First published in the Bridge Magazine, December 2017
“Virgin on the Ridiculous!” Was Jesus really born to a virgin?
The idea that Jesus was born to a virgin mother is found in two of the Bible’s four accounts of Jesus’ life. The gospel of Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary, a young teenage girl, who is visited by an angel saying,
Don’t be afraid Mary. You have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
How will this be since I am a virgin?”
Matthew’s gospel gives us Joseph’s take on the story: how an angel visits him to talk him out of breaking his engagement to the pregnant Mary because
What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew then links it to a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Isaiah,
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us.’”
So why do people object to the idea of the Virgin Birth? Well let’s look at the main objections and try to address each in turn.
1)There’s no evidence.
This is the weakest objection to the Virgin Birth. For starters, we have the eye-witness testimony of the mother (recorded in Luke) and her future husband (recorded in Matthew). Luke made a comprehensive study of the early Christians, he met James, one of Mary’s other sons, and Joseph, the half-brother of Jesus, and he spent time in Jerusalem within Mary’s possible lifetime. He tells us many things about her that no other gospel writer does – the sort of things that might have come direct from her. By any historical standard, that’s good evidence.
2) Mary lied about it. She was just a young girl who got pregnant and made up the angel story to pacify her angry parents and fiancé.
Except it didn’t pacify them – Joseph wanted to cancel the engagement! If Mary was a liar, she could have invented a far more plausible lie: for example, she could have invented the sort of story that the Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity Celsus made up 150 years later, telling everyone she’d been raped by a Roman soldier (Celsus gave him the very common Roman soldier name Pantera.)
3) Luke and Matthew copied pagan myths of Virgin Births to make Jesus seem impressive.
The problem with this objection is twofold. First, there aren’t any pagan Virgin Birth myths that sound anything like Jesus’ birth. There are stories of women who had sex with gods and produced children, but whilst that’s miraculous, that’s not a Virgin Birth. Historian Thomas Boslopper compared the Virgin Birth to all the Pagan stories and concludes,
The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘Virgin Birth’ is not ‘pagan’” [i]
The second problem is that Matthew’s gospel was written to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish religion. So how could dressing Jesus up in a Pagan myth have persuaded them he was a good Jew?
4) The apostle Paul doesn’t mention it. Apart from Luke and Matthew, the rest of the New Testament ignores the Virgin Birth.
This objection is an argument from silence. The rest of the New Testament doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – it just means they didn’t mention it.
Let’s change tack for our next objection and think of the scientific objection.
5) It’s biologically impossible. Science says you need a woman and a man for conception to occur. Therefore, Jesus’ origin must be miraculous, and this is impossible because miracles don’t happen.
The problem with this objection is that it’s conclusion (the virgin birth is miraculous and therefore impossible) is assumed in the initial assumption (that there is no God, or if there is a God but he doesn’t intervene in nature).
But what happens if we change our initial assumption to something a little more open-minded? If we allow the possibility that the all powerful creator God the Bible describes is real and that he intervenes in nature, then of course a Virgin Birth is possible!
6) Christians misunderstand what the Bible says. The word translated “virgin” in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (which is quoted by Matthew in his account) can also mean “young woman.”
It’s true that the word translated “virgin” can also mean young woman, but it’s also true that it’s never used of a young woman who isn’t a virgin.
However there’s a far bigger clue to the meaning of the word in what Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.
Now imagine your God’s PR company and you want to do a publicity stunt (a sign) to publicise the birth of God in human form (that’s what Immanuel means). Which would be the more memorable publicity stunt: a young woman giving birth to a son, or a virgin giving birth? Which would people still be talking about 2000 years later?
I once heard a scientist speaking on the radio critiquing the biology of the Virgin Birth. He said,
If such a thing were to happen it would be an event unique in human history.”
He said that as a way of dismissing it, but actually I think he makes my point rather well. The Virgin Birth is a unique, miraculous moment in history, a sign, pointing us to the significance of the baby born to an unmarried mum in a rundown stable in a backwards hill-country town in the middle of nowhere; God with us. May you enjoy discovering him this Christmas time!
If you’d like to read more about the Virgin Birth, historian and theologian NT Wright has written a good article here:
[i] Boslooper, Thomas (1962), The Virgin Birth, Philadelphia: Westminster Press)., p162