In Jesus for the Non-Religious Spong says that much of what is said in the Gospels about Jesus is liturgy rather than history. The disciples had a “God experience” in the person of Jesus. Do describe it, they used to familiar language to liturgy to explain an experience for which they had no words. And in addition to liturgy, there is mythology, stories that grew in the telling. Perhaps the most interesting is the birth story.
As Spong stresses, Paul said that Jesus was “born of a woman” and “born under the law”. There is nothing about a miraculous birth. Mark, the first of the synoptic gospels to be written, also says nothing about the birth of Jesus. It isn’t until Matthew that Jesus’ birth comes into the story. Matthew also introduces the idea of the virgin birth. It’s a common theme at the time – Alexander the Great, Augustus…great men needed great births, conceived by the god, preferably born of a virgin. It’s a standard theme. Matthew found the reference in Isaiah to the “young woman” giving birth, and in the Greek translation he worked from, the word could have been read “virgin”. So with Matthew (or someone from whom he heard the story) came the idea of a virgin birth. The star in the sky, the visiting Magi… all of these are stories of the birth of a king. Although born of humble stock, Jesus deserved as much glory as any mortal king. Matthew was probably doing nothing more than asserting that Jesus was no less than these kings born of high circumstance.
Sadly, the church has literalised these stories. When we are introduced to them as liturgy rather than history we feel like our world has been turned upside down. But that isn’t the fault of the authors of the gospels – it’s the fault of the church that literalised and made sacred what was never meant to be read with a literalist eye.