Was Jesus Really Conceived of a Virgin?

Nativity SceneAn Amazing Truth Claim
Orthodox Christians believe that Mary miraculously conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin. Two Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) make this rather incredible claim as part of their description of the birth and genealogy of Jesus:

Matthew 1:18-20
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

Luke 1:26-35
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Both Matthew and Luke described the “virgin conception” of Jesus. This term is often mistaken for other similar expressions that actually represent different theological concepts, and not all of these concepts are warranted by the Biblical text. The “virgin conception” of Jesus is clearly described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but this term is not to be confused with two similar terms commonly known as the “virgin birth” and the “immaculate conception”:

The “Virgin Conception”
Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus; He was conceived by the Holy Spirit through Mary (without an act of sexual intercourse) in a miraculous event that required no natural father and involved no male “seed”.

The “Virgin Birth”
Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus and Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers hold to this belief in the “Perpetual Virginity” of Mary.

The “Immaculate Conception”
Mary herself was conceived in a naturalistic way by her parents, but came into existence without being stained with “original sin”. Roman Catholics believe that Mary was, as a result, sinless and gave birth to the sinless Son of God.

While the notion of the virgin conception of Jesus has been challenged in a variety of ways in recent years, most Americans still believe the doctrine to be true, even though many of them are not Christians! In a Barna Poll conducted in December of 2007, 75% of American adults said that they believed that Jesus was born to a virgin as described in the Bible. America appears to be far more accepting of the idea than other places in the world, however. A 2008 ComRes Poll conducted in Britain revealed that only 34% of Britons believed that the virgin birth is historically accurate. Of course, widespread acceptance or denial of a claim does not determine whether or not the claim is actually true. A number of objections have been leveled at the concept recently, and it is important for those of us who claim to be “Jesus Followers” to consider the objections seriously.

Objection 1:
The Virgin Conception is Borrowed from Mythology
Many critics challenge the notion of the “virgin conception” by arguing that it was borrowed from prior pagan mythologies. These critics claim that the “virgin conception” is common to any number of prior pagan “gods”, including Mithras and Horus. In addition, critics note that many ancient legendary heroes and kings were said to be the offspring of the gods, including Leda, Europa and Hercules. They also note that a number of non-Christian religions describe virgin conceptions, such as Mahabharata (the Hindu epic) and Zoroastrianism. For critics such as these, prior similar mythologies discredit the “virgin conception” completely and demonstrate that early Christians applied the idea to Jesus to validate his deity. But these claims that the “virgin conception” was borrowed from pre-existing pagan mythologies are deficient for a number of reasons:

They Aren’t That Similar
First and foremost, the pre-existing mythologies described by critics are not as similar to the “virgin conception” of Jesus as they would like people to believe. As an example, neither Mithras nor Horus were the product of a “virgin conception”. Mithras emerged from rock and Horus was conceived through a sex act between Isis and Osiris. While it is true that many pagan mythologies describe the gods having sex with mortal women, the blatant sexual activity of these mythologies is missing from the Biblical narrative. While Christianity claims that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit, it does not claim that Jesus was conceived through God’s “seed” (either in a sex act or otherwise); the “virgin conception”, as described in the Bible, is unique to Christianity.

Isaiah Would Have Been More Specific
While some have argued that paganism may have influenced Judaism first and corrupted the writers of the Old Testament prior to its transferred influence on New Testament writers, this theory is also deficient. If Isaiah was borrowing the idea of a virgin conception from pagan sources, wouldn’t he have used more explicit language to describe the mother of God as a virgin? Isaiah uses the Hebrew word, “almah” in describing the mother of the messiah. This word means literally “young woman”. As a result, many Jewish apologists have historically argued that Isaiah was not describing a virgin at all, but was only referring to a young woman. According to these apologists for Judaism, Isaiah could have been far more explicit and used the term “betulah”, which means “virgin”. While Matthew interprets Isaiah as describing a virgin, it is reasonable to assume that Isaiah would have been more explicit if he was trying to express an idea borrowed from paganism.

