Thursday, September 27, 2007

Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Dawkins But Have Been Forced To Find Out

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

4: B.Y.W.M

During an alleged review of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which, surprisingly enough, he likes) Richard Dawkins makes the theological point that the story of Jesus' birth is not unique in literature. Readers of the Times Literary Supplement were doubtless astonished to learn for the first time that other legendary and mythological characters apart from Jesus have been said to have had no human father.

Dawkins rants that:

Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for 'young woman' into the Greek for 'virgin'.

This phrase comes up a lot. One might almost say that it was 'stock criticism'. In a whimsical essay about possible examples of 'virgin births' in nature, Dawkins ranted unequivocally that:

The entire legend of the Virgin Birth stems, in the first place, from a mistranslation of a Hebrew word meaning 'young woman' into a Greek word meaning 'virgin'.

It is worth examining this theological claim in some detail. I think it tells us a great deal about why relations between the religious and the non-religious are on the point of breaking down.

First, some dull facts.

Two out of the four canonical Gospels contain a story about the birth of Jesus. The stories are quite similar in structure: Jesus' birth is announced by an angel; it is initially disbelieved but then supernatural proofs are offered; his special nature is recognized by various unlikely people. However, the details are entirely different.

All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, but that they were independent of each other, apart from the ones who don't.The relevant part of Luke's narrative runs as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the name of the virgin was Mary.

And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus"...

Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren."

The English word 'virgin' stands for the Greek word parthenos. So far as I know, no-one questions that parthenos means 'a woman who has not had sexual intercourse'. 'To know someone' is, of course, a Biblical euphemism for 'to have sex with them'. So when Mary asks "How is this possible, since I know not a man?", she is unambiguously asking "How can I possibly be pregnant since I haven't had sex yet?"

Here is Matthew's version:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."

....Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

Again, the text is quite un-ambiguous. It doesn't state in so many words that Mary was a virgin; but it does say that Jesus had no human father and that Joseph had not had sexual intercourse with Mary when Jesus was born.

If you try really, really hard, you can imagine a Hebrew text underlying Luke's Greek in which the word 'virgin' had meant 'young woman'. In this imaginary text, the angel would have been sent to a young woman in Nazareth; and the name of the young woman would have been Mary. It is even possible to imagine a text in which "How is this possible, since I know not a man?" had been "How is this possible since I am a young woman." ("I am far too young to have a child, in the same way that my relative Elizabeth is far too old to have a child.") Such a change would not have been a mistranslation, but a conscious amendment of the text.

In Matthew's narrative, the 'simple mistranslation' theory is even harder to uphold. You would have to imagine an ur-text in which "before they came together" had been "while she was still a young woman" and "knew her not until she had been brought forth of her first born" had read "continued to have rapacious nooky even though she was only a young woman."

So, everything turns on the following comment by Matthew:

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name "Emmanuel" ' which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew is quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, or, if you are the sort of person who worries about this kind of thing, the prophecy of dutero-Isaiah. The full passage runs as follows:

"Hear ye now, O house of David: is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings."

Isaiah wrote in Hebrew; but Matthew would have been looking at the standard Greek translation, called, for reasons I probably once knew, the Septuagint. This Greek translation certainly said that the person who would have a child and name it Immanuel would be a parthenos.

Now it gets very boring indeed. Where the English says virgin and the Greek says parthenos, the original Hebrew had said almah. The word almah occurs seven times in the Old Testament, and Good King James translates it variously as 'virgin', 'damsel' and 'maiden'.

Gen 24: 23: ' shall come to pass that when the virgin cometh forth...

Ex 2:8 '...and the maid went and called the child's mother.

Psalm 68: 25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the
playing with timbrels.

Proverbs 30:18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.

Song of Songs 6:8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number.

