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As New Testament scholars have delved deeper into the pagan faiths that competed with early Christianity for followers, Mary's virginity has been challenged from the opposite direction--not as an impossible novelty but as a theme borrowed from the literature of the non-Jewish world. Stephen Patterson of Eden Theological Seminary lists divinely irregular conceptions in stories about not only mythic heroes such as Perseus and Romulus and Remus but also flesh-and-blood figures like Plato, Alexander and Augustus, whose hagiographers reported he was fathered by the god Apollo while his mother slept. "Virgin births were a rather Gentile thing," says the Very Rev. John Drury, chaplain of All Souls' College at Oxford University. "You get it in a lot of the legends in Ovid where the god impregnates some young girl who has a miraculous son."
This line of thought, with its possible implication that the Gospel writers imagined the Holy Spirit and Mary engaged in the kind of physical divine-human intercourse that vividly marked many Greek and Roman myths, is one of the most rancorous areas of the new scholarship. Brown found no merit in it. "Every line of Matthew's infancy narrative echoes Old Testament themes," he argued. "Are we to think that he accepted all that background but then violated horrendously the stern Old Testament [rule] that God was not a male who mated with women?" Other scholars claim that Luke especially might have been familiar with pagan models closer to the spiritual interaction that today's Christianity believes marked Jesus' conception.
"O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie"
--O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Or would "O little town of Nazareth" be more accurate? Strange as it may seem, a majority of scholars now lean in the latter direction. Those sticking with Bethlehem point out, not unreasonably, that both Matthew and Luke place Jesus' birth there. The skeptics note that they reach the town by such extravagantly different means that one has to wonder whether they weren't trying too hard to get there.
By Matthew's account, Joseph and Mary are Bethlehem residents and Jesus is born at home. But his very birth necessitates their flight to Egypt (and eventually Nazareth) because Jerusalem's vicious regent, Herod, is determined to murder the Bethlehem child he has learned will one day be King of the Jews. None of that gripping story, however, can be found in Luke. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary, Nazarenes, are on a brief if inconvenient visit to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem, complying with a vast census ("All the world should be enrolled") ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Meanwhile, Mark, written closer to Jesus' actual lifetime, omits Bethlehem and refers to Nazareth as Jesus' patrida, or hometown.
That variation has produced three responses among scholars. Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew's and Luke's versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: "Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them." Others champion one Gospel writer while discounting the other. A growing majority, however, conclude that there is simply not enough textual agreement to declare Bethlehem a historical given.