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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
WE END WHERE WE BEGIN
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
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.
Faith is not an alternative way of knowing things that we cannot
know by ordinary means.
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.
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.
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
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
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
we read them with the same expectations that we impose on contemporary
journalism and historiography.
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