by John M. Frame
This article is taken from Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1143-45. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. httpss://www.bakerbooks.com;httpss://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.
Virgin Birth of Jesus. Matt. 1:18, 22-25 and Luke 1:26-38 teach that the birth of Jesus resulted from a miraculous conception. He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit without male seed. This is the doctrine of the virgin birth, which must be distinguished from other doctrines concerning Mary such as perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, her assumption, which are rejected by most Protestants, and from views in which the phrase “virgin birth” is taken to indicate some sort of divine involvement in the incarnation without affirming the biological virginity of Jesus’ mother. Views of the latter sort are common enough in modern liberal theology, but it is an abuse of language to call them affirmations of the virgin birth; they are denials of the virgin birth, though they may indeed be affirmations of something else.
Possibility and Probability. If one rejects the possibility of miracle in general, as does, e.g., Bultmann, then one must reject the virgin birth as well. But such a generalized rejection of miracle is arbitrary and indefensible on any ground, and it is contrary to the most fundamental presuppositions of Christian thought. The virgin birth is no more miraculous than the atonement or the resurrection or the regeneration of sinners. If miracle is rejected, then nothing important to Christianity can be retained.
If one accepts the general possibility of miracle, one must still ask about the possibility and probability of the virgin birth in particular. For an evangelical Christian the fact that this doctrine is taught in God’s inerrant Word settles such questions. Yet this fact does not make historical investigation superfluous. If indeed Scripture is inerrant, it is consistent with all historical discovery. To illustrate this consistency can only be helpful—not only to convince those who doubt the authority of Scripture, but also to confirm the faith of those who accept it. But such investigation must be carried out on principles compatible with the Christian revelation, not (as with Bultmann) on principles antagonistic to it from the outset.
The NT Accounts. On that basis, then, let us examine the credibility of the NT witnesses, Matthew and Luke. Both Gospels are often dated from a.d. 70-100, but if we grant the assumption that Jesus was able to predict the fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70; and why would a Christian deny this?), there is ample evidence for dating these Gospels in the 6os or earlier. In any case, the two accounts are generally thought to be independent of each other and thus to be based on a tradition antedating both.
Confirming the antiquity of this tradition is the remarkably “Hebraic” character of both birth accounts: the theology and language of these chapters seem more characteristic of the OT than the NT, as many scholars have noted. This fact renders very unlikely the hypothesis that the virgin birth is a theologoumenon—a story invented by the early church to buttress its Christological dogma. There is here no mention of Jesus’ preexistence. His title “Son of God” is seen to be future, as is his inheritance of the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32, 35). In the birth narratives Jesus is the OT Messiah—the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the one who will rescue God’s people through mighty deeds, exalting the humble and crushing the proud (Luke 1:46-55). The writers draw no inference from the virgin birth concerning Jesus’ deity or ontological sonship to God; rather, they simply record the event as a historical fact and (for Matthew) as a fulfillment of Isa. 7:14.
Not much is known about the author of Matthew, but there is much reason to ascribe the third Gospel to Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), a companion of Paul (II Tim. 4:11; cf. the “we” passages in Acts, such as 27:1 ff.) who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-5). Luke claims to have made a careful study of the historical data (1:1-4), and that claim has been repeatedly vindicated in many details even by modern skeptical scholars such as Harnack. Both his vocations—historian and physician—would have prevented him from responding gullibly to reports of a virgin birth. The two birth narratives have been attacked as inconsistent and/or erroneous at several points: the genealogies, the massacre of the children (Matt. 2:16), the census during the time of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-2); but plausible explanations of these difficulties have also been advanced. Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (emphasized in both accounts) has been under suspicion also; but as Raymond Brown argues, the presence of Mary and Jesus’ brothers, especially James (Acts 1:14; 15:13-21; Gal. 1:19; 2:9), in the early church would probably have prevented the development of legendary material concerning Jesus’ origin. All in all, we have good reason, even apart from belief in their inspiration, to trust Luke and Matthew, even where they differ from the verdicts of secular historians ancient and modern.
The Rest of Scripture. Much has been said concerning the “silence” of Scripture about the virgin birth outside of the passages mentioned. This silence is real, but it need not be explained by any ignorance or denial of the virgin birth by other NT writers. It is significant that even the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are “silent” about the virgin birth through fifty of their combined fifty-two chapters. The silence of the rest of the NT can be explained in essentially the same ways as one would explain the partial silence of Matthew and Luke. The NT deals chiefly with (1) Jesus’ preaching, life, death, resurrection (the Gospels and to some extent the epistles); (2) the preaching and missionary work in the early church (Acts especially); (3) teaching concerning the theological and practical problems of the church (Acts, epistles); (4) assurances of the triumph of God’s purposes and visions of the end times (Revelation, other NT books). The virgin birth was not part of Jesus’ preaching or that of the early church. It was not a controversial matter such as might have been addressed in the epistles (Christology in general was not a particularly controversial matter among the Christians, and even if it had been, the virgin birth most likely was not seen as a means of supporting Christological dogma). The main function of the virgin birth in the NT, to show the fulfillment of prophecy and to describe the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, is appropriate only to birth narratives, and only two birth narratives have been preserved in the canon. We must also assume that the early church maintained a certain reserve about public discussion of these matters out of respect for the privacy of Jesus’ family, especially Mary.
