Historically, the Christian belief that Jesus was miraculously conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary without sexual union with man ( Matt 1:18-25 ; Luke 1:34-35 ). This doctrine is to be distinguished from the Roman Catholic belief in the "perpetual virginity" of Mary (i.e., that she remained a virgin throughout her life) and the "immaculate conception" (i.e., that she remained sinless throughout her life), two ideas in tension with the birth narratives themselves.
Four views exist concerning the origin of the New Testament virgin birth stories: (1) a fact of history (traditional Christian view); (2) an error; Christians got it wrong for whatever reason (antagonist view traced to the early second century); (3) a natural phenomenon reexplained supernaturally (modern rationalist view); (4) a myth/legend, a religious idea put into historical form (modern mythical view). Views 3 and 4 assume an antisupernatural bias. View 2 accepts the supernatural but harbors disbelief about Jesus as the Messiah.
This article surveys the theological importance of the virgin birth rather than matters primarily relating to its origin. But the issue of historicity is, nonetheless, indispensable to it, for history in the New Testament is the handmaiden of theology. None of the Gospels were merely doctrinal speculations about the person of Christ but records of actual events of his life, although assuredly preserved for theological reasons. In the case of the virgin birth, its historical integrity holds up well (as the next point shows). This factor weighs heavily against views 2, 3, and 4.
Historical Reality. The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke assume as established fact that the virgin birth indeed happened. But by its very nature, the event is nonrepeatable and therefore cannot be proven. Numerous pieces of evidence, however, strongly recommend it as the only satisfactory explanation of what happened.
The virgin birth is unique. Pre-Christian Jewish tradition never anticipated a virgin birth of the Messiah. It appears that Judaism never understood Isaiah 7:14 as messianic or describing a virgin birth and that Philo, a first-century Jewish scholar, never imagined a literal divine betting in his allegorical understanding of the birth of several Old Testament characters (cf. On the Cherubim, 40-52). Pagan parallels are scarcely more fitting. Greek and Egyptian mythology, for example, depict lustful pagan deities begetting male offspring through carnal relations with women. The New Testament accounts, in contrast, mention no father figure. God is not described as procreator or as sexually desiring Mary. The virgin birth is solely a creative work of God through his Holy Spirit. Comparative religions offer no precursor that remotely parallels the special theological features of the New Testament virgin birth stories; it suggests nothing that could have logically and naturally given rise to them.
The unity of the infancy narratives with the main body of the First and Third Gospels supports the belief that their authors considered Jesus' virgin birth as authentic. Luke, for example, indicates in his Gospel preface ( 1:1-4 ) that the content of his Gospel (and Acts) is reliable tradition received from his predecessors. He apparently is not recording much that is new. Quite possibly the authenticity of the virgin birth was common knowledge to his readership and thought to be well attested to them when he wrote the preface (v. 4).
Jewish antagonism toward Christianity would have made the truth known if Jesus' birth had happened otherwise. But as second-century Jewish polemic against the virgin birth shows, it had no such independent piece of tradition to appeal to; it was merely a reaction to the broadly accepted tradition of the virgin birth. It seems, furthermore, that Mary and Jesus' brothers would have carefully preserved, after Pentecost, the story of Jesus' birth from distortion of any kind, whether from naturalizing it or giving it legendary form.
Matthew and Luke show considerable restraint to the miraculous in their birth narratives. This reserve is unexpected if the stories were indeed fabrications. One would expect an exaggerated emphasis on the miraculous as the New Testament apocryphal versions of Jesus' birth and childhood in fact do (cf. Proto-Gospel of James, 17-21; Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
The birth narratives lack Christian interpretation of the virgin birth. Many who deny the historicity of the virgin birth see it as "christianized" legend. But this position fails to account adequately for the primitive Old Testament character of the infancy narratives. The narratives lack specific Christian concepts and christological explanation or reflection, except where compatible with Old Testament messianic expectations. This phenomenon is highly unusual if the narratives were indeed products of Christian legend rather than accounts carefully documenting what happened at the time of Jesus' birth before the christological significance of Jesus was yet known.
The relative silence of the Gospel tradition to the virgin birth probably reveals the true historical situation: Mary and Joseph kept the matter secret in an attempt to ward off possible misunderstanding and ridicule. Though Mark and John have no record of Jesus' birth and say almost nothing about it in their Gospels ( Mark 6:3 ; John 1:13 ; 6:41-42 ; 8:41 ; are probably references to it ), their silence does not weigh against it. The plan of their Gospels was apparently to record events witnessed by others, especially the disciples, beginning with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist.
The supernatural nature of Jesus' birth is compatible with the broader New Testament picture of himin particular, his resurrection. While Jesus' entrance into the world defied the normal means of conception, his raising from the dead defied the normal permanence of death. His birth is no more cause for amazement than the events associated with his death. Likewise, for Paul, Adam's appearance as the firstborn of the human race directly created by God coincides well with the idea of the virgin birth, where through Jesus as the second Adam, God has made a new and perfect start ( 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 ; Rom 5:14-19 ). Knowledge of the virgin birth may explain Paul's unusual use of ginesthai ("to come") rather than the customary gennasthai ("to be born") in describing Jesus' entrance into the world ( Rom 1:3-4 ; Gal 4:4-5 ; Php 2:7 ).
Finally, the unquestioned support of the early church fathers to the virgin birth (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen) strongly endorses it as a well-accepted first-century Christian tradition.
It should also be noted at this juncture that the alleged historical discrepancies involving the census of Quirinius, Herod's massacre of the infants, the star and visit of the magi, the appearance of angels, the location of Jesus' parental home, the genealogies, the independent traditions of the two infancy narratives, and Matthew's version as midrash (i.e., a fictitious account developed from Old Testament texts) have reasonable explanations defending their historicity.
