Monday, December 19

Objections To The Virgin Birth

The word "virgin" is found thirty-three times in the King James Version of the Bible, 41 times in the New International Version, and 50 times in the New American Standard version. In Hebrew, it is translated from the words almah and bethuwlah, in Greek it is translated from the word parthenos. A virgin is defined as "a person who has never had sexual intercourse."[1] Isaiah 23:12 refers to the Zidonites (or Sidonites) figuratively as a "virgin," with Jeremiah 18:13 referring to Israel as a virgin who has gone astray. Perhaps the most controversial usage of this word in biblical terms is when it is applied to the nature of the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth, born c.6-4 BC. Objections are raised about the scientific "impossibility" of the virgin birth by Mary, the silence of other New Testament authors on the subject, the alleged borrowing of pagan mythology, as well as objections regarding historical support. This is not intended to be an in-depth examination of every objection made toward the virgin birth of Christ, but is meant to examine said objections in an overview. (Photo credit:Gerard van Honthorst, 1622, "Anbetung der Hirten"; Lorenzo Costa, 1490)

To be clear, the virgin birth is the teaching that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was born to Mary, who had, up to that point, not engaged in sexual intercourse, and was therefore a virgin. The child was supernaturally formed in her womb, and no relations transpired between God the Father and Mary. It is important to distinguish the virgin birth from the immaculate conception held in Catholic tradition, which is the teaching that Mary was born without the macula or labes (Latin for stain) of original sin. This is an extrabiblical teaching, and is not found in Scripture. It is important to recognize that there is a difference between the virginal conception (Jesus being supernaturally conceived) and the virgin birth (Jesus being born in Bethlehem to the virgin Mary). Now, as John Simpson accurately points out, "We are not told about the physiology of the incarnation, but simply that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant.... [the] virgin birth [cannot] be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The supreme miracle is the incarnation itself, and, if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty accepting the means by which God chose to effect it."[2]

There is a common objection that a virgin birth is scientifically impossible. However, if someone makes this claim, they are not only being intellectually dishonest, but scientifically inaccurate. In fact, "Ever since in vitro fertilization and embryonic transfer came on the scene in 1978 (not to mention artificial insemination), it is quite possible for a woman who has never experienced sexual intercourse to give birth. Of course, the Bible makes it clear that it was Almighty God, not some high-paid gynecologist, who worked the details of Jesus' Divine-Human conception."[3] Also, it has been noted that virginal conception can occur where the male and female do not participate in vaginal intercourse, where the semen can fall, if you will, onto the female and in the process of intercourse, the semen enters through the passage which leads from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus. In this way, no penetration occurs, but an egg can still form. While this is not virginal conception in Biblical terms, it is nevertheless a conception wherein penetration is not included in the relations.

From Gerard van Honthorst (1622)
According to geneticist R.J. Berry, "Genetics has always seemed to be a barrier to belief in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Even if one of Mary's eggs had developed without fertilization (a process called parthenogenesis which happens regularly in some aphids and bees), the resulting child would have been female like her mother. Somehow Jesus must have got a Y-chromosome or he would not have been a male. However, we now know that there are genetic mechanisms by which this could in theory occur. These do not 'explain away' the virgin birth or make it less of a miracle, but they do help us to understand ways in which God might have worked. We have to recognize that if Christ was going to be fully divine, he must somehow be different. If God is going to bring his Son into the world, he could, as it were, have snapped his fingers and produced a full-blown infant. But Christ was fully human as well as fully God. So, we are told, he had a normal mother but a divine father. I have no problems whatever with the virgin birth. To me, this is a theological necessity."[4]

For some, other objections are raised such as, "the ancients were more gullible than we are, and were more ignorant," or "science has disproved miracles." In all actuality, the "ancients" were well aware that children are produced through sexual intercourse between a male and female. This is why Joseph (Matthew 1:19) and Mary (Luke 1:34) questioned the virginal conception, because they were aware that to have a child, sexual intercourse had to have occurred. Also, there are people in antiquity that did not and would not accept miracles, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. "Conversely, today, all the evolution-biased newspapers promote astrology (horoscopes), and consider the total acceptance of spontaneous generation among the evolutionary establishment despite being disproved by Louis Pasteur. This speaks volumes about modern man’s gullibility!"[5] As for science disproving miracles, this claim is fallacious. Essentially, it is argued that miracles violate laws of nature (or scientific laws), and laws of nature have no exceptions. However, as Jonathan Sarfati comments, "But we only know that scientific laws are universal if we know in advance that reports of miracles are false. In fact the argument is circular. The argument also has a false view of scientific laws—they are descriptive, not prescriptive. The laws do not cause or forbid anything anymore than the outline of a map causes the shape of the coastline. But if God made the heavens and the earth, a Virginal Conception is no trouble for Him."[6]

