By Millard J. Erickson
Following this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
- To illustrate the significance of the virgin birth for developing an understanding of the supernatural, Jesus Christ, and Christian theology as a whole.
- To identify and describe the biblical and historical evidence, specifically from the early church, for the virgin birth.
- To recognize and understand five objections to the virgin birth.
- To refute five objections to the virgin birth, using biblical and rational evidence.
- To formulate a theological doctrine about the virgin birth based on the evidence presented, both pro and con.
After the resurrection, the virgin birth is the most contested event in the life of Jesus Christ. Near the turn of the twentieth century, the virgin birth became an issue that tested people’s belief in the supernatural. While the terminology “virginal conception” more accurately explains the meaning of a conception that is supernatural than does “virgin birth,” the latter has become the most common expression in referring to this doctrine. The two biblical references that discuss the virgin birth, Matthew 1 and Luke 1, satisfy Scripture’s consistency in the belief of the virgin birth. As a key element of Christology, belief in the virgin birth is necessary for Christian theology.
- Why is the virgin birth important to Christian theology?
- What evidence is found for belief in the virgin birth from the early church?
- What objections have been raised against the virgin birth, and how would you respond to them?
- How would you defend the belief in the virgin birth, using Matthew 1 and Luke 1?
- How does belief in the virgin birth contribute to Christology?
The Significance of the Issue
Next to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, perhaps the one event of his life that has received the greatest amount of attention is the virgin birth. Certainly, next to the resurrection, it is the most debated and controversial.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the virgin birth was at the forefront of debate between the fundamentalists and modernists. The fundamentalists insisted upon the doctrine as an essential belief. The modernists either rejected it as unessential or untenable, or reinterpreted it in some nonliteral fashion. To the former it was a guarantee of the qualitative uniqueness and deity of Christ, while to the latter it seemed to shift attention from his spiritual reality to a biological issue.
One reason why there was so much emphasis upon this teaching that is mentioned only twice in Scripture is that there were shifting conceptions of various other doctrines. The liberals tended to redefine doctrines without changing the terminology, as John Herman Randall Jr. observed. As a result, subscription to those doctrines was no longer positive proof of orthodoxy. Thus it was no longer possible to assume that what a theologian meant by the “divinity” or “deity” of Christ was a qualitative uniqueness distinguishing him from other humans. W. Robertson Smith, a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, when accused of denying the divinity of Christ, reportedly said, “How can they accuse me of that? I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus!” In the face of such views, assent to the doctrine of Jesus’ deity did not necessarily entail the traditional meaning: that Jesus was divine in the same sense and to the same degree as the Father, and in a way that is not true of any other person who has ever lived. Thus, not surprisingly the deity of Christ does not appear in some lists of the fundamentals of orthodoxy. Instead, the bodily resurrection and the virgin birth are found there. The fundamentalists reasoned that one who could subscribe to the virgin birth probably accepted other evidences of Jesus’ deity, as these are generally less difficult to accept than the virgin birth. That is why one’s position on the virgin birth was asked of candidates for ordination, for it was a relatively quick and efficient way of determining whether they held Christ to be supernatural. In more recent times, the Asian theologian Choan-Seng Song has interpreted Christ’s incarnation to mean that God is at work in every situation of suffering. Thus the virgin birth is still important to the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation at a specific point in time.
There was an even larger issue here, however. For the virgin birth became a test of one’s position on the miraculous. Anyone who could subscribe to the virgin birth probably could accept the other miracles reported in the Bible. Thus, this became a convenient way of determining one’s attitude toward the supernatural in general. But even beyond that, it was a test of one’s worldview and, specifically, of one’s view of God’s relationship to the world.
One of the major points of disagreement between the conservative and the liberal had to do with God’s relationship to the world. Generally speaking, the liberal or modernist stressed the immanence of God. God was seen as everywhere present and active. He was believed to be at work accomplishing his purposes through natural law and everyday processes rather than in direct and unique fashion. The conservative or fundamentalist, on the other hand, stressed the transcendence of God. According to this view, God is outside the world, but intervenes miraculously from time to time to perform a special work. The fundamentalist saw the virgin birth as a sign of God’s miraculous working, whereas the liberal saw every birth as a miracle. The virgin birth was, then, a primary battleground between the supernaturalistic and naturalistic views of God’s relationship to the world.
