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A Note on the Virgin Birth

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is often thought a key article of the Christian faith. It appears in various creeds and catechisms. But should it be considered so indispensable? Can Christian faith survive without it? This will be a very brief treatment of a vast topic, meant to get the conversation going. Spoiler alert: some may find what follows controversial. However, it really shouldn’t be.

Our evidence for the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;a and he named him Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virginís name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

So far, this sounds pretty straightforward. But it would be fair to ask, what is the intent of these passages?

We can begin by noting that Paul knew nothing of a virgin birth. In fact, he considered Jesusís birth to be a normal one.

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. (Romans 1:1-3)

When Paul says “according to the flesh” (kata sarka) in such a context, he means biological kinship:

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? (Romans 4:1)

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3)

And getting back to Romans 1:1, the Greek is even more explicit. Where the NRSV has “descended from David according to the flesh” the Greek actually states: yenomenou ek spermatos David kata sarka, which literally means “born of the seed of David according to the flesh.” Both tribal lineage and royal descent were passed through the father. Paul is telling us that Jesus literally descended from Davidís bloodline.

There is also another clue, found in Matthew’s account. It is quite ironic. Matthew seems to supply a proof-text for the virgin birth: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Case closed? Not exactly. This quotation comes from Isaiah 7:14. It is not about a virgin at all. The Hebrew word is ‘almah, which means only a woman of marriageable age. Hebrew does have a word for virgin, but this is not it.

In addition, the context of Isaiah 7:14 has nothing to do with the birth of the Messiah. The historical situation was the Syro-Ephraimitic War. King Ahaz of Judah was afraid of getting caught up in that war, so he asked Isaiah for a sign. Isaiah responded that a young woman is already pregnant (not “shall conceive”) and will bear a child, and before that child learns to tell good things from bad, Ahaz’s problem will be resolved. And it was.

Matthew was neither a fibber nor a fool. He was not uneducated. Surely he knew that the context of his quote had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. So what was Matthew up to?

Matthew was engaging in a very Jewish style of writing called midrash. Midrash may be defined as “the creation of legend to reveal spiritual truth.” The way this typically is done is to quote a Bible verse deliberately out of context for the purpose of embellishing an idea or situation or finding hidden meanings in it. This is explained in detail in my article “How Should Christians Read the Hebrew Bible?” Examples similar to what Matthew does with Isaiah 7:14 can be found all over Jewish literature. They are not intended as exegesis, or in any way to explain the plain or original meaning of the text. The very fact that Matthew uses this technique, borrowing a verse that clearly has nothing to do with his situation in any literal sense, is evidence that it is quite possible he did not intend the virgin birth to be taken literally.

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not historical statements. They are spiritual statements. How else do we know this?

These narratives, when taken literally, make no sense, for a number of reasons. I will mention just a couple. In Matthew, Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great. In Luke, Jesus is born while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Since Quirinius did not become governor until after Herod died (which we know from several historical sources), both narratives cannot be true. Similarly, in Matthew, after Jesus is born, the family escapes into Egypt. In Luke, after Jesus is born, they return to Nazareth via Jerusalem. Both cannot be true. In his significant monograph on the birth narratives, the highly respected Bible scholar Raymond Brown puts it this way:

Even the most determined harmonizer should be foiled by the impossibility of reconciling a journey of the family from Bethlehem to Egypt with Luke’s account of their taking the child to Jerusalem when he was forty days old and their going on from Jerusalem to Nazareth where they stayed. (Raymond Brown, The birth of the Messiah [New York: Doubleday, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1993], 189)

So if we are looking for history in these accounts, at least one of them is false. What are we supposed to do with that?

We can realize that none of this was intended as history. It is not a question of true or false. It is a question of meaning. What were the evangelists meaning to say about Jesus when they wrote these stories?

Clearly, that Jesus was special, and that there was something different about him. That he had a special closeness to God, thought of as Father. That he had a special, divinely authorized vocation. And note the resonance with Jewish history: Herod’s decree to slay the male newborn (almost certainly not historical) harks back to Pharaoh’s similar decree at the time of Moses’s birth. And Mary’s gratitude at mothering a special child and her giving it poetic expression recall the birth of Samuel and Hannah’s song. An important purpose of these narratives is to ground Jesus firmly in Jewish tradition.

What better way to say all of this than through the symbolism and poetry of midrash?

I believe Jewish readers would have understood this. But when these writings passed into Gentile hands, something got in the way. Non-Jewish Greeks had no midrashic tradition. What they did have were many stories of semi-divine heroes proceeding from the union of a male god and a mortal woman (Hercules is perhaps the most well-known example). So they interpreted these birth narratives literally. So much so, in fact, that the virgin birth became for many a cardinal tenet of the faith. Much was lost in the process, and much unnecessary controversy generated, along with some unfruitful speculation: Was Mary a perpetual virgin? Were Jesusís brothers really his cousins? The literal interpretation of the virgin story, among other things, led to a repressive idealization of women and their sexuality. None of that was in the minds of the Gospel writers.

The Gospels are actually much richer when read midrashically rather than literally. That is when they really come to life, with new layers of meaning revealed. Isnít that better than having to worry about whether it really happened that way, and how to iron out unsolvable contradictions? All of that vanishes once we learn to read the Gospels as conveying spiritual rather than historical truth. And no oneís faith need be threatened by apparent contradictions, because while those contradictions cannot be resolved literally, they disappear when read spiritually. The evangelists were not trying to deceive anyone. They were not just making up things with no regard for the truth. They were conveying a different kind of truth, using a different language. We need to learn to understand their language, rather than forcing them to fit into our own.

October 2021