As a Christian do I really have to accept that Jesus was born of a virgin? Couldn't this just be an ancient way of highlighting his importance?

A: That's a fair question, and one I myself have wondered about through the years. Tomorrow is the birthday of Julius Caesar (101 BC), an incredibly influential Roman. The Roman Senate decreed him a god after his assassination on the Ides of March, 44 BC—a clear political fiction. However, Caesar’s impact pales into insignificance compared to that of Christ. He was hardly God incarnate.

Jesus’s birth deserves to be examined. Much of the Christian message hangs on this event. Yet many scholars reject the Virgin Birth. Why?

  1. Some hold that miracles are impossible.
  2. Others insist that Isaiah 7:14 has been misinterpreted.
  3. Some suggest pagan legends have been tweaked in a Christian direction.
  4. Others suggest the Virgin Birth is mere symbol.
  5. Some even hold that Mary was raped, and the doctrine was an attempt to disguise the illegitimate birth of Christ.

What are we to make of these allegations?

  1. The first claim is mere prejudice. How can anyone know that miracles never happen?
  2. Matthew 1:23 quotes the Greek OT. In Isaiah 7:14 the Hebrew 'almah, young woman, was translated parthénos, virgin. The translators were all rabbis, so the notion of virginal conception has a solid basis in Jewish theology in the time of Jesus.
  3. There is no virgin birth per se in paganism. Typically a god mates with a woman, their offspring a demigod. It is doubtful that strictly monotheistic Jews would have admired or adapted such stories! Further, note that there is no sexual aspect to the Virgin Birth. God does not have sex with Mary.
  4. Philo commented, "Rebekah, who is perseverance, became pregnant from God." Yet in context he is describing virtues, not actual births.
  5. Those who suggest Mary as raped (perhaps impregnated by a Roman soldier) offer no proof of this guess.

Yet many biblical scholars accept the Virgin Birth. Why?

  1. This miraculous event is confirmed independently by Matthew and Luke, suggesting that the underlying tradition predates either of these evangelists.
  2. In Matthew and Luke the virginal conception occurs in awkward circumstances—Mary becoming pregnant before she is married, yet during the time she was betrothed. Why would ancient Christians invent a story that so easily reeks of scandal?
  3. The so-called parallels with pagan mythology are very weak (just as are so-called "resurrections" in paganism).
  4. There is strong theological support for the Virgin Birth, since it is directly connected with Christ's divinity.

A few years ago I asked a prominent N.T. scholar how essential a doctrine he considered the Virgin Birth to be. He replied that he could go either way—an historical event or enhancement. I nearly agreed, in part because this event is not recounted in Mark or John, and I seldom hear it being discussed in church. And there are few N.T. passages on the topic.

Yet I have a stronger conviction now. The theological importance of this event (no. 4 immediately above) convinces me that this is no peripheral doctrine. If God the Son did not become one of us, what is Christianity? Presumably Jesus's divinity originates in the miraculous event of the Virgin Birth—when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary.

For more on this, see the analysis of Raymond Brown in An Introduction to the New Testament (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997), 219-220, to which I am indebted. Also for your consideration: Chuck Pike's piece on the birth of Christ (lesson notes here).