The Jews Would Never Accept It
It is nonsensical to presume that Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian or other pagan mythologies related to the birth of God would be embraced as part of a narrative targeted at Jewish believers. The Gospel writers were clearly trying to convince their Jewish readers that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah; it is unreasonable to believe that these Jewish readers would embrace any part of paganism in the story of Jesus’ conception as being continuous with the Jewish narrative from the Old Testament.

New Christians Would Have Rejected It
In addition, early Christian converts were called to a new life in Christ and repeatedly told that they were merely travelers passing through this mortal (and pagan) world. They were called to live a life that was free of worldly influences and told to reject the foolish philosophies and stories of men. This group, in particular, would be the last to return to pre-existing pagan stories and superstitions; we would expect the early Christians to be vigilant in protecting the Biblical narrative from the insertion of paganism given the repeated admonitions of the New Testament writers.

It Was Written Too Early
The insertion of false pagan mythology into the birth narratives assumes the late writing of the Gospels (more on that in a moment). If the Gospels were written early (as the evidence seems to confirm), the earliest eyewitnesses would have been available to challenge the false insertion of the supposed “virgin conception” narrative. Jesus’ own relatives would have been among the first century “fact checkers” who would have exposed this narrative as mythology.

The Borrowing May Have Been in the Other Direction
Even the weak resemblances between the Biblical account and pagan mythologies may be the result of Judeo Christian influence rather than contamination from a pagan source. Justin Martyr recognized this in the second century. In “The First Apology of Justin”, he argued that the surrounding pagans adopted elements of Judaism into their own religious beliefs:

“Be well assured, then, Trypho,” I continued, “that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah’s days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by Jupiter’s intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that the Devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?”

It Shouldn’t Surprise Us Anyway
Finally, the fact that some pagan mythologies describe gods who were born through some supernatural manner, even if this manner is not all that similar to the “virgin conception”, really shouldn’t surprise us. As early men and women began to think and dream about God, it was reasonable that they would imagine that an incredibly powerful, supernatural being would emerge into the natural world in some unexpected, supernatural way. For this reason, we would expect pre-Christian mythologies to bear some resemblance to the truth of the Christian narrative. This resemblance does not, in and of itself, invalidate the “virgin conception”.

Objection 2:
The Virgin Conception Was an Invention of Jewish Christians
Many critics of the “virgin conception” argue that the earliest Christian authors of the Jesus “mythology” inserted this idea regarding His conception in an effort to give Jesus the “heroic” birth that was consistent with other Old Testament heroes. Remember that the first Christians were raised within the Jewish culture and religious environment, and these first adherents were familiar with the birth stories of Isaac, Moses, Samson and Samuel; these characters had irregular and unusual births. Many critics of the “virgin conception” of Jesus claim that the early authors of the New Testament canon were simply trying to create a new hero in the tradition of other Jewish heroes who had unusual birth narratives. But there are several reasons to reject such an accounting of the birth story of Jesus:

Most Birth Stories Were Not Heroic
Not every Jewish hero from the Old Testament had an unusual birth story. Joshua, King David and King Solomon are just three of the more obvious examples of powerful Old Testament heroes whose birth stories were less than surprising or unusual. Jesus is often connected to David in the New Testament, yet there is no similarity in their birth stories.

No One Else Was Born of a Virgin
In addition, there is no other character from the Old Testament who was born of a virgin through the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit. This characteristic of Jesus’ conception is unique to Jesus and follows no pre-existing Old Testament pattern.

They Wouldn’t Invoke Paganism in the First Place
Finally, given the fact that pagan mythologies utilized irregular, supernatural birth narratives in describing the origin of their pagan Gods, it is unreasonable to believe that early Jewish Christian adherents would attempt to convert Jewish believers to Christianity by inserting anything into the story of Jesus that would draw even the slightest parallel to paganism.

