In 2013, Andrew Lincoln published 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, but it is possible to piece together from the reviews (here, by Jason Engwar, and also those by Craig Blomberg, and Philip J. Long) the main lines of the argument:-
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.’
According to Lincoln, 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. But (writes Lincoln) Luke also include the contrary tradition that Jesus was conceived and born 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.