The virgin birth of Jesus can be a major obstacle for many new Christians, and has been debated over for centuries. I hope to sketch out this semantic and theological debate from the views of both conservative and liberal scholars, and examine the scriptural evidence for the virgin birth. Though this is a minor issue compared to doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus, many who read about Jesus and have an anti-supernatural bias write the virgin birth off as an impossibility or mere legend. Why would we as Christians, who believe God made the world out of nothing, put the brakes on when it comes to the virgin birth? Does Mary’s virginity really matter that much, when Jesus’ genealogy includes some of the most scandalous women in the Bible? For example, the incestuous Tamar, who seduced her drunken father, Rahab the prostitute and Ruth the Moabite who were not even from tribes of Israel, Bathsheba, the woman constantly mentioned in relation to the sin of King David, and Mary, a woman falsely believed to have cheated on Joseph before her marriage, are all mentioned in the bloodline of Jesus. Yes incest, intermarriage, prostitution, adultery, and perceived adultery are all conjured up in the minds of the Jews who read Jesus’ genealogy from Matthew!
If Matthew would mention these women—or women at all in a genealogy of the Ancient Near East (ANE) for that matter, there must be a reason for it. It simply does not follow that Matthew had painted some sanitized, legendary account to make the point of Jesus’ sinlessness. To do that he would have avoided mentioning these women at all, which no one would have noticed anyway. In that time, no epic hero or legendary figure would have been mentioned in a less trumped up manner, but would have come from a line of great kings or fierce warriors of impeccable character. Jesus on the other hand, had both noble and humble lineage, and this was not hidden from the people of Jesus’ day.
Greek and Hebrew Words and their Lexical Debate
The Greek word translated “virgin” is parthenos. This has been translated very consistently as “virgin”, i.e. a sexually pure person, all throughout its biblical usage. It may however be generically used of a person without a focus on virginity.[i] It denotes marriageable age as well as sexual purity, and was not used of people who have become married.[ii] In ANE biblical times, one who was not a virgin and was not married would be stoned to death (Deut. 22:20), which explains why in the biblical usage the connotations seem to heavily emphasize chastity, often going beyond just the word and using whole sentences that make the reader aware the writer has chastity in mind. Parthenos is the word which the Septuagint translates the Hebrew almah which Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 7:14, and the difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament on this word is the source of much controversy and scandal. Jews to this day insist that the word for virgin simply means something akin to teenager, and liberal scholars alike question Matthew’s integrity and the authority behind his messianic interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy.
The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTT) goes deeply into the scholarly debate over whether the Hebrew word for virgin specifically speaks of sexual status. Some scholars assert that this only speaks of a girl’s marriageable age and not her virginity, but various legal documents, both Hebrew and Assyrian, use the word or its root in similar ways. If the virginity laws were the same, and the punishments the same, would it not follow that the word meant the same thing?[iii]
One scholar, G.J. Wenham, argues that: (a) the word is used of Esther before and after her night with the king (Esth 2:17-19), (b) that the male form of the word is often used without any reference to sexual status, (c) In Joel 1:8 the word does refer to a girl that presumably has a husband, and (d) that Job 31:1, where Job speaks of not lusting after a young girl, does not make much sense if the girl is not married, because his society is polygamous.[iv] But, this theory breaks down with the example of Tamar in 2 Sam 13:18, where she tore a garment symbolizing her sexual status after she was raped by Amnon. She was still unmarried and young, but clearly she did not believe her previous status was in effect after this tragic ordeal. Further difficulties are raised in the earlier examples from Esther or Joel because these women are officially spoken for, so they could not be considered marriageable. If availability for marriage was the sole criterion for the word’s use, it would cease being used after these women were spoken for, but its use is kept until the consummation of the marriage, and then it is discarded. Since young women who are raped or commit prostitution are described using other words, the Hebrew word for virgin’s sexual aspect must be valid. This rules out the idea that the word means only teenager as well[v].
It is the position of the NIDOTT that the word describes three things at once: age, marital status, and sexual status. It would seem that the word refers to a post-pubescent girl who is single and lives under the authority of her father. An example of an English word that denotes things about these respective statuses is “spinster,” which we use to describe an old woman who lives alone and never married.[vi]
In pre-sexual revolution times, this would speak of her sexual status as well, though sadly the sexual brokenness of our time and culture makes us skeptical of anyone’s claim to chastity. Reading modern attitudes toward sex into the Hebrew culture and its sexual laws and religious legalism would be greatly naïve. In a modern Arabian culture under Shariah Law, most people graduate from college virgins, and if they do not, they could face capital punishment. In fact, their own parents might send a brother or nephew to carry out the punishment if they are outside the jurisdiction of the law to end their own embarrassment and shunning by society. This is not an exact correlation to Hebrew Law, but it is far closer than post-sexual revolution American ideals.
