Before we begin, a word is in order about the attempts to deny the reality of the virgin birth. As Robert Stein notes, "for some, the very possibility of such a conception and birth is excluded as a logical consequence of the elimination of the supernatural from history. If miracles cannot happen, then by definition there cannot be a virginal conception" (Jesus the Messiah, 64). Among other attempts to reject this biblical truth, we take note of three:
(1) Some object to this doctrine by pointing to the many parallels to it in ancient literature. Their argument is this:
Countless myths concerning the virgin births of various Greek gods and superheroes were prevalent in paganism. Those Greek Christians who were familiar with them account for the narratives in Matthew and Luke that describe this "miracle." In other words, Christians in the early church simply created, i.e., concocted or fabricated their own story of their "hero" and "Lord" being born of a virgin.
One problem with this is that all these alleged parallels prove to be quite different from the NT account of the conception and birth of Jesus. Stein explains:
"Almost all the pagan accounts involve a sexual encounter between a god and a human woman. Most times, therefore, the woman had no possible claim to be a virgin, and, if she was a virgin before the encounter, she was certainly not considered a virgin afterward. . . . Whereas it is true that there are numerous supernatural births in Greek literature, they always involve a physical generation. Paganism simply does not have accounts of virgin births. It possesses no clear analogy that could have given rise to the Gospel accounts" (65).
We should also remember that the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth did not arise among Greek Christians but rather are distinctively Jewish in nature. In fact, the account in Luke is the most Jewish part of his gospel. "This account," notes Stein, "did not arise in the Hellenistic [Greek] church but in a Jewish setting. And where in Judaism would a story of a virginal conception have arisen?" (66).
(2) It has also been argued that the concept of the virgin birth arose from the church's interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Knowing about this prediction of a future virgin birth, the church, so they say, created the gospel accounts to fulfill the prophecy. The problem, however, is that Isa. 7:14 was not interpreted in the first century as referring to a virginal conception. Most insisted that the Hebrew word almah simply referred to a "young woman" who may or may not be a virgin. The child born to this woman was believed to have been Hezekiah, the son and successor to King Ahaz. There is also no evidence in the ancient Jewish tradition that this verse was interpreted in a messianic sense. The LXX or Greek translation of the OT uses the word parthenos, "but this was understood as referring to one who was presently a virgin and would conceive through a normal birth process. It was not interpreted as referring to a woman who would conceive as a virgin" (Stein, 66). The bottom line is this: the story of the virgin birth of Jesus gave rise to the messianic interpretation of Isa. 7:14, not the reverse.
(3) Jewish tradition in the first two centuries a.d. tried to provide an alternative explanation. Jesus was not virgin born but was the illegitimate child of Mary and a soldier named Panthera or Pandira, with the man's name accounting for the use of the Greek parthenos. The virgin birth, so the Jews argued, was a myth created to cover up the stigma of illegitimacy resulting from Mary's adultery with Panthera [the argument is that the n and the r were reversed]. Clearly, this arose from Jewish propaganda aimed at the Christian belief in the virginal conception of Jesus.
It would be more proper for us to speak of the Virgin Conception of Jesus than of his Virgin Birth. His birth, as far as we can tell, was like any other birth. So, too, was his embryonic development in the womb of Mary. What sets Jesus apart is the fact that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin (cf. Lk. 1:31,35). The biblical evidence is found in Mt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38.
(1) Joseph and Mary were betrothed (1:18,20,24), a relationship regarded as the legal equivalent of marriage. In other words, betrothal could be broken only by a formal divorce. This is why Joseph is referred to as her "husband" (v. 19).
(2) Although betrothed, the relationship had not yet been consummated sexually (see vv. 18,25; also Luke 1:34).
(3) Mary's pregnancy is attributed to the Holy Spirit: (a) v. 20 - "of the Holy Spirit"; (b) v. 16 - "and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by/of whom [feminine] was born Jesus." Matthew clearly excludes Joseph; (c) note that the repeated active verb ("was the father of" or "begot") gives way to a divine passive in v. 16 (i.e., God is the active agent in the conception and birth of Jesus).
(4) Joseph is instructed to take Mary into his house and to name the child (vv. 20-21) thereby establishing for Joseph legal paternity of the child. Hence the community came to believe that Joseph was Jesus' father (Lk. 2:48; Mt. 13:55).
(1) Mary is explicitly identified as a "virgin" (parthenos, v. 27), a fact she confirms in v. 34.
(2) Verse 35 clearly attributes the conception to the work of the Holy Spirit.
(3) The terms translated "come upon" and "overshadow" (v. 35) are not euphemisms for sexual relations. They are simply figurative expressions for divine intervention by which God will supercede the natural order of things.
(4) For the term "overshadow", see Ex. 40:35; Pss. 91:4; 140:7; Mt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Lk. 9:34 (cf. also Gen. 1:2). The emphasis is on the powerful creative presence of the Spirit in bringing to pass the conception of the man Jesus.
Seven Important Facts concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus
1) The virgin birth was not a demonstrable event. I.e., it was not the sort of miracle that was subject to empirical investigation and proof (as were, for example, the resurrection and the healing of Acts 3-4). We either believe the virgin birth or not based upon our belief in the reality of the supernatural and the integrity of Scripture.
2) The virgin birth was not the beginning of the Son of God. The Son of God was eternally pre-existent (cf. John 1:1; 8:58). The virgin birth is only the beginning of the God-man, Jesus.
3) The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the deity of Christ. There was not in the virgin birth a transformation of deity into humanity, as if to suggest that the second person of the Trinity has been transmuted into a man. God the Son did not cease to be God when he became a man.
