“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” —Matthew 1:23, ESV
Jesus’s birth was not ordinary. The Biblical accounts of His birth are clear and unequivocal: He was not an ordinary child, and His conception did not come about in the ordinary way. His mother, Mary, was a virgin, having had no intercourse prior to conception and birth. By the Holy Spirit, Mary’s womb became the cradle of the Son’s incarnation (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35).
With God, All Things Are Possible, or Not?
It’s no secret that in recent history, the doctrine of the virgin birth (or more precisely, the virginal conception) has been ridiculed as fairytale make-believe by many outside the church, and more than a few voices inside the church. Two arguments are usually mentioned.
First, the prophecy about a virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, it is argued, speaks simply of a young woman and not a virgin.
Many have pointed out that the Hebrew word in Isaiah is almah and not the technical term for virgin, bethula. It is true that almah has a wider semantic range than bethula, but almah occurs nine times in the Old Testament, and wherever the context makes its meaning clear, the word refers to a virgin. More important, the Septuagint translates almah with the Greek word parthenos (the same word used in Matthew 1:23 where Isaiah 7:14 is quoted), and everyone agrees that parthenos means “virgin.” The Jewish translators of the Septuagint would not have used a clear Greek word for virgin if they understood Isaiah 7:14 to refer to nothing more than a young woman.
Second, many have objected to the virgin birth because they see it as a fairly typical bit of pagan mythologizing. “Star Wars has a virgin birth. Mithraism had a virgin birth. Christianity has a virgin birth. Big deal. They are all just fables.” This is a popular argument, and it sounds plausible at first glance, but there are a number of problems with it.
For starters, the assumption that there was a prototypical God-Man who had certain titles, did certain miracles, was born of a virgin, saved his people and then got resurrected is not well-founded. No such prototypical “hero” existed before the rise of Christianity.
Besides, it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish sect (which is what Christianity was initially) to try to win new converts by adding pagan elements to their Gospel story. However, the virgin birth parallels are not as strong as we might think. Consider some of the usual suspects.
Alexander the Great: His most reliable ancient biographer (several centuries after his death) makes no mention of a virgin birth. Besides, the story that began to circulate (after the rise of Christianity, it’s worth mentioning) is about an unusual conception, not a virgin birth. Alexander’s parents were already married.
Dionysus: Like so many of the supposed pagan “parallels,” he was born when Zeus disguised himself as a human and impregnated a human princess. This is not a virgin birth and not like the Holy Spirit’s role we read about in the Gospels.
Mithra: He’s a popular parallel. But he was born of a rock, not a virgin. Moreover, the cult of Mithra in the Roman Empire dates to after the time of Christ, so any dependence is Mithraism on Christianity and not the other way around.
You get the drift. The so-called parallels always occur well after the life in question, well into the Christian era, and they are not really stories of virginal conceptions.
Does it Really Matter?
But even for those who believe in the virgin birth, some question whether the doctrine is really that important. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
First, the virgin birth is essential to Christianity because it has been essential to Christianity.
That may sound like weak reasoning, but only if we care nothing about the history and universality of the church. Granted, the church can get things wrong, sometimes even for a long time. But if Christians, of all stripes in all places, have professed belief in the virgin birth for two millennia, maybe we should be slow to discount it as inconsequential.
Second, the Gospel writers clearly affirmed the Biblical truth that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived.
We don’t know precisely how the Christ child came to be in Mary’s womb, except that the conception was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). But we do know that Mary understood the miraculous nature of this conception, having asked the angel “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The Gospels do not present the virgin birth as some prehistoric myth or pagan copycat, but as “an orderly account” of actual history from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). If the virgin birth is false, the historical reliability of the Gospels is seriously undermined.
Third, the virgin birth shows that Jesus was truly human and truly divine.
How can the virgin birth be inconsequential when it establishes the identity of our Lord and Savior? If Jesus had not been born of a human, we could not believe in His full humanity. But if His birth were like any other human birth—through the union of a man and woman—we would question His full divinity. The virgin birth is necessary to secure both a real human nature and also a completely divine nature.
Fourth, the virgin birth is essential because it means Jesus did not inherit the curse of depravity that clings to Adam’s race.
Jesus was made like us in every way except for sin (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26-27). Every human father begets a son or daughter with his sin nature. We may not understand completely how this works, but this is the way of the world after the fall. Sinners beget sinners (Psalm 51:5). Always.
So if Joseph was the real father of Jesus, or if Mary was sleeping around, Jesus is not spotless, not innocent, not perfectly holy. And as a result, we have no mediator, no imputation of Christ’s righteousness (because He has no righteousness to impute to us) and no salvation.
Yes, the virgin birth is essential.
This material is partially derived from The Good News You Almost Forgot ©2010 Kevin DeYoung. Used by Permission of Moody Publishers. DeYoung is senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.