The historicity of the biblical accounts of Jesus Christ’s birth has long been debated among modern scholars and non-scholars alike. Some view these birth narratives as mere myth, others as a symbolic story. Yet despite the dismissive view of these birth narratives by modern skeptics, there are those who advocate that the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus is both historical and supported by evidence. All that said, regardless of whatever view one may hold concerning Jesus’ birth, this debate does not detract from the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a true historical figure. That Jesus lived in Judea during Roman occupation, grew up in Nazareth, preached in the Galilee and was crucified by the Romans for sedition is not questioned by experts and scholars of all stripes. In any event, as this is Christmas, a holiday whereby we believers celebrate the arrival of Immanuel (God with us) and the birth of our Savior, it seems an appropriate time to explore the evidence for the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.
However, I acknowledge that many skeptics, before even considering the evidence, will have already decided the story of Jesus’ birth is not true on the account of its “miraculous” nature. For such skeptics, the story of the Virgin Birth defy natural law, and is thereby myth as far as their concerned. Of course, this miraculous birth did NOT occur naturally, but by way of God (Luke 1:35 / Matthew 1:20). In many regards, this debate on the virgin birth of Jesus is similar to debates on all miracles in general. As stated in previous posts: a miracle is by its very definition, an event that cannot be explained by the natural laws of the universe. In other words, it is an act of divine intervention that defies natural laws. Therefore, vital to any discussion concerning whether or not miracles can occur, is a person’s own presuppositions. Specifically, if someone does not believe in God, but naturalism — the belief that only natural laws govern the universe — then miracles are by default non-existent. Meaning since miracles seemingly overturn the laws of nature, which from this presupposition is not possible, then miracles are rendered impossible. On the other hand, if someone does believe that God exists and is involved in the world, then there is no difficulty at all in accepting that miracles also exist and do indeed occur. Meaning miracles are a byproduct of God, who created the universe and the natural laws that govern it. Note, also related to this topic, see my earlier post: Does God Exist?
To explore this debate a little further, let us now consider if miracles really overturn the laws of nature to begin with. The phrase “laws of nature” is simply a way of describing how the world usually works or operates. For instance, if someone were to drop an object from their hand, it would fall to the ground. That is simple gravity, the law of nature. However, if when someone dropped the object I was able to reach out and catch it before it hit the ground: Did I just overturn the law of gravity? The answer is NO, I simply intervened. Similarly, God, who created the universe and the laws of nature that govern it, is more than able to reach into the world and intervene. In fact, the Bible itself is a collection of books filled with numerous examples of men and women helped by divine intervention. Therefore, the birth of Jesus by the virgin Mary, while miraculous, is not sufficient grounds to discount the story of his birth as a myth. If skeptics can just place their presuppositions aside, there is actual evidence to consider.
First, with advances in modern science and technology, the human race is today more or less able to produce a virgin birth. Specifically, through processes such as in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, a woman today is able to become pregnant without becoming intimate with a man (sexual intercourse). Therefore, let us say that a virgin woman underwent such a process to become pregnant and gave birth: would her child not be “born of a virgin” (or virgin born) in the strictest most literal sense of the word? Granted this example still requires a male specimen (donor) and biological father, whereas Jesus had no earthly biological father being conceived through the Holy Spirit, but the logic cannot be refuted. That logic is this: If human beings, with our limited intellect compared to God, can more or less create a “virgin birth” in modern times, then why not God in the distant past? After all, is God not omnipotent and the one who created the entire universe to begin with? It seems completely illogical to argue that such a God could not become one of us, and be born to a virgin mother. Therefore, while a “virgin birth” cannot occur naturally (on its own), as we have seen it is NOT an impossibility, it simply requires some intervention, i.e. human (via science/technology) or divine (via God).
