Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Historical-Critical Affirmation of the Virgin Birth

There have been many good theological reflections on the Virgin Birth on blogs, recently. Darrell Pursifal has posted an excellent series trying to pin down the when of Jesus’ birth. D.W. Congdon has been reviewing major figures in church history on the Virgin Birth. Peter Lumpkin posted an original poem on the Incarnation. And so it goes.

This has prompted me to write two [update: three] reflections. Today, Christmas Eve in my part of the globe (Louisville, KY), I want to affirm my belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus as an actual historical event and to give a historical critical argument in its favor–an argument that might prove persuasive to those, myself included, who do not hold to biblical “inerrancy.” I don’t think the focus of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is on this point, so, tomorrow, I will blog on the wider themes that I think ARE stressed in the Gospel accounts.

First, some things I DON’T BELIEVE:

  1. I don’t believe in these Christmas card depictions of Mary having apparently the easiest birth ever in history–no pain, no blood, no sweat, with a smile that seems to say, “Well, that was easy.”
  2. I don’t believe that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried! If he hadn’t, his parents would have wondered if something was wrong. Jesus was fully human and behaved like any other infant. The docetic heresy that he only seemed human is very popular in our churches.
  3. I don’t believe Jesus glowed or had a halo. (The punch line of an old Doonesbury had a children’s Christmas pageant in which “the part of baby Jesus is played by a 100 watt light bulb!”)
  4. I don’t believe in the “swingshift Trinity” of the Modalist heresy which has Jesus keeping the planets in orbit from his crib!
  5. I don’t believe in shepherds and Magi both showing up on the same night. Matthew clearly has the Magi arrive 2 years after Jesus was born with the Holy Family now living in a house in Bethlehem. [Update: Darrell Pursifal’s reconstructed chronology attempts to place this visit in the same year as Jesus’ birth, but still sees them as 2 separate events.]
  6. I don’t believe the Virgin Birth is a “fundamental of the faith.” Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ’s pre-existence. John’s Gospel and some hymns in Paul’s letters indicate Christ’s pre-existence without ever mentioning virgin birth. We get our very WORD “incarnation” from the prologue to John’s Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus’ sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection–and doesn’t promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.
  7. Karl Barth said that the Virgin Birth was a necessary doctrine because it was the sign of the Incarnation in the way that the empty tomb was the sign of the Resurrection. But sign to whom? Unlike the empty tomb accounts, no one saw the Virginal conception of Mary. We have her word for it. I am not doubting Mary’s virginity as we will see, but since this is not a public event, it cannot be a sign of the incarnation. Had God chosen to do so, God could have used ordinary biological means for Incarnating the Son. However, Barth is onto something. I do believe that we have these birth narratives to indicate to those of us who already believe in the Incarnation that God initiated everything–that Jesus did not become the Son of God, but that in him God became human!
  8. As the Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, points out in his massive, The Birth of the Messiah, the term “Virgin Birth” is shorthand. What we really affirm is that the Jewish maiden, Miriam (“Mary”), conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse–that she did not experience sexual intercourse until after Jesus’ birth. This affirmation of her Virginal Conception of Jesus is in contrast to Medieval doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity (claiming that her hymen remained unbroken before, after, and DURING, delivery!!!) or the strange Christology promoted by the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman (and, to the great embarrassment of modern Mennonites, eventually accepted by Menno Simons) that Jesus did not receive any physical characteristics from Mary, passing through her body “like water through a pipe!” I don’t believe any of that!

If it turns out that I am wrong, that, as some ancient documents hold, Jesus was the product of Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) or, alternatively, that Joseph and Mary “jumped the gun” on the wedding ceremony (Jewish betrothals were considered to be already legally binding marriages), nothing central to my faith will have been touched. I may have to make some adjustments in my view of how much of Scripture is historical narrative, but that’s all. If the birth narratives in the Gospels are purely symbolic, as many hold, I can live with it. But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.

But if the Virgin Birth is neither theologically necessary, nor impossible, what case can be made for its historical truth? A fairly strong one, I think, if one is open to the possibility in the first place.