The theological value of the virgin birth is that it happened. To strip it of its supernatural character is to make the story nothing more than a moral example or ideal: It humanizes Christ's birth, devalues the redemptive significance of his coming, and makes God untrue in that he never did what was claimed he would do in regard to Jesus' birth. The historicity of the virgin birth, so firmly accepted by Matthew and Luke, forces us to reckon theologically with the importance of Jesus at the highest level possible: that Jesus is God incarnate.
Inbreaking of the Supernatural into the Natural. The birth narratives have as their centerpiece the entrance of the supernatural into ordinary human life. Something is about to happen at God's initiative, unprecedented in the history of the world. It is a new beginning and one that shall endure: The baby to be born "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" ( Luke 1:32-33 ). As the title "Immanuel" entails, it is the permanent coming of God's presence in the person of his Son.
The reason for this divine intervention is for the redemptive well-being of creation: more specifically, as Jesus' name implies, "to save his people from their sins" ( Matt 1:21 ). The fact of God's unique presence in Jesus' birth makes unassailable the promise of salvation to Israel and the world. The virgin birth glimpses the extent of God's love for people; of course, how the Son's earthly life ended is necessary to picture its extent fully.
In contrast to the promiscuous stories of Greek mythology in which male offspring appear as by-products of liaisons between the gods and earthly women, the virgin birth as God's creative work in no way compromises or offends his holiness or his supreme lordship over all creation. The virgin birth is the revelation of a holy God through his equally righteous Son.
Revelation of Jesus as the God-Man. The personal union of God and man in Jesus mysteriously took place through the Spirit's generating power in the virginal conception and birth. It is impossible to explain exactly what happened or how it happened. In addition, the birth narratives say little about who Jesus is and what he has come to do in any specific Christian sense. But the christological significance of the virgin birth is clear from the broader context of the New Testament.
Jesus is God's Son not by adoption but by nature: his life was free from sin ( 2 Cor 5:21 ; Heb 4:15 ; 1 Peter 2:22 ; 1 John 3:5 ) and he showed some self-awareness of his divine equality with God the Father ( John 6:38 ; 8:42 ; 13:3 ). The virgin birth intersects Jesus' incarnation with his preexistent glory (cf. Rom 1:3-4 ; Php 2:5-8 ). It is not absolutely certain that the virgin birth was the only means God could have used to bring about the incarnation; but that he did so in this way perfectly reveals and preserves the divine integrity of the Father and Son.
The virgin birth also affirms Jesus' true humanity. Born of a woman, he was fully humanliable to all the temptations of a fallen race ( Heb 4:15 ). Jesus' humanity revealed his (and God's) complete identification with humankind. He became as they were. The nature of Jesus' birth uniquely qualifies him as the One through whom God brings about his new saving work.
Inauguration of God's Final Plan of Redemption. The virgin birth opens a new era of God's saving activity in history. It is not an end in itself. God has inaugurated in Jesus' birth a plan of salvation that will affect the destiny of the human race to the end of time. Through the One who is born of a virgin, God makes salvation universally available: it will be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" ( Luke 2:32 ). The saving value of Jesus' birth is realized on the cross. By means of his death and resurrection, God has provided humanity with complete and final deliverance from sin and death. The primary theological thrust, therefore, of the virgin birth is eschatological in the sense that it implicitly envisions as its ultimate goal the consummation of world history in Jesus' second coming.
Humanity, on the other hand, desperately needs divine help. Irretrievably lost in its own sin, it is completely unable to save itself. It stands in need of deliverance from a source outside itself. The virgin birth is just thatthe supernatural coming for the sake of and on behalf of the natural. It is the planned gracious rescue from above of an otherwise lost humanity below.
Perfect Expression of Divine Grace. The virgin birth reveals that God cares for his creation in the way he actively carries out a plan for its restoration. This act of divine love, however, is fully undeserved. While the human race was willfully following a self-destructive, sinful course, God intervened to provide a gracious Deliverer in Jesus. This unmerited grace initiated in the virgin birth is finalized on the cross where God through his Son became sin in our stead so that we might have new life in him. The unmerited favor God showed to Mary in choosing her to bear the Messiah parallels the more general unmerited favor he has shown to all people through the Messiah's redemptive work. The biblical history of salvation is not fatalistic or deterministic but a free expression of God's love for the world. In Scripture, salvation is always an act of divine grace.
Fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. According to Matthew 1:22-23, the virgin birth is understood as a prophetic fulfillment of 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." Pre-Christian Judaism did not consider the Isaiah passage as messianic or predicting a virgin birth. The Hebrew alma [h'm.l; denotes a young woman, married or single. Although the equivalent passage in the Septuagint (a Jewish, pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) uses parthenos [parqevno"], which specifically means virgin, the sense of the passage probably conforms to the more nonspecific Hebrew parallel.
The lack of anticipation of a virginal conception of the Messiah in pre-Christian Jewish literature suggests that the event was apparently fully unexpected. But reading the Septuagint version with the historical situation of Jesus' birth in view provides pointed biblical confirmation of the event. The scriptural connection drawn between these two passages in Matthew marks the virgin birth of Jesus the Messiah as a fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. It describes the scriptural significance of Jesus' coming: to carry out God's saving work and to involve God personally in doing so.
Pattern of Christian Obedience to God. The birth narratives portray Joseph and Mary as responding obediently to the unexpected and bewildering news from God that a baby is to be born to them without male sexual involvement. Mary humbly submitted to God's will: "I am the Lord's servant May it be to me as you have said" ( Luke 1:38 ). Joseph willingly shared in Mary's call despite the likelihood of future shame and reproach ( Matt 1:19-25 ).
