‘The first and most indisputable fact about the birth of Jesus is that it occurred out of wedlock. The one option for which there is no evidence is that Jesus was the lawful son of Joseph and Mary. The only choice open to us is between a virgin birth and an illegitimate birth.’ (J. A. T. Robinson, Twelve More New Testament Studies (SCM, 1984), 3–4.)
The virgin birth, or, more accurately, the virgin conception, is attested in many ways in Matthew and Luke.
(1) The sharp contrast between the long series of verses that use “begot” and the statement that Joseph was “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Mt. 1:16) clearly implies that a man was not involved in the procreation of Jesus.
(2) Mt. 1:18 states, “Before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.”
(3) Joseph’s desire to divorce her quietly presupposes that he had had no sexual relations with her (Mt. 1:19).
(4) The angel said “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20).
(5) In citing Isa. 7:14, Matthew called Mary a virgin (Mt 1:23).
(6) Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Mt. 1:25).
(7) Twice Luke called her a virgin and said that she was betrothed, which, although almost tantamount to marriage, was not marriage in the fullest sense (Lk 1:27).
(8) Mary was amazed at the angel’s announcement that she would conceive, since, as she said, “I know not a man” (Lk. 1:34, ASV).
(9) Luke said delicately but explicitly that the Holy Spirit, and not Joseph, would be the cause of the conception (Lk 1:35).
ISBE (Revised Ed.)
Possible allusions to the Virgin Birth (or, at least, doubts about the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth) occur in Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3; Lk 4:22; Jn 1:13, 14; 8:18-41); Gal 4:4-5; Heb 7:3.
Divine birth stories
Those who are sceptical of the historicity of the biblical accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus largely base their objections on supposed parallels with other supernatural birth stories in the ancient world.
As long ago as 1796 Charles Dupuis suggested that the biblical account borrowed from the stories surrounding the birth of Krishna. Early Christians ‘drew on’ such stories, it is claimed, in order to find ways of demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus. This idea was popularised by James Fraser, in The Golden Bough (1890, 1912).
Examples of divine birth stories certainly abound in other world religions. They are often associated with great leaders. For example, the Egyptian god Amon was said to have fertilized the mothers of the Pharaohs. In Greek mythology, Dionysis was fathered by Zeus, Romulus was the son of Mars, Alexander the Great the son of Re, and Plato and Augustus were the offspring of Apollo.
In most cases, the divine being took on a physical form in order to impregnate the woman. The stories often involve seduction and even rape.
Similarities with the biblical accounts of the conception of Jesus are more apparent than real:-
there has been no effective explanation of how such stories found their way into the early Christian community, in order for the alleged ‘borrowing’ to take place. It is not even certain that such stories would have been known by 1st-century Christians;
early Christian authors were opposed to the kind of sexual misconduct that underlies many of the pagan stories, cf. Rom 1:24, and so it is unlikely that they would have been influenced by them;
there is a significant difference between the Gospel accounts and other divine stories: in the latter always involve physical impregnation, but this is clearly not the case in the former.
The New Testament was written by contemporaries of the events recorded. Myths do not arise when eyewitnesses are still around who can refute inaccuracies.
The New Testament generally does not partake of a mythical character. The people, places and events are historical. Where these can be compared with other sources, their factual accuracy has been demonstrated.
The gods of pagan myths were utterly different from the transcendent God of the Bible.
See art. ‘Divine Birth Stories’, in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, IVP, and Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.
Daniel Florien lists five reasons why he no longer believes in the virgin birth of Jesus:-
1. “There is no reliable evidence”. No DNA samples, for example, and no medical confirmation. Well it is plain silly to suppose that there might be that kind of evidence. Florien adds that there are ‘no eyewitness accounts’. That’s a pretty silly complaint, too: I don’t think that, under the circumstances, it is reasonable to expect there to have been a human witness to Mary not having sexual relations with Joseph (or anyone else for that matter).
The only two human beings who could have known what did, and did not, take place regarding the conception of Jesus were Mary and Joseph themselves. And their testimony is there for all to see in the accounts of Matthew and Luke.
