Matthew 1:20–23 (ESV) — 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
“The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time” – Nicholas Kristof (New York Times).
- “Kristof argues, ‘because most Biblical scholars regard the evidence for the Virgin Birth … as so shaky that it pretty much has to be a leap of faith.’” – Albert Mohler.
- This sentiment is but one of many that is directed at American evangelicals.
- Christians believe in things that are clearly not true – the Virgin Birth.
- This belief is blind; it is not grounded in reality; there is no rational reason for it; it is “mystical”.
Secular culture’s attacks on the Virgin Birth can be more sophisticated than the above name-calling.
- They leverage (1) basic reproductive science, and (2) engage the relevant Biblical texts.
(1) Virgin births are impossible.
- A male baby contains both an X and Y-chromosome.
- Only a man can provide the Y-chromosome.
- Therefore, a male’s sperm must fertilize a female’s egg to supply the Y-chromosome.
The Biblical Texts:
But the critics just don’t cast dispersions from afar.
- They engage the text to challenge the orthodox understanding of the Virgin Birth.
- They generally take (3) approaches – there are certainly more.
(1) The Virgin Birth story is only in two of the four Gospels.
- And even more striking, Paul never mentions it in any of his letters.
- They conclude that Matthew and Luke made it up for Christological reasons.
(2) Isaiah 7 is not a prophecy about a coming Jewish Messiah.
- It is a prophecy directed to King Ahaz to be fulfilled in his lifetime.
- When it uses the phrase “God with Us”, it is suggesting that victory over Judah’s enemies will come because of the presence of God.
(3) The “ground zero” verse – Isaiah 7:14 – doesn’t contain the Hebrew word for “virgin”.
- If Isaiah meant “virgin” he would have used the Hebrew word “betulah”.
- But he didn’t; he used the word “almah”.
So what are we to make of these objections to Jesus’ Virgin Birth?
We need to address them in a couple of ways.
- First, we will answer the objections head on.
- Second, we will explore the theological significance of the Virgin Birth.
1) ANSWERS TO OBJECTIONS
The first objection was the physical impossibility of the Virgin Birth.
- We agree that a Y-chromosome had to be provided somehow.
Millard Erickson puts it as follows:
“Jesus was not produced after the genetic pattern of Mary alone, for in that case he would in effect have been a clone of her and would necessarily have been female. Rather, a male component was contributed. In other words, a sperm was united with the ovum provided by Mary, but it was specially created for the occasion instead of being supplied by an existent male human.”
- The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit took care of this – though we don’t know how.
- So we appeal to the supernatural.
This objection, then, is grounded in the presuppositions that accompany a materialist worldview.
- Nothing outside the physical exists on this worldview.
- There is no supernatural being, no spiritual realm, and nothing that transcends our existence.
- The physical world is “without incursions from outside by souls or spirits, divine or human” – Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
In other words, it is not really an objection but a philosophical assumption.
- An assumption that says it is the only home for science – scientism.
BTW – One wonders why humans “became scientific”.
- C.S. Lewis observed, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver”.
- The men he refers to were the likes of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Pasteur, Kepler, etc.
The materialist, ironically, rejects the lawgiver but keeps His law – needs His law – to even do science.
- And then says it is foolish to suppose the lawgiver can “manipulate” the laws to His good pleasure and purpose.
- More on “miracle” as a violation of the laws of nature later.
- Not a good definition?
The second objection was that the Virgin Birth was only in two Gospels and not in Paul.
First, we can say “so what?”
- NT Scholar Scot McKnight puts this sentiment plainly, “I’ve never understood why the absence of this idea in Paul means Paul didn’t believe it”.
- “Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief” – Albert Mohler.
The next thing we can say is “not so fast”.
- It appears that there are indirect references to the Virgin Birth in the other two Gospels and Paul.
- M. James Sawyer puts it as follows:
- “If we take the time to look more closely we find the virgin birth, lurking beneath the surface in Mark, John and Paul.”
Mark 6:3 (ESV) — 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and [Joseph] and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
- This is a “very non-Jewish way” to refer to a man in Jewish culture – M. James Sawyer.
- It is certainly possible that Mark was highlighting the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
John 1:13 (ESV) — 13 who were born [gennao], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
- Interestingly, some translations phrase verse 13 – “nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (NIV).
- James Sawyer tells us, “according to normal Greek usage the [NIV] is more accurate, because the term used by John is andros, i.e. male or husband as opposed to anthropos, i.e man(kind), humanity.
- If so, this could very well be an allusion to the Virgin Birth.
Galatians 4 – gennao vs. ginomai
- Galatians 4:4 (ESV) — 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born [ginomai] of woman, born [ginomai] under the law,
- Galatians 4:21–23 (ESV) — 21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born [gennao] according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born [gennao] through promise.
These texts deal with Jesus’, believer’s and Jew’s relationship to the law.
