I. Theological Preliminaries
1. Strictly speaking, it is wrong to describe the birth of Jesus as a miracle. The birth process was normal; so normal that Mary made a sacrificial offering required by the Mosaic Law as a woman was considered ceremonially unclean after giving birth. The miracle refers not to the birth, but to the conception of Jesus outside any sexual relations. The caveat duly noted, I shall continue to use the phrase “virgin birth” in accordance with convention.
Modern critics argue that belief in the virgin birth undermines Christian faith as it precludes the full humanity of Jesus. Rather than refuting hypothetical possibility with other hypothetical possibilities (mystere pour mystere), I shall presently focus on the Biblical testimony that the virgin birth does not compromise the full humanity of Jesus (Hebrews 2:14, 17). Likewise, Jesus sharing of our full humanity that includes a normal birth (and human temptation) does not undermine the sinlessness of Jesus (Hebrews 4:15).
A.N.S. Lanes provides a balanced assessment of the theological significance of the virgin birth.
“The role of Christ requires that there should be both continuity and discontinuity between him and us; that he should be one of us (Hebrews 2:10-18) and yet also different from us. Jesus is the second “Adam” – one of the human race, yet inaugurating a new redeemed humanity. The virgin birth points to this combination of continuity and discontinuity.” [See “Virgin Birth” in New Dictionary of Theology ed. Sinclar Ferguson & David Wright (IVP1988), pp. 709-710].
2. That Mary was divinely chosen as an instrument for the “virgin birth” does not require us to believe in the perpetuity Mary’s virginity. As the Bible testifies, “[Joseph] took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1:25). In this verse, the verb γινώσχω means “come to know, know,” is a euphemism for sexual relations, and the word “until” suggests that sexual relations between Joseph and Mary took place after the birth of Jesus.
3. The virgin birth gives a plausible explanation why Mary joined the group of believers who prayed to, and even worshiped Jesus as the divine Lord (Act 1:14). It is psychologically incredulous that Mary could come to accept Jesus as the divine Savior who died to save mankind of their sin, if it was the case that this Jesus was the fruit of her sexual union with Joseph.
4. The virgin birth is merely a sign pointing to the divine nature of Jesus. Belief in the virgin birth is not motivated by concerns to preserve Jesus from contagion of impurity resulting from sexual union that could undermine the sinlessness of Jesus, and therefore his claim to deity. Human virginity however pure, can never produce an offspring who is God, although human virginity through the creative power of God can become a sign of divine grace. It is the Holy Spirit who ensures the sinlessness of Jesus. As John Calvin fittingly explains,
…we make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster 1960), 2.13.4.]
5. The virgin birth emphasizes that man (both humanity and male) has absolutely not part to play in the incarnation of Jesus and his mission to save humankind. The conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb was purely an act of God. Man is involved not as one who is independent and able to control what is to happen, but as one who must be submissive and receptive of the grace of God. Indeed, the virgin birth is a judgment of the limitation of sinful humanity and the sovereignty and efficacy of divine grace. Karl Barth argues that the virgin birth is necessary as “human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation… The virginity of Mary in the birth of the Lord is the denial, not of man in the presence of God, but of any power, attribute or capacity in him for God” (Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 188ff).
II. The Prophecy of Virgin Birth in Isaiah and its Fulfilment in the Book of Matthew
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
In 734 BC, the kings of Syria and Ephraim made preparations to invade Judah to force it to join their coalition to fight against Assyria. Isaiah challenged King Ahaz of Judah to look to God for deliverance. He dared King Ahaz to ask for a sign that could be as “deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” Surely, a spectacular, miraculous act was envisaged. Isaiah prophesied that a virgin will conceive and bear a son as a miraculous sign. The word used,‛almâ has traditionally been understood as ‘virgin’ but modern critics argue that Isaiah could not have referred to a virgin when he uses the word עַלְמָ֗ה ‛almâ since there is a technical word for virgin, which is בְֶּתוּלָה (bĕtûlâ)..
Bĕtûlâ is a not technical word for ‘virgin’ in OT Times
Gordon Wenham has mounted a serious challenge to the claim of betûlâ as a technical term for a virgin. See BETÛLAH ‘A GIRL OF MARRIAGEABLE AGE’ in Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972), pp. 326-348. His findings are incorporated below:
1. Whether betûlâ is used in a general sense, “young woman” or a more particular sense “virgin” cannot be decided for Ex 22:16f ; Deut 22:28–29; Lev 21:2–3; etc. But in Lev 21:13–14 and Ezk 44:22 where betûlâ is contrasted with various classes of women who have had sexual experience, it seems probable that the concept of “virgin” is in view. Note too, that Joel 1:8 applies the word betûlâ to a married woman.