In each case, the woman being described probably was a virgin; explicitly so in the Genesis passage. However, Hebrew has another word, bethuwlah which can be used when the writer wants to make it clear that the the lady in question is a virgin in the Anne Widdecombe sense, as: "The damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her...'" Since Isaiah doesn't use this word to describe the woman in the prophecy, it is fair to say that he didn't think that her virgin-ness was the most important thing about her. The passage probably comes out as "You'll know that God is going to save you when a young woman names her child 'Emmanuel' " as opposed to "You'll know that God is going to save you when a virgin has a child, and by the way, she'll name him Emmanuel." (Since Isaiah was in the habit of giving his children names like A-Few-Will-Come-Back and Quick-Loot-Fast-Plunder it's even possible that little God-Is-With-Us is another of the prophet's own kids. Hosea's children were named Unloved and Not-My-People. Registration must have been a bundle of laughs in Jewish schools.)

So: it is a perfectly good fact that when the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek in around 180 BCE the word almah in the Isaiah passage was translated as parthenos. To say that this came down to a 'simple mistranslation' says more than we know. Certainly, an ambiguity was removed -- a passage which could possibly be read as referring to a virgin was changed into one which had to be read in this way. Was it 'simply' a mistake? Or were the translators deliberately revising the text? Or were they making a traditional translation, writing parthenos because that reflected the opinion of the wisest commentators of their day?

"The idea that there was a prophecy which said that the mother of Jesus would be a Virgin is the result of a mistranslation" is an unexceptionable statement. Insert a couple of probablies and a perhaps or two and no-one but a megaphone carrying fundamentalist would have any quarrel with you. But it's always cited as "The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation." Not even "A mistranslation of the prophecy of Isaiah" – simply "a mistranslation." And this is a much more complicated claim, involving suppositions and conjectures and speculation and things we just don't know. In order to believe it, you'd have to believe the following:

1: The very earliest Christians -- the ones who who must have had first hand contact with Jesus' family and his disciples -- had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.

2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.

3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.

4: In order to support the new doctrine that he had made up out of his head he invented out of his head the story of Joseph and the Angel.

5: Luke read Matthew and instantly accepted the new doctrine of the Virgin Birth. So he invented, out of his head, a completely different story, which owed nothing to Matthew, about Mary and the Angel, padded it out with some material about John the Baptist , and sent it off to the scribes without bothering to quote the Old Testament prophecy which had caused all the trouble to begin with. (1)

None of this is intrinsically impossible. Some scholars, I guess, believe it, or something a lot like it. The game of inventing imaginary histories for famous books keeps academics out of mischief for hours on end. The non-existent drafts of Hamlet are much more interesting than the actual play. But this kind of thing can only ever be a conjecture: based on the single fact that Matthew quotes Isaiah.

Isn't it equally possible that the very, very early Christians did indeed believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception – either because Mary had told them so, or because it expressed a prior theological belief that he was the Son of God? If this were the case, then Matthew, scouring the Old Testament for passages which seemed to back up Jesus' claim to be Messiah, would have taken it for granted that Isaiah really meant 'virgin' because that's what he already believed. This would take into account the fact that the fit between Matthew and Isaiah isn't actually all that good: if Matthew had been making the whole thing up, couldn't he have worked some honey and butter in somewhere?

Of course any critique of Christianity will involve a critique of the historicity of the Gospels; of course one of the things that would occur to any sensible critic is that some of the stories about Jesus were 'reverse engineered' to make it look as if they fulfilled prophecies. But to say "The story" – sorry, "the entire legend" -- was "the result of a mistranslation" when what you mean is "A plausible case can be made out of saying that the story was a fictional creation that was retrofitted to a prophecy – and by the way, the prophecy itself contained a questionable piece of translation" is misleading. Wouldn't an intelligent but ignorant person, hearing the claim for the first time, assume that "the story is the result of a mistranslation" meant "someone mistranslated Matthew and Luke so it looked as if Mary was a Virgin; but Matthew and Luke never said anything of the sort; it was all a silly mistake like Cinderella's fur slipper becoming a glass slipper because 'vair' and 'verre' sound similar. Har har aren't Christians silly." Do those who pass on the 'mistranslation' story do anything to correct this impression? Is it in fact just what they want people to think?

