The common thought of the coming Messiah was that He would be born in the line of David, that He would bring fourth David’s kingdom and that he would be a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6-7 CSB). Again, in Isaiah 11 (CSB), the Messiah is predicted to be of the line of David, a “shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit,” ruling over the whole world with the Spirit of God, judging righteously. They believed as Jacob prophesied, that the Messiah would rule forever once he comes (Gen 49:10 CSB). Balaam prophesied of the Messiah “[a] star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (Num 24:17 CSB). It says in Amos 9:11 (CSB), when Israel was not yet destroyed by the Babylonians, that after the exile God would renew the kingdom of David. Hosea also prophesied of a time of Davidic renewal and restoration (Hos 3:5 CSB). Micah even declared that the Messiah’s coming would be of humbleness (Mic 5:2 CSB). It was Jeremiah who, not only called for a new covenant, he also proclaimed that the coming Messiah would be a righteous king of the line of David (Jer 23:5 CSB). Ezekiel proclaims that the coming Messiah will be the judge (Ezek 21:27 CSB). The Messiah was also seen as a warrior king and priest, which to a people of oppression seemed amazing (Ps 110 CSB). It was, as quoted in Matthew, that Messiah would be known as the Immanuel, born of a virgin (Isa 7:14 CSB).
Why Most Historical Jesus Scholars and Critics do not Touch Jesus’ Birth
Most Jesus scholars do not touch the birth narratives of Jesus because they do not believe them to be historically reliable. Marcus J. Borg (1999, 179), states in his article on the virgin birth, that he does not hold the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke to be true. For him, these narratives are nothing more than literary creations (Ibid). Bart D. Ehrman (2014, 236), in his book on the Christology of Jesus, claims that Jesus’ followers began seeing Him as divine from His resurrection, however, later followers needed to extend this Christology from adoption to pre-birth. Within the Church, some critics and Jesus scholars, are afraid of being seen as heretical if they denounce the virgin birth (Chilton 2000, 5). According to Bruce Chilton (2001, 6-7), Jesus’ birth is simply a legend, wrote down years later to explain how Jesus was conceived; Chilton holds that Mary and Joseph could not help themselves, so they had sexual relations before their allotted time. In the Jewish culture during the Second-Temple, marriage was very specific. An older man married a younger woman of about 12-13 years of age. They had a year of celibate marriage, then they would be allowed to consummate their marriage (Chilton 2000, 5-7). For Chilton (2000, 7), again, states that it was not actually the Bethlehem of Judea, but of Galilee. In other words, for him, the Bible is not historically accurate. In 2007, the Barna Group (2009) did a study on the belief of the virgin birth by Americans that recorded that 75% of adults in America believed in the virgin birth. In 2017, the Pew Reserach (2017) reported that only 66% of adults now believe in the virgin birth.
Borg gives several reasons why not believing the birth narratives is important; it all comes down to the historicity. For Borg, the dating of the narratives is too late, end of the first century, Matthew and Luke do not match on genealogies, narrative, visitors, home of Mary and Joseph, the killing of the babies (as well as Herod’s plotting) and the use of the Scriptures (Borg 1999, 179-181). Borg (Ibid., 181-182) holds to a view that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth, which to make Jesus fit the Messianic prophecy of Micah 5:2 (CSB), they wrote in that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In an even more, possibly unbelievable, reconstruction of Jesus’ birth, Andries van Aarde (2002, 67-72), in his article on the fatherlessness of Jesus, states that Joseph was not even a historical figure—due to the lack of literature on him, other than in Matthew and Luke. Van Aarde states that, because the Pharisees’ argument of Jesus’ illegitimate birth (as argued in John 8:41 CSB), the early Church needed to make up a reason for Jesus’ fatherlessness, as well as His teaching of God as His Father (van Aarde 2002, 67-72).
Divine Birth’s in the Greco-Roman World
In the Greco-Roman world, the divine did not just become a simple human and retain its divinity. Either the human becomes divine and loses his divinity, or is made semi-divine, by way of birth. Then there are the gods, who are unable to become human. What these gods are capable of doing are adorning humanity like clothing. Unfortunately, the Greeks and Romans did not have actual virgin births (Ehrman 2014, 24). This is because, in the Greco-Roman world, the gods lusted after humans. These gods had their way with women (e.g., in the story of Hercules, Zeus enjoyed his time with Alcmena so much that he made time stand still till he was done), however, in the Jewish, as well as in the Christian, worldview (Second-Temple period as well) that God would never lust after anyone (Ibid). In our beliefs, God has morals, standards, and values. Even though God made Mary pregnant, he did it without any physical violation or fornication.
The Birth of the King
Much of the conversation surrounding the birth of Jesus revolves around the notion of whether he was virginally conceived or not. Borg (1999, 185-186) states, in his article on the birth of Jesus, that the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth are not needed to be true to be factual about who Jesus is. Borg is a naturalist, therefore, the miraculous birth of Jesus is unnecessary. In other words, Borg (Ibid., 186) holds that Jesus was “the decisive disclosure of God.” For him, it is ok to hold, theoretically, that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God, but not necessary as history (Ibid). Ulrich Luz (2007), in his commentary on Matthew, states that the Virgin Birth is not historical, as it is, more creedal. Is this all, do we really not need to trust the biblical accounts of Jesus in order to see Him as Lord and God?