Objection 3:
The Virgin Conception is Not Supported by the New Testament
A number of critics in recent years have argued that the “virgin conception” of Jesus is not grounded or supported by the New Testament record in the first place! This criticism generally takes one of several forms, each of which has its own deficiency:

The Birth Record of Jesus Does Not Appear in Every Version of the Gospels
Many have noted that only Luke and Matthew recorded the “virgin conception” of Jesus. Wouldn’t such an important and supernatural event have been recorded by all the eyewitness Gospels? Not necessarily:

The Accounts Reflect “Perspective” and “Purpose”
There are many important events, sermons, conversations, parables and characters that are unique to one particular Gospel or another. This is not uncommon when examining concurrent eyewitness accounts. Each eyewitness brings his or her own perspective and purpose to the account; eyewitness testimonies are as unique and divergent as the eyewitnesses themselves. If we were to discard every account in scripture unless it was repeated in all four Gospels, there wouldn’t be much left to talk about, and if all four Gospels contained an identical account, there wouldn’t be any need for more than one of them! This is why we have four separate Gospels to begin with; the breadth and depth of knowledge related to Jesus can only be found in the cumulative eyewitness accounts of these testimonies.

The Most Detailed Gospels Include the Account
As it turns out, two of the four Gospel writers did choose to include the account of the virgin conception in their narrative. Not surprisingly, these two Gospel writers (Luke and Matthew) have also provided us with the most detailed and comprehensive Gospels. The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew are the most voluminous of the four Gospels and they include many details that are omitted by Mark and John. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that Luke and Matthew would also choose to include the details of the “virgin conception”. Luke even tells us in advance that he purposed to give us as complete an account as possible:

Luke 1:1-4
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

The Account is “Double Attested”
The “virgin conception” is well supported by the New Testament even though it is not fully described in every Gospel account. From a Jewish and early Christian perspective, the “virgin conception” is a claim that substantiated by a Biblical and cultural criteria known as “double attestation”; it is supported by the testimony of two separate witnesses. Matthew’s account relies upon the testimony of Joseph as he described his visit with the angel. Luke’s account relies upon the testimony of Mary as she described her visit with Gabriel and her own person experience as a virgin. As a result, the two Gospels, coming from two different sources, demonstrate the expected variation that comes from independent testimony and is affirmed by two independent sources.

The Birth Record of Jesus Does Not Appear in the Earliest Known Gospel
If the “virgin conception” was an historical event that was well known to the earliest Christians, why wasn’t it mentioned by Mark? Mark’s gospel is widely accepted as the first account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Why doesn’t it contain anything about the “virgin conception”?

Silence Doesn’t Mean Denial
While it is clear that Mark and John do not include birth narratives, this does not mean that they were either unaware of the truth about Jesus or denied the “virgin conception”. Eyewitnesses often omit important details because they either (1) have other concerns they want to highlight with greater priority, or (2) presume that the issue under question is already well understood. The gospel of Mark exhibits great influence from the Apostle Peter. In fact, the outline of Mark’s Gospel is very similar to the outline of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost. Mark is historically considered to be Peter’s scribe, and Mark’s gospel is brief and focused. Like Peter’s sermon in Chapter 2 of the Book of Act’s, Mark is focused on the public life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark is only concerned with what concerned Peter, and the birth narrative was simply not a priority to Peter in preaching the salvation that God is offering through Christ.

John had a very specific purpose when he wrote his Gospel late in the first century. The prior three “synoptic Gospels” were already in circulation and the issue of the “virgin conception” had already been described in two of them. John clearly wanted to cover material that the other Gospel writers did not address; over 90% of the material in the Gospel of John is unique to the text. If John did not agree with the “virgin conception” as described in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke, he certainly had the opportunity to correct the matter in his own work. But John never does this; his silence serves as a presumption that the “virgin conception” has been accurately described by prior authors.

Brevity Doesn’t Mean Ignorance
It really shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest version of the life of Christ would be the shortest and most focused account. Something very similar happens when police officers are dispatched to a crime scene. The first radio broadcast to responding units is always incredibly brief, offering just the bare details needed to get officers rolling in the right direction, aware of the most important issues they may be about to face. The first broadcast is brief, focused on essentials and designed for a purpose. As units are closing in on their arrival at the scene, a second or third broadcast is offered in order to provide more detail, especially if a responding unit has a question that needs clarification. The Gospel of Mark is the first broadcast about the life of Jesus. As such, the Gospel is prioritized around the same public events that concerned Peter; the events that were most important in articulating the salvation that is offered through the cross.

