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Vol. 21, No. 3, 2022
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the science behind



Robert Lyon is a retired clergyman who divides his time between Guelph, Ontario and Melaque, Mexico. He taught high school English, Latin, Greek and science, and served as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His latest book, Don’t Throw Out Your Bible, should be availalbe by the end of the year (2022). His monograph, A Christmas You Can Believe In, can be requested as a PDF file from

Because Christians make truth claims about the supernatural and insist that those claims are in some sense objectively true, such claims are subject to greater scrutiny and skepticism here in the West than some other religions may experience in their cultures. That skepticism is due largely to the reasonable expectation that truth claims ought to be derived from empirical evidence and logical inference.

Empirical evidence and logical inference are all very well, but God, being outside time and space, is not available to empirical investigation unless he subjects himself to it. And that is what Christians believe he has done in the person of Jesus. So the person of Jesus is necessarily the focus both of Christians’ defence and of skeptics’ rebuttal.

But the skepticism that Christianity attracts is also due to a communication problem, namely, that Christian truth claims are often couched in metaphoric language. Of course, we all use metaphoric language, even unconsciously, as when we speak of sunrise and sunset, or because it states our meaning vividly, as when we say that a good plan “fell through the cracks.”

But Biblical metaphor poses the added difficulty that it has come down to us from another time and place, so that an image like “the fires of hell” can be off-putting if it is construed as a statement about the geography and temperature of the after-life. To make the credibility of Christian truth claims more apparent, we need to cut through such images and see the reality that lies beneath them. At this season of Christmas, let’s do just that with respect to the Virgin Birth.

But why do we need a virgin birth? Why can’t we be satisfied with a human Jesus? Why can’t we just revere him as a good and wise teacher who was cruelly persecuted? Well, yes, of course you can, but only if you don’t mind turning him into a fraud or a madman. For Jesus presumed to forgive sins in a way that is God’s prerogative; he performed healings (or did a good job of faking them); he claimed to be the only way to God; he said he was going to die for our sins; and he managed to get a whole lot of people convinced that he had risen from the dead and was going to return as master of the universe.

We have seen some evidence (this essay is part of a longer work) that the gospels may be more accurate than they have been given credit for. If that’s so, then we need to take their portrayal of Jesus seriously. In which case, if Jesus is not in some sense truly divine, then he is either a dangerous psychotic with delusions of grandeur or a damned clever humbug. If Jesus is not the God-man, then the label ‘good and wise teacher’ does not fit the evidence. So a Virgin Birth is indeed what Christians celebrate each Christmas. Take that away, and all we have left is an improbable charlatan who can give, sadly, not salvation but only disappointment.


One of the scholarly quibbles about the Virgin Birth concerns the statement in Matthew 1:23 that says, “a virgin shall be with child.” Matthew is quoting the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14), who wrote around 700 BC. The problem is that Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, but Matthew was quoting from a Greek translation. The Greek uses the word parthenos, a ‘virgin’, to translate the Hebrew word almah, which generally means a “young woman” but doesn’t necessarily imply virginity. What Isaiah wrote in Hebrew was, “the young woman is with child”, i.e., pregnant. In this verse (Isaiah 7:14), Isaiah is actually pointing at a pregnant young woman standing nearby, and predicting that certain political changes will occur while her soon-to-be-born child is still very young. So what’s to be said about Matthew’s ‘virgin’? Did Matthew over-state the case? Was that verse in Isaiah really prophetic?

First: The Greek translation is not wrong, for presumably the young woman had been a virgin until her recent pregnancy. So to call her “the virgin” would be like a teacher speaking of a graduate as “my student”, where the idea of ‘former’ or ‘recent’ is implied. But there are in fact instances (e.g., Iliad 2:514) where the word refers to an unmarried woman who is not a virgin. So the virginity of a parthenos may have been a cultural expectation, but not a necessary aspect of the meaning of the word.

Second: Isaiah was in fact using the unborn child as a prophetic sign, not of a future Messiah but of political events that would soon occur. Throughout Isaiah chapters 6 to 9, the prophet uses children as prophetic signs on at least four occasions. And he gives them prophetic names that you would never inflict on your child!

Third: Although the word ‘virgin’ may be the detail that attracted Matthew to the verse, what I think really excited him about Isaiah 7:14 is the name that Isaiah gives to the child: Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ The child in Isaiah 7:14 is a symbolic reminder that God is present and at work in the life of his people. But the child in Matthew 1:23 is himself God, present and at work in the life of his people.

Fourth: Matthew (or the scribe to whom he entrusted his collection of Jesus-sayings) quoted Isaiah 7:14 because it says what the early church understood to be true about Jesus. Whether Isaiah would have seen that meaning 700 years earlier is both unlikely and irrelevant. Prophetic language is cryptic and takes us by surprise. God’s fulfillment always exceeds his promise and our expectations. But the above discussion does not answer the pressing question.


