The Virgin Birth and the Tooth Fairy (2)
In the first article in this short series I asserted that there are no historical or biblical reasons why the virgin birth of Christ should be regarded as implausible. Not everyone agrees, as evident from the following.
Some argue that the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth is hardly unique and that parallels to it are found in ancient literature. Myths concerning the virgin births of various Greek gods and superheroes were prevalent in paganism, so they say. Those Greek Christians who were familiar with them account for the narratives in Matthew and Luke that describe this "miracle." In other words, Christians in the early church simply created or concocted their own story of their "hero" and "Lord" being born of a virgin.
One major problem with this is that all these alleged parallels prove to be quite different from the NT account of the conception and birth of Jesus. Robert Stein explains:
"Almost all the pagan accounts involve a sexual encounter between a god and a human woman. Most times, therefore, the woman had no possible claim to be a virgin, and, if she was a virgin before the encounter, she was certainly not considered a virgin afterward. . . . Whereas it is true that there are numerous supernatural births in Greek literature, they always involve a physical generation. Paganism simply does not have accounts of virgin births. It possesses no clear analogy that could have given rise to the Gospel accounts" (65).
We should also remember that the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth did not arise among Greek Christians but rather are distinctively Jewish in nature. In fact, the account in Luke is the most Jewish part of his gospel. "This account," notes Stein, "did not arise in the Hellenistic [Greek] church but in a Jewish setting. And where in Judaism would a story of a virginal conception have arisen?" (66).
One particular biblical argument against the virgin birth is that the concept arose from the church's interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 – “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Knowing about this prediction of a future virgin birth, the church, so they say, fabricated the gospel accounts to fulfill the prophecy.
The problem, however, is that Isaiah 7:14 was not interpreted in the first century as referring to a virginal conception. Most insisted that the Hebrew word almah simply referred to a "young woman" who may or may not be a virgin. The child born to this woman was believed to have been Hezekiah, the son and successor to King Ahaz.
There is also no evidence in the ancient Jewish tradition that this verse was interpreted in a messianic sense. The LXX or Greek translation of the OT uses the word parthenos (virgin), "but this was understood as referring to one who was presently a virgin and would conceive through a normal birth process. It was not interpreted as referring to a woman who would conceive as a virgin" (Stein, 66). The bottom line is this: the story of the virgin birth of Jesus gave rise to the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, not the reverse.
If there is no historical or biblical evidence contrary to the virgin birth, what exactly does the Bible have to say on the subject?
The most explicit evidence is found in Matthew 1:18-25. There we are told that Joseph and Mary were betrothed (1:18,20,24), a relationship regarded as the legal equivalent of marriage. In other words, betrothal could be broken only by a formal divorce. This is why Joseph is referred to as her "husband" (v. 19).
However, although betrothed, the relationship had not yet been consummated sexually (see vv. 18,25; also Luke 1:34). Mary's pregnancy is explicitly and repeatedly attributed to the Holy Spirit. Matthew 1:20 asserts: "that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." We read in Matthew 1:16 that Mary is the one “of whom Jesus was born.” The word “whom” is feminine, thereby excluding Joseph. Note also that the repeated active verb in the genealogy, "was the father of" or "begot", gives way to a divine passive in v. 16 (i.e., God is the active agent in the conception and birth of Jesus).
Joseph is instructed to take Mary into his house and to name the child (vv. 20-21) thereby establishing for Joseph legal paternity. This is why the community came to believe that Joseph was Jesus' father (Lk. 2:48; Mt. 13:55).
Luke (1:26-38) is equally as forceful in his articulation of this truth. Mary is explicitly identified as a "virgin" (parthenos, v. 27), a fact she confirms in 1:34. Verse 35 clearly attributes the conception to the work of the Holy Spirit: Gabriel tells Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.”
The terms translated "come upon" and "overshadow" (v. 35) are not euphemisms for sexual relations. They are simply figurative expressions for divine intervention by which God will supercede the natural order of things. For the term "overshadow", see Ex. 40:35; Pss. 91:4; 140:7; Mt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Lk. 9:34 (cf. also Gen. 1:2). The emphasis is on the powerful creative presence of the Spirit in bringing to pass the conception of the man Jesus.
One is certainly free to reject the Virgin Birth if so inclined. I would simply ask that if such is your decision you be honest about the motivation for it. I’m persuaded that it can’t be on biblical grounds or because of contrary historical or archaeological evidence. Perhaps a doctrine that strikes you as utterly counter-intuitive and requires the invasive presence of a supernatural power is unsettling to your western, naturalistic mindset. If so, acknowledge it as such.
I, for one, am content to trust the inspired record of Holy Scripture. Is anything too great for God?