THE VIRGIN BIRTH OF JESUS
Fact or fable?
|"The day will come when the mystical
generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a
virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the
brain of Jupiter." Thomas Jefferson, 1823. 5
|Unbelief in the virgin birth has been
referred to by many early Christian writers as:
|"madness and blasphemy" by
|"sacrilege" by St. Ambrose,
|"impiety and smacking of atheism"
|"full of blasphemies" by the
author of Prædestin,
|"perfidy of the Jews" by
From about 80 CE to the present time, most faith groups
within the Christian religion have taught that Jesus was conceived by the
Virgin Mary by the action of the Holy Spirit, without an act of sexual
intercourse. This doctrine is usually called the virgin birth, although
the term virgin conception would be much more accurate. This has long
been one of the church's foundational beliefs, along with the
inerrancy of the
Bible, and the atonement,
the anticipated second coming of
Jesus. Liberal denominations have generally rejected the virgin birth, and
classify it as a religious myth that was added to Christian belief to make the
religion more competitive with Pagan religions in the Mediterranean region.
This is a
mainly Roman Catholic doctrine. It is unrelated to the virgin
conception/birth, but is often confused with it. Most people seem to believe that
the dogma of the Immaculate Conception declares that Jesus was without original
sin when he was conceived circa 6
BCE by Mary and the Holy
Spirit. In fact, it is the belief that about 20 BCE, when Mary herself was
conceived, that she was without original sin.
Pope Pius IX proclaimed in his Bull Ineffabilis that: "...We declare,
pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin
Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and
privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of
the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a
doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly
believed by all the faithful." 19
and his "brothers:"
Current teachings vary, concerning Jesus' conception and
what the Christian Scriptures (New Testaments) refer to as his "brothers":
churches typically teach that Jesus was the first child of many conceived by
Mary and Joseph via sexual intercourse, as any for other human. In the area of
Nazareth, this often happened before marriage. A couple lived together in a
type of trial marriage until the woman became pregnant or had a child. At that
point, they got married.
|Other Protestant churches, the
Baha'i World Faith
generally teach that Jesus was conceived by Mary and the Holy Spirit; she and
Joseph later had additional children in which Joseph was the father.
|The Roman Catholic
church teaches that Mary was a virgin at the conception of Jesus, and
remained a virgin after his birth, and throughout her life. The "brothers"
referred to in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were in fact
step-brothers fathered by Joseph in a previous marriage.
|The Eastern Orthodox
churches generally teach that Mary remained a virgin; Jesus' "brothers" were in
fact his cousins.
|Many religious leaders in the
Mormon church once taught that Mary conceived after God
engaged in sexual intercourse with her. However, this is no longer widely
taught within the church, and is not formal dogma.
commonly cited about the virgin birth:
|"Therefore the Lord himself will give
you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and
will call him Immanuel." (NIV)
|"Therefore the Lord himself will give
you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his
name Immanuel." (ASV)
|"The virgin shall be with child, and
will give birth to a son, and they shall call him Immanuel; which means, 'God
with us.'" (NIV)
|"Behold, the virgin shall be with
child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel;
which is, being interpreted, God with us." (ASV)
|"In the sixth month, God sent the
angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee to a virgin pledged to be married
to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin's name was Mary...The
angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most
High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of
God.' " (NIV)
|"Now in the sixth month the angel
Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin
betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the
virgin's name was Mary...And the angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy
Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.' "
The virgin birth in
Some of the historic creeds of the Christian Church
recognize the Virgin Birth of Jesus: 11
|The Apostles' Creed was originally
believed to have been written by Jesus' apostles shortly before they spread out
over the known world to teach the Gospel. Some Christians still believe this.
