As a major tenet of Roman Catholic teaching and a foundation for fundamentalist belief, the virgin birth remains an essential doctrine for many Christians. Since the advent of modern historical criticism, however, others have been skeptical about the virgin birth. Ultimately, the issue will be decided by a person's faith stance and view of scripture.
Belief in the virgin birth of Christ is based on the stories of Jesus' birth found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Luke 1.5–38, shortly after Elizabeth miraculously conceives in her old age, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary who is specifically described as a virgin (Grk. parthenos). He tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son who will inherit the throne of David. Mary, surprised by this news, asks “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Gabriel reassures her that she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit and cites as proof the fact that Elizabeth is now with child. There is no confusion possible in Luke's account. The author wants it to be clear that this is a miraculous impregnation of a woman who had not had sexual relations. The detailed nature of this dialogue between Mary and Gabriel suggests that the author of Luke was responding to specific questions about the virgin birth of Christ. Luke also alludes to the virgin birth in his genealogy of Jesus when he says that Jesus was “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (Luke 3.23).
Matthew 1.18–25 takes the tradition about Jesus' miraculous conception and develops it in a slightly different way. The angel, who is not named, appears not to Mary but to Joseph, who has discovered that Mary is pregnant. Although Joseph plans to break off his engagement, the angel commands him to go through with the marriage since the child is from the Holy Spirit. As in Luke, Matthew wishes to make it clear that Mary and Joseph had not had sexual relations prior to this announcement (1.18). In fact, the author stresses that Joseph “did not know her until she had borne a son” (Matt. 1.25).
The author of Matthew often attempts to prove that Jesus is the Messiah by showing how the details of his life fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. In this case, Matthew presents a passage from Isaiah 7 in which the prophet is speaking to Ahaz, king of Judah. Ahaz faces attack from the forces of Syria and Israel (734 BCE), and so he is contemplating an alliance with the king of Assyria. God makes it clear to Ahaz that such an alliance should not take place. Isaiah declares that the Lord will provide a sign that will make known the Lord's will in spite of Ahaz's recalcitrance. A young woman who is pregnant will bear a son, and before that child is old enough to tell the difference between good and evil, the powers that threaten Judah will be defeated. Ahaz refuses to believe the sign and sends tribute to the Assyrian king who destroys Damascus and kills the king of Syria (2 Kings 16.9). The other threatening force, Israel, is conquered by Assyria twelve years after the occasion of this sign at about the time that the child mentioned in the sign would have reached the age of maturity.
Isaiah's intent in discussing this child is clearly to set a time frame for the destruction of Israel. There is nothing miraculous about the mother or the conception process. The Hebrew word used, ʿalmâ, means simply “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. The Greek word parthenos used to translate ʿalmâ can mean either a young woman or a virgin. Matthew used a Greek Bible, so he naturally reinterpreted Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy referring to the virgin birth of Jesus. For the evangelist, Isaiah's original meaning was superseded by the identification of Jesus as Immanuel (Grk. Emmanouēl).
One of the most frequently raised objections to the virgin birth is that, with the exception of Matthew and Luke, New Testament authors do not make explicit mention of it. Other alleged references are at best vague allusions (Mark 6.3; John 1.13–14; 6.42). Such an argument from silence cannot be determinative, but it is an important consideration for people who see the virgin birth as a feature created within the early traditions about Jesus rather than a historical occurrence.
Those who doubt the historicity of the virgin birth argue that it was created by the early church as a way of honoring the coming of Jesus as the Son of God or of explaining the idea of God becoming flesh. Miraculous human birth stories are common in biblical tradition, going back to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17.15–19, 18.9–15, 21.1–7), and numerous references to deities impregnating women are found within the Greco‐Roman tradition. The mother of Heracles, for instance, was said to have been impregnated by Zeus (Diodorus Siculus, 4.9,1–10).
Affirmation of the virgin birth by the apostolic father Ignatius (Smyrneans 1) confirms that the concept was an early and strongly held belief. As Christian doctrine developed, the virgin birth became a preeminent statement of faith and the ultimate test of belief in biblical inerrancy. It was also expanded in several directions. The veneration of Mary is related to the virgin birth, as is the tradition that Mary was ever virgin. Belief in this latter concept requires that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament must have been stepbrothers and stepsisters or cousins. Mary's virginity also becomes an important factor in ascetic Christianity and in the promotion of a life of celibacy.
Daniel N. Schowalter