The story of Jesus’ miraculous birth is perhaps one of the best known stories from the Gospel tradition of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, few people familiar with Christianity are unaware of the accounts of Jesus being born to a virgin mother, fathered by the spirit of God.
Plagued as our Western society seems to be with black and white thinking (something is either right or wrong, something either is or is not, etc.), there are generally two categories that folks fall into: those who accept the stories of Jesus’ birth on faith, and those who reject the stories of Jesus’ birth as fantasy, legend, mythology, superstition, or outright lies.
It is perhaps noteworthy to point out that no one in mainstream society fails to recognize that the story is far-fetched. We know that women do not conceive without a male counterpart. We know that children are not born without a biological father. This is why the story is accepted on faith by Christian believers – they believe it was a miracle. The knowledge that women do not conceive without a male partner is not some special insight that we have today in this post-Enlightenment world. Virgin birth stories would have been just as fantastical, and just as far-fetched, to a 1st century mind as they are to a 21st century mind.
In the context of black and white thinking, the arguments presented by the competing camps are generally easy to predict. Believers argue that while no woman can conceive biologically without a male counterpart, the story of Jesus’ birth represents a miracle performed by God – a special circumstance where God broke into human history and altered his own rules, in order to fulfill an eternal plan. It is clearly a true story, because even in the 1st century, no one would have made such an outrageous claim if there was no evidence, or no common knowledge, to back it up. It would have been a liability to the emerging Christian religion if it had not been rooted in reality. Even in the first century, a believer will argue, people were not so superstitious as to believe in virgin births without any basis or reason to do so.
The skeptic, on the other hand, might present a number of alternatives. They might argue that the story is legendary, mythological. Jesus had a profound impact on his followers and, as with any influential public figure, legends rose up around him in the years and decades following his death. This was particularly true because these people were living in a pre-Enlightenment world where superstition was commonplace. Others might argue that it was an outright lie, told by Christians in an attempt to elevate their leader to divine heights, or perhaps to cover up the fact that Jesus was the product of sexual misconduct outside of marriage. Still others might argue that stories from other religious traditions involving virgin births were simply incorporated into the Christian religion by converts from Roman polytheism.
It is my belief that this black and white thinking has led both sides away from a more logical explanation. No one can know the absolute “truth” of what happened, and I do not claim that my views are anything other than historical speculation based on the preponderance of evidence, but I do believe that we can get a bit closer to the truth by removing the lens of black and white thinking and looking analytically at the evidence available to us.
To begin with, I believe the answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is “neither.” I do not believe a miracle was performed by God upon the conception of Jesus; neither do I believe that the story is simply a legend, superstition, or outright lie.
To the average person, it may seem difficult to imagine that there is much “evidence” that can be analyzed by historians. All we have are the texts, and those texts are fairly clear about what happened – Jesus was born to a virgin who was impregnated by God. This is why most people either believe or do not believe. How can there be any evidence to analyze historically?
In fact, there is a preponderance of textual evidence that can be looked at critically, analyzed historically and contextually, and put under the microscope of historical dissection.
THE PAULINE CORPUS
The earliest texts in the New Testament come to us from the letters of Paul, generally written during the 5th, 6th, and 7th decades of the Common Era (for reference, Jesus probably died right around the beginning of the 4th decade – that is, 30 C.E.).
In these letters of Paul, no reference is ever made to Jesus’ birth – miraculous or otherwise. With something as profound in the story of Jesus as a virgin birth, one would have expected Paul to mention it, particularly during his many attempts to convince his readers why Jesus really was God’s son. What better way to demonstrate Jesus' divine calling than mentioning the fact that he was born to a virgin? Yet Paul never mentions it, and in fact seems to make clear that God “chose” Jesus as his son by resurrecting him from the dead. From Romans, chapter 1: “[God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…”
If we read that verse with the knowledge that the Gospels – and the virgin birth stories – had not yet been written down, it is hard to imagine that Paul would have written these words had he been aware that Jesus was God’s own physical offspring, born of a virgin. Paul is saying fairly straight-forwardly that “according to the flesh” – that is, according to Jesus’ humanity – he was descended through David, but that he was declared to be God’s offspring by his resurrection from the dead. In other words, no longer just a man, but now God’s own son, through his resurrection.
Another verse from the Paul canon that is important for our purposes is found in the book of Galatians. From chapter 4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law…”
Here Paul seems to be implying that God’s plan was eternal, or at the very least predated Jesus’ life on earth, but the phrase he uses – “born of a woman” – is the important part. That colloquialism, in the 1st century as well as now, implied no unusual circumstances surrounding a person’s birth. We are all “born of a woman.” We are all united together in humanity. Even our heroes – athletes, actors, singers, politicians, religious leaders – were “born of a woman.” Just as the phrase is used today to refer to our common humanity, and to imply no special circumstances regarding someone’s entry into the world, so it was also used in the 1st century. If Paul – the earliest New Testament writer – had known of a virgin birth tradition, would he have referred to Jesus with the colloquialism that pointed to our shared humanity and the fact that we all enter the world in relative obscurity and without fanfare?
This point is driven home even farther when one considers the context in which Paul was speaking. In the phrase, he clearly implies that God’s plan pre-existed Jesus – Paul says God “sent his Son” into the world. But instead of following that with something like “conceived by a virgin,” he instead says “born of a woman" - in other words, as normal and natural and unheralded as anyone else. And Paul's choice of word - translated here as "woman" - is signifcant too. That word referred specifically to a married woman - not an unmarried virgin, as Mary was later said to be. It is important to remember that in the 1st century, a woman's entire purpose for life was procreation. So where we have only one word for an adult female - "woman" - ancient languages had many different words for "woman," each referring to the woman's particular stage in life - unmarried virgin, married woman, widow, etc. The word Paul used was the word for a married, and therefore sexually active, woman.
It seems fairly clear from the writings of Paul that he was not familiar with any virgin birth tradition surrounding Jesus, and Paul’s own theology is built upon the idea that God used Jesus – a human man whom he “declared” to be his son – to fulfill his greater purposes on earth. In fact, for Paul, it was Jesus’ very humanity that made the atonement possible – Jesus, a man like you and me, died on the cross and was resurrected, and because of that, the rest of us humans can also enter the eternal kingdom of God if we accept the gift of grace through the death of Jesus, whom Paul describes as the “first fruits” of the new creation. How can the rest of us follow Jesus – the first fruits – in the resurrection of the dead if he was not human like us? Many Christians may disagree with this theology, but their disagreement (in my opinion) is with the theology of Paul, not necessarily with me. On this point, it is important to note that there was also no Trinity concept at the time of Paul – that did not arise until several hundred years later. Paul would have had no concept of a Jesus who was both fully God and fully human, and he certainly makes no such claims in his own writings.
Having now established some textual clues from Paul to reasonably assert that Paul was not familiar with a virgin birth tradition, we move forward in our chronological look at the writings of the New Testament. This will frame Part II of our look at the virgin birth tradition, to be posted soon.
Read Part II