The Virgin Birth: Q&A with Jared Johnson
What is the “Virgin Birth,” and how important is the concept to the Christian faith? The doctrine of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth, suggested in the Old Testament and explained in the New Testament, is tied integrally with the human-divine identity of Jesus. To help us think through this doctrine, I reached out to Jared Johnson of e2 effective elders.
Q: Is it important whether or not Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?
Let me put it this way: If a Christian doesn’t believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, then how is he or she going to believe in the truth of scripture and the deity of Jesus? And if a Christian no longer believes in the truth of scripture or the deity of Jesus, then how can that person be considered a Christian?
I think that it is important that Christians believe Jesus was born from a virgin mother. The biblical accounts are true. Isaiah foretold and Matthew and Luke reported that the Anointed One would/did come from a virgin mother. Did Isaiah misunderstand God’s message? Were Matthew and Luke fibbing? If it’s an issue of capability, God is powerful enough to do this.
“If it’s an issue of capability, God is powerful enough to do this.”
If we believe that God was and is capable of manipulating this physical reality (after all, He was able to create the universe by speaking it into existence), then how/why could He also not do something in Mary’s body to prompt or create an embryo apart from typical reproductive processes? Mary’s virginity demonstrates God’s power–it’s another sign evidencing God’s power, involvement, authority over Creation, and so on.
Q: Which scriptures tell us about the Virgin Birth?
Specific to Jesus’ birth of a virgin, the 3 primary references are (emphasis added):
All right then, the master (“lord”) himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.
Matthew 1:18 (and Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 in 1:23)
This is how Jesus the Anointed One was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Luke 1:26-27, 34
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. . . . Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
It is true that, in the immediate context, the Isaiah prophecy is a bit ambiguous as to whom it is referring to. For example, the word translated “virgin” is the Hebrew word almah, which literally means a young maiden. In the Bible, the word is always used for someone who is unmarried, which implies a virgin. This is why the Septuagint (the BC Greek translation of the Old Testament) translated the word as parthenos, Greek for “virgin.”
Another reason for the passage’s ambiguity is that it was not uncommon for prophets to speak both about their own time and about future times. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which is which in a given prophetic passage. Isaiah foretold of a virgin birth in chapter seven.
But in a perfect example of messages being now-and-not-yet, he goes on in chapter eight to talk about a child born in his day—Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz—who was to be a prophetic sign to his contemporaries (Isaiah 8:1-4). But in the ninth chapter, he then, again, foretells of a future child who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace . . . [who] will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The New Testament writers saw in the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy its fullest fulfillment in the virgin Mary giving birth to a child-king who would literally be “God with us” (Immanuel).
Q: What would you tell someone who has trouble believing that a person could be born of a virgin? How might you go about convincing someone that it’s true?
Yes, it is outlandish to claim someone was born but outside of what we know both medically and experientially to be the way humans reproduce. It seemed impossible to Mary and Joseph too! It’s not as though people back then didn’t know where babies come from.
“It’s not as though people back then didn’t know where babies come from.”
I understand that some people talk about parthenogenesis (as found in some plants and invertebrates) and/or other possible mechanisms. But in persuading someone, I would talk more about the evidences we have seen of God’s power. This could sound intellectually dismissive, though that’s not my intent. I don’t want to be a “rube” of a Christian who dismisses intellectual rigor. Frankly, I believe scientists of all stripes do know what they’re talking about when they publish papers and speak at conferences. Astrophysics, quantum physics, taxonomy, archaeology, chemistry and so on can be infinitely fascinating.
But the same God who rips mountains apart simply by His presence (when Elijah was at Sinai), who breathes stars into existence (Ps 33:6), who can measure all 335 million cubic miles of water on our planet in the hollow of His palm (Is 40:12) can also ripple the fabric of spacetime in a way to start an embryo in a particular woman’s uterus when His plan was ready.
Elijah and Elisha prayed and God, answering those prayers, did something in the bodies of two people to resurrect them from death. Jesus somehow affected the atoms and molecules in several hundreds of gallons of water without touching them (as far as we know from the text) to transform that water in just moments into wine. He similarly worked other miracles on and in the bodies of untold numbers of people, both with and without touching them. God can manipulate physical reality down to the sub-atomic, and it is demonstrated in myriad ways.
“God can manipulate physical reality down to the sub-atomic, and it is demonstrated in myriad ways.”
Q: What about other virgin births in religious literature?
It is true that various mythologies and folk tales the world over incorporate the element of a conception through something besides intercourse. For example, we hear of unique conceptions through a goddess placing a ball of feathers into her waistband (Aztec god Huitzilopochtli), a god’s semen flung to earth (Greek god Erichthonius), and a goddess touching a magic flower (the Roman god Mars). Could it be that stories such as these gave rise to the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth?
We would say “no,” such pagan stories did not dictate or influence the first Christians’ theology regarding Jesus. After all, the first Christians were Jewish monotheists, not pagans. They wouldn’t have been convinced that Jesus was born of a virgin just a few years before in Bethlehem of Judea by reading mythological stories from a pagan worldview—especially when those tales bore no similarities to the events recorded in the Gospels.
What would have convinced monotheistic Jews that Jesus was divine and born of a virgin? Two things: Hebrew prophecies and eyewitness testimony.
“What would have convinced monotheistic Jews that Jesus was divine and born of a virgin? Two things: Hebrew prophecies and eyewitness testimony.”
As for Hebrew prophecies, there was talk hundreds of years before of the virgin birth of someone who would be “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14), a child who would be called “mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6), and the birth of someone in Bethlehem “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).
As for eyewitness testimony, the author Luke spoke of “the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses. . . . I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:2-3).
Likewise, Matthew walked with Jesus for some years, day in and day out, and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Mary was part of the Church from Day 1 (Acts 1:14). So Matthew had plenty of opportunity to chat with Mary about Jesus’ birth and childhood.
Q: Jesus was born of a virgin. Therefore…
Therefore, we can trust that He is “100%2.” Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, just like Colossians and Hebrews claim. Therefore, we can trust that, even though He is God, He sympathizes with us, knowing what it’s like to be human like us.
Hebrews 4:15-16 says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
As God, He was able to carry our sin on the cross. As a man, He knew/knows what it’s like to catch a cold, feel grief at the loss of a loved one, and deal with difficult people while sleep-deprived, working through a migraine, and feeling the queasiness of indigestion.
Jesus, as our perfect High Priest, is able.