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Thursday, January 15, 2009

proving the virgin birth?

Peter Kirk has a post with the intriguing title A proof of the Virgin Birth? in which he discusses a post from the Anglican Curmudgeon reviewing Frank Tipler's book The Physics of Christianity.

Tipler is, by all accounts, a first-class physicist who happens to hold the belief that science can prove the truth of Christianity. Evidently, among the things Tipler discusses in this book is the unusual phenomenon of parthenogenesis. According to a quote I've lifted from the Anglican Curmudgeon, Tipler makes this startling claim about Jesus:

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). . . .

To be honest, I had never heard of XX male syndrome before this. But here's what Wikipedia has to say about this condition:

Symptoms include small testes, gynecomastia and sterility. Many individuals with this condition also have effeminate characteristics.

Is this really Tipler's image of Jesus? I'm not sure whether to laugh or to just shake my head. But if nothing else, this provides a nice counterpoint for the hyper-masculine Jesus preached by Mark Driscoll.

It would also explain why Jesus had no children.

Regardless, such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. And Tipler claims to have it. Evidently, analysis of blood stains on the Shroud of Turin and a lesser-known relic, the Sudarium of Oviedo, indicate…well, here are Tipler's own words, again quoted by the Anglican Curmudgeon:

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.

So what can we conclude from this? Nothing, really. Tipler backs his speculation with more speculation. In the 1980s a radiocarbon test dated the Shroud of Turin to the 13th or 14th century. A number of Turin enthusiasts have argued that the test was botched, but thus far no one has taken a second sample for dating. Without any positive evidence that the shroud is ancient, I see no reason to accept that the DNA from blood stains on the cloth belonged to Jesus.

And if I don't accept it, it's probably safe to say that non-Christians won't accept it either. So just who is Tipler trying to convince? Himself?

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At 1/16/2009 8:31 AM, Anonymous Christian said...

Yeah. I tried to read this book. It seems that Tipler is interested in proving that Biblical miracles are of an extra-ordinary natural providence rather than a super-natural providence. Why a natural explanation would provide a skeptic with better evidence for God than a supernatural one is beyond me. Isn't that what so many atheists are doing already?

At 1/16/2009 9:35 AM, Blogger Art said...

Speculaton built upon speculation... On the one hand I find this type of thing fascinating but, as you said, it will convince few. We either believe events like the virgin birth are literally true, metaphorically contain truth or dismiss them as untrue. Personally I find the efforts to prove events from the Bible to be an effort in futility. If the events need to be proven, what need is there of faith?

At 1/16/2009 10:25 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Bruce, thanks for the link. I am also unconvinced.

There is other good evidence that the Shroud of Turin is really ancient. The radiocarbon date is meaningless because the cloth was known to have been involved in a fire and then washed in the late Middle Ages, which would have left carbon residues from that period, and the test was done on patches which may have been added at that time.

But we still have a problem that the DNA Tipler had analysed could have come from any woman who has handled the shroud from ancient times up to today. So I don't think Tipler's "proof" proves anything, unless there is a lot more to it than Anglican Curmudgeon has reported.

At 1/16/2009 3:02 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think there's a much more likely explanation of why Jesus didn't have children.

At 1/16/2009 9:10 PM, Blogger BruceA said...

Peter -

That's a good point about the DNA. Even if the shroud is authentic, it's still a giant leap to assume that a particular DNA sample is from Jesus.


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