2. Of importance are the qualifying clauses that follow the word bĕtûlâ. Lev. 21:2-3 adds the clause, “whom no man had known”. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebekah as a bĕtûlâ which in the context describes her as unmarried. The verse includes an added explanation, “and she had never known a man” (Likewise, Judges 21:12). These qualifying clauses are redundant and the added explanation is unnecessary if bĕtûlâ is a technical term for “virgin”.
3. Deut 22:13-21 refers to a case involving presentation of “tokens” to serve as proof that a wife was not pregnant when she was married. In other words, if the wife was not pregnant, she was presumed to be a virgin. Wenham argues that the test is not one of virginity but chastity. As such, bĕtûlîm or bĕtûlâ do not speak of virginity in this disputed text. This interpretation of bĕtûlîm also support the view that bĕtûlâ is a “girl of marriageable age,” since the onset of menstruation would be the clearest sign that she had attained that age. Wenham concludes the word in context has a more general meaning of “nubile adolescence.”
4. In eight places the word bĕtûlâ is contrasted to or combined with the Hebrew word for young man (Deut 32:25; II Chr 36:17; Ps 148:12; Isa 62:5; Jer 51:22; Lam 1:18; 2:21; Zech 9:17). In these places the phrases signify no more than young men and women.
5. Bĕtûlâ originally meant “young marriageable woman”. It is assumed in ancient culture that she was normally a virgin. As such, it is naturally to attach this meaning to the word. The more technical meaning of “virgin” is a later development in Hebrew and Aramaic. The same development is observed in other languages like Greek parthenos and Latin virgo. In the light of these linguistic evidence critics have no basis to insist that Isaiah in 7:14 would have used bĕtûlâ as a more precise term thanʿalmâ if he intended to refer to a virgin.
I end this discussion with Wenham’s own concluding words,
To sum up. Akkadian and Ugaritic cognates suggest that Hebrew bĕtûlâ should be translated “girl of marriageable age’ rather than Virgin’. This is substantiated by an examination of the biblical texts mentioning betûlôt. Since many betûlôt were virgins it was not difficult to confuse the concepts. It can be well understood that bĕtûlâ came to include within its range those features which may usually be presumed in an unmarried girl, and may even, in context, be used to express this narrow meaning. But this is very far from the common assertion that bĕtûlâ is a technical term for ‘Virgin’.
The Meaning of ‛almâ
The word ‛almâ is used 9X in the OT, 5X in plural and 4X in singular.
The great archaeologist Cyrus Gordon observes, “Based on the text celebrating the marriage of lunar deities, Nikkal and Yarih which gives a prediction that the goddess will bear a son, “in 77.7 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew ‘almah “young woman”; in 77.5 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew bĕtûlâ “virgin.” Therefore, the New Testament rendering of ‛almâ as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a [1400BC] clay tablet. [“Almâ in Isaiah 7:14” in Journal of Bible and Religion 21 (1953), p. 106.]
Alec Motyer outlines the various linguistic usage of the word in the OT– In Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19 and Song of Solomon 1:3 the contexts throw no decisive light on the meaning of the word. In Genesis 24:43 and Exodus 2:8 the reference is unquestionably to an unmarried girl, and in Song of Solomon 6:8 the ‛alāmôṯ, contrasted with queens and concubines, are unmarried and virgin. Thus, wherever the context allows a judgment, ‛almâ is not a general term meaning ‘young woman’ but a specific one meaning ‘virgin’.
Genesis 24 is particularly important as providing a direct comparison of ‛almâ and beṯûlâ. Abraham’s servant’s prayer (24:14) is couched in terms of a ‘girl’ (na‛arâ), of marriageable age (beṯûlâ) and single (‘no man had ever lain with her’). The qualifying words indicate that by itself beṯûlâ is not specific. In the light of this accumulating knowledge of Rebekah, verse 43 finally describes her as ‛almâ, which is clearly a summary term for ‘female, marriageable, unmarried’. There is no ground for the common assertion that had Isaiah intended virgo intacta he would have used beṯûlâ. ‛almâ lies closer to this meaning than the other word. In fact this is its meaning in every explicit context. Isaiah thus used the word which, among those available to him, came nearest to expressing ‘virgin birth’ and which, without linguistic impropriety, opens the door to such a meaning. [Motyer, J. A. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (IVP 1996), pp. 84-85.]
