Writing a column for a national newspaper can be a trial, not least when one has a reputation as a controversialist to keep up, so it should have occasioned but little in the way of surprise that Giles Fraser, the liberals’ favourite vicar, should have written a column in which he explained how the story of the virgin birth ran against the grain of Christianity. I have written enough for the press to accept the excuse that no one is responsible for the title a sub-editor gives to his or her piece – it is the sub’s job to stir up trouble if there is any in the offing, so it is necessary to get beyond that strap line to see what he is getting at.
After mentioning the early stories that Jesus, far from being born of a virgin, was the product of a possible rape, he goes on to speculate that the story of the virgin birth may have been a reaction to such rumours. It may be that typology and the Old Testament are no longer taught at seminary, or it may be that the young Fraser was out protesting against ‘that sort of thing’ when they were, but for his benefit and that of anyone reading, let us remind ourselves that the virgin birth was one of the signs foretold of the coming Messiah. Our very own Jock MacSporran (a man with a good religious education I judge) wrote the other day:
Elijah told Ahaz to ask for a sign, to assure him that God would help him in battle. Ahaz refused, because he was a nasty piece of work and he knew it; he didn’t believe that God could possibly show him any good sign. God gave him a sign anyway, the promise of the virgin birth. In his case, the sign was a sign of judgement.
This is an integral part of the Christmas story – but curiously, it seems to be missing from the discussion.
Isaiah 7:14 is taken up by Matthew 1:23, and in the Septuagint Isaiah always uses the word for virgin. That, for the benefit of Giles Fraser, is where the reference comes from, it is one of the many Messianic signs which the Gospels use to identify who Jesus really is. It has nothing to do with anyone thinking ‘sex is dirty’.
It may come as a shock to Fraser, but quite a lot of other people have pointed out that the Incarnation is central to Christianity, and that the kenosis of the Word is, literally, awesome; still it is good that he was attending class that day, but he really should acknowledge he is being derivative here, which certainly takes away from the controversy, but is more useful to the casual reader. But I can’t quite let it end there. He asks ‘what if he was?’ in terms of Jesus being illegitimate. It is hard to believe that the great Anglican tradition of scholarship has sunk this low, and one must just put it down to the anfractuosities of journalism and allow Anglicans to have the disclaimer that ‘real theologians are also available’.
The ‘what if’ would be that the Mary was not with child by the Holy Spirit. I will leave Fraser to figure out what message this would have for the idea that Jesus was the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. It may be that he does not believe in that either, and that he really thinks the world could be saved by the illegitimate offspring of two humans, but if so, whilst one would not be surprised, one would be dismayed. Maybe that stuff about ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ all went above his head, but for the rest of us it is central to the Christmas message. In the spirit of the festival, let us hope Giles Fraser gets a ‘theology for dummies’ book for Christmas.