A few days ago James McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix took a comment that I left at MetaCatholic and made it into his Quote of the Day. This has led to some discussion, partly because people took my comment in a rather more sexually explicit way than I had intended.
James has in fact made several recent posts on the seasonal topic of the virgin birth. I agree with his point that the child Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 is not Jesus and the mother is not stated to be a virgin.
James also quotes concerning the virgin birth from Arthur Peacocke, who I knew as Dean of my Cambridge college when I was an undergraduate. Peacocke wrote:
for Jesus to be fully human he had, for both biological and theological reasons, to have a human father as well as a human mother … it was probably Joseph.
Indeed. Peacocke, as a biologist, is right to point out that Jesus must have been biologically and genetically fully human. There is no biological way that he could have been conceived as a normal human man from a normal human woman without sperm from a man being involved. And if he was not conceived with human sperm as well as a human egg, it is very hard to believe, as all orthodox Christians do, that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine.
This brings me back to my original comment at MetaCatholic:
My own tentative suggestion would be that sperm, perhaps Joseph’s, found its way into Mary’s womb by some unusual but scientifically explicable way.
My idea sounds rather similar to Peacocke’s, although I don’t think I got the idea from him; indeed I wrote in a comment at Exploring Our Matrix:
I think I got it from a book I read many years ago (as part of my theology degree) by Bishop John Robinson (not Gene Robinson, but John was just as controversial in his day), not Honest to God but I think The Human Face of God.
In fact, according to this article by A.N.S. Lane, my teacher at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), what Robinson taught in this book was that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Joseph by normal intercourse, with the biblical infancy narratives written as a cover-up. But Robinson did prefigure Peacocke’s argument that the humanity of Jesus requires a biologically normal birth.
My point was that sperm find their way into women’s wombs by various methods, not only by sexual intercourse or the various kinds of “fooling around” suggested in other comments at Exploring Our Matrix. One possibility might be use of a contaminated cloth as a tampon. I don’t want to speculate further on how this might happen, nor do I want to suggest any inappropriate behaviour by Joseph and Mary.
But, if a human sperm made its way into Mary’s womb apart from normal intercourse, Jesus could have been born of a virgin although conceived by the normal fusion of a sperm with an egg. This implies that we can say both that Jesus was biologically fully human, as Peacocke rightly insists, and that his mother was a virgin who could say “I know not a man” (Luke 1:34, KJV).
As I see it, the alternative to accepting this kind of explanation is to deny the virgin birth altogether, as Doug Chaplin seems to do when he writes
it is difficult both because of the nature of the sources, and because of their relationship to one another, to treat them as historical sources on this point.
There are various problems with doing this. I could appeal to the Christian creeds, but these are secondary documents which I prefer not to rely on in this kind of discussion. I could appeal to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, but, as recent discussions show, that by no means implies that everything in Scripture is to be interpreted as a literal historical record. Judges 9:8-15 clearly should not, and in principle even a believer in biblical inerrancy might hold the same to be true of the gospel infancy narratives.
No, the real problem, as Doug realises, is to explain how, if there was not an actual virgin birth, the very different accounts in Matthew and Luke came to be written in the form they are, in agreement that there was a virgin birth. Doug’s suggestions on how this came about are by no means convincing, except perhaps to those who come to them with a presupposition that there was not a historical virgin birth.
I offer my own suggestion as a way to explain the documentary evidence for the virgin birth, and remain true to the orthodox Christian creeds, while upholding Robinson and Peacocke’s principle that a fully human Jesus had to have a biological human father as well as mother.