“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). Matthew 1:28 ESV.
Familiar words to most Christians, aren’t they? Along with His Death and Resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus is among the most celebrated and unifying events in all of Christianity. Nativity scenes can be found in front of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and all sorts of churches of all denominations. The virgin birth is counted as among the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and was important enough to be counted as one of the twelve articles of the Apostolic Creed. For centuries, the account that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin woman, Mary of Nazareth, was undisputed, at least as far as any known challenges can be documented.
But, then, along came the Enlightenment. With it came the idea that science and reason were the test of Scripture and all truth, and not the reverse. Therefore, if Scripture says that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that is not logical nor scientifically provable, then it must be rejected. Thus, the Jefferson “Bible” excludes any reference to the virgin birth as well as Jesus’ miracles, Deity, resurrection, etc. As time went on, through the historical critical method and other destructive methods of using reason not to teach but to judge Scripture, the Enlightenment principle of reason and science over Scripture slowly infiltrated the thinking of many churches. Surveys confirm this infiltration.
1998: A poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy in the U.S. showed a wide variation in belief. The following ministers did not believe in the virgin birth:
2007-DEC: The Barna Group sampled 1,005 adults and found that 75% believed that Jesus was born to a virgin. 53% of the unchurched, and 15% of Agnostics and Atheists believe as well. Even among those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues, 60% believe in the virgin birth. (Source for surveys.)
It is a great travesty in the Church today that many clergy find themselves looking at their positions only as a job, and will say what they must to preserve their positions. From the source of the polls previously cited comes this quote:
“…one Hampshire vicar was typical: ‘There was nothing special about his birth or his childhood – it was his adult life that was extraordinary….I have a very traditional bishop and this is one of those topics I do not go public on. I need to keep the job I have got.’
Such hypocrisy and blatant deceit is unworthy of anyone, let alone one who claims to proclaim the Word of God and represent Him to the people. yet such is the state of much of the clergy, as indicated by the above polling figures. No wonder the Church is in such disarray, and seems so powerless in the world today!
If Christianity is only a “nice” way of life that is only about love and compassion, then I suppose the virgin birth is not so essential, But if Christianity is an intimate and personal relationship by faith with the Creator of the Universe, then Who that Creator is makes all the difference. And if being born of a virgin is something He says about himself, even once, in His Book, then it might be best if we believe it. After all, wouldn’t you like to know a bit about, say, the pedigree of a dog or horse that you were to buy, or even more so, wouldn’t you like to know all about a future spouse that you profess to love before marriage? (Please forgive the analogy, which is not meant to cheapen God, spouses, dogs, or horses).
The virgin birth of Christ—and I would say, the historical fact that Jesus was conceived by a miracle like unto creation itself—does not travel alone. It ties intimately into other doctrines-the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture, and more. “Scripture cannot be broken”, Jesus said in John 10:35. Even so, the most basic teachings of the Christian faith cannot be broken off and accepted like items on a buffet table. They are all one. Accept all of them-or none of them. That is the challenge that the catechumen, the seeker, the growing disciple of Christ is faced with. Finally, you see, the importance of the virgin birth is found, like all things, bound in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
As far as the prophecy quoted by Matthew, namely Isaiah 7:14, much ink has been spilled on this by scholars with more degrees than I have. Some modern Bible translations, notably the NRSV, CEB, TEV and others use “young woman” to translate the Hebrew word almah. Others, such as the NASB, ESV, NKJB, TNIV (=NIV 2011), use the more traditional “virgin.” The LXX also translates the word “virgin.” While the matter is not as simple as some might make it, certainly I would think that the Septuagint scholars would have known Hebrew and Greek well enough to have chosen a different word besides the Greek word for “virgin” if “young woman” would have been indicated. They had no agenda to support a virgin birth or not. The same cannot be said of some modern translators. The sainted Dr. William Beck wrote a study on this subject, available at www.wlsessays.net/.
Human reason helps us put all of these things together systematically from Scripture; but human reason cannot accept and believe them itself. That, too, is a special creative work of the Holy Spirit. What a delight to know that God wants everyone to know Him as He reveals Himself in Scripture. It is through the very words of Scripture that God creates faith. Through those Holy Spirit given and empowered words He keeps one in the faith. As I stand in awe that God chose this supernatural way to join our human race, so I stand in awe that He created faith in my heart, and has kept that faith to this day. All glory and praise to Him forever!
Finally, though, the virgin birth is a matter of faith. For the individual, it is a matter of personal faith whether one accepts what Scripture says about the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus or not. But the virgin birth is also a matter of THE Faith; that is to say, it is an article of Christian doctrine that is beyond dispute. To accept it is to accept a fundamental, essential doctrine of all Christianity. To reject it is to put one outside the bounds of the Christian faith. I pray that this Advent and Christmas season you will join with me, and with all the Christian world, in celebrating the supernatural way that God chose to enter our human race to bear our sin and be our savior.
Rev. Kent Wartick is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Kent, Ohio. He has been preaching for over 26 years in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. He’s my dad, and an inspiration for the faithful.
