Now that what is for most families the whirlwind Christmas season has wound down, I thought it would be appropriate to step back a bit and take a look at how we as Christians can be assured of the authenticity of the virgin conception of the Christ.
I will point out right away that other than the resurrection of the Christ, the virgin conception is the most attacked fact presented in the Gospels, precisely because it is one of the hardest to defend if you do not take a thorough, open-minded examination of the evidence to support it. I’ll summarise much of that here.
Most skeptics look at the virgin birth from a naturalistic bias, and because of that they assume any supernatural event is impossible and ignore or discount out of hand any evidence that contradicts that view. Basically, almost any attack on the virgin birth amounts to “unique, supernatural events do not occur, therefore nothing will convince me that this unique, supernatural event could have happened.” Such a close-minded approach to the question results in a rejection of the event whether you examine the evidence or not.
However, if you are open to the possibility of such an event, then a balanced examination of the available evidence is possible.
In previous posts, I showed that the Gospels were not only eyewitness accounts, but are historically accurate as well. Following the standard practice applied to other historical documents of the period, we presume that in matters that cannot be either verified or disproven by cross-checking with other known accounts that the texts in question are accurate, or at the least the authors believed them to be so.
Most skeptics argue either that the accounts of the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke are nothing more than mythology made up by late first-century Christians in order to make the idea that Jesus was the Messiah more acceptable to their audience, or that they borrowed it from pagan mythologies for the same purpose.
Both arguments fail for a number of reasons:
1. The virgin birth narrative would have been (and was) an obstacle to Jews rather than the opposite. There were no rabbis or scholars teaching or expecting the Messiah to be supernaturally conceived in this way in the time of the Christ. Such an outlandish claim was, to most, an indication that the followers of Jesus were heretical.
2. As I have shown in earlier posts, the accounts from which Matthew and Luke draw were circulated early enough that family members and neighbors of Jesus’ family could have easily refuted them. They did not.
3. Matthew was written for a primarily Jewish audience, and Luke drew from Jewish sources. The Jews at the time were zealously adamant that no pagan influences be introduced into their religion. Borrowing any narrative from pagan mythologies and applying it to the Messiah would do nothing more than insure that his legitimacy would be discounted immediately – yet the account was included.
4. The other New Testament writings, while not directly referring to the virgin birth present theology consistent with it.
5. The New Testament books written primarily for a Gentile audience do not emphasize the virgin birth, as would be expected if the account was fabricated to win over a pagan audience as the skeptics suggest. In fact, even Luke’s account can be legitimately viewed as a ‘passing reference’ compared to the emphasis and ink devoted to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
6. The virgin birth was not presented by the first-century believers as a necessary condition of Jesus being the Messiah. It was presented as an historical fact, nothing more. It is hard to reconcile the idea that the account was fabricated to boost the claim that Jesus was the Messiah when not only would it have been so easily refuted if false, but from the outset has served to alienated both Jews and Gentiles from that claim. The fact that the virgin birth narrative lacks the fantastical embellishments of pagan birth myths (the majority of which involve sexual union with gods, and thus are quite different from the Biblical events) and that the early church placed little emphasis upon it makes the ‘fabrication for acceptance’ theories collapse of their own weight.
In conclusion, considering the culture of the time and location of the Gospel writings, it is obvious that the writers believed the virgin conception of Jesus to be historically factual based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and close associates of Jesus and his family.
The only reason to disbelieve the Gospels accounts of the virgin birth is a predetermined belief that miracles are not possible. The virgin birth is presented as historical (not legendary) by credible writers, and is not refuted by any contemporary, credible authors.
Here are some related articles:
Ed Rickard at The Moorings.org has a short article defending the virgin birth using an analysis of New Testament writings
This article by N.T. Wright is a more detailed defense which addresses the differences between the Matthew and Luke accounts as well as many other objections.
Jason Engwer has an article at The Triablogue which gives evidence that the virgin birth was accepted as fact by the church early on.
Saints and Sceptics has an article entitled Rationality, Evidence and The Virgin Birth which I found helpful.
Evidence for the Virgin Birth is a .pdf file of an article written by Kieth Ward, a retired Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College in London.
Stand Firm has an interesting article about the writings of Frank Tipler which propose a scientific confirmation of the virgin birth using blood samples from the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo. I include it just as something to think about. I have not yet done enough research to make a decision on it.