Notice that the Virgin Birth causes problems for the theologies of both Matthew and Luke. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah: A Davidic figure. His genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is designed to prove (a) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David (as well as Abraham) and (b) through some fuzzy math that God has prepared exactly the time for Jesus to appear as Messiah. But there is a problem. For Matthew’s genealogical point to work perfectly, it should conclude, ” and Jacob begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Jesus.” But it doesn’t! It says, “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.” But that undermines Matthew’s entire case. Why would Matthew create problems for himself and his theological point? With Mark as a guide, he could have skipped even having a birth narrative. There is no compelling reason for Matthew to include a virgin birth apologetically and every reason for him to leave it out. But he doesn’t. The tradition of such a birth must be firmly entrenched in the sources (other than Mark and “Q,” the hypothetical source of much of Jesus’ sayings) that Matthew is using. He MUST include it even though it hurts the case he is trying to make for Jesus as Davidic Messiah.

So, Matthew makes the best of things: He includes women in his genealogy who all have scandal attached to them to prepare readers for the scandal that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He relates the Virgin Birth indirectly through the angelic dream to Joseph and connects it with Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about a young woman (Hebrew almah, “a young woman of marriageable age”) already pregnant. (Originally, the sign was probably a reference to the prophet’s wife or the king’s since Isaiah said that before the child would know right from wrong, the Assyrian threat would be removed.) Matthew does “creative exegesis” to turn this into a prediction of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth. Then, he makes sure that the readers know that Joseph has gone through the Jewish form of adoption (“and he called his name ‘Jesus'”) in order, once more, to validate his genealogical case for Jesus’ messiahship.

Luke also has theological problems because of the Virgin Birth. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke is most at pains to stress Jesus’ full humanity–e.g., 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans.” That is, Jesus developed normally–intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. Luke’s Jesus, even more than Mark’s or Matthew’s (and FAR more than John’s), gets tired, hungry, careworn, etc. Luke isn’t denying Jesus’ divinity (he uses the label “Son of God” more than the other Synoptics), but stressing that this divinity is only shown through the very real humanity of Jesus. So, why would Luke start his Gospel with a Virgin Birth–something that points out Jesus’ difference from other humans? Again, it is very unlikely that Luke would create such problems for himself. He could only include this if it was indelibly part of the sources he was using–he had to be convinced it was true. Again, Luke uses this for his own purposes: comparing Jesus’ birth with John the Baptizer’s; emphasizing liberation themes and peacemaking themes, and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginalized. (More on this tomorrow.) But, surely, it would have helped Luke’s theology if he could have ignored the Virgin Birth.

The principle of the “harder reading,” in text criticism is that copyists do not change things to make matters more difficult. So, deciding between different variants otherwise well attested, textual critics tend to go with the “harder reading.” Similarly, authors do not introduce elements that weaken their very purposes for writing–unless they have no choice. I argue that Matthew and Luke HAD to include the Virgin Birth because their sources were absolutely convinced of its truth–and so were they.

The two accounts are very different and not wholly harmonizable: Luke’s narrative, which has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ circumcision and dedication in the Temple (Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem when there aren’t roadblocks between the two!) eight days after birth, doesn’t seem to have room for Matthew’s narrative in which the Holy Family is still living in Bethlehem two years later when the Magi come and they need to escape to Egypt. One account is of forced travel by a Roman census, birth in a stable, visitation by shepherds (the lowest of the low; like contemporary migrant workers in status), angelic announcements and shepherd evangelizing; the other is of visitation by wealthy foreign astrologers, mysterious dreams and stars, death squads sent out by Herod, and a refugee flight to the Jewish colony in Egypt. Nor are the 2 genealogies easily harmonized. Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown notes, there are 11 points of commonality between these two different traditions:

  1. Both Infancy Narratives indicate that the parents are to be Mary and Joseph, legally betrothed, but who have not yet begun to live together or have sexual relations (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1: 27, 34).
  2. Joseph is a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).
  3. There is an angelic announcement of the future miracle birth ( Matt. 1: 20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
  4. Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through human intercourse (Matt. 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).
  5. The conception is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1: 18,20; Luke 1:35).
  6. The angel commands the child to be named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
  7. An angel states that Jesus is to be “savior” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11).
  8. The birth (not the conception) of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together(Matt. 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
  9. The birthplace is Bethlehem (although Matthew gives no explanation for why the couple is there–and they appear to have moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem!) (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
  10. The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5).
  11. The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39).

