Rationality, Evidence and The Virgin Birth

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Is it reasonable to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus?

Of all Christian beliefs, none is more likely to be ridiculed and dismissed as a legend than the virgin birth of Jesus. Saints and sceptics alike might be able to agree about certain aspects of Jesus’ life and even have a reasonable discussion about whether the facts relating to the aftermath of Jesus’ death support belief in the resurrection, but typically there is little or no common ground when it comes to the virgin birth. The purpose of this short article is to suggest that belief in the virgin birth is reasonable.

Belief in the virgin birth is based on the accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The accounts are not as implausible as some claim.  The years after the death of Herod marked a period of rebellion and social upheaval in the Holy Land. A family might well flee to their ancestral home, or to relatives in the large Jewish community in Alexandria. Infamously, Quirinius was governor of Syria from AD 6-9; Herod died in 4BC.  However, Luke’s wording in 2 v 2 is unusual. It could be translated:

This was the first registration, before the one the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition, 2007 p.248)

Furthermore, Craig Blomberg notes that Quirinius might well have had some official post in the Eastern provinces during Herod’s reign:

…some ancient sources also speak of Quirinius leading military expeditions in the Eastern Empire a decade earlier in a manner most naturally explained if he held some official post in Syria (Tacitus, Annals 3.48, Florus, Roman History, 2.31) Since some forms of joint rule were common in the ancient world, it is quite possible that Quirinius was some type of ‘governor’ (the word Luke uses, hegemoneuo, is a very general term ‘to rule’ or ‘to lead’) before his more formal, later term of office. (ibid.)

It was not at all unlikely that shepherds worked in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Evidence from Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus tells us that, at the turn of the millennium, there was a belief that a world ruler would emerge from Judaea (Josephus pegged Vespasian with the title). So it is not surprising to hear of Persian wise men scouring Israel for a new born King. And it is amusing that sceptics postulate all kinds of religious visions to explain away the evidence for the resurrection, yet dismiss the nativity accounts because they contain angelic appearances.

It’s important to note that Matthew and Luke used independent sources for their birth narratives. In fact, the two accounts are so different that they are often portrayed in popular sceptical literature as being in conflict with each other. While this claim is unfounded, the fact that they are different is important because having two independent historical sources to the same event lends more credibility to it. Of course, it is a unique and very unusual event so that in itself is not likely to be persuasive for many sceptics, but the fact of two independent sources remains significant.

The rest of the New Testament has little more to say about the subject. It might be argued that the reference to Jesus as the ‘son of Mary’ in Mark 6:3 and Paul’s comment that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ in Galatians 4:4 are sufficiently unusual to suggest the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth, but beyond that there isn’t much to go on. There was, however, an early Jewish polemic (see for example John 8:41) that Jesus was illegitimate and hence indicating that Jesus’ birth was unusual.

An objection to the virgin birth is that Matthew mistranslated Isaiah 7:14, wrongly taking it to imply a virgin birth and so concocted a story to fulfil the prophecy. However, as NT Wright has pointed out

..there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them.

It is far more likely, however, that Matthew came to believe in the virgin birth for other reasons and looked to the Old Testament for relevant passages that would provide a theological context.

Sometimes it is claimed that the Matthew and Luke accounts are based on pagan myths surrounding the births of important figures such as the birth of the emperor Augustus resulting from his mother being impregnated by the god Apollo, but the parallels don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, the Gospel accounts are Jewish rather than Graeco-Roman in character and don’t involve human-divine sexual unions.

Another problem for this explanation is that the virgin birth was never emphasized as part of the central Christian proclamation. Presumably the idea is that the Christians borrowed from pagan myths to make the Christian message sound more impressive and appealing, particularly in non-Jewish contexts, yet there is no evidence of belief in the virgin birth being used in this way. The central Christian proclamation was always based on the shameful crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, not his virgin birth. It’s interesting to note that Mark, written for Gentiles, doesn’t mention the virgin birth whereas Matthew, written for Jews, does.

Why is the virgin birth not discussed in John’s Gospel, in the writing of Paul, or in particular the Gospel of Mark, which is generally taken to be the earliest of the four Gospels? The suggestion is that Mark would surely have mentioned it, but that’s not at all obvious. Perhaps he didn’t have access to the same sources as either Matthew or Luke. Or perhaps he didn’t think it was all that relevant since, as we have seen, it wasn’t a central part of the Christian message. Similar points could be made about John’s Gospel and the letters of Paul.

It’s worth highlighting some differences between the virgin birth and the resurrection. As we’ve already seen, the latter was the focus of the Christian message and was also essential theologically. Paul wrote that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile’, but the virgin birth plays no such theological role. There is no suggestion that Jesus’ deity depended on his virgin birth. In fact, it’s difficult to see what sort of argument for such a conclusion might be given. If Jesus is indeed the Son of God as Christians believe, the virgin birth does seem appropriate, but it doesn’t follow that the incarnation required a virgin birth. In short, the idea that the virgin birth was invented for theological reasons seems unlikely and the fact that Paul doesn’t discuss it doesn’t seem surprising.

There is also a significant difference between the virgin birth and resurrection from an evidential point of view. As we have argued elsewhere, a strong historical case can be made for the resurrection on the basis of well-established facts. To put it another way, the case for the resurrection does not depend on a more general case for the truth of Christianity, but can be made on the basis of what we might call ‘direct’ evidence. By contrast, the direct evidence for the virgin birth is not so strong. The independent accounts of Matthew and Luke provide some evidence in its favour, but given the extraordinary nature of the event, such direct evidence on its own does not make a compelling case.

However, when assessing a miraculous claim it is not only the direct evidence that is relevant, but also the broader context, what we might call ‘indirect’ evidence. For someone who believes in God and is persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead and that, more generally, the central claims of Christianity are true (all of which can be based on evidence), the testimonial evidence of Matthew and Luke makes it very plausible to believe the virgin birth. This is especially so when the attempts to explain away the accounts of the virgin birth fail so poorly.

 

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