There is obviously some overlap of meaning between beṯûlâ and ‛almâ, although it should be noted that ‛almâ is never used of a married woman in the OT. Motyer in his commentary on Isaiah refers to E.J. Young who declares that no one has produced a text from the Hebrew or Ugaritic language where ‛almâ is used to refer to a married woman. John Oswalt asserts that while ‛almâ denotes a sexually mature, but young woman, “it would be would be axiomatic in Hebrew society that such a woman would be a virgin. While the virginity would not be the main focus, as with betȗlâ, nonetheless it would still follow. The English “maiden” comes very close to having the same denotations and connotations. Such an understanding has the significant virtue of explaining the origin of the LXX parthénos, “virgin,” something those commentators opting for “a young woman of marriageable age” do not mention. Unless ‛almâ had overtones of virginity about it, the LXX translation is inexplicable. [John Oswalt, Book of Isaiah Chapter 1-39 INCOT (Eerdmans 1986), p. 210. Contra Hans Wildberger Isaiah 1-12 Continental Commentary (Fortress 1991), pp. 306-308]
E.J. Young explains why Isaiah chooses the word ʿalmah for virgin.
If Isaiah had used this word bethulah, he would have left us in confusion. We could not have known precisely what he had in mind. Would he have been speaking of one who was truly a virgin or would he rather have had in mind one who was betrothed or one who was actually a wife? In the light of these considerations it appears that Isaiah’s choice ofʿalmah was deliberate. It seems to be the only word in the language which unequivocally signifies an unmarried woman. No other available Hebrew word would clearly indicate that the one whom it designates was unmarried. Consequently, no other word would have been suitable for fulfilling the requirements of the sign such as the context demanded. None of these other words would have pointed to an unusual birth. Only ʿalmah makes clear that the mother was unmarried. [E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–18 Vol. 1 (Eerdmans 1965), p. 288.]
The Child as an Extraordinary Sign from God
It is tempting for critics to resort to hermeneutical evasion of supernatural signs from God by first introducing the mother as a young unmarried woman, and then surreptitiously, as it were, let her get married before she conceives and bears a son. Surely, Isaiah would have used the Hebrew word אִשָּׁה ’iššâ if this was what he intended? Furthermore, a son resulting from such a marriage could hardly qualify as an extraordinary sign. Finally, naming the child “Immanuel” (God is with us or God be with us), to assure Judah of God’s presence when faced with the threat of invasion by Syria and Ephraim would be dismissed as nothing more than pious hope by the faithless King. The identity of the child has remained contentious, with suggestions ranging from the offspring of Isaiah’s marriage to a prophetess, Maher-shalal-hash-baz to Hezekiah. All these suggestions ignore Isaiah’s fuller and glorious prophecy of Immanuel in the next two chapters.
Other scholars trade on the semantic flexibility of ʿalmah and suggest that God led Isaiah to use the word so the predicted mother could be simply a young unmarried woman or a virgin. This allows the possibility of a double fulfillment, a young woman in Isaiah’s day and a virgin hundreds of years later (Matt 1:23). But then, it would be wrong to fault Ahaz for unbelief if God speaks with such ambiguity through his prophet.
Alec Moyter gives the most adequate interpretation by bringing out the dynamism of Isaiah’s prophecy as events unfold with wider concentricity and scope. For example, Isaiah presents the Servant in “a series of identifications: first with Israel (chap. 41 & 42), then with Cyrus (chap. 43-48), then with the remnant (chap. 49-51) until, all having failed, the Servant necessarily remains a coming individual with soteriological aims and accomplishments on a universal scale.” [Alec Motyer, “Context and Content in the Interpretation of Isaiah 7:14” in Tyndale Bulletin 21(1970).] The same dynamism must also be taken into account in Isaiah’s prophecy on Immanuel.
When Ahaz rejected the offer of a sign which is a “present persuader” and a “future confirmation” (7:10-12), the prophet gave a prophecy which represents a challenge and a judgment. Immanuel will eat curd and honey could be understood to refer to the only food left after the land is devastated in the day of the Lord (7:18-22), followed by the destruction of Judah’s enemies. The threat of the dissolution of the house of David (7:2, 13), remains, not least from Assyria (7:18-8:8; 10:5-15).
Because of Ahaz’s faithlessness, the purpose of the sign given (Immanuel) is no longer to assure Ahaz or influence his policy. The sign will still confirm the truth of the prophet’s word, but in a different way and following a different time frame as it now concerns the future of the Davidic dynasty. The present danger will fade but it will be followed by graver danger resulting from Ahaz bringing in Assyria. Judah will suffer for a while but will eventually be restored by a new Davidic King, Immanuel. In effect, the Immanuel sign has moved beyond the immediate crisis facing Ahaz to the future. This is confirmed in chapter 8-9 which give a fuller description of Immanuel as a righteous ruler in contrast to the unrighteous king Ahaz.
