The inconvenient fact of the virgin birth

I’m aware that some Christians struggle to believe in the virgin birth (more accurately, the virginal conception). Adam Hamilton reflects on this difficulty in The Journey. I reflected on it in last year’s sermon on Mary and on the blog: here and here. I’d like to reiterate a few things I said back then.

Matthew and Luke, who include the Christmas story in their gospels, aren’t including information about the virgin birth because it somehow helps their case for Christianity. No one then or now would read the gospels and think, “I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God before, but now that you tell me he was conceived miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m sold!”

While the doctrine of the virgin birth was important enough to be included in the Apostles’ Creed (around the second century), it wasn’t a feature of the earliest proclamation of the gospel (as witnessed in Acts). Plenty of people were coming to faith in Jesus without needing a virgin birth to do so.

They’re also not including the virgin birth because they had to—in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, cited by Matthew in Christmas story:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel. 

Prior to Matthew, no one regarded this verse as a messianic prophecy that a purported Messiah would need to fulfill. Matthew knows as well as anyone that Isaiah was prophesying, not about a future Messiah who would have to be born of a virgin, but about King Ahaz’s wife, or perhaps his own wife. Her son would be a sign that Judah’s enemies—the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria—would soon be destroyed, and Judah would be spared. At least for a little while.

Matthew is using Isaiah to say that Israel’s ultimate salvation and hope is found in the birth of this new son, who is the Messiah. As with all Old Testament citations in the New Testament, the writer wants us to recall the context of the verse he’s quoting; he’s not proof-texting to find a verse or word that makes his case.

Matthew and Luke knew as well as we do that getting pregnant—apart from a hard-to-believe miracle—requires both a man and a woman. This was, after all, why Joseph originally decided to divorce Mary. He believed that she had been unfaithful—as would any reasonable person. According to N.T. Wright, John 8:41 includes an “echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage.”1 When Jesus’ opponents say, “Our ancestry isn’t in question,” in other words, they are perhaps implying that Jesus’ ancestry is. Did they know about the virgin birth? If so, they didn’t believe it.

And why should they? People knew the facts of life. The virgin birth was hard to believe, then as now. The most plausible reason that Matthew and Luke risk telling us about it is that they believed it was true.

Wright continues:

But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Isreael—in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways—and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself. Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals with it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the holy spirit? ¶ That is a question everyone must answer for themselves.2

There’s no getting around faith. We can’t prove it, obviously.

But we can argue against the Richard Dawkinses of the world who imagine that the “myth” of the virgin birth was foisted upon primitive and gullible people who would believe anything. There weren’t many of those people living in Palestine in the first century.

1. N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 7.

2. Ibid.

4 thoughts on “The inconvenient fact of the virgin birth”

  1. I understand everything you’re saying (and believe in the virginal conception). What I don’t understand is why people can’t believe in the virgin birth. If they accept the supernatural, what’s so hard about the virgin birth? Obviously, of one rejects the supernatural, then yeah, it’s impossible. But what about everyone who believes in some miracles–why reject this one?

    1. I totally hear you, Jeremy. I assumed when I went to a mainline Protestant seminary, professors would try to talk me out of believing in the historicity of the resurrection. To my surprise, they didn’t. In fact, my systematic theology professor argued that its historicity is non-negotiable, and laid out the solid historical foundation on which it rests. He also argued that resurrection isn’t scientifically implausible, if we properly understand the scientific method, etc. I greatly appreciated that. He was defending the truth of the resurrection in a language that modernity understands. He said that we all needed to be able to do that.

      The virgin birth, he argued, was different. He said that while the resurrection was proclaimed from the very beginning of the church, the virgin birth came later; that it was an attempt to express in concrete ways the truth that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. The how of Jesus’ divinity was far less important than the fact of Jesus’ divinity. There’s something to be said for this: after all, I don’t understand the Catholics’ dogmatic insistence on weird, extra-biblical doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, the sinlessness of Mary, and the perpetual virginity of Mary, all of which emerge out of an attempt to explain how.

      Nevertheless, for the reasons I discuss in my posts from last year, the virgin birth doesn’t seem all that difficult to believe. We know that both Mary and James (and probably other of Jesus’ brothers and sisters) were a part of that first group of disciples. If the virgin birth didn’t happen the way the church proclaimed, they would have had plenty of opportunities to correct the record and say, “No, it didn’t happen like that.” The virgin birth story would have existed in oral form long before Matthew and Luke wrote it down.

      Also, I hear all the time about how plenty of great historical or mythic heroes among pagans were said to have had miraculous births, and that the church was just “copying” those stories. Oh, brother! What appeal would pagan myths have had to good Jews like Matthew and Luke? They would have been offended. As I point out in yesterday’s post, the virgin birth doesn’t help them make their case. The most plausible reason that Matthew and Luke include the virgin birth is because they believed it happened.

      So, to answer your mostly rhetorical question, I think there are some Christians who want modern historical evidence for the doctrine, and they don’t believe that such evidence exists in the case of the virgin birth.

      I think, by contrast, that there is some good evidence, and, as always, there’s no getting around faith. But you’re right: If we believe in the resurrection—or that God ever intervenes in history in surprising, unusual ways—how much harder is it to believe in the virgin birth?

      1. That helps my understanding, actually. I hadn’t really thought about the difference in modern historical evidence for the two events as a reason to believe in one and not the other. (Not a good reason, but a reason.)

      2. No, it’s not a good reason. I think some people perform a mental calculation that says, “What’s the bare minimum number of supernatural events I have to believe in order to be a Christian?”—as if that makes it easier. There’s no getting around the fact that to believe in God at all, we have to believe in something that science, by definition, will never be able to prove. There’s no getting around faith.

        But I like N.T. Wright’s point: we don’t believe in things like the virgin birth in isolation. Given everything else we know about God and Jesus, how likely or unlikely is it that Jesus was conceived through an surprising act of the Holy Spirit? If you bother believing in God in the first place, it’s just not that big a deal.

        And someone might say, “Yes, but I don’t believe in a God who breaks the well-ordered laws of the universe by intervening supernaturally in history like this.” And I say, “O.K., but if you believe in God at all, you already believe that God intervened in the most dramatic way possible by creating time, space, and matter and making possible what we call history!

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