In her book The Historical Jesus: a Guide for the Perplexed Helen Bond sets out what might be regarded as a ‘main-stream’ critical view of the virginal conception of Jesus.
Bond notes, first, that ‘large parts of the New Testament appear to know nothing about the virginal conception.’ That, of course, is an argument from silence, and therefore rather flimsy.
She then turns to what she regards as ‘three competing alternatives’ emerging from what the NT texts do say on this matter.
1. The son of Joseph?
This, according to Bond, is what large sections of the text appear to assume.
Paul’s comment that Jesus was ‘descended from David according to the flesh’ (Rom 1:3) ‘seems to assume a “normal” paternity.’ But it is quite possible that Mary herself belonged to the house of David. Moreover, we know that Joseph had adopted Jesus as his own son, and therefore conferred on him all the legal rights of Davidic lineage. Furthermore, Paul here (as in Gal 4:4) uses the verb ginesthai (‘to become’) rather than gennasthai (‘to be born’), which may reflect Paul’s awareness of the unusual nature of Jesus’ birth. (See Macleod, The Person of Christ, p30)
Turning to the Gospels, Bond says that ‘John openly refers to Jesus as the ‘son of Joseph’ (Jn 1:45, 6:42), as does Luke outside the birth narratives (Lk 4:22).’ This is misleading, for in all three cases the Evangelist is recording what other people said about Jesus, rather than what the author himself believed. With regard to Lk 4:22, Bond, if correct, is making Luke inconsistent with himself, and this is a charge which needs to better-substantiated, if it is to stick.
For Bond, ‘the genealogies, too, clearly trace Jesus’ descent back through Joseph. She thinks that the ‘awkward attempts to bring things back to Mary in both Matthew 1:16 and Luke 3:23′ suggest that the genealogies ‘were originally composed in a setting which simply assumed Joseph’s paternity’ (emphasis added). But even if it is ‘clear’ that both genealogies trace Jesus descent through Joseph, and that they themselves are consistent with his paternity, Bond ignores the possibility that Matthew and Luke had access to reliable information that led them to assert the virginal conception nonetheless. In the case of Luke, there are indications that he got his information from Mary herself (if not from someone who had known her well).
2. A virginal conception?
This is, of course, the clear testimony of Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:34–5. After acknowledging this, however, Bond says that the story makes quite clear that Jesus was, ‘quite literally’ the son of God. Unfortunately, Bond does not explain what she means by Jesus being ‘quite literally’ the son of God. But she makes this point, it would seem, in order to distance herself from the care and caution with which the two Evangelists speak of Jesus’ conception, compared with pagan accounts of supernatural conceptions. She thinks that the suggestion, by Suetonius, that the Emperor Augustus was conceived in the Temple of Apollo is particularly notable.
Once again, Bond appeals to the ‘complete silence’ of the rest of the NT on this matter. But since they are silent on virtually every other aspect of Jesus’ birth, this argument is unpersuasive. And when she says that because of this ‘silence’ most Jesus scholars reject the story of the virginal conception, the reader is bound to ask: ‘Who cares? What counts is not a head-count of scholars, but hard evidence and sound reasoning.’
Bond states that ‘the second century Infancy Gospel of James goes even further than Matthew and Luke, suggesting that Mary continued to be a virgin after Jesus’ birth.’ This work may, as Bond suggests, have paved the way for the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But this is a red herring: all kinds of strange beliefs emerged in the early church, and it reflects a distinctly uncritical attitude to suppose that they have any bearing on the interpretation of the biblical text itself.
3. An illegitimate birth?
In Mark 6:3, Jesus is referred to by the inhabitants of Nazareth as the ‘son of Mary’. It would be unusual for a son to be linked with his mother in this way. Therefore, says Bond, this text raises ‘the possibility that Jesus was illegitimate’. Well, not really: it raises the possibility that these people thought that Jesus was illegitimate. And all this suggests that they were aware that there was something unusual about Jesus’ birth, and they attributed this to illegitimacy. But, as Bond suggests, the crowd’s turn of phrase might easily be explained by Joseph having been dead for some time, ‘making Jesus’ identification through Mary more understandable’.
Bond suggests (more tentatively) that Jn 8:41 (‘we were not born of fornication’) might also hint at illegitimacy. But, again, these words were spoken by people who were hostile towards Jesus, and whose opinion of him was likely based on rumour and hearsay. Given their hostility, and their ignorance of any other explanation for the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, it is not surprising that they go for the ‘illegitimate birth’ explanation, rather than the ‘virginal conception’ explanation.
Bond thinks that the ‘simplest’ approach ‘is to go along with the assumption of the majority of the New Testament writers and to take it that Jesus was born quite naturally to his father Joseph.’
It is clear to me that Bond’s conclusion is unsound because her argumentation is flawed in multiple ways.
It is a yet another reminder that copious knowledge does not always go hand in hand with sound judgement.