However, liberal theologians generally believe that it was written about the
4th century CE by unknown person(s) and attributed to the apostles:
"I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was
conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius
Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried..."
|The Nicene Creed, adopted at the
Council of Nicea in 325 CE:
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one
Lord Jesus Christ...[who] for our salvation came down from heaven and was
incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made
|The Athanasian Creed was written
by an unknown author in Gaul about 450 CE:
"...we believe and confess that our Lord
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God of the substance of the
father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother,
born in the world."
|The Chalcedonian Definition,
adopted at the Council of Chalcedonian in 451 CE:
"...we all with one accord teach men to
acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ...begotten, for us men
and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the
|The Small Catechism of Martin
Luther of 1529 CE: 12
"I believe in...Jesus Christ, His only Son,
our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin
|The Augsburg Confession This was
the first Protestant confession, written by Philip Melanchthon, and presented
to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Augsburg
in 1530 CE. 13 Article III, "Of the Son of
"Also they teach that the Word, that is,
the Son of God, did assume the human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin
Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians believe
that Biblical passages should normally be interpreted literally, and that the
Bible, in its original form, was inspired by God and thus is
inerrant (free of
any error). Thus, when the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke both describe
Jesus' mother as being a virgin when Jesus was conceived, there is essentially
no room for further debate. Jesus' conception must have happened in precisely
that manner. Jesus was a product of Mary and the Holy Spirit. The lack of any
mention of the virgin birth by the author(s) of the Gospel of John, and by
Paul, is no indication that the virgin birth did not happen. They simply might
not have found it sufficiently important to mention.
Religious liberals tend to approach passages in the
Bible differently than do conservatives. Liberals do not view the Bible as
they considered it to be written by creative authors, often promoting the
specific beliefs of their branch of the Christian movement. Liberals study
verses in the light of non-Biblical Jewish and Christian writings, the culture
of the time, the beliefs of surrounding societies, the evolving beliefs of the
various Jesus movements, etc. Most liberals do not believe in the doctrine of
the virgin birth. This is not a recent development, as evidenced by the quote
by Thomas Jefferson at the top of this essay. 5
Some common observations by religious liberals are:
|St. Paul was Unaware of the Virgin
Birth St. Paul does not mention the virgin birth anywhere in his writings.
It would seem reasonable to assume that if Paul had known of the special
conditions of Jesus' birth that he would have mentioned them in one of his
epistles. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: he seems to have thought
that the birth was natural and conventional:
|Between 49 and 55 CE, he recorded the
first known reference to the birth. In Galatians 4:4, he writes:
"But when the time had fully come,
God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law."
If he had been aware of the virgin
birth, he would have undoubtedly replaced "woman" with "virgin",
or made some other change to show that the birth was miraculous. This passage
was written some 45 years before the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written,
and 55 to 62 years after Jesus' birth.
|In about 57 CE, he wrote his only other
reference to Jesus' birth. In Romans 1:1-3 he writes:
"I Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,
called to be an apostle and separated onto the gospel of God...concerning his
Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the
The phrase "of the seed of David"
strongly indicates that Paul believed Jesus to be the son of Joseph, because
Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy from David to Joseph. The phrase "according
to the flesh" implies a natural, normal conception and birth.
|The virgin birth may have been copied
from a Roman fable: Livy, a famous Roman historian, had written a very
popular book on the history of Rome that was widely circulated in the first
decades of the 1st century CE. In it, he explained that Mars, the Roman God of
war, fathered twins Romulus and Remus, the original founders of the city of
Rome. Their mother was Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. 3
Some Christian groups may have slightly modified this fable and adopted it as
their own, in an attempt to show that Jesus was an person of very great
|The virgin birth may have been copied
from another religion 8 History records that:
historians and liberal theologians believe that many of the elements of Jesus'
life were derived
from the beliefs that earlier Pagan religions had about their gods.
|Buddha was born of the virgin Maya after
the Holy Ghost descended upon her.
|The Egyptian God Horus was born of the
virgin Isis; as an infant, he was visited by three kings.
|In Phrygia, Attis was born of the virgin
|A Roman savior Quirrnus was born of a
|In Tibet, Indra was born of a virgin. He
ascended into heaven after death.
|The Greek deity Adonis was born of the
virgin Myrrha, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. He was born "at
Bethlehem, in the same sacred cave that Christians later claimed as the
birthplace of Jesus." 15
|In Persia, the god Mithra was born of a
virgin on DEC-25. Zoroaster was also born of a virgin.
|In India, the god Krishna was born of the
|Virgin births were claimed for many
Egyptian pharaohs, Greek emperors and for Alexander the Great of Greece.
