Born Of A Virgin?
This week's issue of the American Newsweek magazine features an article on the birth of Jesus. Was the virgin birth story grounded in historical fact? Or was it simply a literary device, used to support the idea that Jesus was God incarnate?
According to the article by Jon Meacham, recent polls reveal that the great majority of Americans believe in the virgin birth of Christ. Yet, it says, there are good reasons to doubt that this event was ever based on fact.
The idea of the virgin birth - more properly, the 'virgin conception' - is scriptural and has been part of Christian belief since the very early days of the church. It was, for example, affirmed by Christian leaders including Ignatius (d. AD c. 108), Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 150 - c. 212).
The Newsweek article suggests that it may have been a device borrowed from pagan sources which the gospel writers appropriated to support their case that Jesus was the Son of God.
Two of the major arguments offered in support of that contention feature questions about the veracity of the gospel records and the fact that Jesus did not seem to speak about his birth.
According to the article, the latter might suggest that Jesus himself didn't hold to the idea of a virgin birth, as speaking about it would have given powerful testimony to his true identity.
The first argument revolves around the fact that of the four gospels - our only eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life - only those written by Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth. Mark, the earliest gospel, and John make no mention of the event.
This might suggest either that Matthew and Luke were less reliable as historical witnesses, or that they were misinformed by their sources.
We know that Luke was also the author of the book of Acts. We accept this not because it was agreed by some early Church Council or was the product of long church tradition. We accept it because Luke himself claimed authorship of both works.
His thoroughness as an investigator and his truthfulness as a reporter can therefore be judged across both his gospel and his record of the early church. Compared to Matthew, Luke has twice the opportunity to 'get it wrong'.
Yet, for a long time, many of the world's most renowned historians have paid tribute to the quality of Luke's work.
The renowned nineteenth century archaeologist, Sir William Mitchell Ramsay was recognized as a world leader in the study of Asia Minor. After years of study, Ramsay concluded: 'Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.'(1)
In the absence of contrary facts, there is every reason to believe that Luke's reports regarding the virgin birth are just as reliable as those he gave about other parts of Jesus' life and impact. And if Luke's reports can be believed, then there is no reason to deny Matthew's accounts.
So, what of the other argument: that the virgin birth might be an exaggeration because Jesus makes no direct mention of it?
While Jesus spoke to his disciples about other things which he said revealed his true identity, he seems to have made no mention of this very compelling piece in evidence.
There are several things to consider here. For one, Jesus spent most of his time playing down claims about his messianic role, at least in public. It was not that he did not believe he was the Messiah; he did not want to hold a match to the tinderbox of political unrest and nationalistic fervour that was Judea at that time.
Though he privately accepted the title of Messiah - most evidently when Peter declared him to be 'the Christ, the son of the living God' - he knew that talking too openly in those terms would likely lead to uprising and bloodshed on a huge scale. Judea had already seen more than its share of this.
What's more, any such action would have compromised the true nature of his calling. It may well have led to his elevation to some kind of political leadership in Israel. Jesus knew, though, that his real role was to suffer, die and be raised to life as the spiritual saviour of the world.
During his three years of public ministry, Jesus constantly pointed to his works as the major evidence for the truth of his teachings and his claims. He was not asking people to believe simply on the basis of what they had heard about him. He was asking them to believe on the basis of what they saw him do: healing the sick and working miracles.
Jesus did not ask people to put their faith in him simply because of stories about his origins. He wanted people to experience the truth, by reaching out to him and seeing what his compassion and power could do in their lives. He wants the same for us today. He wants us to know him, who is truth, by personal experience; not just to know about him, propositionally, through the acceptance of certain facts.
To argue that the virgin birth cannot have been true because Jesus doesn't talk about it is to miss the point entirely. For those who saw Jesus and watched him at work, his very life was proof of an extraordinary role and authority - and that's the way he wanted it.
That's not the same as saying that that Jesus himself did not believe in the virgin birth. He certainly hinted often enough to have come to earth, in some mysterious way, straight from God. Jesus did have a sense of his unique status before God. His words about being equal with God, the Son of God, were after all the very things that brought about his death.
Even if Jesus never spoke about his birth, he often talked about his resurrection. Whenever he spoke of his coming cross, he also announced that he would be raised from the dead. For him, this was to be the greatest proof of all -- greater even than his miracles -- that he was God's son and that he had both the right and the power to cleanse and forgive sins.
We need to remember how Jesus saw the purpose of his ministry. It was to point people to God; by engaging with dire human need and, eventually, by dying as the vicarious sacrifice for human sin.
In his dealings with the public, or even his closest followers, Jesus' focus was never on looking back to his birth. He was forever looking forward, talking about his death and resurrection and to what it would mean for their future.
(1) W. Ramsay, Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker 1953), p. 222.
© Mal Fletcher 2004
For more on Sir William M. Ramsay and his writings, visit: www.freeglossary.com/William_Mitchell_Ramsay.
For a full discussion of the virgin birth narrative, go to: www.answersingenesis.org/docs2/4262apol_v2-1994.asp.
For the Newsweek article, visit: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6653824/site/newsweek/.
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Mal, I just wanted to say a huge THANK YOU for your wisdom & grace in writing the article on why Christian leaders sometimes fail. I'm sure it has helped many people to be able to answer questions from others...
Margaret, South Africa
Mal, you were recently in Grenoble (France) for a conference. I appreciated your teaching very much & look forward to reading Five Big Ideas!
I'm 21 & I'd just like to say what an excellent programme you've created, in EDGES. In a world where image is everything, a lack of excellence often distracts people from the main point.
Ben, United Kingdom
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