On Not Explaining “Born of a Woman”

Fillipo Lippi, ca. 1450


**Update following**

There is a lengthy reply at the mythicist hub, Vridar, to my suggestion that Galatians 4.4 is efficiently explained by Paul being aware of Jewish polemic against the parentage of Jesus and the consequences for his theology if the challenge to his teaching went unchecked.  Rather than being an exegesis or explanation of the passage, it is predictably–in the style of mythtic assessments–an attempt to show how the interpretation is wrong, using arguments cobbled together from other mythicists, namely Earl Doherty and Frank Zindler and a gratuitous salute to a not very cogent passage from Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

Despite the effort to stretch out my argument beyond its actual extent, the post misses its mark by several hundred yards.

The facts briefly stated are these:

(1) There is no serious reason to doubt that Galatians 4.4  is “authentic.”  The fact that Tertullian does not cite it against Marcion suggests that it existed in the texts known to both men,  since  its “excision” by Marcion would almost certainly have provoked a rebuttal from Tertullian.  It is relatively certain that Marcion had “docetist” tendencies, but he was not a gnostic as that the term is usually understood.  Marcionite Christology (like the Alexandrian’s) was more invested in the heavenly Christ than the human figure of Jesus, but did not dispose of the human Jesus.  Tertullian is somewhat frustrated by this and spares no effort to skewer Marcion’s omissions: in this case, there does not seem to have been one.  That the verse was missing from the versions of  both writers is made improbable by two factors: (a)  its use in controversy prior to Tertullian (Irenaeus, Adv. , Haereses 3.22.1, and using “virgin” as a qualifier, 5.21.1)   and (b)  its linguistic and conceptual fit in the context of Galatians 4 as a whole.

(2)  “Born of a woman….” The Greek verb genomenon seems to occupy the attention of mythicists. A few commentators on the earlier post  have suggested, somewhat curiously and to no effect, that it means “made” not “born.”  The author of the Vridar post suggests that Earl Doherty has done extensive linguistic analysis of the term and on that basis believes it is an interpolation.

The Greek verb γενόμενον (genomenon) means “becoming” (from γέγονα, γίνομαι) and is an ordinary koine term for to be born–as in to generate offspring (Gk Matthew 2.1; and the preterits throughout Matthew 1.2ff, where the Vulgate has “natus est.”)  Normally, the verb gannao when used of a father means (somewhat archaically) to “beget” and of a woman, “to bring forth.” Luke uses it passively in 2,6 (Ἐγένετο) in the sense of “being delivered of a child,” and also the verb τίκτω, to bring forth, also used by Matthew at 1.25.

The standard usage does not permit “make” or “made” (factum est)  and the 1611 AV translation of the phrase as “made [of a woman]” can be attributed to two equally irrelevant developments:  (1) The fact that the church fathers and Nicaea finally settled on a credal language that insisted Jesus was “begotten”  or “begotten before all time” of the Father” and then, “begotten not made.” (ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων and γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα).  The Latin is even easier to decipher: “de Patre natum ante omnia saecula…natum, non factum,”  Born and not made.

That is to say, Nicene Christology explicitly ruled out the idea that Jesus was “made” in any temporal  sense  turning Paul’s simple suggestion that “when the time was right” (hote de elthen to pleroma tou kronou) into the idea of eternal “begetting.” In the suspect Latin translation of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, factum est muliere (and ex muliere virgine, which is not Pauline) are used instead of Paul’s Greek, and this error is perpetuated in Tertullian  and Jerome’s vulgate. As Nicaea’s creed was promulgated in Greek, it can be seen as a decisive overturning of the “Latin tendency.”

Inattentive to this theological solution, but also theologically unfriendly to the word “born”, the King James translators settled on the use of the word “made” in their translation of Galatians 4.4b.  Partly this is so because both Erasmus in 1516 and the KJ translators, though reputable critical and textual scholars,  in 1611 sometimes preferred the Vulgate to other manuscripts. But in the case of the KJV, their decision has been unanimously overruled by later translators. Thus, the mythicists are not quoting any standard translation based on historically appropriate usage but the 1611 Bible when they resort to “made,”   a fact which may say more about the antiquarianism of their resources or personal backgrounds than about their scholarship.

