Do we really need to believe in certain miracles to be Christians? That is the question Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asked Evangelical pastor Rev. Tim Keller and more recently former President Jimmy Carter. The answer Kristof seems to want is, “No, you can be skeptical about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and still be a Christian.” Moreover, Kristof seems to want a New Testament full of additions and emendations made long after the fact, changes which make confessional Christianity so danged judge-y and exclusive, not to mention unscientifically kooky.
Science Has No Answer
But why would someone want to be skeptical about the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or any of the other miracles in the New Testament? Our society assumes almost as a matter of course that Science has somehow made such things less credible than they were in the first century. But Science was not the culprit; science qua science has said nothing about the probability of such things happening naturally that people didn’t already know even in the first century. We have known ever since we have had reason that, in the normal run of things, virgins don’t conceive without having had sex and that brutally executed men don’t rise from the grave.
The atheists have at least the excuse that they don’t believe in God at all; the agnostics have their uncertainty. But if you’re on the cusp of calling yourself a Christian, that fact argues that you already believe there is a God powerful enough to call the cosmos into existence and sustain it. How, then, could the natural universe condition the power of its Creator in such a way that He could not bring new life into a virgin’s womb or a cold corpse? Science has no answer; you have to step back into philosophy, the mother of science, to find an argument.
Why does Science not provide the answer? Science deals with the universe as a collection of material, physical events and beings that are on the whole repeatable and which display regularities. Miracles by definition show no pattern, no regularity. There is no scientific theory of immateriality, and many physicists are unwilling to even entertain the possibility of immateriality, so there is nothing for science to test in a lab. It is not Science which denies the possibility of miracles but rather philosophical materialism, the cosmological belief that the material universe is all there is, that there is no immaterial side to the universe. Skepticism or disbelief in immateriality, however, is not necessary for science to work.
New Testament Dating and Miracles
With Rev. Keller, Kristof tries to push the claim that the Virgin Birth was a later addition because the Gospel of Mark and St. Paul’s earliest letters don’t make mention of it. However, that Mark predates Matthew and Luke is not a fact; it is a guess, even if it appears on the surface to be a reasonable guess. The problem with any argument from the relative age of the New Testament documents is that textual criticism is highly susceptible to the presuppositions of the critic. Indeed, when one considers the Jesus Seminar, one wonders how many scripture scholars are Christians in any meaningful sense.
One of those suppositions that commonly crops up in dating the New Testament is that the miracles were later, legendary accretions. Consider, for example, Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 24:1-35; Mark 13:1-30; Luke 21:5-28): For many years, and still today in some quarters, scholars argued that the synoptic gospels had to have been written after 70 A.D., when the Temple was destroyed in the Roman-Jewish War. This dating supposedly gives enough time — almost two generations — for the legend of Jesus to build up in oral tradition before it gets written down (because the first-generation Christians were all illiterate yokels, don’cha know).
However, the Right Rev. J. A. T. Robinson, an Anglican bishop, argued in Redating the New Testament that, were that the case, the evangelists would hardly have failed to mention that Jesus’ “prophecy” had been fulfilled. In fact, none of the NT writers mention the destruction of the Temple as an accomplished fact. Matthew and Mark speak of a “desolating sacrilege” almost as a coded message — “Let the reader understand” (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14). This is most likely a reference to statues of Caligula that the prefect Aulus Avillius Flaccus tried to put in synagogues or the larger statue that the Emperor wanted within the Temple.
If that’s the case, then the composition date is more likely around 39-40 AD for either. The earlier the dates of composition, the less credible the “legend” argument becomes. Our assumption that the first-generation Christians were mainly subliterate hicks is based not on historical fact but on chronological snobbery; Jews were possibly the most literate social group in the Roman Empire. And in any event, to use legendary accretions as a presupposition for dating the Gospels and then use the date of the Gospels to argue the legendary accretions is to reason in a circle.
Something Greater Than Jonah or Solomon
Of course, the miracles Jesus performed were signs that something greater than Jonah or Solomon was here (cf. Matthew 12:41-42; Luke 11:31-32), that Jesus was neither a sage nor a prophet but the Word of God made flesh (cf. John 1:14). The Virgin Birth is an integral part of that story. Stripping Jesus of his miracles is the same as the Jesus Seminar’s attempt to strip him of his claims to Sonship and Messiahship: it tries to reduce him to some harmless peddler of moral maxims who for obscure reasons was put to death.
But if we’re free to cherry-pick, why not pick those claims to be the Christ and Son of God in order to write Jesus off as a madman or conman? This was C. S. Lewis’ trilemma: “liar, lunatic, or Lord.” As for “legend”? The literary historian snorted, “[The Gospels] are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly” (“What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”, The Grand Miracle, p. 113). Of the choices “liar”, “lunatic”, and “legend”, the last is the least credible.
If Jesus were merely a moral philosopher, we should expect that the NT letters would be filled with commentary about his teaching, as well as fulsome praise for his sagacity. Instead, the writers focus on the implications of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection almost to the point of forgetting that he taught anything else. Saint Paul was explicit about the matter; when some of the Corinthians disputed whether there would be a general resurrection, he replied:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
Why neither Mark nor John included Nativity narratives we can only surmise. The books and letters of the New Testament are occasional; that is, written for specific, limited purposes. Each of the evangelists was writing for a particular audience and included such episodes as they knew or thought relevant (cf. John 20:30-31, 21:25). Variations in a narrative aren’t uncommon among eyewitnesses to the same events, as any experienced police officer can testify. But John is as clear as Matthew and Luke concerning Jesus’ divine origin, perhaps even clearer. And all four are adamant concerning the Resurrection.
What Do You Want Out of Jesus?
Christianity includes both the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection because Christianity teaches that Christ is both fully God and fully man, and that to diminish one is to diminish the other. The miracles are part and parcel of the story. Jesus as mortal philosopher can be praised and ignored by well-meaning people. Jesus the Anointed One, the Son of the living God, casts fire on the earth (cf. Luke 12:49), and divides the faithful from the unfaithful, the sheep from the goats.
The question then becomes: what do you want out of Jesus?
Moral philosophers are a dime a dozen and range from the bourgeois platitudes of Benjamin Franklin to the furious nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche. There are any number of systems that offer a moral way of living, from Stoicism to Taoism. However, none of them offer salvation; none of them offer divine forgiveness of sins; none of them offer spiritual adoption by God. If all you want out of Christianity is a moral system to reassure yourself of your basic goodness, you are selling both Christianity and yourself short.