The VIRGIN Birth

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True Bible Teaching - Gods Word Explained

The VIRGIN Birth

THE VIRGIN BIRTH

What it Means and Why you Can Believe it!

The Virgin Birth of our Lord Jesus ChristReal Christianity is not a philosophy based upon an idea, but a way of truth based upon a real person. Without Jesus Christ there would be no Christianity. More important, there could be no promise of peace for humankind, no forgiveness of sins, no hope of eternal life, and only limited access to God. All these things are only available through Jesus.

It is crucial, therefore, that we know something about the Lord Jesus Christ, who he is, what he did - and why. The virgin birth is an important factor in the Bible's explanation of who Jesus is.

What does "Virgin Birth" mean?

Bible teaching about the virgin birth can be summarised in the following way: Jesus did not have a human father. He is the Son of God by the action of the Holy Spirit (God's power) on Mary his mother who was, at that time, a virgin.

The virgin birth is explicitly taught in scripture, and the direct statements about it are backed up by a number of allusions in other parts of the Bible, and even by a few extra-biblical sources.

Direct Scriptural Evidence

Arguably, the most explicit statement of the virgin birth is found in Luke 1: 27-35.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God: "a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary" (v27).

Mary was a virgin. By the normal course of things, she could not have a baby.

"the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus'" (v30-31).

In spite of this, Mary was to have a baby.

"Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?'" (v31).

The point is again emphasized - Mary is a virgin.

"The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God'" (v35).

This tells us how the conception of Jesus was to occur - he was to be the direct son of God through the action of the Holy Spirit - or God's power.


Luke's narrative is very explicit; there is no doubt that Mary was a virgin. It is also clear that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse with a man, but by the power of God.

Matthew's gospel contains an equally explicit statement in its first chapter, and verses 18-25.

 "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" (v18).

The conception of Jesus was by the action of the Holy Spirit.

"...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (v20).

Joseph, knowing that he had nothing to do with the conception, is told that Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.

"Joseph...took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus" (v24-25).

Joseph could not possibly have been the father of Jesus.

Taken together, these narratives make it perfectly clear that Jesus' birth was the result of a miracle, the miracle of the virgin birth.

Other Evidence

In addition to these two explicit and clear passages from Luke and Matthew, there are several indirect references to the virgin birth in the New Testament. The first of these is in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul:

"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law..." (Galatians 4:4).

This describes Jesus as being "born of a woman", but excludes any mention of a father other than God. This is probably an allusion to the virgin birth, written about 17 years after the resurrection.

Another reference is in the genealogy of Matthew 1. This is the genealogy of Joseph (the genealogy of Mary is in Luke's gospel) and includes the names of four women, all of whom gave birth in irregular circumstances:

  1. (v3) Tamar - the father of her children was also her father-in-law;
  2. (v5) Rahab was a prostitute;
  3. (v5) Ruth was a Moabitess;
  4. (v6) Bathsheba was an adulteress.

The suggestion is that as all the women in the genealogy gave birth in unusual circumstances, the last woman - Mary - also gave birth in an irregular situation.

The Talmud

A final piece of evidence is the Jewish tradition that Jesus' birth was irregular. This is recorded in the Baraitha, and early strand of the Talmud written at the end of the second century, but preserving much of the older oral tradition.

One source uses the following words to describe Jesus: "I found a genealogical roll in Jerusalem wherein was recorded that such-a-one [Jesus] is the illegitimate child of an adulteress" (Yebaoth 49a). This suggests that the Jews of the second century had heard similar stories.

Even more significant is that there are several places where Jesus is described as "the son of Pantheras". Most scholars, including Jewish ones, agree that the word "Pantheras" is derived from the Greek word "Parthenos", which means "virgin".

It seems that the first century Jews had indeed heard accounts of the virgin birth, which they interpreted in a more natural, but less accurate, manner. What is especially interesting about this tradition is that it clearly goes back to the time of Jesus' ministry, because it is mentioned in John's gospel:

"They [the Jews] said to him [Jesus], 'We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself'" (John 8:41).

This reads like a deliberately cutting remark, intended to put Jesus down and mock him during an argument, and is an excellent witness - from Jesus' enemies no less - to the irregular circumstances of Jesus' birth.

Summary of the Evidence so Far

  • Direct Scriptural Evidence - The clear and unambiguous accounts of the early chapters of Matthew and Luke.
  • Indirect Scriptural Evidence - Gospel references to the irregular circumstances of Jesus' birth.
  • Jewish Tradition - Indirect evidence from the gospel records is supported by texts from the Talmud.

Objections

Despite the strength of the evidence for the virgin birth, it has recently become fashionable to reject it out of hand. Some churchmen and theologians have made very public statements that they think that the virgin birth never happened. There are three main categories of objection which we will briefly consider.

Critical Objections

These stem from the biblical criticism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s, when the higher critics suggested that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are not parts of the original gospels, but are actually later additions. In fact, all the evidence is against this objection.

The earliest available manuscripts of the gospels, some of which go back to the late second or early third centuries, include the birth narratives. Early church writers also refer to the virgin birth in a way that suggests that their readers were already familiar with it. These include the Letter of Ignatius to Smyrna (c105 AD), the epistle to Diognetus (c125 AD) and the numerous references in the works of Irenaeus of Lyons (c200 AD). Clement of Alexandria provides an elaborated and fanciful version of the birth narratives in his book Stromateis (c200 AD) and the Protevangelium of James (c190 AD) provides another fanciful version.