The virgin birth means different things to different theologians. What we are speaking of here is really the “virgin conception.” By this we mean that Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary was not the result of sexual relationship. Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception and continued so up to the point of his birth, for Scripture indicates that Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with her until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25). Mary became pregnant through a supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit upon her, but that does not mean that Jesus was the result of copulation between God and Mary. It also does not mean that there was not a normal birth. Some theologians, particularly Catholics, interpret the virgin birth as meaning that Jesus was not born in normal fashion. In their view, he simply passed through the wall of Mary’s uterus instead of being delivered through the normal birth canal, so that Mary’s hymen was not ruptured. Thus, there was a sort of miraculous Caesarean section. According to the related Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, she at no point engaged in sexual intercourse, so that there were no natural sons and daughters born to Joseph and Mary. Certain theologians, for example, Dale Moody, in order to distinguish their interpretation of the virgin birth from that of traditional Catholicism, have proposed the use of the expression “virginal conception” or “miraculous conception” in place of “virgin birth.” However, because of the common usage of the expression “virgin birth,” we will employ it here, with the understanding that our interpretation differs from the traditional Roman Catholic dogma.
There are also disagreements regarding the importance of the virgin birth, even among those who insist that belief in the doctrine must be maintained. Some have argued that the virgin birth was essential to the incarnation. If there had been both a human mother and a human father, Jesus would have been only a man. Others feel that the virgin birth was indispensable to the sinlessness of Christ. Had there been two human parents, Jesus would have inherited a depraved or corrupted human nature in its fullness; there would have been no possibility of sinlessness. Yet others feel that the virgin birth was not essential for either of these considerations, but that it has great value in terms of symbolizing the reality of the incarnation. It is an evidential factor, in much the same way that the other miracles and particularly the resurrection function to certify the supernaturalness of Christ. On this basis, the virgin birth was not necessary ontologically, that is, the virgin birth was not necessary for Jesus to be God. It is, however, necessary epistemologically, that is, in order for us to know that he is God.
On the other hand, some have contended that the doctrine of the virgin birth is dispensable. It could be omitted with no disruption of the essential meaning of Christianity. While few evangelicals take this position actively, it is interesting to note that some evangelical systematic theology texts make little or no mention of the virgin birth in their treatment of Christology. In fact, much of the discussion of the virgin birth has come in separate works that deal at length with the subject.
It will be necessary for us, once we have examined the positive arguments or evidence for the virgin birth, to ask what the real meaning and importance of the doctrine is. Only then will we be able to draw its practical implications.
Evidence for the Virgin Birth
The doctrine of the virgin birth is based upon just two explicit biblical references—Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38. There are other passages in the New Testament which some have argued refer to or at least allude to or presuppose the virgin birth, and there is the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which is cited by Matthew (1:23). But even when these passages are taken into consideration, the number of relevant references is quite few.
We might simply stop at this point and assert that since the Bible affirms the virgin birth not once but twice, that is sufficient proof. Since we believe that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, Matthew 1 and Luke 1 convince us that the virgin birth is fact. However, we must also be mindful that inasmuch as a claim of historical truthfulness is made for the virgin birth, that is, inasmuch as it is represented as an event occurring within time and space, it is in principle capable of being confirmed or falsified by the data of historical research.
We note, first, the basic integrity of the two pertinent passages. Both of the explicit references, and specifically Matthew 1:20–21 and Luke 1:34, are integral parts of the narrative in which they occur; they are not insertions or interpolations. Moreover Raymond Brown finds that between each of the infancy narratives and the rest of the book in which it appears there is a continuity in style (e.g., the vocabulary, the general formula of citation) and subject matter.
In addition, it can be argued that the two accounts of Jesus’ birth, although clearly independent of one another, are similar on so many points (including Mary’s virginity) that we must conclude that for those points both draw independently upon a common narrative earlier than either of them; having greater antiquity, it also has a stronger claim to historicity. Brown has compiled a list of eleven points that the accounts in Matthew and Luke have in common. Among the significant items in which they differ Brown notes Luke’s references to the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the birth of John the Baptist, the census, the shepherds, the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, and Jesus’ teaching there at age twelve. Matthew, on the other hand, has the story of the Magi’s being guided to the child by the star, the slaughter of the infants by Herod, and the flight into Egypt. That despite this diversity both accounts specifically refer to the virginal conception is a strong hint that for this particular item both depended on a single earlier tradition. An additional point of authentication relates to the Jewish character of these portions of the two Gospels. From the perspective of form criticism, then, the tradition of the virgin birth appeared within the church at an early point in its history, when it was under primarily Jewish, rather than Greek, influence.
