The Words of the Miller Family

New Book Challenges Doctrine of the Virgin Birth

Wayne Miller
April 8, 2010
Instructor of Religious Studies at Penn State University, Media, PA

Mark Gibbs, Author

In Secrets of the Holy Family (The Vineyard Press, 2009), Unificationist Mark Gibbs endeavors to show that the authors of the New Testament Gospels knew perfectly well that Jesus of Nazareth, at least from a physical standpoint, was a completely normal human being, with a biological father as well as a biological mother. Gibbs makes the claim that many ancient texts would sometimes convey information indirectly, using hints, symbols, and innuendoes, when such information was considered too inflammatory to be explicitly stated. In Gibbs' retelling of the nativity story, it is clear that the information surrounding the conception of Jesus would definitely have been scandalous if publicly revealed, and so he contends that, therefore, the Gospel authors sought to convey the truth indirectly, rather than directly.

In the case of the birth of Jesus, Gibbs argues that the Gospel authors knew that the priest, Zacharias (Zechariah), the father of John the Baptist, was also the father of Jesus. Gibbs points out that the author of the Gospel of Luke takes great pains to draw a parallel between Zacharias and Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. All Jews would have been aware of the fact that Abraham had children with two different women -- Ishmael who was the product of his relationship with the maid, Hagar, and Isaac who was born from his wife, Sarah. Gibbs enumerates several points in the Lukan narrative concerning Zacharias that directly correspond to the tale of Abraham, and which lead up to Zacharias' wife, Elizabeth, becoming pregnant. Immediately afterwards, Luke tells of Mary's revelation that she would be the mother of the Messiah, at which point she heads immediately to the house of Zacharias, where she, too, becomes pregnant. Thus, according to Gibbs, Luke is attempting to lead the discerning reader to the conclusion that, like Abraham, Zacharias was the father of two children, i.e., of both John and Jesus.

Gibbs also draws our attention to the rather odd genealogy presented in the Gospel of Matthew. He points out that one's lineage in ancient Israel was based on male ancestry, yet in Matthew's account of the genealogy of Jesus, in addition to forty generations of male ancestors, the Gospel author mentions four women. What makes this even more noteworthy is that all four of these women -- Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah -- all left their husbands or kinsmen in order to have what appears to have been adulterous or illicit relationships, but which in each case resulted in a male child who was to be one of the ancestors of Jesus. Immediately after this genealogical list, Matthew relates that Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, was suddenly found to be pregnant, even though she and Joseph had never had sexual relations. In light of this, Gibbs makes the claim that, as with the Lukan narrative, the structure of Matthew's Gospel is designed to lead us to the conclusion that Mary had acted in the same manner as the four women mentioned and had conceived Jesus through an extramarital relationship.

The Beliefs of Early Christians

Although most orthodox Christians may assert that the doctrine of Jesus' divinity was a core belief of early Christianity, the truth of the matter is quite different according to Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. In her 2003 best seller, Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pagels asserts that most early Christians likely believed that Jesus was divinely inspired, but otherwise viewed him as being completely human. According to Pagels:

Although Mark and the other evangelists use titles that Christians today often take as indicating Jesus' divinity, such as "son of God" and "messiah," in Mark's own time these titles designated human roles…. Mark's contemporaries would most likely have seen Jesus as a man -- although one gifted, as Mark says, with the power of the Holy Spirit, and divinely appointed to rule in the coming kingdom of God. (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 37-38)

Pagels, one of the world's foremost authorities on early Christian teachings, points out that many of the Gnostic Gospels, that is, gospel writings which were suppressed and banned at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., make it quite clear that Jesus was eminently human. The Gospel of Philip, for example, goes to great lengths to explain that church doctrines regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus, while often understood as being literally true by nominal Christians, are meant to be understood in a spiritual or metaphorical sense. Philip claims that it is obvious that Jesus had a physical father (whom Philip believed to be Joseph) but that Jesus was also born of the Holy Spirit in the same sense that all true Christians can be reborn of the Holy Spirit when they are baptized. (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 130-133) Pagels' work, therefore, supports Gibbs' claim that early Christians believed in Jesus as a divinely inspired human being, but as someone having human parentage.

In addition to the Gospels, Gibbs refers to numerous canonical and non-canonical texts from the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Gnostic Gospels in order to bolster his claims. He also asserts that the great masters of Renaissance art were privy to the knowledge which Gibbs is now disclosing. Delving into the esoteric symbolism of those works of art which seem to reflect Renaissance hermeticism, Gibbs (somewhat in the tradition of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code) seeks to prove that the circumstances surrounding the conception of Jesus, as well as many details connected to the later relationships between Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene, were all open secrets among the great Renaissance artists. Dogma Versus Evidence

Secrets of the Holy Family incorporates an impressive range of ancient sources to substantiate its claims. Gibbs has reviewed scores of ancient documents and, based upon his research, has made compelling arguments to support his case. Nevertheless, since the evidence that Gibbs presents is primarily circumstantial, it is unlikely that this book actually will change the minds of conservative, doctrinaire Christians who cling doggedly to a post-Nicene Christology (i.e., the understanding of Jesus that was made into official church doctrine at the Council of Nicea) in which Jesus is seen as God incarnate, with no biological father. On the other hand, any conscientious person, Christian or otherwise, who has wondered about the actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, cannot help but be amazed by the vast amount of information that Gibbs provides.

Despite the admirable research that the author has done, there are some definite drawbacks to the book from an academic perspective. The first is that the author, instead of presenting his views as an interpretation of the evidence, tends rather to put forward his conclusions as fact. This style of writing does not sit well with academics, who prefer to judge for themselves the validity of arguments made. Secondly, though Gibbs examines a large number of Renaissance paintings, he does not footnote his interpretation of the symbols that he analyzes. It is rather frustrating to read such an interesting book and to look to the bottom of the page or the back of the book to see the source of the author's knowledge about Renaissance symbolism, only to discover that the author had included no footnotes on this topic. In other words, though his interpretation of Renaissance art is thought-provoking, he does not provide any clues to allow the reader to follow his analysis, or to see from where he gets his information.

It may be argued that the combination of research and creative interpretation in Secrets of the Holy Family is nonetheless a major accomplishment, and Gibbs' book is certainly worth reading for anyone who cares about the origins of Christianity. Although he falls short in his failure to document his interpretation of Renaissance art, he gets very high marks for the depth and breadth of his research, especially with regard to ancient religious texts. He should also be commended for presenting such an overwhelming amount of material in an easily readable and understandable fashion. So, although Mr. Gibbs may face some criticism for his tone and his lack of citations, these are problems which could be easily remedied in a revised edition of the book. Nevertheless, in the meantime, he has produced a thought-provoking, serious, and revolutionary essay on a topic that may eventually shake the foundations of modern Christian dogma.

The book is also a milestone of achievement within the intellectual community of the Unification movement. Mark Gibbs joined the Unification Church in the United Kingdom in 1979, and from 1980 served as an evangelist and lay clergyman in the United States until moving in 1998 to Indonesia where he currently resides with his wife and three children. He obtained his Masters in Divinity at the Unification Theological Seminary in 1997. When he isn't researching his forthcoming sequel to Secrets of the Holy Family, he operates a wood-exporting business and lectures at Udayana University in Bali. 

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