In view of the whole Gospel story, their acceptance of God's call unquestionably cost them dearly at times: as the recipients of slander and gossip, in lingering confusion as to when and how Jesus would fulfill what was announced of him, and ultimately Mary's deep grief at seeing Jesus crucifiedplus her added difficulties of not (fully) understanding that Jesus was to be raised from the dead or the saving significance of his death until some time after the resurrection.
Faith is the willingness to heed God's call, whatever its demands and costs. The most powerful biblical example of such obedience is with the One virgin-bornfor Jesus, his willingness to obey God's call led him to certain death. He knew he was to die, but remained true to what God sent him to do. And as the early church has exemplified in its own life and practice, life in Christ for us should involve no less an unwavering commitment to God.
In summary, the New Testament includes belief in the virgin birth as part of the saving gospel message. It is, however, highly instructive for understanding the biblical nature of salvation. No one is saved by works. It is indisputably a gift of God freely given to a fallen humanity. The virgin birth introduces the perfect and final expression of God's saving love: his Son Jesus, who has come to deliver people from their sin.
H. Douglas Buckwalter
Bibliography. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1/2, pp. 172-202; idem, Dogmatics in Outline; T. Boslooper, The Virgin Birth; R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah; idem, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus; C. E. B. Cranfield, SJT41 (1988): 177-89; D. Edwards, The Virgin Birth in History and Faith; R. T. France, Gospel Perspective, 2:201-37; R. H. Fuller, JSNT 1 (1978): 37-52; R. G. Gromacki, The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity; J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ; J. Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ; O. Piper, Int18 (1964): 131-48; B. B. Warfield, The American Journal of Theology 10 (1906): 21-30; J. S. Wright, Faith and Thought 95 (1966-67): 19-29.
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|| I. DEFINITION
II. THE TEXTUAL QUESTION
III. THE HISTORICAL QUESTION
1. Statement Not Dogmatic but Vital as History
2. Its Importance to Leaders of the Early Church
3. Hypothesis of Invention Discredits the Church
IV. THE CRITICAL QUESTION
1. Basis of Virgin-Birth Statement
2. Interrelationship of Narratives
3. Sources, Origin and age of Documents
V. THE DOCTRINAL QUESTION
1. In the New Testament
2. Portrait of Jesus in Synoptic Gospels
3. In Rest of the New Testament
4. Oppositions to the Doctrine
5. Its Importance to Modern Thought
"Virgin-birth" is the correct and only correct designation of the birth statement contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. "Immaculate conception" is of course manifestly a blunder due to the confusion of one idea with another. "Supernatural or miraculous birth" will not do, because there is no intimation that the process of birth was in any way exceptional. "Supernatural or miraculous conception" is equally unsatisfactory as it involves a question-begging comparison between the birth of Christ and the exceptional births of the Sons of Promise (e.g. Isaac, John the Baptist, etc.). The only statement which is sufficiently specific is "virgin-birth," inasmuch as according to the New Testament statement Mary was at the time of this birth virgo intacta.
II. The Textual Question.
We may deal with this division of our subject very briefly, because if we are to allow any weight at all to textual evidence there is no question as to the infancy narratives, either in whole or in part. Their position is flawless and unassailable. There is a voluminous literature devoted to the discussion of the subject, but it is notably jejune even for critical writing, and much more impressive for ingenuity and dialectic skill in arguing a poor case than for anything in the way of results. We do not hesitate to refer the reader who is interested in discussions of this sort to entirely satisfactory reviews of them found elsewhere (see Machen, Princeton Review, October, 1905; January, 1906; and Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ). We may summarize the entire discussion in the words of Johannes Weiss (Theologische Rundschau, 1903, 208, quoted by Machen, ut sup.):
"There never were forms of Mt and Lu without the infancy narratives." One point only we shall consider in this connection; namely, the disputed reading of Matthew 1:16. The Ferrar group of manuscripts (nos. 346, 556, 826, 828) interpose a second "begat" between the names Joseph and Jesus. It is affirmed that this reading with the variants represents an original form of the genealogy preserved in the Gospels which affirms the literal sonship of Jesus to Joseph. The first and most obvious remark to be made upon this question is, granting--what is extremely uncertain--that this reading is original, it does not prove nor begin to prove the point alleged. This is now widely conceded. For one thing, the word "begat" is used elsewhere for legal or putative fatherhood (compare Matthew 1:12 and see GENEALOGY OF JESUS CHRIST). Allen's statement of the case indicates clearly enough that the radical use of this variation has broken down (see ICC; "Matthew," 8). This writer holds that the reading of Sam 1 ("Jacob begat Joseph. Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the Virgin, begat Jesus, called the Messiah," Matthew 1:16) is nearest the original form. By four steps, which he enumerates in order, he conceives that the original text, which was intended to convey the idea of a legal fatherhood on the part of Joseph, was modified so as to guard the statement from misinterpretation. This hypothesis is ingenious if somewhat complicated. The weak spot in the whole case (for the variation) lies in the fact that all manuscripts concur in the name of Mary and the term "virgin." It is evident, in any view of the relative standing of the various readings,
(1) that the genealogy as deposited in public or private record would read:
"Jacob begat Joseph, Joseph begat Jesus,"
(2) that the person who used the genealogy in the Gospel and placed it in connection with Matthew 1:18-25
(a) had Mary particularly in mind and inserted the names of women to prepare the way for the mention of Mary, all of which was a departure from usual and orderly procedure;
(b) that he used the word "begat" in the legal sense throughout (1:8,12; compare 1 Chronicles 3:11,12,19);
(c) that he believed in the virgin-birth as evinced by the connection and the use of names of women including Mary's.
There is therefore no basis for the idea that the genealogy, even without the strongly attested relative clause of Matthew 1:16, ever meant anything but an attestation of the virgin-birth.
