This is another ‘letter from a godless grandfather’. As John Minford noted when we published ‘Easter Resurrected: a letter from David Hawkes’ (China Heritage, 13 April 2017):

In the 1980s, after completing his monumental translation of the first eighty chapters of The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢, David Hawkes retired with his wife Jean to an old stone farmhouse called Bryn Carregog (Stony Hill), in the mountains of Mid-Wales. There they ran a small-holding, and he worked on what he thought would be his farewell to Sinology, the extensive revision of his translation of The Songs of the South 楚辭. At the same time he began teaching himself the Welsh language, and embarked on extensive reading into the history of religion.

His religious studies eventually bore fruit in a series of essay which he entitled Letters from a Godless Grandfather. A year or two before his death in 2009, these were privately printed in Hong Kong, for distribution to friends. It is now hoped that they will be properly published in book form. In anticipation of this, we are sharing one or two individual ‘letters’ with our readers.

To mark the Christian feast of 25 December 2018, we are offering two further letters from David Hawkes’s book on Christianity. The first, Letter 14, on the Virgin Birth and Mariolatry, was published on 22 December under the title ‘The Alpha & Omega of Personality Cults’ (reprinted from 22 December 2017, when it appeared as ‘Christmas Cheer’). Letter 15, published here, addresses the question of Parthenogenesis and the Virgin Birth.

As luck would have it, two of David Hawkes’s grandsons — Arthur and Gregory, happen to be in The Wairarapa for Xmas 2018, and the publication of these two letters is dedicated to them.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage,
24 December 2018
Christmas Eve

Martinborough, South Wairarapa. Photograph: GRB




Dear Tal,

Your last letter (Jan 3rd) took an incredibly long time to get here — unless you carried it around a week or so before posting it. I couldn’t read the postmark so there’s no means of telling.

Parthenogenesis, meaning ‘virgin birth’, is a perfectly respectable biological term. It happens in lower forms of life — greenfly, for instance. I suppose if it could happen in human beings, the product would have to be female; but as you once said that biology was one of your favourite subjects, I expect you already know much more about this than I do. In an age when people knew nothing about biology and precious little about reproduction, it was quite widely believed that parthenogenesis was occasionally possible in human beings. Among many ancient peoples it was also quite commonly believed that an earthly woman could be made pregnant by a god. In the Greek world of the fourth century BC Alexander the Great was believed by many — possibly including Alexander himself — to have been the son not of his father King Philip of Macedon but of the god Zeus Ammon. The god was said to have had intercourse with Alexander’s mother Olympias in the form of a great snake while King Philip looked on through a chink in the bedroom door. (Olympias was a very unconventional lady and for all we know she may have had a pet snake and taken it to bed with her.) No one today seriously believes that Alexander the Great was a Son of God, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he was an historical person. As Lord Raglan once put it, ‘his alleged miraculous birth does not affect our view of the Battle of Arbela’.

If myths could grow up around the birth of a man as famous as Alexander whose father was the most powerful man in Greece and whose whole life from his earliest infancy was lived in the glare of publicity, it’s hardly surprising that rumour and gossip should have invented a whole lot of bogus information about the birth and infancy of someone coming, like Jesus, from a humble and totally obscure background who suddenly became famous when he was more than thirty. In his case, though, the stories claim both that his father was God and that his mother was a virgin, which on the face of it looks like a contradiction. (People may have called Olympias a lot of things, but I don’t think anyone ever suggested that she was a virgin.)

Two of the four Gospels, Mark and John, start from the time when Jesus began his career as a teacher and healer, after his baptism by the prophet John in the River Jordan. It’s only in the other two, Matthew and Luke, that you get those pretty stories that have inspired all the paintings and carols and Nativity plays about his miraculous birth and which, apart from the grisly story of his suffering and death, are the sum total of what a great many people in the world would be able to tell you about Jesus of Nazareth.

