As Christmas approaches, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. While Christmas is typically thought of as a time of rejoicing and being with family, there is one aspect of Jesus’ birth that brings ridicule from some.
“I no more believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary than I believe that Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka, Horus was born of the virgin Isis, Mercury was born of the virgin Maia or Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia… Christianity insults our intelligence as well as our innate morality by insisting that we believe absurdities that are drawn from the mythology of paganism and barbarism.”1
The Virgin Birth is an important Christian doctrine. But is it actually true? Or did Christians simply borrow it from other, pagan myths and use it as their own? As we head into the Christmas holiday, let’s take a look and find out.
Many non-Christian scholars claim that the Bible actually doesn’t say Jesus was born of a virgin. Instead, Matthew 1:23 actually mis-translates Isaiah 7:14 when it states the “virgin will be with child.” The word translated “virgin” is the Hebrew term “alma,” which they claim simply means “young woman.” If Isaiah had wanted to say “virgin” he would have used the word “betulah.” Are the critics right?
Technically, the word “alma” does mean “young woman.” But it generally refers to a young, unmarried woman and carries a strong connotation of virginity, especially in the ancient near East culture. While alma does not technically mean virgin, it connotes it and is reasonably interpreted as such.
Furthermore, the context of Isaiah 7:14 demands alma mean virgin. Isaiah 7:14 is talking about God providing a miraculous sign to the nation of Israel. The pregnancy of a “young woman,” who is sexually active, hardly qualifies as a miraculous sign. But the pregnancy of a virgin is a whole different matter.
We can also know Matthew did not mistranslate alma by referring to the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament from ~200 BC. The group of ~70 Jewish scholars that did this translation render alma as “virgin” in the Greek. If dozens of Hebrew scholars, from the ancient near East, living in that culture, believed alma meant virgin in Isaiah, why do some modern “scholars” question it?
Finally, Luke 1:26-38 also claims Mary conceived while a virgin without quoting or referring to Isaiah. Regardless of how we translate alma, the New Testament clearly teaches the virgin birth.
A Pagan Copy?
Many claim, as Christopher Hitchens does in the opening quote, that Christianity merely stole the idea of a virgin birth from a myriad of other mythological, pagan stories. As such, Jesus’ virgin birth is just another make-believe fairytale.
The problem with this and similar theories is that they are completely untrue. Each of Hitchens’ examples is patently false. In Hindu mythology, Krishna was supposedly conceived when Vishnu implanted one of his hairs in Devaka’s womb. However, she was married at the time and already had seven children, so she certainly wasn’t a virgin. Mercury was supposedly the child of the gods Maia and Jupiter, but neither parent is claimed to be a virgin in the story. Romulus’ mother was supposedly a virgin priestess of the goddess Vesta until she lay with the Roman god Mars (or Hercules, depending on the story). The Egyptian god Horus was conceived after the sexual union of Osiris and Isis, albeit after Isis had to reconstruct Osiris’ dismembered body first. Each of Hitchens’ examples of supposed mythological virgin births, and others, are nothing of the sort and they bear no resemblance to Jesus’ birth narrative whatsoever.
Importance of the Virgin Birth
Biblically, there are at least three reasons the virgin birth of Jesus is important. First, since it is clearly taught in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, it must be taken literally for believers to hold an inerrant view of scripture. Secondly, as Isaiah mentions, the virgin birth is meant to serve as a clear, miraculous sign to the nation of Israel. Finally, since the Bible teaches humanity is born with a sin nature, Jesus had to have a divine conception to avoid an innate sinfulness. This final point needs some explanation.
The Bible clearly teaches that all people are born with a sinful nature (Romans 3:23, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 53:3, Ephesians 2:3, 1 John 1:8). This nature is passed on to each generation since the original Fall (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:22). But for Jesus to atone for humanity’s sin, He had to be completely innocent. Therefore, He needed an entirely miraculous conception to avoid a sin nature. Just as the first Adam was specially created by God, the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) was as well.
However, one misconception about this point needs to be addressed. Some believe that since Paul credits the spread of sin to Adam instead of Eve, the sin nature must be physically transferred to children by means of the male gamete. This view has absolutely no support in the Bible.