III. The Historical Question.
1. Statement Not Dogmatic but Vital as History:
The twofold birth announcement of Matthew and Luke is a statement of historical or, more strictly speaking, biographical fact. The accounts, as we shall see, are very rigidly confined to the matter of fact concerned. It is not a dogma and receives very little doctrinal elaboration even in the infancy narratives themselves. It is an event, wholly real or wholly imaginary. The statement of it is wholly true or entirely false. But as a historical statement this narrative is of peculiar quality and significance.
(1) It touches upon the most delicate matters, at a place where the line between that which is most sacred and that which is most degraded in human life is closely drawn. To discredit it leaves the most intimate mystery of our Lord's earthly life under the shadow of suspicion. It is therefore a statement of the greatest personal moment in the evangelic record.
(2) It involves the secret history and public honor of a family most dear and sacred to the entire Christian body. It records the inner and outer experiences of the mother of the Lord and of His brethren, themselves honored leaders in the church.
(3) It touches upon the central mystery of the Lord's person in such a way as to involve either a very important contribution to the doctrine of the incarnation or a very serious mutilation of the truth. We may dismiss altogether the contention of many, that whether true or not the fact is of no great importance. It must be of importance. No fact in which the relationship of Jesus to His ancestors according to the flesh, to His mother, to the laws of life in the race at large, are so evidently and so deeply involved can possibly be a matter of indifference. The nature of His experience in the world, the quality and significance of His manhood, the fundamental constitution of His person, the nature and limits of the incarnation are necessarily and vitally concerned in the discussion. It is impossible to begin with the acceptance or rejection of the fact and arrive by logical processes at like convictions on any fundamental matter in the region of Christology.
2. Its Importance to Leaders of the Early Church:
All this must have been as patent to the earliest believers as to ourselves. The men who incorporated this incident into the gospel narrative could not possibly have been blind to the importance of what they were doing (compare Luke 1:3). In view of these facts it would be well for the serious student to ask himself this question:
"On the hypothesis of invention, what manner of men were they who fabricated these narratives and succeeded in foisting them upon the church so early as to dominate its earliest official records and control the very making of all its creeds?" It is clear that deliberate invension is the only alternative to historical credit. We may throw out of court as altogether inadmissible the hypothesis that the church as a whole, by a naive and semi-unconscious process, came to believe these stories and to accept them without criticism. Rumors always grow in the absence of known facts, especially where curiosity is keen. Absurd rumors multiply among the credulous. But no statement contrary to natural expectation was ever yet promulgated among people of even average intelligence without meeting the resistance of incredulity on the part of some individuals who wish to inquire, especially if means of verification are within reach. In this particular instance, the issue may be stated much more sharply. At no period reasonably to be assigned for the origin and incorporation of these documents could they have been honestly accepted by any member of the Christian community, sufficiently taught to occupy a position of authority. If the story was invented, there must have been a time when Jesus was universally accepted as the son by natural generation of Joseph and Mary. The story surely was not invented before His birth nor for some time after. The first person, therefore, who spoke contrary to the prevalent and natural belief must have had it from the family, which alone knew the truth, or else have been a wanton and lying gossip. Such a story is recognizable on the face of it as authoritative or pure invention. There is no middle ground. It could not have been recounted without being challenged for its strangeness and for its contravention of the accepted belief. It could not have been challenged without the exposure of its groundless and fraudulent character, for the simple reason that the lack of positive and authoritative certification would be its immediate and sufficient condemnation. It is not difficult to draw the portrait of the inventor of this story. He must have been lacking, not only in the sense of truthfulness, but also in the elementary instinct of delicacy, to have invaded the privacy of the most sacred home known to him and deliberately invented a narrative which included the statement that Mary had come under suspicion of wrongdoing in such a way as to shadow the life of her Son. He must also have been doctrinally lax in the extreme, as well as temperamentally presumptuous, to have risked a mutilation of the truth by an invention dealing with such essential matters.
3. Hypothesis of Invention Discredits the Church:
Moreover, this hypothesis demands that this fabrication must have met with instantaneous and universal success. It passed the scrutiny of the church at large and of its authorized teachers, and was never challenged save by a small group of heretics who disliked it on purely dogmatic grounds.
To whatever origin in the way of suggestion from without one may attribute the story--whether one may ascribe it to the influence of Old Testament prophecy, or Jewish Messianic expectations in general, or to ethnic analogies, Babylonian. Egyptian or Greek--the fact remains that the story had to be invented and published by those who ought to have known better and could easily have known better had they possessed sufficient interest in the cause of truth to have made even casual inquiries into the credentials of such an important statement offered for their acceptance. It is fairly true to say that ethnic analogies for the birth of Christ fail (see article on "Heathen Wonder-Births and the Birth of Christ," Princeton Review, January, 1908). It is also true that the rooted Sere conviction shared by the Hebrews, that family descent is to be traced through the male line only, so persistent even among the New Testament writers that both evangelists, on the face of them, trace the lineage of Joseph, would have acted as an effectual barrier against this particular legendary development. It is further true that no passage of the Old Testament, including Isaiah 7:14, can be adduced as convincing evidence that the story was invented under the motive of finding fulfillment for Messianic predictions (see IMMANUEL). But far more satisfactory is the elementary conviction that the founders of the Christian church and the writers of its documents were not the kind of men to accept or circulate stories which they knew perfectly well would be used by unbelief in a malignant way to the discredit of their Master and His family. The hypothesis of invention not only leaves an ugly cloud of mystery over the birth of Jesus, but it discredits beyond repair every man who had to do with the writing and circulation of the Gospels, down to and including the man who professes to have "traced the course of all things accurately from the beginning," according to the testimony of those who were "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:2). It is simply impossible to save the credit, in any matter involving honesty or commonsense, of one who uses words like these and yet incorporates unauthenticated legends into the narrative to which he has thus pledged himself.
