December 11, 2021 - Virgin Birth

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Today we’re going to talk about the Virgin Birth. Are there logical grounds for the Bible’s account of the miraculous conception and virgin birth of Jesus? Is this account a pious legend, discredited by modern science? Was it a whopper designed to top the claims of pagan religions? Was it a lame attempt to cover up an embarrassing secret in a gullible age?

We can dismiss the chronologically bigoted claim that we are smarter or less gullible than the people of NT times. Folks in NT times were just as skeptical as we are about virgin births and resurrections. See how Origen in 250 AD points to parthenogenesis in nature (where a female is able to reproduce without the involvement of a male) as evidence for the credibility of Jesus’ birth without human father. Origen approaches the issue like a modern scientist. He makes the Virgin Birth more believable than the Resurrection (even though parthenogenesis always produces a female, which means God’s intervention would still be necessary to produce a male).

Not every critical scholar rejects the historicity of the Virgin Birth. While he agrees that the matter is beyond historical proof, John Meier argues in A Marginal Jew (volume 1: 223-225) that this claim (that Jesus was miraculously conceived without the help of any human male) is not a “late legend” created at the end of the first century AD. For instance, the pagan skeptic Celsus claimed that Jesus was supposedly the child of a Roman soldier. Meier proves that this rumor must be traced to Judaism outside Palestine, to no earlier than the mid-second century AD. It was a slanderous story made up by people who were in no time or place to know the facts.

Larry Hurtado, Professor of NT at the University of Edinburgh, concurs. Hurtado argues that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are clearly independent. He says that the claim that Jesus was miraculously conceived has to be earlier than either Matthew's or Luke's version (Lord Jesus Christ, 318).

Another critical scholar who outright defends the Virgin Birth as historically credible is C.E.B. Cranfield. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology 41 (1988): 177–89, after he reviews an impressive amount of evidence, Cranfield suggests that doubters of the Virgin Birth have allowed “an atheistic world view…to exercise a veto over their thinking.” He denies the Church was trying to liken the birth of Jesus to the birth of a Perseus or a Heracles or Augustus.

80 years ago, J. Gresham Machen at Princeton critically examines the supposed pagan parallels to the Virgin Birth in his famous book The Virgin Birth of Christ. Machen shows that the Christian claim about a virgin birth is far different from the claims of pagans, all of which involve physical intercourse, and only one of which (Zeus and Danaë) involves a virgin.

Machen asks, Could supposed pagan analogies, in the minds of first century Christians who thought that Jesus was just the son of Joseph and Mary, have ever produced the strange belief that Jesus was born without human father? Could “men who had a wholesome horror of the degraded mythology of the pagan world” have ever taken the stories of divine lust for mortal women and turned them into “the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Ghost?” Machen thinks this claim is “unlikely.”

What about the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (“a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”)? Machen comments that although it is possible to read the Virgin Birth back into this passage after the Gospel account was already known and believed, Isaiah’s prophecy “never could have produced that story; and indeed the pre-Christian interpretation of [that] prophecy was moving in an entirely different direction.”

(I would add that we can dismiss the claim that the Hebrew term ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 really means “young woman,” as some scholars claim. We’ll take a look at the linguistic evidence on ‘almah in just a few minutes. We will see that the supernatural conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth 700 years later was Isaiah’s prophecy “on steroids.”)

If we apply the famous criteria of authenticity used by Gospel scholars, the Virgin Birth scores high on the criterion of embarrassment. Hurtado writes, “To claim a miraculous conception with no identifiable father does not appear terribly wise if early Christians simply wanted to refute successfully the slur that Jesus was illegitimate.” (Lord Jesus Christ, 322) It would have been much easier to simply say that Jesus was the natural child of Joseph and Mary, if that were true. Why make it any more complicated? The church never would have made such an embarrassing claim as a virginal conception if they were not compelled to by the facts.

Because yes, the slur of Jesus’ supposed illegitimacy was out there, very early. It seems to be echoed in Mark 6:3, where Jesus is called the “son of Mary” rather than of Joseph. Jews did not use the mother’s name like this in a name formula unless the father was unknown. Ethelbert Stauffer states that in Jesus' day, if a man’s parentage was in doubt, nothing bad was to be said about him unless he becomes an apostate (Jesus and His Story, 207). At that point, “his illegitimate birth shall be spoken of publicly and unsparingly.” That’s what Jesus’ enemies are trying to do here, Stauffer argues, when they call Jesus the "son of Mary."

