is this neo-narrative of Jesus really up for consideration? Well, let’s look first at the proximity of this ‘witness’ to Jesus life. The headlines and articles tell us it is ‘ancient’ and it is at that, but is it close to the time of Jesus? The articles themselves report the date of the fragment as 4th century, putting it about 300 years after the death of Jesus. Could such a document even be close to being a ‘primary source’? Well, just two hundred years ago, the war of 1812 raged between Canada and the US. I live  in Canada and if I claimed by my own authority to have a revision of events that transpired back then and have the ‘real story’ that has been kept hidden these two hundred years by our governments bent on keeping us in the dark – would you believe me? Of course not! How could I, two hundred years after the fact have any credibility as a source to set the record straight about what happened back then? It is so ludicrous an idea that it is beyond even contemplating. So how can a source, 300 years after the fact, be headlined in websites and Harvard professors as setting the real record – hidden all these years – straight? The websites continually refer to ‘church doctrine’ as standing in dogmatic opposition to this idea (that Jesus was married). For example the BBC article states

“Christian tradition holds that Jesus did not marry – but Prof King said in early years it was subject to debate. The provocative find could spark debate over celibacy and the role of women within Christianity, she added. But the announcement sparked scepticism from some theologians. “

The Jerusalem Post article opines that

Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that Jesus was not married, the idea resurfaces on a regular basis, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which angered many Christians because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

King (the Harvard Prof announcing the discovery) said the fragment, unveiled at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.

AsiaOne informs us that

Contacted by AFP, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to call into question King’s competence as a historian but said that “we do not really know where this little scrap of parchment came from.”

“This does not change anything in the position of the Church which rests on an enormous tradition, which is very clear and unanimous” that Jesus Christ was not married, he said.

“This changes nothing in the portrayal of Christ and the gospels. This is not an event that has any influence on Catholic doctrine,” he said.

So is this a case of ‘narrow-minded’ churchmen blindly clinging to ‘tradition and doctrine’ in the face of contrary evidence? That is the impression one gets from these statements. But in point of fact ‘church doctrine’ has nothing to do with it. The gospels were written by three eyewitnesses and one investigative reporter (the Gospel of Luke) mere decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. And they are not found today on one business card fragment. I have a reference the size of an encyclopedia book that contains the transcripts of the many manuscripts of the New Testament that exist today that come before the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). That would put all these manuscripts earlier than mid-4th century. An encyclopedia-size of extant manuscripts written by primary source eyewitnesses vs. one business card size anonymous sentence 300 years after the fact! Why is it even making any news, let alone world headlines?

Gospel of Judas

But this is just the latest twist in a bizarre drama that is sweeping the world. It reminds me of the media attention paid a few years ago with the Gospel of Judas. The BBC opening sentence (bolded) was

Judas Iscariot’s reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history has been thrown into doubt with the translation of an ancient text.

But did the Gospel of Judas have any historical credibility? Further in their article the BBC informed us it also was a ‘4th century manuscript’ so we know that it was also 300 years removed from the events of Jesus. So it was not, for example, written by the ‘real’ Judas as his version of historical events. And there is only one extant Gospel of Judas manuscript, against the many manuscripts that claim primary eye-witness source testimony. Yet the BBC article would have us believe that it ‘throws into doubt’ what really happened. And it leaves you with the impression that it is more ‘progressive’ and ‘educated’ to have this doubt whereas it is ‘doctrine’ and ‘tradition’ that keeps the ‘credulous’ within the oppressive shackles of ‘church orthodoxy’.

Da Vinci Code

Then there was the Da Vinci Code book and movie, which were based off “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” – a self-proclaimed work of investigative journalism – that concluded that Jesus went off to France with Mary Magdalene and sired a ‘secret’ bloodline there. It is not necessary to examine all the claims of these books. Some are so easy to disprove that their lack of credibility should be as apparent as the sun rising before our eyes every morning. For example, the Da Vinci Code claimed that the Roman Emperor Constantine forced a vote of church Bishops to make Jesus ‘Divine’ as the Son of God. Really? So why does the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, writing to the pagan emperor of his day in 112 AD, – 200 years before Constantine – tell him this about the Christians?

“They also declare the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery …” Letters 10.6

The arch anti-Christian Lucian, writing satire against the gospel in 170 AD tells us that

The Christians you know worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers … worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.    The Death of Peregrine 11-13

Constantine in 325AD could not influence what happened two hundred years before his time, so the controversy of the divinity of Jesus definitely was not invented by him and thus one of the main ‘historical’ claims of this whole revisionary history is shown to be smoke and mirrors. Yet it was once again mentioned with a tone of plausibility in the Jerusalem Post article above as well as with this new 4th century Coptic reference to Jesus’ ‘wife’.