|One source 14
is quoted as saying that there were many mythological figures: Hercules,
Osiris, Bacchus, Mithra, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus and Horus who share a
number of factors. All were believed to have:
Almost all were believed to
|lived in pre-Christian times.
|had a god for a father.
|human virgin for a mother.
|had their birth announced by a heavenly
|had their birth announced by celestial
|been born about DEC-25.
|had an attempt on their life by a tyrant
while they were still an infant
|met with a violent death.
|rose again from the dead.
|been visited by "wise men" during
|fasted for 40 days as an adult.
conclusion the most likely scenario, as interpreted by many liberal Christians
|The virgin birth story was inspired by
the Hebrew Scriptures: Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of the very
unusual births 9 of Ishmael, Isaac, Samson and
Samuel. Usually prior to the birth, an angel appears to an individual; the
latter is afraid; the message of an upcoming birth is given; objections are
raised; and a sign is given. Matthew and Luke could have replicated the essence
of these stories, and added a virgin birth as proof that Jesus' birth was not
only unusual, but was a miracle. This would establish Jesus at a much higher
status than the four famous figures from the Hebrew Scriptures. Without a
miraculous birth, Jesus might have been considered to be lower in stature to
those heroes from the Hebrew Scriptures
|The virgin birth
story was an honest mistake: Most liberal theologians believe that the
author of the Gospel of Matthew (or someone who supplied the writer with source
material) scanned an unknown ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew
Scriptures. He found what he believed to be a reference to Jesus' birth. It was
in Isaiah 7:14 (listed above). This has since become a famous passage; it is
often recited at Christmas time. He simply copied it into Matthew (1:23) as a
method of showing that prophecies in the Hebrew Testament were fulfilled in
As it happens, the Greek translators had made a
mistake. When they were translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek
Septuagint and similar translations, they converted the Hebrew word
"almah" as the Greek equivalent of our English word for virgin. "Almah"
appears 9 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means
"young woman". When the scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do
over 50 times) they always used the Hebrew word "betulah".
4 So, Isaiah appears to have referred to a young
woman becoming pregnant (a rather ordinary event).
Some English translators are accurate to the
Others completely mistranslated the
Hebrew and referred to the woman as both pregnant and a virgin; that is, a
miracle had occurred. This neatly settles the conflict that would otherwise
occur between Isaiah and Matthew 1:22-23. (The author of Matthew quoted Isaiah
as describing a virgin who was pregnant before becoming
|Revised English Bible: "...a
young woman is with child..."
|Revised Standard Version: "...a
young woman shall conceive..."
|James Moffatt Translation:
"...a young woman with child..."
|New Revised Standard Version:
"...the young woman is with child..."
Others went part way. They mistranslated
the Hebrew and said that the woman had been a virgin. However, they imply that
the woman might have been a virgin, who engaged in sexual intercourse and then
|New International Version:
"...the virgin will be with child..."
|The Living Bible: "...a child
shall be born to a virgin..."
|Contemporary English Version:
"...a virgin is pregnant...". In a footnote, they say that the
"Hebrew word did not imply a virgin birth". They give "young
woman" as an alternate.
versions are vague and can be interpreted in many ways:
|American Standard Version:
"...a virgin shall conceive..."
|Amplified Bible: "...the young
woman who is unmarried and a virgin shall conceive..."
|King James Version: "...a
virgin shall conceive..."
|New Living Translation: "...the
virgin shall conceive a child..."
|New Century Version: "...the
virgin will be pregnant...". They also admit in a footnote that the
original Hebrew word really means "a young woman".
story in Isaiah 7:14 appears to be unrelated to the birth of Jesus. It
describes the Syro-Ephraimite invasion of Judah and the siege of
Jerusalem about 735 BCE. The child that was born to the young woman at
the time was a sign from God that the siege would be lifted and that Jerusalem
would continue as before. The prophecy was presumably completely fulfilled more
than 700 years before the birth of Jesus. For King Ahaz circa 735 BCE, "the
birth of the Messiah some seven hundred years later would have been of little
consolation!" 20 For another analysis of this passage,
see Reference 10.
|New World Translation: "...the
maiden herself will actually become pregnant..."
|The Jerusalem Bible: "...the
maiden is with child..."
