I thought it would be good to talk a bit about her. Here’s a bit from my upcoming book about the Creed.
Skepticism about the Virgin Birth
Curiously, the Virgin Birth often seems to provoke more doubt than the Resurrection does. Not just non-Christians, but even many believers have difficulties with it while having no trouble believing Jesus rose from the dead. This doubt can be roughly divided into “weak” and “ardent” skepticism.
The weak type of doubt can be stated this way: Belief in the Virgin Birth was caused by scientific illiteracy. Long ago, people ignorant of science did not know that parthenogenesis (i.e. virgin birth) was scientifically impossible and that’s why believed this story.
But, of course, people knew perfectly well two thousand years ago, as they know today, that babies are not born of virgins in the normal course of nature. That’s why St. Joseph was shocked by Mary’s story (Matthew 1:19).
The Ardent Skeptic makes a more aggressive argument (often imagining he is the first to do so). It goes like this, more or less: “Mary, a hysterical teen in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, invented the story of a virginal conception and brainwashed Jesus into believing it. Jesus, a megalomaniac and mentally ill peasant due to this upbringing, therefore claimed to be Son of God. He then convinced the apostles and hundreds of other disciples of this story. Then it all fell apart, he was crucified, and his apostles founded a cult which claimed he had been raised from the dead. With the mother of their god still living in the Christian community, claiming to be a virgin, the apostles were stuck with this bizarre detail as part of their story and it became a fixture of early Christian belief along with the Resurrection.”
You will find variations on the theory that put the blame on various figures in the early Church, but the core assertion is that the Virgin Birth was a cover story for illegitimacy.
It is often a shock to the people proposing this allegedly daring new claim to discover that it is as old as the New Testament.
In Mark 6:3, for instance, Jesus’ neighbors, incredulous that this common kid from the neighborhood is amazing the crowds, refer to him as the “son of Mary”, not of Joseph, as they try to denigrate him.
In John, after a particularly heated argument centering on the issue of fatherhood (in which Jesus declares that God is his Father and blasts his critics as being of “your father the devil” (John 8:44)), those critics fire back that he is a Samaritan and demon-possessed (cf. John 8:48). In other words, they claim he is illegitimate, not a Jew, and crazy. (Samaritans and Jews regarded each other with the same disdain that Palestinians and Israelis have for each other today.)
None of this is evidence for anything other than that a) even in his lifetime, some people were aware that there was something unusual about his origins and, b) that enemies of the Faith such as Celsus spread the claim of illegitimacy, eventually concocting (long after Jesus’ time on earth) the tale that he was the bastard son of a Roman soldier named “Pantera” (in case you ever wondered where the rock band got its name).
The primary difficulty for the skeptic advancing this claim is that evidence for it is non-existent. It depends entirely on massively privileging rumors by ancients and speculation by moderns as “fact” while treating actual documents written by people who were both eyewitnesses and friends of eyewitnesses to Jesus as though they are mere hoaxes or legends.
More than this, it depends on trying to maintain the claim that the apostles and evangelists were simultaneously the most gullible fools of all time, the most cunning liars and con men who ever lived and the most incompetent hoaxers in the history of the world.
Consider: the Virgin Birth story has to originate somewhere. The most likely candidates for that origin are Jesus, Mary, or the apostles. This leaves us with three alternatives:
- Jesus was the Ultimate Jewish Mama’s Boy who had been groomed all his life by his mentally ill mother’s tale of his Virgin Birth and made it the foundation of his preaching and self-understanding. Indeed, if the skeptic’s account is to be believed, this story was such an obsessive central focus of Jesus’ self-understanding that it is the reason he believed himself to be Son of God.
The first problem is how a homeless itinerant preacher–obsessively haranguing passersby with a story of his own virgin birth–would have ever attracted huge crowds of followers and persuaded them to believe in him so profoundly that they deified him and invented a whole resurrection yarn to account for his shameful crucifixion. It passes the bounds of everything we know about normal psychology to take this account of the story of Jesus seriously, even if there were evidence for it.
The second and fatal problem is that there is not one syllable of evidence for the claim that Jesus ever discussed his virginal birth anywhere in the four gospels, much less made it the monomaniacal focus of all his thoughts. Nor does it seem to have occupied the thoughts of the early Church very much. The focus of the early Church is not on Jesus’ birth, but on his death and resurrection. One gospel, Mark, doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative and simply begins with Jesus as an adult. John only says “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and then moves on to the narrative of his adult ministry. The epistles never bring it up either, with the exception of Paul’s passing reference to the fact that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). If this story is so central to Jesus’ allegedly megalomaniac self-understanding, why do we hear absolutely nothing about it in his preaching? There’s no There there.
