Carrier on Jesus being 'born of woman' from OHJ

 

Paul also never names Jesus' mother, and only mentions Jesus having a mother in a strangely vague passage, in a chapter where Paul otherwise speaks of mothers being allegorical; he says nothing about Jesus' mother otherwise. [86] The passage in question reads:

If you are Christ's, then you [like him] are the sperm of Abraham, heirs according to the promise. And I say that as long as the heir is a child, he's no different from a slave. Even though he is lord of all. he is under guardians and stewards until [the day] the father has foreordained. And so we. too. were enslaved under the elements of the universe when we were children. But when the fullness of time came. God sent his son. made from a woman, made under the law. in order to rescue those under the law. in order that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons. God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying 'Abba, father!' As a result, you are no longer a slave, but a son: and if a son. then also an heir by God.... [So, Paul asks, why are you returning to the elements that had enslaved you, whom you know aren't really gods? Remember how things were when we met? Why re-subject yourself to the Torah law all over again?]

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one from a slave woman and one from a free woman—but the one from the slave woman was born according to the flesh, and the one from the free woman by the promise. Which things are said allegorically, for these [women] are the two testaments, the first being the one from Mount Sinai, which gives birth to slavery. That's Hagar—Hagar meaning Mount Sinai in Arabia, which corresponds to Jerusalem now, for she is enslaved with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother ... [as scripture says].

So now. [my] brothers, we are the children of the promise, like Isaac [the son of the free woman, i.e.. Sarah]. But as in those days the one born according to the flesh [i.e. Ishmael] persecuted the one according to the spirit [i.e. Isaac], so it is now. But what does the scripture say? Cast out the slave girl and her son. for the son of the slave girl will not be heir with the son of the free woman [= Genesis 21.10]. Accordingly, [my] brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free one. For freedom did Christ set us free [so don't go back to being a slave to the elements.] (Gal. 3.29-4.7 and 4.22-5.1).

It's clear that Paul is speaking from beginning to end about being born to allegorical women, not literal ones. The theme throughout is that Christians are heirs of "the promise' (to Abraham), and as such have been bom to the allegorical Sarah, the free woman, which is the 'Jerusalem above', meaning the heavenly city of God. Jesus was momentarily born to the allegorical Hagar. the slave woman, which is the Torah law (the old testament), which holds sway in the earthly Jerusalem, so that he could kill off that law with his own death, making it possible for us to be born of the free woman at last. This is what Paul means when he says Jesus was made 'under the law' and 'from a woman'; he means Hagar, representing the old law; but we now (like Jesus now) have a new mother: God's heavenly kingdom.[87]

That this chapter constitutes a single continuous argument is clear from the fact that it begins speaking about the same themes it ends with: our previous slavery to the Torah law, our being children of the promise made to Abraham (and thus born from Abraham, allegorically), and our being now the children of Abraham's free wife (again, allegorically) and thus the 'heirs' of that original promise (and so no longer enslaved to the OT law). This is how Paul starts the chapter and ends it, and everything in between leads logically from the one to the other. In the process Paul parallels our being 'under' (hupo) the sway of the elemental spirits with Jesus being put 'under' (hupo) the sway of the law, so we all could be rescued from being 'under' (hupo) the sway of that law, and thus of the elemental spirits. That's why, Paul says, God 'sent' his son (thus, a preexistent being) and 'made' him (again, genomenos) 'from' [ek] a woman just as we are born 'from' [ek] a woman—either the slave woman or the free, but either way, not a literal woman. And as for us, so for Jesus (and vice versa).[88]

It's obvious to me that by 'born of a woman, born under the law' Paul means no more than that Jesus was, by being incarnated, placed under the sway of the old covenant, so that he could die to it (and rise free, as shall we). So the 'woman' here is simply the old covenant, not an actual person. Paul does not mean a biological birth to Mary or any other Jewess. Indeed, that would make little sense here. Other than to reflect his upcoming allegorical point, why would Paul mention Jesus having a mother here at all? What purpose does that fact serve in his argument? It cannot be that this made Jesus a Jew, as in antiquity that fact would have been established by patrimony or circumcision (Exod. 12.48), not the identity of his mother (except in mixed marriages, which cannot have been the circumstance of Jesus—much less what Paul had in mind, as if he was implying Jesus did not have a Jewish father).[89] As we have seen, Paul already says (even in this very argument: Gal. 3.16) that Jesus is of the seed of Abraham and David. If all he wanted to establish was that Jesus was a Jew, that would have sufficed. Indeed, Paul cannot be citing Jesus' birth 'to a woman' to establish he was a Jew, for he does not even specify that this woman was Jewish—she is simply 'a woman'. That isn't even specific enough to certainly mean a human woman—gods, angels, spirits and demons could also be women, and give birth.[90]

