Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, so it only seems fitting that we should turn our attention to the glorious message of Christmas. We will do that by devoting today’s article to 10 things all of us should know about the virgin conception and birth of Jesus.
(1) Some object to this doctrine by pointing to the many parallels to it in ancient literature. Their argument is that countless myths concerning the virgin births of various Greek gods and superheroes were prevalent in paganism. 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, i.e., concocted or fabricated their own story of their “hero” and “Lord” being born of a virgin.
One 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).
(2) It has also been argued that the concept of the virgin birth arose from the church’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Knowing about this prediction of a future virgin birth, the church, so they say, created the gospel accounts to fulfill the prophecy. The problem, however, is that Isa. 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, “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 ofIsaiah 7:14, not the reverse.
(3) Jewish tradition in the first two centuries a.d. tried to provide an alternative explanation. Jesus was not virgin born but was the illegitimate child of Mary and a soldier named Panthera or Pandira, with the man’s name accounting for the use of the Greek parthenos. The virgin birth, so the Jews argued, was a myth created to cover up the stigma of illegitimacy resulting from Mary’s adultery with Panthera [the argument is that the n and the r were reversed]. Clearly, this arose from Jewish propaganda aimed at the Christian belief in the virginal conception of Jesus.
(4) It would be more proper for us to speak of the Virgin Conception of Jesus than of his Virgin Birth. His birth, as far as we can tell, was like any other birth. So, too, was his embryonic development in the womb of Mary. What sets Jesus apart is the fact that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin (cf. Lk. 1:31,35). The biblical evidence is found in Mt. 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38.
(5) The virgin birth was not a demonstrable event. I.e., it was not the sort of miracle that was subject to empirical investigation and proof (as were, for example, the resurrection and the healing of Acts 3-4). We either believe the virgin birth or not based upon our belief in the reality of the supernatural and the integrity of Scripture.
(7) The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the deity of Christ. There was not in the virgin birth a transformation of deity into humanity, as if to suggest that the second person of the Trinity has been transmuted into a man. God the Son did not cease to be God when he became a man.
(8) The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the humanity of Christ. Some argue that being born of a virgin compromises the true humanity of Jesus. Unless Jesus was conceived and born as we all are, he can’t truly share our humanity. But there are four ways of coming into being. First, most are born of man and woman (us). Second, one came into being of man but not a woman (Eve). Third, Adam came into existence without either man or woman. All admit that we, as well as Adam and Eve, are all human. So why not then a fourth way of coming into being: born of woman but not man (Jesus)?
Furthermore, the NT provides overwhelming evidence both for the reality of the virgin birth and the full humanity of Jesus. What then about the purely biological implications of a virgin conception and birth? According to the latter, Jesus did not have a biological father. But if he is to be truly human, he must have a Y chromosome. Where did it come from? There would appear to be only two options: (1) either he got it directly from his biological father (either Joseph or someone else); or (2) God provided it through a miraculous and providential act.
If God had created Jesus a complete human being in heaven and sent him to earth apart from any human parent, it is difficult to see how he could be truly a man. If God had sent his Son into the world through both a human father and mother, it is difficult to see how he could be truly God. Rather, “God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 530).
(9) Was the Virgin Birth necessary to secure the humanity of Jesus from the corrupting taint of inherited sin? Among those who have said Yes are Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. The line of descent from Adam to Jesus is partially interrupted in view of the fact that he did not have a human father. But why would he not have inherited corruption of nature from Mary? Luke tells us that it is because the Holy Spirit is responsible for Christ’s conception that the child in Mary’s womb is to be called “holy” (Lk. 1:35). Contrary to popular opinion, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that the sin nature is transmitted exclusively through the father’s seed.
(10) The principal reason for the virgin birth was so that the entry of God into human flesh might be by divine initiative. It is not by any human act or at any human initiative that salvation comes to us. It is divinely initiated. Man does nothing. Mary did nothing (other than to submit to what God would do). Joseph did nothing. God did it all. The virgin birth, says Donald Bloesch, “graphically shows that salvation comes ‘from above’ and that the source of our hope and confidence lies in the living God who entered into human history in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth marks off the origin of Christ from the human race just as his end is marked off by the resurrection” (94).