The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Origins and Theological Significance

Alleged Pagan Origins
(1) A wonder birth or a supernatural birth is one of the commonest ideas in folk-tale and myth. In not all of these, however, is there what can strictly be called virgin birth. The latter certainly does not occur where ancient myths of the birth of heroes, great men, or kings are concerned. In spite of direct evidence of true human descent, myth told how a god was their real father…In these myths also the mother is already wedded, and the divine parent is father in a purely physical sense and has a material form, in that form taking the place of the husband…the woman is already married, and the birth is not, strictly speaking, a virgin birth…

Those who regard the Virgin Birth as mythical trace it to (a) Jewish, (b) pagan sources. (a) The Jewish source is found in Is 7:14. No Jew, however, ever applied this to the birth of the Messiah, though it was in accord with Matthew’s method to use it as pointing to an event otherwise known to him. Other critics have conclusively proved that the myth of virgin birth was unknown to Jewish thought. (b) Many have therefore sought its origin in pagan mythology, some going so far as to assume an Oriental myth, for the existence of which there is no evidence whatever. The other mythical sources are those discussed in § 1, and it must be obvious that they have nothing whatever in common with the stories of Matthew and Luke: in these there is no idea of physical procreation as there is in Greek myths, and all such myths were regarded with abhorrence in Christian circles. Any comparison of Matthew and Luke with such pagan myths (notwithstanding that these show the human feeling that extraordinary personages should have an extraordinary origin) will prove that we are moving in a different atmosphere—in the one reticence, in the other lack of it and a piling up of mystery. Matthew and Luke give no explanation of the mystery. They feel that here is a fitting introduction to a life such as the world had never seen before, and to the events of that life they immediately pass on. With sublime simplicity they use no words but those of the angelic messenger (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:35). Divine power, the power of a spiritual God, causes the Incarnation through the Virgin Birth. The reticence is marked in comparison with the exuberant language of the Apocryphal Gospels, and, if the Virgin Birth narratives are mythical, no myth was ever expressed in such bald and restrained language. The comparison with pagan myths has been influenced by knowledge of the lack of reticence in later Christian art and theology, into which pagan elements have crept. What we find there is, however, quite foreign to the Gospels. [J.A. MacCulloch, s.v. “Virgin Birth,”in Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 12 (T & T Clark, 1908-1926), pp. 623-625]

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NT Accounts. On that basis [i.e. If indeed Scripture is true, it is consistent with all historical discovery], then, let us examine the credibility of the NT witnesses, Matthew and Luke…the two accounts are generally thought to be independent of each other and thus based on a tradition antedating both…

Confirming this tradition’s antiquity is the remarkably “Hebraic” character of both birth accounts: these chapters’ theology and language seem more characteristic of the OT than the NT, as many scholars have noted. This fact renders very unlikely the hypothesis that the virgin birth is a theologoumenon—a story invented by the early church to buttress its christological dogma. There is here no mention of Jesus’s preexistence. His title “Son of God” is seen to be future, as is his inheritance of the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32, 35). In the birth narratives Jesus is the OT Messiah—the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the one who will rescue God’s people through right deeds, exalting the humble and crushing the proud (Luke 1:46–55). The writers draw no inference from the virgin birth concerning Jesus’s deity or ontological sonship to God; rather, they simply record the event as a historical fact and (for Matthew) a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.

Not much is known about the author of Matthew, but there is good reason to ascribe the third Gospel to Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), a companion of Paul (2 Tim. 4:11; cf. the “we” passages in Acts, such as chap. 27) who also wrote Acts (cf. Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–5). Luke claims to have made careful study of the historical evidence (Luke 1:1–4), and that claim has been repeatedly vindicated in many details even by modern skeptical scholars such as Adolf von Harnack. Both his vocations—historian and physician—would have prevented him from responding gullibly to reports of a virgin birth. The two birth narratives have been attacked as inconsistent and/or erroneous at several points: the genealogies, the massacre of the children (Matt. 2:16), the census during Quirinius’s time (Luke 2:1–2); but plausible explanations of these difficulties have also been advanced. Jesus’s Davidic ancestry (emphasized in both accounts) has been under suspicion also; but, as Raymond Brown argues, the presence of Mary and Jesus’s brothers, especially James (Acts 1:14; 15:13–21; Gal. 1:19; 2:9), in the early church probably would have prevented the development of legendary material concerning Jesus’s origin. All in all, we have good reason, even apart from belief in their inspiration, to trust Luke and Matthew, even where they differ from the verdicts of secular historians ancient and modern…

