Volume 11 - Issue 1

Virgin birth and bodily resurrection

By David Wenham

Scholarly conjecture easily becomes scholarly fashion without good reason: theories that have no very secure basis often come to command wide assent. Once this has happened, it does not occur to most people to question the theories, since they are assumed to be securely based, and the person who does question them finds himself or herself swimming against a strong and sometimes hostile tide. Earlier in this century scholars who questioned the two-source theory of synoptic origins experienced this, and it is only recently that it has become respectable (almost) to have doubts about Markan priority and the existence of Q. In this issue of Themelios Gordon Wenham continues his article questioning the scholarly consensus on the book of Deuteronomy.

To recognize the deceptive power of scholarly fashion is important both for the inexperienced student, who may otherwise assume that uncertain scholarly opinions are in fact soundly based, and also for the scholar, whose research may be seriously flawed or limited by his or her failure to question the current tenets of scholarly orthodoxy. It is also particularly important that influential church leaders beware of theological fashions. David Jenkins, the new Anglican bishop of Durham (in the north of England), has caused much distress and dismay all over the world by expressing very publicly his opinion that Jesus was not born of a virgin and his doubts as to whether Jesus’ body was physically raised from the dead. In doing so he has sided with certain scholarly opinions rather than with traditional and biblical orthodoxy. This must on any reckoning be a very serious thing to do, especially for a bishop of the church. It might conceivably be defensible were the scholarly opinions concerned really well founded; in fact, however, the bishop has aligned himself with some very questionable theological opinions.

So far as the virgin birth is concerned, there are difficulties in the Matthean and Lukan accounts of Jesus’ birth, in particular difficulties in harmonizing the two accounts. But the fact remains (1) that Matthew and Luke are our earliest sources of information about Jesus’ birth; they are apparently independent accounts—witness their differences—but they both agree that Jesus was miraculously born of Mary before she married Joseph. It is unlikely that the evangelists intended their respective accounts of Jesus’ birth to be taken as unhistorical ‘midrash’. (2) It is very probable that the tradition of Jesus’ virginal conception antedates Matthew and Luke. The fact that other New Testament authors do not mention it explicitly proves nothing. (3) The earliest non-Christian version of the events, i.e. the Jewish accusation that Jesus was illegitimately born, is a recognition of the irregularity of Jesus’ birth. Given this evidence, the traditional Christian view of Jesus’ virgin birth has a lot going for it historically (as well as theologically); it is accepted by many scholars, and is even allowed as a serious possibility by Raymond Brown in his standard, but by no means conservative, work on the subject The Birth of the Messiah (Geoffrey Chapman, 1977). It is, to say the least, premature for a bishop of the church to side with those who deny traditional Christian orthodoxy on this point.

So far as the resurrection is concerned, the case is even stronger for the traditional interpretation. There are some problems in harmonizing the resurrection narratives in the different gospels. But these problems are not insuperable, and in any case the differences between the gospels show the independence of their resurrection traditions. These independent traditions all make it quite clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a raising and transforming of the physical body of Jesus, not just something spiritual or visionary.

Scholars have claimed that Paul, our earliest witness to the resurrection (writing 1 Corinthians about ad 55) viewed Jesus’ resurrection as something visionary. But the claim is an argument from silence: from Paul’s failure in 1 Corinthians 15 to mention the empty tomb and from his failure to distinguish his own vision of the risen Christ on the Damascus road from the earlier appearances of the risen Christ to others. And, if anything, the Pauline evidence points the other way. Paul probably implies the empty tomb when he speaks of the burial of Jesus before referring to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4); he probably implies that Jesus’ physical body was raised when he speaks of the bodies of Christians being redeemed and transformed (e.g. Phil. 3:21). As for Paul’s inclusion of himself in the list of witnesses to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, this does not prove that he saw himself as a witness in the same sense as those who preceded him; but, even if he did, it is more likely that he regarded his own experience of the risen Jesus on the Damascus road as something more than a vision than that he regarded the earlier resurrection appearances as visionary.

The traditional Christian claim that the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning goes back very early, and was accepted by the early Jewish opponents of Christianity who explained that the disciples stole the body (Mt. 28:15). That explanation was never plausible. The Christian explanation that Jesus’ body rose from death makes much more sense: it accords with our earliest historical evidence, it fits with what we know of Jesus’ remarkable life, it explains the character and dynamic growth of the early church. It is ironical that at a time when a Jewish scholar has come out in print arguing for the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body—see the review of P. Lapide’s book later in this Themelios—an Anglican bishop can publicly question this traditional element of the Christian good news; this time the historical evidence favours the Jew’s interpretation rather than the Christian’s!

Bishop Jenkins by his public statements has given to certain doubtful scholarly opinions a respectability that those opinions do not deserve. Uninformed people inside and outside the church must inevitably wonder: why should a bishop of the church have discarded the traditional doctrines of the virgin birth and of the bodily resurrection, if he could have avoided it? The fact is that he could and should have avoided the opinions that he advocates: his opinions are not soundly based, and reflect more on uncertain theological fashion and on the secular philosophy that is so powerful in the West at present than on anything else. (On the philosophical background see Paul Helm’s article later in this Themelios.)

Those of us who live in the West live in an age of doubt, and this doubt rubs off onto theologians and bishops and often, of course, onto theological students. In this situation we need prayerfully to ask God to save us from false teaching; we also need reminding that the good news of Christ revealed in the Bible remains as true and relevant and wonderful as ever. While we must be open to true scholarly insights, we must beware of deceptive theological fashions, and we must guard the gospel committed to our charge.

Some recent literature: R. T. France has written a number of very useful articles on the virgin birth, e.g.‘Scripture, tradition and history in the infancy narratives of Matthew’ in Gospel Perspectives II (ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham, Sheffield: JSOT, 1981), pp. 239–266. D. A. Carson’s new and important commentary on Matthew (in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. F. E. Gaebelein, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) has useful discussion of the infancy and resurrection narratives. Also on the resurrection see M. Harris, Easter at Durham (Exeter: Paternoster, 1985, an excellent analysis of the Bishop of Durham’s views in the light of NT teaching); G. Osborne, The Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984); J. W. Wenham, Easter Enigma (Exeter: Paternoster/Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, a careful harmony of the resurrection narratives, also available now in German). W. Craig has a number of useful articles: ‘The bodily resurrection of Jesus’ (Gospel Perspectives I, 47–74), ‘The empty tomb of Jesus’ (Gospel Perspectives II, 173–200, cf. his similar article in NTS 31, 1985, 39–67), ‘The guard at the tomb’ (NTS 30, 1984, 273–281).

Editorial changes

Our sincere thanks go to retiring editors Dr Gordon Wenham, Professor Jan Veenhof and Dr Emilio Nuñez for all that they have done for Themelios over a number of years. We welcome as our new Old Testament editor Dr Martin Selman of Spurgeon’s College in London.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall