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 among Christians. This stemmed from more than mere rationalism or the association of miracles with credulity. It also arose from the conviction that God works in and through a history like our own-and a history studded with miracles is not the kind of history we know. So in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many scholars refused to believe that Jesus was conceived any differently from anyone else. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth seemed impossible to reconcile with the true humanity of Jesus.
Today, scholars are sharply divided regarding the Virgin Birth. Is it a fact of history—that is, that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin without the aid of a human father? Or should it be considered an attempt of the early church to translate the mystery of God becoming a human being into terms intelligible to unsophisticated people, and so to be taken as a symbol of the truth that Jesus' birth was God's gift to humanity given entirely by grace, but without any necessary reference to the mechanics of procreation?
The hole in the sermon
If the Virgin Birth is so clearly taught by Matthew and Luke, why would some Christians question it? One answer is that the earliest Christian preachers fail to mention it, and the earliest confessions of faith omit it.
To judge by the book of Acts, the apostles' sermons did not refer to Jesus' virgin birth, but began with his adult ministry and focused on his death, resurrection, and ascension (see, for example, Peter's Pentecost sermon of 2:14-36). But that is to be expected. In choosing a replacement for Judas, the apostles stated his successor must be one who had "been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us" (1:21-22, NIV). And it is the redemptive events that transpired during the time the apostles were eyewitnesses that the early Christian preachers proclaimed.
Likewise, the early forms of confessions of faith, incorporated by New Testament writers into their letters, do not mention the Virgin Birth. However, two expressions in confessional portions have sometimes been claimed to allude to Jesus' virgin birth. First, some have taken born of a woman in Galatians 4:4 to imply a virgin birth, since it refers only to "a woman" without mentioning her husband. But born of a woman is simply a Jewish idiom for being human (as, for example, in Job 14:1 and Matt. 11:11/Luke 7:28. See also Josephus, Antiquities 7.21 and 16.382). The phrase itself gives no information about the biology of Jesus' birth. Rather, it tells us Jesus was truly one with us, and that he came as "the Man" to stand in our place.
Second, some take an expression found in Romans 1:3-4 to allude to Jesus' virgin birth. In speaking of our Lord's human credentials, Paul says he was "the seed [or, descendant] of David according to the flesh." Some have claimed the word seed (sperma) means male sperm from David's line, and that royal sperma, according to Luke's geneology (as it is argued), came through Mary's line, not Joseph's. But seed here means no more than it does elsewhere in Scripture: simply a descendant (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12; Ps. 89:3-4; John 7:42; Gal. 3:16, 29; 2 Tim. 2:8). What Romans 1:3-11 sets out is a two-stage Christology: that humanly, Jesus was a descendant of David; that because of the resurrection, he is legitimately declared God's Son and Lord of the human race.
Nothing is said here about a virginal conception.
Philippians 2:6-11 is a particularly significant case. Here is a Christological hymn or confession that seems to come from the heart of earliest Christian conviction and that runs the gamut from pre-existence to exaltation. Yet this "Christ-hymn" does not mention Jesus' virgin birth. Though fully human ("born of a woman") and with Davidic blood in his veins ("seed of David"), Jesus the Christ was also pre-existent and divine ("the divine nature was his from the first," NEB; "being in very nature God," NIV) and has become the Lord over all ("every knee should bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," NIV). Yet there is no reference to Jesus' virginal conception. Early Christians, evidently, did not see the Virgin Birth as a necessary part of speaking about our Lord's taking "the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (v. 7, NIV).
The silence of Paul, Mark, and John
If the Virgin Birth is missing from the apostles' sermons and the earliest confessions of faith, we still might expect to find it elsewhere in the New Testament. But apart from Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives, the New Testament has no direct statement about Jesus' virginal conception.
Paul's letters, probably the first materials of the New Testament written, speak nowhere of the Virgin Birth. And he makes no attempt to improve on the confessional statements he incorporates by adding a virginal conception.
Mark's gospel, probably the earliest canonical Gospel, is likewise silent on Jesus' virgin birth. For Mark, "the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1, NIV) has to do with John the Baptist's preparation for Jesus, Jesus' own baptism, his temptation, his announcement of the kingdom, and Jesus' call to four fishermen to follow him (1:2-20). Mark's gospel essentially agrees with the scope of the apostles' sermons in Acts, beginning with the baptism of John and concluding with the resurrection of Jesus.
