The book is, as I described in my earlier post on it, written by a man who has impeccable credentials as a physicist, having obtained his doctorate under John Archibald Wheeler (the man who named the black hole and whose most famous student was Richard Feynman). The mathematics which underlie his theology are not open to dispute, having been cited by his peers for outstanding achievement. What I want to show you in this post is not his mathematics, but a first-class example of Frank Tipler's theology---specifically, that having to do with the virgin birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For he manages to bring to this abstruse topic---about which I admit, as a lifelong Episcopalian, I have heretofore been comfortably fuzzy ("yes, of course, God can do whatever He wants, even if we mere mortals cannot fathom how He did it")---a rigor and respect for the laws of nature, as currently maintained by thoroughly reputable scientists, that is simply breathtaking. In short, his conclusions---and the evidence he marshals to support them---will, to use a phrase from the '60's that is perfectly applicable here, blow your mind. So please sit back, open your mind (meaning: clear it of all preconceived notions), and be prepared to embrace the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
The first task is to set the context. If you, as a scholarly Christian, or as one who is at any rate well-versed in the tenets of the faith, are already fully familiar with the issue to which the words "virgin birth" refer, then please feel free to skip the next few paragraphs. Briefly, for the rest of us, the issue is what to make of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke which recite plainly that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a virgin when she conceived Him through the Holy Spirit, or---to use the familiar words of the Nicene Creed---"[Jesus] was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man." To refresh your theology, here are the relevant passages from Matthew and Luke. First, Matthew, ch. 1, verses 18-25:
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 1:20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” 1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 1:25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.
And here is Luke, ch. 1, verses 26-38:
1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” 1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age – although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
The issue squarely presented by these two passages is this: how can a virgin conceive a child without first "knowing" a man? Having thus set the stage, I now turn the discussion over to physicist Frank Tipler.
As any proper theologian would, Professor Tipler begins with the texts themselves. And with regard to the texts, the most prominent issue is the word translated in both passages above as "virgin", which I have put in bold for easy reference. In all three cases, the word used in the Greek manuscripts that we have for Matthew and Luke is parthenos, which was the word used by Greeks in the first century for "an unmarried young woman, a virgin." Matthew's passage actually is referring to and quoting an Old Testament text, Isaiah 7:14, in which the Hebrew word used is 'almah, a word that generally means "young woman," and in some contexts (e.g., Genesis 24:43) means "virgin" as we understand it. However, as Tipler points out, there is a more specific word for "virgin" in modern Hebrew: betulah. In a very well-informed discourse that takes up more than eleven pages in Prof. Tipler's book, the reader is treated to one of the best elucidations I have ever read about the state of the current scholarship on the use and interpretation of these three words in the Bible, and on what Matthew and Luke understood by their use of the (Septuagint) word parthenos. In addition, the reader is introduced---for the first time, to my knowledge, in any commentary on these books of the Bible---to a well-grounded discussion of exactly what first-century readers would have believed or understood about the subject of human reproduction at that time. And here Professor Tipler scores, in my view, a real coup against traditional Biblical scholars: he shows that first-century readers of the passages in Matthew and Luke would also have understood references in Mark, John and the Pauline epistles (where the word parthenos does not expressly appear), based on the contemporary understanding of how babies were conceived, to refer to a virgin birth for Jesus---i.e., a baby conceived without the aid of a human father.
All this, however, is served up just as an appetizer. So we have most of the authors of the New Testament---Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the apostle Paul---capable of being read as supporting a virgin birth for Jesus in accordance with their contemporary understanding of what occurred in His case. How does that realization assist us in the twenty-first century, with our so much greater knowledge of science and biological facts? Please, I invite you, sit down to the main course, and read on.
Frank Tipler is first and foremost a scientist, and only secondarily a top-notch physicist. As a scientist, he makes it his rule to understand any discipline which he endeavors to expound. And his native genius ensures that he can use his knowledge of physics and mathematics to apply himself to other scientific disciplines as he may require to support the faith that he has, through his efforts to follow the truth wherever it may lead him, uncovered. (Remember that he was, as most scientists today are, an agnostic when he began to explore the mathematical consequences of standard current physical theories.) With my background in physics and mathematics, I can follow to a certain extent his mathematics, and the physical conclusions he draws from the mathematics. But I have to say that I am here only as a simple reporter of what he says about biology and genetics; I have no extended training in either of these fields. If anyone most knowledgeable in those sciences can demonstrate what Prof. Tipler says to be false, then so be it, and the wonderful edifice that he has constructed will fall. To give him his due, he would be the first, as a scientist, to recognize any falsity in his biological and genetic claims. But I have to give him full credit for his unstinting willingness to follow his rational beliefs to the farthest extent to which he is able to push them---even if the result was that he had no other option than to become a devout believer of Christianity, and could no longer sustain his agnosticism. Indeed, this is Frank Tipler's most singular achievement: as a scientist, he has demonstrated mathematically that if the laws of physics are true (and everything we do at every single moment of every day is premised on the assumption that those laws are true), then God must of necessity exist. No rational scientist, he implies, could believe otherwise---even though most of his peers think he is nuts (and those at his own University have as a consequence, he reports, deliberately deprived him of ordinary salary increases---see my previous post). Well, I have to confess that my love of logic resonates with his mathematical reasoning, and since his own peers have given him accolades for his mathematics, there is no other conclusion I can draw than that he is, like John the Baptist, a "voice crying in the wilderness"---and being punished for it as well.
