This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” —which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.The birth of Jesus to a virgin mother was big news last week, being the cover stories of both Time and Newsweek. However, both stories were really unserious, superficial treatments, heavily biased against the Gospels accounts of Jesus's conception to the virgin Mary. Time's story was less offensive since it did give a small voice to defenders of Christian orthodoxy, but Newsweek's story was wholly prejudiced against this ancient claim of Christian faith and made no attempt to disguise that fact. Its writer cavalierly dismissed the whole idea and even indicated that the Crusades - which began a thousand years after Christ - made the notion of the virgin birth is untenable. He didn't explain what the connection was, though. Time's and Newsweek's stories quote at length a handful of scholars who say the virgin birth of Jesus was simply an invention of the early church, intended to impress the pagan cultures with how similar Jesus was to their heroes. But if that's true, it's a stunningly inept invention. It's ridiculously brief and bereft of details, especially of the lewd and lascivious kind that the Roman world loved so much. In fact, the entire Christmas story of the two Gospels is so sparingly told that it can be well summarized in one good paragraph. As a work of fiction the two Gospels' accounts are unimpressive, but if the Gospels' writers are relating truthful history then no details seem lacking. The Reverend Mark D. Roberts, who earned his BA and Ph.D. from Harvard, respondedto the articles,
You can count on the fact that when major Christian holidays approach, secular 'news' sources will publish stories that seem to undermine the whole point of the holidays.My own principal objection to the two magazines' stories is less what they say (all of which I studied in seminary) than their disdain for the case for orthodoxy. Time did not fairly present the affirmative case for the virgin birth and Newsweek did not present it at all. In fact, Newsweek actually calls the biblical narrative "dubious on almost every score" and insists that claims of faith and facts of history are contradictory. By the end of either story a reader can only conclude that this ancient doctrine is fit for nothing but the middle of a baloney sandwich. As Dr. Roberts explains, these stories therefore serve to,
... stoke the fires of unbelief. When read by a non-Christian person, they may confirm the suspicion that Christian orthodoxy has no grounding in actual historical events. Thus the story of Jesus is not the story of God’s entry into human experience, but simply one story among many religious and philosophical options. After all, if the baby Jesus was really God in the flesh, then all people ought to take him seriously whether they’d like to or not. But if the account of his miraculous birth was fabricated by early Christians ... then non-Christian folks can feel free to continue to ignore Jesus.Let me briefly review the nativity story to place the discussion in its broader context. Mary was a young woman, probably 17 to 20 years old, when she became engaged to Joseph. After the engagement but before the marriage, the angel Gabriel appeared to her. The first chapter of Luke records,
[T]he angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:30-35).It is true that stories of unusual conceptions were not uncommon in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Newsweek article points out, accurately, that Augustus Caesar was said by Roman cultists to have been miraculously conceived.
Atia, Augustus' mother, was said to have fallen asleep when Apollo, taking the form of a serpent, impregnated her. That there was physical contact is suggested by [Roman biographer] Suetonius' assertion that afterward Atia "purified herself, as usual after the embraces of her husband." The baby, Suetonius writes, "was thought to be the son of Apollo"; on the day of his birth a senator in Rome "declared that the world had got a master" ...In all such Gentile stories, though, the encounter between the human parent and the god (or goddess) is presented like that between Atia and Apollo: a physical union similar to or often identical with what ordinarily happens between mortal husbands and wives. But the Gospels do not describe such an encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit simply "overshadows" Mary. There is no hint of a union between God and Mary. Jesus comes to exist as an unborn child simply because God wills it, not from anything God does to Mary. Compare what Gabriel tells Mary - "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" - with how Genesis tells of the creation of the world:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Gen 1:1-2 NIV).The Romans thought that to impregnate Augustus's mother that Apollo became a serpent - the Freudian image is surely so obvious I need not elaborate - but the Jews and the early church simply affirmed that God's power hovered or overshadowed creation and creature to enact God's will. The Newsweek writer admits that "scholars of antiquity have yet to find another example that precisely mirrors" how Mary became with child. In fact, there is no other ancient example that even roughly approximates the Gospels' story. Bewildered, overawed but faithfully obedient, Mary replied, "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said." Whatever the Holy Spirit did to make her conceive, we are not given a syllable of further explanation.
