First published in: Apologia 3(2):4–11, 1994;
last updated 24 December 2014
When biblically-informed Christians talk about the ‘Virgin Birth’ they really mean the ‘Virginal Conception’ (Virginitas ante partum), i.e. that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate, had no human biological father. The doctrine of the Virginal Conception is scriptural and affirmed by early Christians such as Ignatius (d. AD c. 108), Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 212). But there was nothing miraculous about the birth. The true doctrine of the Virginal Conception must be distinguished from some false views:
a) Virginitas in partu: Mary gave birth in such a way as to avoid labour pains and leave her hymen intact. This was first found in the gnostic Ascension of Isaiah (late 1st century),1 and also found in the late 2nd century Protoevangelium of James. Among early Christian writers it was cited first by Clement of Alexandria in the 3rd century, but was rejected by Tertullian2 (c. 155/160–220) and Origen3 (c. 185–254). It is inconsistent with Luke’s quotation of “every male that opens the womb” (2:23). And if the Roman Catholic interpretation of Rev. 12:2 is correct and the woman is Mary, then there are further grounds for rejecting the idea that Mary was free from labour pains.
b) Virginitas post partum or perpetual virginity. This is not asserted before the Protoevangelium of James. Tertullian, despite his ascetic leanings, strongly opposed this doctrine as well.4 Roman Catholics justify this doctrine on the basis of Mary’s statement to Gabriel, “I know not a man.” (Lk. 1:34). They interpret this to mean, “I have taken a vow never to know a man.” This eisegesis was first suggested by Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 394),5 but there are two difficulties here: first, the verb to know (γινώσκω ginōskō) is in the present active indicative, which should not be read as a future intention, and second, she was already betrothed to Joseph (v. 27). Mt. 1:25: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son” also rules out a sexless marriage—deleting the words after “not” would have been the correct way to teach this.
The fact that Jesus’ brethren (ἀδελφοὶ adelphoi) were with Mary (Mt. 12:46–50) suggests that they were his half brothers, sons of Mary and Joseph (taught by Helvidius [4th century] and Protestants). The Eastern Orthodox view is that they were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage (first asserted in the 3rd Century and defended by Epiphanius in the 4th).6 The Roman Catholics view them as cousins (first asserted by Jerome6 (331–420)), although the word συγγενὴς (syngenēs, kinsman, cousin, used of Mary and Elizabeth in Lk. 1:36) could have been used to teach this, as could another Greek word ἀνεψιὸς (anepsios, Colossians 4:10). It is true that adelphoi may sometimes mean ‘cousins’, but the meaning ‘brothers’ follows “a basic, but often neglected hermeneutical principle. It is this: in the absence of compelling exegetical and theological considerations, we should avoid the rarer grammatical usages when the common ones make sense.”7
c) Immaculate conception—this refers not to Jesus’ conception but Mary’s, i.e. Mary was conceived in the normal human manner but free of the taint of original sin. This dogma was not defined by Rome until 1854. It is contradicted by the fact that Mary admitted that she needed a saviour (Lk. 1:46–47) and brought a sin offering to the temple (Lk. 2:21–24, cf. Lev. 12:6–8. See also Rom. 3:23). Smith’s Bible Dictionary points out that there is no trace of this doctrine in the Church Fathers in the first five centuries, and in fact that Mary was criticised by Tertullian, Origen, Basil the Great (329–379) and John Chrysostom (c. 350–407).8 Some of these criticisms of one who was “blessed among women” (Lk. 1:42) are very unfair, but the point is that these early Christians clearly did not believe that Mary was sinless. The Roman Catholic scholar Hilda Graef cites critical comments by these fathers, and also points out that Irenaeus taught that she was not free of human faults,9 and that the great Trinitarian Athanasius (c. 296–373), while not attributing actual sins to her, stated that “bad thoughts” came into her mind.10 Graef admits that it “… shows that the image of the spotless, perfect, immaculate Virgin had not yet emerged in the minds of the 4th Century fathers.”