2. “The earliest references are late and sparse”. Florien surmises that the reason the story virgin birth is absent from the earliest writings of the New Testament (Paul’s letters) is that ‘it hadn’t been made up yet’. Yet Florien quite happily concedes that Paul makes only two references to Jesus’ birth at all. So it’s not that Paul’s writings are full of opportunities for him to demonstrate knowledge of the virgin birth. It is reasonable to conclude that Paul’s main interests lie elsewhere. It is gratuitous to suppose that the virgin birth was ‘so important’ that the New Testament writers must have referred to it, if they knew of it. The evidence points in another direction: that Paul and others were more interested in the incarnation itself, together with Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Let us grant that Paul did not, in fact, know of the virgin birth. This still leaves us with a presentation of Jesus in Paul’s writings as the pre-existent Son of God, so that Paul would surely have regarded the story of the virgin birth, if he became aware of it, as consistent with that picture (see, for example, Romans 1:3,4; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Colossians 1:15,19; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:8).
There is no point in complaining that the virgin birth is not mentioned by Mark, since his Gospel does not address Jesus’ birth at all, but begins at the outset of his public ministry. It is generally agreed that John’s was the last Gospel to have been written, and yet the virgin birth is not explicitly mentioned there either, and probably for the same reason. As for the assertion that the story of the virgin birth didn’t appear until over 50 years after is supposedly happened, this signally fails to deal with Luke’s claim to have research the life of Jesus thoroughly, and to have utilised eye-witness accounts, among other sources. And there are very good reasons for supposing that one of his sources was Mary herself.
3. “It’s the same old myth”. The same myth, according to Florien, as other gods allegedly born of virgins: ‘Ra, the Egyptian sun god, was said to be born of a virgin. So was Perseus, Romulus, Mithras, Genghis Khan, Krishna, Horus, Melanippe, Auge and Antiope.’ I have dealt with this objection above. Suffice it to say here that to regard the story virgin birth of Jesus as ‘the same as’ that of Ra, or Krishna is to demonstrate a remarkable failure to distinguish between things that differ.
4. “It is much more likely to be false, than to be true”. Thomas Paine is quoted as saying, ‘we have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course, but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is therefore at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.’ This is an argument from personal experience, and it has the effect of closing down the debate prior to any rational consideration of the evidence by saying, in effect, ‘I can’t believe anything that lies outside my personal experience.’ That’s a very blinkered and closed-minded attitude. And, in any case, it is now much harder to claim that ‘no-one in our time has every seen a miracle’, given the recent work of Craig Keener, which suggests that large numbers of people have witnessed miracles.
5. “We would never, ever, believe this today”. Florien invites us to imagine that a teenage girl today claimed that her pregnancy was due to God impregnating her and that she was still a virgin. We wouldn’t believe her, so why should we believe Mary’s story? Once again, this is singularly inept. The story of Christ’s virgin birth does not stand as an isolated tale told about an otherwise ordinary life. It is, rather, all of a piece with everything else we know about him. It is consistent with everything else that he said and did, and perhaps most of all with his resurrection from the dead. Presumably, Florien does not believe in the resurrection either, but there we have an event which certainly has early and universal attestation in the New Testament, and for which the historical evidence is plentiful. It is this more complete picture of Jesus Christ that helps to make sense of the virgin birth, and which must be dismantled if the story of his remarkable entry into the world is to be disbelieved.
Andrew T. Lincoln, in his recent book Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology, presents a case for denying the virgin birth (more properly, the virginal conception) of Jesus. I have not seen a copy of the book yet, but it is possible to piece together from the reviews (Craig Blomberg, Philip J. Long) the main lines of the argument:-
Only two biblical sources (the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) can be adduced with any confidence as teaching a virginal conception. In the case of Matthew, it is not even clear that he does affirm it: Mt 1:18, for example, may simply imply divine enablement of a normal conception. In both cases, it is quite likely that, in keeping with the literary conventions of the day, the authors felt free to ‘invent’ history in order to be able to say that the Old Testament scriptures had been fulfilled. According to Lk 1:34 Mary was indeed a virgin at the time of her conception, but if ancient historians could invent special births for Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and others, then the Gospel-writers were simply following suit.
Other scattered New Testament passages – Mk 6:3; Jn 8:41; Gal 4:4 – that seem to imply a virginal conception are not (Lincoln maintains) relevant to it. On the other hand, references to Jesus as ‘the seed of David’ (Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8) are best understood as affirming normal patrilineal descent. In fact, the argument that Lincoln advances in order to explain how Jesus could legitimately be regarded as ‘the seed of David’ if he was the product of rape (namely, that Joseph adopted him) also applies if Jesus had been virginally conceived.