- James Sawyer points out that Paul deliberately, and on numerous occasions, avoids using gennao when speaking of Jesus’ origins – the normal Greek word for human birth.
- It literally means “become the parent of”; “to give birth to”
- Instead, Paul opts for ginomai.
- As evident in Galatians 4 – Jesus’ was ginomai and Isaac and Ishmael were gennao.
Why is this significant?
- There are a number of uses of ginomai in the BDAG lexicon.
- One use can mean “to come into being through the process or birth or natural reproduction”
- Which on its face doesn’t exclude a Virgin Birth.
- See John 1:13 we just discussed.
But the other uses can be seen as alluding to the uniqueness of Jesus’ Virgin Birth.
- “to come into existence”
- “come into being as an event or phenomenon”
- “to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition”
- “to make a change of location in space”
- “to come into a certain state or possess certain characteristics”
And interestingly, Paul uses this word 141 times in 130 verses.
- Galatians 4:4 is the only time translators use “born”.
“This would appear to be a conscious effort on the part of the Apostle to clearly distinguish the method of Jesus’ origin/birth from that of all other humans born since Adam’s ‘coming into existence’” – James Sawyer.
Isaiah 7:10–14 (ESV) — 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The third objection was that Isaiah 7 is about Ahaz and not a coming Jewish Messiah.
- Our answer to this is, “Yes, it is about Ahaz”.
- Even the ESV Study Bible says, “Christian interpretation of this passage requires doing justice to the meaning of Isaiah’s words” with respect to Ahaz.
But, here is the thing.
- OT prophecies often have a double fulfillment.
- In the case of Isaiah 7 this means that there is “both an immediate fulfillment in Isaiah’s day and a long-term fulfillment in the birth of the Messiah” – ESV Study Bible.
How do we know OT prophecies can work like this?
- Because the NT writers tell us they do over an over.
Isaac, the Jews and Jesus:
- Genesis 12:6–7 (ESV) — 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
- Galatians 3:16 (ESV) — 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
David and Jesus:
- Psalm 16:9–10 (ESV) — 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. 10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
- David is expressing a hope in something more than Sheol and the dust.
- Acts 2:31–32 (ESV) — 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.
- Acts 13:36–37 (ESV) — 36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.
Co-Regent/? and Jesus:
- Psalm 110:1 (ESV) — 1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
- Acts 2:33–35 (ESV) — 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, 35 until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’
The fourth objection was that Isaiah’s prophecy doesn’t even use the Hebrew word for virgin.
- This is where the critic’s lack of appreciation for nuance and complexity demonstrates that they are “becoming less intellectual”.
It is true that the “almah” used by Isaiah most commonly means “young woman”.
- And that “the more precise word for virgin is betulah” – Michael Heiser.
So why do we argue that it does mean “virgin”?
- Or put another way, why does Matthew use the Greek word “parthenos” in his translation?
- The precise word in Greek for “virgin”.
- It is not because we are becoming more “mystical”!
- We will hit on 4 reasons.
(1) Hebrew scholar Michael Heiser says “betulah provides more contextual clues as to sexual inactivity, but does that mean almah never means virgin?”
- He says “almah” is used 6 other times in the OT.
- And in all but one, the context gives no clues as to its exact meaning.
- But in Song of Solomon 6:8 we do have clues and they point to a meaning of “virgin”.
- Song of Solomon 6:8 (ESV) — 8 There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins [almah/pl: alamot] without number.
Heiser points out the following:
- “Queens” are royal wives – this relationship entailed a sexual relationship.
- “Concubines” were “sexual partner[s] who held certain privileges, but not the level of a wife”.
- And the “almah” in this context was “a candidate to become either a concubine or a wife” – they were not yet in a sexual relationship.
He says that the “ancient cultural context shows us that every attempt was made to have a supply of virgins for the king”.
- In Song of Solomon 6:8 this context is played out – the “almah” are that group of virgins.
- So according to Hebrew scholar Michael Heiser, “It simply is not correct to assert that almah would never have been understood as virgin.”
- In SOS 6:8, it is referring to a group of young woman set apart as virgins.
(2) The second reason to understand Isaiah’s “almah” as “virgin” is simply this:
“In an ancient patriarchal culture, a woman of marriageable age was a female who had at least reached her teen years. Children in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint…Matthew grew up in this culture…so it should be no surprise at all that he saw no incongruity in considering almah to mean virgin” – Michael Heiser.
- In other words, a young woman not married in ancient Israel was normally a virgin.
(3) The third reason is as good as any of the others.
- About 200 years before Christ, a community of Greek speaking Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek.
- This translation is known as the Septuagint or LXX.
- When these Jews translated Isaiah 7:14 into Greek, they used the Greek word “parthenos”.
- This means they understood Isaiah’s “almah” to mean specifically a “virgin” and not just a “young woman”.