The New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield11 makes four points, which I summarise as follows:
a) The Virginal Conception does not prove the Incarnation, nor does it say that it could not have happened any other way. But it does point to the union of God and man in Christ.
b) God made a new beginning of the course of the history of his creation by becoming part of it, coming to rescue fallen humanity from sin.
c) Jesus is truly human. The Second Person of the Trinity took on full human nature while remaining fully God.
d) “The Virginal Conception attests the fact that God’s redemption of His creation was by grace alone. … Our humanity, represented by Mary, does nothing more than just accept—and even that acceptance is God’s gracious gift.”
It was also necessary for Jesus to be physically descended from Mary, so He fulfilled the prophecies that He would be a descendant of Abraham, Jacob, Judah and David. Also, the Protevangelium of Gen. 3:15, regarded as Messianic by both early Christians and the Jewish Targums, refers to &dsquo;the seed of the woman”. This is supported by Gal. 4:4, “God sent forth His Son, coming (genomenon) from a woman.” Most importantly, for Jesus to have died for our sins, Jesus, the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), had to share in our humanity (Heb. 2:14), so must have been our relative via common descent from the first Adam as Luke 3:38 says. In fact, seven centuries before His Incarnation, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of Him as literally the ‘Kinsman-Redeemer’, i.e. one who is related by blood to those he redeems (Isaiah 59:20, uses the same Hebrew word goel as used to describe Boaz in relation to Naomi in Ruth 2:20, 3:1–4:17). To answer the concern about original sin, the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35), preventing any sin nature being transmitted.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (NIV).
Many have interpreted the seed in this verse as the Messiah, including the Jewish Targums,12 hence the Talmudic expression “heels of the Messiah”.13 The early church writers called it the protevangelion, or first mention of the Gospel in the Bible. This verse hints at the Virginal Conception, as the Messiah is called the seed of the woman, contrary to the normal Biblical practice of naming the father rather than the mother of a child (cf. Gen. ch’s 5 and 11, 1 Chr. ch’s 1–9). The pronoun hû’ (he will crush your head (NIV), it shall bruise thy head (KJV)) can be translated “he”, “it” or “they”.14 A feminine pronoun (“she”) would have the consonants hî’. The Septuagint15 (LXX) translated the pronoun hû’ as αὐτὸς (autos), although the antecedent σπέρματος (spermatos) is grammatically neuter.14 This suggests that the LXX translators had a messianic understanding of the passage. The Latin Vulgate mistranslates hû’ as ipsa (“she”), which is followed by the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims English translation of the Bible. Some Roman Catholics use this to teach that Mary would crush the serpent’s head. Their main justification is that some Hebrew manuscripts pointed the consonants16 of hû’ (הוא) to pronounce the word in the feminine way.17 However, basing dogma on rare vowel-pointing (which is uninspired anyway) is unwise.
In Gen. 4:1 in the original Hebrew, there is an interesting statement by Eve after the birth of Cain: literally “I have gotten a man: YHWH”, or “I have received a man, namely Jehovah”, as Martin Luther put it.18 The Hebrew Christian scholar, Dr Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, supports this interpretation by pointing out that the word YHWH is preceded by the untranslated accusative particle ’et, which marks the object of the verb, in this case “gotten”.19 The Jerusalem Targum reads: “I have gotten a man: the angel of Jehovah”, while the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says: I have gotten for a man the angel of Jehovah”.20
He believes that Eve’s actual statement shows that she understood that the seed would be both God and man, but she was grossly mistaken in believing that Cain was the seed in question.21 The Midrash Rabbah also cites Rabbi Akiba admitting that the Hebrew construction would seem to imply that Eve thought she was begetting YHWH, which created interpretive difficulties for them, so the translation “with the help of the LORD” is required22—as the NASB also renders it.
Hamilton defends the translation “I have acquired a man from Yahweh”,23 which is essentially the same as the KJV, and does not appear to support the above alternative translation “with the help of the LORD.”
b) Isaiah 7:1–17:24
The context of this verse is that an alliance was threatening the idolatrous king Ahaz. Not only was he in danger, but the house of David was threatened with extinction. Therefore, Isaiah, addressing the house of David (as shown by the plural form of “you” in the original Hebrew of v.13), stated that a sign to them would be a virgin conceiving. To comfort Ahaz, Isaiah prophesied that before a boy (Isaiah’s son, Shear-Jashub who was present, v. 3) would reach the age of knowing right from wrong, the alliance would be destroyed (vv. 15–17). It is important to recognize that the passage contains a double reference, so there is a difference between the prophecies to Ahaz alone (indicated by the singular form of ‘you’ in the Hebrew—atah אתה) and the house of David as a whole (indicated by the plural form—lachem לכם). Some anti-Christians, starting with the medieval Jewish commentator David Kimhi,25 have failed to understand this and misinterpreted the child Immanuel as a sign to Ahaz, possibly Ahaz’s godly son Hezekiah.
