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Was Jesus born of a virgin, or is that simply a myth to substantiate his birth as divine?

This week we conclude our holiday question series with a tough one: “Was Jesus born of a virgin, or is that simply a myth to substantiate his birth as divine?”

The question of the virgin birth of Jesus is one of the most delicate questions in Christianity. It wasn’t long ago it was considered blasphemy to consider any other possibility. However, a recent survey showed that although more than 90% of Christians believe in the virgin birth, many clergy reject the dogma of the virgin birth (from 19% of American Lutherans to 60% of Methodists). Obviously, there is a disparity of beliefs between clergy and laity.

So, was Jesus born of a virgin or not?

There are three answers. The traditional answer, accepted through the last two millennia, is “Yes; that’s what the Bible says.” We read in Matthew: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son” (Matthew 1.23a). Further, Luke includes two references to Mary’s virginity (1.27, 34). There is no question that these writers reported unequivocally that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” (The Apostle’s Creed).

However, there are two other answers to the question. The first is a resounding “sort of.” It seems Matthew’s report of Mary’s virginity was based on a prophesy from Isaiah 7.14. “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” (Isaiah 7.14). Matthew cited this prophesy from the Greek version of the Old Testament which uses a word for “virgin” with the same understanding we have. However, that’s not what Isaiah wrote when he penned his book. In Hebrew we read Isaiah’s words: “the almah will be with child….” Almah is Hebrew for a different kind of virgin. An almah is a non-menstruating woman, either a young girl or a post menopausal woman. It has nothing to do with chasteness. And, since many scholars believe Luke based portions of his writings on Mark and Matthew, he may have included Matthew’s claim of Mary’s virginity. Thus, some believe Mary’s “virginity” indicates she was pre-menstrual when she was found to “be with child” and so the miraculous conception was really a matter of timing. In other words, Mary may have been “sort of” a virgin—but not a virgin in the modern sense of the word.

Then there is the third alternative that denies the virgin birth. This is based first on the study of other cultures and religions, and secondly, on the basis of internal biblical evidence.

The notion of the central religious “hero” being born of a virgin is not original to Christianity. The study of other cultures reveals that many religions had their gods and heroes born of virgins. Long before Christianity, the Buddha was said to be born of the virgin Maya. The “founders of Rome,” Romulus and Remus, were said to be born of Silvia, a virgin who conceived by the god Mars. Both the Persian god Mithra and the hero of the Hindus, Krishna, were said to be born of virgins. Thus, according to some scholars, early Christian writers may have adopted this teaching to substantiate Jesus’ birth as divine. 

There is also internal biblical evidence to suggest the virgin birth might not have been an early Christian teaching. Scholars point to the writings of Paul and John to evidence their view. In Galatians 4, Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (4.4). It has been suggested that if Paul were aware of the virgin birth he would have used the word “virgin” in this passage rather than the word “woman.” Further in Romans, Paul writes, “Regarding his Son, who came from the seed of David according to the flesh…” (1.3). Here many scholars assert that Jesus’ earthly lineage through Joseph is clearly cited (Joseph was said to be a descendent of King David). Further, Paul’s words, “according to the flesh” implies a normal conception rather than a miraculous one. 

Finally, scholars cite John’s gospel to refute the virgin birth. John’s work was written years after the other three gospels had been penned and distributed. John is eager to show his readers “signs” that Jesus is the Son of God (20.31); however, he never mentions the virgin birth, an obvious “sign” he surely would not have overlooked had he believed this teaching. John also records that Jesus was referred to as “the son of Joseph” (6.42) even by his own apostles (1.45). Therefore, according to some scholars, John’s writings were written to refute Matthew and Luke.

So, which is it? Was Jesus born of a virgin or not? The reality is that this is a faith issue—nothing more and nothing less. You either believe in the virgin birth or you don’t. The real question is whether or not the issue of Mary’s virginity is a Kingdom Issue. Does belief in the virgin birth get anyone into the Kingdom of God? No. Does disbelief keep anyone out? Scripturally, the belief in Mary’s virginity isn’t a pivotal point of salvation. But disbelief sure makes a mess out of the Christmas carol Silent Night.

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