One may venture at the close of this section of the discussion to point out that everything which the inventor of this story must have been, the narrators of it are not. Both narratives exhibit a profound reverence, a chaste and gracious reserve in the presence of a holy mystery, a simplicity, dignity and self-contained nobility. of expression which are the visible marks of truth, if such there are anywhere in human writing.
IV. The Critical Question.
1. Basis of Virgin-Birth Statement:
The infancy narratives evidently stand somewhat apart from the main body of apostolic testimony. The personal contact of the disciples with Jesus, upon which their testimony primarily rests, extended from the call of the disciples, near the opening of the ministry, to the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. It is hyper-skepticism to deny that the substance of the gospel narrative rests upon the basis of actual experience. But all four evangelists show a disposition to supplement the immediate testimony of the disciples by the use of other well-attested materials. Luke's introductory paragraph, if it was written by an honest man, indicates that he at least was satisfied with nothing less than a careful scrutiny of original sources, namely, the testimony, written or oral, of eyewitnesses. It may reasonably be surmised that this was the general attitude of the entire group of apostles, evangelists and catechists who are responsible for the authorship and circulation of the Gospels.
But, to say nothing of the infancy narratives, for one of which Luke himself is responsible, these writers have embodied in the narrative the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism and temptation of Jesus, all of which events happened before their fellowship with Jesus, strictly speaking, began. In particular, assuredly no disciple was an eyewitness of the temptation. None the less the narrative stands, simply because imaginative invention of such an incident in the absence of accredited facts cannot reasonably be considered. The fact that the birth narratives do not rest upon the testimony of the same eyewitnesses who stand for the ministry of Jesus does not discredit them as embodying reliable tradition, unless it can be proved that they contradict the rest of the apostolic testimony or that no reliable witness to the events in question was within reach at the time when the documents were composed. In the present instance such a contention is absurd. The very nature of the event points out the inevitable firsthand witnesses. There could be no others. In the absence of their decisive word, bald invention would be necessary. To charge the entire church of the time (for this is what the hypothesis amounts to) as particeps criminis in its own official and documentary deception is an extreme position as unwarranted as it is cruel.
The internal harmony of the facts as recorded points in the same direction. The silence or comparative lack of emphasis with reference to the birth of Christ on the part of the other New Testament writers is to be explained partly on the basis of doctrinal viewpoint (see V, below) and partly because an ingrained sense of delicacy would naturally tend to reticence on this point, at least during the lifetime of Mary and the Lord's brethren. The following intimately corresponding facts are sufficiently significant in this connection:
(1) that the fact of Jesus' unique birth could not be proclaimed as a part of His own teaching or as the basis of His incarnate life;
(2) that He was popularly known as the son of Joseph;
(3) that the foster-fatherhood of Joseph, as embodied in the genealogy (see GENEALOGY OF JESUS CHRIST), was the recognized basis of His relationship to the house of David. All these facts appear just as they should in the narrative.
The very fact that the genealogies, ending with the name of Joseph, and the current representations of Jesus as Joseph's son, are allowed to appear in the same documents in which the virgin-birth statements appear, together with the entirely congruous facts that the main synoptic narrative does not emphasize the event, and that neither Paul nor John nor any other New Testament writer gives it a prominent place, is indication enough that it rested, in the opinion of the entire witnessing body, on a sufficient basis of evidence and required no artificial buttressing. Internal harmonies and incidental marks of truthfulness are of the utmost importance here because in a narrative so complex and vital it would have been easy to make a misstep. Since none was made, we are constrained to believe that the single eye to truth filled the apostolic mind with light. Every item, in the infancy narratives themselves, as well as in the more strictly doctrinal statements of other New Testament books, is as we should expect, provided the birth statement be accepted as true. Internal evidence of truthfulness could not be stronger.
2. Interrelationship of Narratives:
This general conclusion is confirmed when we come to consider the relationship of the two narratives to each other. To begin with, we have two narratives, differing greatly in method of treatment, grouping of details, order and motive of narration, and general atmosphere. It is evident that we have two documents which have had quite a different history.
In two points, at any rate, what might be considered serious discrepancies are discoverable (see BIBLICAL DISCREPANCIES). These two points are:
(1) the relationship of the Massacre of the Innocents and the journey to Egypt, as related by Matthew, to Luke's account, which carries the holy family directly back to Nazareth from Bethlehem after the presentation in the temple;
(2) the discrepancy as to the previous residence at Nazareth (Luke) and the reason given for the return thither (Matthew).
As to (1) it is quite clear that Matthew's account centers about an episode interpolated, so to say, into the natural order of events (see INNOCENTS, MASSACRE OF THE). It is also clear that the order of Luke's narrative, which is in the highest degree condensed and synoptic, does not forbid the introduction of even a lengthy train of events into the midst of Luke 2:39 (compare condensation in 2:40-42,51,52). It may easily be that the lacunae in each account are due to a lack of knowledge on the part of either writer as to the point supplied by the other. Matthew may not have known that the family had resided formerly in Nazareth, and Luke may not have known that a return to Galilee as a permanent residence was not contemplated in the original plan. The difficulty here is not serious. We consider the discrepancy as it stands as of more value to the account as indicating the independence of the two accounts and the honesty of those who incorporated them into the Gospels without attempting to harmonize them, than any hypothetical harmonization however satisfactory. We introduce this caveat, however, that Matthew had an especial reason for introducing the episode connected with Herod and for explaining the residence at Nazareth during our Lord's early years as occurring by divine authority (see Sweet, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ, 218, for discussion of this point; and compare INNOCENTS, MASSACRE OF THE).
We are now free to consider the remarkable convergence of these two documents. The following particulars may be urged:
(1) the synchronism in the Herodian era;
(2) the name "Jesus" given by divine authority before birth;
(3) Davidic kinship;
(4) the virgin-birth;
(5) the birth at Bethlehem;
(6) residence at Nazareth.
