Six Problems With the Virgin Birth: Biblical and Historical Perspective

Six Problems With the Virgin Birth: Biblical and Historical Perspective March 1, 2016

The virgin birth of Jesus is one of the most celebrated doctrines in the New Testament. But is it believable anymore? Should it be disposed of, updated, or drastically revised?

Star of Bethlehem, by Wonderlane via Flickr, CC Commons
by Wonderlane via Flickr, CC by 2.0

I will be doing a series of posts looking at this doctrine from historical/biblical perspectives, from the view of science, and from the perspective of other related theological themes and doctrines. In this first post, I consider the historical and biblical arguments against the validity of the virgin birth (“virginal conception” is more accurate than “virgin birth,” but I’ll use virgin birth since it’s more common).

Here are some of the primary, pertinent arguments:

1. Paul doesn’t refer to it.

The apostle Paul, who was chronologically the first author of the New Testament (his letters predate the gospels), was apparently unaware of the virgin birth or even of Mary’s name.

He mentions that “God sent his son” who was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), but here there is no mention of any knowledge of the virgin birth. He doesn’t clarify that Jesus was exclusively born of a woman and that no man was involved. That Jesus was “born of a woman” could simply be Paul’s insistence that Jesus was really human. Nor does he echo Matthew/Luke’s affirmation that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, or that no human male was involved. In Romans, he notes that the “son of God” was “descended from David according to the flesh.” Here, though, “according to the flesh” simply means that Jesus descended from David. Since Joseph was the one responsible for continuing the lineage of David, one could take this as Paul’s assumption that Jesus was born both of Mary and of Joseph. Although, there is not enough to state this strongly.

In the other Pauline verse that refers to Jesus’ birth (Romans 1:3), we’re told that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh.” By this phrase, Paul insists that a high Christology is compatible with the complete humanity and royal, Davidic lineage of Jesus. That lineage was due to Joseph, not Mary. So, this text could be strong evidence for the argument that Paul either (1) did not know of the virgin birth or (2) he disavowed it. It would seem that Jesus’ royal lineage depended on having Joseph as his biological father.

On the other hand, keep in mind that Matthew, in his opening genealogy, presents Jesus as descending from the Davidic line through Joseph, even though Matthew clearly interrupts that line at Joseph, making clear that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. So there’s a tension in Matthew’s account, in that he wants to show Jesus’ royal heritage and also affirm a virgin birth (which cuts Joseph out of the procreative picture).  Matthew attempts to resolve that tension by implying that Joseph adopts Jesus into that royal lineage.

It’s possible, then, that Paul could have had a similar “adoption” idea in mind (his theology makes a lot of use of adoption as a metaphor). Nonetheless, had Paul known of the virgin birth, it’s surprising that he never mentions it. Nor do any of the other New Testament texts, outside of Matthew and Luke.

2. Only two gospels do mention it. (And None of the Rest of the New Testament Does)

Mark, which most scholars agree is the earliest of the gospels, makes no mention of Jesus’ birth and is apparently unaware or at the very least indifferent (not important enough to be included in his account) to the idea of a virgin birth.

There’s an interesting story in Mark 6:1-6, in which Jesus is called “son of Mary” by the people of his hometown: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James…” Gerd Lüdemann, along with several other scholars, argues that that the phrase “son of Mary” is not a reference to Mary as sole parent of Jesus (as if they were aware of a virgin birth); instead, it was a “bitter insult,” a rude reference to Jesus’s illegitimate birth (p. 54).

In this interpretation, the typical, non-demeaning reference to Jesus’ origination would be “son of Joseph”–as in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. But Mark, contra those two later gospels, was bold enough to include this bitter insult. For what it’s worth, Lüdemann provides argumentation for this claim–though that argument is too elaborate for me to include here. Check out the argument for yourself in Virgin Birth? (pp. 46-53).

Also, see the more extensive discussion of the “illegitimacy tradition,” in Andrew T. Lincoln’s recent book, Born of a Virgin? (pp. 149-160). Lincoln reminds us that this “illegitimacy” reading of Mark 6 is just one interpretation of several possible readings.

3. The existence of early rumors about Jesus’ “illegitimate” birth

The early church theologian Origen (d. 251 CE) has a polemical tract in which he writes an apologetic for Jesus’ virgin birth against Celsus, a pagan skeptic of Christianity (around 178 CE). Celsus was a proponent of the idea that the virgin birth story was a fiction invented by Jesus, when the truth was (as he apparently believed) Jesus was the biological product of his mother and a Roman soldier named Pantera. The real story, according to Celsus (who apparently heard this story from a Jewish informant) was that Jesus’ mother was impregnated by the soldier and gave birth to Jesus alone, in seclusion and in secret–and with none of the story-elements of the two gospel birth narratives which Christians regularly celebrate at Christmas. Jesus later ended up in Egypt where he learned how to do some cool magic tricks, and then he came home with a god-complex which got him into all sorts of trouble.

In itself, the early presence of a rumor such as this is not convincing evidence against the virgin birth, since there could be equally political reasons for early Jews (and Romans) to discredit Jesus’ uniqueness as there would have been political reasons for legitimating his uniqueness (i.e. by constructing a virgin birth story).

