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apologetics, Apologetics of Christ

The Virgin Birth?

Was Jesus born of a virgin?

The question has many facets and nuances. I’m going to focus briefly on two: the possibility of virgin birth, and the question of whether or not the prophecy of Christ was a prophecy about a virgin birth.

Is virgin birth possible? The question centers around one’s worldview. It is intuitively obvious that if God exists, then a virgin birth is possible; while if God does not, then the virgin birth seems highly implausible, at best. Therefore, the question of whether a virgin birth is possible centers around whether or not God exists. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a very important point. However, I believe that this kind of point is central to many questions about the validity of the Scriptural accounts and other things which anti-theists often bring up in debates with theists.

Very often, the question of whether God exists is what is paramount in such debates. For example, the question of whether the moral imperatives in Scripture are right or not betrays metaethical questions lurking in the background: does God exist, and is He the grounding of ethical theory? Similarly, whether or not a virgin birth is possible, whether or not the Flood happened, whether or not Moses parted the Red (Reed?) Sea, and other questions really reveal a metaphysical question: does God exist? If God does exist, then the accounts mentioned are much more likely epistemically than they would be if theism is false. Because I believe there are good reasons to believe in a theistic God (see here for some), I find the question of whether virgin birth is possible more likely epistemically than not.

The second question references a charge that the writers of the Gospels were relying on a mistranslated Hebrew word which did not mean virgin. The argument hinges around the Hebrew word, almah, which is used in the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, “…the virgin (almah) will conceive and give birth to a son…” This prophecy is used by the Gospel writers to refer to the virgin birth of Christ. The word means “young woman.” But, as is the case in English, in Hebrew, words can have more than one meaning. Almah in Hebrew is not the common word for virgin, but it is always used for an unmarried woman (McDowell, 391). The assumption of an unmarried woman was that she was also a virgin (393). Unfortunately, today it is hard for us to see this assumption, for too often young, unmarried women are giving birth.

Further evidence for the use of “virgin” for the word stems from its usage in Isaiah 7:14. The key here is that the prophecy was fulfilled immediately in the context. The King of Judah was told that the virgin birth would be the sign for him from God. The fact that it was to be a miracle signaling God’s unique work in the world as a sign for the King helps further support the idea that the passage is referring to a virgin birth rather than simply any birth, which, one can guess, was not terribly uncommon in Judah.

Even more evidence comes from the fact that the translators of the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint took the word in Isaiah 7:14 and used the Greek word specifically used for virgins. This wasn’t due to a mistake, but because they were familiar with the prophecy itself. It would be a fantastical claim on the part of the objector here to argue that those who were translating the Old Testament into Greek were so unfamiliar with Hebrew that they wouldn’t have recognized the nuance. Such a claim would demand evidence; and no evidence exists.

Therefore, it seems that it was prophesied that Christ would be born of a virgin, and it also seems at least possible that such a birth could happen, on theism.

Merry Christmas.

SDG.

This is part of a series I’ve entitled “Jesus: the Living God,” which explores Jesus from Biblical, theological, and apologetic levels. View other posts in the series here.

McDowell, Josh, Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

23 thoughts on “The Virgin Birth?

  1. “also seems at least possible that such a birth could happen” is not good enough.

    Posted by Atheist | December 22, 2010, 5:58 PM
    • Care to elaborate? I’m referring to epistemic possibility. And, as mentioned, the whole account gains plausibility on theism.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 22, 2010, 6:02 PM
      • “the whole account gains plausibility on theism.” No it doesn’t. Well, okay, I guess in the realm that palm reading gives plausibility to palm readers, etc. You theists are some hard-headed wishful thinkers. “It gives plausibility” therefore it’s true? If only you knew how absolutely pathetically stupid you sounded there. This is why there’s a division between the rich and the poor. The rich know how reality works, and how to manipulate it. Those such as yourselves will continue to be middle-class at best until you put your brain towards reality. But don’t take my word for it.

        Posted by Atheist | December 22, 2010, 7:43 PM
      • A virgin birth pretty obviously has greater epistemic plausibility on theism than on non-theism. If you wish to deny this, I’d like to see your argument. So far what we have is “No it doesn’t” and an implied argument that I am wrong because I am utilizing “wishful think[ing]”. Second, I have no idea what you think entitles you to guessing at my socioeconomic status, and I fail to see the relevance herein. It seems to me that despite my “pathetically stupid” argument, I have at least avoided blatant logical fallacies such as an ad hominem, which you utilized in attacking my intelligence/character/socioeconomic status (and I fail to see how an economic status has any weight on logical reasoning). I have also managed to, in my stupidity, avoid ungrounded axioms, such as responding by saying “No it doesn’t.”

