Why the Virgin Birth makes remarkable historical sense

Why the Virgin Birth makes remarkable historical sense December 21, 2020

It’s often assumed the miracle of the Virgin Birth is something Christians take ‘on faith’ alone. Christian philosopher Lydia McGrew explains why the source material and embarrassing realities of the Virgin Birth accounts in Matthew and Luke make them historically plausible. Lydia recently debated these issues on a Christmas edition of Unbelievable? and her words below are adapted from a recent Youtube series on the Virgin Birth.

I’ve recently published a number of videos defending the reliability of the birth narratives in the Gospels. In one of my videos on the Virgin Birth I defend the idea that Mary herself could have plausibly been Luke’s source for his account of Jesus’ infancy and birth.

In doing so, I was trying to draw attention to the fact that Christians don’t need to accept a picture of the Gospels as untethered from historical reality and historical sources. There’s no reason to adopt the idea that the Gospel stories, including the stories of the Virgin Birth come from we-know-not-where, and that they could have just been made up later on, perhaps based on some common core of tradition.

Unfortunately, it’s become somewhat popular even among some modern evangelical thinkers to make deprecating remarks about the historical strength of the case for the Virgin Birth. Such scholars are not merely saying that the case is not as strong as some other cases. That would be a merely comparative statement. You’ll actually find stronger statements such as: “I believe that as a Christian, but I wouldn’t claim to prove it historically.”

This gives the impression that the Virgin Birth has to be believed in some sense “on faith” as opposed to historical evidence. The reasoning is that the resurrection is well-supported historically but the Virgin Birth is not. I think that’s a division we shouldn’t be making.

Is The Story Invented?

Another trope you might hear is the statement that it wouldn’t really matter that much if Luke and/or Matthew invented a lot of their infancy stories, because there’s overlap between the two stories. There are things that they agree on (such as the Virgin Birth itself), so (goes the theory) even if the other parts of the stories were made up based upon a common core of tradition, the overlap would be multiply attested and therefore secure.

That doesn’t work probabilistically, as I argue in this New Testament journal article. Independent attestation is not going to save you if you make that kind of concession. If all we have is some core of tradition that comes from we-know-not-where, and if the author of Luke and the author of Matthew then came along and “riffed” on that tradition, that’s the wrong kind of independence for getting a strong argument.

That’s independent imagination, not independent attestation. In that case the real question is, where did that common tradition come from? That would not really be two different sources from people that both have independent access to what happened. It would just be one line of tradition.

So we need a better approach, which is what I’ve been trying to outline in my series of videos on the Virgin Birth, part of a larger series on the intersection of Gospel reliability and miracles.

Evidence

What kind of evidence is there for the Virgin Birth, specifically? Well, there are considerations such as the vast evidence for the care and veracity of Luke from all the confirmations of Acts and of Luke. There are other indications of the general truthfulness of Matthew like undesigned coincidences with other Gospels. But what specific indicators, if any, are there of authenticity in the infancy accounts themselves?

One interesting type of evidence is the fact that these accounts don’t really work to appeal to either a Jewish or a Gentile audience as made-up accounts. They’re not what you would imagine someone making up as an appeal to those audiences.

Unappealing To Jews

Let’s first of all think about a Jewish audience. As I’ll mention below, the accounts of the Virgin Birth don’t really resemble pagan myths, but let’s put ourselves into the mindset of a first-century Palestinian Jewish audience. They tended to be pretty sensitive about any resemblance, however faint, to paganism.

In his book Who Was Jesus, NT Wright points out that the story of the Virgin Birth could have been what we might call “triggering” to first-century Jewish sensibilities, since it says that Yahweh, God, caused a woman to become pregnant without the agency of any human male. Even though the stories are not sexual in any way, there could be a Jewish feeling that that’s getting “too close” to paganism.

Virginal conception is not what you find in miraculous births in the Old Testament; those are more similar to the birth of John the Baptist as recounted in Luke 1. This does not mean, of course, that I’m suggesting the birth of John the Baptist is invented, either. The point is just that in the Old Testament accounts, even when a conception is miraculous, the mother is married and there’s a definite human father.

The idea of God causing the conception, even by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, is not what you would imagine somebody making up to appeal to a Jewish audience. Although interestingly, the various references to Old Testament passages in Matthew make it clear that Matthew does wish to address a Jewish audience.

Unappealing To Pagans

But these stories are not going to be very appealing to a pagan audience, either. In pagan mythology, when a god impregnates a woman, it’s very lush, sensual, and sexual. Often it occurs by sexual intercourse between the god and the woman. Sometimes the god comes in the form of some animal or in some other form so that he’s not recognized, but even in the myth of Danae and the shower of gold, the god lusts after Danae.