The only possible hint of a virgin birth in Mark is to be found in 6:3, where it is reported that people of Jesus' hometown called him "the carpenter, ... Mary's son." In a patriarchal society, to identify someone by reference to his mother and not his father would have been unusual. But the statement is cryptic. It probably originated as a taunt by the local townsfolk suggesting that Jesus' birth was illegitimate, and so witnesses indirectly to rumors. The fact that Mark included their taunt probably signals his own consciousness of unusual circumstances associated with Jesus' birth. But it may be that the people's statement and Mark's inclusion of it are innocuous. At any rate, when both Matthew and Luke (who seem to depend here on Mark) rephrase the question, it seems that neither writer understood Mark as conveying a suggestion of illegitimacy. "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary?" writes Matthew (13:55, NIV). "Isn't this Joseph's son?" writes Luke (4:22, NIV).
Apart from their infancy narratives, the virgin birth of Jesus receives no attention at all in either Matthew or Luke, the two Gospels that appear to be built on the structure of Mark. In fact, even though Matthew and Luke present Jesus' birth as coming about without a human father, they elsewhere recast Mark 6:3 so that the townsfolk of Nazareth call Jesus "the carpenter's son" or "Joseph's son" (Luke 4:22).
Likewise, there is no teaching about Jesus' virgin birth in John, which may have been the last canonical Gospel written, but which preserves material about Jesus that circulated among the earliest Christian believers. For John himself, Jesus is pre-existent, "the Word," who was divine, the Creator, the source of life, but one who "became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (1:1-14). For others portrayed by the evangelist, Jesus was "the son of Joseph" (1:45; 6:42). From neither John nor those he presents, however, is there any direct statement regarding the Virgin Birth. The only possible allusion to such an occurrence is the retort of the people in 8:41, "We are not illegitimate children." Like Mark 6:3, this retort may be a veiled insinuation that Jesus was illegitimate.
One minor variant of the text of John 1:13 is sometimes introduced into the discussion. All our Greek manuscripts, virtually all the early translations, and most of the Fathers read this verse as "[those] born not [hoi ouk ... egennethesan] of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (NIV). Those is understood to mean "those who believe" to whom God has given the right to become "children of God."
One Old Latin manuscript of the third century, however, changes the plural those to the singular he. This reading was accepted by Tertullian and some of the Latin Fathers, who charged their opponents with altering the text in order to deny the Virgin Birth. But though a few modern critics and exegetes have argued for the originality of the singular, such a reading has little textual warrant and has been rightly rejected by almost all New Testament scholars.
"Nothing is impossible"
Despite the lack of explicit references to the Virgin Birth elsewhere in the New Testament, Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives clearly present Jesus' virginal conception in the womb of Mary without the involvement of a man.
In Matthew, Mary is discovered to be already pregnant before having marital relations with her betrothed husband Joseph; Joseph contemplates divorcing her so as not to put her to "public disgrace"; but "an angel of the Lord" assures Joseph that Mary's pregnancy is the result of God's design through the action of the Holy Spirit; and so Joseph "took Mary home as his wife, but had no union with her until she gave birth to a son," whom he named Jesus.
In Luke 1:26-38 the angel announces to Mary the conception of a son in her womb through the intervention of God's Holy Spirit; calms her fears regarding the unnaturalness of such a conception by assuring her of divine providence; and points to her aged relative Elizabeth's pregnancy as a sign that "nothing is impossible with God."
Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives have, of course, a number of features in common: (1) the principal characters are Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; (2) Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Herod the Great; (3) Mary was betrothed to Joseph; (4) Joseph was of Davidic descent; (5) Jesus was born in Bethlehem; (6) Jesus was given his name by heavenly direction; (7) Jesus as (reputedly) Joseph's son was also of Davidic descent; and (8) the family finally settled in Nazareth.
In matters of perspective, organization, and almost every other detail, however, the two accounts are decidedly different. Neither writer, it seems, was dependent on the other's account; nor, in all probability, did either of the evangelists even know of the other's work.
Yet the one major item that both evangelists, despite their diverse presentations, include—an item which goes far beyond the expected matters in the story line—is Jesus' virginal conception by the action of the Holy Spirit. Despite the lack of reference to the Virgin Birth elsewhere, its appearance in these two independent accounts (as well as the prominence it holds in both) suggests that a common tradition regarding the virginal conception of Jesus circulated within the early church prior to the writing of both Matthew's gospel and Luke's.
A number of questions, of course, immediately arise: Historically, it must be asked, Where did this tradition of Jesus' virgin birth come from? Why is it absent from what we know of the earliest confessions and preaching of the early church, in the earliest letters we have from the early church, and in our earliest canonical Gospel? Why does it appear in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, with attention being focused on it in both?
Doctrinally it must be asked: Of what significance was the Virgin Birth for first-century Christians? And of what significance should it be for Christians today?
Some suggest that Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the Virgin Birth are seen as having been motivated by their desire to counter a rising heresy in the early church, the mistaken belief that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be flesh and blood. A later form of this heresy, called Docetism, prompted Christians to include phrases such as "born of the Virgin Mary" and "suffered under Pontius Pilate" in their creeds.