        I pray that one day your epistemological insight might grasp at a higher standard than name-calling, but our discussion so far has yielded little hope.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 22, 2010, 8:01 PM
  2. Hi, Joseph! Merry Christmas! Interesting post and brief discussion that followed. Actually, the discussion didn’t get too far along. Not because you didn’t try but because it doesn’t seem to have been a serious discussion on the part of the other party. Which reminds me of some things I’ve been reading…

    I’ve been re-reading “Mere Christianity” and loving it even more this time around. Also Peter Kreeft’s “Philosophy of Tolkien”. And Dubay’s “Faith and Certitude”. You might enjoy those last two. I’m sure you already read Mere Christianity. I read it last while in my twenties and I appreciate it much more now. I’ve become a fan of Kreeft over the last few years. And he’s a big fan of Lewis and Tolkien. I’ll be reading his “Christianity for Modern Pagans” soon (about the writings of Pascal).

    Hope your Christmas was a happy one and keeping you and yours (and your work) in my prayers. May the Lord bless you richly in the year to come and always, Joseph! 🙂

    Posted by Disciple | December 26, 2010, 10:19 PM
    • It’s not that there wasn’t a serious discussion on my part, it’s that the author failed to present any real evidence that would scientifically verify his case. To say that a virgin birth is “at least possible” is to say that this whole article was written for nothing.

      Posted by Atheist | December 27, 2010, 6:49 PM
      • The whole article was written to show the epistemic viability of the virgin birth. Your failure to distinguish between epistemic and empirical evidence and possibility is not an uncommon one, though that doesn’t remove the error. You’ve been acted as though I have been trying to prove the virgin birth did, indeed, happen. Nowhere did I claim that that was my purpose. My stated purpose was: “Was Jesus born of a virgin?…The question has many facets and nuances. I’m going to focus briefly on two: the possibility of virgin birth, and the question of whether or not the prophecy of Christ was a prophecy about a virgin birth.”

        I went on to demonstrate that the virgin birth is not only possible, but, on theism, much more likely than on nontheism. I then explored the prophecy of the virgin birth.

        The onus is on you to show where I have failed in my points. Of course, perhaps you really do think that, as you said, “To say a virgin birth is ‘at least possible’ is to say this whole article was written for nothing.” In that case you’ve made the error common to empirically oriented atheists–which is to restrict one’s own worldview to what oneself sees and knows and to reject all other possibilities. Such a view is analogous to saying “I am right, and you’re wrong, and that’s that.” It’s not very enlightening. Thankfully, I do not limit myself in such a way.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 27, 2010, 7:09 PM
      • Well, I can tell you that because there is no evidence for a virgin birth, I am right in saying that there has never been one. And you are, in fact, wrong in saying that it did occur. (Remember, it is within the Christian theology that Christ did arrive via virgin birthing. If you wish to only say it is “at least possible”, I dare you to say that in front of your church audience next Sunday with a straight face. Chances are good you’ll be ostracized for your lack of faith. How can you know, epistemologically, that the virgin birth occurred? Either it did, or it didn’t. You failed to give a straight answer. To say a virgin birth is “at least possible” is to show you have doubt. Do you doubt it occurred? If so, be bold! If not, you are a coward who only wishes to pander for the Christian theology.

        Posted by Atheist | December 27, 2010, 7:33 PM
      • Do you know what epistemic possibility means?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 27, 2010, 7:36 PM
      • The reason I ask is because beliefs are always measured against background knowledge. My argument has been:

        1) If theism is true, then the virgin birth is more plausible than if atheism is true.

        Your denial of 1) has been: “Well, I can tell you that because there is no evidence for a virgin birth, I am right in saying that there has never been one.”

        The problems with this objection are numerous. First, you’ve made the profound leap between “I have not observed evidence for a virgin birth” to “there is no evidence.” It is philosophically impossible to prove a universal negative, unless it is a logical contradiction. Therefore, this portion of your objection (namely, that “there is no evidence”) is patently false or inscrutable.

        Second, you’ve begged the question against the theist by using your background of atheism to disprove theism as an epistemic background belief. It would be similar to me saying “There is evidence that the virgin birth occurred, because God says so.” Clearly, you would not accept this argument, but that is the same type of argument you are presenting to me by denying my background belief.

        Again, the argument has been that, on theism, the virgin birth is more likely than on nontheism. You have still failed to provide one viable objection to this argument, and so it remains successful.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 27, 2010, 7:48 PM
  3. Your hard-headedness doesn’t allow for you to see the objection. Let the world know of your utter failure to comprehend logic and ontology. It is scientifically impossible for a virgin birth to occur. You do not seem to understand this, or want to accept it. That’s fine. This is why your religion is [edited for content], because you take a stand against reason. Continue taking the stand against reason. See how far your brain continues to be damaged.

    Posted by Atheist | December 27, 2010, 8:16 PM
    • You are the one who hasn’t offered one valid response to any of my arguments. Your arguments so far have been: a string of ad hominems (case in point in this response), question begging (as in your last response), or fallacious (as when you say that “there is no evidence for a virgin birth”, which again, is a universal negative, which cannot be inductively demonstrated).

