Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why the Virgin Birth Isn’t Enough

Mary and Jesus in Persian Shi'a Miniature

As the holiday season approaches, fringe Muslims like Anjem Choudary are preparing their next anti-Christmas campaigns in the UK.  Meanwhile his more “moderate” coreligionists in Saudi Arabia plan to crack down mercilessly on any foreigners caught celebrating this illegal holiday in the land where Islam was born.  While criticism of commercialism or pagan ties would be understandable, this outright hostility to Advent in general is difficult to explain outside of Islam’s built-in disdain for the religion that preceded it.  After all, when trying to depict Islam in more Christian-friendly terms, Muslim apologists will often point out how they revere Jesus as the Messiah, born of the virgin Mary (the only female mentioned in the Qur’an).

This small attempt at interfaith unity is really a stretch if one is aware that these are about the only two points of similarity between the Bible and the Qur’an on the life of Christ.  Muhammad was more influenced by non-canonical infancy gospels for Christ’s miracles, and rejected the crucifixion, death, and resurrection altogether, although he provided no alternative explanation.  The typical Muslim defense goes that those stories had already been told and Muhammad was presenting new material.  This excuse is rather flimsy for a number of reasons: first, the Qur’an copies at length from other sources and retells a number of Bible stories, including most of the life of Moses; second, considering Muslims have to believe the Gospels are heavily corrupted, even at the time of Muhammad, if there was ever a time to present the real story it was in the Qur’an, since there won’t exactly be another prophet after him to make corrections.

The presence of the virgin birth in the Qur’an, however, is more of a problem for Muslims because it raises more questions than it answers.  In Christianity, the virgin birth serves a theological purpose, and the particular theology it supports is the Incarnation, which Islam considers the greatest sin, shirk, or “equating partners with God.”   In Christianity, the virgin birth has a self-explanatory imperative, demonstrating in one complete theological package how God entered the world and how Jesus Christ inherited no sinful nature while still being fully human.  The meaning in Islam is, on the other hand, elusive and theologically unnecessary.  Like so many founders of other religions, Muhammad had a magical view of miracles, so that the miracles he records serve no purpose other than to shock and awe like cheap card tricks, but have no underlying meaning or purpose behind them. The virgin birth in this light is as meaningless and random as the Qur’anic miracle of Christ turning clay into pigeons (Surahs 3:49, 5:110).

The bigger question that this demands is why is it even important for any believers to know that Christ was born of a virgin?  With all the events, miracles, and teachings of Christ omitted from the Qur’an, why is it absolutely necessary for mankind to know about this particular incident that occurred before he was even born?  This is indicative of the fundamental problem with Islam, that it merely requires that one know information about the religion.  This salvation based on knowledge is an unforgiving sword that cuts both ways, since believing something incorrect can be damning.  For instance, just believing that Jesus was crucified is displeasing to Muhammad’s god, even if one doesn’t believe that Jesus is God Incarnate.  But if knowing about God (or apparently just his messengers) were the key to salvation, then man would either have to know everything about God and his messengers (which is impossible), or everything man knows about God and his messengers would have to be accurate (which is improbable if not impossible).  From this perspective, mankind would probably be better off the less they knew about God.

Therefore, even if Muslims cite the virgin birth to argue that they consider Christianity and Islam to be one and the same, it only shows the extent to which they’ve failed to understand the meaning of Christianity.  By not simply rejecting the crucifixion, but also making mere belief in it a determination of apostasy, Islam has positioned itself as truly anti-Christian.  Believing in Christ’s death is obviously necessary for belief in his resurrection, which is the only piece of information one must know about God in order to have salvation in Christianity.  It doesn’t matter if a Christian knows that Christ walked on water, healed the sick, turned water to wine, or cast out demons.  Dare I say, one doesn’t actually even have to believe in these miracles so long as one simply believes that Christ died for their sins.  But on the other hand, Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini knew far more about Islam than I ever would in my lifetime, if knowing the right things about God were the deciding factor in getting into heaven, then I wouldn’t stand a chance compared to them.  Finally, perhaps the most tragic thing about the Muslim rejection of the crucifixion is that it leaves them with no empirical evidence for the resurrection.  In the opposite way that Islam retains the event of the virgin birth while rejecting its underlying doctrinal truth, Muslims hold onto belief in the resurrection while having no event to base it on.  Christians have hope of life after death by believing in a man who returned from the dead, but the Muslim’s faith in the resurrection is hopeless.

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LDS: A 19th Century Church

I’m always skeptical of churches that claim to be a 1st century church.  Aside from the fact that our customs and culture are simply too different for people in the present to relate to the 1st century, this attitude is generally associated with complete ignorance of church history in the intervening 1,900 years.  Instead, I think it’s better for churches to identify with the century in which they live, being aware of the mistakes and lessons learned throughout the ages before them.  The Mormon church, however, is an interesting case in that they resemble neither the current century nor the 1st century; in virtually every sense, the LDS church is still grounded in Joseph Smith’s 19th century.

