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The virgin birth of Jesus is the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by the Holy Spirit and born while Mary was yet a virgin. The New Testament references are Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38. The virgin birth is not mentioned in the Pauline epistles, nor is it mentioned in the Gospels of Mark or John.
The virgin birth was universally accepted in the Christian church by the 2nd century, was enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, and, except for several minor sects, was not seriously challenged until the 18th century, and remains a basic article of belief in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant churches. Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus.
- 1 Distinction from other doctrines
- 2 Cultural context
- 3 New Testament
- 4 Isaiah
- 5 The Qur'an
- 6 Critical analysis
- 7 Christian celebrations and devotions
- 8 Artistic depictions
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 Further reading
Distinction from other doctrines
Mary's virginal conception of Jesus is sometimes confused with the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, namely, her being conceived in the normal way but free from original sin.
According to standard Jewish custom of the time of Jesus, girls were betrothed around the age of twelve or twelve and a half. During the betrothal period, which lasted about a year, the marriage was not consummated and the bride remained in her parents' house. Betrothal was formalised by a contract regulating such matters as the transfer of property and provision for the wife and children should the husband die; voiding the contract required a divorce document freeing the girl to remarry.
|Events in the|
|Life of Jesus
according to the Gospels
|Portals: Christianity Bible|
The earliest Christian preaching about Jesus concerned his death and resurrection, and the early Church turned its attention to the chronology of the rest of the life of Jesus later. Early Christians were hardly monolithic in their preachings, and the Nativity accounts of the gospels may have diverged as a result, but a comparison of the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew show common elements in terms of the virgin birth, the birth at Bethlehem and the upbringing at Nazareth.
The Pauline epistles, the earliest surviving Christian writings, refer to Jesus' mother without stating that she was a virgin. Instead Paul focuses on contrasting the birth of Jesus with the fall of Adam, and presents Jesus as the "firstborn of all creation", and a second Adam, in Colossians 1:15-16.
Some see the silence of Paul on virginity as implying that he knew of no account of the virgin birth of Jesus, while scholars such as Raymond Brown reject the "argument from silence" and state that Paul's letters were composed with a view to ecclesiastical problems with which he had to deal, not to give a narrative of the life of Jesus.
Raymond E. Brown states that given the multiple lines of reasoning, there are no convincing arguments to determine whether Paul knew of the virgin birth or not. Brown writes that it is difficult to decide whether Paul's silence on the question of the virginal conception of Jesus is significant in any case. Brown states that, even if the silence of Paul is taken to indicate ignorance of the virgin birth, it does not disprove it, for a family tradition about it could have circulated among relatively few in the years 30-60, before becoming known to the communities for whom Matthew and Luke wrote. Other authors have noted that the silence of Paul is no indication, given the Pauline Epistles were not intended as chronologies and include very few details of the life of Jesus in general, and that even the Last Supper was only mentioned by Paul in response to problems in Corinth.
Specific passages in Paul's letters include Galatians 4:4, usually translated as: "when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law". (The word translated as "born" literally means "having come to be", and Young's Literal Translation gives the phrase as "come of a woman, come under law".) Some see this silence about a virgin birth as lack of knowledge of it, while others see the phrase "born of a woman, born under the law" as implying that Jesus had no human father. The opening of the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 1:1-4) includes the words: "concerning his Son, who was descended from David (or who came from the offspring of David) according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord". Some, pointing out that the Greek word translated as "descendant" in some Bibles is sperma, which literally means "seed", and interpreting this as indicating descent through the male line, take "descended from David according to the flesh" to mean that Joseph, a descendant of David, was the physical father of Jesus, thus denying the virgin birth of Jesus, others take it as indicating that Mary too was a descendant of David. Others point out that here, as in Galatians 4:4, Paul does not use the ordinary word for "born" (γεννητός, gennetos, the word used in Matthew 11:11 in relation to John the Baptist being "born of a woman"), but the word γενόμενος, genomenos, literally meaning "become", "come to be", a fact that some interpret as an allusion to incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God.
The statement in Romans 8:3-4 that God sent his Son "in the likeness of sinful flesh" has been interpreted as meaning merely that Jesus was externally just like any other human being, supported by Paul's remark elsewhere that Christ "knew no sin".[2 Cor 5:21] Others suggest a contradiction between Paul's notion of being "in the likeness of sinful flesh" and his having been born of a virgin.
In 1Timothy 1:4, the author urges people not to "occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations...". Some scholars see this passage as reflecting a negative view of the developing virgin birth stories and their variant genealogies.
The accounts of the birth of Jesus appear in only two of the four Canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. Luke's story centers on Mary, while Matthew's story centers on Joseph, and in both gospel accounts (Luke 2:1-7 and Matthew 2:1) Jesus is conceived without a human father.