Whence did this tradition derive? One answer that has been given is that it arose from extrabiblical, extra-Christian sources, such as myths found in pagan religions and pre-Christian Judaism. We will examine these suggestions a little later (pp. 769–70). We note here, however, that the parallels with other religions are rather superficial and the alleged sources differ from the biblical accounts in very significant ways. Further, there is real doubt whether most of them would have been known or acceptable to early Christians. Thus, this theory must be discarded.
In the past it was common to attribute the tradition to Joseph and Mary, who, after all, would have been the only ones with firsthand knowledge. Thus, Matthew’s account was attributed to Joseph, and Luke’s to Mary. When looked at from the perspective of what is mentioned and what omitted, this hypothesis makes considerable sense. But Brown argues that Joseph, who was apparently dead by the time of Jesus’ public ministry, cannot be considered a source for the tradition. And Mary does not seem to have been close to the disciples during Jesus’ ministry, although she apparently was part of the postresurrection community. Brown states that while it is not impossible that she was the source of the material in Luke’s infancy narrative, it is most unlikely that she supplied the material for Matthew’s account, since it does not seem to be told from her standpoint. So Brown concludes that “we have no real knowledge that any or all of the infancy material came from a tradition for which there was a corroborating witness.”
Despite Brown’s arguments it is difficult to accept his conclusion. The argument that Joseph cannot be considered a source of the tradition of the virgin birth because he was already dead by the time of Jesus’ ministry, while an argument from silence, is probably technically correct. He was not a direct source. It does not follow, however, that there is no way in which his personal experiences in connection with Jesus’ birth could have become known to the early community. Did Joseph have no acquaintances in whom he might have confided and who might have eventually become believers and part of the Christian community? And did he and Mary never talk with one another? There also is a too hasty dismissal of the role of Mary. If, as Brown concedes, there is New Testament evidence that she was part of the postresurrection community (Acts 1:14), is she not a likely source of the tradition?
Nor should we too easily dismiss the possibility that other members of Jesus’ family may have played a role. It has been observed that the Protevangelium of James, supposedly an account of Jesus’ birth written by one of his brothers, is highly folkloric and makes elementary mistakes about matters of temple procedure. But does it follow from the undependability of this apocryphal writing that the actual James, who is conceded by Brown to have survived into the 60s, could not have been a reliable source of an accurate tradition? Brown himself made a cogent suggestion in this regard in an earlier writing:
A family tradition about the manner of Jesus’ conception may have lent support to the theological solution [to the problem of how Jesus could have been free from sin]. While there is no way of proving the existence of such a private tradition, the prominence of Jesus’ relatives in the Jerusalem church—e.g., James, the brother of the Lord—should caution us about the extent to which Christians were free, at least up through the 60s, to invent family traditions about Jesus.
If we exclude the family as the source of the tradition, we have the knotty problem as to where it in fact did come from. We have noted that the hypothesis of an extrabiblical source will not suffice. We therefore conclude that “it is difficult to explain how the idea arose if not from fact.” While it is not necessary for us to establish the exact source of the tradition, Jesus’ family still seems to be a very likely possibility.
We should note also that apparently there was an early questioning of Jesus’ legitimacy. There is in Celsus’s anti-Christian polemic (about 177–180) a charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, and that Jesus had himself created the story of his virgin birth. That Celsus’s work is believed to be based upon Jewish sources argues for an early tradition of the virgin birth.
Even within the New Testament, however, there are indications of a questioning of Jesus’ legitimacy. In Mark 6:3 Jesus is identified by his fellow townspeople as “Mary’s son” whereas we would expect to find the designation “Joseph’s son.” This is considered by some to be a reference to a tradition that Joseph was not Jesus’ father; their view is fortified by the statement that the townspeople took offense at Jesus. Generally, when a man in those times was being identified, it was in terms of who his father was. A man was identified in terms of who his mother was only if his paternity was uncertain or unknown. Brown argues that the fact that Jesus’ brothers are also mentioned in Mark 6:3 as a sign of his ordinariness militates against understanding the designation “the son of Mary” as evidence that Jesus was regarded as illegitimate, for the legitimacy of his brothers and sisters would thus be called into question as well. Whether or not Brown’s inference is valid, it is apparent that the evidence of the text is not conclusive. The existence of variant readings (e.g., “the son of the carpenter”) is another warning against drawing hasty conclusions.