This suggestion would explain, to some extent, why there is no reference to the Virgin Birth in the earlier New Testament materials, and why the idea appeared only later when the docetic heresy arose. Yet while such an explanation is a possible rationale for the inclusion of infancy narratives in both Matthew and Luke, it does not adequately answer the question of why there is an emphasis on Jesus' virgin birth in these two narratives, for a virgin birth would seem to separate Jesus from the rest of humanity rather than simply identify him as being truly human.
A more likely explanation for the stress on the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke has to do with the need of first-century Christians to counter the suggestions of irregularity and the rumors of illegitimacy that were probably then circulating about Jesus' birth-hints of which may appear in the Gospels themselves. Reports that Jesus' birth was illegitimate were widespread among both pagans and Jews in the second and third centuries (see, for example, Origen, Contra Celsus 1.28, 32, 69; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30.3; Mish. Yebamoth 4.13; Tos. Hullin 2.22-23; JerT. Abodah Zarah 40d; JerT. Sabbath 14d; BabT. Sabbath 104b; BabT. Sanhedrin 67a). And it is highly probable that such rumors had their origins in Jesus' own day.
It seems that the early Christians had only two choices when opponents used such rumors to deny their proclamation: They could either accede to such a charge (which, of course, they couldn't) or they could affirm the supernatural character of Jesus' birth in a way that accounted for the unusual circumstances. And Christians today, when they stop to think about it, are faced with the same alternatives.
Yet though apologetic interests may have motivated Matthew and Luke to lay stress on the Virgin Birth, it is equally important to recognize distinctions between early Christian proclamation and early Christian teaching that was given in support of that proclamation. The earliest Christian confessions and preaching, so far as the New Testament itself tells us, did not include the Virgin Birth. Nor did Mark's gospel, which shares the flavor of the early proclamation; nor John's gospel, which is evangelistic; nor Paul's letters, which deal with specific pastoral problems.
Matthew's gospel and Luke's gospel, however, have more distinctly teaching functions and were written to serve in support of the basic Christian proclamation, with each writer suiting his portrayal of the life and ministry of Jesus to the particular mindset of his respective audience. Each in his own way has reorganized Mark's proclamation to serve his own instructional purposes, has added to Mark more narrative material, and has inserted many more sayings of Jesus than Mark has given. And so both Matthew and Luke have set out the basic Christian proclamation about Jesus ("beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us") with introductory material that focuses on Jesus as having been born of a virgin—a focus understandable when seen as part of their teaching purpose, but especially understandable in light of probable rumors of illegitimacy that were then current.
The Virgin Birth today
Martin Luther once remarked, somewhat lightly, that the Incarnation consists of three miracles: "The first, that God became man; the second, that a virgin was a mother; and the third, that the heart of man should believe this." The way people think about miracles, however, has always been plagued by predispositions, presuppositions, and prejudices. And thinking about the Virgin Birth has suffered the same fate—there are signs today of a changing attitude toward the miraculous among many New Testament scholars and theologians.
Indeed, Christians must always affirm that "born of the virgin Mary" is a theological statement signaling that Jesus is, in a unique sense, God's Son. Yet we may also affirm that the God of the miraculous has accomplished his purpose in the Incarnation in the manner stated by both Matthew and Luke. The Incarnation itself, of course, is the greater miracle and the primary focus of Christian proclamation. The Virgin Birth, while an important facet of Christian teaching, has to do only with the means God used in the Incarnation. No doubt God could have brought about a true union of divinity with humanity in a number of ways, some quite natural and others extraordinary. In a theology that is biblically based, the Virgin Birth is neither the basis for nor the evidence of the Incarnation. Nevertheless, Jesus' virginal conception is a further sign in the whole story of Christmas signaling that God's great gift to humanity is given entirely by grace. That sign seems to have been brought to the fore only to counter specific attacks on the Christian proclamation, but it continues today, apart from that apologetic interest, as a sign of divine grace.
At Christmas, it is the Incarnation we celebrate. In our proclamation and pastoral care, it is that Incarnation we proclaim and build upon. In our fuller understanding of the message of the gospel, however, the Virgin Birth has its place. It may be an offense to those who consider themselves "too modern to believe such nonsense." But it is hardly as offensive to the modern world as the Incarnation itself, "the preaching of the Cross," belief in the resurrection of Jesus, or trust in Christ's promised return—matters that form the basis of Christian belief. So at Christmas we celebrate what God has done to incarnate his Son, understanding something of how the proclamation of the Incarnation was clarified by the early Christians and accepting the Virgin Birth as one gleaming facet of that shining story.
"Whose Child Is This?" originally appeared in Christianity Today on December 17, 1990. At the time, Richard N. Longenecker was a senior editor of Christianity Today. He is now distinguished professor of New Testament at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
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