"Perhaps Matthew retrofitted his text to a prophecy from Isaiah and perhaps that prophecy had been contentiously translated; and perhaps Luke based his story on Matthew; and perhaps everyone accepted their stories, and perhaps that's where the story of the Virgin Birth came from" is complicated, vague and dull. "The story of the virgin birth is the result of a mistranslation" is simple, exciting, and easy to remember. There a lots of simple, exciting, easy to remember and massively misleading slogans about the Bible in circulation: "They've discovered a new Gospel which gives Judas' side of the story" "There were at one time of 70 different Gospels"; "Constantine made up the idea that that Jesus was the Son of God", "The council of Nicea decided on the content of the Bible", "Judas was a zealot".

It isn't easy to respond to slogans: by the time you have said "Well, it depends what you mean by...." and "That's very misleading because...." your victims eyes have glazed over. "You don't seriously expect me to compare and contrast different texts and look things up in a concordance, do you? The simple phrase is much easier to grasp than your long, boring essay, with all those nasty liberal 'perhapses' and 'maybes' in it. You must be splitting hairs. Or trying to confuse me. Obfuscation! Obfuscation!"

Is it possible that Dawkins is deliberately infecting people with the 'simple mistranslation' meme in the hope that it will inoculate them against what he sees as the much more dangerous virus of Christianity? If he is right that Christianity is dangerous, would it even matter if the factual content of the anti-meme was incorrect? Are Christians making a silly mistake when we treat phrases and essays and indeed entire books which are intended only as slogans and rallying cries as if they were actual arguments? Indeed, should we give up the whole concept of "good or bad argument" and "true or false claim" and replace it with "successful or unsuccessful meme"? If you believe in memes, does the concept of 'truth' retain any validity at all? Is the logical conclusion of Dawkinsism to raise "whatever I say three times is true" to the level of a scientific axiom?

(1) Incidentally: when referring to this in a footnote to a book on evolution – go figure – Dawkins rants that Matthew 'was not, of course, the Apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but the gospel-maker writing long afterwards'

There are no 'of courses' in the study of the Gospels, but a lot of sensible scholars have said that Matthew must have been written after 70CE, because he refers to fall of Jerusalem, but before 100CE, because he's quoted by Ignatius. Whether 70-100CE amounts to 'long afterwards' depends on your point of view. If Matthew had been an up and coming tax inspector of 22 at the time of Jesus, then he could have been a nonogenarian sitting down to compose his memoirs at the turn of the century. 'Long afterwards' raises the suspicion that the speaker believes Brownite fantasies of the Gospels being fourth or fifth century and should be stomped on whenever they turn up.


Neil said...

Tradition has it that the Septuagint was translated by 72 scholars. In a language other than the ones being translated from, or the one being translated to, Septuagint means a number other than 72.

On reflection I don't know why it's called that either.

Tpolg said...

Again Dawkins continues to astound me with his ability to say profoundly irrelevant things. Fussing over the translation of a few words in the Tanach could be, I suppose rather important, that is if you happen to believe the Tanach is the word of YHVH, Creator of haven and earth. Last I checked Dawkins does not. Whether or not the Apostolic writings are the word of God matters only if you think there is a God to have such a word.

Gareth McCaughan said...

If Dawkins comments on theological matters then Tpolg says he's fussing over things that are irrelevant to an atheist. If he doesn't comment on theological matters then Cornwell says he's ignorant and has no place writing books about the alleged nonexistence of God. It seems he can't win.

(And if he comments on theological matters and gets them wrong then Andrew says he's being sloppy. Which has, at least, the merit of being true and somewhat to the point.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Dawkins' substantive claim is "The Virgin Birth is a work of fiction". This is relevant to his case because it proves the point "The Bible contains fiction (which Christians have treated as history)" and therefore "The Bible is unreliable". This, on his view, refutes any claims that we can prove God's existence from the Bible. So as far as it goes, the claim is not irrelevant to his case for atheism.

The theory about why the supposedly fictional story was composed does not seem to be relevant to his case.

Since he presumably believes that the story of the Virgin Birth can be proved to be fiction on no more sophisticated grounds than "Virgin Births are impossible" (and impossible events i.e miracles never occur)it isn't quite clear why the issue of prophecy comes into his argument at all -- if, as he and his supporters say -- he is ONLY interested in proving that God does not exist.

