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 Gennadius,
"madness" by Origen
"sacrilege" by St. Ambrose, 
"impiety and smacking of atheism" by Philostorgius,
"perfidy" by St. Bede,
"full of blasphemies" by the author of Prædestin,
"perfidy of the Jews" by Pope Siricius,
"heresy" by St. Augustine.


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, resurrection and 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.

The Immaculate Conception:

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. 

In 1854, 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

Jesus conception and his "brothers:"

Current teachings vary, concerning Jesus' conception and what the Christian Scriptures (New Testaments) refer to as his "brothers":

Liberal Christian 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 and Islam 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.

Biblical references commonly cited about the virgin birth:

Isaiah 7:14
"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)
Matthew 1:23
"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)
Luke 1:26-35
"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.' " (ASV)

The virgin birth in church creeds:

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 man..."

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 God-bearer;...

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 Mary..."

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 God", begins:

"Also they teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God, did assume the human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary..."

Beliefs of Conservative Christians:

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. 

Beliefs of Liberal Christian Theologians and Faith Groups:

Religious liberals tend to approach passages in the Bible differently than do conservatives. Liberals do not view the Bible as inerrant; rather 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 flesh."

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 importance. 
The virgin birth may have been copied from another religion 8 History records that:
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 Nama.
A Roman savior Quirrnus was born of a virgin.
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 Devaki.
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:
been male.
lived in pre-Christian times.
had a god for a father.
human virgin for a mother.
had their birth announced by a heavenly display.
had their birth announced by celestial music.
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.
Almost all were believed to have:

been visited by "wise men" during infancy.
fasted for 40 days as an adult.
Some 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.

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 Jesus' life.

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 original Hebrew:

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 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 sexually active):

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.
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 became pregnant:

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".
Some versions are vague and can be interpreted in many ways:

New World Translation: "...the maiden herself will actually become pregnant..."
The Jerusalem Bible: "...the maiden is with child..."
Young's Literal Translation: "...the virgin is conceiving"
The 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.

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 it.
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 cloning 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.
In conclusion the most likely scenario, as interpreted by many liberal Christians is:

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 similarly unaware.
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.
As J.S. Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, wrote:

"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." 7

Additional beliefs 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 afterwards. 
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:

American Lutherans 19%
American Baptists 34%
Episcopalians 44%
Presbyterians 49%
Methodists 60% 17
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. 14

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 this site:

Beliefs of various Christian groups on Jesus' conception and paternity (Roman Catholics, Mormons, other Protestants, religious liberals)


  1. R.C. Broderick, Ed., "The Catholic Encyclopedia" Thomas Nelson Pub., Nashville TN, (1987), P. 601
  2. S.B. Ferguson et. al. Eds, "New Dictionary of Theology", InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL, (1988), P. 708-710
  3. Isaac Asimov, "Asimov's Guide to the Bible", Wing's Books, New York NY, (Reprinted) P. 780-782
  4. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), P. 74-79
  5. L.M. Graham, "Deceptions and Myths of the Bible", Citadel Press, New York, NY, (1991), P. 304
  6. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity", Temple University Press, Philadelphia PA (1991), P. 105 to 115
  7. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Page 45
  8. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Pages 56-57
  9. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Page 58
  10. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at:
  11. Mather & Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, Zondervan (1993), P. 331-332
  12. Martin Luther, "The Small Catechism (1529 CE) is at:
  13. Philip Melanchthon, "Augsburg Confession" (1530 CE) is at:
  14. Patrick Campbell, "The Mythical Jesus," Page 41.
  15. B.B. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Page 10.
  16. Harris poll cited in PrayerNet Newsletter at:
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. Pope John Paul II, "Immaculate conception defined by Pius IX," at: 
  20. J.D. Douglas, et al., Eds, "New commentary on the Whole Bible," Tyndale House, (1990), Page 895.

Copyright © 1996 to 2000 incl.
Essay last updated: 2000-NOV-25
Written by. B.A. Robinson