One other text bearing upon this issue is John 8:41, where the Jews say to Jesus, “We are not illegitimate children.” The use of the emphatic pronoun ἡμεῖς (hēmeis) could be construed as an innuendo: “It is not we who are illegitimate.”
It would not be surprising if there was a rumor that Jesus was illegitimate, for according to both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, Jesus was conceived after Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they had officially come together. Therefore, he was born embarrassingly early. Matthew in particular may have included the story found in 1:18–25 because a rumor of illegitimacy was in circulation. He may well have been motivated by a desire to preserve both respect for Jesus’ parents and the conviction of Jesus’ sinlessness. Certainly the indications that Jesus may have been thought illegitimate cohere with the virgin conception. They do not, of course, verify it, since another option consistent with those indications would be that he indeed was illegitimate. But at the very least we can assert that all the biblical evidence makes it clear that Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus.
Early Church Tradition
Another evidence of the virgin birth is its strong tradition in the early church. While this tradition does not in itself establish the virgin birth as a fact, it is the type of evidence that we would expect if the doctrine is true.
A beginning point is the Apostles’ Creed. The form we now use was produced in Gaul in the fifth or sixth century but its roots go back much farther. It actually is based upon an old Roman baptismal confession. The virgin birth is affirmed in the earlier as well as the later form. By shortly after the middle of the second century, the early form was already in use, not only in Rome, but by Tertullian in North Africa and Irenaeus in Gaul and Asia Minor. The presence of the doctrine of the virgin birth in an early confession of the important church of Rome is highly significant, especially since such a creed would not have incorporated any new doctrine.
One other important early testimony is that of Ignatius, bishop of Syrian Antioch, who was martyred not later than 117. Arguing against Docetists, he produced a summary of the chief facts about Christ. Adolf von Harnack called Ignatius’s summary a kerygma of Christ. It included a reference to the virginity of Mary as one of the “mysteries to be shouted about.” Several observations make this reference the more impressive: (1) inasmuch as Ignatius was writing against Docetism, the expression “born of a woman” (as in Gal. 4:4) would have been more to his purpose than was “born of a virgin”; (2) it was written not by a novice, but by the bishop of the mother church of Gentile Christianity; (3) it was written no later than 117. As J. Gresham Machen has observed, “when we find [Ignatius] attesting the virgin birth not as a novelty but altogether as a matter of course, as one of the accepted facts about Christ, it becomes evident that the belief in the virgin birth must have been prevalent long before the close of the first century.”
It is true, of course, that there is also early evidence of denials of the virgin birth. Some of these, naturally, were by pagans. More significant, however, are the objections from Jews, who were in a better position to be aware of the facts and might reflect a more accurate picture of the tradition. Some who claimed to be Christian believers also raised objections. Among these various types of opponents of the doctrine were Celsus, Cerinthus, Carpocrates, and the Ebionites. Significantly we do not find anyone who is otherwise orthodox (i.e., who holds to all the other basic doctrines of the orthodox Christian faith) denying the virgin birth. Machen aptly summarizes the negative testimony from the second century: “The denials of the virgin birth which appear in that century were based upon philosophical or dogmatic prepossession, much more probably than upon genuine historical tradition.”
By contrast, the existence of strong positive testimony from the second century coupled with the other types of evidence already cited, argues forcefully for the historicity and factuality of the virgin birth. While not unambiguous or overwhelming, the evidence is sufficient to support belief in the biblical testimony on this important topic.
Objections to the Virgin Birth
A large number of objections have been raised to the virgin birth.
Unexpected Ignorance Regarding the Virgin Birth
It has been argued that persons close to Jesus, most especially Mary, but also his brothers, had no knowledge of a miraculous birth. On the basis of Mark 3:21, 31, it is assumed that they were the ones who came to take him away, believing that he was beside himself. Awareness of a miraculous birth would certainly have gone a long way toward explaining his behavior, which appeared so bizarre to them here.