But I digress, in my admiration for the main thrust of his book. Back to the issue at hand: the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. How could such an event scientifically take place? And, even more important: if there were a scientific explanation for such an event, how could we prove today that it actually happened? These are the questions to which Professor Tipler brings his expertise, and to which I now invite your attention.
In what follows, you must first appreciate the theological purity of the explanation. That is to say, Professor Tipler has devoted the earlier chapters of his book to demonstrating first, not only the necessary existence of God according to the laws of physics, but also the necessary existence of the Trinity---God, Son, and Holy Ghost, from before time and space began. By jumping to his discussion of the virgin birth, I am skipping over all the earlier discussion which proves the necessary existence of the Holy Trinity as Three Persons in One. (I will come back to that in a later post, after having established Prof. Tipler's bona fides on a topic as readily approachable, as well as fantastic, as the virgin birth of Jesus.) So in the passage that follows (from p. 166), please understand that for Professor Tipler, there is no question that Jesus the Son of God predated all creation, and coexists with the Father and the Holy Ghost, while Jesus the man was indeed conceived of a virgin:
I shall now describe a simple mechanism, completely consistent with known physical law, whereby a virgin birth can occur via the action of the Father through the Holy Spirit. In this mechanism, the mind of the virginally conceived Jesus would be in resonance with, and in complete harmony with, the Son from the instant of formation of the mind in the nervous tissue of the embryo. He would be completely human, with the rational mind of a human, but nevertheless be the Son. Furthermore, I shall show that if the Virgin Birth occurred in the manner I propose, the Virgin Birth hypothesis can be verified by direct experiment. The Virgin Birth would no longer rest on Mary's word alone. We would be able to show directly, without reference to human testimony, that Luke and Matthew merely reported the facts as related to them by a completely truthful Mary. A direct experimental confirmation of the Virgin Birth would also support the claim that Matthew and Luke were just reporting the facts when they described the risen Jesus.
Extraordinary words, are they not? (Do you begin to see why I felt that this book is worthy of your attention?)
There follows an extensive discursus on the phenomenon of parthenogenesis (literally, from the Greek, "virgin birth") in animals as well as in humans. (Yes, I said humans---Prof. Tipler cites the scientific references.) Then he stakes his claim:
I propose that Jesus was a special type of XX male, a type that is quite rare in humans but extensively studied [footnote omitted]. Approximately 1 out of every 20,000 human males is an XX male. . . . An XX male results when a single key gene for maleness on the Y chromosome (the SRY gene) is inserted into an X chromosome. One possibility is that all (or at least many) of the Y chromosome genes were inserted into one of Mary's X chromosomes and that, in her, one of the standard mechanisms used to turn off genes was active on these inserted Y genes. (There is an RNA process that can turn off an entire X chromosome. This is the most elegant turnoff mechanism.) Jesus would then have resulted when one of Mary's eggs started to divide before it became haploid and with the Y genes activated (and, of course, with the extra X genes deactivated). . . .I hope I have quoted enough here to enable qualified geneticists to ascertain the basis of Professor Tipler's claim to have an explanation for the Virgin Birth of Jesus. As I understand it, the genetics of Jesus would have marked him as an unusually rare male of the species, and if we could somehow have access to a blood sample, we could determine whether or not Professor Tipler's theory was correct. And to give him his due, Prof. Tipler states as much:
If a sample of Jesus' blood and/or flesh could be obtained, my proposal could easily be tested by carrying out two distinct DNA tests for sex: (1) test for the Y genes and (2) test for the two alleles (different gene forms) of X chromosome genes. In other words, a male born of a virgin would have two X chromosome genes for each of its counterpart Y genes. Normal males would only have one X chromosome gene for each Y counterpart gene. This pairing would apply to each of the thirteen genes on the Y chromosome that has an X counterpart.
The odds of such a "virgin birth" would truly be fantastic, as Professor Tipler calculates here:
Such a virgin birth would be improbable. If the measured probability that a single Y gene is inserted into an X chromosome is 1 in 20,000, then the probability that all Y genes are inserted into an X chromosome is 1/20,000 raised to the 28th power, the power corresponding to the number of Y genes. (Assuming that the insertion of each Y gene has equal probability and that these insertions are independent.) There have been only about 100 billion humans born since behaviorally modern Homo sapiens evolved . . . .Thus, the virgin birth of such an XX male would be unique in human history even if there were only two such Y genes inserted into an X chromosome. (I assume an upper bound to the rate of virgin birth is 1/300. Then the probability of a virgin birth of a male with 2 Y genes is 1/[20,000][20,000] = 1/120 billion.) But . . . if such an event had to occur [for God to exist according to physical laws that have shown themselves thus far as true], then the Virgin Birth probability would become 1; that is, certain to occur. In other words, it would be a miracle!