Is there anything in the NT that contradicts the virgin birth accounts? There are passages where Jesus is described as the son of Joseph: John 1:45; 6:42; Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48; Matt. 13:55. Clearly, though, Luke and Matthew had no intention of denying the virgin birth of Christ, unless the birth narratives are later additions to the books, and there is no evidence of that. These references clearly refer to Joseph as the legal father of Jesus without reference to the question of biological fatherhood. The same is true in the Johannine references, with the additional fact that the words in question were spoken by those who were not well acquainted with Jesus and/or his family. (The text of Matt. 1:16, saying that Joseph begat Jesus, is certainly not original.)
It is interesting that the Markan variant of Matt. 13:55 (Mark 6:3) eliminates reference to Joseph and speaks of Jesus as “Mary’s son,” an unusual way of describing parentage in Jewish culture. Some have thought that this indicates some knowledge of the virgin birth by Mark, or even some public knowledge of an irregularity in Jesus’ origin, even though Mark has no birth narrative as such. Cf. John 8:41, where Jesus’ opponents hint his illegitimacy, a charge which apparently continued to be made into the second century. Brown remarks that such a charge would not have been fabricated by Christians, nor would it have been fabricated by non-Christians, probably, unless Jesus’ origin were known to be somehow unusual. Thus it is possible that these incidental references to Jesus’ birth actually confirm the virgin birth, though this evidence is not of great weight.
Is Isa. 7:14 a prediction of the virgin birth? Matt. 1:22 asserts that the virgin birth “fulfills” that passage, but much controversy has surrounded that assertion, turning on the meaning of the Isaiah passage in context, its LXX translation, and Matthew’s use of both. The arguments are too complicated for full treatment here. E. J. Young has mounted one of the few recent scholarly defenses of the traditional position. I would only suggest that for Matthew the concept of “fulfillment” sometimes takes on aesthetic dimensions that go beyond the normal relation between “prediction” and “predicted event” (cf. his use of Zech. 9:9 in 21:1-4). For Matthew, the “fulfillment” may draw the attention of people to the prophecy in startling, even bizarre ways which the prophet himself might never have anticipated. It “corresponds” to the prophecy in unpredictable but exciting ways, as a variation in music corresponds to a theme. It may be that some element of this takes place in Matt. 1:23, though Young’s argument may prevail in the long run.
Postbiblical Attestation. Belief in the virgin birth is widely attested in literature from the second century. Ignatius defended the doctrine strongly against the docetists, who held that Jesus only “appeared” to have become man. Some have thought that Ignatius shows acquaintance with a tradition independent of the Gospels affirming the virgin birth. The virgin birth was denied only by Gnostic docetists and by Ebionites, who held Jesus to be a mere human prophet. The silence of some church fathers, like the silence of Scripture, has been cited as evidence of a tradition contrary to this doctrine, But there is no clear evidence of any such things, and the argument from silence can easily be countered as above.
Pagan or Jewish Background? Occasionally someone will suggest that the virgin birth narratives are based not on fact but on pagan or Jewish stories of supernatural births. Such a hypothesis is most unlikely. There is no clear parallel to the notion of avirgin birth in pagan literature, only of births resulting from intercourse between a God and a woman (of which there is no suggestion in Matthew and Luke), resulting in a being half-divine, half-human, which is far different from the biblical Christology. Further, none of the pagan stories locates the event in datable history as the biblical account does. Nor is there any precise parallel in Jewish literature. The closest parallels would be the supernatural births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel in the OT, but these were not virgin births. Isa. 7:14 was not considered a messianic passage in the Jewish literature of the time. It is more likely that the event of the virgin birth influenced Matthew’s understanding of Isa. 7:14 than the reverse.
Doctrinal Importance. The consistency of this doctrine with other Christian truth is important to its usefulness and, indeed, to its credibility. For Matthew and Luke the chief importance of the event seems to be that it calls to mind (as a “sign,” Isa. 7:14) the great OT promises of salvation through supernaturally born deliverers, while going far beyond them, showing that God’s final deliverance has come. But one can also go beyond the specific concerns of Matthew and Luke and see that the virgin birth is fully consistent with the whole range of biblical doctrine. The virgin birth is important because of: (1) The doctrine of Scripture. If Scripture errs here, then why should we trust its claims about other supernatural events, such as the resurrection? (2) The deity of Christ. While we cannot say dogmatically that God could enter the world only through a virgin birth, surely the incarnation is a supernatural event if it is anything. To eliminate the supernatural from this event is inevitably to compromise the divine dimension of it. (3) The humanity of Christ. This was the important thing to Ignatius and the second century fathers. Jesus was really born; he really became one of us. (4) The sinlessness of Christ. If he were born of two human parents, it is very difficult to conceive how he could have been exempted from the guilt of Adam’s sin and become a new head to the human race. And it would seem only an arbitrary act of God that Jesus could be born without a sinful nature. Yet Jesus’ sinlessness as the new head of the human race and as the atoning lamb of God is absolutely vital to our salvation (II Cor. 5:21; I Pet. 2:22-24; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; Rom. 5:18-19). (5) The nature of grace. The birth of Christ, in which the initiative and power are all of God, is an apt picture of God’s saving grace in general of which it is a part. It teaches us that salvation is by God’s act, not our human effort. The birth of Jesus is like our new birth, which is also by the Holy Spirit; it is a new creation (II Cor. 5:17).
Is belief in the virgin birth “necessary”? It is possible to be saved without believing it; saved people aren’t perfect people. But to reject the virgin birth is to reject God’s Word, and disobedience is always serious. Further, disbelief in the virgin birth may lead to compromise in those other areas of doctrine with which it is vitally connected.