Although within the pages of the New Testament the issue of Jesus’ parentage is not prominent, it became so in the centuries following. It was possible to believe, in those days, that the mother determined her child’s entire phenotype, with the father only contributing some ‘life-force’. But we now know that a child’s mother and father contribute an equal number of chromosomes, with the father specifically contributing the ‘Y’ chromosome in the case of a male child. And whereas Heb 2:17 affirms that Jesus was ‘fully human in every way’, a virginal conception would actually make him less than human.
Lincoln concludes that the New Testament presents us with not one but three possibilities regarding Jesus’ conception: that he was the son of Joseph, that he was conceived illegitimately, and that he was the product of a virginal conception.
We can agree with Lincoln that the doctrine of the virginal conception is not of central importance. But we think that he has sold this doctrine at too high a price: the teaching of Matthew and (especially) Luke are clear enough. To say that Mark, for example, ‘knows nothing’ of the virgin birth is rather pointless, since he does not give any account of Jesus’ birth. If the famous ‘young woman’ passage from Isa 7:14 (which the LXX and then Matthew renders as ‘virgin’) is read in context, it will be noted that the offspring of that young woman/virgin is also ‘Immanuel’ (‘God with us’) and then becomes ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isa 9:6). The alleged parallels with Greco-Roman stories of special births are, on closer examination, found to be less than convincing.
Rationale and significance
Luke announces the heavenly origin of Mary’s firstborn in unmistakable terms. Her child will be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ (Lk 1:32). Although she has not had sexual relations (Lk 1:33), she is assured by the angel that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:34).
In the Old Testament David’s line is frequently said to be ‘for ever’ (2 Sam 7:13,16; Isa 9:7; Psa 89:3f, 28f; 132:1f). But here, in Lk 1:31, we do not have an eternal line of representatives but the Messiah himself who is to reign for ever.
The idea of ‘the power of the Most High’ overshadowing Mary does not convey merely the idea of divine superintendence or assistance. When taken together with the appellation ‘Son of God’ it means nothing less than a divine begetting.
Of course, the notion of Christ’s virgin birth (more correctly, ‘virginal conception’) is as commonly ridiculed outside the Christian church as it is disputed within it. Many theologians insist that we cannot take it literally: that it is a mythical way of expressing who Jesus was.
It is pointed out by critics that the virgin birth is recognised only by Matthew and Luke, and is conspicuously absent from the other New Testament writings, including those of Paul. In reply, we should point out that there are various hints elsewhere that there had been something unusual about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth (see, for example, Jn 8:41). Then Paul, in three different letters (Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7; Rom 1:3), uses the word ginomai (‘to come to be’) rather than the more usual gennao (to produce; to beget) when referring to Jesus’ birth. And we should not forget that Paul and Luke were close associates and travelling companions: it seems unlikely that Luke would know about the virgin birth while Paul did not.
As J.I. Packer writes: ‘The stress laid on Jesus’ preincarnate dignity and glory (John 1:1–9; 17:5; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 John 1:1) made a mode of entry into incarnate life that involved proclamation of the glorious role he was coming to fulfill (Matt. 1:21–23; Luke 1:31–35) more natural than any alternative.’ (Concise Theology, p112)
Those who doubt the historicity of the virgin birth either have to reduce the whole story as recorded by Matthew and Luke to a patchwork of myths, or to raise serious questions about Mary’s moral behaviour (and Joseph’s gullibility!).
According to David Instone-Brewer ‘there are significant reasons why it is also unlikely that Joseph and Mary would have invented such a strange cover story. First, first-century Palestine was a relatively well-educated and sophisticated society, and the religious leaders of the time were particularly sceptical about improbable and unprecedented miracles. Most Jews would have regarded the story of a virgin birth as unbelievable at best and blasphemous at worst. Second, Joseph and Mary would have attracted less criticism if they’d said the child was the result of rape by a Roman soldier or pre-marital love-making. And if Joseph was a character who was brave enough to marry this apparently fallen woman, it makes sense that he would also have the courage to tell the truth. And why would they invent such a dubious story when, as the incidental references in the Gospels of John and Mark demonstrate, these claims about Jesus’ birth being miraculous were simply disbelieved by most Jews? They didn’t believe it in his home village or in the rest of the country, as anyone knowing that society could have predicted. Historians have a problem: they have to choose between two equally unlikely scenarios. Either a group of religious Jews adamantly proclaimed an extremely naive and potentially blasphemous story, or there was a miraculous birth. This is an uncomfortable choice, except for those who do not rule out the miraculous.’ The Jesus Scandals, pp5-6.
