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 him in 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 human liable 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 that the 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 crucified plus 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.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Virgin Birth'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".