In addition we may urge the essential and peculiar harmony of descriptive expressions (see V, below) and the correspondence of the inner and outer experiences of Mary.
See MARY, II.
3. Sources, Origin and Age of Documents:
We have now reached the final and crucial point of this phase of our discussion when we take up the question as to the sources, origin and date of these narratives. Our method of approach to the general question of their credibility delivers us from the necessity of arguing in extenso theories which have been framed to account for the narrative in the absence of historical fact. We resort to the simple and convincing principle that the story could not have been honestly composed nor honestly published as derived from any source other than the persons who could have guaranteed its trustworthiness. Every indication, of which the narratives are full, of honesty and intelligence on the part of the narrators is an argument against any and all theories which presuppose a fictitious origin for the central statement. Negatively, we may with confidence assert that wide excursions into ethnic mythology and folklore have failed to produce a single authentic parallel either in fact or in form to the infancy narratives. In addition to this, the attempt to deduce the story from Messianic prophecy also fails to justify itself. In addition, there are two considerations which may justly be urged as pointing to trustworthy sources for the narrative:
First, the strongly Hebraic nature of both narratives. It has often been pointed out that nowhere in the New Testament do we find documents so deeply tinged with the Hebraic spirit (see Adeney, Essays for the Times, number XI, 24; and Briggs, New Lights on the Life of Christ, 161 f). This statement involves both narratives and is another evidence of profound internal unity. A second important fact is that the doctrinal viewpoint is Jewish-Christian and undeveloped. The term "Holy Spirit" is used in the Old Testament sense; the Christology is undeveloped, omitting reference to Christ's preexistence and interpreting His sonship as official and ethical rather than metaphysical. The soteriology is Jewish and Messianic, not unfolding the doctrine of the cross. All these facts point in one direction, namely, to the conclusion that these documents are early. It is impossible reasonably to suppose that such documents could have been composed in the absence of sources, or by persons devoid of the historical spirit, after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus had shed such light upon His person and mission as to transform both Christology and soteriology through the ideas of incarnation, atonement and the Trinity.
It is still asserted, in the face of the most convincing evidence to the contrary, that the infancy narratives are late addenda to the gospel tradition as a whole. This idea is due, primarily, to a confusion of thought between origin and publication. The latter must have been coincident with the original issue of the Gospels in their present form. The textual evidence here is convincing. On the other hand, the main body of testimony incorporated into the Gospels at the time of their publication had been in the hands of the apostles and their helpers for some years, as evidenced by the Pauline letters and the Book of acts. In all probability the sources upon which the infancy narratives rest, which had their origin and received the impress which characterizes them in the period antecedent to the public ministry of Jesus, came into the hands of the Gospel writers toward the end of the formative period at the close of which the Gospels were issued. In other words, the story of the Lord's birth was withheld until the time was ripe for its publication. Two occasions may have served to release it:
the death of Mary may have made it possible to use her private memoirs, or the rise of anti-Christian calumny may have made the publication of the true history imperative. At any rate, the narratives show every indication of being contemporary documents of the period with which they deal. This fact puts an additional burden of proof, already heavier than they can bear, upon those who would antagonize the documents. We may reasonably affirm that the narratives will bear triumphantly any fair critical test.
V. The Doctrinal Question.
1. In the New Testament:
The discussion of the doctrinal significance of the virgin-birth statement falls naturally into three parts:
(1) Its doctrinal elaboration in the New Testament;
(2) its historic function in the development of Christian doctrine;
(3) its permanent value to Christian thought.
We begin with the narratives themselves. As has just been said, they were incorporated into the Gospels at a time when the New Testament Christology had reached maturity in the Pauline and Johannine writings and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The doctrine of the incarnation was fully unfolded. It had been unequivocally asserted that in Jesus all the fullness of the Godhead was historically and personally manifested (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8; Colossians 1:18; 2:9; Hebrews 2:14). In contrast with these statements the infancy narratives not only, as adverted to above, exhibit on the surface a rudimentary Christology, but in several items, of profound interest and most surprising tenor, show that the birth notice was not apprehended or stated in view of the doctrine of the incarnation at all.
The detailed justification of this statement follows:
(1) Matthew (see 1:18-25) does not use the term "Son of God." The only expression implying a unique relationship to God, other than in the "of Holy Spirit" phrase, twice used, is in the word "Immanuel" quoted from Isaiah, which does not necessarily involve incarnation. At the beginning of the genealogy Jesus is introduced as the son of David, the son of Abraham.
(2) The assertion as to His conception by Holy Spirit is conditioned by three striking facts:
(a) His conception is interpreted in terms of conception by the power of Holy Spirit, not of begetting by the Father. The Old Testament expression "This day have I begotten thee," used twice, occurs in quite a different connection (Hebrews 1:5; 5:5).
(b) The term "Holy Spirit" is used without the article.
(c) The phrase descriptive of the being conceived is expressed in the neuter, `the thing conceived in her is of Holy Spirit' (to gar en aute gennethen ek pneumatos estin hagiou).
The implication of these three facts is
(i) that the sonship of Jesus through His exceptional birth is interpreted in terms of divine power working upon humanity, not as the correlative of divine and essential fatherhood; it is the historical sonship that is in view (contrast with this the two passages in Hebrews referred to above);
(ii) the writer is speaking in the Old Testament sense of "Holy Spirit" as the forthgoing of creative power from God, not as personal hypostasis;
(iii) he is also emphasizing (in the use of the neuter) the reality of the physical birth. These three facts, all the more remarkable because they are attributed to a heavenly messenger who might be expected to speak more fully concerning the mystery, exclude the supposition that we have one historic form of the doctrine of incarnation. On the contrary, had we no other statements than those found here we should be unable logically to postulate an incarnation. Every statement made concerning Jesus, apart from the virgin-birth statement itself, might be true were He the son of Joseph and Mary.