The gap between the claimed and actual origin is demonstrated nowhere better than in the Book of Mormon itself, which despite claims of authorship in the 1st century and before, never existed at any point in history before it was delivered by the mouth of Joseph Smith in 1828-1829.  While its dependence on source materials unavailable to its claimed authors (but readily available to Joseph Smith) is alone enough to dismiss all claims of prior authorship, there is another phenomenon particular to 1 Nephi which also betrays it as a product of the 19th century.  Joseph Smith’s use of postdiction, or prediction after the fact, includes “prophecies” about Columbus (1 Nephi 13:12), the Revolutionary War with “mother Gentiles” as Mother England (13:16-19), and even prophecies about Joseph Smith’s restoration of the church (15:13) and the lost pages (19:3).  Despite how remarkably accurate these prophecies are (he gave the Nephites the name of Mary the mother of Jesus in Mosiah 3:4 and John the author of Revelation in 1 Nephi 14:27), the Book of Mormon’s foresight ends abruptly at the life of Joseph Smith, providing nothing after that.  One would think that the prophet’s death and the church’s Utah migration that followed would have been eventful enough to have at least had a mention.

The phenomenon of postdiction is hardly unique to the Book of Mormon, it can be found abundantly in the Puranic literature of Hinduism.  The Bhagavata Purana and others specifically name Lord Buddha in an effort to bring Buddhists back to Brahmanism.  The Bhavishya Purana is perhaps the most notable, as it “predicts” Christ, Muhammad, and even Queen Victoria.  But just like the Book of Mormon, these amazingly specific prophecies stop around the middle of the 19th century.  Nevertheless, it’s been used by both Hindu and Muslim apologists to try to win converts.  Even Mormons, however, would have to appreciate the simplest and most logical answer: that the Bhavishya Purana was actually an open system text that was finalized after the events it purports to predict, and the same is applicable to the Book of Mormon.

Prophecies, however, were not the only 19th century stamp on the Book of Mormon: it was also a godsend for resolving 19th century theological disputes.  The Biblical authors, for instance, saw no need for step-by-step outline on how to baptize like Jesus gives in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 11:22-27), because they weren’t writing an instruction manual.  This is consistent with the rest of Scripture, in which practices and customs often have little explanation, because it was assumed people already knew them.  This teaching makes sense in retrospect from a 19th century perspective, but not from the perspective of chiseling words on metal plates where space was limited.  Likewise, the Book of Mormon’s specific instructions on what to name the church (Nephi 27:3-5) seems ridiculous from a 1st century perspective when there was only a single sect of Christianity, but it seems logical from a 19th century point of view with hundreds of competing churches.  Similar to the Muslim forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas, which attempts to re-write the gospel narrative in line with Islamic theology, Joseph Smith’s fabrication attempted to prove doctrinal issues that were characteristic of his own time period, but not really of the 1st century church.

Virtually all of the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, such as the presence of wheels, horses, livestock, or wheat in the Americas were everyday life for Joseph Smith.  Having no understanding of how civilizations actually develop, and certainly no knowledge about pre-Columbian America, he simply projected life in the 19th century to the 1st century, with embarrassing results.  Mormon apologists have been trying to excuse these away ever since, suggesting deer instead of horses, or corn instead of wheat.  The obvious question is why Joseph Smith wouldn’t have been able to correctly translate these terms which were equally familiar to him.  But no Mormon scholars have suggested any revision of the text itself, and as long as prospective converts don’t raise any questions the subject is never brought up internally.  The LDS church either devises outlandish explanations or ignores them altogether, when the easiest and most logical solution is to approach it from the point of view of Joseph Smith’s 19th century imagination.

The LDS church’s entrenchment in the 19th century even spills over into the late 20th century through their office of the president.  The church didn’t have a president who was born in the 20th century until 1994 (Howard W. Hunter, 1907-1995), and probably only because all the 19th century candidates had died by that time.  And even though the Latter-day Saints pride themselves on having a living prophet at all times in the form of their president, prophecies and revelations have been sparse compared to what it was during the lifetime of Joseph Smith.  Doctrines & Covenants contains 136 sections delivered by Joseph Smith between 1823-1844 (although the oldest on record is only as early as 1828).  While the Mormons named a university after Brigham Young, his only contribution to Mormon scripture is one section of D&C (section 136) in 1847, even though he lived and presided for another 30 years after that. In the hundred years following his death, the church has only managed to produce one more section (138) and two Official Declarations, but has not had a new revelation in print since blacks were admitted into the priesthood in 1978.  In other words, none of the missionaries active today have ever had a supposed revelation delivered in their lifetime.

As much as the LDS church tries to give the impression that they have living apostles receiving prophecies and revelations just like in their imagined 1st century era, the reality is that their church has been coasting off the momentum of Joseph Smith for the last 200 years.  It’s plain to see that Joseph Smith was an exceptionally charismatic and creative individual, capable of the deception and fraud necessary to start a movement like the Mormon church, and unparalleled by any of his successors.

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