The accounts of Jesus’s birth in Matthew (chapter 1) and Luke (chapters 1-2) are clear and unequivocal: Jesus’s birth was not ordinary. He was not an ordinary child, and his conception did not come about in the ordinary way. His mother, Mary, was a virgin, having had no intercourse prior to conception and birth. By the Holy Spirit, Mary’s womb became the cradle of the Son’s incarnation (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35).
Of course, the doctrine of the virgin birth (or more precisely, the virginal conception) has been ridiculed by many outside the church, and, in modern times, by not a few voices inside the church. Two arguments are usually mentioned.
First, the prophecy about a virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, it is argued, actually speaks of a young woman and not a virgin. (To be fair, some scholars make this argument about Isaiah’s prophecy and still believe in the virgin birth). Many have pointed out that the Hebrew word in Isaiah is almah and not the technical term for virgin, bethula. It is true that almah has a wider semantic range than bethula, but there are no clear references in the Old Testament where almah does not mean virgin. The word almah occurs nine times in the Old Testament, and wherever the context makes its meaning clear, the word refers to a virgin. More importantly, the Septuagint translates almah with the Greek word parthenos (the same word used in Matthew 1:23 where Isaiah 7:14 is quoted), and everyone agrees that parthenos means “virgin.” The Jewish translators of the Septuagint would not have used a clear Greek word for virgin if they understood Isaiah 7:14 to refer to nothing more than a young woman.
Second, many have objected to the virgin birth because they see it as a typical bit of pagan mythologizing. “Mithraism had a virgin birth. Christianity had a virgin birth. They are all just fables. Even Star Wars has a virgin birth.” This popular argument sounds plausible at first glance, but there are a number of problems with it.
(1) The assumption that there was a prototypical God-Man who had certain titles, did certain miracles, was born of a virgin, saved his people, and then got resurrected is not well-founded. In fact, no such prototypical “hero” existed before the rise of Christianity.
(2) It would have been unthinkable for a Jewish sect (which is what Christianity was initially) to try to win new converts by adding pagan elements to their gospel story. I suppose a good Jew might make up a story to fit the Old Testament, but to mix in bits of paganism would have been anathema to most Jews.
(3) The supposed virgin birth parallels are not convincing. Consider some of the usual suspects.
Alexander the Great: his most reliable ancient biographer (several centuries after his death) makes no mention of a virgin birth. Besides, the story that began to circulate (after the rise of Christianity) is about an unusual conception, but not a virgin birth. Alexander’s parents were already married when he was born.
Dionysus: like so many of the pagan “parallels,” he was born when a god (in this case Zeus) disguised himself as a human and impregnated a human princess. This is not a virgin birth and not like the Holy Spirit’s role we read about in the Gospels.
Mithra: he’s a popular parallel. But he was born of a rock, not a virgin. Moreover, the cult of Mithra in the Roman Empire dates to after the time of Christ, so any dependence is Mithraism on Christianity and not the other way around.
Buddha: his mother dreamed that Buddha entered her in the form of a white elephant. But this story doesn’t appear until five centuries after his death, and she was already married.
In short, the so-called parallels always occur well after the life in question, well into the Christian era, and are not really stories of virginal conceptions.
What’s the Big Deal?
Even if professing Christians accept the virgin birth, many would have a hard time articulating why the doctrine really matters. Several years ago, Rob Bell (in)famously argued that it wouldn’t be a big deal if we discovered “Jesus had an earthly father named Larry.” What if the virgin birth was thrown in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults? What if the word for virgin referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? Bell suggested that none of this would be catastrophic to the Christian faith because Jesus would still be the best possible way to live.
So what is the big deal about the virgin birth? Why does it matter?
For starters, the virgin birth is essential to Christianity because it has been essential to Christianity. That may sound like weak reasoning, but only if we care nothing about the history and catholicity of the church. Granted, the church can get things wrong, sometimes even for a long time. But if Christians, of all stripes in all places, have professed belief in the virgin birth for two millennia, maybe we should be slow to discount it as inconsequential. In his impressive study of the virgin birth, J. Gresham Machen concluded that “there can be no doubt that at the close of the second century the virgin birth of Christ was regarded as an absolutely essential part of the Christian belief by the Christian church in all parts of the known world.” It takes a lot of hubris to think that an essential article of faith for almost 2,000 years of the Christian church can be set aside without doing damage to the faith.
Second, the gospel writers clearly believed that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. We don’t know precisely how the Christ-child came to be in Mary’s womb, except that the conception was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). But we do know that Mary understood the miraculous nature of this conception, having asked the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The Gospels do not present the virgin birth as some prehistoric myth or pagan copy-cat, but as “an orderly account” of actual history from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). If the virgin birth is false, the historical reliability of the gospels is seriously undermined.
Third, the virgin birth demonstrates that Jesus is truly human and truly divine. This is the point the Heidelberg Catechism makes when it asks in Question 35, “How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?” The answer: “He is our mediator, and with his innocence and perfect holiness he removes from God’s sight my sin—mine since I was conceived.” If Jesus had not been born of a human, we could not believe in his full humanity. At the same time, if his birth were like any other human birth—through the union of a human father and mother—we would question his full divinity. The virgin birth is necessary to secure both a real human nature and a completely divine nature.
Finally, the virgin birth is essential because it means Jesus did not inherit the curse of depravity that clings to Adam’s race. Jesus was made like us in every way except for sin (Heb. 4:15; 7:26-27). Every human father begets a son or daughter with his sin nature. This is the way of the world after the fall. Sinners beget sinners (Ps. 51:5). Always. If Joseph was the real father of Jesus, or Mary had been sleeping around with Larry, Jesus is not spotless, not innocent, and not perfectly holy. And as result, we have no mediator and no salvation.
The virgin birth is part of what Christians have believed in all times and in all places, and it is a key element in what it means for the incarnation to be “for us and for salvation.” We ignore the doctrine at our peril; we celebrate it to our benefit and to God’s glory.