It has also been pointed out that most of the New Testament is silent on the subject of the virgin birth. How could Mark, the author of the earliest and most basic of the Gospels, omit mentioning this subject if he was aware of it? And why would John’s Gospel, the most theological of the four, be silent on an important issue like this? Further, it is incredible that Paul, with all of his exposition of the significance of Christ and with his strong orientation toward doctrine, should be ignorant of this matter if it really was a fact and part of the early church tradition. For that matter, the preaching of the early church, recorded in the Book of Acts, is strangely silent on this subject. Is it not peculiar that only two books make mention of the virgin birth, and then only in brief accounts? Even Matthew and Luke do not make any further use of or reference to the virgin birth. These are serious charges that demand reply, for if taken at face value, they undercut or neutralize the claim that there was early testimony to the virgin birth.
We must look first at Mark 3. There is no assurance that Mary and Jesus’ brothers (v. 31) were the persons who thought him to be beside himself (v. 21). Literally, the Greek reads “the ones from his,” presumably a reference to persons from his own home. Just who these individuals were, however, is by no means clear. And it is noteworthy that in verse 31 there is no mention of the incident of verse 21. It is likely, then, that the one is not a sequel to the other. Rather the two verses are reporting disconnected occurrences. There is no indication that when Mary and Jesus’ brothers came seeking him, they were concerned about his mental condition or the stability of his actions. No connection is established with the terminology of verse 21, nor is there any hint that this was a second approach by Jesus’ mother and brothers. Moreover a verbal exchange with scribes from Jerusalem intervenes between the two verses. And Jesus’ reference to “my mother and my brothers” contains no hint of an unfavorable reflection upon them (vv. 33–35). There is no warrant, then, to believe that the ones who thought Jesus to be beside himself were his mother and brothers.
Even if Mary had been among those who thought Jesus to be beside himself, however, that surely would not be incompatible with knowledge of the virgin birth. If Mary had expected that Jesus was someday to sit upon the throne of David, there might easily have been perplexity on her part. For the ministry in which Jesus was now engaged seemed to produce opposition and rejection. Yet she may also have been mindful of the fact that, during the period from Jesus’ infancy to adulthood, she had been in a position of superiority over him—caring for him, training him, teaching and counseling him. There had no doubt been times when she had found it necessary to advise him regarding wiser courses of action for his personal life, if indeed his incarnation was genuine. She may have regarded this episode as simply another occasion when her guidance was needed.
Regarding the brothers, some of the same considerations apply. In their case, however, we also have an explicit indication that they did not believe in Jesus during his ministry, or at least at some point during his ministry (John 7:5). Their lack of belief has been cited as evidence that they had no knowledge of a virgin birth and therefore it had not occurred. But we have no reason to assume that they had in fact been told of the virgin birth by Mary and Joseph. While that truth may well have been shared with them at a later point, and may even have had something to do with their coming to faith in him, it is quite possible that they, being younger than Jesus, at the time of their unbelief knew nothing of his unusual birth.
But what of the silence of the other books of the New Testament? The Gospel according to Mark is thought to be particularly significant in this respect, since it presumably is an early and basic document upon which the other Synoptic Gospels build. But one must always be careful in arguing from silence, and especially in this case. Mark does not give any account of Jesus’ birth and infancy. The very design of the book seems to have been to provide a report of the events that had been a matter of public observation, not to give the intimate details of Jesus’ life. In writing as relatively compact a book as he did, Mark inevitably had to make selections from the material available. Mark reports no extended discourses such as we find in Matthew and the type of incident that would be known and reportable by only one or two persons is not found here either. The tradition that Mark based his Gospel upon information supplied by Peter suggests that Mark may have chosen to include only what the apostle had personally observed. These considerations, if accurate, would account for the absence of any reference to the virgin birth. They do not imply either that Mark did not know of it or that the tradition was spurious.
There is, indeed, one item in Mark’s Gospel that some see as a hint that the author did know about the virgin birth. That occurs in 6:3. In the parallel passage Matthew reports that the people of Nazareth asked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:55); and Luke has, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (4:22). However the report in Mark reads, “Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” It is as if Mark is taking pains to avoid referring to Jesus as the son of Joseph. Unlike Matthew’s and Luke’s readers, who had been made aware of the virgin birth in the opening chapter of each of those Gospels, Mark’s readers would have no way of knowing about it. So he chose his words very carefully in order not to give the wrong impression. The crucial point for us is that Mark’s account gives no basis for concluding that Joseph was the father of Jesus. Thus, although Mark does not tell us of the virgin birth, he certainly does not contradict it either.