4) The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the humanity of Christ. William Barclay evidently believed that it did:
"The great difficulty is its impact upon the belief in the incarnation. If the virgin birth is a literal fact, then the conclusion is quite inescapable that Jesus came into the world in a way that is different from that in which every other man comes into the world, and that . . . we can no longer hold to his full manhood and his full humanity. . . . The supreme problem of the doctrine of the virgin birth is that . . . it leaves us with a Jesus who is half-and-between, neither fully divine nor yet fully human" (The British Weekly, Jan/Feb, 1963).
Barclay believes that unless you are born of both man and woman, you are not truly human. But there are three ways of coming into being:
1) born of man and woman (us)
2) born of man but not woman (Eve)
3) born of neither man nor woman (Adam)
All admit that we, as well as Adam and Eve, are all human. So why not then a fourth way of coming into being:
4) born of woman but not man (Jesus)
Furthermore, contrary to Barclay's view, the NT provides overwhelming evidence both for the reality of the virgin birth and the full humanity of Jesus.
What about the purely biological implications of a virgin conception and birth? According to the latter, Jesus did not have a biological father. But if he is to be truly human, he must have a Y chromosome. Where did it come from? There would appear to be only two options: (1) either he got it directly from his biological father (either Joseph or someone else); or (2) God provided it through a miraculous and providential act.
5. The virgin birth does not require us to believe in the immaculate conception of Mary (as proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854). The doctrine of the "immaculate conception" is the idea that Mary herself was conceived without sin. The RCC also teaches that "in consequence of a Special Privilege of Grace from God, Mary was free from every personal sin during her whole life" (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 203; this view was endorsed by Augustine). But there is not one word in the NT that remotely suggests Mary was conceived in a way different from any other human being. Furthermore, Mary herself confessed she was a sinner in need of a savior (Luke 1:47).
6. The virgin birth does not require us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary (as proclaimed by the Council of Trent in 1545-63; but also embraced by a number of Protestant Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, says Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord, 87; Bloesch also cites John Wesley as an advocate of perpetual virginity). (a) See Mt. 1:25. (b) See Luke 2:7 where Jesus is described as her "first-born" son. If she had remained a virgin, would not Luke have described Jesus as her "only" son? (c) Jesus' half-brothers and half-sisters are mentioned in the NT (Mk. 3:31-35; 6:3; Lk. 8:19-21; Jn. 2:12; 7:1-5,10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). These were not, as the RCC claims, his cousins (see below). Even if Mary did not have other children, this does not prove she remained a virgin all her life. (d) This doctrine would also require us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Joseph! (e) This idea is based on an ascetic, un-biblical view of sex, according to which sexual relations are defiling or demeaning.
The references to Jesus' "brothers and sisters" were interpreted in three different ways in the early church. (1) Epiphanius (4th century) argued that they were Joseph's children by a previous marriage. Joseph was a widower who thus brought to his marriage with Mary at least four sons and two daughters (Mk. 6:3). (2) Jerome (4th century) was the first to suggest they were "cousins". A problem with both these views is the way Mark 6:3 and Mt. 12:46 closely associate Jesus' "brothers and sisters" to Jesus' "mother" rather than to Joseph. (3) They were Jesus' younger brothers and sisters, born to Joseph and Mary in later years.
7. The virgin birth does not elevate Mary to a place of worship and veneration. Note these unbiblical declarations of the RCC:
"God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is his will, that we obtain everything through Mary" (Pope Pius IX, 1846-78).
"As no man goes to the father but by the son, so no one goes to Christ except through his mother" (Pope Leo XIII, 1953).
"It is the will of God that we should have nothing which is not passed through the hands of Mary" (Pope Pius XII, 1953).
There is a movement within the RCC to have Mary elevated/exalted to co-redemptrix. At last report, the Pope does not appear inclined to endorse it.
Four concluding Observations concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus1. The Virgin Birth was in fulfillment of OT prophecy. See Isa. 7:14 and Mt. 1:22-23. But as noted above, there is little to indicate that the Jews themselves understood Isa. 7:14 in this way during the time of the OT.
2. The Virgin Birth alone insured both the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. If God had created Jesus a complete human being in heaven and sent him to earth apart from any human parent, it is difficult to see how he could be truly a man. If God had sent his Son into the world through both a human father and mother, it is difficult to see how he could be truly God. Rather, "God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary's womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 530).
Menno Simons, founder and father of the Mennonites, argued that Jesus did not receive his body from Mary. Rather, the HS placed within her womb a God-created fetus to which she merely gave birth. He writes: "The Son of God transformed Himself into the elements of a man, into a human germ, which deposited in the womb of the Virgin, prepared by the HS (the conception), and appointed to undergo a truly human development, through which He should regain the dignity He had laid aside." But see Gal. 4:4 ("made of a woman"); Lk. 1:42 ("fruit of your womb"); and Rom. 1:3 ("seed of David according to the flesh").
3. Was the Virgin Birth necessary to secure the humanity of Jesus from the corrupting taint of inherited sin? Among those who have said Yes are Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. The line of descent from Adam to Jesus is partially interrupted in view of the fact that he did not have a human father. But why would he not have inherited corruption of nature from Mary? Luke tells us that it is because the HS is responsible for Christ's conception that the child in Mary's womb is to be called "holy" (Lk. 1:35).
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that the sin nature is transmitted exclusively through the father's seed.
4. The principal reason for the virgin birth was so that the entry of God into human flesh might be by divine initiative. It is not by any human act or at any human initiative that salvation comes to us. It is divinely initiated. Man does nothing. Mary did nothing (other than to submit to what God would do). Joseph did nothing. God did it all. The virgin birth, says Bloesch, “graphically shows that salvation comes ‘from above’ and that the source of our hope and confidence lies in the living God who entered into human history in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth marks off the origin of Christ from the human race just as his end is marked off by the resurrection” (94).