Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth to be Saved?

Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth to be Saved? December 21, 2016

JesusAndThreeWiseMenThe Christian faith, to a certain extent, is propositional. That is, the New Testament says we must believe in Jesus or believe in his name to be saved from our sins, thus forgiven by God, and thereby be given salvation. For example, Peter preached to the Jews about “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.10, 12; cf. 10.43). (All scripture citations are from the NRSV.)

But what must we believe about Jesus? We must believe what his name Jesus Christ means. The name Jesus is the same as the name Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” (Yahweh, actually YHWH, is God’s name in the Hebrew Bible. English Bibles always translate it “LORD.” See Exodus 3.13-15.) Thus, to believe in Jesus’ name is to believe that the God of the Bible saves through Jesus of Nazareth. And the word “Christ” means Messiah, so that believing Jesus is the Christ means he is the Messiah of Israel.

I think the New Testament also states clearly that we must believe God raised Jesus from the dead in order for us to be saved. Peter often preached Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2.24; 3.15; 4.10, 33). So did Paul. He wrote, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10.9). Paul also defined the gospel, which means  “the good news” about Jesus, by declaring, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” apostles (1 Corinthians 15.3-5).

I call these propositions about Jesus “the essentials of Christian faith.” That is, it is necessary for us to believe these things about Jesus in order for us to be saved and thereby be genuine members of God’s kingdom, thus his family. To summarize, these elements are as follows: Jesus is (1) our Savior, (2) the Messiah of Israel, (3) our Lord, and (4) God raised him from the dead.

But what about Jesus Virgin Birth? Must we also believe that Jesus had a supernatural conception in order for us to be saved? The Virgin Birth is on the minds of many Christians at this season, when we honor the birth of Jesus with our Christmas holiday.

The New Testament has two narratives about Jesus’ Virgin Birth. Luke reports, “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. . . .  Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am 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'” (Luke 1.26-35).

Matthew relates the other birth narrative about Jesus in the New Testament. He says of Joseph and Mary, “but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1.18). Joseph was troubled by this. Not having “lived together” means they had not had sexual relations. Then Matthew adds about Joseph, “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (vv. 20-21). This latter clause signifies the meaning of Jesus name.

Then Matthew cites an Old Testament prophecy to indicate that it predicted Jesus’ Virgin Birth. It is in Isaiah 7.14. Matthew recites it as follows: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us'” (Matt. 1.23). Matthew does not mean Jesus is God but that God will reveal himself as never before through this child, who will become the man Jesus.

So, the New Testament clearly states that Jesus had a supernatural conception by means of God’s Holy Spirit. I think Jesus’ Virgin Birth indicates he did not inherit a sin nature like the rest of us of humans have from Adam. I think this helps us understand how Jesus came to be “without sin” (Hebrews 4.15), “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners” (7.26), thus he “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5.21). For this was necessary for him to be qualified to be our passover lamb “without spot or blemish,” as the law required, in order for him to be our Savior, that is, dying for us on the cross.

Yet does the New Testament say we must believe in Jesus Virgin Birth in order to be saved? No, there is no such text. In fact, the concept of Jesus’ Virgin Birth is no where else stated expressly in the New Testament. And most scholars would say that the concept itself is nowhere else to be found in the New Testament. It certainly is not included in the many evangelistic messages recorded in the book of Acts.

Furthermore, since the Apostle Paul, the great theologian of the early church, does not ever mention it in his several New Testament letters, I think it is doubtful that he ever knew about Jesus’ Virgin Birth. Paul was martyred in Rome in about A.D. 68. A huge majority of New Testament scholars believe all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were originally written and began circulation no earlier than the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. I don’t agree with that, since I tentatively believe all three were written prior to A.D. 70, but not much before. Even with my view of the early composition of the synoptics, I doubt it was possible for Paul to have even known about the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

But someone may say, “What about earlier oral tradition?” They mean early church communities surely would have included in their oral tradition–which preceded the synoptic gospels–these birth narratives about Jesus in Matthew and Luke. I doubt that, too. I suspect that some time elapsed following the Christ event (=Jesus life, death, resurrection, and heavenly ascension) before Mary’s story about the Virgin Birth circulated as oral tradition. It was something that happened to her privately, and thus what not like the words spoken and deeds done by Jesus that countless crowds witnessed and thus became prime material for the formation of oral tradition about Jesus. And Mary surely didn’t spread that around, and probably didn’t even tell anyone about it, during Jesus’ lifetime. For Luke reports about this, saying, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2.19). The immediate context of this statement is the shepherds reporting to Mary and others about angels having appeared to them, proclaiming the Christchild (vv. 1-18). But I think Luke means this and what he earlier reports about Jesus’ Virgin Birth along with Gabriel’s announcement about it. Mary keeping this information to herself would fit what we know about her humility (Luke 1.46-48).

 

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