The real question, as posed by N. T. Wright (1999, 171), is whether we should see God as a deist would, or as traditional Christianity does? The first thing we must do is to not confuse the virgin birth with the Roman Catholic belief of the Immaculate Conception. This dogma was defined by Pope Pius IX, in 1854, as Mary being freed from Original Sin, “by the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ” (Johnson 2011, 438). The Church has long held a form of sacredness for the mother Mary. However, the second thing to be looked at is the meaning of the English word virgin. The Greek word, parthenos, is literally translated as virgin. However, there is much talk in the critic, secular, and Jewish scholarship that tries to explain that word is derived from the Hebrew word, ‘almah, is actually translated as a young woman (Levine and Brettler 2011). This view of the virgin birth has led to some ridiculous claims. Chilton (2000, 6-7) holds that Joseph and Mary were not able to help themselves and had sex before their Jewish custom allowed them to. Another interpretation, using this logic of the wording, holds to a more midrashic* understanding of Jesus as Moses (Levine and Brettler 2011). A grave problem with this argument is that it ignores the reason for the authors to even put it in their material, especially when the Greco-Roman culture had their own divine birth stories. The best answer to come against these arguments is with the embarrassment, multiple attestations, and Palestinian culture criteria.
N. T. Wright gives us the best answer, through embarrassment criteria:
[e]ven assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercly Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk—unless they at least believed them to be literally true (1999, 176)?
What also helps is to know how prophecy worked in the Old Testament. Most of these scholars are committing the fallacy of appealing to ignorance. What they want to say is that because there is no absolute proof that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, so it was not. By stating that Matthew did not understand the prophecy in Isaiah, due to the immediate context of the verse, the prophecy then had nothing, at all, to do with Jesus’ birth. However, Hebrew prophets always had an immediate context, as well as, a future one for all of their prophecies (France 1992,79; Blomberg 1992). In the case of Isaiah, the notion of who the Immanuel will be is given in one of two persons (in the immediate context), Hezekiah or Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Blomberg 1992). Isaiah’s use of the word sign throughout chapters 7 and 8, shows that the context is not just immediate but futuristic, as well (France 1992, 79; Blomberg 1992). For Luke’s use of mentioning Jesus’ virgin birth is the connection of the Holy Spirit to His conception, as well as His divine echo to the creation of Adam—or as Darrell L. Bock (1994) states, in his commentary of Luke: “[t]he virgin birth is one mark of superiority for Jesus over John the prophet. It makes Jesus totally unique. The only other person to have had such a direct divine intervention in his birth was Adam.”
What the Virgin Birth says about the Historical Jesus as the Christ of Faith
It is clear from the evidence of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ story, as different as they are, that this was no ordinary story. Matthew and Luke both had their own audience, as well as their own sources. No, I do not believe in the different M1s and L1s out there. What I mean, is that Matthew and Luke both draw on obvious familial memories. It is possible that Matthew was able to get his information from Joseph and Luke from Mary. It is also possible that one Jesus’ siblings were able to recount the story to either one, or that Jesus himself told Matthew, and Luke still got his from Mary. We will never know for sure, what we can know is that there is truth behind both stories, they fit our criteria. It would have been embarrassing for Jesus, as well as both Matthew and Luke and their communities to say that they worshipped a god who was born out of wedlock, which would have placed Jesus into a more pagan demigod. Joseph and Mary’s stories sit well within the Palestinian culture of marriage, and the fact that both Matthew and Luke tell of a virgin birth, which both having angelic visitors. There is more than just Luke and Matthew’s accounts, John also makes a reference in his prologue to his Gospel (Oden 2001, 142). Paul also assumes the Nativity in his letters to the Galatians (see also Gal 4:21-31 CSB, where Paul speaks of two births, one to a slave and one to a free woman of which the assumption of Jesus’ virgin birth is made) and the Romans (Ibid., 143-144). By the middle of the second century, as well as the beginning of the third, the creedal response to heresies of Christ’s birth was becoming foundational (Justin Martyr First Apology XXI, XXIII; Tertullian On the Flesh of Christ II; Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.21.1; Oden 2001, 134). It must not be stressed enough, that if one is able to deny the miraculous birth of Jesus, then they must also deny the resurrection—of which most critical, liberal, and skeptical scholars do (Oden 2001, 134). The best possible answer to why the virgin birth is important for the study of the historical Jesus, we need to end with a statement made by N. T. Wright:
the God of Israel, the world’s creator, was personally and fully revealed in and as Jesus of Nazereth, I hold open my [Wright’s] historical judgment and say: if that’s what God deemed appropriate, who am I to object (1999, 178)?
- Midrash is a Hebrew word used for Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. It is a methodology, to an extent, still used today for many Jewish rabbis.
Barna Group. (2009). “Americans Express Their Views of the Virgin Birth of Christ.” In Barna Group. Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2009. February 19, 2018. https://www.barna.com/research/americans-express-their-views-of-the-virgin-birth-of-christ/.
Blomberg, Craig. 1992. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Bock, Darrell L. 1994. Luke. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Borg, Marcus J. “Meaning of the Birth Stories.” In Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper San Francisco.
Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York: Image Books, Doubleday.
France, R. T. 1985. Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. 2011. “Communion of Saints and Mary.” In Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives. Edited by Francis Schussler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin. 431-460. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. 2011. “Virgin Birth.” In Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. Kindle edition.
Luz, Ulrich. 2007. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7. Edited by Helmut Koester. Rev. ed. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Pew Research Center. 2017. “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life.” Pew Research Center. Washington D. C.: 2017. February 19, 2018. file:///home/chronos/u-231d5846a851dcfcb6c745c7e62a1ae38ca8ce62/Downloads/Christmas-Survey-2017-Full-report.pdf.
Ritzema, Elliot, and Rebecca Brant, eds. 2013. 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Medieval Church. Pastorum Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
van Aarde, Andries. 2002. “Jesus as Fatherless Child.” In Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels. Edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, and Gerd Theissen. 65-84. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Wright, N. T. 1999. “Born of a Virgin?” In Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper San Francisco.