While Luke's introduction does assert that its author has "carefully investigated everything",[Lk. 1:3] neither Luke nor Matthew attribute their birth narratives to the direct testimonies of either Mary or Joseph. James Hastings and separately Thomas Neufeld have expressed the view that the circumstances of the birth of Jesus were deliberately kept restricted to a small group of early Christians, and were kept as a secret for many years after his death. Ronald Brownrigg suggests that the narrative in Luke was obtained via a path from Mary, while the narrative in Matthew was obtained from a path on Joseph's side.
The Gospel of Matthew (c 80-85) begins with a genealogy leading from Abraham to Joseph, but then calls Joseph "the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."[1:16] In the original text in Greek, "of whom" is ἐξ ἧς (feminine singular), clearly showing that the phrase refers to Mary, not to Joseph or to Mary and Joseph together. The book continues:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Matthew states that Mary was found to be pregnant "before they came together", while she was "betrothed" to Joseph,[1:18] and that Joseph did not have marital relations with her before the child was born.[1:25]
Matthew declares that the angel who appeared to Joseph, who was considering divorcing Mary, said: "do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit",[1:20] in fulfillment of the prophecy of the prophet: "A virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."[Mt. 1:22-23] Scholars interpret "prophet" as a reference to Isaiah 7:14. Some 5th- and 6th-century manuscripts read "Isaiah the prophet".
The text of Isaiah in Hebrew, as given in both the Masoretic text and the Great Isaiah Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, uses the word עַלְמָה (almah), meaning an unmarried young woman of the age of puberty. David Strauss in The Life of Jesus, suggests that Isaiah was referring to events of his own time, and that the young woman in question may have been "perhaps the prophet's own wife". The Encyclopedia Judaica calls the interpretation as referring to a virgin "a two-millennium misunderstanding of Isaiah 7:14", which "indicates nothing concerning the chastity of the woman in question".
Matthew 1:22 ("Behold the virgin shall be with child") uses the Greek term παρθένος (parthenos), meaning a virgin, as in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah, which "alters or refines" the meaning of the Hebrew word, perhaps understanding, as Raymond Brown suggests, the Hebrew word עַלְמָה to mean "virgin" in this context.
Craig A. Evans in the The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus suggests that "Matthew's citation does not demand an exact correspondence of events as much as it postulates a correlation of patterns or types between Isaiah's narrative and his own birth story." The rescue of Israel through the child of a young woman reminds Matthew of Isaiah's story.
The Nativity is a prominent element of the Gospel of Luke (c 85-90), and comprises over 10% of the text, being three times the length of the Nativity text in the Gospel of Matthew. The relevant section on the virgin birth reads:
"26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her."
In Luke 1:30-35 Mary asks how she is to conceive and bear a son, since she is a virgin; and she is told it will happen by the power of God. Luke 3:23-38 gives a genealogy, different from that given by Matthew. Scholars differ on which of the two, Matthew or Luke, is the legal genealogy via Joseph, and which the physical descent via Mary.
The Gospel of Matthew 1:23 refers to a prophecy: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." It is generally agreed that this prophecy comes from the book of Isaiah, which reads:
10 Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying,
11 Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.
12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.
13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.
In this passage, after king Ahaz refused to ask a sign in verse 12, the prophet addressed the house of David, who would be given the sign from "the Lord". Note the plural "ye" and "you" in verses 13 and 14, and then back to the singular "thou" to Ahaz in verse 16, (and verse 14 is "the Lord", not "the LORD".)
The word "virgin" in Christian translations is disputed. The Hebrew word is "עלמה" (almah), which scholars agree means a young woman of child-bearing age, "but has nothing to do with whether she is a virgin", and the context of the passage makes it clear that Isaiah has in mind events in his and Ahaz's near future. The Greek-speaking author of Matthew, however, used the Greek translation of Isaiah, in which the word is given as "παρθένος", parthenos, meaning a virgin. The Encyclopedia Judaica calls this "a two-millennium misunderstanding of Isaiah 7:14", which "indicates nothing concerning the chastity of the woman in question".
The Qur'an says that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. The most detailed account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus is provided in Sura 3 (Al Imran) and 19 (Maryam) wherein it is written that God sent an angel to announce that she could shortly expect to bear a son, despite being a virgin.
The account in Sura 19 [Quran 19:1] of the Qur'an is close to that in the Gospel of Luke. The Annunciation to Mary is mentioned twice in the Quran and in both instances Mary is told that she was chosen by God to deliver a son. In one case, the bearer of the news, who is believed to be archangel Gabriel, delivered the news in (3:42-47) as he takes the form of a man (19:16-22). The details of the conception are not discussed but when Mary asks how she can bear a son in view of her chastity she is told that God creates what he wills and that these things are easy for God. However, elsewhere the Quran states (21:91 and 66:12) that God breathed "His Spirit" into Mary while she was chaste.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Quran, Muslims believe that Jesus and Mary were the only two children not to be touched by Satan at the moment of their birth, for God placed a veil between them and Satan.
