It seems that one of the most common doubts Christians have about the identity of Jesus is over his birth – was he really born of a virgin? This question has been a bone of contention for many years now, but hit the headlines again recently when a survey of five hundred Church of England clergy by the Sunday Telegraph revealed that twenty-seven percent did not believe in the virgin birth (Sunday Telegraph, 22nd December 2002). Does it really matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not? After all, as one of the clerics who took part in the survey said, ‘it was [Jesus’] adult life that was extraordinary.’
This article will look at our sources of information on Jesus’ birth, and will then look at what happens if you take away the virgin birth from the doctrines of Christianity.
Two Gospels tell of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s Gospel has more detail, and so we shall start there.
The first we hear of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel is in 1:31, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her, ‘you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.’ Mary is understandably quite confused, as she is a virgin, as she tells the angel, ‘How will this be… since I am a virgin?’ Gabriel tells her that ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’
Matthew’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus agrees exactly with that of Luke, although he provides less detail. Matthew tells us in 1:18 that, ‘This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.’ Right from the start, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was born of God. He confirms this when he reports what Gabriel told Joseph – ‘do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20). He then reports that, ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.”’ (Matthew 1:22-23). This quote is taken from the book of Isaiah, to which we shall return shortly.
The question of whether Jesus was born of a virgin, then, is simply not debateable on the basis of this evidence. Both Matthew and Luke make it absolutely clear that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth.
Most Christians take the Bible as their authority when it comes to their belief. We are right to do so, since 2 Timothy states that, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Yet, despite the fact that God is the source of the Bible, many feel perfectly at liberty to question this particular piece of Scripture. Why? It seems to me that people, when questioning the virgin birth, are questioning God’s ability to produce a child without humans performing a sexual act. Surely this is not outside the power of God, though, since he is the sovereign creator of the universe. He created everything, so why not one baby?!? He created human life in the first place. He created Adam from mud! To question this particular piece of scripture leaves the rest of the book, and indeed, the whole Bible, open to question. After all, if Matthew and Luke invented this particular story, their scripture obviously wasn’t “God-breathed,” which rips apart the statement made by Paul to Timothy mentioned above. And if Matthew and Luke, writing on their own, without God’s influence, chose to lie to us in this instance, how can we believe what they’ve said in the rest of their gospels? We might as well bin the whole lot. And without scripture, there is no Christian faith, so we might as well find something more worthwhile to do on our Sunday mornings, squander all our money, and give in to our evil human desires.
In addition to this, if you were writing the biography of, say, Tony Blair, and you couldn’t find anything out about his birth, would you really be likely to invent something as ridiculous as a virgin birth? After all, a virgin birth is totally unbelievable. No-one in their right mind would believe you, since it is a well-known fact that virgins do not give birth. Even in first century Palestine, people knew this. So if you were going to try and invent a story about Jesus’ origins, would you pick something as ridiculous a virgin birth, leaving your story open to mockery? I think not!
As mentioned previously, Matthew quotes from the book of Isaiah when he writes of the birth of Jesus. The verse, in context, reads, ‘Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”’ (Isaiah 7:13-14).
Isaiah is a very difficult book to read, and there is much debate regarding these particular verses. In fact, the Reverend Dr. Keith Archer, who took part in the Sunday Telegraph survey, stated that the virgin birth “is not particularly important because it is a debateable translation of a Hebrew prophecy which first appeared in Isaiah.”
I decided to seek out what other interpretations of this verse there are, and found the following suggestions in Gaebelein’s “Expositor’s Bible Commentary:”
The mother is royal, perhaps the queen, and so the child is a royal prince, perhaps Hezekiah;
The mother is Isaiah’s wife, and so the child is one of his sons;
The prophecy does not refer to a specific mother and child, but to mothers in Judah generally, who will give their offspring names symbolising hope in God;
The mother is the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus Christ;
The mother is a royal contemporary of the prophet, whose child’s name would symbolize the presence of God with his people and who would foreshadow the Messiah in whom God would be incarnate.
Grogan, who authored the section on Isaiah weighs up the evidence, and decides that suggestion five is the most likely – the passage refers to someone known by Isaiah, who was currently a virgin, but would not be when she gave birth, who would foreshadow the coming of Jesus.
The fact that Jesus was born of a virgin, therefore, is foretold in the Old Testament, in the same way as the coming of Jesus, and so many other aspects of his life were. To question the virgin birth is to question all of these prophecies. Since these prophecies, according to main-stream, Bible-believing Christians, come from God, as does the rest of the Bible, we once again find ourselves saying that the Bible cannot be trusted, which leads us to exactly the same position we found ourselves in when questioning the New Testament – preparing to throw our Bibles into the nearest bin, and declaring Christianity to be a load of nonsense.
The virgin birth is one of the central tenets of Christianity. Whilst it is sensible to question one’s faith, questioning the Bible, and its authority as the word of God, leads to problems which serve to undermine the whole of the Christian faith.
Maybe I’m naive, but if both the Old and New Testaments tell me that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, I believe them. I don’t see the virgin birth as something which Christians can choose to accept or reject, but as a fundamental cornerstone of our faith.