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.
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.