      I have yet to see one argument offered that is anything less than utterly illogical. I have demonstrated the illogical nature of your responses, yet you persist in re-asserting them.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 27, 2010, 8:40 PM
      • In fact, in this most recent response you have demonstrated you are unwilling to even address my argument. I never argued that there was scientific evidence for the virgin birth, or that it is scientifically possible. I’ve been arguing that it is epistemically possible, and, in fact, more probable granting theism. Your argument is a textbook example of a straw man. When you decide to address my actual argument, our dialog may continue.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 27, 2010, 8:45 PM
  4. Joseph, I think the problem is that your partner in the discussion is not willing to be an actual partner in the discussion. He or she is not willing to listen to your explanation of the various kinds of evidence that exist in the world. He or she only accepts the notion of scientific evidence and closes off any notion of any other kind. All too common a response. That’s why I mentioned Dubay’s Faith and Certitude. And CS Lewis’s works too, especially Mere Christianity. I really think that anyone who reads those books and really thinks about what is being said rather than merely jumping to unfounded conclusions, but really reads and thinks and weighs what is being said, will find his or her horizons widened to a staggering degree.

    But it will require actually reading, actually thinking, actually listening, actually pondering, actually entertaining that there is something else in the world besides one way of looking at things, and that the way one looks at things determines to a very large degree what one will see.

    Read the books I mentioned, Atheist, and if your mind isn’t set on fire, and your soul, too, then I’ll shut up and not say another to you. Other than Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, that is. You may be an atheist but I am a Christian and I really do wish you much happiness. Blessedness, in fact. Peace be with you.

    Posted by Disciple | December 27, 2010, 9:53 PM
  5. Joseph,

    1st, I want to point out a typo, where you cite Isaiah 17:14, then 7:14. Just a nit.

    Also, I wanted to present a subtle variation on the meaning of Almah, and applicability of the Septuagint. I had read before that Almah was not specifically an unmarried woman, but a young woman, though generally unmarried, and generally a virgin. Wikipedia actually has a good page on the topic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah_7:14), saying basically what I had learned before.

    Note that according to Jewish tradition, this prophecy was fulfilled in Isaiah 8:3, though the child was not named Immanuel. (Of course, that wasn’t Jesus’ given name either.) For Christians, this provides a double-fulfillment of the prophecy. The first fulfillment was a young married woman, not a virgin; the second fulfillment was a young unmarried woman, who was a virgin. Both fit within the meaning of almah.

    As pertains to the Septuagint, there are other mistranslations, and so while I believe God used the Septuagint to call out more blatantly the prophecy of Jesus’ birth, I do not believe the translators had such noble intentions.

    Posted by Mike | December 31, 2010, 1:07 AM
    • Thanks for pointing out my typo!

      It is true the prophecy was immediately fulfilled, which is why the prophecy signifies “typology” in which a prophecy can be multiply fulfilled. The modern bias that a prophecy means one fulfillment is foreign to the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the prophecy was made. The meaning of “almah” is indeed disputed, but the key point is that those objecting to it are asserting that “almah” does not mean virgin–the gospel writers got it wrong. There is no evidence to support this claim. Alternative definitions do not drain individual definitions of meaning.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 1, 2011, 11:11 AM
    • Hi, Mike.

      I was wondering if you might elaborate on what you said about the translators of the Septuagint, mistranslations and less than noble intentions. Thanks!

      Posted by Disciple | January 4, 2011, 2:12 PM
      • My Jewish History professor in college suspected that the reason for the various mistranslations in the Septuagint were the result of an intentional conspiracy between the translators to discredit the translation. I have not been able to confirm it however, and so perhaps I should not write it with such certainty, but I have occasionally run across suspicions elsewhere of a similar nature.

        Posted by Mike | January 5, 2011, 9:39 PM
  6. Here’s where you’re wrong. This isn’t a prophecy about Jesus at all. It’s about Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, the son in the next chapter of Isaiah, of which the prophecy is instantly fulfilled. Jesus was born eight centuries too late for this prophecy to be talking about him, despite the plagiarism that the author of Matthew partook in. Looks like you haven’t read Isaiah at all, sir. Shame on you.

    Posted by Atheist | January 5, 2011, 8:27 PM
    • Ah, the classic misunderstanding of the Ancient Near East. Within the cultural context of the Ancient Near East–which people who submit counter-arguments like the above never so much as research–prophecies were never thought to be capable of fulfillment only once. The Biblical authors certainly reflected this belief, unless “Atheist” is willing to defend the preposterous claim that NT authors were so unfamiliar with the texts they quoted that they didn’t even bother to look at the near context. Furthermore, within the Old Testament itself, the authors reflect views of prophecies fulfilled more than once. This is known as the “apotelesmatic principle.”

      The only shame to be had here, is clearly that of the one who has done little (dare I say “No”) research. Significant argument would be required to overthrow the apotelesmatic principle.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 5, 2011, 8:41 PM
      • It’s also referred to as “typology”: which means that prophetic fulfillments can reflect “types” and Jesus is [often] the anti-type. It’s not just a principle of biblical interpretation, it’s also found in modern literature. Again, a little bit of research solves many problems.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | January 5, 2011, 9:05 PM

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