A fanciful second-century AD book called the Protevangelium of James claims that both Joseph and Mary passed a lie-detector test for sexual misconduct. (The Torah has the bitter-water test for the suspected adulteress in Numbers 5:11-31, but has no such test for males.) Why do we not hear in the Gospels about Joseph submitting Mary to the bitter-water test? One reason would be that he wished to keep the whole matter quiet (Matthew 1:19). Another reason would be that a miraculous conception was not even a possibility to him; she’s pregnant, I’m not the father. A third reason not to do the test would be that the test was falling into disuse; the rabbis claim that it didn’t work anymore because there were too many adulterers in Israel (Mishnah, Sotah 9:9).

While Machen is a passionate defender of the Virgin Birth, he does not make the Virgin Birth an essential belief. He asks, “Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell.” In fact, Machen thinks the Virgin Birth will “hardly” be accepted if we try to take it apart from the rest of Jesus’ story. But taken together with the rest of Jesus’ story, the Virgin Birth adds to, and receives from, the convincing quality of the rest of what the NT says about Jesus.

Machen asks, Is the Virgin Birth unnecessary? If so, he says, then so is the very existence of Jesus. We end up with a “Christless Christianity” (a term Machen borrows from Warfield), a faith that has no connection with events in the real world.

We don’t have to be intellectually dishonest to believe that Jesus was conceived and born without the help of any human male, by miracle of God. It does require a measure of dishonesty to deny this truth, and still claim to believe the historic faith of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.

Now, what about this word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14? Does this word mean “virgin” or merely “young woman”? I promised that I would dive deeper into the meaning of this key word in the text. Let’s investigate. I think I can give you evidence far more extensive than the doubters will give you that this word really means “virgin.”

“The virgin shall conceive.” That’s how the Greek OT renders the verse in question. It uses the word parthenos (the standard word for “virgin”) to translate the Hebrew term ‘almah. The Jewish translators made this choice in their Greek version, almost 300 years before Matthew seizes upon this line as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Jesus. After Matthew uses the Greek OT to prove that the Messiah was prophesied to be virgin-born, Jews begin to revise the translation quoted by Matthew. They include Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion (in their revised Greek translations), as well as Justin Martyr’s fictional debate partner Trypho the Jew. Instead, they choose the word neanis (“young woman”) in their translations. And as time moves on to the so-called Enlightenment period, we begin to hear that if Isaiah had meant “virgin,” he would have used the Hebrew word betulah, which always means “virgin.”

But wait a minute. First, the word betulah does not always mean “virgin,” any more than the word ‘almah does. The Canaanite goddess Anath goes by the title “Virgin” (btlt), but her virginity is questionable (to the extent that one can question the factual details of a myth). Likewise, the virginity of Babylon (Isaiah 47:1) and even Israel are open to question, if a nation can lose its virginity. True, the word betulah is most often accompanied by the specification that the girl has never had sex, but one might ask, why do we have to spell that out, if sexual inexperience is undoubtedly what the word means? We also have strong reason to question the virginity of the “virgin” (same word, betulah) in Joel 1:8, where we read, “Lament like a virgin clothed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.”

Curiously, even the Greek word for “virgin,” parthenos, is not as undeniable as so many scholars claim. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is still called a parthenos after she is sexually assaulted in Genesis 34:3 (where the Greek word parthenos translates the Hebrew word for “girl”).

Second, we can dismiss the claim that the Hebrew term ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 can only mean “young woman.” The word, in both its masculine and feminine forms, emphasizes the subject’s youth and inexperience, such as when young David is called a “stripling” in 1 Samuel 17:56. The masculine form of the word is also used in 1 Samuel 20:22, where the word is used to describe what verse 35 calls a “little lad.” Moses’ older sister Miriam is called an ‘almah in Exodus 2:8, and Proverbs 30:19 refers to the seduction of an ‘almah, a verse which seems to imply that the girl has no prior sexual experience.

Where else is ‘almah used? The five additional verses where this word is used in the Hebrew Bible add nothing pro or con to the debate about whether this word means “virgin.” In Psalm 68:25, we have “damsels” playing tambourines. The word used here is the plural of ‘almah (‘alamoth), the same word used in 1 Chronicles 15:20 and Psalm 46:1, where the meaning may also be young women who are singers or musicians. In Song of Solomon 1:3, the girl sings to her beloved, “Therefore the virgins love you” (same word).

The only remaining verse that uses ‘almah that has even a ghost of a chance of implying non-virginity is Song of Solomon 6:8, where the man compares his beloved to “60 queens and 80 concubines, and maidens without number.” Here, ‘almah potentially becomes a victim of guilt by association with two other groups of women who are definitely not virgins. But again, what is proved? The ‘alamoth or "maidens" arguably becomes a category for the women with whom neither the male lead character nor anyone else has had the chance for sex.