These versions give a general witness to the fact that people believed in the virgin birth - and, more importantly, show what one could expect from records which were invented rather than simple records of fact. The obvious conclusion is that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke were not a late invention, and that there never was a time when the gospels existed without the birth narratives.

To be fair, the critics tend to suggest that the stories were made up after the end of Jesus' ministry, passed on orally for some time until the gospels were written, and included by authors who could not check the evidence for themselves, and hence knew no better. More recent work has shown that the gospels were written very much early than the critics supposed in the nineteenth century. For example, in his book, Redating the New Testament, J.A.T. Robinson argues that the entire New Testament was written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The crux of his argument is that if  any of the books of the New Testament had been written after such a catastrophic event then they would surely have mentioned it. None of them do. This fact leaves insufficient time for the birth narratives to be added at a later date by people who could not check the evidence for themselves. 

Not only that, but we can trace a direct link between Luke and the family of Jesus. In Acts 1:14 we read that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers were in te congregation in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. We also know that at least one member of the family, James the brother of Jesus, was still in Jerusalem in AD 57 when Paul was arrested there. Luke writes:

"And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present" (Acts 21: 17-18).

As Luke uses the words "we" and "us", we know that he was with Paul when he met James. Furthermore, during Paul's captivity in Jerusalem and later at Caesarea, Luke would have had the opportunity to hear the account of Jesus' birth from James and possibly other members of the family. This is consistent with the way that Luke wrote his gospel, as he himself tells us in Luke 1:

"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you..." (Luke 1:1-3).

Natural Objections

This objection to the virgin birth is based on the observation that - in normal circumstances - virgins do not give birth to children. This is often accompanied by the suggestion that the people who formed to early church were somehow unaware of this fact. The truth, is of course, that the ancient Romans, and all other people of the time, were just as aware of the facts of life as modern people. They managed to continue the human race, and to breed cattle - something that would have been difficult without this basic knowledge. Luke of course was a medical doctor, so he should have known exactly what he was talking about!

The important point is that the virgin birth was not a natural phenomenon; it was a miracle and is presented as such. The objections to the virgin birth on so-called scientific grounds, are really objections to the idea that a miracle can occur. But scientists cannot prove that miracles cannot happen:

When a scientist declares that miracles cannot happen, he is not stating a scientific fact. He is merely expressing his own prejudiced opinion. And a thoroughly unscientific opinion it is, too. Professor Horrobin, a medical scientist who shows no sign of being a Bible-believer, has recently warned his fellow scientists about this. He says:

·       "The scientist begins with the belief that the universe operates entirely according to law. He begins by believing that unique events which cannot be explained by natural law do not happen. Since by definition, by act of faith, the scientist excludes miracles from the realm of science, he can hardly use science to demonstrate that they cannot occur."

·       "The non-occurrence of miracles is part of the scientific creed. It is therefore arguing in a circle to say that science demonstrates that miracles do not occur. The premise is the same as the conclusion. . . I am not saying that true miracles do occur. All I am showing is that science has not demonstrated that they do not occur, and nor will it ever be able to make such a demonstration" (David F. Horrobin, Science is God, Medical and Technical Publishing Co., Lancaster, 1970).

·       "Horrobin is unquestionably right. Scientists cannot prove that miracles do not occur. They assume it" (Alan Hayward: God's Truth).

In fact, the evidence of the New Testament (and of other related historical documents) is that Jesus was surrounded by miracles. One miracle, the resurrection of Jesus, is particularly well attested - with forensic evidence and over 500 witnesses on record (see The Resurrection of Jesus - a Fact of History). If we can believe the resurrection we have no reason to reject the virgin birth.

Theological Objections

The main objection of most critics is that the virgin birth does not fit their theology. The majority of critics only view the birth of Jesus in relation to their version of a theory that they call incarnation theology, which leaves no room for the virgin birth. These critics then argue on the basis of this theology that as the virgin birth does not fit their theories that it could not possibly have occurred.

This way of reasoning is completely false. It is always a major mistake to adopt a theory and to use it to decide whether some facts are to be discounted. Rather the facts should be used to judge the theory. Imagine how we would view a scientist who refused to believe that an experiment had indeed occurred - just because the results did not fit his/her theories.

The virgin birth is a fact. While we may find it hard to understand, this does not give us license to ignore it. If the virgin birth fails to fit our theology, then we must change our theology and not reject the fact of the virgin birth.

Why was Jesus born of a virgin?

The virgin birth was the means by which Jesus was born, and as such it tells us something important about who Jesus is.

Several passages, which we looked at earlier, are relevant here:

"The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God'" (Luke 1:35).

This passage tells us why Jesus is called the son of God, he is the Son of God because he was conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit (God's power) on Mary. This is fundamental to our understanding the term "Son of God"; it means exactly what it says - Jesus is literally the Son of God. This is the basic thought behind Galatians 4:4 - "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law..."

The second reason that Jesus had to be the son of a human woman was to fulfil a promise that God had made to David - one of the early kings of Israel - a thousand years earlier:

"When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him...Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before you; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

This is commented on in Acts 2:30 - 36. The messiah had to be a descendent of David as well as the Son of God so that the promise could be fulfilled. This is the reason for the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. This is why Jesus was born of the virgin Mary - who was of the lineage of David. He is also the Son of God - the promised Messiah who saves us from sin and death.

Learn more about Jesus here: The Nature of Christ