Second, the Apostle Paul, our earliest Christian source from antiquity, while never explicitly discussing the details of Jesus’ birth, does nevertheless affirm that Jesus was “born of a woman”, and yet also pre-existed before his human birth. Specifically, in Galatians (written around 50AD), a letter that no scholar disputes he actually wrote, Paul writes: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, …”. (Galatians 4:4). Furthermore, in Philippians, another letter that no scholar disputes was written by Paul, he writes: “Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). The implication of these texts should be self-evident. Paul is stating that while Jesus’ mother was the human being that brought Him into the world, He existed before that, begotten of God. In other words, Paul is telling us that Jesus had no biological human father, but rather, was the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God, the Father. Therefore, Paul, our earliest Christian source from antiquity, and one who knew Jesus’ brother (James) and closest disciples (Peter & John), implicitly testifies to knowing about a virgin birth for Jesus, even if not explicitly stated.
Similarly, in the Gospel of John, while not explicitly discussing Jesus’ birth, nevertheless pre-supposes a virgin birth, as it affirms the pre-existence of Jesus. Specifically: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). Then in the next chapter, it attests that the aforementioned Son of God, who came from the Father, had a human mother, e.g. “… there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there …” (John 2:1). Moreover, in John’s account, Jesus repeatedly affirms His own pre-existence, saying such things as: “… before Abraham was born, I Am!” (John 8:58). Thereby applying to himself the name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus. Then later He proclaims: “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). In both cases, his opponents set out to stone him for saying that he was God. Later he tells his disciples: “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Then yet again, Jesus says in prayer: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:5). In summation, Jesus is continuously shown in John to be affirming His pre-existence. Therefore in John, as with Paul, we have another early source that implicitly testifies to knowing about a virgin birth, even if not explicitly stated.
Next we have two independently written ancient documents that explicitly testify to this event (the birth of Jesus). For historians, two or more independent sources are always preferred in establishing the historicity of an event, i.e. what is fact. Specifically, if two or more independently written sources agree on a subject or point, the reliability of each is measurably enhanced. Now when it comes to the birth of Jesus, we have two sources: Matthew (1&2) and Luke (1&2). Once more, both sources attest that Jesus was born to a virgin mother. When evaluating multiple sources, one must first consider their credibility, e.g. when was each written (the earlier the better). In this regard, both our sources for the event in question, the birth of Jesus, have very good credentials. For starters, they are both first century sources, written within the lifespan of eyewitnesses to such events and/or those who knew eyewitnesses. Therefore we have early multiple source attestation that Jesus’ birth was miraculous. But how do we know they were written independent of one another, i.e. that Matthew did not rely on Luke’s birth narrative, or Luke Matthew’s?
The answer relates to the so called “Q hypothesis” discussed in previous posts. To review, both Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark’s Gospel (or his sources) as a source for their own gospel accounts. That 90% of Mark is contained in some shape, form or fashion in Matthew, and 60% in Luke, would help support this hypothesis. However, there was still a major problem in that both Matthew and Luke had a number of other material and sayings of Jesus in common, and that are not found in Mark’s Gospel. Additionally, and this is key, Matthew and Luke both have several materials unique to their own gospels, meaning that one could not be using the other as a source. Therefore scholars asked: How can these two independently written Gospel accounts agree with each other and often with the precise wording? This is what is known as the “synoptic problem”. German scholars worked out a possible solution to the so called “synoptic problem” that unfolds as follows: Since the evidence suggests that Matthew did not get these non-Markan agreements from Luke, nor Luke from Matthew, they hypothesized a one-time source, now lost, and called this, the “source”. Since the German word for “source” is “Quelle”, this hypothetical source document has come to be called “Q” for short. Therefore, we have established why most scholars argue that both Matthew and Luke were written independently of one another, having known Mark and Q, but NOT each other. However, next we need to explain how we know that both are not simply copying from the same source, e.g. “Q”, when it comes to recording their birth narratives.
