Part Four: 'Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive and Bear a Son'

The following is the fourth of a five-part series. Read Part One: Is the Story Myth or Fact? Read Part Two: Making Sense of the Census. Read Part Three: ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ — Was Jesus Really Born There?

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD

Two of the evangelists, St. Matthew and St. Luke, open their Gospels with remarkable accounts of the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary his mother, though she was a virgin. Many New Testament scholars today seriously doubt that this can be taken as historical reportage. Surely, if anything in the Gospel records smack of myth and legend, it is this colorful story of the conception and birth of the Son of God! 

But what does the evidence actually suggest? Where did the virginal conception story originate? Is it simply a myth, like the incredible legends of the miraculous births of many ancient, mythical gods and heroes?

The Witness of St. Luke and St. Matthew

An early Christian tradition claims that St. Luke became acquainted with Mary personally, and received much of his material from her. Indeed, at two points in his book he hints at his source when he writes: “And Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). In fact, the preface to St. Luke’s gospel (Lk 1:1-4) suggests that the story of the virginal conception of Jesus was already in circulation in the Christian community when Luke wrote (arguably, ca. 60-63 AD), for it was evidently among those things of which “Theophilus” already had been “informed” (Lk 1:4). Luke may have met Mary when he (most likely) went with St. Paul to visit Jerusalem ca. 48 AD.

Some scholars claim that St. Matthew invented his account just to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Mt 1:23). But this is highly unlikely. First of all, that passage from Isaiah was not generally regarded by Matthew’s contemporaries as a Messianic prophecy. As far as we know, no one at the time expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin, so Matthew was under no pressure to invent such a miraculous origin for Jesus. This also means that the frequent charge that Matthew was misled by the Greek Septuagint translation of the book of Isaiah (which states “Behold a virgin shall conceive,” whereas the original Hebrew has the more general word “almah,” here, “young maiden”), is also beside the point: again, if the passage was not necessarily a Messianic prophecy, why would Matthew feel he had to invent a virginal conception for Jesus based on the Septuagint in order to strengthen his case that Jesus really was the long expected Messiah? Moreover, Matthew wrote of this miraculous conception in such a brief and matter-of-fact way, without ever referring to it again in his gospel, that it seems more likely that he was simply reminding his readers of a familiar fact, rather than concocting a brand new myth or legend. All things considered, it seems more likely that St. Matthew recorded a pre-existing virginal conception story (i.e., a tale already circulating in the early Church community), and then interpreted it as a fulfilment of prophecy, than that he invented the story just to fit with the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14.

In short, the claim that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary almost certainly antedates the writing of both of these gospels, pushing it back to the earliest decades of the Christian movement.

Some critics point out that the gospels according to St. Mark and St. John seem to know nothing about Christ’s virginal conception. But in Mark, there is no mention of Joseph at all, and Jesus is even called “son of Mary,” in violation of the normal Jewish practice of calling a man the son of his father (this does not necessarily mean that his contemporaries believed that he had no human father — there are several reasons why a Jewish male in those days might have been called the son of his mother: for example, that his human father was unknown, or dead, or that his father was a widower who had remarried, and people wanted to distinguish the sons of his first wife from the sons of his second wife).

In any case, the silence of the rest of the New Testament, outside of the gospels of Matthew and Luke need not be a cause for historical skepticism, for it does not necessarily imply that the other writers were unaware of the virgin birth. Regarding the gospels in particular, we need to remember that each gospel writer selected from among the teachings and deeds of Jesus, and the events of his life, only those things that were pertinent to the particular didactic purpose the writer had in mind for the particular audience for which he was writing. For example, given his intention to demonstrate to his largely Jewish-Christian audience that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Matthew focused on those aspects of the Nativity of Christ that, according to his research, fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Since he believed he had found an Old Testament prophecy in Is 7:14 that foreshadowed the virginal conception, he was happy to include in his gospel account the story, already circulating in the early Christian community, of the miraculous birth of Jesus. Meanwhile, St. Peter and St. Paul were evangelists: their primary concern in their epistles was with those aspects of the Christian message that had been publicly witnessed, and therefore could be persuasively preached to the uncommitted: above all the saving death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 3:22-24, 32; 10:38-41). The virginal conception was a mystery cherished by those who were already Christians, not something that could be presented to potential converts in order to win them over, or even to new converts struggling to grasp, and live out the basics of the faith.

In fact, we know from the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (who was martyred about 110 AD), letters written to Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean world, that the virginal conception of Jesus Christ was known and revered everywhere in the early Church. For example, he wrote to the Church in Ephesus (19:1) that “three eloquent mysteries were wrought in the silence of God: the virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and the death of the Lord.”

Pagan Parallels and Hang-ups?