David Hume (1711-1776), a famous skeptic, is noted for his anti-miracles work. Hume did not believe that the metaphysical realm existed, and as such, in his view, neither did God, Heaven or Hell, or angels. This also meant that miracles were impossible. In a debate between William Lane Craig, a Christian, and Darwinist Peter Atkins, Atkins challenged Craig with the claim that science could account for everything. Concerning the relevant topic, this would include miracles, and consequently, the virgin conception and birth. Craig denied this claim, going on to say, "I think there are a good number of things that cannot be scientifically proven but we are all rational to accept."[7] Craig then proceeded to cite five examples, as listed in I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist:
  1. "mathematics and logic (science can't prove them because science presupposes them)
  2. metaphysical truths (such as, there are minds that exist other than my own)
  3. ethical judgments (you can't prove by science that the Nazis were evil, because morality is not subject to the scientific method)
  4. aesthetic judgments (the beautiful, like the good, cannot be scientifically proven)
  5. science itself (the belief that the scientific method discovers truth can't be proven by the scientific method itself)"[8]
Indeed, science itself does not actually say anything; it is the scientists who interpret the data. In like manner, as C.S. Lewis has observed, "If a man had no conception of a regular order in nature, then of course he could not notice departures from that order. When the disciples saw Christ walking on the water, they were frightened: they would not have been frightened unless they had known the laws of nature, and known that this was an exception."[9] Miracles are not impossible, but are rare events occurring in time. This is why they are miracles, because they are outside of what we would normally expect to happen. It goes against what we believe we know about the universe, yet in the case of black holes, for example, astronomers have conceded that the way black holes function seems to go against the very laws of nature and somehow appeal to higher laws. Interestingly, in a sample of 1,011 adults, a Harris poll demonstrated that 91% believed that the virgin birth occurred, although the results are over a decade old and have likely changed.[10]

Another objection to the account of the virgin conception and birth is that it is historically unsupported, meaning, outside of Matthew and Luke, no other ancient sources, such as early church fathers, agreed with this doctrine. The claim itself, however, is historically unsupported. In fact, "The doctrine is scriptural and affirmed by early Christians such as Ignatius (d. AD c. 108), Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200), and Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 212)."[11] Also, "The Apostles' Creed, written in the 4th century; the Nicene Creed, adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.; the Athanasian Creed, written about 450 A.D.; the Chalcedon Definition, adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.; and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther of 1529 A.D. are only a few of the historic creeds that recognize the veracity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Only in more modern times have Bible critics begun to try to cast doubt on a doctrinal truth that the Church has long since historically endorsed."[12] It is true, though, that not all early Christians agreed on the doctrine of the virgin conception and birth.

One such teaching is the Virginitas in partu, or the idea that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a way that left her hymen intact and left her free of birth pains. This is derived from the Ascension of Isaiah (late 1st century) and in the late 2nd century work, the Protoevangelium of James.[13] This doctrine was first cited by Clement of Alexandria in the 3rd century, but was rejected by both Tertullian and Origen. Also, this teaching is "inconsistent with Luke’s quotation of 'every male that opens the womb' (2:23). And if the Roman Catholic interpretation of Rev. 12:2 is correct and the woman is Mary, then there are further grounds for rejecting the idea that Mary was free from labour pains."[14] Another variation of the virgin birth doctrine is the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity, or Virginitas post partum. This is not found prior to the Protoevangelium of James. Tertullian also opposed this teaching. In the Catholic tradition, this is motivated by Mary’s statement to Gabriel, 'I know not a man.' (Lk. 1:34). This is interpreted this to mean, 'I have taken a vow never to know a man.' This eisegesis was first suggested by Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 394), but there are two difficulties here: first, the verb to know (γινώσκω ginōskō) is in the present active indicative, which should not be read as a future intention, and second, she was already betrothed to Joseph (v. 27). Mt. 1:25: '[Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son' also rules out a sexless marriage—deleting the words after “not” would have been the correct way to teach this."[15]