The word for virgin here is עלמה (‘almāh). Some liberals26 and Orthodox Jews claim that the word really means ‘young woman’, and this is reflected in Bible translations such as the NEB, RSV, NRSV, and GNB. Such people fail to explain why a young woman’s bearing a son should be a sign—it happens all the time. The Septuagint translates ‘almāh as παρθένος (parthenos), the normal word for virgin.27 Later Jews, such as Trypho,28 Justin Martyr’s (c. 160) dialog opponent, and Rashi29 (11th cent.) have claimed that the Septuagint was wrong. Trypho claimed that ‘almah should have been translated neanis (young girl) rather than parthenos.30
However, even Rashi admitted that ‘almāh could mean ‘virgin’ in Song of Sol. 1:3 and 6:8. In the KJV, the word is translated ‘virgin’ in Gen. 24:43 (Rebekah before her marriage), ‘maid’ in Ex. 2:8 (Miriam as a girl) and Prov. 30:19, and ‘damsels’ in Ps. 68:25. These verses contain all the occurrences of ‘almāh in the OT, and in none can it be shown that a non-virgin is meant. In English, ‘maid’ and ‘maiden’ are often treated as synonyms for virgin (e.g. maiden voyage). Vine et al. note that the other word for virgin, בתולה (betûlāh), “emphasizes virility more than virginity (although it is used with both emphases, too).”31 betûlāh is qualified by a statement “neither had any man known her” in Gen. 24:16, and is used of a widow in Joel 1:8. Further evidence comes from clay tablets found in 1929 in Ugarit in Syria. Here, in Aramaic, a word similar to `almah is used of an unmarried woman, while on certain Aramaic incantation bowls, the Aramaic counterpart of betûlah is used of a married woman.32 The Encyclopedia Judaica, while criticising the translation of ‘almah in Is. 7:14 as ‘virgin’, also points out that btlt was used of the goddess Anath who had frenzied sex with Baal.33
Liberal theologians often assert that modern scientific man cannot believe in the miracles widely accepted in a more primitive age. The following reasons have been advanced, but they are all fallacious:
a) The census: One of the many objections to Luke’s account is an alleged mistake concerning the census in Quirinius’ day (Lk. 2:2). The alleged problem is that Quirinius did not become governor until c. 7 AD according to Josephus, while Christ was born before Herod the Great died in 4 BC. However, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright34 points out that πρῶτος (prōtos) not only means ‘first’, but when followed by the genitive can mean ‘before’ (cf. Jn. 1:15, 15:18). Therefore the census around the time of Christ’s birth was one which took place before Quirinius was governing Syria (Acts 5:37 proves that Luke was aware of the latter). Another possible solution is that Quirinius twice governed Syria, once around 7 BC and again around 7 AD, which is supported by certain inscriptions.35 Under this scenario, Luke’s use of prōtos refers to the first census in 7 BC, rather than the well-known one in 7 AD.
One should be sceptical of charges of error in Luke, for the archaeologist Sir William Ramsay stated: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”36
b) The genealogies: sceptics often allege that the genealogies of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contradict each other and the Old Testament. There are three main areas of concern:
Matthew supposedly erred by leaving some names out. Here are the omissions:
The fact that Uzziah was another name for Azariah is shown by 2 Chronicles 26 , where Uzziah is also reported as the son of Amaziah and father of Jotham.
But Matthew intentionally left a few names out, so it is not a mistake. It is also common in Scripture to use ‘son’ to refer to ‘descendant’, so Matthew was using perfectly acceptable language conventions of his day. In fact, the very first verse of Matthew’s Gospel says “… Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’, which is another clue that Matthew was deliberately not presenting an exhaustive genealogy. And Mt. 1:17 makes it clear that he is selecting 3 groups of 14, possibly because the Hebrew letters in the name David add up to 14, or because 14 = 2x7 (the number ‘seven’ often symbolizes completion, fulfilment or perfection in the Bible).