The most popular objection to the historical reliability of the story of the virginal conception is that the early Church must have utilized pagan, mythological sources for the creation of this tale. However, scholars of antiquity cannot find similar stories of this kind of miraculous origin. Greek gods fall in love with mortal women, and have intercourse with them (sometimes with virgins), and barren women in the Old Testament receive their fertility again from God – but none of these are virginal conception tales. All presuppose some kind of sexual intercourse. Widely respected scholar Raymond Brown, in his massive 560 page tome The Birth of the Messiah (1977), summed up the evidence like this: “In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus” (p. 523).  Furthermore, the passages from Matthew and Luke about the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit are strongly Jewish in literary style and atmosphere, full of allusions to the Old Testament. They show no literary signs of borrowing from any known pagan source. 

Some scholars have argued that early Christian belief in the virginal conception arose from a desire to exhibit the personal deity of Jesus Christ, that is, to “deify” him so that he would be more like the gods and heroes of the pagan world, and therefore more marketable to a Gentile audience. But this simply does not fit the facts of history. The truth is that throughout the first two centuries of the Christian movement, we do not have on record a single instance of any early Church Father or Christian apologist using the virginal conception story to bolster an argument for the divinity of Christ. Oddly enough, the virginal conception is usually mentioned as evidence of Jesus’ humanity, since there were numerous “Gnostic” sects at the time that claimed that Jesus was a purely spiritual being who only appeared to have human flesh and blood, when in reality, they claimed, he did not have a human body at all. The mere fact that Jesus was “born” of the Virgin Mary, therefore, attested to his full humanity.

Furthermore, historians of the early Church know that far from making the gospel message more attractive to the non-Christian, pagan world, the tale of Christ’s virginal conception was mocked and derided — at least by the “intelligentsia.” For example, in AD 178 the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote sarcastically about God’s love-affair with a Jewish peasant girl. By the end of the 1st century AD, the pagan myths were widely discredited as factual accounts among educated Gentiles, so there was not much advantage to the cause of Christian evangelism in inventing a miraculous birth for Jesus. Moreover, as we have seen, if the story goes back to the earliest decades of the Christian movement, then it would have arisen in a Christian community that was largely Jewish in background — and Jews were the very last people on the planet who would be likely to want to copy the myths and legends of the pagans.

Some critics claim that the virginal conception story must have arisen because of a negative attitude toward sexuality that infected the Christian movement in antiquity. But once again, the claim does not fit the historical facts. At the time the gospels were written (in the mid-first century AD), and especially among the Jews dwelling in Palestine, conjugal relations were valued as good and wholesome, one of God’s created blessings. We cannot account for the origin of the virginal conception tale in terms of a pessimism about sexuality that arose in the Greco-Roman world from the second century onward. Besides, it is difficult to see how the story of a virginal conception by the power of the Holy Spirit is necessarily a slur against the natural goodness of conjugal love. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out: we might just as well say that the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand by multiplying loaves and fishes is an insult to bakers! In other words, the extraordinary is not necessarily a denigration of the ordinary.

In the end, of course, the historian cannot “prove” beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary simply by appealing to the limited evidence available. After all, only one person was in a position to know the full truth of the matter, and she did not write a tell-all book about it (and even if she did, skeptics would still claim she was lying or fantasizing)! Still what the historian can do is show that Christian belief in the real, virginal conception of Jesus Christ fits the known facts better than any alternative explanations on offer for the origins of this story.

The Message in the Miracle

The doctrine of the virginal conception beautifully expresses and confirms the central gospel message: that Jesus the Savior was sent from above as a free, unmerited gift of God’s grace to a lost and broken world.

In St. Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus’ coming into the world is shown to be a new work of the Holy Spirit; as the angel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). So Jesus comes into the world by a special, direct action of the power of God’s Spirit. No human work or merit was involved. Jesus is not the supreme peak of natural evolution, nor humanity’s greatest religious or ethical achievement. Rather, he is a free gift of grace from a loving God who has not abandoned us, despite our rebellion against him. Alone among human children, Jesus had his personal origin not in any natural process, but from above: from the gracious, saving initiative of God.

This same truth is also implied in St. Matthew’s gospel. Matthew tells us that Jesus (“Immanuel … God with us,” Mt 1:23) came into the world as a special work of the Holy Spirit, and he directly links this fact to the name that the angel commanded Joseph to give him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [Jeshua, God saves] for he will save his people from their sins” (1:20-21). What Matthew is telling us is that salvation, and the Savior himself, have come into the world as a free, unmerited gift of God, by the Holy Spirit. This is a rescue operation, and nothing that humanity can do can merit or accomplish it. The gift can only be received in faith, and cooperated with in obedient love, as Mary did at the Annunciation on behalf of us all (Lk 1:38): “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

All this holds together if the virginal conception is accepted as an historical fact, and not simply as meaningful fiction. Where the full truth — both fact and meaning — of this doctrine is embraced and cherished, we are not likely to find Christians falling into the danger of believing that Jesus is merely an inspired teacher, or mankind’s highest ethical achievement, or the pinnacle of the evolutionary process of the human species. The truth of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth exhibits and (by its facticity) protects the central Christian mystery: that Jesus Christ was sent into the world to save us, as a free gift from the gracious initiative and merciful love of our heavenly Father.

(The article above was adapted, and revised, with permission, from two articles originally written for the website) 

Next time: The Star, the Magi, and the Massacre

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

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