Help from outside
Another kind of objection to the virgin birth is that it creates a distances between Christ and the rest of us. But this is precisely the point: the virgin birth means that help has come to the human race from outside; that something has begun in human history that is not fatally flawed by its association with human history. In the words of A.N.S. Lane:-
In fact, the biblical story of Jesus’ birth is all of a piece of the account of his life and death. As Peter Lewis finely says,
To the objection that Jesus could not be fully human if he had only one earthly parent, Millard Erickson replies:-
Humanity is what the Word assumed, or entered into, at his incarnation. Unlike us, he chose to come (Jn 6:38,51; 1 Tim 1:15; Heb 10:7). He is no less fully human because of this, Heb 2:14-18, or less able to sympathise with our human condition, Heb 4:15.
Here, then, is a sign of a new beginning. ‘He is not a development from anything that has gone before. He is a divine intrusion: the last, great, culminating eruption of the power of God into the plight of man.’ (Macleod)
It is objected by some that God would simply not ‘interfere’ with natural laws in this kind of way; he does not further his purposes by means of impossible biology. Such critics prefer to take the whole thing less materially and more ‘spiritually’. But the biblical revelation of God is precisely that of a God who acts in history in order to rescue his people. What God has achieved in Christ belongs to the world of things and not just to the world of ideas. Christ came in bodily form to save humankind in its bodily form. He came, to quote Peter Lewis again,
The doctrine of the virgin birth reminds us that, from the account of creation in Genesis to the account of the new creation in Revelation, God is revealed as having a plan and a purpose for the material world.
Furthermore, the doctrine of the virgin birth protects us against the erroneous idea that Jesus somehow ‘acquired’ divinity during his life. But no: the manner of his birth confirm his divine identity right from the beginning of his earthly life. This is not to suggest that the whole matter of Christ’s divinity can be settled by the unusual biological fact that he had only one human parent. Yet all of this is consistent with the unique creative act of the Holy Spirit in fertilising Mary’s ovum.
Then again, the virgin birth declares and makes sense of Christ’s entry to the world as the last Adam. All members of the human race inherit the sin and guilt of the first Adam, Rom 5:12f). But Christ is the first member of a new humanity; one in which a fresh start has been made. He is truly the son of Mary (Lk 1:31) and the Son of God (Lk 1:35). But although Christ does not share our guilt, he came as one of us so that he could bear our guilt. Peter Lewis writes:-
Donald Macleod agrees that the virgin birth ‘is a sign of God’s judgement on human nature. The race needs a redeemer, but cannot itself produce one: not by its own decision or desire, not by the processes of education and civilisation, not as a precipitate of its own evolution. The redeemer must come from outside.’
David Intone-Brewer remarks that ‘the fact that Jesus was the brunt of the gossips is a precious insight into his suffering. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be despised and rejected, sorrowful and grieving, afflicted with illness, wounds and punishments so severe that people would assume that he was being smitten by God (Isaiah 53:3–5). The question of his parentage was a scandal which he bore with all those who are falsely branded with moral disapproval for something outside their control – those who don’t know their parents, rape victims, and those whose sexuality is damaged by child abuse. The scandal of Jesus’ illegitimacy demonstrates that when God became human, he shared all our suffering and redeemed every aspect of our fallen humanity so that he could represent and redeem everyone.’ The Jesus Scandals, (p. 6).
It seems to some that, particularly in Matthew’s account, the virgin birth answers the charge of illegitimacy (see Mt 1:18-25) and provides and provides an example of fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (Isa 7:14). But neither of these provide a rationale for the virgin birth. And, in any case, the Isaiah passage is not appealed to by Luke, who nevertheless demonstrates knowledge of the virgin birth.
Writing in Vox Evangelica in 1977, A.N.S. Lane says that the rationale and significance for the virginal conception of Jesus lie somewhere between the extremes of ‘logical necessity’ (the belief that the evidence for the virgin birth is absolutely convincing) and ‘fideism’ (the belief that human reason cannot penetrate such a mystery and we must accept it with blind faith).