Translation: "...the virgin is conceiving"
|The Writers of the Gospel of Q are
Silent on the Virgin Birth: The
Gospel of Q was an
early gospel, which was written about 50 CE and later expanded. No copies have
survived, but the original text has been pieced together through theological
research. It says nothing about the virgin birth. This is a possible indicator
that the early followers of Jesus did not hold that belief. If they knew of
such an important miracle, they would probably have included some mention of
|The Writer(s) of the Gospel of John
Deny the Virgin Birth: Some liberals believe that the Gospel of John was
written by a group of authors. The writers(s) did not mention the virgin birth.
They must have aware of the belief, since the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke
would have been widely circulated for 5 to 15 years by the time that the
Gospel of John was written. They seem to have rejected it as being a false
teaching. In John 1:45 they refer to Jesus specifically as "the son
of Joseph." John 6:42 repeats the phrase: "Is this not
Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?"
|The Writer(s) of the Gospel of Thomas
is Silent: This Gospel was originally written about the same time as Mark,
about 70 CE. It was in wide use among various Christian communities at the
time, but never made it into the official canon. It is silent about any
miracles associated with Jesus' birth. However, its silence is not proof that
the virgin birth was unknown to the author(s). Thomas is a "sayings
gospel" which deals primarily with the parables and conversations of Jesus.
|The Improbability of a Virgin
Birth: Some animal species can reproduce from an unfertilized ovum, in a
process called parthenogenesis. The Webster's New World Dictionary
mentions that this occurs in certain insects and algae. Although "it is the
rule among rotifers and quite common in plants and insect, it does not appear
above the plane of the amphibians." 5 A virgin
birth is considered impossible for species as complex as the higher apes or
man. An additional complexity would be that Jesus would have been female, since
he would lack the Y chromosome normally contributed by a human father. However,
there are at least two methods by which a virgin conception could have been
produced. Researchers are currently experimenting with various medical
techniques. One involves taking the ovum from a mammal, removing its DNA,
injecting the DNA from the cell of another animal of the same species and
successfully inducing a pregnancy. Since God is normally conceived of as
omnipotent, then he could have done the same thing with an ovum from Mary and a
piece of DNA that he created or borrowed from a male human. Alternately, God
could have created a single human sperm and caused the conception directly.
|The possibility of conception
without sexual intercourse: Joseph and Mary could
have engaged in sexual activity short of actual sexual intercourse. Even
without actual penetration, it is possible for a small amount of semen to be
released and cause conception. We recalled reading that in 1st
century Galilee, it was commonly for couples to live together and engage in
sexual activity and intercourse before marriage. When a child was born to the
couple, they got married. This might have happened to Joseph and Mary.
Unfortunately, we have been unable to relocate the reference about
1st century customs in that area.
Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, wrote:
|The writer(s) of the Gospel of Q, circa
50 CE, seem to have been unaware of the virgin birth.
|Paul (who was executed about 64 CE) was
|The writer of the Gospel of Mark, circa
70 CE hadn't heard of it either.
|If any of the above writers knew of a
virgin birth, they would almost certainly have realized that it was a
miraculous event and would have incorporated it into their writings.
|Sometime between 70 and 90 CE, a myth of
the virgin birth was invented, probably to strengthen the authority of Jesus'
teachings by claiming that his birth was miraculous. This was a time of great
change, as the Roman Army had demolished Jerusalem and its temples and
scattered many of the Jews throughout the Roman empire. There, they would come
into contact with many stories of virgin births of various politicians and
deities from Pagan religions. In fact, it would have been unusual if the
developing story of Jesus' birth did not
include many of the
features found in mythical figures of other religions.
|By the 90's, the belief was widespread.
The authors of Luke and Matthew incorporated it into their Gospels.
|The writer(s) of the Gospel of John knew
of the story, but rejected it as being a false teaching that was not believed
by his faith group within Christianity.
