Virgin Birth of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

Need a Christmas present for someone who enjoys wrestling with Christianity’s role in modern society? Consider my new book, A Modern Christmas Carol, available as paperback or ebook.

Virgin birth of JesusIn December, thoughts turn toward Christmas. In particular, to the Isaiah quote in Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Matt. 1:23).

Matthew documents the fulfillment of a prophecy written 750 years earlier. Powerful evidence of the truth of the Bible?

Well … no. The first reason is the reason by which anyone would reject a claimed prophecy: the evidence of the fulfillment is not independent but comes only through authors (of Matthew and Luke) who one must assume had read the prophecy. They had motive and opportunity to claim a fulfillment where none existed. (I write more about common-sense requirements for a fulfilled prophecy here.)

The original prophecy in Isaiah

But was that quote from Isaiah even a prophecy of a messiah? You’d expect something like, “The LORD God understands the burdens of His people and will send a savior. And ye shall know him by this sign: the virgin will give birth to a son” and so on.

Here’s what that chapter of Isaiah is actually talking about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with nearby countries for protection against Assyria, the local bully that was vacuuming up smaller states. Judea refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at their rear, moved to conquer Judea.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judea that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah gives him a sign: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

The meaning of the Immanuel prophecy

In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel story. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judea by Assyria and Judea’s painful future.

Isaiah prefaces the prophecy to the king with, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.” This sign must be a near-term event, since the king won’t live long enough to see the birth of Jesus centuries later.

Yes, the Immanuel story is a prophecy, but it’s a prophecy that is to be fulfilled in five years, not 750. (And was the prophecy even fulfilled? Apparently not, according to the 2 Chron. 28:5–6 summary. We see another history of the battle in 2 Kings 16:5, with Judea the winner this time, but to argue that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled you must argue that the Bible is contradictory.)

Where’s the miracle?

The Immanuel story doesn’t even claim to be a miracle. Women are virgins before having sex, by definition. The story says that a woman who’s never had sex will then do so, become pregnant, and deliver a boy. Happens all the time. If this prediction involved a miracle, we’d expect more would be made of it to eliminate the (obvious) mundane explanation.

Where’s the Jesus parallel?

And if Immanuel’s story is supposed to foreshadow Jesus, where does the Immanuel prediction (“before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste,” Isa. 7:16) map in Jesus’s life?

Does Isaiah even say “virgin”?

To make things even more difficult for Matthew’s claim, the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 doesn’t really say that. First-century scholars could have had access to two versions of Isaiah, the Hebrew original and the Greek translation, the Septuagint. Since the author of Matthew was literate in Greek, he was likely more familiar with the Greek version. But these two versions use different words here—“young woman” in the Hebrew original and “virgin” in the Greek translation. The NET Bible uses the older Hebrew term and has a thorough footnote documenting the scholarship behind this decision.

Why do most Bibles use “virgin,” even though the best sources use “young woman”? Perhaps only to avoid embarrassing Matthew. And that may be changing. The new Catholic Bible, the revised New American Bible (2011), drops “virgin” in favor of “young woman.”

Is Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus?

Matthew prefaces his Isaiah quote by saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22), but the prophecy isn’t fulfilled since Jesus is never called Immanuel—not just in Matthew but anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, Matthew contradicts his own claim of fulfillment just two verses later: “And [Joseph] gave him the name Jesus.”

Pope Benedict’s 2012 book, The Infancy Narratives, emphasizes that the virgin birth is one of the “cornerstones of faith” and assures us that it is not a myth. Though he rejects the idea that mythology entered the gospels, everybody who was anybody during that time in the eastern Mediterranean was virgin born—Alexander the Great in Greece, the Caesars in Rome, the Ptolemies in Egypt.

Despite the proliferation of virgin birth claims at the time, all were false except for the one for Jesus? That needs a lot of evidence, especially when Matthew’s argument is built on nothing more than the misreading of a prophecy that expired centuries earlier.

