The Virgin Birth of Christ: What the Bible Says about the Conception of Jesus
The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ “was born of the virgin Mary.” The belief that Jesus was conceived and born of a virgin has been part of traditional Christian belief throughout church history and is still the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the historic Protestant denominations. But is it true?
Let’s first clarify exactly what this doctrine does and does not mean. The doctrine is that Jesus Christ was conceived and born of Mary his mother even though she had never had sexual relations with any man prior to Jesus’ birth. In short, Jesus had a biological mother but no biological father. God the Father is not Jesus’ physical father, as some teach; he was not the literal father of his flesh or body. Rather, God was Christ’s “Father” in a unique way because the Father and the Son co-exist eternally in heaven as equally and fully God. Mary was a virgin prior to and following the conception of Jesus in her womb, which took place by the agency of the Holy Spirit who miraculously caused her to be with child (Matt. 1:18-20; Luke 1:35). She remained a virgin at least until Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not to be equated with the doctrine that some believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout the rest of her life even though she was married to Joseph. It is also not to be confused with the popular doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was sinless from the moment she was conceived. None of these ideas are found anywhere in the Bible.
For rather obvious reasons, it is not possible to prove that Jesus was conceived and born of a virgin. In the nature of the case, the only “eyewitness” to the fact was Mary, so we could not even have multiple independent eyewitnesses corroborate this fact. What we can do is show that Christians have good reasons to accept the claim as factual.
Let’s begin by recognizing that the virgin birth of Christ is impossible—unless God exists. If he does, it’s a snap for God, who brought the universe into existence out of nothing and who is the author of life itself, to form a new life within the womb of Mary. To complain that the virgin birth of Christ is scientifically impossible is as silly as trying to offer some scientific explanation for it (e.g., comparing it to “parthenogenesis” or asexual reproduction in pythons or sharks). Anyone who denies the possibility of the Virgin Birth is really denying that God is the Creator. By the way, people in the ancient world understood just as we do that human beings cannot naturally be conceived without the agency of a biological father. They knew “where babies come from,” even if they didn’t understand genetics or prenatal development. That’s why Matthew reports that Joseph at first planned to divorce Mary when he found out that she was pregnant (Matt. 1:19).
Speaking of Joseph, there are two historically well-established facts about Joseph that we should consider. The first is that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. In addition to Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ virgin conception, there are indications elsewhere in the New Testament that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. For example, Mark reports that people in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth called him “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Jewish men of that period were commonly known by their father’s name, not their mother’s; if Joseph was Jesus’ biological father we would expect the people of Nazareth to call Jesus “the son of Joseph.” In John, Jesus’ Jewish critics say to him, “We were not born of fornication” (John 8:41, emphasis added). This statement probably was a reference to Jesus’ alleged illegitimacy. Thus, all four Gospels reflect this understanding, apparently accepted by the people of Jesus’ home town and known even to Jesus’ critics in Jerusalem, that he was not the natural son of Joseph.
The second well-established fact about Joseph we should consider is that Joseph accepted Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. This fact, along with several other facts about the birth and infancy of Jesus, is attested independently in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and rarely disputed even by skeptical historians). A simple reading of their two “infancy narratives” makes it reasonably certain they are based on independent sources of information. Matthew’s account includes an angel appearing to Joseph, the visit of the Magi to see the child at Bethlehem, Herod’s massacre of the Bethlehem infants, and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and later move to Nazareth (Matt. 1:18-2:23). Luke’s account includes the announcement to Zacharias of the birth of John (the Baptist), the angel appearing to Mary, Mary’s visit and stay with Elizabeth, John’s birth, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds there, Jesus’ circumcision, and his visit to the temple twelve years later (Luke 1:5-2:52). Thus, these two accounts are entirely independent; their narratives have no substantial overlap at all. Yet they coincide on a large number of points: (1) Joseph and Mary were betrothed but not married when Mary became pregnant. (2) Joseph was not the biological father. (3) An angel explained the conception as the work of the Holy Spirit. (4) Joseph married Mary despite her being pregnant. (5) Jesus was descended from David. (6) Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. (7) Jesus was born in Bethlehem (in Judea) but raised in Nazareth (in Galilee).
The fact that Joseph married Mary despite her becoming pregnant during their betrothal is surprising; most men then (and now) would not have done so. While other explanations are possible, this fact supports the explanation given in Matthew that he accepted her pregnancy as the work of the Holy Spirit. The independent accounts given in Matthew and Luke prove that this explanation was known very early in church history, since it was obviously known before both Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels. At the very least we may confidently conclude that it was known during the lifetime of the apostles—and the best explanation for the different accounts is that they come from different eyewitnesses, one of whom was probably Mary herself. Luke states explicitly that his account is based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4) and historians have found abundant evidence to corroborate his claim.
The most popular skeptical approach to the Virgin Birth is to claim that the early church borrowed the idea from pagan myths. There is nothing whatsoever to support this claim. In the pagan stories, the gods are male, anthropomorphic beings who physically impregnate women. In Matthew and Luke, God the Father is a transcendent being of spirit, and the Holy Spirit miraculously creates the body of Jesus in Mary’s womb. These Gospels reflect a thoroughly Judaic religious and cultural perspective totally incompatible with such pagan myths. The fact that the Virgin Birth was accepted by Christians in the first generation of the church does not fit with the notion that it was a pagan myth that gradually was attached to belief in Jesus.
To review: the well-founded historical facts are that Jesus was born of Mary, that Joseph was not the biological father but accepted Mary as his wife, and that belief in Jesus’ virgin conception and birth was established during the first generation of the Christian faith. If one can accept the existence of God, for which we have the evidence of creation, and Jesus’ resurrection, for which we have abundant evidence and multiple eyewitnesses, one should have no problem accepting his virgin birth.
Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930. Never surpassed, classic defense of the Virgin Birth.
Roberts, Mark D. “The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?” (2004). Excellent article responding to news stories of skepticism concerning the Virgin Birth.