The “Virgin Conception” Appears to Be Assumed
At the same time, Mark (and John for that matter) do not appear to be ignorant of the “virgin conception”. Note, for example, that Mark uses an unusual expression related to Jesus’ parentage:

Mark 6:1-3
Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown ; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue ; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands ? “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon ? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.

It is highly unusual for the “many listeners” in this first century Jewish culture to describe Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph”. These first century eyewitnesses of Jesus apparently knew something about Jesus’ birth narrative and chose to trace Jesus’ lineage back through His mother rather than through His father (as would customarily have been the case). This early reference in the Gospel of Mark may expose the fact that Mark was aware of the “virgin conception” and that the first eyewitnesses of Jesus were also aware of Mary’s marital status at the time of her conception. Another similar clue to this reality is found in the Gospel of John:

John 8:37-41
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants ; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father ; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God ; this Abraham did not do. “You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication ; we have one Father : God.”

It appears that the Jews in this scene are also aware of the circumstances related to the conception of Jesus and seem to be hinting at his illegitimacy here. While John and Mark do not include a birth narrative in their Gospels, they do record incidental details that reflect the truth about the conception of Jesus.

The “Virgin Conception” Is Not Referenced by Paul
Many critics have argued that Paul was either completely silent about the “virgin conception” or spoke directly against such a concept in his writings. In either case, these critics argue that Paul’s silence or apparently contradictory statements certainly cast doubt on the truth of the “virgin conception”, given that many of Paul’s letters precede the earliest Gospel.

Silence is Not Enough
But we need to be very careful about drawing conclusions from silence. Paul may not have mentioned the “virgin conception” simply because it was widely understood or assumed. Paul may also have been silent because it was not the focus or purpose of his letters (which are often devoted to issues related to the Church). Remember that Paul was a contemporary of Luke (who was one of the two authors who wrote extensively about the conception of Jesus). Paul appears to be very familiar with Luke’s’ gospel (he quotes Luke in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). If Paul disagreed with Luke’s account of the conception, we would expect to hear Paul say something about it in his letters. Paul never refuted or openly questioned the claims of Luke regarding the “virgin conception”.

Paul’s Writing May Reflect His Knowledge
Critics also cite two verses in Paul’s letter as specific proof that Paul was not aware of Jesus’ “virgin conception”. The first is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 4:4-5
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

Paul says that Jesus was “born of a woman” and not “born of a virgin”. Critics have argued that this is proof that Paul was unaware of the “virgin conception”. But this is not necessarily the case. Many scholars have observed that the expression, “born of a woman, born under the Law” implies that Jesus had no earthly father because Paul curiously chose to omit any mention of Joseph in this passage. It was part of the Hebrew culture and tradition to cite the father alone when describing any genealogy, yet Paul ignored Joseph and cited Mary alone, as if to indicate that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. In addition to this passage in the letter to the Galatians, critics also cite the openly lines of Paul’s letter to the Romans to make a case against Paul’s knowledge of the “virgin conception”:

Romans 1:1-4
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord

Critics claim that Paul’s statement that Jesus was a “descendant of David according to the flesh” reveals the fact that Paul believed Joseph, a descendant of David, was the physical father of Jesus. But careful examination of this letter leaves open the possibility that Paul may simply have been referring to the fact that Mary was herself was also a descendant of David. Mary’s relationship to David was important, because Joseph was a descendant of Jeconiah, the King of Judah described in 2 Kings 24:8. Jeconiah was cursed by God:

Jeremiah 22:30
“Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless, A man who will not prosper in his days ; For no man of his descendants will prosper Sitting on the throne of David Or ruling again in Judah.’ “

According to this passage, no descendant of Jeconiah would ever sit on the throne of David. If Jesus was a direct descendant of Joseph, he would be excluded according to this curse, as Joseph was in the line of Jeconiah. But Paul consistently omits Joseph when describing the genealogy of Jesus. In addition, Paul later refers to Jesus as the “son of God” in the same passage from the letter to the Romans. Paul often used this expression to describe Jesus, and Paul was consistent and clear about Jesus’ divinity throughout his letters. If Paul believed that Jesus was born of a human mother and father, we would expect Paul to describe how a normal man, born of human parents, could be God Himself. Paul never does that, and this is consistent with the fact that Paul was aware of the “virgin conception”.