It is important to note that the clear indication that Matthew deliberately has gaps is no excuse for interpreters putting gaps in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. In Genesis, the grammar is very different and explicitly teaches a strict chronology. See my article Biblical chronogenealogies.
Illustration by Caleb Salisbury
Click for larger picture.
Some liberals, such as John Shelby Spong, Episcopalian Bishop of Newark in New Jersey,37 make much of Paul’s alleged silence to claim that he “stood as a witness to a normal human birth process for Jesus’. However, arguments from silence are nearly always inconclusive, and this is no exception. His alleged silence could mean that he saw no reason to correct the Virginal Conception stories circulating. Paul would certainly have been aware of such stories, as he was Luke’s companion (Acts 16:10–17, 20:5–21:18, 21:1–28:16), and cited Luke 10:7 in 1 Tim. 5:18. Paul does not directly discuss the birth process at all, so by Spong’s ‘logic’, Paul did not believe Jesus went through any birth process! [See also What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong?]
In fact, Paul does use language which implies acceptance of the Virginal Conception. He uses the general Greek verb γίνομαι (ginomai), not γεννάω (gennaō) since ginomai tends to associate the husband in Rom. 1:3, Phil. 2:7, and especially Gal. 4:4, “God sent forth His Son, coming (γενόμενον genomenon) from a woman.” By contrast, in 4:23 Ishmael “was born” (γεγέννηται gegennētai, from gennaō).38,39
Mark has no birth narrative, but he alone of the synoptists quotes objectors saying, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary’ (Mk. 6:3, cf. Mt. 13:55 and Lk. 4:22).38,39 Addressing a Jew as his mother’s son was a great insult, implying fornication, so the objectors had probably heard the account of Christ’s conception, and were sceptical. It is also likely from this that Mark was also aware of the account.
John also has no birth narrative, but he is aware of rumors of Christ’s illegitimacy when he reports in 8:41 that the Jews declared: “We (emphatic pronoun and emphatic position) were not born of fornication.’38 This passage as well as Jn. 1:13 and 6:41 f. probably indicate that the evangelist believed in the Virginal Conception.40
In his recent book Born of a Woman attacking the Virginal Conception,37 Spong claims that the Virginal Conception accounts are examples of the literary genre of midrash (pp. 18, 20, 184). He (mis)understands midrash as follows:
Midrash represented efforts on the part of the rabbis to probe, tease, and dissect the sacred story [Old Testament] looking for hidden meanings, filling in blanks, and seeking clues to yet-to-be-revealed truth …
The gospels, far more than we have thought before, are examples of Christian midrash. In the gospels, the ancient Jewish story would be shaped, retold, interpreted, and even changed so as to throw proper light on the person of Jesus. There was nothing objective about the Gospel tradition. These were not biographies. They were books to inspire faith. To force these narratives into the straitjacket of literal historicity is to violate their intention, their method, and their truth … once you enter the midrash tradition, the imagination is free to roam and speculate.’
However, NT Wright34 points out that Spong does not know what midrash is. Wright shows that Spong ignores the leading current experts on midrash, such as Geza Vermes41 and Jacob Neusner42, since they leave no room for Spong’s distorted view. Spong also ignores Philip Alexander’s43 rebuttal of Michael Goulder’s use of the word ‘midrash’ which Spong relies on. Real midrash consisted of a commentary precisely on an actual biblical text, was tightly controlled and argued, and never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent.
A common objection to the Virginal Conception is that there are supposed parallels in pagan mythology, e.g. the Medusa-slayer Perseus, born of the woman Danaë and sired by Zeus, the chief of the Greek pantheon. Zeus also fathered Herakles from Alkmene and Dionysus from Semele.39 Opponents of Christianity from Trypho and Celsus,44 who was refuted by Origen’s Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), till the present, have used this objection, but it has many flaws:
Many of these points are covered in more detail in the article “Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?’ by the scholar Dr Ronald Nash.
The Virginal conception of Christ is a vital doctrine of Scripture, and has withstood a wide variety of sceptical assaults.