This is how the birth of Jesus came about.
When Jesus' mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, an upright person unwilling to disgrace her, decided to divorce her quietly.
This was Joseph's intention when suddenly the angel of God appeared in a dream and said, "Joseph, heir to the House of David, don't be afraid to wed Mary; it is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child. She is to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus - 'Salvation' - because he will save the people from their sins."
All this happened to fulfill what God had said through the prophet:
"The virgin will be with child
and give birth,
and the child will be named
- a name that means "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of God directed, and they went ahead with the marriage. He did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth; she had a son, and they named him Jesus.
- Matthew 1:18-25, The Inclusive Bible
The scripture above is, along with the birth narrative in Luke, one of two scriptural sources for stories of the virgin birth of Jesus. That story is one I have long been skeptical of, for various reasons.
First, and most obvious, is, of course, that a virgin giving birth is impossible. That, however, is a trivial concern. Despite the protestations of the most belligerent and least charitable critics of traditional Christianity, no one, regardless of what they believe concerning the historicity of stories of Jesus' virgin birth, argues that such events are, by nature, possible. Everyone is aware that this is not the normal, natural course. It is offered as an exceptional event, a unique event. That, then, it is impossible, means very little. The basis for the claim that it is impossible is the same as the basis for the claim that it is a unique event, an unprecedented act of God.
This would have been no less true in Jesus' time as it is today. Despite caricatures of 1st century Palestinians and other citizens of antiquity as benighted savages unaware of the laws of nature, and despite the fact that we have undoubtedly uncovered a great deal more of the workings of nature than they had, it is abundantly clear that the necessary connection between sexual intercourse and human reproduction had been made in Jesus' culture.
So, that virgins giving birth is impossible should bother those who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin not even a little bit. No one, at the time of Jesus, today, or at any point in between, would assert anything else. Those who believe merely add a single caveat:
With God, all things are possible.
The obstacle to belief here then is not some basic knowledge of biology, but rather the capacity to believe that claim, that God can do that which is by nature impossible. The capacity to believe that unique events can and do take place.
My real reason for long disbelieving in the stories of the virgin birth of Jesus is found instead in the passage above. Matthew's account includes a reference to Isaiah 7:14. This reference follows a recurring pattern in Matthew's Gospel. This pattern is one of prophesy and fulfillment, and it occurs roughly 14 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Here the fulfillment of prophesy is not merely a predicted event now taking place, but rather also the completion of an act of God that has already begun. It is a way of connecting the life and work of Jesus to the work that God had already begun in the world, as understood in the Hebrew scriptures.
Matthew's Gospel quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible. The Greek term employed there for the young woman giving birth is parthenos. In English it is rightly rendered "virgin." The Hebrew, almah, however, is not translated "virgin," but rather something like "young woman."
For me, then, this was a simple case of Matthew writing the virginity of Mary into his story, since it was a part of the prophetic literature that he saw being fulfilled in Jesus. This is, after all, how I've long seen Matthew work. In his Gospel - and others - Jesus is seen through the lens of the sacred literature available to the early Christian community. Jesus' unique life and ministry are understood through the lens of the Torah, through the lens of the prophets, through the lens of the wisdom literature of ancient Israel, and through the lens of cultural and religious expectations. If - per a mistranslation in the Septuagint - the virginity of Mary would have been expected, then it would be inevitable that, after the fact, such stories would emerge.
The problem is, I'm no longer sold on that. For one thing, while Isaiah 7:14 is evidently important to Matthew, Luke makes no mention of it. And the Gospel of Luke exists independently of the Gospel of Matthew. That the two both contain stories of a virgin conceiving by the Holy Spirit indicates that such stories predate either work, and make the analysis I offered above pretty shoddy.
For another, according to Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998), one of the top New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, "there was no Jewish expectation of virginal conception of the Messiah." If that's the case, then:
1) Isaiah 7:14 would not have been seen among 1st century Palestinian Jews as predicting the birth of the Messiah to a virgin, thus making the above analysis of Matthew's motives for using the verse suspect, and
2) cultural expectation would not have been a motive for the crafting of a story of Jesus being conceived in and born by a virgin.
That brings me to something I read the other day. Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is one of my favorite conservatives. And not just because he has a pretty cool blog. He is both intellectually curious and honest, and is more interested in Biblical theology than cultural conservatism. He is, in other words, an honest evangelical Christian who is not held captive to the political right. More importantly, he makes me think.
Here he offers a clear and concise argument for the historicity of what he calls "the virginal conception" (as opposed to "the virgin birth," as the miracle is not so much that a virgin gave birth as that a virgin conceived in the first place) that anticipated every objection I've ever had, plus a few that I hadn't yet thought of.
I'm not yet ready to say that I fully believe in the virginal conception, or the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. But I'm more open to the possibility than I have been in a long, long time. Now I have to ask myself a simple question:
Can I really ever believe that God can do impossible things?
Update: Here is Michael Westmoreland-White's post on the Virgin Birth, mentioned in the comments.
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