Still, there is a need for the prophet’s warning to be vindicated. Isaiah’s prophetess wife bore a son, Mahershalal-hash-baz (The spoil speeds, the prey hastens), which signifies that both the spoils (šālal) of Samaria (the capital of Israel) and Damascus (the capital of Syria) will be plundered by the king of Assyria. The purpose of the second sign is not to persuade the hardened Ahaz but to vindicate Isaiah’s prophetic word after it should come to pass, and so was intended to move some people to faith or to keep them firm in faith.[Acknowledgement of this insight to Joseph Jensen, “The Age of Immanuel,” CBQ (1979). Jensen suggests Immanuel eating ‘curd and honey’ refers not to food left after the devastation of the land, but “a period of affliction that is to come upon Judah for punishment and purification; in this period of suffering Immanuel will pass his youth and thus come to discipline maturity.” Furthermore, the phrase ” to know good and evil” refers not to Immanuel’s infancy but to his maturity.]
Judgment is not God’s last word as he will save a remnant (10:20-23) and reestablish the throne of David through the eschatological ruler Immanuel, who also bears the titles, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:1-17, 11:1-16). Such a grand vision sweeps beyond events of Isaiah’s times. Such a ruler can be none other than the Davidic Messianic King.
It is when interpreters fail to keep together both the Immanuel sign (which has shifted its focus beyond the immediate crisis) and the Mahershalal-hash-baz sign (which vindicates Isaiah’s warning to the king of impending disaster) that they have been unable to resolve what seems to be a vexing and recalcitrant problem of matching the present and future fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
It is also apparent that the critics’ attempts to fix the identity of Immanuel remain problematic when the scope of the prophecy is confined to the events immediately surrounding Isaiah 7:14. Instead, the whole prophetic discourse (Isaiah 7-9:7) should be read as a unit. Additional clues for the identity of Immanuel are given in chapter 8-9: (a) Immanuel is one who owns the land of Canaan (Isaiah 8:8). Motyer in his commentary notes that the ‘land’ is a political unit only in the case of kings (e.g. Dt. 2:31; 2 Sa. 24:13), Israel personified or some other personification (e.g. Je. 2:15; Ho. 10:1), or of the Lord (e.g. 1 Ki. 8:36; Ezk. 36:5), (b) the child also is the ground for the security of the nation (8:10). Finally, (c) the child bears the astounding designation ‘Mighty God’ (9:6). These credentials certainly match the demand for an extraordinary sign waiting to be fulfilled.
E.J. Young captures the wider vision of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Due to the faithlessness of King Ahaz, Isaiah proceeds with an announcement not of some contemporary birth, neither that of Hezekiah, nor of any unknown, obscure child. Rather, in dim and strange vision he looks forward to the birth of One whose very presence brings God to His people. When that Child will have been born, then God will have come to His own. “I will be their God,” He had promised, and now, in the time of their deep need, He would come to His own, not by might nor by power, but in the birth of a little Child. [Young, Book of Isaiah vol. 1, p. 291]
Searching through history we find only one event which satisfies the wider vision of the prophetic unit:
(1) The mother of Immanuel is both an unmarried virgin and is a good, moral person. This points to Mary the mother of Jesus
(2) The child who owns the land of Canaan embodies the reign of God in the tradition of the Davidic King (Isaiah 8:8, 10) and even bears the exalted name “Mighty God.” The infancy narrative in Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
III. The Ultimate Fulfilment of Isaiah’s Prophecy in Matthew
Matthew 1:18, 22 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit… All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Matthew uses the introductory formula, “All this took place to fulfull” to indicate that regardless of how prophecies may be partially fulfilled in Isaiah’s times, it is now completely and gloriously consummated in Jesus Christ.
Scholars often speculate and debate why Jesus had to be born from a virgin, but Matthew is not trying to ‘prove’ the virgin birth to his audience as to declare that Jesus’ birth fulfills Scripture (1:22–23). “The person of whom Isaiah (among others) wrote is now entering history and the era of fulfillment has now begun. The evangelist, as he tells the story contained in the tradition he received, is thus also its interpreter, centering the narrative around the quotation of Isa 7:14, using its phraseology and prefacing it with an introductory formula that stresses fulfillment.” [Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13. WBC (Word Publisher 2002), p. 21]
The focus is not on the birth but on the child. Matthew quotes the Isaianic passage from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint LXX. In applying to the child the name “Immanuel”, meaning “God with us”, Matthew is emphasizing that the child who is born embodies God’s presence. God has come to live among his people.