John also makes no mention of the virgin birth in his Gospel. As with Mark, it should be observed that the nature of John’s Gospel is such that there is no birth narrative. True, the prologue does speak of Jesus’ origin, but this passage is theologically oriented rather than historical, and is followed immediately by a picture of Jesus and John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. There is nothing even approaching a narrative account of the events of Jesus’ life prior to the age of thirty. While some have sought to find an allusion to the virgin birth in John 1:13, that interpretation depends upon a disputed textual reading.
As we observed earlier, there are no references to the virgin birth in the sermons in the Book of Acts. We should note, however, that those sermons were delivered to hostile or uninformed audiences. It would therefore have been unnatural to include references to the virgin birth, for they might introduce an unnecessary obstacle to acceptance of the message and the one on whom it centered.
The remaining consideration is Paul’s writing. Because of his dominant role in the formulation of the theology of the early church, what he says or does not say is of considerable importance. A close reading will find nothing in Paul’s writings or speeches that deals directly with the question of the virgin birth, from either a positive or a negative perspective. Some have seen evidence for and others evidence against the virgin birth in Galatians 4:4, but their arguments do not carry much weight. Some have found Romans 1:3 to be inconsistent with the idea of virgin conception, but it is hard to see any definite contradiction.
The absence of any reference to the virgin birth is nonetheless of concern to us, for if it is a matter of great importance, it seems strange that Paul did not make more of it. We need to see Paul’s writings for what they were, however: not general discourses of a catechetical nature, but treatments of particular problems in the life of a church or an individual. If the occasion did not call for exposition or argument on a particular topic, Paul did not deal with it. Among the great issues about which he did argue are grace and the law, the nature of spiritual gifts within the body of Christ, and personal morality. He did not go into detail on issues concerning the person of Christ, for they were evidently not matters of dispute in the churches or for the individuals to whom he wrote.
To sum up our point: there is nothing in the silence of many New Testament writers on the subject of the virgin birth to militate against it. Somewhat later however, in view of all this silence, we may have to ask about the exact importance of the doctrine. Is it indispensable to Christian faith, and, if so, in what way?
The Possibility of the Virgin Birth Precluding Full Humanity
Some have questioned whether Jesus was fully human if he had but one human parent. But this confuses the essence of humanity with the process that transfers it from one generation to another. Adam and Eve did not have a human father or mother yet were fully human; and in the case of Adam, there was no prior human from whom his human nature could in any sense have been taken.
It may be objected that the absence of the male factor would somehow preclude full humanity. This, however, with its implicit chauvinism, does not follow. Jesus was not produced after the genetic pattern of Mary alone, for in that case he would in effect have been a clone of her and would necessarily have been female. Rather, a male component was contributed. In other words, a sperm was united with the ovum provided by Mary, but it was specially created for the occasion instead of being supplied by an existent male human.
Parallels in Other Religions
Some have suggested that the biblical accounts of the virgin birth are nothing more than an adaptation of similar accounts occurring in the literature of other religions. Plutarch suggests that a woman can be impregnated when approached by a divine pneuma. This remark occurs in his retelling of the legend of Numa, who after the death of his wife withdrew into solitude to have intercourse with the divine being Egeria. There are stories of how Zeus begat Hercules, Perseus, and Alexander and of Apollo’s begetting Ion, Asclepius, Pythagoras, Plato, and Augustus. These myths, however, are nothing more than stories about fornication between divine and human beings, which is something radically different from the biblical accounts of the virgin birth. Dale Moody comments: “The yawning chasm between these pagan myths of polytheistic promiscuity and the lofty monotheism of the virgin birth of Jesus is too wide for careful research to cross.” The similarity is far less than the differences. Therefore, the idea that pagan myths might have been incorporated into the Gospel accounts must be rejected.
A variation of this view connects the biblical accounts with Judaism instead of with pagan religion. The accounts in Matthew and Luke are considered too Jewish to have allowed any direct pagan influence. What we must recognize, however, say proponents of this variant theory, is that in Judaism there was an expectation of a virgin birth. Somehow Judaism had picked up this idea from paganism and incorporated it. It then was transmitted into the Christian documents in its Judaized form.