- If it is argued that Mary was the source of this allegedly fictional story in the early Christian community, either she believed her story or she did not. If she did not believe her own story, she was a spectacular liar. But spectacular liars are never liars about one thing. They live lives of spectacular lying and this quickly becomes obvious to psychologically normal people.
If she believed her story, that is either because she was telling the truth or was mad as a march hare. But, once again, the problem is how such a story ever became rigorously and faithfully believed by Jesus’ circle of disciples if it was not true. What normal person, confronted with a psychologically unbalanced woman trying desperately to hide her illegitimate pregnancy, would accept that tale as the real story? There have, after all, been countless other out-of-wedlock pregnancies throughout history and, no doubt, some of the mothers involved have cooked up some yarn about virginal conception to try to explain their difficulties, whether due to madness or pathological lying. But has anybody ever believed such a story outside of this one case? Perhaps one or two especially doting friends or family at most. But all normal people have always regarded such tales as contemptible lies at worst and pathetic delusions at best. How on earth, then, did this one story of a Virgin Birth gain the passionate faith of Jesus’ whole circle of disciples instead of becoming Exhibit A for them that they should keep far away from a very kooky man with a very kooky family and not be his disciple in the first place?
- The third alternative is that the story originates with the apostles themselves as liars who cooked up the story to cover for Mary’s alleged indiscretion. But this is the most incredible claim of all.
Think about it: You are an apostolic con man. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to foist on the world a Messiah, embarrassingly crucified and supposedly raised from the dead. Your problem: you know he is not only dead, but illegitimate. What do you do?
Well, let’s review the job requirements for a Messiah. The Messiah, as we have seen in Chapter 3, was supposed to be of the line of David. That’s it. That’s all. Nothing in the Jewish tradition said he had to be born of a virgin. Nobody in your culture expects him to be born of a virgin. So all the inventor of a Messianic lie had to do was establish that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary (both Davidic descendants). Given that Joseph had, in fact, raised Jesus as his own son, why on earth go out of your way to draw extra scrutiny to Jesus’ origins with a tale like this? If you are a liar, just say he was born of Joseph and Mary and be done with it. Who will be the wiser, particularly since the events of his birth are thirty years in the past?
At this point, the dogged skeptic might suggest that Joseph never existed and was invented by the apostles too. But this is surely to multiply hypotheses to rescue an increasingly shaky theory. Even Celsus, the source of the whole Yeshua ben Pantera legend, grants the existence of Joseph the carpenter, to whom Mary was betrothed. Indeed, all the actual evidence we have says that Joseph did exist while no credible evidence from those contemporary to and eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life shows that Mary had relations with any man.
The skeptic may desperately respond, “That’s because the Church edited Pantera out!”
To which the sensible person replies, “And replaced him with this?” Why does the early Church insist on taking the trouble to tell this tale of Jesus’ birth and not simply make a cursory statement that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary and be done with it? Why add the incredible narrative burden of a completely unnecessary Virgin Birth to the story?
The reply of the skeptic is that the early Church needed Jesus be the son of a virgin in order for him to be the Son of God. (Note how the goalposts have now shifted from “Mary needed to cover up her sinful past with the ridiculous fiction of a Virgin Birth and everybody believed her” to “The Church needed to make Jesus the son of a virgin for theological purposes”. Arguments against the Faith tend to shift their ground a lot. It’s what C.S. Lewis describes as the “restless fertility of bewilderment.”)
But as we have already seen, the claim the Church needed him to be the son of a virgin is to retroject on the story assumptions that need never have occurred to messianic Jews at the time. Why would early Jewish Christians need for Jesus to be the son of a virgin? Although Isaiah 7:14 was read in retrospect as referring to birth of Jesus (for reasons we will address in Chapter 10), nobody before the birth of the Church understood that text as necessitating a virgin birth for the Messiah. Nor does the doctrine of the Incarnation necessitate a virginal conception. God, being God, could have brought his Son into the world any way he chose. All the other great heroes of Israelite history had arrived in the normal way, so why not this one?
“Because he was illegitimate,” says the skeptic, arguing in a circle and coming right back to square one. “They had to concoct the Virgin Birth to explain that.”
No. They did not. All they had to do was establish that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, a lie (if lie it was) made incredibly easy by the fact that Joseph had—thirty years before—accepted Jesus as his son. The last thing the apostles needed to do was invent an incredible tale of a Virgin Birth that was totally unnecessary to their story.
The assumption at the bottom of the skeptic’s claim is that the apostles are simultaneously suckers and ingenious liars and fantastically inept con men: gullible fools who believed a crazy man and his crazy mother, but also brilliant liars who invented the whole story of the Virgin Birth themselves—and all because they were too stupid to see that they need not have invented it at all.