Our sinful condition is spiritual in nature, not physical, so it is not somehow passed on by fathers as part of the genetic code. Rather, Adam is credited with spreading the sin nature because he was appointed by God as the spiritual head of his family. Thus, he was ultimately responsible. But since both Adam and Eve were guilty of sin, they both received sin natures (Genesis 3:7 “…then the eyes of both were opened…”).
Evidence for the Virgin Birth
The Biblical evidence
The gospels of Matthew and Luke clearly teach the virgin birth but even a cursory reading of their narratives shows they are independent accounts, not copies of one another. Matthew gives a much shorter narrative and mostly takes Joseph’s perspective. Luke gives a more detailed account, primarily from Mary’s perspective. The many differences within each account demonstrate that they came from separate sources and provide independent corroboration for one another.
While the gospels of Mark and John do not provide birth narratives, they nevertheless still provide evidence consistent with the virgin birth. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is described by the Jews in His hometown as “Mary’s son.” In John 8:41, some Jews that are arguing with Jesus respond with the insult that they “are not illegitimate children.” Both comments indicate that it was common knowledge Jesus was conceived prior to Mary’s marriage to Joseph and that he was not His real father2. As with the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, these examples are unique and not copied from one another, providing increased credibility.
In the end, the Bible gives us two direct, independent testimonies of Jesus’ miraculous birth and two independent, corroborating accounts that everyone knew Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Considering that Matthew and John were written by apostles that directly knew Jesus, and Mark and Luke were written by associates of Peter and Paul, these testimonies must be taken seriously.
Evidence outside the Bible
Obviously, there are no non-Christian sources that verify Jesus’ virgin birth. However, there are multiple sources that lend it credibility by acknowledging that Mary was pregnant before marriage and Joseph was not Jesus’ father.
Celsus, a 2nd century Greek philosopher that tried to discredit Christianity, claimed that Mary conceived Jesus through adultery with a Roman soldier named Panthera3. The Jewish Talmud also references a similar story and links Mary to a Roman soldier named Pandera or Pantiri. Both independent references verify it was common knowledge in the ancient world that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Since these sources did not accept Jesus’ divinity, they had to account for His birth without Joseph’s involvement.
Interestingly, both biblical and non-biblical sources agree that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Yet he still took Mary as his wife. Such an act was completely foreign to ancient near East culture and practice. That Joseph proceeded with the wedding demonstrates he truly believed Jesus’ conception was miraculous and the gospel of Matthew relays that an angel confirmed this fact to him.
Ultimately, the primary objection from most people that reject the virgin birth is the simple fact that virgins don’t conceive. In short, they believe that supernatural miracles are, by definition, impossible. And in a sense, they are correct. Virgins don’t get pregnant. But that is also kind of the point.
Jesus’ conception was supernatural and miraculous. It was meant to be a sign to the Jews and to ensure Jesus could carry out His mission of atoning for sin. And while miracles are impossible for humanity, they are not impossible for God (Luke 1:37, 18:27).
Besides, even atheists believe in a virgin birth. Actually, they believe in two of them that are arguably even more miraculous than Jesus’. First, atheists believe that life began naturally from non-living matter. This “virgin birth” is just as unprecedented as Jesus’ conception. And it’s even harder to explain since Jesus at least came from a living parent. But the first life came from non-life. That is even more “impossible” than what atheists ridicule about Mary.
Secondly, atheists believe in the “virgin birth” of the universe. To claim, as Steven Hawking did, that the universe “created itself from nothing” is far more unexplainable than what happened to Mary. As we have covered before , such an atheistic position is preposterous.
The evidence for God is strong and overwhelming. If such a God exists, and created the entire universe, then causing a virgin to conceive is laughably easy. The objection that virgins don’t get pregnant is only a limitation on us, not on God.
- The Spectator (online). “Do You Believe in the Virgin Birth?”, December 12, 2007 https://www.spectator.co.uk/2007/12/do-you-believe-in-the-virgin-birth/
- McDowell, Sean. “Is There Evidence Jesus was Born of a Virgin?” December 23, 2017 https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/is-there-evidence-jesus-was-born-of-a-virgin
- “Celsus as Quoted by Origen.” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus.html