Lane thinks that a middle course may be steered between these two extremes.
Macleod (The Person of Christ, p37) alludes to Barth’s comment about the way in which the virgin birth challenges our rationalist assumptions. It stands on guard at the door of the New Testament, informing us that ‘all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. If our faith staggers at the birgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus?’
Although, according to Macleod, it would be difficult to argue that a virgin birth is essential to the incarnation, nevertheless an incarnation that was the result of normal human procreation would lead to several incongruities:-
(a) it would probably imply some kind of adoptionism; whereas the doctrine of the virgin birth insists that there was no moment when the Lord did not exist in both his human nature and his divine nature.
(b) it would suggest that the Lord had a double paternity: a divine and a human father. The NT itself it careful to avoid this impression (Lk 3:23).
(c) the incarnation would then rely on the human will, an inference that Jn 1:13 expressly denies.
We must be careful, however about linking the virgin birth with Christ’s sinlessness. There is no reason to think that the elimination of the male component. Nor is there any reason to think that the use of a procreative process other than sexual intercourse has anything to do with Christ’s sinlessness. Such a misunderstanding is linked to the unbiblical notion that the sexual act is inherently sinful and that virginity is specially virtuous. However, the virgin birth may be linked to Christ’s sinlessness, firstly, by emphasising the role of the Holy Spirit: ‘The humanity of Christ was created by the Holy Spirit, rather than procreated by sexual intercourse, and…as such it partook of the essential character of all that God creates: it was very good.’ The virgin birth is connected to the sinlessness of Christ, secondly, in that it helps us to understand how Christ stands outside the guilt of Adam. Adam’s guilt was not imputed to Christ; and ‘the only factor available that helps us to understand this immunity is the virgin birth.’ Even then, we must not forget that Christ did voluntarily assume this guilt, Heb 2:16. Nevertheless, we can see that sinless humanity is impossible without miraculous intervention.
The virgin birth and the incarnation are often confused in the popular mind. This leads to the crude assumption that God was Jesus’ father instead of Joseph. Mary provided one set of chromosomes, and God the other, thus making the God-man Jesus. But the doctrine of the virgin birth explains why Jesus did not have a human father; it does not state that God was his father. In this way, it is very different from pagan stories which tell of gods mating with women.
The doctrine of the incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Jesus Christ. ‘The Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father.’ God is Jesus’ Father (in terms of eternal existence); Joseph was not (in terms of biological process).
It might be thought that the virgin birth, while distinct from the incarnation, nevertheless guarantees the incarnation. But the product of a virgin birth need not be pre-existent, let alone divine. And Arians, Adoptionists and Muslims have been happy to accept the virgin birth, despite their unorthodox views on the incarnation and the person of Christ.
Nor is it clear that the incarnation guarantees the virgin birth. The birth of God incarnate can be regarded as supernatural without the necessity of the specific miracle of the virgin birth.
Pannenberg and others see the virgin birth as an alternative to the pre-existence of Christ for explaining that Jesus was the Son of God from his birth. But there is no reason for seeing these as contradictory alternatives.
Others have used the virgin birth as an argument against docetism. But it is the fact of Jesus’ birth which refutes docetism, not the miraculous element in it. In fact, the doctrine of the virgin birth has been used as an argument against the real humanity of Jesus.
But if we cannot say that the virgin birth is necessary for the incarnation, can we at least say that the two are compatible? The virgin birth then becomes, not a logical necessity or a proof of the incarnation, but a sign pointing towards it. It is not that a normal birth would have been unfitting or degrading. But a miraculous birth does point towards Christ’s divine-human nature. If importance figures such as Isaac and John the Baptist had unusual births that pointed to their significance, it was fitting that Jesus’ birth should be still more unusual.
Seen as a random event, the virgin birth seems implausible. But seen as as part of the total picture of Christ, including his incarnation and resurrection, it is both fitting and credible.
According to a variant reading, John 1:13 refers to Christ’s birth, and would then be a rather definite reference to the virgin birth. But even if the more likely reading is accepted (in which case the verse refers to believers’ re-birth) then John, given his likely knowledge of the Synoptic tradition, is drawing a conscious parallel between the virgin birth and regeneration. Both point to God’s initiative and sovereignty.