(4) It was the truth.
2) THEOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF VIRGIN BIRTH
So is the Virgin Birth necessary?
- Or put another way, isn’t the Incarnation really the important thing?
This is my favorite apologetic for the Virgin Birth of the Messiah.
- In the context of God’s redemptive history, it is yet another piece, of the hundreds of pieces, of a 1500-year-old Gospel puzzle that fits perfectly.
- And in this context it stands on its own as yet another act of God in history.
- It is not just “a theory explaining the incarnation” – M. James Sawyer.
Virgin Birth and Christ’s Identity:
It sets apart Jesus, chosen before creation, to be the Son of God and Messiah.
- He was not chosen and set apart by the Father later, as some claim.
- His baptism in the Jordan was not where Jesus was invested with a special divine connection.
- “The virginal conception means Jesus was not simply a holy man…” – Scot McKnight.
- The Virgin Birth shows He came into this world as God.
Virgin Birth and Grace:
“The virgin birth signals a move from God to man not man to God. Human powers and abilities are not in play. The fact that Mary was a virgin disqualifies her from active participation even in the conception of Jesus. The incarnation is not a cooperative effort between God and man. It is in no sense a product of human activity” – M. James Sawyer.
- God chose the who, the when, and the where.
- Mary could only believe and receive.
- The same thing we must do.
Virgin Birth and New-Creation:
“In a very real sense the virgin birth is related to God’s creative activity of Genesis. By means of his creative act the creator himself has stepped into his creation and is re-creating fallen humanity” – M. James Sawyer.
- In other words, the Virgin Birth is the breaking in of the “life in the age to come”.
- It is part of the inauguration of the “Kingdom of God” where all things will be “put right”.
- “This doctrine speaks to new creation coming into existence in the here and now as a foretaste of what is to come” – Scot McKnight.
- In a strong parallel to creation out of nothing, “it is a new creative act” that takes place out of the virgin womb – M. James Sawyer.
Virgin Birth and Resurrection:
Because of its connection to creation, it is deeply linked to Resurrection.
- Both the Virgin Birth and Resurrection:
- Esteem and value creation – the physical.
- Point to Jesus as the one who will “put right” a fallen and cursed creation.
- Virgin Birth – God entered “Adam”
- Resurrection – God defeated “Adam’s Curse”
- And each share in creation language – the “promised seed” and “first fruits”.
Virgin Birth and Union with Christ:
It demonstrates the “radical identification with the crown of his creation” – M. James Sawyer.
- God, in Christ, humbled Himself and condescended to become part of His creation in a physical way by being born fully human – 100% God and 100% Human.
- In so doing, He left the glory He shared in the fellowship of the Trinity – John 17.
- And He did so that He might provide a way for us to be in Union with Him and thus participate with Him in the fellowship of the Trinity – John 17.
Given all we have seen about the Virgin Birth, we come back to the question raised earlier.
- Is the Virgin Birth a necessary part of the Gospel?
- My answer is, “absolutely”.
“Why mention so specifically that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate” if the bit about “born of the virgin Mary” is a historical make-believe? The Gospels and the early church believed it was important not just that Jesus was born of a virgin, but that it was a virgin birth that really happened in time and history” – Kevin DeYoung.
Christ as the “Divine Warrior” or as the “Angel of the Lord” could not do what “Christ as Jesus” could do.
- As the “Divine Warrior” and “Angel of the Lord” Christ was not fully human.
- But the Virgin Birth is unambiguous – the third person of the Trinity has become fully human.
- In this sense, the Virgin Birth “delivers” the most important “theophany” of all – Jesus.
- Christ as Jesus could be our representative, sympathetic and sinless priest – Hebrews 4:15 (Douglas Wilson).
Was the Virgin Birth a miracle?
- Some scholars – N.T. Wright and Antony Le Donne – want to stop using the word miracle.
- “Miracle” conjures up the idea of a God who shows up only to tweak with the laws of nature and then disappears for a while.
- His concern with creation is expressed only when He “performs a miracle”.
- N.T. Wright suggests this is anachronistic and Platonic.
- Instead, we should refer to God’s/Jesus’ acts in history as “putting right” creation, or the “breaking in” of new creation.
- This conveys God’s actions in redemptive history in more accurate language.
- He is always working to “put right” His creation, redeem His “remnant”, and return them from “exile”.
- The “Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done” kinds of things.
Relationship of Virgin Birth to Incarnation:
“It may be admitted, of course, that the Virgin Birth is not flatly identical with the Incarnation, just as the empty tomb is not flatly identical with the Resurrection. The one might be affirmed without the other. Yet the connection is so close, and indeed indispensable, that were the Virgin Birth or the empty tomb denied, it is likely that either the Incarnation or Resurrection would be called in question, or they would be affirmed in a form very different from that which they have in Scripture and historic teaching” – Christianity Today Editorial 1959.