"In time, the virgin birth account will join Adam
and Eve and the story of the cosmic ascension as clearly recognized
mythological elements in our faith tradition whose purpose was not to describe
a literal event but to capture the transcendent dimensions of God in the
earthbound words and concepts of first-century human beings."
of the Roman Catholic Church:
The dogma of the Roman Catholic church includes the
virgin birth. In addition, it has adopted the beliefs that:
|Mary's hymen was preserved intact during
the delivery of Jesus. Although there is no mention of this in the Bible, this
belief was accepted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.
|Mary remained a virgin for the rest of
her life; i.e. her marriage to Joseph was never consummated, and thus the
couple never had any more children. There are a number of ambiguous passages in
the Christian Scriptures that some theologians belief contradict this belief:
|Matthew 1:25: "But he [Joseph]
had no [sexual] union with her until she gave birth to a son..." (NIV) This
verse states that Mary and Joseph remained celibate until after Jesus was born.
The word "until," in its modern meaning, implies that Joseph and Mary
consummated their marriage after the birth. However, the word "until,"
as used elsewhere in the Bible, does not necessarily have the latter
implication. For example:
|2 Samuel 6:23 states that Michal
"had no children till the day of her death." That verse states that she
had no children prior to her death; it also implies that she had no children
after her death.
|1 Corinthians 15:25 states that
Jesus Christ "...must reign until he has put all enemies under his
feet." This states that Jesus would reign until he conquered his enemies,
it also implies that his reign would continue
|Matthew 6:3: "Isn't this
[Jesus] the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph,
Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?...". (NIV) There are also
other references to siblings of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures. Many
Christians accept that these are other sons by Mary and Joseph; others believe
that they were really Jesus' half-brothers (sons of Joseph from a previous
marriage) or the cousins of Jesus.
|Luke 2:48: "...Your father and
I have been anxiously searching for you." In this passage, Jesus' mother
Mary reproaches him, and refers to Joseph as his father. This verse is
also ambiguous, because step-fathers were often called fathers in
1st century Palestine.
Beliefs of clergy
and the rest of the public:
A poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy showed a wide
variation in belief. The following ministers do not believe in
the virgin birth:
There is a
massive gap between the beliefs of mainline and liberal clergy and their
congregations. A Harris poll of a randomly selected group of 1,011 adults found
that 91% of U.S. Christians believe in the Virgin Birth.
|American Lutherans 19%
|American Baptists 34%
A 1999 British survey of 103 Roman Catholic priests,
Anglican priests, and Protestant ministers/pastors found that about 25% do
not believe in the Virgin Birth. Yet, 97% of the same
group do not believe the world was created in six days, and 80% do not believe
in the existence of Adam and Eve. 19
Related essay on
- R.C. Broderick, Ed., "The Catholic
Encyclopedia" Thomas Nelson Pub., Nashville TN, (1987), P. 601
- S.B. Ferguson et. al. Eds, "New Dictionary of
Theology", InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL, (1988), P. 708-710
- Isaac Asimov, "Asimov's Guide to the Bible",
Wing's Books, New York NY, (Reprinted) P. 780-782
- J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks
the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79
- L.M. Graham, "Deceptions and Myths of the
Bible", Citadel Press, New York, NY, (1991), P. 304
- Michael Martin, "The Case Against
Christianity", Temple University Press, Philadelphia PA (1991), P. 105 to
- J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Page 45
- J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Pages 56-57
- J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Page 58
- Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth
Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/sceptical/2virgi93.html
- Mather & Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects,
Religions and the Occult, Zondervan (1993), P. 331-332
- Martin Luther, "The Small Catechism (1529 CE)
- Philip Melanchthon, "Augsburg Confession" (1530
CE) is at: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/concord/augs-003.txt
- Patrick Campbell, "The Mythical Jesus," Page
- B.B. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths
and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Page 10.
- Harris poll cited in PrayerNet Newsletter at:
- Jeffrey Hadden, results of a survey of 7,441
Protestant ministers published in PrayerNet Newsletter, 1998-NOV-13,
Page 1. Cited in Current Thoughts & Trends, 1999-MAR, Page 19.
- News item originally reported by the Conservative
News Service and later posted by ReligionToday on 1999-DEC-29.
Original source of the data is unknown.
- Pope John Paul II, "Immaculate conception defined
by Pius IX," at: http://www.cin.org/jp960612.html
- J.D. Douglas, et al., Eds, "New commentary on the
Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1990), Page 895.
Copyright © 1996 to 2000
Essay last updated: 2000-NOV-25
Written by. B.A.