The Bigger (than the Virgin Birth) Context (Ed Fudge)

This post is by Ed Fudge.

The statistics alone are startling. The New Testament contains twenty-seven documents or “books,” written by nine men. Some Christian doctrines are so significant that they appear in most or all twenty-seven books, so widely known as to be mentioned by all nine authors. The explanation that Mary’s first pregnancy resulted from a miracle and not from a man–or, to use the familiar shorthand, “the Virgin Birth”–is not a doctrine of that kind. For starters, only Matthew and Luke (two writers out of nine) mention this astonishing detail, and it appears only in their respective Gospels (two books out of twenty-seven). Totally mum on this subject are Jesus’ half-brothers James and Jude; apostles Peter, John, and Paul; John Mark (Barnabas’ cousin); and the author of Hebrews (my guess: Barnabas).

When Matthew writes his Gospel intended for a Jewish audience, he begins with a royal genealogy that establishes Jesus’ legal standing as an heir to David’s throne. Normally women were not named in genealogies, but Matthew includes five females: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “Uriah’s wife” (Bathsheba), and Mary. And what do these five women share, beyond participation in a royal lineage? Each in her day was the butt of coarse jokes, the subject of gossip, the object of ridicule and scorn. These five ancestors of the Messiah knew what it meant to live with a cloud of suspicion above one’s pretty head. Gradually they had grown deaf to the clucking and murmuring of judgmental old biddies; become blind to the slicing, self-righteous glances of women their own age; numb to the painful remarks regarding the wickedness of sexual misconduct by daughters of the covenant. Yes, these are special women. And Mary has made the list. The neighbors are talking, all right; a brief explanation of the facts is clearly in order.

But what of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 about a virgin who becomes pregnant and delivers a son? Didn’t anyone thinkof`that? Apparently they did not–at least not before the fact. Not in the Mishnah, the Targums or the Talmud. Not in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. Not in the Apocrypha or thePseudepigrapha. Not in any of the vast variety of literature reflective of Second Temple Judaism. So far as the evidence shows, when the Jews happened to read Isaiah 7:14, they considered it already fulfilled.

No matter if someone thought otherwise, because, as originally written, this verse had nothing to do with miracles or messiahs anyway. It was God’s rebuke to unbelieving King Ahaz of Judah, who was scared to death of two neighboring kings. BecauseAhaz refused to ask God for a sign that he would protect his southern kingdom, God would make his own sign for the king–it is the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. A young woman (Hebrew: almah) then living will, in the normal course of events, become pregnant and birth a boy she names Immanuel–“God with us.” But before that boy is old enough to know right from wrong, the two bully kings frightening King Ahaz will be no more.

But where did the virgin come from? For once, a simple answer. When the Jews translated their Bible from Hebrew into Greek a century or two before Christ, they made the “young woman” (Hebrew word) a “virgin” (Greek word parthenos). Now, back to Matthew, busily writing his Gospel and looking for every opportunity to show Jesus “fulfilling” the Jewish Bible. As it happens, Matthew is telling the story of Mary’s miraculous conception. Suddenly it is as if he remembers language from Isaiah 7:14 in his Greek Bible that sounds exactly like what he wants to say. The Spirit apparently approves the decision and Matthew uses the Greek word parthenos to tell, quite literally and for the very first time, what has actually taken place.

But why the limited press–why so little mention in the New Testament? Perhaps because the biology is not the point. New Testament authors shine the spotlight on something else. Commanding our attention is the cosmic phenomenon playing out before our watching eyes. John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Paul says that in Jesus there dwelt the fullness of deity. Hebrews says that the divine Son became man and forever took on a human body. The main event is not a miraculous conception, The earth-shaking, heaven-shimmering, for-us-and-for-our-salvation event is the Incarnation. Compared to that, the virgin birth is only the mechanics.


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