In the last ‘Questioning Christmas’ post I was looking at the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives. This time I’d like to look at one of the main miraculous elements of the story, which is also one of the few elements included in both gospels – the Virgin Birth.
Here are the crucial passages:
Matthew 1: 18, 20, 22-24:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit…. An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’…
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Luke 1: 26-27, 30-37:
God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth… to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David…
…the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘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. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.’
So in Luke the angel appears to Mary to prepare her; in Matthew, to Joseph to reassure him. Both offer a similar explanation – Mary’s pregnancy is the result of a direct, miraculous intervention by God’s Holy Spirit.
For both writers, the virgin birth clearly matters. For Matthew it’s a miraculous sign, a fulfilment of Messianic prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), and so a proof that Jesus is the promised one, Immanuel, ‘God with us’ (the bringer of God to man, though not necessarily himself divine).
For Luke, it is furthermore a seal of Jesus’ divine origins and nature; that he is not merely human but in some sense the ‘Son of God’. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary in an act of special creation echoing Genesis 1 when ‘the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters’. Luke’s line about the ‘throne of his father David’ also appears to be referencing Messianic prophecies (particularly Isaiah 9:7).
If we only had Matthew’s account I might be more inclined to doubt it, particularly as its primary importance there seems to be the fulfilment of prophecy (‘All this took place to fulfil…’). I mean no disrespect when I say that the author of Matthew’s gospel is a little shaky with his Old Testament quotations – the worst case occurring in Matt 27:9-10 where he misquotes mashed-up bits of Jeremiah and Zechariah.
Also Matthew’s keenness to make everything in Jesus’ life fulfil Old Testament prophecy to back up his Messianic claims can lead him to make some pretty tenuous connections. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ in the next chapter (2:15) requires a long stretch to make it fulfil the original Hosea 11 passage. A few verses later, the statement ‘so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene’ (2:23) has never been traced back to a known source quotation (though it may simply mean that Jesus would be despised, e.g. Isaiah 53:3).
The ‘virgin will give birth’ prophecy was already fulfilled back in Isaiah’s day, as a sign to King Ahaz. This isn’t a problem; biblical prophecies often have an immediate and then a later fulfilment. More significant is that the word translated ‘virgin’ simply means ‘young woman’, not necessarily implying inviolate sexual status; the Ahaz fulfilment was therefore not so much a ‘miracle’ as a sign. That’s not to say that Matthew is wrong though, and perhaps he was divinely inspired to make his slight re-interpretation.
Nonetheless, if we had to base the doctrine of the Virgin Birth on Matthew’s account alone, it might seem slightly questionable. But we don’t; it’s very much there in Luke as well. Indeed, its being one of the few crucial details both gospel writers do completely agree on lends it considerable credibility. Whether or not you accept it will depend partly on how much weight you give to the Bible as a reliable historical source, and partly on whether you accept the possibility of miracles.
It’s interesting to compare Luke and Matthew’s accounts with the opening of John’s gospel, in which the eternal Word who is God becomes flesh, enters His world and dwells among us. This is a spiritualised version of the nativity story, stressing the Incarnation (literally, enfleshment) of the divine Logos, the only-begotten son of the Father, the One by and through whom all things were made. John sidesteps any question of virgin birth, but he does include the provocative line: ‘To those who believed in his [Jesus’] name he gave the right to be called children of God; children born not of natural descent, nor human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh…’
So we have here the idea of God’s children ‘born’ without human sexual union, and linked explicitly with the idea of Christ’s Incarnation. This offers a kind of spiritual account of ‘virgin birth’ which neither necessarily supports nor undermines Luke’s and Matthew’s more biological account. It also of course leads on neatly to the idea of being spiritually ‘born again’ in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3).
Does it matter?
So is the virgin birth really all that important, and if so why?
For Roman Catholics of course, the whole Virginity of Mary became a massive deal, to the extent that she had to retain it for ever (‘Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin’) – despite several biblical references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. There’s also the Catholic idea of the Immaculate Conception, in which Mary herself was deemed to have been born without the taint of original sin, and with the sanctifying grace normally given (in Catholic thought) at baptism. I see all this as something of a, well, mis-conception.
Also in Catholic theology (following Augustine, who has a lot to answer for), sex was inherently tainted with lust, and was the means by which original sin was passed on. So for Christ to be the product of human sex would imply he was also tainted and sinful. Again, I disagree.
To most Christians though, apparently including Luke, the Virgin Birth is important simply because it ‘proves’ Jesus to be God’s True Son, divine as well as human. He is literally a Miracle Baby, clearly set apart for the role of Messiah and Saviour. The Virgin Birth means that Jesus has one biological human parent, one divine – making him both Son of God and son of Man (well, woman). It’s neat and makes theological sense.
Of course, as we don’t know the biological mechanism of the Virgin Birth, it’s conceivable (sorry) that Mary actually only provided the host womb, and that the Christ-embryo was ‘implanted’ in her supernaturally without using one of her eggs. The immediate objection to this is that it might imply that Jesus was only divine and not human.
However, in the realm of miracles presumably God could create a human directly without need for the normal natural processes. After all, Christ is the Second Adam, and in the Genesis story the first Adam was (apparently) created without need of human parents. The whole Virgin Birth story could be seen as a way of telling a Second Adam ‘myth’ (not meaning it’s untrue, but that it’s true in a story-fied, theologised way rather than as biological fact).
What if it’s not true?
But however the biology works or doesn’t, is some kind of Virgin Birth required in order for Christ to have been divine as well as human? Could Jesus have been born in the normal way of two human parents and still have been the Son of God and saviour of the world? I find it hard to see why not. It rather depends of course on how you understand Jesus’ divine nature, how that nature was imparted to his human incarnation and how or whether it relates to his biological human body.
I don’t know the answers to these questions (let me know if you do). But it seems plausible to me that Jesus could have been a ‘normal’ human born of entirely human parents, yet by the indwelling and action of the Holy Spirit still bearing the full divine nature. Something not unlike that after all happens with all of us in Christ. We bear God’s image, and in our redemptive union with Jesus we imperfectly incarnate his divine life and are being conformed to his likeness. That’s what John’s gospel is getting at in the passage I quoted earlier: ‘to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called children of God…’
Of course, if this were the case and if we retain the basic framework of the story, we’d presumably have to accept that Mary had in fact had sex outside marriage. Would this be such a problem? I can understand why some would find it so, but I can’t see that it would necessarily. For the One who came to save and forgive us to have been born as a result of ‘sin’ would, in my view, enhance his credentials rather than discredit him.
So I would say that there’s good and reasonable biblical basis for belief in a literal Virgin Birth. This does of course require us to accept the idea of miracles (and if we believe in a supernatural God, miracles surely have to be at least a theoretical possibility). It also assumes that we can broadly trust the gospel authors’ word – without necessarily implying 100% historical accuracy on all points.
I would furthermore say that the virgin birth is a theologically important and significant belief, and it’s one I’m personally inclined to accept (while perhaps retaining a very small degree of uncertainty).
Nonetheless, it does seem to me that the virgin birth is not necessarily essential to Christ’s divinity or to any other absolutely crucial aspect of Christian theology. To me then it is not an utterly central, essential doctrine – unlike the Resurrection, on which I think Christianity really does stand or fall.