Graham Phillips' "The Virgin Mary Conspiracy"

I saw this book at my local library while I was checking out St. Augustine's Confessions, and it looked very interesting. As i delved into it it turned out to be an unusual conspiracy theory.

Graham Phillips, author of The Templars and the Ark of the Covenant, Atlantis and the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and The Chalice of Magdalene claims to have been researching at the Vatican when a priest proposed to him a possible link between the Holy Grail and the Virgin Mary. Most of his book-The Virgin Mary Conspiracy-is dedicated to debunking the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption (which teaches that Mary did not physically die, but was taken up into Heaven to be with Christ and the Saints). As a Protestant who has much sympathy for (believing) Catholics and sees them generally as fellow Christians and cultural allies, I hope that this book (if it is indeed successful in refuting the Assumption doctrine) does not cause Catholics to lose their faith concerning more important matters. However, I feel no obligation to defend the Assumption (and I lack the resources and knowledge to do so) as it is a matter Evangelicals are neutral on or opposed to.

What really interests me is Phillips' claim that he has discovered the human father of Christ. If Christ had a human father, the Christian doctrine of the Virginal Conception of Christ (the teaching that Christ was not conceived by sexual intercourse, but that his human nature was created by a direct act of God; commonly called the Virgin Birth) would be false. Before I encountered this book I already had some previous knowledge about the historical basis for belief in the Virgin Birth (hereafter VB). I'm somewhat familiar with critiques issued by the "Christ-mythers" and liberal theologians like Spong, and although I haven't read all of their criticisms I think that it would be fair to say-considering the number of times challenges to the VB have been answered-that there is a legitimate basis in history for believing in it, assuming one has already accepted the Resurrection (for which the historical evidence seems to be exponentially greater).

So I was immediately skeptical of this author's claim. My aim is first to summarize what the book essentially sets forth as an historical claim regarding the alleged father of Christ, and then to attempt to discredit the argument by an appeal to historical fact, and a demonstration of invalid inferences and assumptions made by the author. It is interesting to see the artful game Phillips plays-picking and choosing of those Scriptures that agree with his ideas, something that all critical, anti-Christian historians seem to do-and it should be kept in mind that the Bible verses he regards as accurate are arbitrarily selected to fit his theory.

6 Points of varying length, each followed by a short response, will hopefully explain what the book argues, and why the argument apparently fails:

  1. "Mariammne", a Jewish woman, was one of the wives of Herod's eldest son, Antipater, heir to the throne. Mariammne's father was Matthias, the high priest of Jerusalem.

    Response: Supposedly, this comes from Josephus' Antiquities. With a generally reliable source of historical data, we can assume with relative certainty that the people spoken of and the events recounted are real.

  2. "Mariammne" was actually the "virgin" Mary. This is evidenced by the association of Mary with the Temple in Jerusalem in early Christian tradition. Miriam herself was some sort of participant in Jewish temple rituals. Two traditions point to Mariammne's being in some sense related to the temple (James of Ephesus' claim that Mary was an altar girl in the temple under the care of the high priest Matthias; Origen and Clement's claim that Mary's mother was the prophetess Anna, mentioned in Luke 2:36-38). Herod, in paranoia caused by a conspiracy against him involving his sister Salome trying to install her nephew Phillip as king, killed Antipater (who was blamed along with his wife Mariammne for the conspiracy), and Mariammne and other bearers of Antipater's children fled with their kids to Egypt. Herod ordered the execution of the children to do away with NOT the Messiah, but his [Herod's] potential successor who would learn of his father's death at his grandfather's hand and try to seize the throne.

    Response: Here is where an unjustified extrapolation from the data seems to occur. Equating Mariammne with the Virgin Mary simply because Mary was associated with the temple and Miriammne was daughter of the high priest may seem plausible because of the similarity in names (thoigh it isn't, since "Mary" or some form of it was the name held by at least a quarter of Jewish women of the time). However, if we simply accept the narrative of Luke (a reliable historian) then this negates the entire argument. For Luke not only probably received testimony concerning the VB from Mary (due to her apparent centrality in the narrative) which would count against the arguments of Phillips who is far removed from the events, but reports certain facts in the Gospels seem incompatible with the idea that Mary was a well-known, recognizable princess, and wife of an alleged traitor. Take, for instance, the willingness of Jospeh, Mary, and Jesus to all appear in the temple in Luke 2:21-40. If there is any validity to this account, it would be incompatible with Mary's status as a known figure in the Jerusalem temple, for surely she would be identified (and probably killed, given her alleged conspiracy). This is just one example of the way Phillips' argument is dependent on selective use of the data most favoring his case, and ingnoring objections.

  3. Christ was the son of Mary and Antipater. Mary and Joseph had the other children that are called Jesus' brothers. This included Joseph of Arimethea who was present at the crucifixion (hence the "behold your mother" verse). The belief in the Virgin Birth is actually a misunderstanding of Almah, the Hebrew word for a young woman.