This is the third biblical prophecy claim that I’ve studied (I’ve also written about Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22). Each has unique features, but I’m struck by one similarity: in context, each is plainly not talking about a future messiah. No serious scholarship is necessary to see this, just a willingness to let each chapter speak for itself. Only a determination to maintain the idea of supernatural prophecies, regardless of the evidence, props them up.

I pray that one day we may live in an America 
where Christians can worship freely, in broad daylight,
openly wearing the symbols of their religion …
 perhaps around their necks? 
And maybe (dare I dream it?)
maybe one day there can be 
an openly Christian president. 
Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.
— Jon Stewart

 

(This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared 12/10/12.)

Photo credit: Steve Day

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Y. A. Warren

    I believe you are doing your book a disservice by being off message in this post. Your book is not about theology, but about hypocrisy. Just sayin’…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Sorry–I’m not following. Are you referring to the ad at the beginning?

      It’s hard to characterize a book, especially with a heterogeneous audience. Are you saying that my summary wasn’t on target or that this post about prophecy was an odd one with which to attach a note about the book?

      • Y. A. Warren

        I am saying that your book is a great easy-to-read book that could easily lead to questions that the “faithful” should ask themselves. I simply don’t see the connection between the premise of your book and this post.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          OK, I got it.

          You’re right. No connection, except the calendar. It’s the time to shop for Christmas presents. And what better stocking stuffer than my new book, eh?

        • Y. A. Warren

          Yes, and I think your market is in progressive religious circles.

  • JohnH2

    Immanuel – means God with us and was precisely what Jesus claimed to be. Also, the verse first says that God will send a savior which as we all know is the meaning of Joshua which as we all know is where the name Jesus comes from.

    Also, in regards to the Hebrew vs. Greek I believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls had versions of Isaiah with virgin in them showing that the Masoric and Septuagint texts both come from Hebrew textual traditions. In fact with the Dead Sea Scrolls being as they are it provides minor support to the Catholic claim that the Jews edited the Masoric text to strip out meanings and interpretation which support the claim of Jesus being the Messiah.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Immanuel – means God with us and was precisely what Jesus claimed to be.

      But that’s not the point. Isaiah said that this guy would be called “Immanuel.” Was he?

      • JohnH2

        Are you occasionally called “broken but fabulous”?

        • Itarion

          Ah, but is he?

          I would say amazing, but more to the point, “broken but fabulous” is not a name. It is a descriptor or title.

          Immanuel was to be the name of the child, and not a title. [Will call him, will name him, will call his name by various translations.] The fact that one is referred to by a title is different from the fact that one’s name is that same word, as in Jesus Christ, where Christ is a title, rather than a name.

        • JohnH2

          Matthew and Christians from that time until now hold that Immanuel is a titular name, like Christ, and that Jesus was in fact Immanuel (God with us).

          Regardless of what you would call Bob, there is a commenter that calls him broken but fabulous

        • Pofarmer

          It may be, but he was never called that anywhere else in the NT.

        • Itarion

          “Matthew and Christians from that time until now”
          But that doesn’t matter, if the original intent of the passage was as a literal name. “He will be named” and “He will be titled” are two different phrases in a great many languages, including Hebrew. Since that is the tensing of the translation, it would be reasonable to assume that that is the original was tensed similarly, that is, in the future perfect.

          Yeah, I’ve seen it. “Bob, the broken but fabulous atheist.”

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Are you arguing that, as predicted in Isaiah, Jesus was called “Immanuel,” even as just a title?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I am. it’s an inside joke (that I don’t quite get), I think.