That’s an impressive list of commonalities for two such divergent narratives and argues strongly for a historical core.

Does this “prove” the Virgin Birth? No. And, as I said, I do not believe this is a core or “fundamental” doctrine and I do believe that the focus of the Gospels is elsewhere. But these considerations, coupled with my firm belief that God is quite capable of such a miracle, lead me to affirm that, in all probability, the virgin birth of Jesus is historically true.

Tomorrow: the deeper meaning of the Gospel Infancy Narratives.

December 24, 2006 - Posted by | Christmas, virgin birth


  1. Authentically intriguing post, thanks for it.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    Comment by Jim | December 24, 2006

  2. I want to say that I believe the Infancy stories are wonderful. I love the Magnificat.

    Having said this, I do not believe that Jesus was virginally conceived. I do put some credence to the notion that he was the product of the rape of Mary by either a Roman soldier or someone else.

    One possibility you do not add is the notion that Jesus’ illegitimacy itself makes the virginal conception myth necessary. The scandal of that fact in that socio-cultural milieu is almost incomprehensible to modern Americans, so the stories try to ameliorate the effects of that fact as much as they can. Even now, though, how many people want to think they worship a bastard?

    Comment by the cynic librarian | December 24, 2006

  3. Cynic Librarian,
    I think we in our time are more scandalized by the possibility of miracle than by Jesus’ “illegitimacy.” The term isn’t really accurate unless Mary had been pregnant by someone other than Joseph since, in Jewish law, a betrothal was equal to marriage. Mary had probably been pledged to Joseph from infancy and he was probably much older.
    A rape or other illegitimacy would have been scandalous. But the apologetic tendency, in my view, would have been to cover this up, to claim a normal betrothal and birth, not to claim a miracle. It would have been easy for Matthew, for instance, to have Joseph’s dream be of an angel who told him to “do the right thing” and marry Mary rather than pretend that they hadn’t jumped the gun. This would cover over rape and would only be slightly irregular.
    The “Jesus ben Pantera” legend is based on a very late extra-canonical manuscript, written by Jewish opponents of Christianity. They also had apologetic motives: to discredit Christianity.
    The revival of this legend today, by feminist scholars like Schlaberg, seems to come from the idea that a Virgin Birth is somehow demeaning to women. What would be empowering about Mary as a passive rape victim? In the canonical version all of Redemption History hangs on her willingness to say, “Yes, be it unto me according to your word.” Surely THAT is far more empowering than a rape? But some feminists seem to think that the Virgin Birth denigrates human sexuality. I would claim that it is the Medieval Mariology with Mary’s “perpetual virginity” which denigrates human, especially female, sexuality. Nothing in the Gospel accounts does.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 24, 2006

  4. So, part of me feels led to seminary — a nice lib one like Phillips in Tulsa. But things like this aren’t my cup o tea. I mean, it matters not to me whether Mary was a virgin or a young girl.

    And while I love the Bible, I don’t consider *any* of it to be “historical narrative.” It’s value as the inspired, handed-down writings of early Christians, and the writings of their own ancestral Jewish faithful, transcends such labels.

    Fine thing to discuss, however, I reckon.

    Comment by Erudite Redneck | December 24, 2006

  5. What a thought-provoking post–and on Christmas Eve no less! I’ll be pondering this one…

    Comment by D. P. | December 24, 2006

  6. Thanks for the props, Darrell. I find so much of your own stuff fascinating, but much of it beyond my ability to comment intelligently. ūüôā

    E.R., there are several ways to approach Scripture. Don’t let my ponderings negate your seminary impulses, especially if those impulses are God’s call to you. Philips is a fine school, too.

    I’m not sure what to make of the comment that NONE of the Scriptures is historical narrative. Does that mean Jesus might not have even existed? There is myth, poetry, parable, legend, etc., but surely there are also attempts to pass down faithfully remembered sayings and deeds of things that did take place in space and time? The difficulty, as Marcus Borg rightly points out, is how to distinguish “history remembered,” from “history metaphorized,”–although Borg’s judgements and mine about where to make those distinctions often differ.

