Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Born of woman

After a 5-month hiatus I returned to the Secular Web debates at the end of June. I've written a lot about these debates in the past, but this time I'd like to concentrate more on my thoughts about the Biblical phrase in question. At least, let me start there.

Galatians 4:
4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman (GENOMENON EK GUNAIKOS), born under the Law (GENOMENOS HUPO NOMON),

5 in order to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Look at "born under the Law", or GENOMENOS HUPO NOMON. It uses the verb GIGNOMAI, which can mean to to come, to become, to be, to happen. Earl Doherty understands this verb with its broad set of meanings as an ambiguous way to denote a birth. The same verb is used in the first phrase, "born of woman," GENOMENON EK GUNAIKOS. Doherty argues that Ernest De Witt Burton's commentary, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (pp. 217-18), supports his argument concerning ambiguity.

However, in the last debate there was a significant concession, from a strong and longtime supporter of Doherty, to the effect that Burton did not say what Doherty took him to say. Burton actually says that if Paul had wished to express the idea of birth in the second phrase (about the law) as unambiguously as he does in the first (about the woman), he would have used a different verb, GENNAW, which has a narrower meaning of "beget" (that is, begotten under the Law). Doherty did not make this concession in the most recent debate, but I think there's a good chance he will correct his mistaken reading in the second edition of his book.

It's worth asking why Burton thought the first phrase was a clear way to denote birth, despite the use of the verb that has the broader set of meanings. He writes, "...though GENOMENON EK GUNAIKOS evidently refers to birth, that reference is neither conveyed by, nor imparted to, the participle, but lies wholly in the limiting phrase." In short, the meaning of "birth" is not conveyed by the participle GENOMENON (since its verb, GIGNOMAI, means to become, to be, to happen); it is conveyed by the limiting phrase, "of woman," EK GUNAIKOS. To come from a woman evidently means (or references) birth; it does not seem possible that something else could be referred to.

Paul's verb in the passage referencing the woman does not necessarily and always mean birth, and in that sense Doherty is right; but it means birth because the woman is mentioned. It's the woman that Doherty de-emphasizes, in his emphasis on the verb. He seems taken by the idea that Paul spoke of Christ as coming from, or being made from. To him this seems to be the kind of language suited to a celestial savior who never came down to earth. However, such language suits any kind of savior. Doherty seems to have lost sight of the traditional Christian understanding that Christ did come from heaven. There would be nothing mythicist about Paul if he said that Christ came from heaven; it would not advance Doherty's case at all. John's prologue twice uses this verb to say that Christ, as a pre-existent eternal being, "became" flesh; certainly John believes in a historical Christ. Nor would there be a problem if Paul was saying that Christ simply came (without a reference to heaven or to an eternal pre-existent Christ); Mark 1:4 uses the same verb to say that John the Baptist came/appeared, as a prophet from God. But when Christ is said to come from woman, well, I hardly see where Doherty has a legitimate angle remaining.

This deficient focus on only part of the phrase is something pointed out by Ben C Smith in this post, which I'm highlighting for other reasons, as well: it contains references to Josephus' use of the same verb that Paul uses of Christ; Josephus uses it to refer to the birth of ordinary human beings. And the post is as good a place as any to examine the survey of the literature that Doherty and his challengers have been conducting. My own contribution to the survey, and to the question of why Paul uses a particular verb for Christ's birth, is at this post.

I think something very similar is going on when mythicists and historicists debate Romans 1:3-4, the only other place where Paul refers to Christ's birth (again with GINOMAI). The verses read: "... the gospel according to his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirt of holiness..." The overwhelming emphasis in the debates has been on the phrase "KATA SARKA," which is usually translated, "according to the flesh." KATA SARKA, like GINOMAI, is not a problem in itself, but focusing on it very hard, rather than equally emphasizing the reference to David, can produce an unwarranted appearance of reasonable doubt. What I mean is that Christ is said to come from the seed of David. The additional phrase according to the flesh can indeed be difficult to understand without looking at the next verse (where Paul tells us what Christ is in the spiritual sphere, after telling us what Christ is in the human sphere). But to come from the seed of David is pretty straightforward as an indicator of a human birth.

The IIDB debate has also included a discussion of whether Galatians 4:4 is an interpolation, with a response from one scholar, Hermann Detering. That part is interesting, though I've been watching the rest of the debate descend into the kind of wearying ego-battles for which I have no more tolerance; it's become difficult even to read the posts. It's easier just not to listen when it gets to this point. I hope the particular links I've given will help anyone trying to wade through the nonsense.

I hope now to get my writings on the subject of mythicism onto permanent websites rather than merely discussion boards and blogs. That means that my postings on this blog may become somewhat thin for a while.


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