Much more significantly, and fatal to Vridar’s case, it makes no sense to offer up the Christological disputes of a later period as evidence of an interpolation at any stage of transmission,  since the Christological disputes move away from the ordinary translation of the passage as meaning to be born in the normal way.  As the question here however is not about Christological tendencies but what Paul wrote, Paul wrote γενόμενον.

The clincher for original meaning is that Paul uses the identical verb to summarize his argument in Galatians 4.29, which is virtually hidden from mythicist discussion of the earlier verse:  ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ τότε ὁ κατὰ σάρκα γεννηθεὶς  ἐδίωκεν τὸν κατὰ πνεῦμα, οὕτως καὶ νῦν — “But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the spirit, so is it now.” Here Paul is using an allegory based on the story of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 21.9-12, but clearly is still arguing natural birthright and inheritance.

Giampietrino, “Mary Magdalene”

(3) The key elements of the verse fit tonally and argumentatively within the total context of the chapter.  They do not constitute an interruption of the sort that sometimes alerts us to additions and revisions to a text.  The elements are Paul’s legal theory of “justice” (צדק); his belief in the mysterious fatherhood of God relative to Jesus; his conviction that Jesus was necessarily human (“born of a woman,” אשה not a בתולה, “virgin”) and that, equally  necessarily, was born “according to the Law”–תורה–in two senses: as a Jew, and as a legitimate heir,  through whom rights or sonship ( אימוץ) could be inherited.  Any suggestion of illegitimacy had to be set aside, but set aside efficiently and non-controversially. Put the other way around, Paul is assuring the Galatians that there should be no doubt about their adoption (4.5-7; 29) because there is no doubt about Jesus’ legitimacy as an heir.  The question of legitimacy does not arise within my interpretation but within Paul’s logic.

(4) Forensically (though Gal 4.4 only begins the discussion), there are also questions of the status of the victim and the right of adoption or ירושה (inheritance).  The same notion is worked out narratively in the Joseph-story in the Gospel of Matthew (not known by, or else overlooked or irrelevant in Luke).  As with all scholarly contentions, I could be wrong but I will not be proved wrong by ignoring the most plausible explanations in favour of tendentious ones

* * *

For mythicism to be taken seriously, it needs to recognize that scholarship depends on evidence and on what is actually said. The evidence is that Paul actually says  in one his actual letters that Jesus was born in a natural way as a legitimate Jew, according to the Law.   The most reasonable way of looking at the verse is to see it  in the context of surrounding verses and Paul’s  stated purposes in Galatians –which is to save his fledgling and fickle converts from the clutches of preachers of other (more spiritual? more Jewish?) “gospels.”

Given his parlous situation, is it likely that Paul would say:

“Brethren, you have heard that Jesus was a bastard? Well,  I never met the man, but trust me : he wasn’t.  You’re safe. He was  just like you and me and any mother’s son. She was a good Jewish girl. Only–and write this down–the father was God. Why was the  father God?  I’m glad you asked.  Because God gave the law and you need to be freed from it–No God, no law, no freedom, no adoption.  Simple  as that.”

To drive his point home, at least for those who knew the story already, he recounts the story of Isaac and Ishmael through their mothers, Sarah and Hagar.  Ishmael was born out of expedience, “according to the flesh,” but even though Abraham would appear to be the natural father of Isaac, it is only through God’s intervention that his birth is possible.  God’s paternity in Galatians 4.29 helps to explicate God’s paternity in Galatians 4.4.