(Of course, someone might say that it is cheating to say "There is no evidence that supernatural events ever occur. The people who believe that supernatural events sometimes occur point to a back which describes supernatural events. But this book can be shown to be mostly fictional, and therefore inadmissible as evidence. How can it be shown to be fictional? Why, because it describe supernatural events, which never occur." Is his scattergun attempt to rubbish the Bible on other grounds and attempt to avoid this kind of circularity?)

Gareth McCaughan said...

I don't think Dawkins makes the circular argument you describe, any more than most Christians make the similar ones of which they might be accused ("the Bible is reliable, which I know because it says so right here in 2 Timothy 3:16", or "the Bible is reliable, because of all those fulfilled prophecies about Jesus; I know that they were real prophecies and were really fulfilled because it says so in the Bible"). Er, well, actually I think quite a lot of Christians make those arguments, but never mind that for now. Plenty of Christians, Andrew surely among them, don't.

I think "The evidence for supernatural occurrences is very poor; the best there is is that there is this book that says they've happened" is in fact sufficient grounds for disbelieving (not of course with 100% certainty) in supernatural occurrences. The fact that some people about 2000 years ago wrote that something miraculous happened isn't much reason to believe them, especially if the other evidence we have available suggests that miracles are rare to nonexistent.

Of course that doesn't work if in fact there is good evidence outside that book for supernatural occurrences, and it's curious that Dawkins doesn't say more about alleged miracles. (He does mention the largest and most recent scientific attempt to test the efficacy of prayer, but we all know the usual response to that sort of thing.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

And, speaking of theology and academic rigor in considerations thereof....are those reviews of Doctor Who and Pirates of the Caribbean still in the works?

Neil said...


I'm puzzled as to what argument you're trying to make. I guess I can't see the theorem for the proof!

The nearest I've been able to make out is:

It's unfair to call Dawkins an idiot, because many other people, Christians included, are also idiots.

Is that accurate? Or have I missed the plot?

(Incidentally, Hi, don't know whether you'll be able to work out who I am from just my first name, your names are, by contrast, quite distinctive.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I keep trying to review Doctor Who. But every time I try I start to cry.

Sarah Jane was a blast, though.

Jallan said...

But is your response not also “ranting”? Perhaps it would be better to concern oneself with whether a sentence is true rather than whether it is ranting.

The other Dawkins sentence you provide is: Jesus’ case was abetted by a simple mistranslation of the Hebrew for ‘young woman’ into the Greek for ‘virgin’. The meaning is different from that of the first sentence. So, if attacking some of Dawkins’ beliefs, one might ask which sentence represents Dawkins’ beliefs and which is an unfortunately careless misrepresentation by Dawkins of Dawkins’ beliefs.

But then you take Dawkins’ second statement as an example of general and unsourced anti-Christian polemic: But it’s always cited as “The story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is the result of a mistranslation. Shouldn’t you have more accurately written often cited or sometimes cited?

But despite this, it is not a bad thing to refute an untrue statement, whatever its source.

But you’ve not done well. Does parthenos always mean “virgin” in the strict sense? Not always. See for example the Septuagint translation of Genesis 34:2–3: ²And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he took her and lay with her by force. ³And he was deeply attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl [parthenos] and spoke tenderly to her [parthenos]. So in the dialect of a least one of the Septuagint translators parthenenos did not mean strictly “virgin”.

I don’t at all accept the mistranslation theory as the primal reason for the creation of the story of the Virgin Birth. But if I did so accept it, I would not have to accept any of your supposed beliefs that you claim depend on it.

If indeed Christian tradition is correct that Jesus was purportedly the son of Joseph and Mary and had brothers and sisters, the birth story has not been lost without a trace, any more than stories that Alexander the Great was begotten by Zeus on Olympias means that Alexander’s true birth story was lost without a trace. In both cases there would not have originally been any story worth telling about a normal pregnancy and birth.

But that Matthew and Luke make Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, for entirely different reasons, while John appears to make Jesus to be born in Nazareth, indicates some confusion at least in the tradition. Legend has been at work.

Why would the author of Matthew have checked with a Hebrew-speaking Jew about the Septuagint translation? If he had done so, considering the Septuagint translation in the case of Dinah, the Jew might have said that [i]parthenos[/i] was a reasonably accurate translation. After all, there’s nothing miraculous in a true virgin conceiving, as long as you don’t claim she’s still a virgin after (or during) conception. Similarly you could quibble that saying that a baby will grow up to become prime-minister is impossible because once grown up that subject of the sentence is no longer a baby.