The Birth Narratives in Luke and Matthew Are Late Additions
Many critics, in an attempt to discredit the “virgin conception”, have argued that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are simply late additions that were not present in the first versions of the gospels. These claims are typically based on (1) Efforts to find stylistic differences between the birth narratives and the rest of the text, and (2) Efforts to find subject shifts that occur immediately after the birth narratives and the remainder of the text.

The Style Is Consistent with Luke’s Approach
The argument based on stylistic differences is typically leveled against the Gospel of Luke. Critics claim that the Greek language used in the birth narrative section of Luke’s gospel is far more Semitic than other sections. It seems to read like a chapter from the Old Testament (sometimes compared to the First Book of Macabees), and the content of this section includes Jewish customs and practices that are introduced without explanation. But the fact that this section of the gospel is stylistically or linguistically different than other sections does not necessarily mean that it was a late addition. Luke tells us that he compiled the information for his Gospel from a number of divergent sources:

Luke 1:1-4
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Luke has assembled a series of eyewitness narratives from a number of different eyewitness sources to present us with the truth of the birth narrative. We should expect stylistic and linguistic differences within the Gospel of Luke for this reason. The Gospel of Luke is not a single narrative from one eyewitness; unlike the other Gospels, the Gospel of Luke is an historical biography compiled by Luke. In addition, it also shouldn’t surprise us that the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew are far more “Hebraic” or “Semitic” than other sections, because both authors are trying to demonstrate the continuity between the Old Testament prophecies and expectations of a Messiah and the appearance of Jesus as that Messiah.

The Manuscript Evidence Supports Authenticity
The argument of critics based on “content shifting” is typically leveled at both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Critics argue that there are natural “breaks” in the content of these two gospels between the birth narratives and the following sections which contain the introductions to John the Baptist. As a result, they believe that Luke and Matthew’s gospel originally began with the story of John the Baptist, just as did Mark’s gospel. But this defies all the manuscript evidence available to us; there is absolutely no evidence that the Gospel of Matthew and Luke ever existed without the birth narratives. All manuscripts, translations, early Church documents and references to the Gospels, along with every historic, reliable witness testifies to the fact that the birth narratives are ancient and part of the original record. For this reason, most serious scholars are now skeptical regarding claims that the birth narratives are late additions.

Objection 4:
The Virgin Conception Appears Late in History
Some critics have argued that the “virgin conception” of Jesus is a late mythological addition attributed to Christian believers many centuries after the fact. These skeptics presume, of course, that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written far later than the first century, when eyewitnesses would have been available to refute the additional mythology. The history of the early Church reveals, however, that the “virgin conception” was recognized and accepted very early in history. Early opponents of Christianity recognized that Mary gave birth to Jesus without an identified earthly father and claimed that Jesus was, therefore, illegitimate. Celsus (a Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity) echoed this charge in the second century in his work entitled, “The True Discourse”. It’s clear that the issue of Jesus’ parentage was an early concern, and the first believers were committed to the idea of the “virgin conception”:

The Early Church Fathers Believed It
The early leaders of the Church taught that Jesus was born of a virgin and they wrote about this in their letters to those they led. They agreed with the Gospel of Matthew and interpreted Isaiah’s prophesies as predictions of the virgin conception:

Ignatius (35-117AD, the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch)
“He was truly born of a virgin” (from his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”, written around 103AD)

Justin Martyr (100-165AD, the early Christian Apologist)
“But you (Jews) and your teachers venture to claim that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold the virgin will conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman will conceive, and bear a son.’ Furthermore, you explain the prophecy as if (it referred) to Hezekiah, who was your king. Therefore, I will endeavor to soon discuss this point in opposition to you”. (from his “Dialogue with Trypho”, written around 160AD)