Curiously enough, both Matthew and Luke, in addition to the miraculous birth stories, supply genealogies — quite different ones, by the way — tracing Jesus’s ancestry back to Abraham or Adam through his father Joseph. It’s pretty obvious that the people who wrote those Gospels were simply collecting all the material about Jesus’s birth and upbringing they could find, regardless of the fact that some bits of what they’d collected were flatly contradicted by other bits. No doubt the genealogies were supplied by members of the Jewish Christian community in Palestine which included members of Jesus’s own family. For them he wasn’t the divine Son of God but the Messiah, the Chosen One of God and future Redeemer of Israel who, as everyone knew, had to be a descendant of King David. Both genealogies are almost certainly bogus, but even nowadays any genealogist worth his salt could find you a noble ancestor or two and a coat of arms if he set his mind to it.

The idea that Jesus was not Joseph’s son but, in a quite literal, physical sense, the Son of God must have originated among Greek and other ex-Pagan converts who belonged to a culture in which it was taken for granted that gods — even the Father of the Gods himself — could have sexual intercourse with a human female. It still created problems, even for Greek Christians, because of the disapproving attitude towards sex that quite early on became one of Christianity’s most characteristic features. The idea of God the Father taking off his nightie and having intercourse with Joseph’s fiancée might not have bothered an Ancient Greek, but to a Christian of any kind it would have been unthinkable.

Matthew doesn’t tackle this problem at all. It simply says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph but found to be pregnant ‘before they came together’, which I think is a polite way of saying that it was before he had had intercourse with her. It goes on to say that Joseph was on the point of breaking off the engagement quietly (rather than publicly disgracing her) when he had a dream in which he was told that the Holy Ghost was the father.

Luke is prepared to go into more detail. In Luke the Archangel Gabriel visits Mary apparently not in a dream but in waking hours and tells her that she is going to conceive a son who will inherit the throne of David and rule over Israel until the end of time. When she asks him how this will be possible since she hasn’t had intercourse with anyone, the archangel tells her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you and the Power of the Highest will overshadow you.’ Hebrew poetic language — the sort of language an archangel might be expected to use — tends to obtain its effects by saying the same thing twice over in different words: ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man; and preserve me from the wicked man’ — that sort of thing. Applying this principle to the words of the archangel, you get the impression that he is talking about a sort of ghostly intercourse: a dark shadow descending on Mary while she is lying in bed at night. However that may be, the next thing we are told is that she and Joseph are jogging down to Bethlehem (the ‘city of David’) where the child is born. We’re not told what Joseph or anyone else said or did when it was discovered that she was pregnant, or anything about Joseph having a dream.

The Gospel writers didn’t know anything about biology but at least they were aware that pregnancy won’t occur without something entering the female from outside. They couldn’t face the idea of God the Father inseminating a virgin in the usual way — even though, being male, he was pre­sumably equipped to do so — but the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit (the Greek word is pneuma which means ‘breath’), as it’s invisible and hasn’t got any limbs or parts, could be thought of as doing the job of insemination without embarrassment. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans it was commonly believed — Pliny stated it as a fact in his Natural History — that mares could be made pregnant by the wind, and the Holy Ghost was often thought of as a sort of wind. The 4th-century Christian Lactantius who was tutor to the Emperor Constantine’s eldest son was of the opinion that it was in this way that the Holy Ghost made Mary pregnant.

Nowadays anyone with the slightest knowledge of human biology would laugh at the idea of a young woman being made pregnant by a gust of holy wind, yet ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’ or ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (C of E Newspeak) continues to be part of the creed in which Christians proclaim their faith. I don’t know what Christians really think when they recite those words. I suppose some Christians say them without thinking about the meaning at all. Crixus fixus morti by Sunday. Others, the intellectual ones, probably regard them as a sort of code which their superior spirituality enables them to see through to a higher meaning. Some perhaps shy away from thinking too hard about the meaning under the mistaken impression that the only alternative to believing in a miraculous conception is to say that Mary had a premarital slip and that Joseph was deceived. But once you dismiss the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s conception, birth and childhood as the fairy-tales they are, there’s no earthly reason not to assume that Mary was a perfectly respectable married woman whose children, including Jesus, were all her husband’s children and all born inside wedlock.