A third variation of virgin birth is the immaculate conception, mentioned earlier in the article. This refers to Mary's conception, and not Jesus' conception. It is the teaching that Mary was born naturally but was born without sin. This particular teaching was not finalized until 1854 in Rome. However, this contradicts Scripture, in that Mary conceded her need for a Savior (Luke 1:46-47), and also brought a sin offering to the Temple, as evidenced by Luke 2:21-24 (cf. Leviticus 12:6-8 and Romans 3:23). Also, "Smith’s Bible Dictionary points out that there is no trace of this doctrine in the Church Fathers in the first five centuries, and in fact that Mary was criticised by Tertullian, Origen, Basil the Great (329–379) and John Chrysostom (c. 350–407). Some of these criticisms of one who was 'blessed among women' (Lk. 1:42) are very unfair, but the point is that these early Christians clearly did not believe that Mary was sinless. The Roman Catholic scholar Hilda Graef cites critical comments by these fathers, and also points out that Irenaeus taught that she was not free of human faults, and that the great Trinitarian Athanasius (c. 296–373), while not attributing actual sins to her, stated that “bad thoughts” came into her mind. Graef admits that it '… shows that the image of the spotless, perfect, immaculate Virgin had not yet emerged in the minds of the 4th Century fathers'."[16]

In regard to the silence of the New Testament writers apart from Matthew and Dr. Luke's account concerning the miraculous birth of Jesus, there are several plausible answers. The claim goes that St. Paul's epistles and John's gospel do not mention the virgin birth, and therefore, the doctrine was not widely held and is biblically unconvincing. This is an unconvincing argument from the start, as both Paul and John were familiar with the gospel accounts written by Matthew and Dr. Luke , and never refuted or denied what was taught in them. In fact, in one of Paul's letters, Luke 10:7 is quoted, and is called "Scripture" alongside Deuteronomy 25:4 (1st Timothy 5:18). Dr. Luke, a physician (Colossians 4:14), was also a traveling companion of St. Paul's. The second half of Acts, which was also written by Dr. Luke, has been examined by classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer, who identifies over 84 facts in the last 16 chapters, leaving no doubt that Dr. Luke was an eyewitness and faithful historian to these events.[17] If this is the case, why do we expect him to report the birth of Jesus any differently? Put simply, Matthew used the account because it linked to the fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), and Dr. Luke uses it as he showed interest in the life of Mary.

Nevertheless, this does not explain away why the virgin birth is not found elsewhere in the New Testament. St. Paul was "silent" because he saw no reason to correct the narratives. He would have been aware of Dr. Luke's work, as his traveling companion, and as aforementioned, he quotes from Dr. Luke's gospel. There was no reason for Simon Peter, Mark, John, Paul, or others to mention the virgin birth, because it was not relevant to the situational context. By the time the other New Testament documents were written, these teachings were already generally accepted among Christians, so there was no need to rehash the birth narrative. There was a need to continually mention the resurrection, and the events leading up to it as well as the miracles performed by Christ, because as noted by Paul, "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1st Corinthians 15:14). Paul and other writers were writing more problem-oriented letters, and as such, there was no need to mention something that was not pertinent to the solution. Citing the birth of Christ in an instance where the gifts of the spirit are being mentioned does not aid in the argument, therefore, there was no need to mention the virgin conception and birth. The New Testament was written "in a ‘high context’ setting on which people's background knowledge of events was substantially assumed, as opposed to our ‘low context’ society in which we feel a need to explain everything, every time."[18]

From Lorenzo Costa (1490)
In other words, most early Christians did not cite the virgin birth as evidence for Christianity, as the basic arguments were built upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the same reason we do not find all of Jesus’ miracles referred to time and time again in the New Testament, although there are some miracles mentioned in the gospels that are mentioned more than once. If the virgin birth was cited, it would open more ridicule, and would lead to inevitable comparisons to pagan mythologies, just as we find today. To note, "Paul does use language which implies acceptance of the Virginal Conception. He uses the general Greek verb γίνομαι (ginomai), not γεννάω (gennaō) since ginomai tends to associate the husband in Rom. 1:3, Phil. 2:7, and especially Gal. 4:4, 'God sent forth His Son, coming (γενόμενον genomenon) from a woman.’ By contrast, in 4:23 Ishmael 'was born’ (γεγέννηται gegennētai, from gennaō). Mark has no birth narrative, but he alone of the synoptists quotes objectors saying, 'Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary’ (Mk. 6:3, cf. Mt. 13:55 and Lk. 4:22). Addressing a Jew as his mother’s son was a great insult, implying fornication, so the objectors had probably heard the account of Christ’s conception, and were sceptical. It is also likely from this that Mark was also aware of the account. John also has no birth narrative, but he is aware of rumors of Christ’s illegitimacy when he reports in 8:41 that the Jews declared: ‘We (emphatic pronoun and emphatic position) were not born of fornication.’ This passage as well as Jn. 1:13 and 6:41 f. probably indicate that the evangelist believed in the Virginal Conception."[19]