I acknowledge that this is a cheap (but serviceable) paraphrase of Galatians 4.3-6.  Even that statement would not prove the historical existence of Jesus but it would prove that Paul believed the historical Jesus existed, or more precisely that he believed a historically legitimate Jesus existed.  Only a reckless anxiety to deny this, which flies in the face of the evidence, would justify the energy spent to obliterate the verse.

Was Paul also trying to minimize the scandal pari pasu while promoting his gospel?  I will be the first to admit that there are other explanations for Paul’s emphasis on legitimacy in this section of the letter.  But unlike the situations at Rome and Corinth, Paul is not fighting against doubts about the end-time,  “immorality” or factionalism, or a simple Jewish-gentile antagonism in Galatia.  He is fighting against rumors and reports that have something to do with “wills” (as in trusts and estates and inheritance: 3.16-18)  in a specifically Jewish framework  (3.26-9): “If  you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s.”  It is a simple flow from this inversion (genealogically it should flow in the other direction), to the question of legitimacy.  But because Christ, not Abraham, is the source of legitimacy, the legitimacy of Jesus comes into Paul’s view. So at least indirectly does his historicity: 3.1-2.

Though he is not a Greek rhetor, Paul is good enough with words and argument to know when to be cursory and when to be expansive. The fact is that the “scandal” of the birth of Jesus (Mt 2.18-25) is never given narrative space in the Jesus-tradition that emanates from the early church, anymore than the slander concerning the resurrection being the theft of a body (Mt 27.62-65; 28.11-16).  But both seem to have circulated widely.  Despite what pious tradition and theology may hold, the development of the birth and virgin-birth tradition and the apologetic aspects of the resurrection-tradition were not spontaneous.  As I have argued for a couple of decades, they were counter-polemical.

The embarrassment for mythicists is that they are also implicitly pro-historical and show struggle within the early tradition over how to discuss the most inconvenient aspects of an unedited Jesus story.

I will be very interested to see whether the mythicists can come up with a better and richer explanation without simply cutting and pasting well-worn arguments together, and making a series of linguistic and textual blunders along the way.

**Update: 7/8/12:  James Tabor has written to remind me of the significant work done by Profesor Jane Schaberg, who died in April, on the question of Jesus’ legitimacy.  Jane taught throughout her career at Detroit Mercy College and until 1984 when she renounced her vows was a professed member of a religious order of women.  I knew Jane during my time at nearby Ann Arbor and we exchanged many visits and telephone conversations on the topic of the birth narratives, which was then her research focus.  

In her 1986 book for Sheffield Academic Press (The Illegitimacy of Jesus; rpt 2006), she argued that Matthew and Luke were aware that Jesus had been conceived illegitimately, probably as a result of a rape, and had left in their Gospels some hints of that knowledge, even though their main purpose was to explore the theological significance of Jesus’ birth.   Her acquaintance with the ben Panthera tradition and skillful reading between the lines is a splendid introduction to the subject.

16 thoughts on “On Not Explaining “Born of a Woman”

  1. Do references to the “mother of Jesus” prove that Jesus was a very material, physical, historical person, with a real, earthly mother? The simplist and most effective objection to this idea, on the blog site “Vridar,” seems to be that after all, many, many myths and stories refer to legendary persons being born from “mothers.” References to various figures being born of real, physical mothers, do not prove that any given legendary figure actually is historically real.

  2. There’s a legend about the famous New Mexican lawman Elfego Baca. His mother Juanita, pregnant with Elfego, was outside playing an Hispanic version of softball when she jumped up to catch the ball. When she landed on her feet, Elfego, it is claimed, popped out of her womb, stood up, and started playing the game alongside everyone else. A remarkable fellow. I cannot verify this claim, even though Elfego lived until 1945. It is possible that Elfego Baca is a fable, and all the photographs we have of him are forgeries created by a notorious group of Bacaians.

  3. Likewise, even if we take “James the Brother of Jesus,” as referring to not just a metaphorical or spiritual “brother,” but to a real biological brother of Jesus, that reference does not prove that there was any such brother, or any related solid, historical foundation for Paul’s idea of Jesus.