To Catholics Jesus and Mary are ‘Our Lord’ and ‘Our Lady’ and there’s a great deal of stress on the special relationship that’s supposed to have existed between them. If you look at the New Testament, however, it’s not at all clear that Jesus — as a grown man, that is — had anything much to do with his mother. In Matthew, Mark and Luke — what they call the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ — you get the impression that Jesus didn’t have a great deal of use for his family, or they for him. According to Mark, when he first began his career as a prophet his family said he was mad and tried to have him restrained. According to Matthew, Jesus himself, on a rather disappointing visit to his old home in Nazareth, said something about a prophet being honoured anywhere but among his own folk. And Matthew and Luke both record an occasion when his mother and brothers went to visit him at a time when Jesus was preaching. When he was told that his mother and brothers were waiting outside, he said ‘What mother? What brothers?’, then, with a gesture towards his audience, ‘These are my mother and my brothers.’

You get a very different impression of Jesus’s relationship with his mother from John, the Fourth Gospel. (Writers often refer to it like this, with a capital F, to emphasize the fact that it’s so different from the other three.) John only mentions Mary twice, but does so in a way that makes her seem very important to Jesus. The first time is at the very beginning of his career. According to John, Jesus’s first public act after he’d been recognized by John the Baptist as the Messiah and had got together a little band of disciples (five mentioned by name) was to perform a miracle at a village wedding in Cana not very far from his old home.

Jesus had been invited to come along to this wedding reception with his mother, and it was at her suggestion that he performed the miracle — turning some water into wine when it was discovered that the party had run out of drinks. He seems to have done this a bit reluctantly, because when she made the suggestion he said ‘My time has not yet come’, implying that he didn’t feel that this was quite the moment to reveal himself as a Prophet of God. A new prophet was expected to declare himself by giving ‘signs’. So Mary in this story is the Proud Mother saying ‘Come on, son, show them what you can do!’ and Jesus is the Embarrassed Son saying ‘No, no, Mother, not now!’ He did the miracle, nevertheless — the first of many ‘signs’, says John. John is one of the gospels that doesn’t say anything about Jesus’s birth and upbringing, but if you believe this story, you have to believe that Mary thought her firstborn was something special, whatever the other members of the family may have thought about him.

Mary’s second and final appearance in this gospel is right at the end of Jesus’s career when he was being crucified. According to John, Jesus saw her standing among the spectators next to his favourite disciple and in a few almost untranslatable words gave them to understand that this disciple was from now on to be her adopted son and look after her. They were — according to John — almost the last words he spoke. After his death the disciple led Mary away and took her into his home.

John says that when Jesus and his mother went to the wedding in Cana he took his new disciples along with him, so there were enough witnesses of the water-into-wine miracle to make it a well-known story among early Christians. If it was really his first ‘sign’, they would have felt it important enough to be mentioned in any written account of his messiahship; yet there’s not a word about it in any of the other three gospels.

There’s nothing in them, either, about his mother Mary and the favourite disciple being present at his crucifixion — near enough to him to hear his dying words — though all three of them mention the women followers from Galilee who watched from a distance (they all say that) while he was being crucified. Matthew and Mark even give their names. It’s true that one of them, ‘Mary the mother of James and Joseph’ could, theoretically, mean Jesus’s mother, because ‘James’ and ‘Joseph’ happen also to have been the names of the two eldest of Jesus’s four brothers, but if it does mean her, it’s hard to see why the gospel-writer couldn’t simply have said ‘his mother’.

So what are we to believe?

The Acts of the Apostles, which is a continuation of Luke and generally believed to have been written by the same person, says that in the weeks following Jesus’s crucifixion his mother and brothers were staying with the remaining eleven apostles (Judas had by this time hanged himself) at a house in Jerusalem; and Jerusalem, not Galilee where they came from, was the centre from which the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the eldest of Jesus’s brothers, James, controlled the Christian community during the early years of its existence. So perhaps Mary was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, even if she wasn’t standing at the foot of the cross as she is in so many paintings, or as she is in the medieval hymn, the Stabat Mater:

Stabat mater dolorosa
The sorrowful mother stood

Juxta crucem lacrimosa
Weeping beside the cross

Dum pendebat filius
While her son was hanging there

Cujus animam gementem
Her groaning soul,

Contristantem et dolentem
Anguished and grieving,

Pertransivit gladius
A sword transpierced…

(And so on, for another 18 verses)

There are quite a few musical settings of it, including a rather theatrical one by Rossini. I used to have an LP of it. I can’t believe he set all 20 verses to music, but I’ve lost the record, so I can’t check. Perhaps he did.