Yet another popular objection concerning the virgin birth is that it is derived from pagan mythologies. While the notion that events in Jesus' life are borrowed from pagan myths has been examined in articles such as "Is Jesus A Copy Of Pagan Gods?", the idea that Matthew and Dr. Luke borrowed from pagan mythology for the birth narrative is unfounded. Simply because similarities exist does not necessitate borrowing or copying, any more than two similar paintings necessitates that one was copied from the other. The story of "Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, for example, has her miraculously impregnated by the god Mars. This is a ghastly and crude notion compared to the subtle and miraculous creative power and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Most of the alleged source stories similarly have some god assume a human or animal form and impregnate a human woman with some sort of divine seed."[20] In Greek mythology, Zeus (Roman equivalent: Jupiter) fathered Perseus, Herakles (Roman equivalent: Hercules), as well as several other children, and Poseidon fathered Theseus. This idea of pagan mythological borrowing is subject to a number of issues, as pointed out in Sarfati's article, "The Virginal Conception of Christ":

  • "The so-called parallels are not parallels at all! Perseus was not really virginally conceived at all, but was the result of sexual intercourse between the lecherous god Zeus and Danaë. Zeus had previously turned himself into a shower of gold to reach the imprisoned damsel. Zeus also fathered Herakles from Alkmene and Dionysus from Semele. Similarly for attempt to assert that the Resurrection of Christ was plagiarized—the death-rebirth-death cycles in paganism have nothing to do with the once and for all resurrection of Jesus, and the pagan gods didn’t die for our sins. And the Osiris legends have him remaining buried in the ground, while it’s a historical fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Other alleged parallels are just as worthless, so it is pointless for sceptical scholars to multiply examples—zero times a hundred is still zero.
  • The earliest Christians were Jews who abhorred paganism (see Acts 14), so would be the last people to derive Christianity from paganism.
  • The existence of counterfeits does not disprove the real thing. No-one claims that real money can’t exist because there is counterfeit money. In fact, it is only valuable things that are counterfeited— who would want to counterfeit something worthless—so the existence of counterfeits is indirect evidence of the real thing. Of course, Satan wants to counterfeit the Word of God. We should know the real thing (God’s Word, and money too although far less important) so well that we can readily discern counterfeits."[21]
There was an instance in which I debated someone about Jesus having been based off of the Egyptian god Horus. Once it was mentioned that Jesus is a historical figure and that Horus was a mythological figure and not historical, the discussion ended. Unlike the mythical Zeus, Poseidon, Mars and others, Jesus actually existed. It is also important to understand that first century Jews would not simply buy into a Greek or Babylonian myth as a basis for the birth of their long-awaited Messiah. Perhaps a few of these early Christians could have, but certainly not the majority of those who were devout Jews, who changed their views once they understood that Jesus is the Messiah. There are many objections to the virgin birth and conception, which can all be answered to some degree. But it must be recognized that logic and reason can take us only so far, and that there must be a leap of faith involved. The virgin birth of Jesus, a miracle, is an unrepeatable, untestable, and unobservable event to us, and as Christians, some faith is required to accept the New Testament record. This is not blind faith, as we accept the New Testament based on historical, archaeological, textual and other evidence, but it requires faith as the final step. 

Troy Hillman

[1] "virgin." Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 22 Nov. 2011.
[2] Alexander, David, and Pat Alexander, ed. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999. 596-597. Print.
[3] Witmer, David E.. "Isn't the virgin birth of Jesus Christ mythological and scientifically impossible?." Christian Answers Network. AIIA Institute, 2001. Web. Nov 2011.
[4] Ibid, [2].
[5] Sarfati, Jonathan. "The Virginal Conception of Christ." Creation Ministries International. Creation Ministries International, 11 April 1994. Web. Nov 2011.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Geisler, Norman L., and Frank Turek. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. 1st ed. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004. 126-127. Print.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Witmer, David E.. "Aren’t miracles illogical?." Christian Answers Network. AIIA Institute, 2005. Web. 19 Dec 2011.
[10] Ibid, [3].
[11] Ibid, [5].
[12] Ibid, [3].
[13] Graef, Hilda. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion 1:34. New York: Sheed and Warde, 1963. Print.
[14] Ibid, [5].
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid, [7], 256-259.
[18] JPH. "Virgin birth: a defense." Tektonics. Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry, n.d. Web. 19 Dec 2011.
[19] Ibid, [5].
[20] Ibid, [18].
[21] Ibid, [5].