Virgin birth of Jesus
The virgin birth of Jesus is a the Christian belief that Jesus was born, not through normal sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, but through a miracle where the Holy Ghost impregnated Mary's uterus directly, and that she gave birth to Jesus before ever having sex. This belief comes from stories found in the Gospel of Matthew and another found in the Gospel of Luke, which Christians believe fulfills the prophecy described in the Book of Isiah. The belief that Jesus was born of a virgin was adopted by most Muslims as a virgin birth is found in the Koran, though they don't view Jesus as a part of their god. The virgin birth is extremely important to Christian theology, but most scholars now admit that the event has a weak historical foundation.
Book of Isaiah (800-580 BCE)
This is the prophecy Christians believe was fulfilled with the virgin birth.
- Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, "Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights."
- But Ahaz said, "I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test."
- Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria." (Isaiah 7:10-16 NIV)
Early Epistles (50-66 CE)
The earliest writings about the birth of Jesus are from the epistles attributed to Paul which describe nothing but a natural human birth. Apologists attempt to inject a virgin birth into these passages, but their attempts are without evidence.
- But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (Galatians 4:4-5 NIV) (circa 50 CE)
- Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord... (Romans 1:1-4 NIV) (circa 56 CE)
- In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as 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... (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV) (circa 62 CE)
Gospel of Mark (66-70 CE)
When Jesus is first mentioned in Mark he is already an adult; there is nothing mentioned of his birth.
Gospel of Matthew (80-90 CE)
- "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
- But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
- All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us." When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 NIV)
Gospel of Luke (80-100 CE)
- In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
- Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.
- The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
- "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
- The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
- "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38 NIV)
Gospel of John (90–110 CE)
Like Mark, the Gospel of John begins with Jesus already an adult and doesn't mention his birth.
Later Epistles (80+ CE)
None of the epistles written at the time of Matthew or Luke or after mention or suggest a virgin birth.
Christians interpret the virgin birth story as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah. While some of the more liberal denominations suggest the virgin birth could be a metaphor, most Christians take the passages literally, and, since humans aren't normally born from virgins, view it as a miracle.
The only historical evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each author is anonymous and neither claims or even implies they are an eye-witness to any part of Jesus' birth. Matthew's author describes knowledge of conception being presented to Joseph in a dream while Luke's author describes it being presented to Mary; neither claims or implies other witnesses. Both sources describe Jesus being born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph without claiming or implying other witnesses. Both sources were written around 80-90 years after the event supposedly took place meaning anyone old enough to be a reliable witness would most likely be dead, and anyone capable of writing the gospels would, at best, have been a young child when the event took place. Neither author describes who their source is or how they received the information they write about.
However, the fact that there are two at least partially independent sources cannot be ignored. Most historians agree that Matthew and Luke shared common sources (as suggested by the various hypothetical solutions to the Synoptic Problem), though none of the popular hypotheses place the virgin birth neatly in any one shared source. My current hypothesis is that an anonymous person who was familiar with the Septuagint translation of Isaiah, in an effort to disavow Docetism, appropriated the prophecy and concocted the virgin birth, and this idea reached both the authors of Matthew and Luke who expanded on it for their respective gospels. I hold this hypothesis because it fits the existing evidence, but I admit it has no basis in evidence itself.
While I'm more inclined to believe historical events when there are multiple independent sources, I find severe faults with the authors of Matthew and Luke and don't feel that they have given extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claims. My reasons are as follows:
The Hebrew word for "virgin" is bĕthuwlah, but the author of Isaiah uses the word `almah, which Hebrew scholars agree translates simply to "young woman" and has nothing to do with virginity. For example, Proverbs 30:18-20 describes an adulterous woman, who can't possibly be a virgin, as an `almah. This means that Isaiah's prophecy is properly translated to the mundane, "the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son," which is precisely how the Jewish Publication Society translates it. However, the authors of Matthew and Luke might have used the Greek Septuagint as their source, and in the Septuagint, the Hebrew word `almah is incorrectly translated to the Greek parthenos, which means "virgin." Being born of a virgin is certainly interesting, and may be why both authors fixated on it, but their fixation appears to be the result of a mistranslation.
Furthermore, while Christians assume that Isaiah's prophecy is symbolic and applies to an event that will take place centuries after the prediction, Jewish scholars of Isaiah agree the passage was meant to be taken literally and refers to a child that was born shortly after the prediction just as the kingdoms fell. This means that neither Matthew nor Luke have historical foundation for a virgin birth (see "The Gospel of Matthew," by R.T. France, p.56-57).
Being born of a virgin is indeed interesting, yet the earliest Christian authors either make no mention of Jesus' birth at all or state that it was entirely ordinary. Apologists suggest Paul implicitly wrote about a virgin birth, but if you read the passages in the Early Epistles above, you'll see there is nothing there.
The virgin birth stories found in Matthew and Luke are markedly different and the differences are only compounded through the Nativity of Jesus. Every New Testament author writing after Matthew and Luke fail to acknowledge the virgin birth story and even the authors of Mark and John, two people who focused specifically of the events of Jesus' life, didn't bother to mention it. A common apologist response is that the various authors who don't mention the virgin birth either purposely left it out because they didn't feel it was important or didn't know about it. I don't find either excuse believable. As authors of books purporting to have an intimate knowledge of Jesus, how could they possibly not know about his miraculous birth, and, assuming they knew, why would they possibly leave out what early Christians thought was such an obvious fulfillment of prophecy?