The Virgin Birth, if it really happened, was a biological event. The question at issue is whether such an event is even possible. As a biological event, a virgin birth, technically called ‘parthenogenesis,’ is not only possible but has actually been documented as occurring in about 70 species. These include Komodo dragons (the Chester Zoo and the London Zoo, 2006), and Hammerhead sharks (the Omaha Zoo, 2007). More recently, the journal Current Biology (June 2015) reports a study in which 7 of 190 smalltooth sawfish caught by researchers off the coast of Florida between 2004 and 2013 were shown by DNA testing to have been conceived parthenogenically.

In the journal Cell Stem Cell, an article entitled “The Challenge of Regulating Rapidly Changing Science: Stem Cell Legislation in Canada” (Caulfield, Tim, et al., 2009) says that “In theory, a single individual could be both the mother and father to a child. The individual does not even have to be living if there is a stored sample of their cells.”

Though genetically the offspring of parthenogenesis are normally female because of the absence of the Y chromosome, Pijnacker and Harbutt (1979) observed “rare impaternate males” among parthenogenic stick insects. (Impaternate means ‘born without a father.’) In support of the possibility of parthenogenic males, the Hutchinson Encyclopedia (1989) notes that the gene determining human maleness occurs on the X as well as on the Y chromosome, even though it is normally not activated in the female, i.e., from the X chromosome.

Certainly, there is a wide gap in complexity between a human mother, on the one hand, and stick insects, lizards, fish, and sharks, on the other. Nevertheless, in the journal ScienceDirect (Sept. 2017), deCarli and Pereira note that parthenogenetic events have occurred in women. But they appear as ovarian teratomas (tumours) whose fetal material is incomplete. But the authors do cite an instance of a viable male baby, most of whose genetic material was bi-parental, but whose blood tissue had come from a parthenogenic cell that had fused to the normal embryo.

So though human parthenogenesis is highly improbable, the data caution us not to call it impossible. In the case of the Christmas story, the Virgin Birth was not a violation of the laws of nature; rather, it involved God’s use of the laws of nature, which he invented, in ways we never thought possible, to achieve ends we never dared to imagine.


This and other essays from my book, Don’t Throw Out Your Bible, pose questions I have been asking for most of my life, and offer the answers I have arrived at after decades of study and reflection. They are, of course, biased answers. Biased by my desire to believe. By my need to believe. If I didn’t believe, life would be ultimately meaningless. It doesn’t do much for your sense of self-worth to think of yourself as part of a colossal accident that, despite your best efforts, is going to end up as dust. Fortunately, there are many things that point to the likelihood that we are more than that.

But believing can too easily become detached from clear thinking. We must not, in our believing, disregard the realities of science, reason, and the literary nature of the Bible. With that caveat in mind, I have tried in these essays to show that Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian religion are indeed believable, and that informed and intelligent people can hold a faith that might even be described as cautiously orthodox. For me, that faith is premised on the following assumptions.

1. Faith is not an alternative way of knowing things that we cannot know by ordinary means.

Faith belongs to the affective realm. It is the trust we place in persons or objects or ideas or institutions that we know, or think we know, to be true or reliable. Faith and knowledge, therefore, are not opposites but complementary. The truth or reliability of the objects of our faith can be determined only by sufficient reason or evidence, or inferences from such evidence, which is the same way that we validate everything else we know.

2. Matter behaves according to its properties. That is what God intended it to do. Therefore, if we think that God may intervene, or has intervened, in the material world, we must assume that his intervention does not violate natural law but rather works through natural law. But we must not presume that we know all the possibilities of which the material world is capable.

3. God has revealed his person and purposes in creation, in our sense of right and wrong, in providence, in the wisdom of his prophets (particularly the writers of the Bible), and uniquely in Jesus.

But the writing of theology he left to us, and we need to remember that we are able to pursue that task of describing and systematizing only imperfectly.

4. The Bible was written by people whose lives and world-views were different from ours. They reported events and ideas honestly as they understood them, but we will misconstrue their meanings if
we read them with the same expectations that we impose on contemporary journalism and historiography.

5. The Bible contains more than a dozen distinct literary genres: history, biography, law, travelogue, personal letters, short story, parable, poetry, practical wisdom, legend, fantasy, myth, homily, and prophetic moralizing. Each genre tells God’s truth in its own way, and one genre must not be mistaken for another. But each genre has a moral and theological focus: it is in that focus that we find God’s truth for our own times.


Practice your trumpet somewhere else . . . .and put that rifle down.
Good try but perversion and corruption in Catholic Church makes me a lifer of no more of this religious crap.








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