The consensus among scholars is that Matthew and Luke were most certainly written independent of one another, and that the birth narrative in each did not come from the same source as both accounts possess unique features/details. For instance, Matthew’s birth narrative is told from Joseph’s point of view, and contains other unique details to Matthew, e.g. the Magi, the Star, the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight to Egypt. Meanwhile Luke’s birth narrative is told from Mary’s point of view, and contains other unique details to Luke, e.g. the birth of John the Baptist, the Census and the visit by the Shepherds. Once more, both Matthew and Luke while conveying the story of the Virgin Birth, seemingly draw two very different conclusions from it.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus is born of a virgin because this is what was predicted by the prophet Isaiah, as he explicitly states in Matthew 1:22-23, referencing Isaiah 7:14. More to the point, everything in Matthew’s birth narrative concerns the fulfillment of prophecy, e.g. the birth in Bethlehem, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Flight to Egypt, etc. The Virgin Birth of Jesus was no different. For Matthew, the virgin birth is simply another illustration of how Jesus’ birth was a fulfilment of God’s divine plan. This prophecy-fulfillment illustration is a common theme found throughout Matthew’s Gospel, showing that everything about Jesus is a fulfillment of prophecy/scripture.
Meanwhile Luke seemingly has a different take concerning its significance. Luke does not deploy the prophecy-fulfillment narrative you find so often in Matthew, i.e. this happened to fulfill that. Instead, for Luke the significance of Jesus’ virgin birth is that it illustrates his unique and very literal title — Jesus is the “Son of God.” Specifically, the principle reason Jesus was to be called Holy, the Son of God, is because it was through the Holy Spirit that Mary was able to conceive (Luke 1:35). In other words, in Luke the Virgin Birth shows that Jesus is uniquely God’s only Son, and no one else’s.
Now this is NOT to say that Matthew did not agree with Luke that the virgin birth is what uniquely shows Jesus is the Son of God, or that Luke disagreed with Matthew that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of scripture. In other words, there is NOT a contradiction between the two accounts. Nevertheless, their point of emphasis concerning the significance of the Virgin Birth were unique, i.e. what mattered for Matthew was the fulfillment of scripture while what mattered more to Luke was the unique nature of Jesus. Similarly, the fact both birth narratives contain differing details or particulars (e.g. magi vs shepherds) is NOT to say one is right or wrong; but rather demonstrates that each is relying on a different source, recalling different details that are seemingly not known to the other.
Therefore, we have established that both birth narratives in Matthew and Luke have several unique differences from one another, not only in their perspective, but in the details they convey and the significance each draws from the event. Thus most scholars hold that Matthew and Luke not only developed and wrote their respective gospels independent of one another, but their accounts of the Virgin Birth of Jesus came from two different independent sources. Why is this all significant? While we have been discussing the unique features of each to highlight their independence from one another, within each of these two independent accounts are several key points of agreement. Those points of agreement are:
- That Jesus mother’s name was Mary. Although one could argue both knew this from Mark 6:3.
- Mary was to be married to Joseph, who became her husband. Facts not mentioned in Mark, nor the hypothetical “Q” for that matter (as best as the experts can tell).
- Joseph is from the Line of David.
- The birth of Jesus was announced by an Angel, who informs that the child to be born is to be named Jesus.
- The child (Jesus) was conceived through the Holy Spirit (without sexual intercourse).
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem and reared in Nazareth.
- The birth took place during the reign of King Herod.
So despite the fact that our two independently written birth narratives differ on several details and emphasis, what is in actuality most striking is the two accounts agreement at several key points, i.e. Jesus’ mother was a woman named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph, who gave birth in Bethlehem while still a virgin and raised the child in Nazareth. Why is this significant? Because the points of agreement between these two independent accounts indicate that they are both based on a actual event that did indeed occur. At the very least, the different sources used by Matthew and Luke when recording their respective birth narratives, must have had a much earlier common ancestor (source) from which both came from. Once more, as discussed earlier, outside our two independent narratives of Matthew & Luke that explicitly testify to the virgin birth of Jesus, are two more independent sources that implicitly testify to it, i.e. Paul & John. All of this goes to prove that the belief in Jesus’ virgin birth was known and widely circulated among some of the earliest Christians of the first century.
In conclusion, despite the cynicism expressed from modern skeptics, I have hopefully conveyed that it is NOT illogical to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. It was demonstrated to be philosophically and rationally plausible, and shown to be both implicitly and explicitly attested too from multiple early first century sources. Specifically, both Paul and John implicitly attest to knowing about a virgin birth of Jesus, while it is more explicitly recorded in the two independent sources of Matthew & Luke. That said, it still comes down to a matter of faith, and my faith in the first gift of Christmas remains strong.