Are there logical grounds for the Bible’s miraculous conception and virgin birth of Jesus? Is this account a pious legend, discredited by modern science? Was it a whopper designed to top the claims of pagan religions? Was it a lame attempt to cover up an embarrassing secret in a gullible age?
We can dismiss the chronologically bigoted claim that we are smarter or less gullible than the people of New Testament times. These folks were just as skeptical as we are about virgin births and resurrections. See how Origen in 250 AD points to parthenogenesis in nature as evidence for the credibility of Jesus’ birth without human father. In terms of modern science, he makes the Virgin Birth more believable than the Resurrection (even though parthenogenesis always produces a female, which means divine intervention would still be necessary to produce a male).
Not every critical scholar rejects the historicity of the Virgin Birth. While he notes that the matter is beyond historical proof, John Meier argues in A Marginal Jew (volume 1: 223-225) that this claim is not a “late legend” created at the end of the first century AD. He proves that Celsus’ rumor about Jesus’ illegitimacy must be traced to Judaism outside Palestine, to no earlier than the mid-second century AD, to people who were in no time or place to know the facts.
Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, concurs. He argues that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are clearly independent, and that the claim that Jesus was miraculously conceived must be earlier than either account (Lord Jesus Christ, 318).
Another critical scholar who outright defends the Virgin Birth as historically credible is C.E.B. Cranfield, author of the famous ICC commentary on Romans. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology 41 (1988): 177–89, after reviewing an impressive amount of exegetical evidence, Cranfield suggests that doubters of the Virgin Birth have allowed “an atheistic world view…to exercise a veto over their thinking.”
Eighty years ago, J. Gresham Machen critically examines the supposed pagan parallels to the Virgin Birth in his famous book The Virgin Birth of Christ. He shows that the Christian claim is far different from the claims of pagans, all of which involve physical intercourse, and only one of which (Zeus and Danaë) involves a virgin.
Machen asks, Could supposed pagan analogies, in the minds of first century Christians who thought that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, have ever produced the strange belief that Jesus was born without human father? Could “men who had a wholesome horror of the degraded mythology of the pagan world” have ever derived from the stories of divine lust for mortal women “the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost?” Machen thinks this claim is “unlikely.”
What about the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14? Machen comments that although it is possible to read the Virgin Birth back into this passage after the Gospel account was already known and believed, “it never could have produced that story; and indeed the pre-Christian interpretation of prophecy was moving in an entirely different direction.”
Applying the famous criteria of authenticity, the Virgin Birth scores high on the criterion of embarrassment. Hurtado writes, “To claim a miraculous conception with no identifiable father does not appear terribly wise if early Christians simply wanted to refute successfully the slur that Jesus was illegitimate.” (Lord Jesus Christ, 322) It would have been much easier to simply say that Jesus was the natural child of Joseph and Mary. Why make it any more complicated? The church never would have made such an embarrassing claim as a virginal conception if they were not compelled to by the facts.
Because yes, the slur of Jesus’ supposed illegitimacy was out there, very early. It seems to be echoed in Mark 6:3, where Jesus is called the “son of Mary” rather than of Joseph. Ethelbert Stauffer (Jesus and His Story, 207) states that if a man’s parentage is in doubt, nothing disparaging shall be said about him unless he becomes an apostate, at which point “his illegitimate birth shall be spoken of publicly and unsparingly.” (Stauffer gives all the rabbinic references.)
A fanciful second-century AD book called the Protevangelium of James (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/infancyjames.html) claims that both Joseph and Mary passed a lie-detector test for sexual misconduct. (The Torah has the bitter-water test for the suspected adulteress in Numbers 5:11-31, but has no such test for males.) Why do we not hear of Joseph submitting Mary to the bitter-water test? One reason would be that he wished to keep the whole matter quiet (Matthew 1:19). Another reason would be that a miraculous conception was not even a possibility to him. A third reason would be that the test was falling into disuse; the rabbis claim that it didn’t work anymore because there were too many adulterers in Israel (Mishnah, Sotah 9:9).
Machen does not make the Virgin Birth an essential belief. He asks, “Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell.” In fact, Machen thinks the Virgin Birth will “hardly” be accepted when taken apart from the rest of Jesus’ story. But taken together with the rest, the Virgin Birth adds to, and receives from, the convincing quality of the rest of what the New Testament says about Jesus.
Machen asks, Is the Virgin Birth unnecessary? If so, he says, then so is the very existence of Jesus. We end up with a “Christless Christianity” (a term Machen borrows from Warfield) that is independent of events in the external world.
It requires no intellectual dishonesty to believe that Jesus was conceived and born without the help of any human male, by miracle of God. It does require a measure of dishonesty to deny this truth, and still claim to believe the historic faith of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.