Conceiving Christmas, Part 5: Where Is the Virgin Birth Taught in Scripture?

December 13, 2012 — 1 Comment

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Our defense of the Virgin Birth continues with a look at where this doctrine is taught in Scripture. We will look at the explicit, implicit, and prophetic references. The implicit references are especially important because it is often claimed that the Virgin Birth is not taught outside the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. That is not the case.

Explicit Biblical Teaching on the Virgin Birth

1.  Matthew 1:18-25. Mary is said to be “with child through the Holy Spirit,” a condition that existed prior to her ever coming together with her fiancé Joseph in sexual union. Having been assured by God in a dream that the child was indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph takes Mary to be his wife, but “he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” All this took place, writes Matthew, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: ‘The virgin [parthenos] will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’”

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2.  Luke 1:26-38. The angel Gabriel announces to Mary, a virgin [parthenos], that she “will conceive and give birth to a son,” who will be named Jesus and be called Son of the Most High. Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin [lit., I do not know a man]?” The angel answers her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary then responds in obedient submission to the divine plan.

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Implicit Biblical Teaching on the Virgin Birth

1.  Matthew 1:16. While seeking to establish Jesus’ legal right to the throne of David through Joseph genealogically, Matthew shifts in 1:16 from the active “begot” (egennesen) to the passive “was born” (egennethe) to account for Jesus’ birth. He thus glaringly breaks the genealogical pattern by stating that Jesus was born of Mary, not begotten of Joseph. The shift is deliberate.

2.  Mark 1:1. The second Gospel—which begins with the public ministry of Jesus rather than an infancy narrative—opens with this statement: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The usual practice in this culture was to describe a male as the son of his father (e.g., “Isaiah, the son of Amoz” or “John, the son of Zebedee”). Notice here that Jesus is said to be God’s son, not Joseph’s. (See also Matthew 16:16, Luke 1:35, etc.) The change is deliberate.

3.  Mark 6:3. Jesus is referred to as “the son of Mary,” an unusual designation in a culture where the son was called by his father’s name unless his paternity was uncertain or unknown. Even if the father was deceased, his name would still be used. That it is not here implies the Virgin Birth.

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4.  Luke 2:49. Jesus affirmed (at a young age and throughout his ministry) that his father was not Joseph but God. This pattern, combined with the fact that in John 8:23 Jesus says, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world,” leads to the warranted conclusion that Jesus was conscious of his own divine lineage and unique birth.

5.  Luke 3:23. The genealogy of Jesus presented in the third Gospel contains a glaring caveat: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat . . . .” Luke implies here that many people understood Joseph quite naturally to be Jesus’ father, but they were ignorant of the real situation (i.e., the Virgin Birth).

6.  John 8:41. The enemies of Jesus strongly hint at his illegitimacy, a charge that early Christians would not have fabricated, and one that his enemies would not have asserted unless Jesus’ origins were known to have been unusual. Jesus came embarrassingly early, so their assumption—which was the same as Joseph’s initial assumption—was that Jesus was a bastard child. In fact, second-century opponents of Christianity identified Jesus’ father as the Roman soldier Panthera (Against Celsus, 1:28,32,69), an accusation that pagans probably would not have needed to make had a large percentage of Christians not believed the Virgin Birth. (Even in the earliest centuries a natural explanation was sought when the supernatural explanation was rejected.)

7.  The Letters of Paul.The Apostle Paul directly mentions the birth of Jesus four times:

Romans 1:3. “. . . was descended from David . . . .”
Galatians 4:4a. “. . . born of a woman . . . .”
Galatians 4:4b. “. . . born under the law . . . .”
Philippians 2:7. “. . . being born in the likeness of men . . . .”