    Given the lack of evidence for the marriage of Mary and Antipater, the claim about Christ being son of Mary and Antipater would be trivial. Regarding the idea that Joseph of Arimethea is Joseph the brother of Jesus ("Joseph" is listed as one of Christ's brothers in the NT--see Mark 6:3) it seems very unlikely. The connection exists supposedly because only Jesus' oldest male relative would be able to bury him. Three points can be made, however. Firstly, considering the skepticism of his family (other than Mary) towards his claims, it is not necessarily true that they would have been willing to bury him, or present to do so for that matter. Second of all, if Joseph were the brother of Jesus, and a member of the Sanhedrin, surely the Sanhedrin would know the identity of his mother, Mary. Unfortunately for Phillip's thesis, this would probably have made it impossible for Joseph to be a member of the Sanhedrin, because of the ill-repute of the hypothetically-accused-of-conspiracy Mary/Mariammne, and it would have meant they would have probably killed her as well, once they knew her identity--something that completely contradicts Graham's entire argument. Of course the attempted refutation of the Joseph-as-brother nonsense that has been set forth here may not be a perfectly-sound airtight argument; yet it does show how difficult it is to conceive of Joseph of Arimethea as Christ's brother. Third, the obscurity of the figure of Joseph of Arimethea--especially his origin--makes the assertion of his relation to Jesus very strange; did Mary travel to Arimethea and give birth to Joseph there? Its possible, but there's no reason to think it is true. A final note concerning the issue of the identity of the beloved disciple is that it appears, looking at the Bible i have in front of me, that the verse where Christ entrusts the care of his mother doesn't necessitate any family relationship between his mother and the beloved disciple; mother and son could be used figuratively.

    Concerning the issue of the "Almah" as Virgin problem that skeptics seem so fond of, see here.

  4. Mary and Joseph didn't even know each other at the time that Jesus was conceived. The wise men were Essene wise men, but actually existed. They had messianic expectations and thus they sought after the Messiah according to all the prophecies. Jesus was conveniently at the right place under the right conditions at the right time. The star of Bethlehem was an astronomical event-a supernova.

    Response: Firstly, some of this is, I must admit, surprisingly conservative for a liberal bible interpreter. Phillips seems to accept, in some instances, that Jesus successfully fulfilled parts of Old Testament Prophecy; but he inconsistently does not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah. Second, I do not see any reason to believe that Mary and Joseph did not know each other, in the sense of being aware of and acquainted with each other, at the time of Christ's conception; if I'm correct (and I could be wrong) the idea of "not knowing someone" can mean not having had intimate relations with them yet. Finally, there's no overriding reason given for why the Magi ought to be considered Essenes.

  5. Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes.

    Response: It is almost certain that Christ was not an Essene. See here. John the Baptist is not a figure that I have sufficient understanding of to agree or disagree with Phillips' assesment.

  6. Phillips' argument: Christ's title "King of the Jews" existed because he was actually Herod's grandson. This meant he was the true heir to the throne. Hence when Pilate asks him if he is King of the Jews he eventually concedes "yes" and Pilate says he finds no fault in him-that is to say no fault in him being King of the Jews. Christ's execution for blasphemy was not, as Philips initially thought, for claiming to be the Messiah, because this was not blasphemy in and of itself; instead, it was his claim to be "King of the Jews" that warranted his arrest and crucifixion-he was claiming to be heir to the throne of Israel, and of the line of David.

    Response: Firstly, King of the Jews does not necessarily mean the literal heir to the throne of Herod. This could go either way-it could mean Messiah/God, or the heir to Herod's throne. In fact, if there is any basis in the request of the Magi in Matthew 2:2-"Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him"-then this ruins the entire theory, because it shows that the Magi identify the Christ child who is King of the Jews as Messiah and God (only God deserves worship), and not the ruler of the state. Furthermore, the concept of the Messiah as King of Israel is already present in the Old Testament. (see Zechariah 9:9 for example) Second, Pilate's saying "I find no fault in him" when Christ admits to being King of the Jews does not seem to have anything at all to do with whether Pilate actually thought Christ deserved the title; rather it seems to be a statement about his impeccability. Thus Pilate in Mark 15:14 says "Why, what evil hath he done?" which makes Phillips' reading implausible. Thirdly, the idea that Christ was arrested for blaspheming by claiming to be heir to the throne of Israel is implausible. Blasphemy means claiming divine authority and identity, and this is why the High Priest was so horrified at Jesus' testimony (see Mark 14). There doesn't seem to be any reason to affirm with Phillips that this means Jesus was arrested for claiming to be the heir to the throne of Israel.

  7. The rest of the book's content: Joseph of A. and Mary fled after the crucifixion ("woman behold your son") to England and all this other weird stuff happened and Mary was buried on "Avalon". This is the second theory the author proposes, and it is meant to challenge Catholic belief in the Assumption of Mary. It seems odd, and is almost certainly false, but doesn't actually challenge my Protestant beliefs. There is some amusing evidence that he uses-like uncovering a tombstone with the symbol for Virgin on it; but I suspect that this whole part is actually inaccurate as well.

It seemed to me that there were dozens of logical leaps that Phillips made when i was reading through the book. And there were a lot of major problems with this theory. The main one is that it makes the life of Christ COMPLETELY UNINTELLIGIBLE. All of the events recorded in the Gospels, even if you reject the miracles, lose their context and meaning if we assume that Christ was Antipater's son. We would have to find some bizarre explanation for:

  1. Why He was peaceful and did not take on the attitude of a political/military messiah (considering he could have easily snatched the throne away using his birthrights, right?);
  2. He happened to fit all the requirements for fulfilling prophecy as the Messiah--something that Phillips practically aknowledges;
  3. He randomly claimed to be God Incarnate and performed miracles, rising from the dead.
  4. The absence of any surviving traditions that favor the new "Graham Phillips interpretation" of the data (and there is none).
  5. The VB narratives in Matthew and Luke.

It appears, then, that Phillips' argument fails given the above consideration. Considering that if there's good evidence for the Resurrection this counts as evidence for the Virgin Birth, and considering that there seem to be good grounds for believing in both, i doubt very much that Mr. Phillips has given any serious challenge to the doctrine of Jesus' Virginal Conception.

A final note: the author mentioned that his theory was originally proposed by a Jewish scholar named Joseph Schreiber in 1956, and that Christians had argued against it. Though I was unable to locate a copy, I do have two questions for Phillips: 1) why were the Christian arguments not reviewed and refuted in your book? 2) Why have no notable scholars adopted Schreiber's position?