The problem with this theory is that there is no substantive evidence that Judaism espoused a belief in a virgin birth. It appears that the theory has been constructed on the presupposition that virgin birth is a pagan idea and that, since it would not have been accepted directly, it must have come to Christianity through Judaism. Therefore, it is assumed that such a belief must have existed within Judaism.
Incompatibility with the Preexistence of Christ
An additional major objection to the idea of virgin birth is that it cannot be reconciled with the clear and definite evidence of the preexistence of Christ. If we hold the one, it is claimed, we cannot hold the other. They are mutually exclusive, not complementary. The most articulate recent statement of this objection is that of Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Is this objection valid, however? In the orthodox Christian understanding, Jesus is fully divine and fully human. His preexistence relates to his divinity and the virgin birth to his humanity. The Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, always has been. At a finite point in time he assumed humanity, however and was born as the man Jesus of Nazareth. There is no reason why the preexistence and virgin birth should be in conflict if one believes that there was a genuine incarnation at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life.
Conflict with Natural Law
A final objection to the virgin birth results from a fundamental resistance to the possibility of miracles and the intrusion of the supernatural into the realm of history. This objection may actually lie behind some of the others. Here, however, we will bring it out into the open: normal human birth always requires sexual reproduction involving both a male and a female parent.
We considered the subject of miracles in our chapter on God’s providence. We will here simply point out that one’s position on the possibility of miracles is largely a matter of basic worldview. If one believes that all that happens is a result of natural forces, and that the system of nature is the whole of reality, then there cannot be any “miraculous” occurrences. If, on the other hand, one is open to the possibility of a reality outside our closed system, then there is also the possibility that a supernatural power can intervene and counter the normal functioning of immanent laws. In an open universe, or one that is regarded as open, any event and its contradictory have an equal possibility of occurring. In such a situation, one’s position on particular issues like the virgin birth is a matter of determining on historical grounds what actually happened, not a theorizing as to what can or cannot happen. Our contention is that there is an adequate amount of historical evidence that Jesus was indeed the son of a virgin who conceived without the normal human sexual relationship. If we have no antecedent objection to the possibility of such an event, we are driven to the conclusion that it did indeed occur.
The Theological Meaning of the Virgin Birth
Having examined the evidence for and against the virgin birth and concluded that there is adequate basis for holding to the doctrine, we must now ask what it means. Why is it important?
On one level, of course, the virgin birth is important simply because we are told that it occurred. Whether or not we can see a necessity for the virgin birth, if the Bible tells us that it happened, it is important to believe that it did because not to do so is a tacit repudiation of the authority of the Bible. If we do not hold to the virgin birth despite the fact that the Bible asserts it, then we have compromised the authority of the Bible and there is in principle no reason why we should hold to its other teachings. Thus, rejecting the virgin birth has implications reaching far beyond the doctrine itself.
But, we must ask, is not the virgin birth important in some more specific way? Some have argued that the doctrine is indispensable to the incarnation. Without the virgin birth there would have been no union of God and man. If Jesus had been simply the product of a normal sexual union of man and woman, he would have been only a human being, not a God-man. But is this really true? Could he not have been God and a man if he had had two human parents, or none? Just as Adam was created directly by God, so Jesus could also have been a direct special creation. And accordingly, it should have been possible for Jesus to have two human parents and to have been fully the God-man nonetheless. To insist that having a human male parent would have excluded the possibility of deity smacks of Apollinarianism, according to which the divine Logos took the place of one of the normal components of human nature (the soul). But Jesus was fully human, including everything that both a male and a female parent would ordinarily contribute. In addition, there was the element of deity. What God did was to supply, by a special creation, both the human component ordinarily contributed by the male (and thus we have the virgin birth) and, in addition, a divine factor (and thus we have the incarnation). The virgin birth requires only that a normal human being was brought into existence without a human male parent. This could have occurred without an incarnation, and there could have been an incarnation without a virgin birth. Some have called the latter concept “instant adoptionism,” since presumably the human involved would have existed on his own apart from the addition of the divine nature. The point here, however is that, with the incarnation occurring at the moment of conception or birth, there would never have been a moment when Jesus was not both fully human and fully divine. In other words, his being both divine and human did not depend on the virgin birth.