In all four places, Paul uses an atypical word for “born” (ginomai), which carries with it the sense of “come into being, become, made.” The typical word for “born” (gennao), however, has in it the idea of “birthed, begotten” and regularly implies a human father. In Galatians 4:23, for example, Paul uses the typical verb gennao to describe the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Ishmael to Hagar. But in all four cases where Paul writes of Jesus’ birth, he avoids using the normal word gennao. This likely is due to his knowledge of the Virgin Birth.

It is important to note that Paul is both careful and consistent in his letters. He readily proclaims Jesus to be the seed of David (“as to his human nature,” Romans 1:3), but he never ascribes the direct sonship of Jesus to his earthly father, Joseph. Yet Paul has no hesitation whatsoever in ascribing Jesus’ birth to a woman. This also argues for his belief in the Virgin Birth. Paul was, after all, the traveling companion of Luke, who clearly taught the Virgin Birth of Christ in his Gospel. It is difficult to believe that they never discussed the matter over the many miles they traveled together.

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Prophetic Biblical Teaching on the Virgin Birth

As we have already seen, the Virgin Birth of Christ is rooted not in pagan myth or legend, but in the fulfillment of long-standing Jewish prophecy and messianic hope. The subject of prophetic fulfillment in this regard is quite expansive and controversial, and it warrants a completely separate treatment. We will, however, make a few brief comments at this point.

1.  Genesis 3:15. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This prophecy, known as the protoevangelium, is spoken by God after he finds Adam and Eve guilty of sin. God is speaking to the serpent here and telling it that someday he will be crushed (i.e., utterly defeated) by the seed of the woman.

But why is the conqueror (who receives a lesser heel wound in the process) called the seed of the woman? A person in that culture was ordinarily regarded as the seed of his father. The striking and unnatural character of the expression “her seed” suggests a somewhat unusual circumstance concerning the lineage and/or arrival of the coming victor. There is a whiff of the Virgin Birth here, though, admittedly, this prophecy is better understood in retrospect.

2.  Isaiah 7:14. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin [almah/parthenos] will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Matthew cites this text as having prophetic fulfillment in the Virgin Birth of Christ (Matthew 1:22-23). Many critics, however, argue that Matthew totally ignored the historical context of the passage, which was actually fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. They also argue that the Hebrew word for virgin (almah) can simply mean “a young woman of marriageable age.” Several points can be made in response to these objections:

The word almah does indeed have a broader semantic range than simply a physical virgin. But almah is used most often in the Old Testament in its restricted sense (i.e., a physical virgin), and there is nothing to preclude that meaning in this passage. Indeed, in the  monotheistic culture of ancient Israel, a woman of marriageable age was expected to be a virgin when she married.

Furthermore, the Septuagint (Greek) translation of almah in the second century B.C. used the more restrictive word parthenos. Thus, numerous Jewish rabbis who pre-dated Christ saw the passage as speaking of a literal virgin. The idea was not a Christian invention. Joel Miller persuasively argues the case here.

In context, Isaiah ceases to address Ahaz particularly and speaks to the whole house of David generally. The key point is that David’s line will not be deposed until the virgin-born son arrives. So that passage itself always had more than one horizon.

It was not necessary for Isaiah to have understood his prophecy and its implications completely at the time he made it (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). Again, this prophecy is better understood in retrospect (by Matthew who was also inspired).

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To these explicit, implicit, and prophetic biblical references, we can add that the Virgin Birth is taught in:

•  the Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Aristedes),

•  the early Christian creeds (the Old Roman Symbol, ca. 175; the Apostle’s Creed, ca. 215; the Nicene Creed, 381; the Chalcedonian Instrument, 451), and even

•  the Qur’an (Sura 3:45-47; 19:16-21).

The oft-repeated claim that the Virgin Birth is not taught outside the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke is a stillborn argument.

Image Credits: Jesus of Nazareth, ITC

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  1. The Briefing for Friday 12/14/2012 « Ponder Anew - December 14, 2012

    [...] Where Is the Virgin Birth Taught in Scripture? (Article) Timothy R. Valentino (Ponder Anew) [...]

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