But indeed, if neither Jesus or Alexander were true sons of gods, then someone did invent that idea out of their heads. How else would this idea have arisen? And a supposed genuine prophecy that seemed to be fulfilled by such an idea would help in the spread of this idea.

But I’ve never seen any modern scholar suggest that the author of Matthew himself invented this tradition. Where does that come from?

That Luke doesn’t mention the Isaiah prophecy doesn’t prove he was ignorant of it, despite there being nothing to indicate that Luke drew directly from Matthew. There were likely many contradictory traditions floating about and accordingly various discrepancies between the Gospels.

But do you believe that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was correct: that Isaiah’s prophecy does refer directly to Jesus’ birth?

If it is so important to you that Dawkins be shown to be wrong, why is it comparatively unimportant that the Gospel of Mathew can be shown to be wrong?

Andrew Stevens said...

Jallan, Dinah may still have been a "parthenos" in the strict sense. What you translated as "lay with her by force," is in fact the Greek "etapeinosen," which means he "humbled her." (The same verb is used by some commentators when talking about Jesus's having "humbled himself" by becoming flesh. They do not mean that he raped himself.) Many scholars question whether Dinah was actually lay with by force, given the ambiguity of the original Hebrew. It could have referred to an abduction marriage without consummation. It is at least as likely that the Septuagint translators took this view than that they simply meant "parthenos" to be young woman.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Jalian: You make some very good points, thank you.

Yes, I agree, "often cited" or "very frequently cited" would have been more strictly accurate than "always cited".

I understood that the definition of "parthenos" was not open to question. If that's not right, then the whole argument is moot. (I have also read claims that the Hebrew word is not as unambiguous as the English, although that struck me as Christian special pleading.)

1: The very earliest Christians -- ....had no story of the birth of Jesus, or if they did it has been lost without trace.

Yes, 'lost without trace' is overstating it.

I am not sure if "knowing the name of his father, (or his 'father') " or "knowing the name of at least one brother" qualifies as "a trace of a story of his birth."

So far as I know, there aren't any rival stories with a decent claim to being earlier than the synoptics in which Joseph is Jesus' natural father? In fact, are there any? (Didn't the early anti-Christian writers claim that Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier called "Panther" which sounds a bit like "Parthenos" if you squint?)

Either there was no birth story in the primitive church; or there was a primitive birth story which Matthew and Luke completely supplanted: that seems to be implicit in the the claim that the "Virgin Birth" story is reverse engineered to fit in with the mistranslation of Isaiah.

2: At some time toward the end of the first century Matthew formed the opinion that Isaiah 7 was a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. He therefore invented out of his head the doctrine that Jesus' mother was a 'virgin', even though no such thing had previously been taught by Christians.

No, this is not an exhaustive list of possibilities. Off the top of my head:

1: Matthew invented the story of the Virgin Birth, and Luke based his infancy story on Matthew.

2: Luke invented the story of the Virgin Birth, and Matthew based his infancy story on Luke.

3: An anonymous "Matthew-source" wrote the infancy story; Matthew based his story on that, and Luke in turn based his story on that.

4: An anonymous "Luke-source" wrote the infancy story; Luke based his story on that, on Matthew in turn based his story on that.

5: An anonymous "ur-source" wrote an infancy story; Luke (or proto-Luke) and Matthew (or proto-Matthew) independently based their stories on that.

6: Matthew and Luke or proto-Matthew and proto-Luke invented the Virgin birth story independently of each other or of any source.

7: The source's needn't all have been written works: they could have been elements in an oral tradition.

8: The ur-source might not even have been a narrative: it might have been a non-narrative statement "Jesus mother must have been a Virgin because Isaiah said so."

9: The more sources you put in, the closer the tradition has to be to the Historical Christ: if 70 - 100 CE is at all plausible as a date for Matthew's Gospel then the tradition has to be very early indeed.

I may have left some permutations out. (Has anyone ever argued, for example, that the Virgin Birth stories are attempts to put into some sort of narrative vernacular the difficult, rather platonic theories of John's Prologue?)