A second suggestion frequently made is that the virgin birth was indispensable to the sinlessness of Jesus. If he had possessed both that which the mother contributes and what the father ordinarily contributes, he would have had a depraved and hence sinful nature, like the rest of us. But this argument seems to suggest that we too would be sinless if we did not have a male parent. And this in turn would mean one of two things: either (1) the father, not the mother, is the source of depravity, a notion that in effect implies that women do not have a depraved nature (or if they do, they do not transmit it), or (2) depravity comes not from the nature of our parents, but from the sexual act by which reproduction takes place. But there is nothing in the Scripture to support the latter alternative. The statement in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” simply means that the psalmist was sinful from the very beginning of life. It does not mean that the act of conception is sinful in and of itself.
We are left, then, with the former alternative, namely, that the transmission of sin is related to the father. But this has no scriptural grounding either. While some support might be found in Paul’s statement that it was the sin of Adam (Rom. 5:12) that made all humans sinners, Paul also indicates that Eve, not Adam, “was the [one] who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim. 2:14). There are no signs of greater sinfulness among men than among women.
The question arises, If all of the human race is tainted by the original sin, would not Mary have contributed some of its consequences to Jesus? It has been argued that Jesus did have a depraved nature, but he committed no actual sin. We would point out in reply that the angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). It seems likely that the influence of the Holy Spirit was so powerful and sanctifying in its effect that there was no conveyance of depravity or of guilt from Mary to Jesus. Without that special sanctifying influence, he would have possessed the same depraved nature that all of us have. Now if the Holy Spirit prevented corruption from being passed from Mary to Jesus, could he not have prevented it from being passed on by Joseph as well? We conclude that Jesus’ sinlessness was not dependent on the virginal conception.
We noted earlier that the virgin birth is not mentioned in the evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts. It may well be, then, that it is not one of the first-level doctrines (i.e., indispensable to salvation). It is a subsidiary or supporting doctrine; it helps create or sustain belief in the indispensable doctrines, or reinforces truths found in other doctrines. Like the resurrection, it is at once a historical event, a doctrine, and an evidence. It is quite possible to be unaware or ignorant of the virgin birth and yet be saved. Indeed, a rather large number of persons evidently were. But what, then, is the significance of this teaching?
- The doctrine of the virgin birth is a reminder that our salvation is supernatural. Jesus, in telling Nicodemus about the necessity of new birth, said that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5b–6). John stated that those who believe and receive authority to become children of God are born “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13). The emphasis is that salvation does not come through human effort, nor is it a human accomplishment. So also the virgin birth points to the helplessness of humans to initiate even the first step in the process. Not only is humanity unable to secure its own salvation, but it could not even introduce the Savior into human society.
The virgin birth is, or at least should be, a check on our natural human tendency toward pride. While Mary was the one who gave birth to the Savior, she would never have been able to do so, even with the aid of Joseph, if the Holy Spirit had not been present and at work. The virgin birth is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity. Paul wrote in another connection, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). The virgin birth is a reminder that our salvation, though it came through humanity, is totally of God.
- The virgin birth is also a reminder that God’s salvation is fully a gift of grace. There was nothing particularly deserving about Mary. Probably countless Jewish girls could have served to give birth to the Son of God. Certainly Mary manifested qualities that God could use, such as faith and dedication (Luke 1:38, 46–55). But she really had nothing special to offer, not even a husband. That someone apparently incapable of having a child should be chosen to bear God’s Son is a reminder that salvation is not a human accomplishment but a gift from God, and an undeserved one at that.
- The virgin birth is evidence of the uniqueness of Jesus the Savior. Although there could have been an incarnation without a virgin birth, the miraculous nature of the birth (or at least the conception) serves to show that Jesus was, at the very least, a highly unusual human singled out by God in particular ways.
- Here is another evidence of God’s power and sovereignty over nature. On several occasions (e.g., the births of Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist) God had provided a child when the mother was barren or past the age of childbearing. Surely these were miraculous births. Even more amazing, however, was this birth. God had pointed to his tremendous power when, in promising a child to Abraham and Sarah, he had asked rhetorically, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son” (Gen. 18:14). God is all-powerful, able to alter and supersede the path of nature to accomplish his purposes. That God was able to work the seemingly impossible in the matter of the virgin birth symbolizes his ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of granting a new birth to sinners. As Jesus himself said in regard to salvation: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998).