There’s nothing like that here. The Gospel accounts are very sober. They bear no resemblance to that mythology. It just says that the power of the highest will overshadow her. In fact, these are almost aggressively Jewish accounts, as we’ll see as we go on.

Unappealing To Christians

Now we get to perhaps the most important part of all: These are not the kinds of things that you would imagine someone inventing as a later Christian apologetic either. Why is that? Well, because they include Jewish connections that are in a sense embarrassing to a later Christian apologetic, because they seem to raise expectations that were not fulfilled. Christians writing later would know that.

Let’s listen to what the angel says to the virgin Mary at the Annunciation:

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)

Now what is a Jewish audience likely to think? They are likely to expect an earthly kingdom. That may even have been what Mary thought of if this really occurred and the angel actually said that to her. And yet, by the time Christianity is founded, it’s clear that Jesus did not found an earthly kingdom.

Even though the Christians are saying that he rose from the dead, he isn’t physically present in the early Church. He isn’t reigning visibly on the throne of his father David with a kingdom that shall have no end. Why would you put that in there if you were making up the story? It would be so easy if you’re just inventing the story to have the angel say something different:

“He will reign over a kingdom, but it will be the kingdom of heaven. It will not be a kingdom of this earth.”

You could put that in there instead. Why not, if you’re making it up?

Or consider what is known as the song of Zechariah. It’s what Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, says in the story when he is able to speak once again. (He had been dumb in the story in Luke after he saw the angel in the Temple, until after John the Baptist was born and Zechariah said that he was to be named John.) This is what he supposedly said:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David—
Just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient times—
Salvation from our enemies,
And from the hand of all who hate us;
To show mercy to our fathers,
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham,
To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
Would serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”
(Luke 1:68-75)

Can you imagine anyone after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year A.D. 70 making that up and putting that into the mouth of the father of the forerunner of Jesus? I can’t. The Romans came in and they destroyed Jerusalem. They led many Jews into slavery. They destroyed the sacrificial system. They destroyed buildings. They crucified many people. It was horrible. “Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us”? Why would you put something like that in there only to have people say: “Well, that doesn’t seem to have worked out. I mean, we sure weren’t safe from the hands of our enemies!”

Once again, there was no reason to put something into the story that would draw attention to the fact that the Jews were not safe. And that was true even before the fall of Jerusalem. They certainly did not have reliable safety from their enemies. Even in the lead-up to the Jewish rebellion, anyone who knew “what was what” could have recognized that things were shaky.

Matthew’s Gospel

What about Matthew? Well, Matthew’s account isn’t as long as Luke’s, and it doesn’t have these canticles that Luke has – these things that people burst out saying. But we do have the announcement that the angel makes to Joseph when he’s telling him to go ahead and marry Mary. The angel says:

“And you shall name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)

Now you might say: “Aha, there is a Christian theme – salvation from sins!” But what does it say? It says his people. In contrast, consider one of John’s epistles:

 “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (I John 2:2)

There’s the Christian message: Jesus has died for the sins of the whole world. The message of the angel in Matthew is more specific: “He shall save his people from their sins.” You can imagine someone giving that message to a Jewish man – Joseph in that context – to start introducing this idea of salvation from sins, but still tying it to Jesus’ own people.

When the Magi come to Herod in Matthew, what do they say? They say: “Where is he who has been born the king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2)

Once again, Jesus is not visibly ruling as king of the Jews in the historical context in which Matthew’s Gospel was published. So, if you’re just inventing this story, there’s no reason to do that. You could even leave out the Herod section altogether and just have the Magi come directly to Bethlehem. You could have them mention a star that led them there without having them call Jesus the king of the Jews. To include their reference to one who has been born king of the Jews is just begging for someone to ask the question: “Well, why isn’t he the king of the Jews then?”

These stories look early. They look like things that are being told initially in a pre-Christian Jewish context rather than things that Christians are making up with hindsight. There is, for example, no reference to Isaiah 53, a favorite passage of the early Christians. There is no reference to the Suffering Servant. There are no references that you could so easily have woven into the stories in hindsight, if this is just all something that you’re making up. These therefore don’t look like a later Christian apologetic.

Other Considerations

What other indications are there of authenticity? Well, let’s talk about Luke for a minute. The gospel of Luke and the stories of the infancy are steeped in the pre-Christian context of the worship in the Temple. Think for example of what it says about Zechariah the father of John. It says that he was a priest in the course of Abija (Luke 1:5). We find a reference to that in I Chronicles 24:10 in the Old Testament. There were so many priests that they were divided up into groups, and the groups were assigned to a certain number of weeks to serve throughout the year. Abija is the ancestor of just one of these divisions mentioned in Chronicles.

Josephus separately attests that that system did continue right on up into the first century (Antiquities VII.14.7). So that’s interesting. And sure enough, here you find Zechariah doing his service before God in the course of Abija. It mentions that he’s offering incense. That’s also in the Old Testament – the morning and evening incense (Exodus 30:7-8).

