In the ancient world, history was not a meticulous science. All history and biography was written with a motive – to glorify a great leader, to shape the identity of a nation, to make people proud of who they were and where they had come from.
The history in the Hebrew Scriptures, too, was written with a purpose, but with a difference. Its heroes were depicted with their faults as well as their virtues. Noah was chosen to survive the flood because he was a devout and upright man, but he was a drunkard. Abraham was the great example of faith, but his faith wavered at times. Jacob was the father of the holy people, but he was a cheat and a thief. David was the great king who fulfilled God’s purposes, but he was an adulterer and a murderer. To the Jews, their history was meant to glorify not the human heroes but the gracious God whose faithfulness to his people persisted in spite of all their unfaithfulness to him.
One of the assumptions of ancient history writing was that a person’s character and destiny was there from the very beginning of life. Some of the key people in the story had unusual births. Isaac was miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah when they were very old. Jacob came out of the womb clutching his twin brother’s heel, a usurper from the beginning. Samuel’s mother had been assumed to be incapable of having a child. In other nations too the same kind of story was told. The founders of the nation and some of its great heroes were said to be born of a god.
It is against this cultural background that we can understand the story of Jesus being born of a virgin, It’s not necessary to believe the story literally, and in some ways it is unfortunate what Christian tradition has made of it. It has helped to reinforce a Christian bias against sex, a notion that probably owes more to the Greek Platonic philosophy than to Jewish tradition. It has also been used to undermine the central Christian belief in the Incarnation – ‘the Word became flesh’. People have taken it to mean that Jesus was born free of the taint of sin, not a real human being but a divine being who ‘came down to earth from heaven’. If we don’t take that literally today, we still tend to think of Jesus as God somehow injected into the human race, so that he is different in kind from the rest of us, the only person able to be perfect, not subject to human limitations and temptations.
I used to think of Jesus as coming into this world from outside it, but I have come to believe that the real miracle, the real good news, is that by the power of God the redemption of the human race grew out of the human race itself, and all human beings are made in the image of God with the potential to be divine.