      • Submitted

        The scriptures record in Matthew 16:16 that Peter, in response to the question by Jesus, ““But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”, “Simon
        Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
        Among Jews, this was clearly an instance of a declaration of Jesus’
        divinity-his Godhood. This is because among Jews, to claim that one was
        the “Son of God”, that person claimed to be God Himself. This is in
        contrast to when Jesus called himself “Son of Man”. So it is clear that
        Jesus WAS called by others Immanuel, “God with us”. So much, the fact
        that Jesus claimed divinity, or Godhood, was the very reason the
        Pharisees were so offended that they called for his crucifixion. Yet,
        the evidence shows that Jesus was indeed God–he carried all the
        evidence to support his claim to Godhood. Healing the sick, curing the
        blind, multiplication of food miracles, and raising the dead are all
        recorded in scripture. No man could have done this without God’s power.
        Jesus
        was in fact, called “Immanuel” by His disciples and by others, because
        by His deeds, he demonstrated that he truly was God with us.

        • Greg G.

          But Mark 8:27-29 tells us Peter only said, “You are the Christ.” Matthew tends to embellish his story with out-of-context verses to indulge his prophecy fetish.

        • Nemo

          So, outside of the Bible, there is evidence that Jesus actually did the stuff attributed to him in the Bible? There is evidence that he could resurrect people, that his very presence turned Jerusalem’s political climate upside down, that his death caused the dead to walk the city? What historian can verify this actually happened, as opposed to Josephus et al, who mention stories they heard about Jesus decades after the fact?

        • MNb

          Good questions except for the last one – the first biograph of Alexander the Great that has survived retold stories more than 250 years after his death. What’s more – Josephus didn’t tell any story about Jesus. The two infamous and distorted quotes only mention that he walked around.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I’m amazed at how Christian apologists point with pride at Joesephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and the other extra-biblical authors who (they say) support the gospel story. In fact, they do little more than confirm when Christians were running around.

          “There are people who follow someone called ‘Christ’” doesn’t give much support to any of the miracle claims.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          You seem to be confusing “read it in a book” with “actually happened, for real.”

        • Pofarmer

          All of those miracles are copies of miracles performed by Elisha and Eliza. No child eating bears though. Apparently they were popular themes.

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      The text of Isaiah 7:14 in the Dead Sea Scrolls uses the word almah (young woman) and not betulah (virgin), the same as the conventional OT in Hebrew.

      • JohnH2

        Looks like you are right about virgin.

  • Rick

    Is your interpretation based on personal study or the consensus of Hebrew and Greek scholars?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I don’t believe I saw a consensus view among scholars on this question–and, of course, there are several questions.

  • Castilliano

    Bob,
    I hope this is the first time I’ve posted these here:
    http://www.deism.com/paine_essay_false_prophecies_of_jesus_1.htm
    http://www.deism.com/paine_essay_false_prophecies_of_jesus_2.htm
    They’re essays from Thomas Paine’s study and dismantling of all the gospel prophecies.

    Pretty cool stuff.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      That does look like good stuff, thanks for sharing.

      One of our other commenters is a fanboy of Paine, though I imagine he’s already read that.

  • Greg G.

    The various sect of Jews read some specific prophecies that David’s seed would remain on the throne. When that failed due to the Babylonians, they had to figure out why God had abandoned his promises. They thought if they followed the scriptures, then one of Davids descendants would take back the throne. Over the centuries of this not happening, they went of the scriptures for clues to come up with explanations.

    The clues had to be verses pulled out of context. At least one sect thought they were finding long hidden mysteries and the fact that these clues were being revealed to them at that point in time convinced them that it was a sign the Messiah was coming. They began to read the verses on suffering as ancient history All Paul knew about Jesus was what he read in the scriptures.

    The early epistles do not support the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis. They don’t mention the teacher or the preacher or the miracle worker. They never quote Jesus but their ideas end up in Jesus’ mouth in the Gospels. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul is explaining what the Lord says about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to the Gentiles and mentions that if women divorce, they should not remarry, as their is no provision for women to divorce in the OT. In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus is telling that to the disciples. Matthew and Luke saw the problem and omitted that error from their versions. Mark has Jesus repeating Paul’s ideas from Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians while the Gospel of Thomas adds James sayings to Jesus’ words. Those three letters must have been the ones in circulation when Mark and Thomas were written.

