But is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth?

December 8, 2011

In my previous post, I made the point that the evangelists Matthew and Luke included the story of the virgin birth for a simple reason: they believed it happened. And they believed it happened knowing what every sensible person living in the first century knew: in order to get pregnant, it takes both a man and a woman. They believed it enough to write it down, knowing that it made Jesus’ birth vulnerable to critics who would say that Mary got knocked up by someone outside of the bounds of marriage—either by Joseph or someone else.

And to this day, many people, including many Christians, have their suspicions.

But why?

O.K., I know the reasons. The doctrine of the virgin birth, we’re told, emerged much later than, for example, the resurrection, which the church proclaimed from its inception. (Indeed, without the resurrection, there would be no church.) In fact, our earliest gospel, Mark, fails to even include a birth story. This is true, but are the people who argue this point suggesting that the virgin birth was invented in the five or ten years between the composition of Mark and the composition of Matthew and Luke?

If so, they fail to appreciate the nature of an oral culture. All of the stories found in the four gospels would have been in circulation, orally, for many years—decades even—before being written down. It’s hard for us to imagine today that back then the spoken word had more authority than the written word. That Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories are so different suggests that they come from independent traditions, which means that the story of the virgin birth had been around for a long time before the evangelists wrote them down.

The point is that there was hardly enough time for a virgin birth legend to emerge between Mark and the other two Synoptic gospels.

Also, we know for sure that Mary and her son James (Jesus’ brother) were members of that earliest group of believers (see Acts 1). It seems likely that some other siblings of Jesus were in the early church as well. It seems very likely that the story of the virgin birth came directly from the lips of Mary and Jesus’ family. Even if it came from somewhere else, Jesus’ family would have heard the story and could have easily corrected the record and said, “No, that’s not the way it happened.” They didn’t do that, and hence we have the virgin birth story.

Even Mark’s silence on the subject doesn’t mean he was unaware of it. There’s a very unusual reference in Mark 6:3 to Jesus being “Mary’s son,” as if to acknowledge that he wasn’t also Joseph’s biological son. Even if Joseph had died at this point, Jesus would still usually be referred to as “Joseph’s son.”

One common suggestion is that Matthew and Luke include the virgin birth because they’re simply copying pagan legends, in which heroes and demigods are born as a result of a union between gods and humans—and that somehow Jesus would have more credibility as the “Son of God” if they could show that this was true in a biological sort of way. My first response is that Matthew and Luke are Jews writing mostly for an audience of Jews. What possible appeal would these pagan myths have for them or their readers/listeners?

Second, Jesus is not nor was ever considered a demigod—the product of a sexual union between a woman and God. God the Father does not “impregnate” Mary as if God were the biological father. I’ve read someone—was it that bozo Bishop Spong?—who said that God would be a rapist if the virgin birth really happened. Anyone who suggests such a thing is thinking in pagan terms and disregarding the Bible. According to Matthew and Luke, what happened in Mary’s womb was a special act of creation by the Holy Spirit—and with Mary’s consent, of course.

Another, related objection is that the virgin birth was a well-intentioned but misguided effort by the early church to explain how the Incarnation happened, rather than just accept the mysterious truth of it. This is an argument that says much more about us than the doctrine of the virgin birth. It’s an argument that fits the spirit of our times.

The “how” questions, after all, are never as important as the “why” questions. We post-moderns are much more comfortable living with mystery and paradox than our forebears, so we don’t need to resort to something like a virgin birth to explain it. I’ve even read some creative exegesis that argues that Matthew and Luke didn’t even intend to say that Mary was still a virgin when she conceived.


I agree that the “how” questions aren’t as important as “why” questions. By all means! As a Protestant, after all, I can’t accept the Catholic Church’s dogmatic insistence on weird, extra-biblical, and unnecessary ideas like the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was conceived without original sin), Mary’s sinlessness, or her perpetual virginity, all of which relate to their misguided effort to explain how.

I also understand that the virgin birth isn’t mentioned by Paul, and nowhere in the Book of Acts do any of the apostles proclaim it as part of their gospel. I don’t believe that you have to believe in it in order to be an authentic Christian.

But, but, but… Is it really so hard to believe? As N.T. Wright said (excerpted in my previous post), we’re not asked to believe in the virgin birth in isolation: given everything else we know about God and Jesus, how unlikely is it that Jesus was conceived in this way?

Someone may object that God doesn’t contradict the well-ordered laws of physics like this in order to accomplish God’s purposes. God doesn’t intervene in history in such a blatantly miraculously way. However it was that God accomplished the Incarnation, God must have done so naturally.

I’m sympathetic with the impulse to see things that way. I think life by itself is miraculous, sustained as it is at every moment by the Holy Spirit. In my view, God intervenes in history all the time in ways that are completely consistent with everything we know about science. What a gift that God has given us a predictable universe that conforms to physical laws!

And yet… If we bother to believe in the God of Christianity at all, we already believe in the resurrection, which contradicts everything we know about physics. Even if we somehow reduced the resurrection to a strictly “spiritual” rather than physical event, and believe that Jesus wasn’t bodily raised (terrible theology, by the way), we’ve hardly solved the problem of God.

If we believe in God, we already believe that he intervened in history in the most dramatic way imaginable, by creating time, space, and matter to begin with, making history possible.

Again, believing all that, is it really so much harder to believe in the virgin birth?

5 Responses to “But is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Totally agree (except Jesus’ brother was named James instead of Joseph). Also, while PERHAPS not essential to salvation, the fact that Jesus was “God incarnate,” i.e., God in human flesh, shows the Virgin Birth of Jesus is pretty fundamental. As John said, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Ha! I knew you’d catch that error! I guess Joseph was on my mind. Anyway, I found it immediately after I posted it. I need a copy editor! If you get the email, it’s always a good idea to click on the link versus reading it in the email, since it’s probably changed since I first published it.

      I hope you and your family are well, Tom.

  2. Andy Hudson Says:

    Good word, Brent! Thanks for tackling this important issue.

  3. Brian Sassaman Says:

    Yep Brent, good job. I believe this miracle for the reasons you gave.

    And as is always my trait, I’ll give you a tangentially related poem 😉

    It does not offer a defense, only an imagined wonder. And it was written by a teenager. A teenage Welshman named Dylan Thomas. I like these lines “I who was rich was made the richer/By sipping at the vine of days.” Ha, interesting and though provoking. God was made richer? “Remember Me and pity him.” Wow.
    There are realms we do not know.


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