The case is far stronger when we turn to Luke's account, in spite of the fact that the terms "Son of the Most High" and "Son of God" ordinarily implying incarnation are used. We notice
(d) that the anarthrous use of "Holy Spirit" reappears and that a poetic parallelism defines the term (Luke 1:35), making "Holy Spirit" = "Power of the Most High";
(e) that the neuter phrase is also found here, "the holy thing which is begotten," etc. (dio kai to gennomenon hagion klethesetai);
(f) that future tenses are used in connection with His career and the titles which He bears:
"He shall be (as the outcome of a process) great," and "He shall be called (as a matter of ultimate titular recognition) the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32); "The holy thing .... shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).
In these instances the title is connected directly with the career rather than the birth. Even the "wherefore" of Luke 1:35, in connection with the future verb, carries the power of God manifested in the holy conception forward into the entire career of Jesus rather than bases the career upon the initial miracle. These three facts taken together exclude the reference to any conception of the incarnation. The incarnation is directly and inseparably connected with Christ's eternal sonship to the Father. The title "Son of God" includes that but does not specify it. It includes also the ethical, historical, human sonship. The term "Holy Spirit" used without the article also is a comprehensive expression covering both a work of divine power in any sphere and a work of divine grace in the personal sphere only.
These accounts are concerned with the historic fact rather than its metaphysical implications. This historic fact is interpreted in terms of a divine power in and through the human career of Jesus (which is so stated as to include an impersonal, germinal life) rather than a dogmatic definition of the Messiah's essential nature. The omission of all reference to pre-existence is negatively conclusive on this point. The divine power manifested in His exceptional origin is thought of as extending on and including His entire career. This leads us directly to a second phase in the interpretation of Christ and compels to a reconsideration at a new angle of the miracle of His origin.
2. Portrait of Jesus in Synoptic Gospels:
The narrators of the life and ministry of Jesus on the basis of ascertained fact and apostolic testimony were confronted with a very definite and delicate task. They had to tell with unexaggerating truthfulness the story of the human life of Jesus. Their ultimate aim was to justify the doctrine of incarnation, but they could not have been unaware that the genuine and sincere humanity of Christ was a pillar of the doctrine quite as much as His essential Deity. To portray the human experience of a being considered essentially divine was the Herculean task attempted and carried to a successful issue in the Synoptic Gospels. These writers do not conceal for a moment their conviction that they are depicting the career of the wonder-working Son of God, but they never forget that it is a career of self-limitation within the human sphere, the period of self-imposed and complete humiliation undertaken on behalf of the Father, "for us men and for our salvation." Hence, the nature and limitations of the narrative. Mark omits reference to the virgin-birth. Matthew and Luke narrate it and forthwith drop it. These facts are exactly on a paragraph. It is no more remarkable that Mark omits the story than that Matthew and Luke make so little of it. To allege either fact as a motive to doubt is to misinterpret the whole situation. By the terms of their task they could do nothing else. The Fourth Gospel and the Epistles announce that the human life of Jesus was due to the voluntary extra-temporal act of a pre-existent Divine Being, but in the synoptic narrative four passages only hint at pre-existence, and then as incidental flashes from the inner consciousness of Jesus. This omission is no more remarkable and no less so than the omissions noted above. By the terms of their task the synoptic writers could do nothing else. The fact of pre-existence could be announced only when the earthly task had been triumphantly finished (see Mark 9:9,11). During the entire period of the earthly life as such Jesus was under trial (note Matthew 3:17, correctly translating the aorist; compare the remarkable words of John 10:17), performing a task, accomplishing a commission, achieving a victory as human son. The story of the Temptation exhibits the conditions under which Jesus performed His task. The temptations were one and all addressed to His consciousness as God's Son. They were resisted on the sole basis of self-humiliation and dependence. The entire synoptic narrative is consistent with this representation. Jesus is consciously one in will and spirit with God, but that oneness with God is consummated and conducted in the Spirit, through faith, by prayer. They describe His entire career of holiness, wisdom and power, each unique, in the terms of the Spirit-filled, trustful, prayerful human life. Here is the vital point. They disclose the eternal Sonship (in which beyond question they believe) on its ethical, not on its metaphysical side, by prediction of His future triumph rather than by definition of His person. In such a narrative, consistently carried out, there can be no resort to the preexistent, eternal Sonship, nor to the miracle of His human origin in the story of His career under trial. In particular, the miracle, whereby His germinal connection with the race was established could not extend to the personal and spiritual life in which His victory was His own through the personal Holy Spirit. The argument from the virgin-birth to His sinlessness (see IMMACULATE CONCEPTION) was made by the church, not by the New Testament writers. The sinlessness of Christ was His own achievement in the flesh which He sacrificed through His holy will of obedience to the Father.