    If Paul and James were actually repeating things Jesus had said, their arguments would have been much stronger by adding “Jesus said” to them.

  • Jason

    Te difference in context is an important point that most Christians don’t want to address. A similar example is Is. 40.3, which is cited by all the gospels in relation to John the Baptist. Bob, it is also similar to your example here because there is a difference between the Hebrew original and LXX. Maybe you have already discussed it (?).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      No, I haven’t talked about this verse or even about John the Baptist much.

  • MNb

    “And that may be changing.”
    It is. Dutch Catholic Bible, modern version and a Protestant counterpart called the Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling:

    http://www.willibrordbijbel.nl/?p=page&i=50455,50479

    http://www.biblija.net/biblija.cgi?m=Jesaja+7&id18=1&l=nl&set=10
    “de jonge vrouw is zwanger”
    “The young woman is pregnant”
    Of course quite a few believers think these translations too progressive.

  • MNb

    As for the title “Virgin Birth of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”
    The virginal interpretation of Jesus’ birth is thoroughly antiscientific. All atheists will argue that when science conflicts with theology the first always wins. Also for quite a few christians (at least in Europe) the virginal birth is not an article of faith.
    Once you accept a miracle like this one (ie a phenomenon that flat out is impossible according to the Laws of Nature as formulated by science) you must explain why such things don’t happen on a more regular base. As such we are back at the divine grounding of math, logic and natural law. A god that/who breaks the laws he/she/it has grounded him/her/itself when suitable is a capricious one and thus not perfect.

    • JohnH2

      How is artificial insemination of a virgin anti-scientific?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        ‘Cause it was magical artificial insemination?

        You do know the story, right?

        • MNb

          John is a typical case of the procedure I described underneath your Jesus and Santa article.

      • MNb

        Would you be so kind to explain me, if we assume artificial insemination, where the semen that impregnated virgin Mary came from and who inserted it? Could you also give me historical records that make clear that a) the Ancients in Judea knew about artificial insemination and b) used it?

        • JohnH2

          MNb,

          Take two seconds to connect what you know of my belief in God with your questions and the answers should be obvious.

        • Itarion

          What JohnH2 means to say is, his god, despite being a god, also has a physical form. The question then becomes, is this god genetically compatible, and also why bother with artificial insemination at all? The Greek gods didn’t bother with it.

          I mean, if you’re gonna have a god’s child, why not have the time of your life first?

    • http://batman-news.com Anton

      The virginal interpretation of Jesus’ birth is thoroughly
      antiscientific. All atheists will argue that when science conflicts with
      theology the first always wins.

      And since you proved that the virgin birth is scientifically impossible, we should expect that everyone will just refuse to believe it and the entire edifice of religion will simply disappear. Right?

      As Bob has pointed out elsewhere, even Paul seemed unaware of the virgin-birth story when he was literally singing Jesus’s praises. It certainly wasn’t part of Jewish lore. But when the new religion was trying to gain new converts, it developed some suspicious adaptations from Mediterranean sun-god mythology like the miraculous birth story and the disappearing corpse. What better way to expand its appeal beyond the Jewish community?

      I think this myth and the cult of Mary have done a lot of damage through the centuries. The way Christians can only relate to anima or female consciousness through a symbol of a sexless female is responsible for the repression of women and puritanical assbaggery that have characterized the legacy of Christianity in the West.

      • MNb

        “and the entire edifice of religion will simply disappear.”
        That’s your conclusion, not mine. Do we witness another theist fighting a strawman? Do you not want to know what I wrote elsewhere – that for many European christians the virginity of mother Mary is not a dogma?
        Your rhetorical question is pathetic.

        • http://batman-news.com Anton

          Your rhetorical question is pathetic.

          No moreso than your assertion that the virgin birth doesn’t represent the scientific explanation it was never meant to represent in the first place.