In fact, the existence of a rumor of an illegitimate birth is not big news. Matthew’s gospel shows an awareness of a rumor–that is exactly why Joseph was faced with a problem and intended to divorce her quietly.

The big question, regarding whether it stands as evidence against the historicity of the virgin birth, is whether the origin of the “rumor” predates the origin of the virgin birth story–or vice versa. This seems impossible to determine with certainty. Nonetheless, Lüdemann suggests that, along with other pieces of evidence, the presence of this rumor “might reinforce the fact that Jesus was in fact born illegitimately” (p. 59).

In short, the question raised by the early rumor of Jesus’ illegitimate birth is this: Is the virgin birth story a fiction meant to cover-up the sordid details of Jesus’ illegitimate birth, or is the rumor of an illegitimate birth a slander meant to discredit Jesus as Messiah and as Son of God?

4. The presence of other stories of virgin births of heroic figures in history.

An argument often raised as evidence against the virgin birth of Jesus is that virgin births were a common trope and polemic device in ancient mythology. A really good way to shore up belief in a god, heroic figure,  or important political leader was a miraculous origin story involving divine intervention–and sometimes divine conception. This shows that the god or heroic figure is special, unique, and worthy of devotion, awe, obedience, and worship. There are a number of stories in ancient Greco-Roman and Egyptian literature which include accounts of divine-human births, including virginal conceptions. There’s also significant variation between these accounts and, in particular, differences in comparison of these accounts with the two gospels’ own. Notably, the two gospels are lacking in any explicit reference to sexual activity between a god and a human–other than the fairly vague reference to a conception. However, as Andrew Lincoln points out, vagueness or restraint is also present in some of these other origin stories too.

5. The “virgin” in Matthew is 1 is actually a “young woman” in Isaiah.

When Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 in his birth narrative (“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel“) he relied on the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) rather than the original Hebrew text. This is because the original Hebrew OT text uses almah, which is normally translated “young woman”–though it can have the meaning, “young woman of marriageable age,” or even “newly married young woman.” Now, almahs can and often were virgins, too, so it’s certainly not that far off. But when the translators of the Septuagint used the Greek term parthenos (which does mean virgin more specifically), what many see as a mistranslation of almah provided Matthew with an excellent source to make his case in the birth narrative that Jesus was born of a virgin, in accordance with ancient expectations.

The nuances are pretty rich (which is to say, complicated) on this particular issue. Whatever was meant in the Isaiah text (the birth of Jesus not the original referent in Isaiah) and by the Septuagint’s translation, It’s clear that Matthew viewed the virgin birth story as too important to disregard or minimize.

This became probably the most intriguing use of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament and forever linked the virgin birth of Jesus to Messianic anticipation in the prophets.

6. Historical problems in the infancy narratives.

Matthew and Luke, the only Christian gospels which give us the virgin birth story, contain problematic details-both internally and in comparison to each other. For example, it’s been pointed out often that Luke’s dating of the census (while Quirinius was governor of Syria) in Luke is problematic. There are also difficulties when the accounts are compared to each other. The two genealogies don’t exactly reinforce each other and there are a number of striking differences when compared alongside each other–in particular the migration to Egypt in Matthew (2:13-14) which is completely absent from Luke. In Luke’s account, Mary and Joseph take Jesus home immediately to Nazareth (2:39-40), with no reference to a flight to Egypt or a conflict with Herod.

In his classic work on the question, Raymond Brown asserts that “The basic stories are virtually irreconcilable,” pointing especially to Matt 2:14 and Luke 2:39 as an example. However, Brown is much less dogmatic than is Lüdemann about what these difficulties mean for the question of the legitimacy of the virgin birth. He concludes that the “difficulty is not insuperable,” suggesting that the two infancy narratives might contain a combination of materials, both “folkloric” and “non-historical” as well as other “items of tradition” which “came down from genuine family memories.” (55). In other words, perhaps we needn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, since we’re not completely sure what’s in the bathwater.

This is also the conclusion of Brown’s more complete work, The Birth of the Messiah, where he argues that historical research through the available sources cannot offer us certainty on the question of historicity of the virgin birth.

This is an important point. If the presence of any historical difficulties in sacred texts means that the theology contained in those sacred texts and the doctrines taught on the basis of those sacred texts are automatically rendered illegitimate and unworthy of affirmation, then no religion could stand up to that test and they would all be rendered useless. But that is asking far too much, in my opinion, of our sacred texts.

It’s important to acknowledge, though, that what  and Lincoln and others are asking for is not absolute certainty but probability (certainty is an impossible ideal for historical judgements). When it comes to assessing its probability, they argue that the scales tilt toward the non-historicity of the virgin birth.

Indeed, the historical difficulties are important to consider. And we haven’t even touched here on the perhaps even more difficult (in some ways) challenge of science (biology, to be precise) as applied to the question of the virgin birth. Nor have we considered how other theological ideas and doctrines might be impacted, one way or another, by the virgin birth.

In a follow-up post, I’ll consider whether an argument can be mounted in support of the doctrine of the virgin birth from a biblical and historical perspective.

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