Luke also mentions the disgrace that Elizabeth feels about not being pregnant. That’s got a very Jewish feeling. The story is set in an intensely pro-natal Jewish culture, in which a woman felt disgraced if she was barren. And so when she becomes pregnant, she says: “God has taken away my disgrace.” (Luke 1:25) This is a point that the great theologian J. Gresham Machen makes (The Virgin Birth of Christ). There’s that little authentic touch – God had taken away her disgrace as a barren Jewish woman.

Then we have little geographical notes. When the angel has come to Mary and she’s agreed to be the mother of Jesus, then it says she rose up in haste and she went to the hill country of Judea to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth (Luke 1:39). And indeed in Judea, not far from Jerusalem, you do have the hill country, which would be a very reasonable place for Elizabeth and the priest Zechariah to live.

This mention of Mary’s trip to Judea also establishes a connection between Nazareth and Judea, which Luke includes here very naturally. (See this video for more.)

Then when Luke tells about Joseph and Mary going from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the time of the census, he says that Joseph went up (Luke 2:4) Now it’s south, so why does it say he went up? Nazareth itself is in some hill country but right around the Sea of Galilee, that is geographically low. Then the land rises as you go down to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, to the hill country of Judea. So, you could indeed refer to it as going up. Again, this is a natural, casual geographical touch.

Herod

What about Matthew? In Matthew, notice the mention of Archelaus (Matt. 2:22). In the story of Jesus’ infancy in Matthew, when they return from the flight into Egypt, Joseph has been told that Herod, who sought the child’s life, is dead. Joseph comes back, but then it says that when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Herod’s place, he was afraid to settle in Judea, and so he went instead to Nazareth.

That’s kind of interesting just to begin with. We have independent confirmation that Archelaus did reign in Judea after Herod’s death, and that would have been a somewhat obscure fact (Josephus, Jewish War). (Remember, there was no Google where you could just look these things up if you are writing later.) So that is a confirmation right here.

Also, the fact that Joseph decides to settle in Galilee implies that someone different is reigning there. But Matthew doesn’t say that here. In fact, Galilee was ruled after Herod the Great’s death by Herod Antipas, who does feature as a character later in the Gospels. Here Matthew just casually mentions that Joseph went to another region, and as it turns out (again, as confirmed in Josephus) the kingdom of Herod the Great was divided up, and someone other than Archelaus was ruling in Galilee. So right away, we have these casual historical confirmations of Matthew. Matthew does not look like a made up, late account.

But there’s more! We know from Josephus of the rather stormy transition between Herod the great and Archelaus. There was a disturbance in the Temple precincts after Herod’s death because of some things that Herod the Great had done (he had actually burned some people to death). These protests after his death became violent; when soldiers were sent in, the protesters actually stoned them. At that point Archelaus, who was the designated ruler by Herod’s will, though he had not yet been confirmed by Caesar Augustus, lost his nerve or lost his temper and sent armed and mounted soldiers into the Temple. They slaughtered many people; they then sent out messengers saying that Passover that year was canceled.

Imagine Joseph returning right around this time from Egypt and meeting people who were telling him that this is what Archelaus has done. This would be a big thing; this would be frightening. Even aside from the fact that it says he was warned in a dream, Matthew also says that Joseph was afraid. We can imagine, humanly, why he might have been and why he would have said: “You know, I’ve just fled from one bloodthirsty ruler. I’m not going to settle under another.” He didn’t know of any similar story about Herod Antipas, and he wanted to settle somewhere where they have a connection (as Luke has shown us, they did have), so he goes back to Nazareth.

True Accounts

Now that all makes sense. That all fits together. But that story from Josephus is not something that Matthew tells. In fact, we don’t know for sure that Matthew even knew that story. He apparently heard that when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning he was afraid. That fits in a casual way with what we know of those stormy early days of Archelaus’s rule.

These are just some of the evidences of truth in the infancy narratives. Skeptics have subjected these stories to many objections, and even some Christians seem to think nothing of deprecating their historical objectivity and not attempting to defend them. But there’s no reason to retreat to treating the Virgin Birth as a postulate of mere faith. Not only are the objections to the stories greatly exaggerated, there is much positive evidence that these are true accounts of Jesus’ birth.

Here’s wishing you all a Merry, evidential Christmas! The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

For more from Lydia, check out her on-going series, here and subscribe to her channel.

You can hear more of Lydia discussing this topic on a recent episode of Unbelievable? 

Subscribe to the Unbelievable? podcast

About Lydia McGrew
Lydia McGrew is an analytic philosopher, Christian thinker and author of ‘The Mirror or the Mask?’ You can read more about the author here.
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