  • MNb

    When it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus another scientific discipline comes into play: History of Antiquity. We never should forget that the Ancients had another way of thinking than we 21st Century people. They didn’t care about separating fact from fiction as we do. So if we don’t ask ourselves what the authors actually meant with the word “virgin” we never get a complete picture.
    Besides the biological meaning of the word there was also the metaphorical meaning: a woman of great, if not perfect spiritual purity. Obviously this hasn’t any meaning for me, but equally obviously it was of great importance for the early christians. I’m far from an expert in this field, but I don’t think it will be hard to find other examples from Antiquity where “virgin” has the same meaning.
    Of course the concept of spiritual purity is unscientific, which is not the same as antiscientific. There is another trap for christians here though – actually two. First of all the question rises how to determine which parts of the Bible are metaphors and which ones literal; the second trap is that the interpreter might be left with a belief system only consisting of metaphors. Then the question is what sense that belief system still makes in relation to our reality.
    It might be possible; I’m not ready at all to argue that religion is incompatible with science, though I would very much like it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    One of the most offensive things about the “Christian” religion is the preoccupation with genitals and reproductive systems. How one behaves toward others, as long as it does not include irresponsible actions, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one has a sex life. It is insulting to all men and women to make morality based on believing that people must be celibate to be a benefit to humanity. it is the same level of insult to make an person’s worth based on breeding for “the cause.”

    • MNb

      It’s rather typical for all three abrahamist religions.

      “How one behaves toward others has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one has a sex life.”
      I think I understand what you mean and if yes I agree. But note that besides masturbation any sex life involves behaviour toward others.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Don’t forget erotic dreams. Both forms of self-satisfaction were presented as sources of shame to be punished out of the “participants.”

        The actual point seemed to be that anything over which the church didn’t have control was to be punished by the church. Talk about a closed loop that double binds all believers…No wonder infant brainwashing (baptism) was so popular.

  • Dominic

    “The word for virgin in Hebrew is bethulah.This verse uses almah, a word that means “maiden.” But we know that almah also means “virgin” because the Bible calls Rebekah a maiden (almah) before her marriage. (Genesis 24:16, 43) God’s holy spirit directed Matthew to write that Isaiah 7:14 came true when Jesus was born. In this verse, he did not use the Greek word for “maiden.” He used the Greek word for “virgin,” parthenos. The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke both say that Mary was a virgin and that she became pregnant through God’s holy spirit.—Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-35.” http://bit.ly/1rXFod8

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      If you’d like to discuss the points, it would be best if you’d directly respond to the points in the post above. Otherwise, I think I’d just be repeating the post in my respond to you.

  • Dominic

    “This identity of Jesus Christ as Immanuel did not mean he was the incarnation of God, ‘God in the flesh,’ which proponents of the Trinity teaching claim is implied by the meaning of Immanuel, namely, “With Us Is God.” It was a common practice among Jews to embody the word “God,” even “Jehovah,” in Hebrew names. Even today Immanuel is the proper name of many men, none of whom are incarnations of God.

    If there seems to be a conflict between the angel’s instructions to Mary (“you are to call his name Jesus”) and Isaiah’s prophecy (“she will certainly call his name Immanuel”), let it be remembered that Messiah was also to be called by yet other names. (Lu 1:31; Isa 7:14) For example, Isaiah 9:6 said concerning this one: “His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” Yet none of these names were given to Mary’s firstborn as personal names, neither when he was a babe nor after he took up his ministry. Rather, they were all prophetic title-names by which Messiah would be identified. Jesus lived up to the meaning of these names in every respect, and that is the sense in which they were prophetically given, to show his qualities and the good offices he would perform toward all those accepting him as Messiah. So also with his title Immanuel. He measured up to and fulfilled its meaning.” http://bit.ly/1xZpCxt

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      they were all prophetic title-names by which Messiah would be identified

      And does the bible record these titles being applied?


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