e) The Virgin Birth

The issue

In the last Coloured Supplement I wrote about the incarnation and the fact that Jesus is "God Incarnate", God come "in the flesh". I started with Charles Wesley's lines from his famous carol Hark! the herald-angels sing:

Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail, the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

But today there is not only confusion over the deity and incarnation of Jesus, "our Emmanuel" - which means "God with us". There is also confusion over his being "offspring of a virgin's womb". Sadly this confusion has been caused even by those within the church. Such people may have the best of intentions in trying to make the Christian faith easier for modern people. They say, "modern people can't believe in the virgin birth [or more correctly 'the virginal conception'] of Jesus." So they try to argue it away and say that Christians don't have to believe it either.


The biblical narratives

The question, however, is not what is easy to believe; rather it is the question of what is true. Is the bible correct or is the bible in error? The texts couldn't be clearer:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit ... All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" - which means, "God with us." (Matthew 1.18, 22-23)

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary ... the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus ... "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "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 ... For nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1.26-27, 30-31, 34-35, 37)

But, how can thoughtful people affirm all this?

Some years ago I wrote an article in The Times (December 20 1986) in the heat of the controversy over the former bishop of Durham and his denials of the virginal conception. Here, repeated verbatim, are the arguments used then. I see no reason to change my views. I made the point that there are six key considerations we must never forget.


Mary, Joseph and the early period

First, the starting point is the Gospel narratives themselves. Matthew and Luke both have the same central core - namely that Mary remained bodily a Virgin in the conception of Jesus and did not have intercourse with Joseph. Yet both evangelists clearly were drawing on very different sources for their information. Few, therefore, would deny the following: "that a virginal conception through the power of the Holy Spirit is one of the few points on which they agree and that this tradition antedated both accounts (Raymond E. Brown - a [fairly liberal] New Testament scholar).

The story of the Virgin Birth goes right back to the earliest period. Indeed, the infancy narratives are clearly of Palestinian origin. They reflect Jewish fears of Herod the Great and Jewish piety centred on temple worship in Jerusalem. The traditional view is that the ultimate source of the narratives is the holy family - Joseph for Matthew and Mary for Luke. We must also remember that James, Jesus's brother, became head of the church at Jerusalem. He was, therefore, in a position to correct any Palestinian traditions where they were obviously untrue.

Second, the claim that "virgin births" are common in other religious literature has to be challenged. For religious literature mostly has accounts of "holy marriage". Here a "god" in human or superhuman form sexually impregnates a woman. But that is quite unlike the accounts of the virginal conception in the Gospels.


A midrash?

Third, the story of the Virgin Birth cannot simply be dismissed as a midrash - and for this reason. In Judaism a midrash was essentially a commentary on a passage of Old Testament scripture which then "took off". The midrashist had a text in front of him which he elaborated often in a most fanciful way. But the text was the starting point.

However, Matthew clearly is not starting with a text. He has a series of traditions about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Into these he weaves scriptural references. He is not adapting the narratives to fit [Old Testament] scripture. If anything he is adapting scripture to fit the narratives. The quotation in Matthew 2.23 ("he will be called a Nazarene") is a very drastic adaptation - it has no known reference! Matthew is not taking Old Testament texts and then writing myths to fit.

If he were doing that he would have chosen more evocative sections of the Old Testament. And, from contemporary Jewish practice we know that basic events were never concocted out of texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran show how texts are made to fit contemporary events and not vice-versa. There always was a substratum of fact. Even the critic must admit that Matthew started with the basic outline of the infancy narrative.


The facts

Fourth, uke himself tells us that he was interested in the truth - "it seemed good to me ... to write an orderly account ... that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1.3-4). Even if contemporary Jews had a more cavalier approach to history writing, there is every reason for thinking that the early Christians had a very different attitude to history.

That was because other Jews located the saving events of God in the distant past; or, if they were of an apocalyptic turn of mind, in the future; but the early Christians said they were located in the recent past. Hence we must presuppose they had an interest in what actually happened.

Fifth, the Old Testament said the Messiah would be born of David's line. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was believed to be the Messiah. Why then invent an untrue story that separates Joseph (of David's line) from the process of conception?

Sixth, if Mary had not been a virgin, no one would have created a myth to suggest she was a great example of obedience. The strict moral climate of the day would have classed her fornication as highly disobedient.


Conclusion

Those are some of the considerations that give us confidence in the New Testament and in the teaching of Christians down the centuries as it is summarised in the Creeds. As we say so regularly, "He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." The virginal conception was a supernatural miracle. It confirmed the fact that Jesus is indeed God incarnate - fully man, but without sin.

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