According to F. Dale Bruner, "The modern scholarly consensus is that the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on very slim historical foundations." However, some writers take it as significant that the virgin birth is attested by two separate gospels, although the details of each vary. In this view, the virgin conception and birth constitute a tradition that fits within the criterion of multiple attestation, because the accounts of Matthew and Luke are taken as two independent testimonies of the tradition. The mutual independence of the two attestations is shown by the fact that there are differences between the accounts of Matthew and Luke regarding Jesus' birth, to which scholars have drawn attention.
According to Matthew, an unnamed angel informs Joseph of the virginal conception; while in Luke the angel Gabriel informs Mary before the conception occurs. There are at least two rival explanations for the "double attestation" of Matthew and Luke regarding the virgin birth of Jesus:
- The virgin birth was a historical event, and the narratives of Matthew and Luke are based on different aspects of the event according to witnesses' reports of it.
- Matthew and Luke both wanted to present Jesus as fulfilling prophecies from Hebrew scripture. Both were aware of prophecies concerning a virgin birth and Bethlehem, and therefore these elements of their stories match. But each author wove these prophecies into an overall narrative in a different way. For example, both authors had to explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he was known to be from Nazareth (as mentioned in all four gospels)—and each came up with an independent explanation.
However, the fact that the virgin birth is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke is considered to produce doubt as to its truth by scholars such as Jurgen Moltmann. He writes: "In the New Testament, Christ's 'virgin birth' is related only by Luke and Matthew. It was unknown, or considered unimportant, in wide areas of early Christian belief (the Pauline and Johannine sectors, for example). But from the third century onwards it became a firm component of the Christian creeds and theological christologies." He also writes: "The virgin birth is not one of the pillars that sustains the New Testament faith in Christ. The confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord, is independent of the virgin birth, and is not based on it." "Moreover, we find the confession of faith in Christ in Christian traditions which know nothing of the virgin birth, or do not mention it." He concludes: "that the virgin birth does not provide the justification for confessing Christ." John L. McKenzie notes that, if these two narratives were missing from the New Testament, "there would be no biblical mention of the virgin birth". He adds, "the event is unusual enough for one to wonder why an author who knew of it would not mention it." Furthermore, New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes, "The tradition that Jesus' mother was a virgin is given by both Matthew and Luke, and to that extent, it's independently attested. But it has always struck scholars as odd that the tradition—which surely would be an important thing to know!—isn't attested anywhere else in our earliest sources, even among writers who would have had a real interest in publicizing the fact that God himself was actually Jesus' father." The Oxford Companion to the Bible, on the fact that nowhere else in the Bible is the virgin birth attested, has:
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, I. 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).
Among other hypotheses that have been proposed as explanations of the origin of the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the birth of Jesus from a virgin is that of Stephen L Harris, who proposed that these were written to answer Jewish slanders about Jesus' illegitimate birth, of which there is evidence from the 2nd century, but which may have been a subsequent polemical Jewish response to the account in Matthew and Luke. Helmut Köster sees the narratives of Jesus' virgin birth as having roots in Hellenistic mythology.
Psilanthropists argue against the virgin birth and contend that Jesus was a "mere human". Psilanthropism existed among early Jewish Christian groups such as Ebionites who considered Jesus the Messiah, but rejected the apostle Paul as an apostate.  However, in the 4th century the Nicene Creed rejected the teaching that Jesus was a mere human.
In the 2nd century, Celsus, a pagan anti-Christian Greek philosopher wrote that Jesus's father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. The views of Celsus drew responses from Origen who considered it a fabricated story. Raymond E. Brown states that the story of Pantera is a fanciful explanation of the birth of Jesus which includes very little historical evidence.
In the Middle Ages as part of the conflicts with Christians, a satirical parody of the Christian gospels called the Toledot Yeshu was written by the Jews, perhaps as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity. The book referred to the name Pantera, or Pandera as the father of Jesus, and also portrayed Judas Iscariot as a hero. The book accuses Jesus of illegitimate birth as the son of Pandera, and of heretic and at times violent activities along with his followers during his ministry. Robert E. Van Voorst states that the literary origins of Toledot Yeshu cannot be traced with any certainty, and its medieval composition without a fixed form, it is "most unlikely" to have reliable historical information. The Blackwell Companion to Jesus states that the Toledot Yeshu has no historical facts as such, and was perhaps created as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity.