    This post was a Christmas Eve attempt to meet conservatives half-way (besides reflecting my actual view, of course). I would be distressed, E.R., if you took this as reason to stay away from seminary. Most of my friends at seminary (D.P. was an exception) thought me unusually conservative on such matters–except for the fundamentalists who held to the Virgin Birth because they thought their salvation depended on it!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 24, 2006

  7. This is a very very good post – the kind of post that merits being bookmarked for later reference!

    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | December 25, 2006

  8. It’s nice to be able to think about this idea in a place where I know I won’t get bashed.

    I have to say, if you ask me if the resurrection is real, my answer is 100% unequivocally yes. If you ask me about a virgin conception, I’m a lot more equivocal, although I’m not sure why.

    I would say I believe it on doctrinal grounds. I believe what I think that the doctrine is trying to say and I think that is that Jesus was the Son of the Father. That works in ancient biology, where the mother was considered to be a vessal and not a contributor of DNA. However, it doesn’t work in modern biology and we require a new miracle of Jesus sonship.

    To be honest, I don’t see the point of debating the “factuality” of these sorts of doctrines. I do suspect that a lot of this has to do with cultural worries about sexuality and sin.

    I certainly don’t think this is a fundamental belief. I believe that God could have implanted a fully-fertilised egg inside Mary if that’s the way he wanted to do it. I also think that a Son of Mary and Joseph could have been conceived as fully human and fully divine if that’s the way God wanted to do it. I understand that a lot of people get very emotive about this, but it really seems like splitting hairs.

    One final comment as someone who came out of fundamentalism. I actually think that what is vitally important to most fundamentalists is the belief in supernatural, ex machina, miracles. I think that, for the most part, fundamentalists think that we mainstream Christians don’t believe in the supernatural realm and that, for them, this is often a more important belief than any specific doctrine.

    Comment by PamBG | December 25, 2006

  9. Pam, you should always feel safe to express yourself and “think out loud” on my blog. I cannot promise that my critics won’t be harsh in their response (they often are to me), but anything that goes beyond polite behavior, I will remove.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 25, 2006

  10. Michael, I do feel that way and I think I can take criticism. I’ve been called everything under the sun, but it’s just nice that someone raises and issue and I know I can be heard. I really like thinking out loud without it necessarily turning into a “debate” that one party has to win.

    Merry Christmas!

    Comment by PamBG | December 25, 2006

  11. Oh, re: “surely there are also attempts to pass down faithfully remembered sayings and deeds of things that did take place in space and time?”

    Yes, by all means. But there was no concept of historical objectivity as it’s known today. I think of the Gospels as long editorials; they are meant to persuade, not to report. Even Acts is meant to persuade, not merely report, or even analyze, or interpret. None of which they can’t be believed. I just think it’s important to see them for what they are — and I don’t think any of them are meant to be what we mean when we say “historical narrative.”

    Comment by Erudite Redneck | December 26, 2006

  12. Thanks for the plug, Michael! And indeed this was a very fine post. I really appreciate the work you put into this.

    I still wonder, however, if there might not be other reasons why Matthew and Luke had to include the Virgin Birth. For example, while Matthew includes scandalous women, it is does not follow that changing things for Mary and Jesus means that there was no scandal there. All it actually means is that Matthew wanted to make sure that we as readers do not place Mary’s birth on the same plane of significance as the other births. Something similar could be said of Luke. Since he was at such pains to emphasize Christ’s humanity, it was probably necessary on a literary level to include the Virgin Birth narrative in order to begin the gospel by emphasizing that Jesus is like and yet unlike the people in his midst.

    The most compelling reason, though, is doxological. Matthew and Luke came later, and thus their texts are shaped by the ecclesial adoption of the Virgin Birth narrative into its liturgy and life.

    Whatever the case, thanks for the post. I hope to keep the series going for awhile.