There are many charges raised against the historicity of the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. These run the gamut from objections based upon alleged contradictions to inconsistencies in the genealogies to incredulity over the possibility of a virgin birth. Rather than make a case to rebut each of these objections in turn, here I will focus upon using undesigned coincidences to note how these birth narratives of Christ have the ring of truth. How exactly do undesigned coincidences work? Simply put, they are incidental details that confirm historical details of stories across reports. I have written more extensively on how these can be used as an argument for the historicity of the Gospels: Undesigned Coincidences- The Argument Stated. It should be noted that the birth narrative occurs only in Matthew and Luke. John begins with a direct link of Christ to God, while Mark characteristically skips ahead to the action. Thus, there are only a few places to compare these stories across different reports. However, both Mark and John have incidental details which hint at the birth account. These incidental details lend power to the notion that the birth narratives of Jesus are historical events.
First, there is one undesigned coincidence that is such a gaping hole and such a part of these narratives most people will probably miss it. Namely, what in the world was Joseph thinking in Luke!? Do not take my word for this–look up Luke chapters 1-2. Read them. See anything missing? That’s right! Joseph, who is pledged to a virgin named Mary (1:27) doesn’t say anything at all about the fact that his bride-to-be is suddenly pregnant. There is no mention of him worrying at all about it.
So far as we can tell from Luke, Joseph, who we only know as a descendant of David here, is going to be wed to a virgin and then finds out that she’s pregnant. He’s not the father? What’s his reaction? We don’t find out until Luke 2, where Joseph simply takes Mary with him to be counted in the census, dutifully takes Jesus to the Temple, and that’s about it. Isn’t he wondering anything about this child? It’s not his! What happened?
Only by turning to Matthew 1:18ff do we find out that Joseph did have his second thoughts, but that God sent an angel explaining that Mary had not been unfaithful, and that the baby was a gift of the Holy Spirit. So we have an explanation for why Joseph acted as he did in Luke. Now these are independent accounts, and it would be hard to say that Luke just decided to leave out the portion about Joseph just because he wanted to have Matthew explain his account.
The genealogies of Jesus that Matthew and Luke include are different, but they reflect the meta-narratives going on within each Gospel. Luke’s narrative generally points out the women throughout in a positive light, and it is often argued that his genealogy traces the line of Mary. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, traces through Jesus’ legal father, Joseph. Now it could be argued that these are simply reflections of the authors’ imaginations within their fictional accounts, but surely including names with descendants tracing all the way back to Abraham and beyond is not a good way to construct a fictional account. No, Matthew and Luke include the genealogies because their accounts are grounded in history.
Interestingly, the birth narratives of Jesus also help explain the events reported in Mark and John, which do not report His birth. What of the apparent familiarity John had with Jesus in Mark 1:3ff and John 1:19ff? It seems a bit odd for John to go around talking about someone else “out there” who will be better in every way than he himself is without knowing who this other person is. Well, looking back at Matthew and Luke, we find that Mary and Elizabeth (John’s mother) knew each other and had visited each other during their pregnancy. It seems a foregone conclusion that they continued to interact with each other after the births of their sons, which would explain John’s apparent familiarity with Jesus in Mark and John.
Strangely, Mark never mentions Joseph as Jesus’ father. If all we had was Mark’s Gospel, we would be very confused about who Jesus’ father is. The oddness is compounded by the fact that Mary is mentioned a number of times. Well okay, that still seems pretty incidental. But what about the fact that Mark explicitly has a verse where he lists Mary as well as Jesus’ siblings?
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3, ESV)
This verse seems extremely weird. After all, Joseph was a carpenter (well, a more accurate translation is probably “craftsman”) and yet despite Mark explicitly using that word for Jesus, as well as listing Mary and Jesus’ siblings, we still see nothing but silence regarding Jesus’ father. Well, of course! After all, when we turn to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, we find that Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus had no human father. Thus, Mark, ever the concise master of words, simply omits Joseph from details about Jesus’ life. But to not mention Jesus’ father in a largely patriarchal society alongside his mother and siblings seems extremely strange. It is only explained by the fact of the virgin birth, with which Mark would have been familiar. However, Mark didn’t see the birth narrative as important in his “action Gospel.” Only by turning to Matthew and Luke do we find an explanation for the strange omission of Joseph from Mark’s Gospel.
I have listed just a few undesigned coincidences to be gleaned from the birth narratives of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that these can be multiplied almost indefinitely if one looks at the whole of the Gospels, and even moreso if one investigates the whole Bible. These incidental details fit together in such a way as to give the Gospels the ring of truth. The way that Matthew fills in details of Luke, Mark demonstrates his familiarity with the birth narratives, and the intimate connections of Jesus and John are all cross-confirmed is both incidental and amazing. The claim is not that based upon these incidences alone the Gospel accounts are true. No, the claim is that those who challenge the truth of these accounts must account for these incidences in a way that is more plausible than that they simply occur when people relate history. It seems that the only way to do that would be to resort to outlandish narratives that involve the four authors sitting together and discussing which portions of stories to leave out so the others can fill them in. No, instead it seems much more likely that these four authors were writing what they had witnessed–or received from eyewitness testimony, and just as we do when recounting events (think of 9/11, for example, and the different things people remember) they wrote specific details they felt were important or part of the narrative, while the others found other things more important or had other incidental knowledge related to the events they recorded.
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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.
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).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.