From the 4th century onwards, it was often maintained that the virgin birth was necessary to safeguard Christ’s sinlessness. He was born of a pure virgin, untainted by the sin of sexual intercourse, and unaffected by original sin. In its simplest form, the argument states that a natural birth would have produced a natural man, partaking in human sinfulness. But the doctrine of the incarnation alone is adequate to explain Christ’s sinlessness. The absence of a human father does not add any further weight.
Again, we can perhaps see the virgin birth, not as guaranteeing Christ’s sinlessness, but as pointing towards it. In the same way, Jesus’ healing of the paralysed man (Mk 2:1-12) did not cause his ability to forgive sin, but pointed towards it.
Other areas where a rationale for the virgin birth is sought include:
(a) grace (so Barth) – God supplies what human could not possibly supply;
(b) soteriology – Irenaeus taught that Christ, as the second Adam, was born of a virgin just as the first Adam was born of the virgin soil;
(c) Mariology – Irenaeus also likened Mary to a second Eve, but one who was obedient to God; and this paved the way for the full-blow Mariology of the RC church, including Mary as co-redemptrix;
(d) virginity – in Catholic teaching, the virgin birth has often been used to commend the celibate state; but the Gospel accounts do not exalt Mary’s virginity, and only teach that she was celibate prior to her marriage to Joseph;
(e) myth – some (reacting in part to flaws in some of the traditional arguments) regard the virgin birth as representing, at best, a non-historical but pious myth. It represents in mythical form the truth that God acts in history (Boslooper). But it is difficult to see how a non-historical myth could attest to a God who acts in history.
The virgin birth cannot be shown to be a logical necessity. It does not occupy as central a place in our faith as the incarnation itself, say, or the resurrection. But it does have importance as a sign:-
It is fitting and congruous with the rest of Christology in its role as a sign. It points to God’s initiative in the birth of Christ and to the importance of the child born. It also points to the new start involved in the Second Adam, the originator of a new humanity.
A.N.S. Lane, “The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977): 48-64.
Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 137-143
The New Testament accounts of the Virgin Birth (more properly, the virginal conception) of Christ make good historical sense, says N.T. Wright. In an article entitled ‘God’s Way of Acting’ (The Christian Century, December 16th 1989) Wright sets out his argument. What follows is a summary.
Of course, we make much of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, even though the New Testament itself places much more stress on events of Calvary, Easter and Pentecost.
The birth stories have become test cases in various controversies: the question of miracles, the truthfulness of the Bible, sexuality (is perpetual virginity to be celebrated?), and incarnation (those who stress Jesus’ divinity sometimes make the virginal conception central; those who stress his humanity tend not to). But none of these has much to do with what Matthew and Luke actually say.
Matthew seems to have prepared us for the otherwise unexpected by pointing out the peculiarities of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. One of Luke’s emphases is that the birth is a challenge to the pagan powers. Acts 5:37 informs us that the census took place at a time of national revolt.
With regard to the virginal conception itself, the parents were understandably perplexed. They knew where babies came from. Hence Mary’s question to the Angel, and Joseph’s resolve to end the engagement.
The argument is as follows:-
1. If we have reached certain conclusions about the resurrection and the incarnation, then the door is open to a divine creative act ‘from the outside’, to inaugurate the new creation from the womb of the old.
2. There is no pre-Christian tradition that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 in this way. The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories cannot have been modelled on them.
3. We have then to account for when and by whom the stories were invented, if not true.
This is how it would look: Christians came to believe that Jesus was in some sense divine. Someone who shared this faith broke thoroughly with Jewish precedents and invented the story of a pagan-style virginal conception. Some Christians failed to realize that this was historicized metaphor, and retold it as though it were historical. Matthew and Luke, assuming historicity; drew independently upon this astonishing fabrication, set it (though in quite different ways) within a thoroughly Jewish context, and wove it in quite different ways into their respective narratives.
And all this happened within, more or less, 50 years. Possible? Yes, of course. Most things are possible in history. Likely? No.
Smoke without fire does, of course, happen quite often in the real world. But this smoke, in that world, without fire? This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult. Unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don’t.
Of course, proof is not possible either way. And if the first two chapters of Matthew and of Luke did not exist, Christian faith could still flourish.
But since they do, and since for quite other reasons I have come to believe that the God of Israel, the world’s creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazareth, I hold open my historical judgement and say: If that’s what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object?