Despite the lexical meaning of the words used, there is extra effort to make it unmistakable that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, and Mary had not had marital relations with anyone prior to their marriage. The virgin birth is not left up to the meaning of one or two Greek or Hebrew words, or even a few isolated late texts as some suppose, but thoughtfully enforced throughout the New Testament and early Christian writings, and is alluded to in the Old Testament as well.
Other Objections and debate
Some liberal scholars see the infancy narratives as late layers of tradition that were written down after being passed around orally, or were simply made up by later Christians. They contend that Mark, being the shortest gospel, is the most reliable and more “unembellished.” Since Mark seems to be silent when it comes to the virgin birth, they assert that these events did not happen. However, Mark does not mention anything at all from the first 30 years of Jesus’ life! And he is not as silent as people suppose, frequently using odd verbal constructions like “Jesus the son of Mary” in a Jewish context that always identified the son by their relationship with his father, oftentimes using the father’s name as we would use a last name. Further, it is often supposed that neither John nor Paul makes reference to the birth of Jesus, but a careful examination of John 1:13, 6:42, Romans1:2-4 and Galatians 4;4 reveal otherwise. [vii]
Another objection is that the Sinaitic Syriac text in Mt. 1:16 states that “Joseph begat Jesus,” but this too must be taken into account with its context in which the angel tells Joseph to assume legal responsibility for the child he was to call Jesus (Mt. 1:25). The author, Matthew, had explicitly stated that there had been no sexual union between Joseph and Mary. In other instances in Luke (2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48) and Matthew (13:55) it is a legal and not biological status that is implied, otherwise the authors would be inconsistent with their own writings and contradict themselves.[viii]
Long before anyone would think about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Mathew’s use of Isaiah, Genesis 3:15 points toward the virgin birth when it speaks of the “seed” of the woman, or descendant of the woman. This would seem to be clumsy metaphor indeed if it was divorced from the New Testament. Yet when one thinks of Mary’s Son, who is not from the seed of Joseph but has God as His Father; this awkward construction makes a lot more sense. Jesus’ victory over Satan is clearly foretold, but His virgin birth is foreshadowed as well.
Isaiah 7:14 is quoted by Matthew as a prophecy about the Messiah, specifically that He would be a hope of the world. Isaiah mentions that He will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Many theologically liberal scholars would say that the Hebrew word Immanuel could mean “God be with us” instead. They contend that there is a mistranslation in the Septuagint from the original Hebrew, and that Matthew has misquoted Isaiah because he implies that this passage is about the Messiah, not simply a prophecy for the Jewish King Ahaz about the future end of a Syrian war.[ix] While anyone who reads the text from Isaiah would see that it contextually is written to Ahaz at that time about the war, it points to a sign that the prophets words are true. The birth of the Messiah should also be taken as sign as well, though indirectly. Matthew asserts that God is speaking allegorically, not only to the captivity of that war and its hopelessness, but also now extends the metaphor to the world’s captivity to sin and its need for hope and freedom.
Matthew calls our attention to this verse because he understands it after the cross, in ways beyond the traditional historical interpretation. There are other examples of these new and radical nontraditional interpretations like the tabernacle foreshadowing crucifixion as mentioned by the author of Hebrews, or the blood of lambs on doorposts during the first Passover and the Day of Atonement in which Jesus fulfills on the cross the roles of Priest, Sacrificial Lamb, and Scapegoat. Matthew points out many connections like these. For him, just as the crucifixion cannot be understood when divorced from these Old Testament historical models, neither can these words to Ahaz be divorced from their future fulfillment, not only in Isaiah’s time but also pointing to the Messiah’s virgin birth as well. Multiple fulfillments of prophecy are nothing new, nor is God revealing new truths amongst old truths either. As a man who spent 3 years of intense discipleship with Jesus, and was a tax collector who worked daily with important documents and meticulous recordkeeping, I find Matthew to be a greater authority on Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy than modern skeptics who doubt the supernatural.