When Joseph learned that his fiancee was pregnant, he decided to send her away without disgracing her publicly. After Joseph had made up his mind, he dreamed of an angel. The angel filled Joseph in on how Mary’s pregnancy came about. One clue that Matthew is relating facts and not fiction is his citation of Isaiah to buttress his claim of the virgin birth of Jesus. In that passage, the Judean King Ahaz was having some severe national-security problems which Isaiah, prophesying for the Lord, told him will soon be favorably resolved. Ahaz was skeptical and even declined God's offer of proof.
Then Isaiah said: ... Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.Matthew quoted this passage but used the Greek translation of Isaiah, hence Matthew says a "virgin shall conceive" rather than the more probable meaning of Isaiah's Hebrew words, "a young woman." The kicker is that no first-century Jew understood Isaiah's prophecy as predicting anyone, Messiah or not, would be born to a virgin, and Jews today don't read it that way. In fact, the face reading of the passage is self-evidently against such an understanding, for Isaiah described a woman who was already pregnant at the time Isaiah spoke to Ahaz. (Some scholars think Isaiah was referring either to his own wife or Ahaz's wife, but we do not know.)
Hence, it makes no sense to claim that Matthew made up the virgin birth of Jesus, and then associated Isaiah's prophecy with the fiction, because the Jews of his day didn't think Isaiah's prophecy referred to the Messiah at all. In fact, making the connection is stupid if it is false because, as New Testament scholar N. T. Wright points out, "The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones," which would have repelled the Jews whom Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, wanted to reach. Claiming Jesus was born of a virgin was foolish to claim falsely, but mandatory to point out if true, even if the fact worked against Jesus's acceptance by most Jews. Wright asks. "Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed them to be literally true?"
Matthew likely attempted to connect Mary's virgin status with Isaiah's prophecy to salvage Jesus's birth story from being scorned by devout Jews, who would have been repulsed by it. Again, no sensible case for inventing the story can reasonably be made; its inclusion makes sense only if it is true. There are actually many intellectual and historical reasons to affirm the literal truth of the Gospels' affirmation that Mary was a virgin when God became incarnate inside her womb as the baby who would be born the Son of the Most High, but here is another point made by the Rev. Tod Bolsinger :
[T]he most important reason for asserting the Virgin Birth is not historical ... but theological. The Virgin Birth is God’s way of personally entering his creation. The Creator that brought the universe into being, personally entered creation to bring restoration. God did not choose a human being, imbue that person with his Spirit and stick him on the cross ... . God himself did the job. God did not just send his Spirit, God himself saved us, was with us.We also need to be aware that confessing Christ born of the virgin Mary is not an entry into saving faith. Believing this doctrine may result from, but never causes, justification before God. Note that both Matthew and Luke affirm the birth, then move on and never bring it up again. The central affirmation of all the New Testament is that Jesus is Son of God, not specifically son of a virgin. Peter’s confession of who Jesus is - "You are the Christ, the son of the living God!" - makes no reference of Jesus's virgin mother. The center of Christian faith is that Jesus was raised from the dead, not born of a virgin. Even so, Jesus's conception by the power of the Holy Spirit brings forth a perfect union of his being of God and being of humanity. Jesus is nowhere presented as a hybrid product of divinity and humanity. Jesus is not a half-and-half person. Jesus is affirmed as fully human and fully God. Unlike the semi-divine figures of pagan myths, Jesus was not a demigod with a human side corrupting his divine being. Neither was Jesus simply a human being with an exceptionally rich spiritual life. Jesus was Immanuel, fully God, fully with us, fully human.