Whose Child Is This?
Even without taking high-school biology, Joseph knew where babies come from. Yet he believed Mary's story. Should we?
The answer is yes, for anyone who believes in the full authority of the Bible. But because many today don't take Mary's word for it, we asked Richard Longenecker to sketch the shape of the debate for CT's readers.
When they tell their stories of Jesus' birth, Matthew and Luke have little in common. Matthew dwells on the fulfillment of prophecy, the visit of foreign astrologers, and the slaughter of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, reports the poetic utterances of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon, and focuses on Mary's relatives and the visit of the shepherds.
Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1:5-2:52 are quite different. Neither writer seems to have known the other's account. Yet Matthew and Luke make one major point in common—that Jesus was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. This agreement, amidst otherwise diverse presentations, suggests that a common tradition regarding the Virgin Birth existed before either writer recorded his story.
How did a divine mystery, agreed on by the Gospel writers, become the subject of debate?
The contemporary debate
From at least Ignatius of Antioch (writing about A.D. 110) to the nineteenth century, almost all Christians accepted the Virgin Birth as both a fact of history and a datum of theology. Believers expected marvelous events to accompany God's actions, and so the miraculous served to support faith. In addition, the Virgin Birth fit nicely with church teaching about Jesus' being the Son of God and having a sinless nature.
After the eighteenth-century intellectual revolution we call the Enlightenment, however, the miraculous created suspicion rather than faith-even ...