We live in an age when we claim that we are scientifically inclined – less prone to believe things unless compelling rational evidence is presented. I am not so sure. I meet many who tell me that the evidence to believe in Jesus is not compelling. Fair enough. But then I find many of these same folk embracing fantasies and beliefs that are far, far less substantiated than the Gospel. Why? Probably many factors are at play. Today many of us have not bothered to develop a baseline of historical understanding about the Bible so we are not in a position to have an informed perspective on the latest headlines that will greet us.

But at even a deeper level, perhaps ‘rational evidence’ is not our main metric in determining what we will believe.  Because behind our mind stands a more difficult beast to tame – our will.  Implicit in believing the Gospel Story is following it – and that is something we instinctively and desperately fight against. The Gospel Story demands our allegiance while these neo-narrative stories merely tickle our fancies – requiring no surrender to our deeply instinctive need for autonomy.  So deep down it is whether the story is preferable, rather than rational, that often drives our beliefs.   As the man famous for his wisdom, Solomon, wrote so long ago

“This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

Addressing objections to the Signs of Abraham & Moses

In my previous post I noted that a really good comment had been submitted on the External Evidence Session, basically questioning the value of external evidence.  The comment noted that external evidence does not tell us whether or not the gospel stories were legendary extrapolations built around a historical kernel of events.  I agreed, but submitted that at the very minimum external evidence can be used to weed out pretenders from contenders, similar to how first-year university courses are often designed to weed out students with insufficient motivation or aptitude.

First-year courses also serve as the foundational prerequisites upon which the more useful upper-year courses are built – the ones that give the knowledge and information that we really use.  In a similar way we are now in a position to integrate the External Evidence Session with that of Session 5 – where we opened a case to see if there is a Divine Mind behind the biblical account.

Abraham sacrifices his Son

In that 5th Session we looked at two very important stories in the earliest section of the Old Testament – in the Pentateuch of the books ascribed to Moses.  We first looked at the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, which (though many are not aware of it) we showed to be the place where the city of Jerusalem was eventually established.  And we saw that there are allusions in this account of Abraham that have fascinating parallels with, and point to, Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It is the fact that the allusion predates the event it alludes to by thousands of years that makes it so especially intriguing.  It points to a drama/literary mind, but since no human mind can coordinate events far into the future it opens the possibility that there is indeed a Divine Mind coordinating these events.

Tacitus: External Evidence Corroborating where Jesus was crucified

Now the first (and most obvious) rebuttal to this is that the gospel writers simply made up the ‘detail’ of Jesus’crucifixion being in Jerusalem to make it ‘fit’ that Abrahamic allusion.  But now we know from external evidence that Tacitus (a historian not at all sympathetic to the gospel) places that event in Judea.  He says:

Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, … but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated…(Annals XV. 44)

Josephus: External Evidence Corroborating Jesus

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the same period agrees with Tacitus in saying that:

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

And Josephus tells us in his Antiquities in the two paragraphs just preceding this quote that:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there …Pilate was the first who brought these [pagan] images to Jerusalem and set them there …But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

In other words, though the Roman center had previously been in Cesarea, Pilate was in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed.  So we have two external sources with unbiased or negative motives that corroborate the crucifixion of Jesus being under Pilate in Jerusalem.  Thus we know that the Gospel writers did not fabricate this detail to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Abraham.

Moses’ Passover Account

Similarly with the Mosaic Passover story we saw allusions pointing to the Passover as the time of year when Jesus was to be executed.  For Jesus’ death to fall on that same festival by chance is slim indeed.  Adding to that is that the Mosaic account tells us that this festival is a ‘sign for us’ and it comes with so many parallels to Jesus crucifixion.  Did the Gospel writers fabricate this link to the Passover to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Moses?

Jewish Talmud: External Evidence

We did not cover this particular item in the External Evidence session, but in the Jewish Talmud is preserved this statement about the execution of Jesus.

“Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.  Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.  Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it’.  As nothing was brought forward in his defence he was hanged on Passover Eve” cited in FF Bruce,  Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. 1974 p.56

So we have, once again, hostile witnesses, that though disagreeing on the meaning of Jesus, place Jesus’ crucifixion (ie hanging) at Passover.  They would be the last people to have any motive to do so because it strengthens the meaning of Jesus that they are vehemently at odds with.

So we cannot simply dismiss the fulfillment of these allusions that we looked at in Session 5 as simply fabrications on the part of the gospel writers.  We have to take it seriously as history.

And that does partially address an issue that was raised when Justin asked:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

In other words, how can one verify the miraculous?  And we here are confronted with a strengthening case for a Divine Mind in these accounts since, using external evidence, we cannot dismiss their fulfillment simply by saying that the gospel writers made it up.  These particular details are verifiable.  And if there is a Divine Mind, i.e. God, then certainly miracles are possible.  Now, I titled Session 5 as an ‘opening case’ because I think if there are only these two allusions it is certainly conceivable that coincidence could explain them.  But it does open up a possibility that surely warrants further investigation.  Are there more, even ones that are more explicit?  Here is a good place to start to investigate.