Historically notable psilanthropists have included figures such as the translator of the first Bible in Byelorussian, Symon Budny (who was excommunicated by the Polish Unitarians), and Joseph Priestley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Modern psilanthropists include some members of the Unification Church. Although the church's textbook, the Divine Principle does not specifically mention the teaching that Zacharias was the father of Jesus, according to Ruth Tucker some members of the church hold that belief - which is based on the work of Leslie Weatherhead.
Analogies and explanations
As part of the conflicts between Christians and other groups during the 1st and 2nd centuries, statements were made by both Jews and pagans that the Christian virgin birth narratives had been derived from pagan sources. Early Christians such as Justin Martyr countered the argument about pagan connections to the virgin birth of Jesus. In the 2nd century, Justin presented these arguments in The First Apology of Justin, and in Dialog with Trypho. Justin argued at length against the pagan connection and noted that the word virgin does not even occur in the pagan sources. He also addressed the Old Testament issues in his debates with a Jew called Trypho.
Followers of Mithraism have proposed, from Persian sources, that Mithra might have been born of the union of Mother Earth and Ahuramazda, and that his story influenced both Christianity and Chinese mythology, where he became known as "The Friend". Christian authors have argued that no historical basis for the connection to Christianity has been presented by the Mithraists.
The early Christian document, the Ascension of Isaiah, which may date to the 2nd century, also has a narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus. However, the date and origin of this document is questionable, given that the author disguised his identity behind Isaiah. The narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus can be found also in other New Testament apocrypha, for instance the Protevangelium of James, perhaps written in the 2nd century.
Christian celebrations and devotions
Christians celebrate the conception of Jesus on 25 March (Lady Day) and his birth at Christmas (25 December) or Epiphany (6 January). Among the many traditions associated with Christmas are the construction of cribs and the performance of re-enactments of elements of the story in the Gospels of the birth of Jesus, a tradition started in the 13th century by the Franciscans.
The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated. There has been debate about the reason why Christians came to choose the 25 December date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One theory is that they did so in order to oppose the existing winter-solstice feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) by celebrating on that date the birth of the "Sun of Righteousness".
Another tradition derived the date of Christmas from that of the Annunciation, the virginal conception of Jesus. Since this was supposed to have taken place on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, calculated to have been either 25 March or 6 April, it was believed that the date of Christ's birth will have been nine months later. A tractate falsely attributed to John Chrysostom argued that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year and calculated this as 25 March, a computation also mentioned by Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The Magnificat, based on Luke 1:46-55 is one of four well known Gospel canticles: the Benedictus and the Magnificat in the first chapter, and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc dimittis in the second chapter of Luke, which are now an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition. The Magnificat is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. The Annunciation, representing the virgin birth, became an element of Marian devotions in Medieval times, and by the 13th century direct references to it were widespread in French lyrics.
This doctrine of the Virgin Birth is often represented Christian art in terms of the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God, and in Nativity scenes that include the figure of Salome. The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in Western art. Annunciation scenes also amount to the most frequent appearances of Gabriel in medieval art. The depiction of Joseph turning away in some Nativity scenes is a discreet reference to the fatherhood of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of Virgin Birth.
Gallery of art
Holy Doors, Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, 12th century
Sandro Botticelli, 1489–90
Mikhail Nesterov, Russia, 19th century
Giotto (1267-1337): Nativity with an uninvolved Joseph but without Salome
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- Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Paternoster Press 1993 ISBN 978-0-8499-0232-1), pp. 14-15, cited in the preceding
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- The Jews in old Poland, 1000-1795 ed. Antony Polonsky, Jakub Basista, Andrzej Link-Lenczowski - 1993 p32 "Budny rejected the eternality of Christ and, in the notes to his translation of the New Testament, denied the Virgin birth, assenting that Jesus was Joseph's son. Even among heretical leaders Szymon Budny was considered a heretic and they would have nothing to do with him
- Cyclopædia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 2 By John McClintock, James Strong 1894 p404
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- Lord Jesus Christ by Larry W. Hurtado 2005 ISBN 0-8028-3167-2 page 595
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D by Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1995 ISBN 0-8028-3781-6 page 182
- Kessel, E.L. 1983. A proposed biological interpretation of the Virgin birth. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35:129-136. web version
- The birth of Jesus by George J. Brooke 2001 ISBN 0-567-08756-5 pages 62-63
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- The Julian Calendar 25 March corresponds at present to 8 April in the Gregorian Calendar.
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Gromacki, Robert G. The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981, cop. 1974. 202 p. ISBN 0-89010-3765-4
Virgin birth of Jesus
Gabriel announces John's
birth to Zechariah
Mary visits Elizabeth
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