What about the Bible's
Account of Jesus’ Birth?
By George Desnoyers
Definition of “Virgin Birth”
At the outset, let me point out that this article will use the term, “virgin birth,” to refer to what is more technically called the virginal conception of Jesus. This reflects the popular usage of the term, “virgin birth.” When theologians speak of this [popular] kind of “virgin birth,” they often explicitly express a qualification – that the “virgin birth” is a conception, not just without a human male involved, but that resulted from the participation of both a human female and a deity. [Other theologians, on the other hand, especially Catholic theologians, sometimes reserve the term “virgin birth” to refer to Jesus’ miraculous birth while leaving Mary’s hymen intact. This article will not get into that area.]
The Virgin Birth of Scripture is Not Contested
The virgin birth of scripture itself is not
contested. Everyone believes in that. It is there in front of us, in
both Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35. The virgin birth of scripture can not
be denied. What is contested is whether it was meant to be taken literally, or
whether it served as a metaphor designed to call special attention to the
importance and/or divine qualities of Jesus.
Reasons for Believing the Virgin Birth of Scripture is Not Literal
Many people are totally unfamiliar with the reasons why commentators and readers of scripture often believe that the virgin birth of scripture is metaphorical rather than literal. The remainder of this article will provide fourteen of those reasons. Most of the fourteen are indeed quite reasonable, but at least one of the fourteen – the fourth - is very poor. It is included in the following list only because it is so frequently cited by people who believe in a metaphorical virgin birth.
First, the virgin birth story appears to have taken decades to develop. It does not appear in the earliest writings of the New Testament (NT), those of Paul (see also reason number six) and Mark (see also reason number five). If the virgin birth were literal, one should expect it to become known around the time of Jesus’ birth, during the earthly life of Jesus, or at least in the earliest days of the formation of the church. A later development, however, well after the time of Mary and Joseph (as appears to be the case), is consistent with a choice to use a virgin birth story as a literary device in order to present some truth(s) about Jesus.
Second, many commentators feel it is appropriate to consider whether there is a rational explanation for the Bible’s claim of Jesus’ virgin birth other than that it really happened. For example, could the Bible’s claim of a virgin birth be an attempt to establish the importance of Jesus, or his divine qualities, just as others employed virgin birth stories for their gods and heroes? The commentators feel that, if there are good reasons for Matthew and Luke to make literary use of a metaphorical virgin birth of Jesus (and there are – see reasons ten and eleven), there is no compelling reason to believe in a literal virgin birth. Rather, a reasonable explanation for scripture’s presentation of the virgin birth other than it really happened is taken as an indicator that Jesus’ conception and birth should be presumed natural rather than supernatural. The idea is that, if a natural explanation of something is reasonable, an unnecessary supernatural explanation ought not to be presumed. A virgin birth of Jesus would have contravened the laws of nature that God him/herself put into place and that reflect His/Her own nature. God does not customarily intervene in the laws of nature He/She has Him/Herself set in place, if He/She ever does, and should especially not be presumed to do so when the same result could be accomplished naturally. To summarize, this second reason says in effect: The scriptural virgin birth should not be taken literally because: (1) no virgin birth has ever been proven to have occurred, (2) they would be counter to the laws of nature as we know those laws, and (3) there are rational explanations for the claims of virgin births other than that they really occurred.
Third, Luke 4:22 and Matthew 13:54-55 seem to indicate that many people believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. This is understood because those texts indicate that the people were puzzled about the presence of certain traits in Jesus that were not observed in Joseph, Mary, or Jesus’ siblings.
Fourth, Mary, who ought to have known, referred to Joseph as the father of Jesus (Lk. 2:48). As I said above, I’m not claiming that all the reasons given are equally strong. This one is obviously extremely weak because, of course, adoptive fathers and step-fathers are also fathers, and are called fathers. This reason is included in the list only because it is so frequently mentioned.
Fifth, Mark doesn’t mention the virgin birth, and therefore must not have known of one. It is inconceivable that he would have considered it unimportant, or less important than many of the other things he did write about in his gospel. What do we read in Mark? Look at verse 3:21: “When his family heard about this [the calling of the apostles and the gathering of many around Jesus], they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (NIV) Would that be the position a mother would take if she knew that she had conceived this special child in a virgin birth surrounded by a number of miraculous events?
Also, John’s gospel does not mention the virgin birth even though the gospel was written late enough for John to have known of the story. But John does refer to Jesus as the son of Joseph (1:45; 6:42) without any qualification whatsoever. John was well educated, and may have been a skeptic regarding the virgin birth, or possibly rejected all virgin birth stories as pagan.
Sixth, Paul did not mention the virgin birth, and would have mentioned it had he heard of it and believed in it. As with Mark, it is inconceivable that Paul would have considered it unimportant. Further, considering Paul’s frequent use of symbols to lend support to his theological arguments, many people believe in a strong likelihood that Paul would have made some theological use of the virgin birth had many people believed in it. For example, Paul might have used the account of Jesus' virgin birth to prove the male gender of the Holy Spirit, in effect making the entire Trinity male.