Irenaeus (115-202AD, the Bishop of Lugdunum)
“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards his creation, humbled himself to be born of the virgin. Thereby, He united man through Himself to God.” (from his “Against Heresies”, written around 180AD)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD, the Christian Theologian)
“… Jesus, whom of the lightening flash of Divinity the virgin bore.” (from his “Paedagogus, Book I”, written around 195AD)

Tertullian (160-220AD, the Christian Apologist)
“This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient time, descended into a certain virgin, And He was made flesh in her womb. So, in His birth, God and man were united.” (from his “Apology”, written around 195AD)

Origen (185-254AD, the Christian Apologist and Theologian)
“A sign has been given to the house of David. For the virgin conceived, was pregnant, and brought forth a son.” (from his “Contra Celsus, Book I”, written around 225AD)

The Early Non-Canonical Writings Affirmed It
In addition to the writings of the earliest Church leaders, there is also evidence from many non-canonical books and gospels that the “virgin conception” was an early established belief. While these writings are not considered scripture, they do reflect the fact that the story of the “virgin conception” was already well known by the time the Christian “Pseudepigraphon” was forming:

Ascension of Isaiah (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century)
This text was written very near the time of the canonical Gospels and records a narrative of the miraculous appearance of Jesus to the Virgin Mary:

“And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant.” (Chapter 11, verses 2-5)

The Infancy Gospel of James (approximately 150AD)
This apocryphal Gospel also includes a claim to Mary’s perpetual virginity and presents her as the new “Eve”:

“And the priest said unto Joseph: Unto thee hath it fallen to take the virgin of the Lord and keep her for thyself.” (Chapter 9, verse 1)

The Early Creeds Proclaimed It
The early recognition of the “virgin conception” is also apparent in the creeds that emerged in the Church from the earliest times. Even before the emergence of the first creed of the Church (the Apostle’s Creed), the first believers were forming creedal statements that included the “virgin conception”:

Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century)
Irenaeus’ early written work was highly influential to believers at the time, and he was an excellent apologist for the faith. He found himself battling with a number of false teachings within Christendom, and as a result, he developed a statement of faith designed to affirm a number of Christian truths, including the “virgin conception”:

“…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; And in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…”

The “Interrogatory” Creed of Hippolytus (approximately 215 AD)
Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus and he included language that was distinctly similar to Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” in his “Baptismal Instructions”. Hippolytus used the following instructional statement to prepare his new converts for baptism and to confirm that they had a correct understanding of the Christian Worldview:

“Do you believe in God the Father All Governing? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church and in the resurrection of the body?”

The Apostle’s Creed
The first widely accepted creed of the Christian Church continued the claims of both Irenaeus and Hippolytus related to the “virgin conception”:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen”

The early Church believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin. These writers either invented the concept within just a few years of the canonical Gospels (Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans approximately 10-13 years after John wrote his Gospel), or simply reflected what they had been taught by the first generation eyewitnesses. One thing, however, is certain: the “virgin conception” was not a late invention that appeared for the first time centuries after the fact.

Objection 5:
The Virgin Conception is Scientifically Impossible
Even when other objections have been considered and addressed, there still remains the “mother” of all objections to the “virgin conception”: the objection on the basis of scientific impossibility. In fact, this objection actually lies at the heart of all other objections. Skeptics and critics of theism reject the mere possibility of the miraculous; philosophical naturalism precludes the possibility of the miraculous intervention of a supernatural being such as God. From a naturalistic perspective, miracles simply do not occur; any description of a miraculous event in the Bible must, therefore, be explained naturally. As a result, the “virgin conception” is typically explained as either a borrowed mythology, a clever invention, a misunderstanding or a late addition. It is the presupposition of naturalism that prevents many from seriously considering the miracle of the “virgin conception” in the first place.

In fact, some have tried to explain the “virgin conception” through naturalistic processes. “Parthogenesis” is the scientific term used to describe a form of asexual reproduction that is found in a variety of species. But parthogenesis typically produces a female offspring, and it is not the claim of the Bible related to the conception of Jesus. The Scriptures clearly indicate that Jesus was conceived through the supernatural work of God and not through some scientific or naturalistic process. From the perspective of naturalism, the “virgin conception” is problematic (along with the many other supernatural or miraculous events that are described in the Bible).

