Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Does Matthew 1 Narrate a Virginal Conception?

Yesterday, I received the alert that in the new issue of JSNT appears an article by Andrew T. Lincoln, "Contested Paternity and Contested Readings: Jesus' Conception in Matthew 1.18-25," 34.3 (2012): 211-31.

The article evaluates two ways of reading Matthew 1:18-25 with regard to the issue of the virginal conception. The traditional view sees in Matt. 1 a virginal conception because Matthew calls Mary a παρθένος, emphasizes that the product of her womb is begotten of the Holy Spirit, and informs his readers that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of the child.

The revised view (represented by Jane Schaberg, David Catchpole, and Robert J. Miller) does not see a virginal conception here, and charges the traditional reading with being unduly influenced by data outside Matthew's text, such as Christian tradition and the Lucan infancy narrative, which definitely (I think) contains a virginal conception (Luke 1:34; of course, yesterday I would have said that Matthew definitely contains a virginal conception). According to the revised view, the word παρθένος does not always mean virgin (more on this below), the Holy Spirit's involvement in the conception does not eliminate the possibility that a human father was also involved (see, e.g., Gen. 4:1-2; Judg. 13), and the reason for stressing that Joseph did not have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born was not to ensure a virginal conception, but to highlight once again (cf. Matt. 1:19) that Joseph was a righteous man, who therefore avoided the impurity of sexual relations with his pregnant wife (cf. Josephus, Against Apion, 2.199, 202).

At the end of the article, Lincoln offers this conclusion:
The provisional conclusion of this article, then, is that the revised reading needs to be taken seriously as a minority report that raises significant questions about the traditional reading, questions that should cause the latter's adherents to re-think its justification, but that, on balance, it is not compelling enough to make them abandon it. Matthew, though obliquely, probably remains a witness to a virginal conception. But, with apologies for the puns, the article will have succeeded in its aim if it has raised suspicions about the legitimacy of both the revised and the traditional readings of Jesus' conception in Matthew and planted the seed for further reflection and discussion. (p. 229)
Lincoln thus seems to lean toward the traditional view, which apparently represents something of a revision of his own position (see the conclusion here). 

But what about the word παρθένος? Does it really not mean virgin? Let me first note that Lincoln's article re-affirms my own interpretation that Matthew's main reason for citing Isa. 7:14 was not the word παρθένος--that is, not as a prediction of the virginal conception--but because of the child's name, Immanuel, for this child of Joseph and Mary would truly be "God with us".

Lincoln can cite some evidence that παρθένος does not mean 'virgin' but simply 'young woman' (p. 215 n. 10). This includes some Classical Greek references, but also a couple of instances in the LXX (Gen. 34:3; Joel 1:8). The idea is not that παρθένος never means 'virgin', but that this is a specialized meaning of the word that usually has not implications regarding sexual experience. It turns out, then, that the Greek translators of Isaiah got their translation correct, and, on the revised reading of Matthew, the Evangelist cited the verse without meaning to stress the virginity of the παρθένος.
[Note, however, that Lincoln gives two contradictory explanations for παρθένος in LXX Isa. 7:14. On p. 215, he says: "The LXX translators do not, then, change the force of the Hebrew. [...] [I]t makes perfectly good sense to read παρθένος [in Matt. 1:23], in line with the Hebrew and the LXX, as having its more general meaning of 'young woman' [...]."

But on p. 221, Lincoln writes: "There is, then, still no decisive reason against thinking that Matthew understood Isa. 7:14 in the way the LXX does: as referring to one who was at the time a virgin but who would conceive naturally."
I think this latter view--LXX Isa. 7:14 means that a woman who is now a virgin would conceive naturally (thus being a virgin no longer) and bear a son--was the one supported in R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah. But it is different from saying that παρθένος is actually the correct translation of almah, as Lincoln seems to say on p. 215.] 

Lincoln purposefully omits Luke from discussion, because he wants to focus on how we read Matthew apart from Luke. But Luke might give some support to the revised reading of Matthew, at least in regard to the meaning of παρθένος. About Mary's virginity, Luke is much more explicit than Matthew. In the crucial verse that establishes beyond doubt that Mary is a virgin (Luke 1:34), Luke does not rely on the word παρθένος (which he had already used about Mary; 1:27), perhaps because he knew it to be ambiguous. Instead, he has Mary say, ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω. I think this might support the idea that παρθένος cannot carry the meaning 'virgin' without the help of context.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day I still agree with the traditional interpretation of Matt. 1. Certainly, Lincoln's article has helped me to be a more critical reader by identifying some presuppositions that I bring to the text. Yet, if I were presented with Matthew's Gospel with no prior knowledge of Christianity, I think I would understand it to be asserting that Jesus was conceived without any male human agency, before Mary had sexual relations with any man, thus a virginal conception.

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