When I was a boy I saw, in a church in Santa Cruz in the Azores, a statue of the Virgin Mary wearing real pearls and dressed in real black velvet and real gold lace with a real steel dagger sticking in her breast. I suppose whoever made it must have been thinking of the old Latin hymn.

Anyway, to come back to the Fourth Gospel. Within only a few years of Jesus’s death a split was already developing between the original Jewish Christians who thought of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David, and followers of the more liberal-minded missionaries who taught their non-Jewish, Greek-speaking converts that they needn’t bother about the Jewish Law — circumcision and dietary rules and all the rest of it — which Jesus himself had taken for granted. As time went by non-Jewish Christians came more and more to think of Jesus as a divine Saviour, a sort of incarnate God, and to forget about his Jewishness altogether.

When I was younger, people who study these things used to think the Gospel According to Saint John was the latest of the four, written 60 or more years after Jesus’s death. I’m not sure what the expert opinion is nowadays — I’m pretty sure they no longer think it’s as late as that — but the person who wrote it certainly thought that Jesus was divine, which makes it seem likely that he was one of those non-Jewish Greek-speaking Christians. Towards the end of the gospel one of the apostles actually addresses Jesus as ‘God’. ‘My Lord and my God!’ Thomas says, kneeling down and worshipping Jesus, when Jesus convinces him that he has just risen from the dead. I wouldn’t have thought a Jew could have written that. The gospel begins with an introduction claiming that Jesus already existed in heaven before he was born. (Muslims say the same sort of thing about the Koran.) It puts long poetical speeches into his mouth, in which he claims, among other things, that he is the Son of God (in the other gospels he calls himself ‘Son of Man’) and that knowing him is equivalent to knowing God. As there were no stenographers or tape-recorders in those days, long speeches like that must have been made up by the gospel-writer himself. In all kinds of ways the Fourth Gospel makes him seem a very different sort of person from the one you meet in the other gospels.

On the other hand there are quite a few things in this gospel but not in the other ones which read as if the author must have got them from the recollections or memoirs of a Jewish eye-witness. And it looks very much as if this witness must have been the ‘favourite disciple’ who crops up in one form or another several times in this gospel.

It looks as if this ‘favourite disciple’ (the Greek for this means, literally, ‘the one among his disciples whom Jesus loved’) may not have been one of the Twelve Apostles; but whether he was or not, he and Peter, whom Jesus made leader of the Twelve, may have been a bit jealous of each other. He may have been a bit inclined to harp on the fact that he, not any of the apostles, had been the one chosen to look after Mary when Jesus was no longer there — taking his place as her son. So he may have been stretching it a bit when he said that Jesus actually made this arrangement when he was dying on the cross. Reports of famous last words and deathbed arrangements are always a bit suspicious. Too often they are what somebody would like the dead person to have said and is sure they would have said if they had been able to. And of course the more the gospel-writer emphasised how close to Jesus and his mother the person from whom he got his information had been, the more reliable everything in his gospel would appear to be.

 Still, this is only guessing. New Testament scholars must have written millions of words about these matters, but from the little I’ve read there doesn’t seem to be very much agreement among them. And there probably never will be any means of knowing what really happened.

One thing you can be pretty sure of is that the iconography — the pictures and sculptures which the Gospel-stories inspired — however beautiful or moving they may be have generally got nothing to do with historical reality. All those pietàs, the pictures of Mary sorrowing over the dead body of her crucified son, for instance — like the Love Goddess grieving over the body of Adonis. But that’s always true of iconography. Think what Far Eastern iconographers have made of the historical Indian Buddha — an overweight Chinese shopkeeper taking an afternoon nap!

Oh dear, this letter is far too long and I have probably bored the pants off you. I’m afraid this is a subject I am just as likely to do a BOG on as I am on the history of words.

Lots of love,