This is a report on a paper presented by Andrew T. Lincoln, Portland Chair in New Testament Studies, University of Gloucestershire, in the Biblical Studies Seminar at the School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, 28 Oct 2010.
The article is now published in JSNT, here.
Andrew T. Lincoln’s paper revisited the arguments of two opposing readings of Matthew’s account of the conception of Jesus. The traditional view (exemplified in the paper by Brown, Davies/Allison, Luz) is to read in Mt 1:18-28 that Jesus’ conception is a virginal one, while the “revised” reading (Schaberg, Catchpole, Miller) sets out to argue that, at least in Matthew, a virginal conception is not necessarily implied.
Three indicators were presented in support of the traditional reading of the conception in Matthew: the conception by Holly Spirit in 1:18 and 20, the citation from LXX Isa. 7:14 in 1:23 where the παρθένος is mentioned, and, in 1:25, the lack of marital relations before Jesus’ birth. Jesus is then the “adopted” son of Joseph, and was conceived through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This happened not in a sexual manner, detail confirmed in 1:25 – no marital relations before the birth.
The revised perspective challenges such an understanding of these indicators. Starting from a list of references (e.g. Ps 2:6,7; Gal. 4:29; John 3:5,6,8) it is argued that it is rather unparalleled in a Jewish context to understand γεννάω plus ἐκ πνεύματος or ἐκ θεοῦ in this way; on the contrary, ἐκ θεοῦ is used about people who do have (both) parents, and God is not replacing one of them. In this line of interpretation, Mary’s pregnancy is God’s plan more than God’s fathering. Furthermore, the quote from Isaiah can be explained by Matthew’s interest to mention the name Emmanuel and its interpretation with reference to Jesus, while the lack of marital relations during pregnancy is the normal conduct for the righteous Jew: cf. Josephus, C. Ap. 2.199,202; Ps.-Phoc. 186; Philo, Spec. 3.9,113.
Moreover, παρθένος – word which for the traditional reading is a marker for virginal birth – is a good translation for the Hebrew ‘young woman’ of Isa. 7.14, in as much as παρθένος also denotes a young woman without children.
Focusing then on the context, the revisionist reading suggests that the women in the genealogy are included precisely because their narratives include some level of a marital scandal history; similarly, David is the first in the list and has a scandal on his part.
Textual issues were added to the discussion, starting from the fact that 1:22-23 is generally considered to be an editorial insertion (e.g. Willker). The question would then be: what is the underlying tradition saying about the discussed issue? The revised reading notices that the underlying tradition of 1:19-21,24-25 only presents the dream and the annunciation and, more importantly, this pre-Matthean tradition is free of mentioning the virginity. Hence it argues for the possibility of the following scenario: Joseph is not the father – yet one other male is – but he accepts Jesus as his son.
The response of the traditional view would be that the birth from the Spirit is enough for understanding here virginal birth; indeed, it appears as such in the Graeco-Roman literature, where similar language is used about (legendary and historical) heroes who are said to be the sons of gods (e.g. Herodotus, Hist. 2.43,145; Plato, Leg. 9.853; 12.948; Plutarch, Thes. 6; Alex. 28; Quaest. Conv. 8.1; Num. 4.2-4; Philo, Cher. 40-50).
Revisiting the antique understanding of procreation and conception provides another perspective on this topic. The ancient view on conception involves not two, but three parties: man’s semen, the bodily matter of the woman, and God’s will: Job. 31:15; 10:8-12; Ps. 139:16; Gen. 4:1,2; 30:1,2,22,23; Judg. 13. In this context, it is not unusual to have the male contribution elided from the narrative; this is in fact the case for a number of key characters: David (Ps. 139:16); Jeremiah (1:5); Isaiah’s servant (Isa. 44:2; 44:24; 49:1-6).
The revised view concludes from this that we are supposed to imply a man action in Mt, an action which was simply elided from the story, just as it was in other similar cases. Yet the traditional reading replies that Matthew’s redaction rather suggests that we should think of virginal conception: Matthew chooses LXX precisely because of παρθένος, which would imply a virginal conception. The rejoinder argues that Matthew’s interest in this particular LXX quotation is not in παρθένος, yet in the name Emmanuel and its translation as ‘God with us.’
Andrew Lincoln concluded noticing that the narrative does not really say which of the two readings stands, as it has enough gaps to render both of them possible. The remaining question is then, which of the two does better justice to what the text says? Lincoln’s answer was that the ambiguity itself favors the revised view, even though it admittedly remains a minority view.
University of St Andrews