Luke also mentions the virgin birth, but he does not mention the prophecy from Isaiah. This makes sense if one considers that his audience was more general, and focused on the Jews like Matthew. Luke’s virgin birth narrative is clearly an independent account from Matthew. Some speculate that Luke’s source was Mary[x], and Matthews’ Joseph.[xi]This could explain why we have so many personal details about their sexual history and memories, because they came “straight from the horse’s mouth” so to speak. [xii]
Meaning and Significance of the Virgin Birth
Philosophically, in order for Christ’s sinlessness to come from the virgin birth, Mary would have to be born sinless as well, for she is human and would have a sin nature. In fact her parents would have to be sinless too and on and on ad finitum![xiii] This sort of “proof” of Christ’s sinlessness raises a lot more questions than it answers. Christ’s sinlessness does not come from His humanity, but His divinity.[xiv] After all what could sanctify a human body more that the full indwelling of the preexistent second Person of the Trinity, who was sinless long before the Incarnation, and by Whom we can know the difference between sin and righteousness. The fact that Jesus came, not half god and half-human as the Greek demigods, but fully God and fully human is a radical departure from both contemporary Greek and Jewish thought of the time. Christ is revealed as the new Adam of 1 Cor 15:45-48, and hinted at in Genesis 3:15. He comes in a similar miraculous way as Adam, but even more so. In probably greater ways He is tempted but does not sin, and reverses the curse of humanity for what Adam did. A.N.S. Lane, a great apologist for the virgin birth spoke of this significance best when he said:
While it may not have been absolutely necessary for the Incarnate One to have been born of a virgin it is fitting for him to have a special birth. But it is important to be clear as to why it is fitting. It is not because there is anything degrading or unworthy about normal birth. To argue like that would be to shrink from the scandal of the Incarnation, the fact that God entered into our human existence. A normal birth would not be unfitting in itself, let alone degrading, as it would point to the genuineness of his humanity. But on the other hand an abnormal birth is fitting and appropriate as a pointer to the deity of Christ. Elsewhere in Scripture great and important figures have unusual births. This was true of both Isaac and John the Baptist. Their births were miraculous in that their mothers had hitherto been barren. If figures like Isaac and John the Baptist had miraculous births as signs pointing to their significance, how much more appropriate it is that the Son of God should have a miraculous birth. With Jesus of course the miracle is far greater in that a parent is dispensed with rather than simply made fertile, but the same principle applies: a miraculous birth as a sign or pointer to the significance of the child. It is therefore fitting and appropriate for the Son of God to have a miraculous birth and the virgin birth is the form that this took. Whether or not other forms of miraculous birth would have been possible is a matter of speculation and we have no grounds for deciding either way. But as a point of fact God chose the virgin birth. If we can accept that a miraculous birth is fitting there need be no objection to the idea of a virgin birth. The virgin birth, seen as a random event, is implausible, but as a part of the total picture of Christ, with his Incarnation and resurrection, it is both fitting and plausible.[xv]
The significance of the virgin birth is similar to the significance of the empty tomb at the resurrection. It is a sign, and symbol of what happened but it is not necessary for the event it symbolizes to happen. Just as Jesus could have risen from the dead no matter if His body was laid in a tomb or not, the Messiah could have still come through sexual relations, though He did not. God could have made a sinless body out of the very dust of the ground, but He did not. The virgin birth is not necessary for the incarnation, nor proof of sinlessness or divinity, but it surely fits alongside the incarnation as miraculous, and points us toward a God who understands us, came and lived among us, and was truly fully God and fully human. It points us to the uniqueness of Christ and His life, and shows us how the foretelling of Christ’s coming echoes from the earliest pages of Scripture and time of Adam, not simply from the imaginations of fifth or sixth generation disciples from the fourth century.
[i] Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 1975). s.v. “parqenoj”.
[ii] Frederick William Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2000) s.v.“parqenoj”
[iii] Willem A. Vangemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan 1997). s.v. “הָעַלְמָ֗ה”.
[iv] Willem A. Vangemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan 1997). s.v. “הָעַלְמָ֗ה”.
[vii] Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2008). 142
[viii] Ibid 141
[ix] Interpreters Bible Isaiah 7:1-17
[x] Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2008).139
[xi] Colin Brown, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 1975). s.v. “parqenoj”.
[xiv] A.N.S. Lane, “The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977):52
[xv] A.N.S. Lane, “The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977):54
Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Revised and edited by Frederic William DankerChicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press 2000. s.v.“parqenoj”
Brown, Colin, Lothar Coenen, Erich Beyreuther and Hans Bietenhard. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan 1975. s.v. “parqenoj”.
Buttrick, George Arthur. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 5. New York: Abbingdon 1997. s.v. “Isaiah 7:1-17.”
Lane, A.N.S. “The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth,” Vox Evangelica. Vol. 10 London: London Bible College Press1977.
Oden, Thomas C. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2008.
Vangemeren ,Willem A. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan 1997. s.v. “הָעַלְמָ֗ה”.