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§ 10. Mythical View of the Miraculous Conception.—No trace of it in the Narrative.—No such Mythus could have originated among the Jews.
The accounts of Matthew and Luke agree in stating that the birth of Christ was the result of a direct creative act of God, and not of the ordinary laws of human generation. They who deny this must make 14one of two assumptions; either that all the accounts are absolute fables, or that some actual fact was the ground-work of the fabulous conception.
Those who adopt the former view tell us that, after Christ had made himself conspicuous by his great acts, men, struck with his extraordinary character, formed a theory of his birth to correspond with it. But this assumption is utterly irreconcilable with the simple and prosaic style in which Matthew tells the story of Joseph’s perplexity at finding Mary pregnant before her time;3131 We cannot believe, notwithstanding what Strauss says on this point in his 3d edition, that a fable could originally be presented in so prosaic a garb as that of Matthew. Cases are not wanting, however, in which the substance of a mythus, after it had come to be received as history, has been given out in a prosaic form. and the supposition that this prosaic narrative was the offspring of some previous mythical description, is out of all harmony with the character of the primitive Christian times. As for the second assumption, those who adopt it can assign no possible fact to explain the origin of the account, but one of so base a nature as utterly to shock every religious feeling, and every just notion of the overruling Providence of God. Had such an occurrence ever been deemed possible, the fanatical enemies of Christ would very soon have made use of it.3232 They would have done so before Jewish malevolence employed the history of the miraculous conception to invent the fable which Celsus first made use of.—Orig., i., 32. Had any such legends been in circulation before, we should find some trace of them in the Evangelists, who do not conceal the accusations that were made against Christ. Both these assumptions failing, nothing remains but to admit that the birth of Christ was a phenomenon out of the ordinary course of nature.3333 Schleiermacher, whose reverence for sacred things forbade him to adopt the latter of these two suppositions, while his conscientious love of truth compelled him to admit the reality of the history, says, in comparing the statements of Matthew and Luke (Critical Inquiries, p. 47), “We may well leave the statement of Matthew in the judicious indefiniteness in which it is expressed; while the traditional basis of the poetical announcement in Luke rebukes those impious explanations which soil the veil they cannot lift.” But, in sober truth, no one can admit the veracity of the history, and, at the same time, deny the miraculous conception, without falling into the very conclusion which Schleiermacher rejects with such pious indignation.
Nor would such a mythus have been consistent with Jewish modes of thought. The Hindoo mind might have originated a fable of this character, though in a different form from that in which the account of the Evangelists is given; but the Jewish had totally different tendencies. Such a fable as the birth of the Messiah from a virgin could have arisen any where else easier than among the Jews; their doctrine of the Divine Unity, which placed an impassable gulf between God and the world; their high regard for the marriage relation, which led them to abhor unwedded life; and, above all, their full persuasion that the Messiah was to be an ordinary man, undistinguished by any thing supernatural, and not to be endowed with Divine power before the time of his solemn consecration to the Messiahship, all conspired to 15render such an invention impossible among them. The accounts of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel cannot be quoted as in point; these case[ rather illustrate the Hebrew notion of the blessing of fruitfulness; and in them all the Divine power was shown, not in excluding the male, but in rendering the long-barren female fruitful, contrary to all human expectation. The conception of Christ would have been analogous to these, had Mary, after long barrenness, borne a son, or had Joseph been too old to expect offspring at the time.3434 E. g., in the apocryphal Gospel of James, ch. ix., it is stated, that when the priest was about to give Mary as a wife to the aged Joseph, the latter said, “I have sons and am old, while she is yet young; shall I not then become a mockery for the sons of Israel?”
It was on this very account, viz., because the
miraculous conception was foreign to the prevailing Jewish modes of thought,3535 Professor Weisse, in his work, “Die
Evangelische Geschichte” (The Gospel History, critically and philosophically treated,
Leips., 1838), admits that the Jews could not have invented this mythus, but ascribes
to it a heathen origin. How, in view of the relations that subsisted between early
Christianity and heathenism, the pagan mythus of the sons of the
gods could so soon have been transformed into a Christian
one; and how the latter could have found its way into St. Matthew’s Gospel, which
unquestionably had a Jewish-Christian origin, are among the incomprehensibilities
which abound in Prof. W.’s very intelligible work. He says, p. 178, that “as Paul
found himself involuntarily compelled, in addressing the Athenians, to quote Greek
poetry (For we are also his offspring, Acts, xvii., 28), so it is possible that
the apostles to the heathen were led to adopt the pagan mythus of the sons of the
gods, in order to make known to them the truth, that Christ
is the Son of God, in a form suited to their way of thinking,
and that their figurative language, literally understood, formed the starting-point
for such a mythus .” Things very heterogeneous are thrown together in this passage.
What religious scruples need have hindered Paul from alluding to the consciousness
of the Divine origin of the human race, which the Athenians themselves had expressed,
and to the vague idea which they entertained of an unknown God?
Not was such an allusion likely to be misunderstood. How could a man, imbued with
Jewish feelings in regard to the heathen mythology (feelings which his conversion
to Christianity would by no means weaken), compare the birth of the Holy One—of
the Messiah—with those pagan fables, whose impurity could inspire him with nothing
but disgust? Weisse has transferred his own mode of contemplating the heathen myths
to a people that would have revolted from it.
It is quite another thing when Weisse adduces the comparisons in which the early Christian apologists indulged. These men, themselves of heathen origin, were accustomed to the allegorical interpretations of the mythology, and it was natural for them to seek and occupy a position intermediate between their earlier and later views. But, so far from these comparisons having given rise to the accounts of the supernatural conception, it was the latter which caused the former. They wished to show to the heathen that this miraculous event was not altogether foreign to their own religious ideas, while they carefully guarded against the sensuous forms of thought involved in the myths; and, as they could presuppose this event, they had a right to employ the myths as they did, inasmuch as these poetical effusions of natural religion anticipated (though in sadly-distorted caricatures) the great truth of Christianity, that the union of the Divine with the human nature was brought about by a creative act of Omnipotence. The early apologists expressed this in their own way “Satan invented these fables by imitating the truth.” that one sect of the Ebionites, who could not free themselves from their old prejudices, refused to admit the doctrine; and the section which contains the account is excluded from the Ebionitish recension of the Gospel to the Hebrews, which arose from the same source as our Matthew. As for the single obscure passage in Isa., vii., it could hardly have given 16rise to such a tradition among the people of Palestine, where, unquestionably, Matthew’s Gospel originated.
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