An on-going debate among biblical scholars concerns the dating of the Gospels. While early traditions claim that the Gospels were written within a few decades after the Resurrection, some modern scholars push the date of authorship back 70 to 80 years. This becomes significant when considering the presentation of the most key doctrines of the Christian faith. The general consensus is that the later a text was written the less authentic and more corrupted are its claims. This is especially true when considering the Gospel for the last Sunday of Advent as Matthew presents the virginal conception of Jesus. Many scholars and others for many reasons want to discount this essential dogma. Some scholars, recognizing this agenda, argue for earlier dating and rely certainly on the testimony of the early Christians.
This debate is, at its core, one that fails to recognize that whether the Gospels were written in 40 or 95 AD, those present at the key events, and those who knew people who knew Jesus, stood as the safeguard of the truth. At the very heart of our beliefs is that the Holy Spirit guides through the charism of inspiration, the writing of the biblical texts.
The fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and the connection to other traditions that emerged in Judaism, further add to our understanding of the historical nature of the Gospels. From the earliest writing – likely the letters of St. Paul – certain Old Testament texts are understood as pointing to Jesus and his ministry. However, even before Paul, these texts would have been used in the proclamation of the message by the apostles and others in the synagogues and the market places.
Like all those who encountered Jesus and those who proclaimed the Gospel, Joseph must take a leap of faith. The dream left Joseph, confounded by the pregnancy of Mary, his betrothed. By the power of faith he is strengthened in spirit by the Lord who allows him to understand the mission and message of the child to be born. While we can always diminish this to the realm of the fanciful, the earliest Christians knew and believed this to be true. They preserved the belief in this Scripture and understood it as relating to the prophecy we hear proclaimed in the First Reading from Isaiah. This is not only found here in Matthew’s account, but in Luke’s as well.
There is yet another struggle that some have in the historicity of the Gospel. Some of the events in the life of Jesus, such as the virginal conception have some similarities to ancient Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian myths.
It is in Jesus that the nexus of history and myth comes to completion. The connection to various ancient myths of parthenogenesis points to the historicity of the virginal conception of Jesus. Yes, they knew of the myth, but the evangelists were not attempting to replicate the myth. The early Christians, and even some of the writers in the first centuries, understood that the myths of the ancients could stand almost as prophetic for the Gentiles, preparing them for the truth to be proclaimed in and by Jesus. The early Christians looked to the past for a language to express a reality that they knew to have happened. Indeed St. Paul writes to the Romans: “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The events of the life of Jesus demanded a new language and the formation of theology beyond the limits they knew either as Jews or as Greeks. Such claims prevalent in myth in no way diminishes the historicity of the dogma of the church. God, through the use of myths among the Gentiles, prepared them to receive the Gospel.
The power and belief of the virginal conception of Jesus is not simply a quaint teaching. It expresses the truth of the human and divine natures of the one man Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Envisioned from the dawn of creation, and expressing to its fullest the intimacy between God and his creation, Jesus is the incarnation of the Divine Logos – the very face of God revealed to humanity.
As we joyfully anticipate the celebration of Christmas this week, let us be ever mindful of the power and the awesome and majestic beauty of what we celebrate.
Come, Lord Jesus! Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.