"The Virgin Shall be With Child"
The conception of human offspring, according to natural law, occurs only when the sperm of a man unites with the egg of a woman. In the case of Jesus, though, writers of the first century report that he was born of a virgin. The writers agree that a power outside of nature made the conception possible. It was a miracle, a supernatural event-a verifiable occurrence in nature caused by a power from beyond nature.
"Impossible," "incredible," "superstition" are a few of the reactions modern men display toward these Biblical accounts. Assessing the modern mind, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a rank modernist, concluded: "To them miracles are antecedently improbable, stories of them seem in general unreliable, reliance on them seems practically undesirable, and so in the end the whole matter becomes pretty much unbelievable" (Modern Use of the Bible, p. 155). As for himself Fosdick said, "I find some of the miracle-narratives of Scripture historically incredible" (Ibid., p. 164).
As incredible as it may seem to many folks, the virgin birth of Jesus is nonetheless a matter of historical record. Reporting from the viewpoint of Mary the mother of Jesus, Luke, a first-century historian known for his accuracy, says she was "a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph" (1:27). He also recorded the response of Mary when the angel announced that she was to have a child. "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (1:34). Mary knew as well as anyone in today's so-called scientific and enlightened age that virgins do not naturally have babies. The angel then explained, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God" (1:35). The conception of Jesus was therefore miraculous, demanding the injection of power from outside nature.
Matthew, one of Jesus' apostles, reported essentially the same facts. His account related the appearance of an angel to Joseph, Mary's betrothed husband, to assure him that Mary's pregnancy was not of another man but of the Holy Spirit. "Joseph thou son of David," the angel said, "fear not to take unto thee Mary they wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (1:20) Matthew then noted that this event fulfilled a prophecy announced several hundred years before. The prophet Isaiah, he records, had said: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23).
As already noted, a common reaction among modern men to this kind of a report is-"impossible." The word "impossible," though, is a rather strong term. Unbelievers should consider what this objection to the virgin birth of Jesus requires. It demands proof that no power exists outside nature. One must demonstrate, as C. S. Lewis describes naturalism, that "nature is the whole show." An unbeliever cannot admit the possibility that power exists outside nature without conceding the possibility that the power may have injected itself into nature to cause the virgin birth of Jesus.
Furthermore, folks who consider nature the whole show must honestly reflect upon facts which nature of itself cannot explain. Nature, for example, offers no explanation of the origin of matter, of life and of the intricate designs in nature. Any interpretation of these facts calls for power unknown or unobserved in nature. The word "impossible" must exit through the same hole in nature which any outside power enters. The same power, therefore, which can create matter or life can also effect conception in the womb of a virgin. Infidels must, in other words, disprove the existence of God to prove the impossibility of a virgin birth, for "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). God Himself said, "Is anything too hard for Jehovah?" (Gen. 18:14).
The real issue, then, is not whether the virgin birth is possible, but whether it is believable. Here several factors must be considered. Its believability, to begin with, is related to the identity of the child who is born of the virgin. A report that Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar or Hirohito was born of a virgin would not be credible because none of them has shown any signs of deity otherwise. If such an account were found, it would be meaningless anyway. What has any one of them promised which demands divine power and which ignites any interest in whether they were born of a virgin?
Jesus, however, declared that He was the Son of God and promised He could and would provide an eternal life of bliss to all obedient believers. Claiming to be God's Son, He has likewise consigned the unbelieving and disobedient to eternal punishment in hell. If any evidence of this claim exists, then the virgin birth is believable and worthy of investigation. The credibility of the virgin birth of Jesus rests, for example, on the evidence for His incarnation, transfiguration, miracles and resurrection. And these summon an abundance of witnesses to the deity of Christ and, as a result, to the credibility of His birth of a virgin.
New Testament writers, to put it another way, never appealed to the virgin birth to prove that Jesus is God's Son or to confirm the truthfulness of Christianity. Paul, for example, appealed to the resurrection of Christ, concluding from it that Jesus was "declared to be the Son of God with power" (Romans 1:4). Peter, who also testified of the resurrection, confirmed the truthfulness of Christianity on the grounds of the transfiguration. On the mount he saw the majesty of His brightness and heard the voice which said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him." Thus, Peter affirmed, "we did not follow cunningly devised fables" (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:16-18). In addition to his testimony to the resurrection, the apostle John devoted his entire gospel to the miracles of Christ, observing finally: "Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing ye may have life in his name" (John 20:30,31).
Despite the testimony of many witnesses to the deity of Christ, unbelieving scholars are disturbed by the silence of these same apostles concerning the virgin birth of Jesus. Some modernists have even implied that these writers knew nothing about it. At one time it was argued on the basis of this silence that the virgin birth of Jesus was a second-century myth which had been tacked onto the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Reasoning in this way from silence, though, can be rather precarious. May one, for example, infer that John knew nothing about the Lord's Supper simply because he nowhere mentioned it?
A simple explanation for this silence can be given. All facts, even in a court of law, do not possess the same evidential value. Lawyers customarily present the most obvious and most demonstrable facts. The virgin birth, as James Orr noted, was obviously a fact of "essentially a private nature." Even a doctor, such as Luke, could not upon examination observe and verify a virgin conception. Since the apostles were ordered to preach the gospel of faith in Christ to every creature, they naturally appealed to facts they themselves had observed and that the enemies of Christ had opportunity to witness. The virgin birth of Jesus is not believable because it is observable, but because it is reported of one who proved in many other ways he was God's Son.