Finally, going back before Moses into the archaic Canaanite dialect of Hebrew known as Ugaritic, we find ‘almah and betulah being used as poetic synonyms in a text cited by Ugaritic language pioneer Dr. Cyrus Gordon in his article “‘Almah in Isaiah 7:14”. Gordon also gives us an example from Aramaic where betulta’ is used to describe a pregnant woman who is have problems giving birth (Ugaritic Textbook, 377), which is more proof that the term betulah is not guaranteed to always mean “virgin.”

The word ‘almah used by Isaiah is also related to a noun that means “youth” or “youthfulness,” a word found in Isaiah 54:4, Psalm 89:45, Job 20:11, and Job 33:25. Overall, the picture we get from this term ‘almah is a picture of a girl who is young and inexperienced, a synonym of na‘arah, betulah, and parthenos (words that mean “girl” and “virgin”).

So the claim that the word ‘almah in Isaiah 7:14 has no sense of virginity is not at all as slam-dunk as we’ve been led to believe. Rather, ‘almah is part of a whole group of words that all emphasize youth and inexperience. The real question is how the birth of any child to any mother (virgin or not) 700 years in the future can be a sign to a king back in Isaiah’s day.

It appears that the original sign to Ahaz was a normal birth that took place in the 730’s BC, perhaps a child of Isaiah himself, to be named “Immanuel.” But that was only a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The supernatural conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth 700 years in the future was Isaiah’s prophecy “on steroids.” It is the ultimate example of where Scripture can have a deeper meaning that was put there by God, a meaning that goes far beyond what the original human author would have grasped. Isaiah might have been absolutely amazed if anyone had told him how literally and miraculously his prophecy would be fulfilled.

So what exactly happened to Mary, according to God’s word? Matthew and Luke (if we accept their say-so) make it clear that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Ghost, without a physical act of sex of any kind with any male, whether it be sex with a mortal human, or whether it be sex with God the Father as an exalted human with a resurrected body. No, to say that Jesus was conceived and born by the same sort of physical sexual act by which we humans are all conceived cannot be called a “virgin birth” in any honest meaning of the words. If a physical act of sex with any male (mortal human or divine) is the way Jesus was conceived (contrary to Matthew and Luke), Mary could not be rightly called a virgin when Jesus was born.

So how can Jesus be the Son of God if he was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost? Was it God the Father, or the Holy Ghost?  Which God did this?  The answer is that the Holy Ghost and our Heavenly Father are one God, along with Jesus Christ, who existed together with them long before time began, before he entered into human nature as a child in the womb of Mary. They are all one God, not 3 gods. The Bible teaches a triune God. It’s the only faithful way to put together the clear Biblical teaching that there is only one God, and the equally clear Biblical teachings that Jesus is God and the Holy Ghost is God. So if this is true, it makes perfect sense to say that Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, and to say that Jesus is still the Son of God.  Jesus is the one in whom Colossians 2:9 says “all the fullness of God dwells bodily.”

Did Jesus have to be virgin born? Could God have produced a Son through a natural union of Joseph and Mary as husband and wife? Maybe, but how that could have worked is even more difficult to explain than the simple proposition that God engineered a miraculous conception without a human male to provide the Y-chromosome. The Bible’s miraculous conception of Jesus makes Jesus a new creation, a dramatic divine intervention in our world of sin, a place where God presses the reset button and is born into our world as the one human who is not enslaved to sin, and who is uniquely qualified to save a world full of souls from our sin.

The virgin birth was not a part of the church’s message to the outside world. It was not used to present Jesus in competition to pagan heroes. The Virgin Birth account in our Gospels never would have been published unless the facts demanded it. And the reason it was published is because of what it had to say: that this Jesus of Nazareth was the unique Son of God, born without human father, born outside the vicious cycle of original sin, a new Adam, free from the power of sin, born so that he might undo the mistakes made by the first Adam. If Jesus truly is who he said he was, it makes sense that his was a unique and unusual birth, by miracle of God.

The Good News we celebrate in this Christmas season is the fulfillment of these words spoken 730 years before Jesus was born: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-El” – “God Is With Us.” Through the miraculous conception and birth of our Savior to a virgin named Mary, the words “God Is With Us” take on a radical new meaning.

Christmas is the season when we celebrate the Incarnation, the miracle of the invisible God incarnating (or “becoming flesh”) to become one of us. But if you believe that God is an exalted human being, and if we all are literal spirit children of this God (even if we got our bodies through earthly parents), then what’s the big deal? Is there really any difference between saying that Jesus and we are children of God? Aren’t we all incarnations of Godhood, according to this point of view? We’ll talk about this huge subject of the Incarnation next time on Biblical Words and World. Tis the season to do so!