If you check the ancient historical sources of my article, you will find that some of this was actually present in the source text, but was removed at the editing stage by a redactor, possibly because the article was "too long and boring already."

The substantive point is "For the translation theory to work, some person or person's must have invented the story of the Virgin Birth, even though it was no part of the primitive oral traditions about Jesus." This is a complex claim: and I don't think that the people who are infected with the "result of a simple mistranslation" virus necessarily see what lies behind it.

3: Oh, and by the way, he didn't check with any Hebrew speaking Jew.

I put this in because I accepted that "parthenos" is a bad translation of "almah." If not, then, as I say, the entire argument is moot.

The idea that "A virgin will conceive" might mean no more than "Emmanuel will be the first child of a chaste woman" is very amusing: has anyone, Christian or Jew, ever claimed that that is what the passage means? (I ask merely for information.)

You are correct, of course, that if someone doesn't believe that Jesus was (in any sense whatsoever) a Son of God or a supernatural being then by definition, they would also believe that any story which points to him being one must be untrue. And that if you don't believe that there are any supernatural beings, then neither Jesus nor Alexander can have been one. The "simple mistranslation" claim therefore boils down to: "We know, a priori, that all the Christian claims about Jesus are false, but we think we can explain how this particular false claim was thunk up."

Yes: logically, if there are no supernatural beings, then the false idea that Jesus was one must have originated somewhere. But we should surely admit possibilities such as

1: The primitive church believed that Jesus was "son of god" because that was the term he had applied to himself

2: The primitive church believed that Jesus was "son of god" because that was the term that the first generation disciples had applied to him (because that summed up the understanding which they had developed during the time they had known him.)

3: The primitive church believed that Jesus was the "son of god" because they thought that that term summed up everything which they had learned about Jesus from the first generation of disciples

Or, in summary: "People said that Jesus was the Son of God because that was what they sincerely believed", as opposed to "One afternoon, say in 45 CE, someone said "I know, let's claim that Jesus was the Son of God, and everybody else said "Yes, lets." It was the latter model which I had in mind when I wrote "invented out of his head".

You ask: But do you believe that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was correct: that Isaiah’s prophecy does refer directly to Jesus’ birth?

The simplest answer is "No, I do not": I think that Matthew consistently presses O.T prophecies further than they will go, and that Isaiah was not talking about a miraculous birth, or, come to that, the birth of the Messiah. As I said, I think that Matthew too it for granted that Jesus had no human father, and pressed the Isaiah passage into service; I don't think that he started from a belief that the Isaiah passage was about the Messiah and invented the story of the Virgin Birth to make it fit. (The complicated answer can wait for another day.)

If it is so important to you that Dawkins be shown to be wrong, why is it comparatively unimportant that the Gospel of Mathew can be shown to be wrong?

It depends, of course, on what you mean by "wrong". If Matthew sincerely believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and if in doing so he was reproducing the sincere beliefs of a Christian community only one or two generations removed from Jesus, then it doesn't bother me greatly that he put that belief forward in the form of a story. The claim that "the New Testament contains stories" is not a controversial one: if you read my essay on Judas, which I wouldn't necessarily recommend, you'll know roughly my feelings about what kind of writing the New Testament consists of.

What I was trying to do was hold up the "simple mistranslation" meme as a specimen of anti-theist rhetoric: "On the assumption that supernatural beings do not exist, then we could conjecture that one specific unture story about Jesus might have arisen in this way" is sometimes cited as "the story of the Virgin Birth is the result of a mistranslation", or some similar phrase. And I think that the summary is misleading, and that at least some of those who pass on the summary know that it is misleading.

If any kind of debate is going to occur, this sort of translation has to be done. When someone says: "Constantine invented the idea of the Holy Trinity", you have to say "STOP! Before we go any further, let's establish the slightly complicated thing you are actually saying here....OK: now carry on; what's your substantive point?"

Andrew Rilstone said...


Sorry. You're point is that when someone says "James, the brother of Jesus", as opposed to "the half-brother" or "the so-called brother", that represents a "trace" of an earlier form of Christianity in which Joseph was Jesus' natural father. Correct?