The credibility of the virgin birth also rests on the agreement of the witnesses and the reports. In this case the testimony of two witnesses is given in two accounts. Matthew's account, as noted earlier, is based on Joseph's experience and Luke's record on Mary's experience. The two narratives are different, and yet not contradictory. This is evidence of their independence. James Orr wrote, "The independence of the narratives is a guarantee of their worth. It shows that they are not inventions of either of the Evangelists, but are drawn from an outside source-nay, from two sources, which are distinct, yet agree in their testimony to the essential fact" (The Virgin Birth of Christ, p. 36).
The two gospels not only agree on the essential fact that a virgin was empowered by the Holy Spirit to give birth to a child, but also on the incidental and minute details where false witnesses normally contradict one another. Orr has compiled in the following quotation both the essential and incidental agreements of these two narratives.
(1) Jesus was born in the last days of Herod-Matt. 2:1,13; Lk. 1:5. (2) He was conceived by the Holy Ghost-Matt. 1:18,20; Lk. 1:35. (3) His mother was a virgin-Matt. 1:18,20,23; Lk. 1:27,34. (4) She was betrothed to Joseph-Matt. 1:18; Lk. 1:27; 2:5. (5) Joseph was of the house and lineage of David-Matt. 1:16,20; Lk. 1:27; 2:4. (6) Jesus was born at Bethlehem-Matt. 2:1; Lk. 2:4,6. (7) By divine direction He was called Jesus-Matt. 1:21; Lk. 1:31. (8) He was declared to be a Savior-Matt. 1:21; Lk. 2:11. (9) Joseph knew beforehand of Mary's condition and its cause-Matt. 1:18-20; Lk. 2:5. (10) Nevertheless he took Mary to wife, and assumed full paternal responsibilities for her child, was from the first IN LOCO parents to Jesus-Matt. 1:20,24,25; Lk. 2:5ff. (11) The annunciation and birth were attended by revelations and visions-Matt. 1:20; Lk. 1:27,28. (12) After the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary dwelt in Nazareth-Matt. 1:23; Lk. 2:39" (IBID., pp. 36,37).
The credibility of these accounts is founded likewise on the fact that they are contemporary reports of the birth of Christ, a quality of evidence missing in the narratives of so-called paganistic miracles. The story of the birth of Jesus is not a myth which grew over many centuries and was then eventually accepted as true. This gospel story comes from the first century. The facts do not sustain the modernistic view that the narratives of Jesus' birth originated in the second century and formed no part of the original gospels of Matthew and Luke.
In the first place, no unmutilated copies of the New Testament omit Matthew 1 and 2 or Luke 1 and 2. Some New Testament passages are missing from certain manuscripts, but not these four chapters. This is true also of the many translations of the New Testament: Latin, Syriac, Egyptian, etc. Even the writings of the earliest "church fathers" such as Ignatius (A. D. 110) and the so-called "Apostles Creed" (A. D. 100-120) accept the virgin birth of Jesus at the beginning of the second century.
In the second place, even skeptical literary scholars, men who study the styles of writers, admit that the accounts of the virgin birth of Jesus formed a part of the original gospels. James Moffatt, for example, wrote, "No hypothesis of literary criticism or textual emendation can disentangle the conception of a Virgin Birth from a story which is wrought together and woven on one loom" (The Supernaturalness of Christ, Wilbur Smith, p. 83). Adolph von Harnack, who denied the virgin birth and whom Williston Walker called the "prince of church historians," conceded after demanding and exacting research that "Luke's gospel originally included chapters 1 and 2. The testimony of the virgin birth of Jesus was given, then, at the time it occurred when any available evidence to the contrary could be raised to dispute it. And yet no such evidence has been made available.
Skeptics, nonetheless, hold to lingering doubts, viewing the narratives as paganistic superstitions. In the words of David Hume, the Scottish historian and philosopher, they feel miracles are "observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations." Considering the word "chiefly" this is a fairly accurate observation. The facts, however, demonstrate that Palestine in the first century is an exception to the rule. A. T. Robertson, who has been especially close to this period through his study of the Greek language, said, one must not "think that it was an ignorant age. What we call the `Dark Ages' came long afterwards." It is remarkable, moreover, that David Hume not one time mentions a miracle of Christ in his essay "Of Miracles." He wrote on miracles and superstition in the "Dark Ages" and among pagans, but does not so indict Christ and Palestine of the first century.
Furthermore the New Testament itself confirms the lack of credulity in first-century Palestine with reference to both the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ. Mary, for example, showed a lack of credulity in questioning the virgin birth when it was first announced unto her. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, demanded scientific proof before believing in the resurrection of Christ. After the resurrection he wanted to see and touch the scarred body of his Master. The Athenians likewise showed an unsuperstitious nature when they scoffed at the preaching of Christ's resurrection by Paul (Lk. 1:34; John 20:24-29; Acts 17:32).
Some skeptics, though, are still under the impression that virgin birth stories were common among ancient people and that the Biblical account is just one of a long list. Wilbur Smith observed two things with reference to these alleged parallel stories. "First, that in pagan mythology, it is not claimed that any hero is born of a virgin" (Op. Cit., p. 96). James Orr also argued that the New Testament contained the only true account of a virgin birth in ancient literature. Smith said, in the second place, that the style of the New Testament narratives is wholly unlike pagan myths. They are, he said, "utterly free from all artificial embellishment, remarkably devoid of unnecessary details, without the slightest tinge of mythological exaggeration, and in every way showing sobriety and restraint in composition" (Op. Cit., p. 85). Neither the society of firstcentury Palestine nor the Biblical accounts fit into the mold of paganism and its myths.
Men and women of the first century simply were not known to believe just any kind of story. Neither did the apostles expect them to. The apostles announced to the world what they saw and heard, confirming their own message by observable signs which followed (Mk. 16:17-20). This scientific evidence became the foundation of belief. It is this kind of evidence that convinced much of the world that Jesus is "the only begotten Son" of God-born of a virgin.
Truth Magazine, XX:20, pp. 4-7