But how can we today test the evidence available to us for proof of such a birth occurring more than 2,000 years ago? The answer, according to Professor Tipler (and a growing number of scientists), is to conduct scientific analysis on the bloodstains that allegedly were left on two pieces of cloth that are claimed to have enshrouded the body of Jesus as laid in the tomb outside of Jerusalem. The principal cloth, used to wrap his body, was the Shroud of Turin, and the second cloth was one that was put over his face, and called today the Sudarium of Oviedo. Note that they have entirely independent histories, and repose in two different places. The age of the cloth of the Shroud has supposedly been established by radiocarbon analysis as dating from the 14th century, but Professor Tipler provides an exhaustive review (based on the physics with which he is most familiar) as to why that dating is most probably wrong. And indeed, as he shows from the available scientific evidence, the correlation in the location and type of bloodstains between the two cloths establishes a strong possibility that they once covered the same corpse. Given that the Oviedo cloth is known to have existed as of about 1000 A.D. ---four centuries or so before the "known" dating of the Shroud according to radiocarbon decay analysis, the accuracy of the latter is called into question.
However, this conclusion---that the Shroud of Turin and the Oviedo Sudarium are intimately related---is almost trifling compared to where Professor Tipler goes next. Scientist that he is, he asks whether anyone has conducted a DNA analysis of the bloodstains on the two cloths, to determine whether (a) the cloths have the same DNA imprint, and so are unquestionably related, but (b) whether it is possible, from the analyses that have been conducted and reported in the literature, to ascertain whether, assuming that the blood on both cloths was that of the crucified Jesus, its genetic profile was consistent with his hypothesis of an unusual (i.e., miraculous) XX male birth.
It turns out, as Professor Tipler reports, that DNA analyses have been conducted of both the bloodstains on the Turin Shroud and on the Oviedo Sudarium:
In January 1993 a group of Italian researchers, led by Professor Marcello Canale of the Institute of Legal Medicine in Genoa, conducted a DNA analysis of the blood on the Shroud. This group included several workers who had invented the standard DNA test for gender. . . .This group simultaneously tested the blood on the Oviedo Cloth.
Imagine his surprise, therefore, when he could not obtain, through the usual library channels, a copy of their published results. Even more, it developed that the results the group had obtained were published in a very non-standard form:
. . . The results were published, in Italian, in the very obscure journal devoted to the study of the Turin Shroud. Furthermore, only the raw data were published. That is, the Genoa team published black-and-white Xerox copies of the computer output of the DNA analyzer. This is never, never done. Always, the data are presented in a neat table or figure, and they are accompanied by a discussion of their significance. The Genoa team made no effort to interpret their data. . . .
Being the scientist that he is, Frank Tipler went to work on the raw data of the Italians' tests, and reported triumphantly (the italics are in the original):
But I was able to interpret the data at once. They are the expected signature of the DNA of a male born in a Virgin Birth! The data are presented in standard tabular form in Tables 7.1 and 7.2. . . .The standard DNA test for sex is the amelogenin test I mentioned earlier. The Italians performed this test, which gave 106 base pairs for the X form of amelogenin and 112 base pairs for the Y form. There is a phenomenon called sputtering, which can cause the actual value obtained to differ by 1 base pair from the expected value.The Turin Shroud data show 107 (106 +1) but no trace of a 112 base pair gene. The Oviedo Cloth data show 105 (106 - 1) but no trace of a 112 base pair. The X chromosome is present, but there is no evidence of a Y chromosome. This is the expected signature of the simplest virgin birth, the XX male generated by an SRY inserted into an X chromosome. It is not what would be expected of a standard male.
Thus The Physics of Christianity not only provides a physical explanation for how the virgin birth reported in the New Testament would be possible, but it also uses the available physical evidence to provide a stunning verification of Tipler's hypothesis---a verification which is all the more amazing because it is based on reported results that were never properly presented or interpreted by those who obtained them.
It is for this reason alone that I commend Frank Tipler's book to all who wish to ground their faith on the physical evidence and common sense that God has given us. Professor Tipler is a unique breed: he is someone who has followed the available evidence, and who has worked out the consequent mathematics, to a conclusion which, no matter how much his colleagues might wish to avoid it, shows that:
A. There is definitely a God Who created the universe in which we find ourselves (to be faithful to his proof, I should use the plural, "universes"---but more on that later);
B. This God indeed has an only-begotten Son, Jesus, who together with the Holy Spirit constitute three separate persons forming one indivisible trinity;
C. The Son---Jesus---although existing before (and throughout) all space and time, came to this planet and took on the form of a man, the product of a unique and one-time Virgin Birth; and
D. Evidence for that unique and one-time birth, as well as for His Resurrection itself, has been waiting for nearly two thousand years for mankind to develop the skills and technology needed to assess it.
It is, as I say, a remarkable thesis, in what is an even more remarkable book. As time permits in the coming weeks, I shall return to it, because this synopsis of just one chapter in it does not begin to give it its due.