Even if we just assume he means a human, that is already a rather odd thing to say of a historical man—aren't all men born to a woman? What woman does Paul mean? Why mention her? And why mention her only in such an abstract way—as simply a generic 'woman'? The only plausible answer is the answer Paul himself gives us in the completion of his argument: he is talking about allegorical women. Hence the generic term 'a woman', and hence the paralleled concepts of being born enslaved to the law and being born free, and hence the whole point of even mentioning this detail about Jesus here in the first place. The assumption that he means Jesus had a human mother simply doesn't make sense of the text as we have it.

So Paul's reference to Jesus being 'made' (genomenos) of the 'seed' (sperma) of David and being 'made' (genomenos) from a woman are essentially expected on minimal mythicism and thus do not argue against it. In fact, that Christians were aware of the distinction between Paul saying 'made' rather than 'born' is proved by orthodox attempts to change what he said from one to the other.[91] And in fact we know many Christians did conceive of these things celestially. Irenaeus documents this extensively in his first book Against All Heresies, where we learn of celestial 'seeds' impregnating the celestial 'wombs' of celestial 'women' (e.g. 1.1.1; 1.5.6; 1.8.4), and of Jesus being fully understood as having been born to a 'woman' of exactly that sort (e.g. 1.30.1-3). Irenaeus also documents how these Christians saw the Gospels as allegories and not histories. Irenaeus himself assumes the Gospels are histories, of course, but it does not look like they did.

How many other Christian sects had thought the same? How many of their ideas date back to the beginning? We have no way to be sure the answer is none (Element 22). All the sects Irenaeus speaks of are as late and evolved as the 'orthodoxy' Irenaeus was defending against them, and thus all as divergent from original Christianity (Chapter 4, §3). But they may have retained kernels of the original faith that Irenaeus's sect had abandoned or suppressed. So the question is which kernels are the more original, and which the later inventions? We cannot answer this from the armchair as Irenaeus did, and certainly not with his specious apologetical methods and biases. Instead, if we start with minimal mythicism, we can easily predict the original kernel to most likely have been that Jesus was indeed made from a celestial sperm that God snatched from David, by which God could fulfill his promise to David against the appearance of history having broken it. That this fits what we read in Paul therefore leaves us with no evidence that Paul definitely meant anything else. As for Jesus having a mother, Paul never says any such thing—he only speaks of women allegorically in that context.

Minimal mythicism practically entails that the celestial Christ would be understood to have been formed from the 'sperm of David', even literally (God having saved some for the purpose, then using it as the seed from which he formed Jesus' body of flesh, just as he had done Adam's). I do not deem this to be absolutely certain. Yet I could have deduced it even without knowing any Christian literature, simply by combining minimal mythicism with a reading of the scriptures and the established background facts of previous history. And that I could do that entails it has a very high probability on minimal mythicism. It is very much expected. So my personal judgment is that its probability is as near to 100% as makes all odds. At the very least, the probability that Paul would only ever speak of Jesus' parents so obliquely and theologically on minimal historicity is no greater than the probability that he would imagine Jesus was incarnated from Davidic sperm on minimal mythicism, making this a wash. But arguing a fortiori, 1 shall set the latter probability at 50%, against a 100% probability on minimal historicity. Thus, although I do not believe this counts as evidence for historicity at all, I am willing to allow that it might, in those proportions. In other words, although I doubt it, these vague passages might be twice as likely on historicity.

The same follows for Paul's saying that Jesus was 'made from a woman, made under the law'. I showed how even in context that reads as an allegorical statement, not a literal one. And I am personally certain that's how Paul meant it. So 1 believe it has a 100% probability on minimal mythicism, given that such allegories are completely expected (Element 14), and given the context of the whole chapter in which he says it (and the preceding chapter as well, where Paul repeatedly talks about the law as a cosmic force and not a biological inheritance, and about assuming identities allegorically and not literally). But since all this is not yet commonly accepted (I am looking at the text without the presuppositions of historicity that all previous scholars have done), 1 will argue a fortiori by saying it has only a 50% chance of being what we'd expect given those facts. And for comparison I'll assume that this bizarre and inexplicable way of talking about Jesus' mother is 100% expected on minimal historicity—even though it isn't. So again, although I doubt it. this passage might also be twice as likely on historicity.

I will thus tabulate these two features (the references to Jesus being 'made from the seed of David' and 'made from a woman') separately.

 

Notes.