3. In Rest of the New Testament:
This leads us to a third phase of development in the New Testament doctrine of incarnation. In the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles it is asserted that the innermost moral significance of the earthly career of Jesus lay in the fact that it was the consistent carrying-out of an extra-temporal volition of divine mercy and love whereby He became the Revealer of God and the Saviour of men. This doctrine is based upon the story of the human career completed in the glorification which, according to the testimony, ensued upon His death and disclosed His place in the divine sphere of being. But it is also based upon the virgin-birth narrative and grounded in it. Attention has already been called to the fact that the virgin-birth is not (in the infancy narrative) connected with the metaphysical sonship of Jesus. All that is said then, doctrinally, concerning Jesus might be true were He the son of Joseph and Mary. On the contrary, what is said in John and the Epistles depends upon the virgin-birth narrative for its foundational basis. It has often been asserted that Paul and John do not refer to the virgin-birth. This statement the present writer takes to be more than doubtful, but if it is true, all the more striking is the indirect and unconscious testimony to the virgin-birth involved in their doctrinal reliance upon it. According to these writers the incarnation was due to a divine act of self-limitation whereby the divine mode of existence was exchanged for the human (Philippians 2:5-11 et al.). According to the infancy narrative, the birth of Jesus was due to a divine creative act whereby a human life began germinally and passed through the successive stages of growth to maturity. The synoptic narrative outside the infancy narrative supplies a third point, that the entire conscious personal career of Jesus upon earth was lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. The infancy narrative is the keystone of an arch, one half resting upon the synoptic account, the other upon the doctrinal construction of Joh and the Epistles. The virgin-birth statement by its adoption of Old Testament terminology makes room for a divine activity both in the impersonal and in the personal spheres. The doctrine of incarnation implies that as in every new human being the creative divine power manifests itself impersonally in germinal beginnings, so in the life of Christ the divine power conditions itself within the impersonal forces of germinant life with this important and suggestive difference:
In the career of Jesus there issues from the sphere of germinal beginnings not a new human person created from the life-stock of the race, but the personal human life, including all human powers, of a pre-existent divine person self- conditioned and self-implanted within the human sphere. The central conscious self, the agent of His activities and the subject of His experiences in the historic sphere was the eternal Son of God. His life in the human sphere was that of a true human being in the full actuality of a human life. Hence, it follows, since ordinary generation involves necessarily (that is the intent of it) the origination of a new person not hitherto existing, that the birth of Jesus could not have been by ordinary generation. The birth of Christ through ordinary generation would have involved a quite incomprehensible miracle, namely, the presence and action of the ordinary factors in human origins with a contrary and unique result. The virgin-birth is the only key that fits the vacant space in the arch. In addition it may reasonably be urged that the relationship of human parents to each other, ordinarily a natural, necessary and sacred act, could have no part in this transaction, while the very fact that Mary's relationship was to God alone, in an act of submission involving complete self-renunciation and solitary enclosure within the divine will, fulfils the spiritual conditions of this unique motherhood as no other imaginable experience could.
4. Oppositions to the Doctrine:
Historically the virgin-birth statement performed a function commensurate with the importance ascribed to it in this discussion rather than the current depreciation of it. The doctrine of Christ was menaced in two opposite directions, which may be designated respectively by the terms "Ebionite" and "Gnostic." According to the former teaching (the word "Ebionite" being used in a general sense only), Jesus was reduced to the human category and interpreted as a Spirit-led man or prophet, in the Old Testament meaning of the term. According to the opposite tendency, He was interpreted as divine, while His human experience was reduced to mere appearance of a temporary external union with the Logos. The virgin-birth statement resisted both these tendencies with equal effectiveness. On the one hand, it asserted with unequivocal definiteness a real humanity conditioned by true birth into an actual connection with the race. On the other hand, it asserted an exceptional birth, setting Jesus apart as one whose entrance into the world was due to a new, creative contact of God with the race. Historically, it is difficult to see how the New Testament doctrine could have escaped mutilation apart from the statement, seemingly framed with express reference to conditions arising afterward, which so wonderfully guarded it. The holy mystery of the Lord's origin became the symbol of the holier mystery of His divine nature. It thus appears in every one of the historic creeds, an assertion of fact around which the belief of the church crystallized into the faith which alone accounts for its history, a profound and immovable conviction that Jesus Christ was really incarnate Deity.
5. Its Importance to Modern Thought:
The importance for modern thinking of the virgin-birth statement is threefold:
(1) First, it involves in general the question, never more vital than at the present time, of the trustworthiness of the gospel tradition. This particular fact, i.e. the virgin-birth, has been a favorite, because apparently a vulnerable, point of attack. But the presuppositions of the attack and the method according to which it has been conducted involve a general and radical undermining of confidence in the testimony of the gospel witnesses. This process has finally met its nemesis in the Christus-myth propaganda. The virgin-birth statement can be successfully assailed on no grounds which do not involve the whole witnessing body of Christians in charges of blind credulity or willful falsification, very unjust indeed as respects their character and standing in general, but very difficult to repel in view of the results of denial at this point.
(2) The virgin-birth is important for the simple historical reason that it involves or is involved in a clear and consistent account of the Lord's birth and early years. Apart from the infancy narratives we are utterly without direct information as to His birth, ancestry or early years. Apart from these narratives we have no information as to the marriage of Joseph and Mary; we are shut up to vague inferences as to this entire period. No biographer ever leaves these points obscure if he can avoid it. It is very earnestly suggested that those who cast discredit upon the infancy story do not clearly recognize the seriousness of the situation brought about in the absence of any narrative which can be trusted as to this vital point. Calumny there is and has been from an early day. If there is nowhere an authoritative answer to the calumny, in what sort of a position is the Christian believer placed? He can assert nothing, because apart from what he has too lightly thrown away he knows nothing.
(3) Lastly, the more closely the statement as to the Lord's birth is studied, the more clearly it will be seen that it involves in a most vital and central way the entire doctrine of the incarnation. This doctrine is an interpretation of facts. Those facts stand together. In the midst of those facts, harmonizing with them, shedding light upon them and receiving light from them, resting upon the same consentient testimony is the statement, which is thus worded in the oldest symbol of our historical faith:
"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary" (see APOSTLES' CREED). There is no adequate reason why the intelligent believer should feel uncertain as to this statement of our holy religion.
There is a vast and growing literature which more or less directly deals with the subject of our Lord's birth. The literature may be classified as follows:
(1) Lives of Christ;
(2) critical commentaries on Matthew and Luke;
(3) critical and historical investigations of Christian origins;
(4) monographs on the Apostles' Creed;
(5) monographs and articles on the specific subject.
For a list and analysis of discussions see Sweet, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ, 354-57.
Louis Matthews Sweet
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