The Birth Narratives
The two birth narratives in the Gospels, although they overlap in few particulars and obviously come from different sources, agree that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin by miraculous means, without the aid of a man. Luke says,
30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. . . .
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Luke 1:30-31, 34-35
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Matthew adds the important information that Mary did not have sexual relations with her husband until after Jesus was born. His mother was, therefore, a virgin at His birth as well as at His conception.
Demonstration That the Virgin Birth is Not a Fable
The prevailing view among critics is that the Virgin Birth has no historical basis. They trace the stories of the Virgin Birth to believers in the latter part of the first century who were familiar with the prophecy in the Septuagint of Isaiah that a "virgin" would conceive a son called Immanuel ("God with us"). They say that these believers invented the Virgin Birth to accomplish two apologetic purposes at once: first, to prove that Jesus was the Christ of prophecy, and, second, to prove that Jesus was God, on the assumption that it was more reasonable to view Him as the Son of God if He was not the son of a human father. Five lines of argument decisively set aside this view.
1. Corroborating circumstances. If anyone today said that he was conceived in a woman before she ever knew a man, and that his conception was, in this respect, a unique phenomenon, his pretense would probably soon collapse. Contrary evidence would be forthcoming if he had at least one older sibling by the same mother, or if the date of his parents' marriage preceded the earliest possible date of his conception, or if at least one parent did not support the pretense. There were no such obstacles, however, to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth becoming established in the early church. It so happened that Jesus was indisputably the eldest in His family, which, like most families in that day, was rather large. He had at least six brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3). It also so happened that no one could show that His parents were married at least nine months before His birth. The Gospel of Luke reports that His conception occurred more than three months before Joseph took Mary as his wife (Luke 1:38-39, 56). Finally, it so happened that the teaching of the Virgin Birth was not silenced by opposition from Jesus' family. Indeed, since His family was prominent in the early church (1 Cor. 9:5), we deduce that the teaching must have enjoyed their approval.
2. The credibility of the apostles. It is preposterous to imagine that a new doctrine could have been introduced in the late first century without encountering stiff opposition from conservative elements committed to "holding fast the faithful word" as they had "been taught" (Tit. 1:9). Yet there is no record of any early disputes or schisms concerning the Virgin Birth. If the doctrine did not emerge in the last fifty years of the first century, it must have originated when the church was still dominated by the apostles and Jesus' family. The question whether the doctrine is credible reduces to whether these people would have condoned lies in the official accounts of Jesus' life. Any presumption that these people were liars clashes with the abundant evidence of their earnestness and high character.
3. The accusation that Jesus was illegitimate. When Jesus met hostile crowds in Jerusalem, He said,
38 I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.
39 They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham.
40 But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham.
41 Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.
42 Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.
43 Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.
44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
45 And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.
46 Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?
47 He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
The charge that He was in league with evil powers had been made previously (Matt. 12:24). So it is likely that the other charge—that He was a Samaritan—was not a new charge either. Earlier in the same exchange, when Jesus said that His Father stood behind His claims, the Jews responded by asking, "Where is thy father?" (v. 19). When Jesus, in reply, said of Himself that He was not of this world (v. 23) and that they did not know Him because His Father was not theirs (v. 38), they taunted Him by saying, "We be not born of fornication" (v. 41). The cutting edge of the jibe is the implied accusation that although they were legitimate, Jesus was illegitimate. As their anger mounted, they cast subtlety aside and jeered that He was the offspring not of His legal Jewish father, a well-respected carpenter in Nazareth, but of some unknown Samaritan. The basis of the charge was probably a rumor of Mary's pregnancy out of wedlock. That pregnancy must have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to conceal from gossiping tongues. The obvious motivation behind the charge was not only religious (to stop His ministry) but also political (to undermine His claim to the throne). The mob was easily persuaded that His real father was a Samaritan because Nazareth, His home town, was not far from Samaria.
The significance of the dialogue in John 8 is that its veiled allusions to the unusual birth of Jesus are purely incidental. They are clearly not intended to make a doctrinal point. Thus, they cannot be fictional expansions designed by church leaders to curry popular favor for a doctrine that they have lately introduced.
4. Jesus' two allusions to the Virgin Birth. Certain utterances of Jesus show that He regarded His birth as a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. His words at the Wedding at Cana have puzzled many readers. In answer to His mother, He said,
. . . Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
Why does He speak to her in seemingly harsh tones? Why does He address her bluntly as "woman"?
We gain insight into these words when we look at the only other recorded words of Jesus to His mother. These are also in John.
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
Here, the title "woman" is obviously not intended as a rebuke. Jesus would not wound Mary with hurtful words when she is already overcome by grief and horror. What does He mean? Why, on the occasion of His death, as on the occasion of His first miracle, does He announce that His mother is "woman"? He means that she is the woman prophesied in Genesis 3:15. Therefore, He is the woman's seed—the virgin-born One whom the faithful through the ages have longed to see because through Him they would have victory over sin and death.
5. Paul's allusion to the Virgin Birth. All Bible scholars today, liberal as well as conservative, agree that Paul's epistle to the Galatians is an authentic work written no later than A.D. 65 (1). Most assign it a date near A.D. 50 (2). Yet notice what Paul teaches in this epistle concerning the nature of Christ.
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
The expression "made of a woman" is peculiar. The meaning of "made" is not "born," but "cause to be" or "begotten." If Paul were speaking of any ordinary man, we would expect him to say, "born of a woman," the expression that Jesus used with reference to John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11). Yet Paul is speaking not of Jesus' birth, but of His biological conception.
This is evident when we further examine his use of "made." In the same text, he says also that Jesus was "made under the law." He is affirming that Jesus was by parentage a member of the nation of Israel. Elsewhere, he says,
Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.
Paul is affirming here that Jesus was by parentage a physical descendant of David. Yet, Jesus' sonship to Israel and David began not when He was born, but when He was conceived. Thus, in Paul's lexicon, a person is "made" when he is formed in the womb. But why does he say that Jesus was "made of a woman"? For two reasons, we can be confident that these words imply the Virgin Birth.
- If, as the critics allege, Paul never heard of the Virgin Birth, we would expect different language in Galatians 4:4. Paul would identify Jesus as the seed of David, as in Romans 1:3, or the seed of Abraham, as in Galatians 3:16. To stress Jesus' humanity, he might refer to His human parents. But although he might mention both of His parents or only His father, he would scarcely mention only His mother.
- Unless "made of a woman" presumes the Virgin Birth, the phrase is inessential to the argument. Paul could affirm the Incarnation by simply saying, "God sent forth His Son as a man made under the law." But he says specifically "made of a woman" because he is thinking of the purpose in Christ's coming. That purpose was "to redeem them that were under the law" (v. 5). He could be the redeemer of others only if He was sinless Himself, and He could be sinless Himself only if He was conceived without the aid of a human father; that is, only if He was made of a woman.