The naming the child who fulfills the Immanuel prophecy as ‘Jesus’ (1:21, 25), declared the purpose of God’s presence is to save and restore humanity. God’s dwelling brings healing to the sick and demon possessed (4:23-24; 8:14-17), peace for the care-ridden (6:25-34), cleansing for leper (8:1-4), deliverance from physical danger (8:25), restoration of the lame and crippled (12:13; 15:31), food for the hungry (14:13-21; 15:32-39) and above all, salvation to the lost sheep (18:11). Such concrete acts of deliverance are assumed when Matthew ends his Gospel with an “Immanuel promise – “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
IV. An Essential Christian Doctrine to be Celebrated
Far from being an isolated doctrine pertaining to disputed metaphysics, the virgin birth is intrinsically connected to the Christian doctrine of Incarnation and God’s salvation for humankind. Hence, the virgin birth testifies that Jesus Christ is ‘God with us.’ Paul agrees when he testifies, “ For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Surely, we need no other reason to celebrate Christmas with joy and gratitude.
Brief critical comments on Andrew Lincoln, Born of a Virgin: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition and Theology (Eerdmans 2013).
This is the most sophisticated recent attempt to destroy the historical foundations of the virgin birth. Lincoln argues that the earliest witnesses did not know anything about the virgin birth and “there are no possible New Testament witnesses to the virgin birth apart from Matthew and Luke. (p. 26)
John and Paul supposedly did not believe in the virgin birth based on their silence on the subject. However, this argument from silence is defective. Based on argument from silence, Lincoln would also have to reject other major Christian teachings such as, Jesus’ baptism and temptations, the famous Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration and the Last Supper. Lincoln claims that the silence “may be a reflection of some knowledge of scandal or irregularity associated with Jesus’ birth, possibly Mark 6:3. (p. 26) In place of the virgin birth, Lincoln asserts that the earliest witnesses gave prominence to the teaching of Jesus’ descent from David and this presumes that Jesus was conceived in a sexual union between Mary and Joseph. The virgin birth was a late development in the New Testament, a theological construct to defend the divinity of Jesus which Lincoln judges to be an incongruous exercise as he insists that the virgin birth undermines the incarnation by precluding Jesus’s full humanity.
Perhaps, a succinct rebuttal from H.A.R. Mackintosh would suffice here:
Regarding John who wrote on how “the Word became flesh” – “it is difficult to believe that if John had regarded the story as inaccurate, he would have uttered no word of protest. The Synoptics were before him; silence, presumably, means not disapproval but tacit acquiescence coupled with a statement in his Prologue of what he conceived to be a deeper truth.”
Regarding Paul – “One thing, however, the silence of St. Paul does prove. It proves that an apostle could hold and teach the eternal Sonship of Christ without reference to the virgin-birth; which in turn is good evidence that in the case of Matthew and Luke the belief need not have been an irresistible idea which had to be introduced at any cost. The evangelists felt that the testimony was good (emphasis added). [H.A.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (T &T Clark 1913), pp. 528-529.]
Lincoln prosecutes his case by denying the early dates of the gospels and ruling out the possibility of apostolic eyewitnesses. The gospels were creative products of a long history of tradition influenced by Greco-Roman biographical literary styles like Plutarch. Lincoln often compares the gospels to other ancient accounts of pagan gods and emperors to highlight alleged parallels.
However, J.G. Machen, whose mastery of extra biblical sources must be acknowledged, questions,
Are we to suppose that despite the horror of polytheism, which was undoubtedly felt by the Church in first century, the Church yet opened its doors, not merely to the other pagan beliefs, but also to just the most crassly polytheistic elements in the myths of the heathen gods? We do not think that this question can be waved lightly aside…are we really to suppose that pagan ideas found a place just in the most clearly Jewish and Palestinian narratives [the infancy narratives] in the whole New Testament? [J.G. Machen The Virgin Birth of Christ (Harper & Row 1930. Reprinted by Baker House 1965) p. 320.]
It appears that Lincoln’s purpose is to challenge J.G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, which remains the classic and unsurpassed defence of the virgin birth. Comparing the two books (Lincoln vs Machen) confirms the observation that how scholars judge historical texts is significantly, if not decisively influenced by their individual preunderstanding of the nature of prophecy and scriptural revelation. As such, Lincoln’s skeptical conclusions are inevitable, given how his methodology treats the Bible as a collection of creative but fallible human records, displaying diversity and sometimes contrary perspectives, rather than as the inspired word of God with a unified perspective.