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Comment: The alleged silence of the rest of the NT is not evidence of its non-acceptance. The virgin birth was universally accepted in the early Church without exception, except among the fringe group of Ebionites. Paul and John were silent about the virgin birth although they could in principle have used it to buttress their teaching of the preexistence and deity of Jesus. However, neither did they disavow it. Mackintosh observed, “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 virgin-birth; which in turn is good evidence that in the case of Matthew and Luke the belief need not have been an irresistible religious postulate. It was not a psychologically inevitable idea which had to be introduced at any cost. The evangelists felt that the testimony was good.” [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), p.529]
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Pagan or Jewish Background? Occasionally someone suggests that the virgin birth narratives are based not on fact but on pagan or Jewish stories of supernatural births. Such a hypothesis is most unlikely. There is no clear parallel to the notion of a virgin birth in pagan literature, only of births resulting from intercourse between a god and a woman (of which there is no suggestion in Matthew and Luke), resulting in a being half-divine, half-human (far different from the biblical Christology). Furthermore, none of the pagan stories locates the event in datable history as the biblical account does. Nor is there any precise parallel in Jewish literature. The closest parallels are the supernatural births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel in the OT, but these were not virgin births. Isaiah 7:14 was not considered a messianic passage in Jewish literature of the time. It is more likely that the virgin birth influenced Matthew’s understanding of Isaiah 7:14 than the reverse.

Doctrinal Importance. The consistency of this doctrine with other Christian truth is important to its usefulness and, indeed, its credibility. For Matthew and Luke, the event’s chief importance seems to be that it calls to mind (as a “sign” [Isa. 7:14]) the great OT promises of salvation through supernaturally born deliverers, while going far beyond them, showing that God’s final deliverance has come. But one can also go beyond the specific concerns of Matthew and Luke and see that the virgin birth is fully consistent with the whole range of biblical doctrine.

The virgin birth is doctrinally important for the following reasons: (1) The doctrine of Scripture. If Scripture errs here, why then should we trust its claims about other supernatural events, such as the resurrection? (2) Christ’s deity. While we cannot say dogmatically that God could enter the world only through a virgin birth, surely the incarnation is a supernatural event if it is anything. To eliminate the supernatural from this event is inevitably to compromise its divine dimension. (3) Christ’s humanity. This was important to Ignatius and the second-century fathers. Jesus actually was born; he actually became one of us. (4) Christ’s sinlessness. If he were born of two human parents, it is very difficult to conceive how he could have been exempted from the guilt of Adam’s sin and become a new head to the human race. And it would seem only an arbitrary act of God that Jesus could be born without a sinful nature. Yet Jesus’s sinlessness as the new head of the human race and God’s atoning Lamb is absolutely vital to our salvation (Rom. 5:18–19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22–24). (5) The nature of grace. Christ’s birth, in which the initiative and power are all divine, is an apt picture of God’s saving grace in general, of which it is also part. It teaches that salvation is by God’s act, not our human effort. Jesus’s birth is like our new birth, which is also by the Holy Spirit: a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).

Is belief in the virgin birth “necessary”? It is possible to be saved without believing it; saved people are not perfect people. But rejecting the virgin birth rejects God’s Word, and disobedience is always serious. Furthermore, disbelief in the virgin birth may lead to compromise in those other areas of doctrine with which it is vitally connected. [John Frame, s.v.,“Virgin Birth,” in Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1984) pp. 1143-1145]

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