In 2013, Andrew Lincoln published Born of a Virgin (SPCK).
I still haven’t read the book, but I would like to note some of the points raised in it, as presented in this review by Jason Engwar.
As Jason Engwar says, ‘Lincoln is a supernaturalist who accepts traditional Christian concepts like the deity of Jesus and his resurrection, but rejects other traditional positions, such as Biblical inerrancy and the historicity of the virgin birth. He thinks Joseph was Jesus’ natural father.’
‘Lincoln argues that the New Testament presents at least two views of Jesus’ conception. The virginal conception is found only in Matthew and Luke and was a minority position among the Christians of the New Testament era. Only Matthew refers to a virgin birth consistently, and even in Matthew there’s only a small probability that the author had a virgin birth in mind. Luke refers to the virginal conception more explicitly, but accompanies it with a contrary tradition that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between Joseph and Mary.’
According to Lincoln, ancient biographies were often least reliable in matters relating to their subjects’ childhood years, sometimes presented conflicting accounts of their subjects side-by-side. Luke’s Gospel is similar in these respects, and it would appear that Luke’s infancy narratives were designed to emulate pagan accounts that made unhistorical claims about a great person’s childhood. Indeed, according to Lincoln, Luke’s record of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth is unhistorical in a number of respects, but such a view conflicts with the Evangelist’s declared interest in factuality).
The majority view in early Christianity was the Jesus was conceived by Joseph and Mary through normal sexual means. This view is reflected in Paul’s letters, Mark, the Johannine literature, and the Letter to the Hebrews. References such as Mark 3:21-35, John 1:45, and Romans 1:3 tend to support this, according to Lincoln. However, even he concedes that they are by no means incompatible with belief in a virgin birth.
Some early sources outside the New Testament also refer to Jesus as the biological son of Joseph. However, the virgin birth view became the majority position.
According to Lincoln, belief in the virgin birth undermines the incarnation, for it would imply that Jesus wasn’t fully human. But this is not necessarily so, since we regard Adam and Eve as fully human, even though they were not created through natural means of sexual reproduction.
Lincoln wonders what sort of physiology, and what sort of miracle, would be required for a virginal conception to take place that was fully consistent with Jesus’ full humanity. Was the required Y chromosome miraculously transferred from Joseph to Mary? If so, why? And what would that say about sexual intercourse between a man and a woman?
Does belief in the Virgin Birth undermine passages like Hebrews 2:17, which states that Jesus was made like us in every way? Lincoln thinks that it does. But, again, this is not necessarily so. In Hebrews 4:15, for example, we read that Jesus was tempted ‘in all things’, but we do not infer from that that he experienced every sort of temptation that is common to the human race.
Lincoln is correct to say that Matthew 1:18 (‘with child by the Holy Spirit’) does not necessarily imply a virginal conception. He is also correct to say (by analogy with the crucifixion) that a ‘shameful’ conception (by rape or fornication) cannot be ruled out on moral grounds, as if God would never do such a thing. But there is not a shred of evidence that such a thing happened. Certainly, Mary is represented in Matthew and Luke as a righteous person, just as Joseph is (Matthew 1:19).
When Matthew 1:19 informs us that Joseph abstained from sexual intercourse with Mary until after the birth of her child, this could be taken to mean that, being a righteous man, he refrained from intercourse during the pregnancy. [But if it was as simple as that, why did Matthew bother to even mention it?]. The mention, in Matthew 1:23 of the fulfilment of Isaiah would suggest that the Evangelist thought of both conception and birth as miraculous.
Lincoln thinks that Luke placed contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth side by side. But, once again, this would conflict with the Evangelist’s stated aim in Luke 1:1-4. It is more likely that Luke considered expressions such as ‘son of David’ and ‘seed of David’ to be consistent with a virginal conception.
Even if we acknowledge that Paul makes no reference to the virginal conception, we must agree that Luke and Paul had a close and mutually respectful relationship, making it more likely that the Apostle would have known about, and agreed with, the Evangelist about its factuality. Similarly, since both Matthew and Luke draw heavily on Mark’s Gospel, it makes good sense if they all held the same view.
If, as Lincoln thinks, Paul, the author of the Johannine literature, Mark and other influential leaders in early church held that Jesus was conceived by natural means, we would expect that view to be widespread in the early church. But it is questionable that it was so.
More generally, Lincoln’s view requires an acceptance that the New Testament documents contradict one another. But there is every indication that the early christians would not have accepted that premise.
In his celebrated work on this subject, Machen notes that ‘the virgin birth was attacked by outsiders just because it was known as one of the characteristic Christian beliefs.’
Lincoln maintains that the biblical account of the Virgin Birth is comparable to the extra-biblical account of the miraculous birth of, say, Augustus. Christians would accept the former but not the latter (says Lincoln), on the basis of some preconceived notion about the inspiration and authority of the biblical texts. But Jesus is a far more likely candidate for a miraculous entry to the world than Augustus (or Romulus, or Apollonius, etc.)
There is good evidence from the New Testament documents that both Mary and (at least some of) her other offspring became believers. They would have been able to correct the testimony about the virginal conception at an early stage, if that had been necessary.