In the end, all critics of the Virgin Birth really mean is that they hold a philosophy which declares that God is not allowed to interfere in the ordinary course of nature via what we call “miracles”. Because of this philosophy, they are forced to propose multiple mutually irreconcilable alternative explanations for the Virgin Birth that contradict one another and fail to explain. In short, the whole argument depends on a philosophical prejudice, not on evidence. But if God is, in fact, the Creator and Ruler of nature, then all bets are off and he can do anything he likes—including become incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.
Incarnate of the Virgin
And so there remains always the fourth alternative: the apostles and evangelists are reporting what they sincerely believe, having received it from the mouth of Mary, whom they rightly regarded as a credible witness because they saw her Son Jesus raised from the dead.
Let’s start over and ask how the early Church could have encountered this story for the first time.
Certainly, the apostles and disciples, upon coming to know Jesus and his mother, would hardly have introduced themselves to Mary with the question, “By the way, are you a virgin, ma’am?” So why did the early Church come to embrace the claim of the Virgin Birth? Because of the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It was that, not the Virgin Birth, that attracted the attention of the disciples. The sole witness to the birth of Jesus in the early Church was, of logical necessity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, since Joseph was long dead. And she, like any normal, modest person, did not make a big thing of it during Jesus’ earthly ministry but “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).
As Jesus grew to adulthood, he would have learned the details of his conception and birth as we all learn the story of our birth: from his parents. Jesus was, recall, home-schooled. He learned the story from Mary and his foster-father Joseph as he learned his alphabet, his Greek and Aramaic, how to walk, and how to handle the plane and the lathe. It is a story that was, for understandable reasons, unlikely to have been told outside the Holy Family, except as the subject of gossip and speculation among neighbors and extended family who only knew bits of it third hand.
So how would the Virgin Birth have become not merely general knowledge, but a crucial doctrine of the Faith? The question of Jesus’ origins did not become acute for the Church on the day he was born, but on the day he was raised from the dead. It was by his resurrection from the dead, not his birth, that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:5). Only in light of this awesome event and the gift of the Holy Spirit were the apostles electrified to realize that (in the words of the Risen Christ) “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). And with that realization, the question of just how the Messianic Son of David had entered the world and was connected to the history of the Chosen People became acute. Only then did the early Church turn to the only possible source of information about his birth: Mary. They are reporting, not inventing, her story of the Virgin Birth, about which they would never have known had they not encountered the Risen Christ. The story of the Virgin Birth became a contributory testimony to, not the foundation of, the Church’s conviction that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Act 2:36).
Why a Virgin Birth?
Some people have the notion the Virgin Birth was a sort of divine stunt meant to impress people about Jesus’ bona fides during his public ministry and get them to believe he is the Son of God. But this is false for two reasons.
First, God does not do stunts. The request for stunts was repeatedly rebuffed by Jesus. Pharisees demanding stunts were told, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4). When Herod Antipas similarly sought for some magic trick from Jesus, he came away empty-handed (cf. Luke 23:8-9). Jesus comes to seek relationship with us, not to entertain, titillate, or gratify idle curiosity. All attempts to reduce him to a performing monkey—especially from enemies of relationship with him—meet with failure. Most especially, while he will answer (often in riddles) questions asked in order to find things out, there is no record of him answering questions asked in order to keep from finding things out.
The second reason it is false to think the Virgin Birth is a stunt is that stunts are done to ballyhoo and attract attention while the Virgin Birth was, in fact, unknown to Jesus’ contemporaries and only became a part of the preached message of the Church, as far we can tell, after his earthly ministry.
In reality then, the early Church does not treat his Virgin Birth as a stunt, but as a sign. Why a sign? Because having met the Risen Christ, they have been instructed by his own mouth that he himself is the point of “Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27) and they very understandably include in that remark the words of the prophet Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.
How they came to do this we shall discuss later. But the point, for the moment is this: signs signify and the early Church therefore took the Virgin Birth to be loaded with significance because they took the whole life of Jesus to be loaded with significance.
The primary thing the Virgin Birth signifies is that the entire project of salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed . . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 503).
Jesus, like all of us children of God who call him our older brother, is born, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). This occurs, not for his benefit, but for ours, as do all the other signs of his life. He did not need to be born of a virgin, as though the incarnation would have been impossible any other way. God chose to be born of a virgin as he chose to multiply loaves and fishes, heal the sick, and raise the dead: as a sign to us of who he is and why he came.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York:HarperCollins, 2001), p. 175.