Seventh, (as we will see when we get to the anthropological rationale of reason number ten) there are amazing similarities between the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and the mythical stories of so many other actual persons and deities. And we do not take any of those other claims of virgin births seriously. We should not have a double standard, and expect other people to take our miracles seriously while we totally reject theirs. We should apply the same tests to all claims of similar miracles.
Eighth, there is an absence of present-day analogs which, if we had them, might vindicate the literalness of the miracles of the Bible. Although an unmiraculous virgin birth may now be possible with the use of modern high technology, no one alive today is known to have seen a miraculous virgin birth. In light of the absence of present-day analogs of the Biblical miracles, it is reasonable to assume that a significant part of the Jesus story is fiction. If we have been fooled in this regard, it is God’s fault. No one but God could be responsible for the absence of miracles today, miracles that would serve to vindicate the Biblical claims. If God wanted us to believe in virgin births, He/She would occasionally produce them.
Ninth, it is well known that biographies written during the period in which the Bible was written were not expected to be literally true in every detail. Fictional stories intended to convey truths about the subject of the biography were often included. Therefore, the important question we should be asking is, “Why did the Bible writers say the things they said concerning Jesus?” Or, “What messages were they trying to convey?” There are important messages scripture, but it takes some thought to find them.
Tenth, early Christians did not live in a vacuum. They lived in a world in which the believers in various deities were in competition. To win converts, believers often made extravagant claims for their gods. It was only natural that the early Christians would desire to present Jesus as superior to the other (non-Biblical) heroic figures, real and mythological, that captured the attention and devotion of the masses. Sometime after the first few decades of Christianity the early Christians decided that, in order to more dramatically call the attention of people to the greatness of Jesus, they would have to use the same virgin birth metaphor that had been used for so many of the other great historical figures and deities. Stories were told of the virgin births of Adonis, Alexander the Great (and some other Greek emperors), Amunothph III (more on him below), Apollonius, Attis, Augustus, Bacchus, Buddha, Codom, Dionysos, Fohi, Hercules, Hermes, Horus, Indra, Krishna, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, many Egyptian Pharaohs, Plato, Prometheus, Quirrnus, Remus and Romulus, Tyana, and Zoraster. In light of so many riveting virgin birth stories, how could Christianity be expected to compete for the attention of people without one of its own?
For eight of the above (Bacchus, Hercules, Hermes, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Prometheus), all of the following is told in stories about them: each was male, had a god for a father, had a human virgin mother (virgin at least with respect to that particular birth), had his birth announced by a heavenly display, had his birth announced by heavenly music, was born about Dec. 25, and had an attempt on his life by a tyrant while still an infant. All these real and mythological figures are pre-Christian, as are (supposedly) the stories about them. If that is correct, the stories could not have been borrowed from the Christianity. This ought to ring a bell.
The birth story told of Amunothph III, an Egyptian king, is particularly interesting. A picture on a wall in the Egyptian temple of Luxor, a picture that has been dated at around eighteen hundred years before Christ, illustrates the virgin birth of Amunothph by showing: (1) an annunciation in which the god Taht hails the virgin queen and announces to her that she will give birth to a male child, (2) a conception in which the god Kneph (assisted by Hathor) gives life to the queen, (3) the birth of a male child, and (4) the child enthroned and receiving homage from gods and gifts from men.
Most scholars familiar with these mythical stories feel that Christian borrowing from these sources is far too evident to be questioned. And the belief that much of the birth narratives is borrowed is further supported by clear evidence that borrowing was also done in the telling of many events in Jesus' adult life. For example, many of the figures mentioned above as products of virgin births are said to have fasted for forty days as an adult. And many met with violent deaths and rose from the dead. Again, for Bible readers, this ought to ring a bell.
All this is not to say that the historical Jesus is not to be found in the Bible. He can be found there, if people want to find Him, but it is necessary to put the brain into action. It is not enough to just read the words and accept everything as literally true. We need to find the real reasons why some of the stories about Jesus were told, and understand some of the words figuratively rather than literally.
Once the early Christians decided to use the virgin birth story, they also decided to enhance it with additional related miracle stories. And for pure verisimilitude, they filled in details. Such stories were known to be effective, and sometimes necessary, in getting the attention of the masses. Without first getting the attention of the masses, the masses would never receive the full gospel.
Eleventh, there is unmistakable evidence in the gospels that the writers consciously took pains to show that Jesus was greater than the OT prophets. It is demonstrated time and time again. For example, look at how Matthew's gospel takes pains to show Jesus' superiority over Moses. The story of Herod's slaughter of innocents, an entirely fictional story [Such a story, if true, could not possible be totally unknown to extra-Biblical history, but mythology is loaded with such stories.], is designed to outdo the story of the threat to the life of the infant Moses. Look how Luke's gospel repeatedly presents Jesus as superior to Elijah (e.g., in manner of ascension, in ability to cause fire from heaven to come to earth, in ability to empower disciples).
