A friend of mine recently caught me reading the book The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus by Raymond E. Brown.[i] Flipping through the pages he noticed that these two topics were described as “the problem of…” and he was a little disturbed. Why are these considered problems?
The virginal conception (as opposed to the virgin ‘birth’ – which makes no logical sense) and the bodily resurrection are problems in the sense that they cannot be considered historical events and because the biblical narratives that describe them are conflicted and littered with contradictions and inconsistencies.
But let’s not freak out too much there.
Brown probes these two doctrines with the methodology and questions of biblical criticism and, being Catholic, weighs them against the traditions of the Church (held as equal to the witness of scripture) and still concludes that the biblical evidence favors the acceptance of these doctrines – without denying that there are significant questions and that there are unresolved problems in the stories as we have them.
The virginal conception and bodily resurrection cannot be described as historical events because they stand outside observable history. No one was there to see the resurrection. No one (except Mary) could vouch for the virginal conception. And the stories – both nativity and post resurrection appearances- that we have in the gospels are not exact and precise records of historical happenings. They are, rather, theological stories about the person of Jesus. The precise details of his birth and death are not available to us. What we have in scripture are doctrinal elaborations.
Yet, even still, Brown accepts biblical testimony (balanced with Church tradition) for both – even as he acknowledges the difficulties posed by biblical criticism.
My friend asked me for my opinion – do I believe in them? I answered him “Probably not and probably yes,” referring to each. Probably not – for the historicity of the virgin conception (though I accept as a theological story elaborating what it means that Jesus is the “son of God.”) Probably yes – for the historicity of the bodily resurrection – though when, and how it happened cannot be described, and though what kind of “body” it was we cannot say.
This short book (133 pages) makes a good primer for Brown’s more exhaustive treatment of each of this issues in separate books: Death of the Messiah (1994) – in two volumes, and Birth of the Messiah (1998).