    So that? 1) There is little or nothing in Paul, that would soundly prove the Historical existence of Jesus. 2) Possibly phrases like “Mother of Jesus” were random, standard ANE poetic flourishes, having no particularly loaded meaning. At most 3) whoever wrote the works attributed to Paul – as you suggested earlier – might (or mjight not) have been trying to resolve a possible notion, that whatever “Jesus” there might have been if any, was illegitmate; born of a hair-dresser whore, or some such. But 4) such issues, might have come about not from reality, but after all, rumors. Stories. Which themselves are also not reliable proof of an historical Jesus back there, somewhere. Many in fact 5) may be interpolations from a later time, trying to rescue Paul from (just) accusations that he was too spiritual, Platonistic, anti-materialistic.

    So that? There is no very firm support for Historical Jesus here; even in these very rare examples in Paul of what might appear to be references to some kind of physical, material, Historical background for Jesus; even in apparent references to his “mother” or “brother.”

    Though your discussion on the question of illegitimacy, does have some interest on its own.

    • To Anon aka BrettonGarcia:
      The arguments for existence are arguments of cumulative weight from evidence in the gospel tradition, Paul and elsewhere. You haven’t refuted the arguments, instead you’ve speculated wishfully without evidence or argument.

  4. If Paul was defending the virgin birth against the accusation that Jesus was born to a whore or prostitute, then surely he would have used the word VIRGIN rather than WOMAN. The word woman implied lack of virginity back in those days, as a simply reading of Tertullian’s “On the veiling of virgins” will demonstrate. I think, therefore, it is clear that Paul CANNOT be defending Jesus’ virgin birth here nor responding to Mary-whore legends among the Jews.

  5. Dr. Hoffman, could you please expand of your beliefs about the origin of these pre-Pauline legitimacy polemics you believe that Paul (and Matthew) had to counter?

    Who do you believe was impugning Jesus’ parenthood and why? “Jews” is a little broad and a little sparse on motive. I don’t see how inheritance or succession issues would have had any relevance, nor how calling Jesus a bastard would have de-legitimized whatever claims the Jerusalem sect was making about him.

    Do you believe the legitimacy smear could have ad a genuine historical basis? I always used to dismiss it as a late development, and a reaction to claims that Jesus was the Heir, but if you believe it was prior to (or at least concurrent with) the ministry of Paul, then I wonder if the possibility can be dismissed out of hand. I think it could have some explanatory power for some things, though obviously explanatory power is not proof.

    • “…and a reaction to claims that Jesus was the Heir…”

      Should have been “…claims that Jesus was the DAVIDIC heir…” Sorry.

    • Hi Ken: I strongly suggest you read the best book on the topic, though it has been around a while and needs to be re-done to include Paul: Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Sheffield, rpt 2006).

  6. Pingback: Reply to Hoffmann’s “On Not Explaining ‘Born of a Woman’” « Vridar

  7. Pingback: Conversations around the Blogosphere

  8. “Paul uses the identical verb to summarize his argument in Galatians 4.29”

    Please simply go to Blue Letter Bible, you will see it is not the identical verb, and the AV is consistent in the translation of made and born from the two verbs.

    And I believe your mind-reading about the AV usage is simply wrong, where you go into creedal language and Nicene Christology, as those 50 men were superbly fluent in the classical languages and eschewed translation to doctrine.

    In other words, while I sympathize with your attempt, you have the basics backward, and the case for virgin birth support is much stronger with the proper “made of a woman”. (Which is why Neil Godfrey, ho-hum, starts speculating about an interpolation.)


  9. Dr. Hoffman,

    Am I missing something? You say that Paul uses the same verb for “born” in 4:29 as he does in 4:4, but in 4:29 he uses “gennetheis” which comes from the root, gennao, and in 4:4 Paul uses “genomenon” which comes from ginomai. Arent these two different words? (I don’t really know Greek, so if my question is dumb, forgive me).

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