But if we are attempting to be fair about assessing the existence of God and assessing the reasonable nature of the “virgin conception”, we cannot exclude the very possibility of the miraculous in the first place. We cannot ask, “Does a Supernatural God exist?” or, “Is Jesus that Supernatural God?” and then begin the examination from the presupposition that nothing supernatural or miraculous can ever occur. Our presupposition against the supernatural would unfairly taint our examination of the claim. Instead, we need to be open to the possibility of the miraculous to fairly examine any claim of supernatural activity.

Interestingly, most of us already accept the reality of at least one “extra-natural’ (aka “miraculous”) event. The Standard Cosmological Model of naturalism is still the “Big Bang Theory”, a hypothesis that proposes that all space, time and matter had a beginning. This initial event of “cosmological singularity” caused the natural properties of our universe to come into being and must be described as nothing less than “extra-natural” or “supra-natural”. If the beginning of the Universe can be attributed to an all powerful supernatural God who has the ability to intervene in the natural realm with such creative force, the “virgin conception” is a reasonable prospect. In fact, all the other miracles described in the Bible are reasonable if the first and most significant miracle (the creation of the Universe) can be attributed to God.

Yes, the “virgin conception” defies naturalistic explanation. The entire Christian narrative defies naturalistic explanation! This is the point of Christianity; the claim that there is more to life than what we can see with our eyes, the fact that there are spiritual truths beyond the physical world. The “virgin conception” is no more miraculous or supernatural than the existence of God, the Resurrection of Jesus or the regeneration of sinful humans! We cannot reject the “virgin conception” on naturalistic, scientific grounds without first examining the larger claims of the Christian Worldview. Is there sufficient evidence to make the case for the existence of the soul? Is there good reason to believe that God exists? Are the arguments for theism sufficient? If so, the “virgin conception” easily takes its place alongside other reasonable and expected supernatural events.

So What’s the Big Deal?
It’s clear that the “virgin conception” is an essential belief of the authors of Scripture and the early Church. It is listed in the earliest creeds as an essential ingredient of Christian Orthodoxy. Yet many of us, as Christians, give little or no thought to the reality of the claim or the significance of the event.

One thing is certain, the “virgin conception” serves a number of significant purposes related to Christian Orthodoxy, and it is important for Christians to understand why the “virgin conception” is so essential:

It Is An Essential Piece of Evidence
The “virgin conception” fulfills the Old Testament prophecy initially given by the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 7:14
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

Matthew cited this prophecy of Isaiah when describing the birth of Jesus. Matthew saw the role that the “virgin conception” made as an important piece of evidence (fulfilled prophecy) demonstrating that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.

It Is An Essential Explanation of Jesus’ Nature
God could have entered the world in any number of ways, but it’s significant that Jesus was born to a virgin. The supernatural God of the universe came into the world in a supernatural way that retained his sinlessness. If Jesus had been born of two fallen human parents, He would have inherited the same sin problem that plagues all of us as descendants of Adam. Instead, Jesus entered the world untouched by human sin so that He might serve as our Savior:

2 Corinthians 5:21
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

It Is An Essential Truth of God
The Bible makes many claims about the nature of the world and about the nature of God’s activity in the world. The “virgin conception” is just one claim of many. If we trust that God is telling us the truth in other areas of Scripture, there is no reason for us to doubt Him with this essential truth related to the conception of Jesus.

Psalm 31:5
Into Your hand I commit my spirit ; You have ransomed me, O LORD, God of truth.

The “virgin conception” of Jesus assured that the Son of God (the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God of the universe) would be uniquely qualified to act as the “propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Jesus is the man-God of Divine and human origin, completely God and completely human. He understands our struggles as a result of His humanity, but He is capable of paying the ultimate price for our sin because of His divinity. While the “virgin conception” is often dismissed by unbelievers and ignored by Christians, it is an essential truth that can be defended and explained as yet another miraculous act of God, intended to save and restore the crown of His creation.

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