    Comment by D.W. Congdon | December 27, 2006

  13. I must say, folks, that I thought more criticisms would come from conservatives–shocked at my critical treatment of the Scriptures–than from others critical of my affirmation of the historicity of the VB. I will ponder your comments and maybe give another post interacting with them. Thanks, all.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 27, 2006

  14. Thank you for republishing this, Michael. I wasn’t reading your blog a year ago and so it is new to me. As you point out, Matthew obviously struggled to make sense of Jesus’ conception and lineage. And Luke went farther to create a space for his readers to fill. He told us that through the work of the Holy Spirit, the child conceived within Mary would be holy and would be called the Son of God. And Mary, forever blessed, believed the angel.

    But Luke clearly avoided the story of conception itself. To say that he teaches “the virgin birth” strikes me as a stretch. What he does clearly tell us is that the innocent girl conversing with the angel acquired a voice, by the time she reached Eliazabeth’s and Zachariah’s house, that was tinged with anger and spoke a message about justice that shocks us still.

    I associate the teaching of the virgin birth of Jesus with gnostic Christianity, that variant that finds the creation of God to be deeply deficient and the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to be in need of qualification in fundamental ways. But perhaps I err.

    Comment by Berry Friesen | December 23, 2007

  15. Berry, thanks for your words. I do not know if the Gnostics (who denied the Incarnation in full and claimed that “Christ the Logos” departed from Jesus of Nazareth before the crucifixion because God cannot die) believed in the Virgin Birth or not. But if they did, this was one place where they held the identical doctrine with orthodox, mainstream Christianity.

    Luke doesn’t place his emphasis on Mary’s virginity, but her question to the angel (“How can this be, since I have not known a man?” i.e., since she has never had sexual intercourse) affirms that Luke believes she was a virgin. The angel’s answer is not that the Holy Spirit will sanctify or make holy a child already conceived in the maiden Miriam–that is what Zechariah is told about John the Baptizer. Rather, the angel tells Mary/Miriam that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, she will conceive a holy child DESPITE having “never known a man.”

    Luke’s emphasis, like Matthew’s is elsewhere than on Mary’s biological virginity–but he clearly believed it. It was so much a part of his received tradition (and some scholars believe Mary was apart of the church/Christian community in which Luke wrote) that he had to include it despite his Gospel’s theme of Jesus’ full humanity and identification with ordinary folk.

    Whether we agree with Luke and Matthew about Mary’s virginity when Jesus was conceived is up to us. I repeat that this is NOT a “fundamental of the faith.” I do think it is an important sign to believers that God took the initiative in the incarnation, but as I said we can believe the Incarnation without believing the Virgin Birth. But I think it is clearly taught (though de-emphasized) in both Matthew and Luke.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 23, 2007

  16. Does Luke really say that Mary will conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit? Or is that your gloss on the text? As I read Luke, he says the angel promises that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the child to be conceived within Mary will be holy and will be called the Son of God.

    Between the angel’s visit and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, conception occurred. Does Luke exclude sexual intercourse as a cause? I don’t think he does. He does say Mary is blessed because she had faith that the LORD’s promise to her would be fulfilled.

    Comment by Berry Friesen | December 23, 2007

  17. Berry, I think you are really reaching. Why would anyone take “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” to mean “God will be present next week when you seduce Joseph instead of waiting to be married” or (even worse–taking the ‘Jesus ben Pantera’ route of Schlaberg & Co.)”Don’t worry about it when that Roman soldier rapes you next week because God will use it to bring about the Messiah.”

    Any natural reading of the text, and the way it has been understood throughout the history of interpretation, is to understand the angel’s words to describe a miraculous conception while Mary was still a virgin. You can argue that Luke is wrong about that, but it seems violent to the text to argue that Luke meant anything else or was playing coy with the reader.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 24, 2007

  18. No, Joseph is not the father. The writings of Matthew clearly exclude him.

    Your comment about my “reaching” reminds me of how we understand other advent promises. Were we not desensitized to their claims, we might ridicule the fleshly nature of those other promises as well . . . . “Don’t worry when the Romans torture your Messiah to death because God will use that horror to bring the salvation to Israel and the whole world.”

    Again, the reason it is so difficult to lay the question of Jesus’ conception aside is that it is closely related to our undertanding of the creation and the incarnation. Most contemporary churches are Gnostic in their understanding of the salvation of God through Jesus Christ. If we are to confront that heresy, we may need to take the risk of “reaching”.

    Comment by Berry Friesen | December 24, 2007

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