In particular, one of the things we hear about in the OT is some very unusual births, e.g. of Ishmael, Isaac, Samson, and Samuel. Commonly such stories contain an angel messenger, initial fear in the person visited, a message of an impending birth, some resistance, and an assuring sign. In Hebrew midrashic tradition, it was only natural that Matthew and Luke felt compelled by the importance of Jesus to outdo those OT stories. So they added the virgin birth to show that Jesus' birth was not only unusual, but a very special miracle. To give greater force to the message, they threw in some additional signs and miracles, like the "star." By taking such steps, the birth aspect of Jesus' life would keep pace with the overall teaching regarding the supreme importance of Jesus, an importance very much greater than any human OT figures. Matthew and Luke were writing to audiences that lived in particular environments. They were not going to tell a blah birth narrative that would only prompt the question, "So what?" How could that have helped to promote Christianity? They wanted to bring the supreme importance of Jesus home to the reader at the very beginning, with the story of His conception and birth.
Twelfth, other elements of the birth narratives tell us that the story is partly fiction, or figurative. For one thing, we now know something about the properties and behaviors of stars. Stars do not suddenly appear and then go away. And while it is possible to travel in a direction seemingly toward or indicated by a star, we know that stars do not come close to the earth and then move and hover in a way to bring travelers to a specific city or house. If the "star" is not literal, why must the virgin birth be considered literal? To those who say that the star could have been a conjunction of three planets, a comet, or some other wondrous sign, that only makes the point - it was not a miraculous literal star, and must be called a star only in a figurative way. If the star was figurative, why not the virgin birth?
For another thing, there are some variations in the birth narratives as presented by Matthew and Luke that cannot be resolved. For one example, according to Matthew, Mary and Joseph lived in a house in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth because Herod's brother, Archelaus, had taken the throne in Judea, and was a threat to continue Herod's murderous ways. But Luke reports that they lived in Nazareth before they journeyed to Bethlehem. For another example, Matthew says that the holy family fled for their lives into Egypt after the visit from the wise men and stayed there until it was safe to return after the death of Herod. But Luke says that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, and presented in the temple at Jerusalem on the fortieth day, and that the holy family then returned to their city of Nazareth. Obviously the holy family could not have leisurely tended to the religious rituals in Jerusalem and returned to Nazareth if they were busy heeding the warning of the wise men and fleeing into Egypt until some safe period after the death of Herod. Such differences in the accounts presented by Matthew and Luke are an indication that the authors were not limiting themselves to presenting literal truth relating to Jesus' birth.
Thirteenth, both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke contain genealogies of Jesus. Commentators are nearly unanimous in the belief that at least one of the genealogies traces Jesus’ descent through the line of Joseph. And most commentators feel that both genealogies purport to do that, even though there are some significant differences in the two genealogies. It is a fact that all, or virtually all, genealogies of the period were traced through the line of the fathers, even though notable women in the lines were sometimes mentioned. There were two reasons for tracing a person’s genealogies through the males in the father’s line. The first was the generally held belief in male superiority. The second, and perhaps more important reason, was the belief that the seed of the human race was contained only in the males. The belief generally held at the time the Bible was written was that the woman acted as a flower pot for the seed planted by the male. [The role of the ovum in conception was not demonstrated conclusively until the nineteenth century.] Genealogies purport to show biological descent. So the fact that even one genealogy of Jesus is traced through the line of Joseph suggests that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus.
Fourteenth, there is no theological necessity for a literal virgin birth. Christian theologians almost unanimously assert that Jesus was fully human. Presumably, then, Jesus had human genes. What does it matter if he got them in the usual way? It really ought not to be deemed important to any doctrine of a hypostatic union. The presence of the divine nature in Jesus, and the union of the two natures, could still be asserted. They both would be considered mysteries regardless the mechanism by which Jesus acquired his human genes. Nor is Jesus' literal virgin birth necessary for the doctrine of original sin, or the doctrine of Jesus' sinlessness. After all, Mary herself is said to have been conceived free of original sin, and to have remained sinless, even though her conception and birth were normal rather than virginal.
The virgin birth of Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke
1:34-35 cannot be contested. What is contested is whether it should be
understood literally, i.e. as having really happened exactly as reported, or
figuratively, i.e. as a metaphorical way of calling attention to the importance
of, and divine qualities in, Jesus. Many people are totally unfamiliar with the
reasons why commentators and readers of scripture often believe that the virgin
birth is metaphorical [or symbolic] rather than literal. Believers in a
metaphorical virgin birth of Jesus offer at least fourteen reasons for their
less-than-literal understanding of the virgin birth. While most of the fourteen
reasons are indeed reasonable, one is quite unreasonable and was included
in this article only because it is so frequently cited.