86. See Verenna. "Born under the Law', pp. 150-52 (although Verenna mistakenly concludes that Paul means Jesus' mother in Gal. 4.4 is the heavenly Jerusalem: in fact that would be Jesus' mother after his death—while at his incarnation Jesus is born to the other mother of us all. the mother of slavery, as Paul goes on to explain). For a different approach: Doherty. Jesus: Neither God nor Man. pp. 197-212.

87. Philo similarly allegorizes Sarah and Hagar in On Mating with the Preliminary Studies 6-7. concluding that Sarah (whom he says was a perpetual virgin) symbolically gave birth to 'wisdom', so if we pursue wisdom, we "receive a share of her seed' (spermata), thereby also using 'sperm' allegorically. See also On the Change of Names 23( 130)—28( 152) on Isaac being virginally conceived by God (Isaac was Christ's sacrificial parallel: Element 18: Philo even calls him here the Son of God): and see On Drunkenness 8(30-31) on all things (including celestial angels) having God as their father and Wisdom as their mother. Wisdom (Sophia) was often imagined to be God's bride (e.g. Prov. 8.22-36; Wisdom 7.25: etc.). Accordingly, the 'woman' of Gal. 4.4 has been interpreted as meaning Wisdom by Margaret Barker in The Great High Priest, pp. 229-61. But as I'm about to explain. I do not believe that fits the context (any more than an actual human woman does). Nor do I think the Holy Spirit is meant, even though many later Christians did in fact believe Jesus' mother Mary was the Holy Spirit (complete with magical powers): Origen. Commentary on John 2.12 (quoting the now-lost Gospel according to the Hebrews) and Homily on Jeremiah 15.4: see also Jerome. Commentary on Isaiah 9.9: similarly in Cyril of Jerusalem's Discourse on Mary, as translated in E.A. Wallis Budge. Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (New York: AMS Press. 1977 [1915]). p. 637. Mary already appears as a divine being in the canonical book of Revelation: see the analysis of G.H. Dix. 'The Heavenly Wisdom and the Divine Logos in Jewish Apocalyptic: A Study of the Vision of the Woman and the Man-Child in Revelation XII 1-5. 13-17'. Journal of Theological Studies 26 (1925), pp. 1-12; likewise Barker. "The Temple Roots of the Christian Liturgy', p. 45 (see following note). Whether Paul believed any such thing of Jesus cannot be discerned from Galatians 4, but neither can it be ruled out (since he is not there concerned with Jesus' actual mother).

88. Paul alludes to a similar allegory in Rom. 9.6-8 and 4.13-16, where all Christians are again the 'seed' of Abraham, regardless of biology; and in Gal. 3.13-18, this is implied to transpire through becoming the brothers of Christ (who. by being the "seed' of David, was thus the 'seed' of Abraham that God had promised eternal rule).

89. Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1999), pp. 305-306.

90. In Jewish legend the fallen angel Mahalath (aka Malkat) was not only a woman (in later legend one of the four demon queens) but she bore a daughter, the demoness lgrath (on whom see previous note), also a woman, who had command of a legion of fallen angels: b, Pesahim 112b (see Dennis. Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth. pp. 126. 211): Shida. another demoness, bore a son (also a demon): b. Pesal.tim 111 b: etc. The existence of women among the angels is attested as early as Zech. 5.9 (even if not explicitly angels, they are certainly w inged celestial beings): and that angels could mate and bear offspring not only is attested in Gen. 6.4. but it was the entire basis of Jewish demonology (see scholarship cited for Element 37). That 'Wisdom' (Sophia) was also conceived as a female celestial being, who was regarded as a mother capable of giving birth to a son (and even if usually meant metaphorically, it would not be a leap to conclude it could happen literally), is evident in Proverbs 9 and Sir. 15.2-3 (see Barker. 'The Temple Roots of the Christian Liturgy', p. 45). Psalm 110. which compares God's immortal messianic agent with Melchizedek (Element 42). might also be read as saying he will be born from the womb of Mishchar ('Dawn'), which could be interpreted as a celestial being (angel of the dawn: although the intended meaning was surely otherwise, e.g., the lxx translates, 'born from the womb before dawn'). And so on. Thus it is notable that many later Christians did indeed imagine Jesus' mother to have been a celestial being (as we know from Irenaeus). But in Galatians 4 (as we shall see) such a notion is not required (although it could have been understood).

91. In both of these passages (Rom. 1.3 and Gal. 4.4) later attempts were made to change the wording so Jesus would be 'born' rather than 'made' from sperm and a woman: Bart Ehrman. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). p. 239.

 


Return to Foundations of Christianity