The Virgin Birth of Jesus
Spiritual symbol or historical truth?
As a layman, I had more or less gained the impression that New
Testament scholarship had long since ruled out any possibility of taking the accounts of
Jesuss birth, in Matthew and Luke, as straightforward historical truths. Then I
heard of a controversial lecture by the Revd Richard Bell of the Department of Theology at
my own University (Nottingham), which was prepared to engage seriously with the
possibility that the Virgin Birth (for one) did actually occur.
Explaining the method with which he approaches the biblical narratives, he strikes a
critical balance. On the one hand, I assume that a virginal conception is possible.
I do not wish to rule out a miraculous conception just as I do not want to rule out a
miraculous resurrection. And on the other hand, I do not hold to the doctrine
of a paper Pope, i.e. an infallible bible, and I will not approach the problem
by saying that the virginal conception is essential for Christian dogmatics and so must
The lecture addresses six possible arguments against the historicity of this point in
- Firstly, against the argument that the Virgin birth is not referred to in the
oldest NT texts (i.e. the letters of Paul, Marks gospel, and the postulated
Q document) and that if Paul and Mark had known of such a miracle they would
have mentioned it, Dr Bell replies that Mark in all probability knew of the
resurrection appearances but (in the text of the Gospel up to 16.8) did not mention
them, either. Moreover, Mark 6.3 (which refers to Jesus as the son of Mary)
may implicitly support the virginal conception. Moreover, Pauls use of
the Greek word ginesthai three times to refer to the birth of Jesus may hint at
something unusual in the manner of that birth, since the word has the more general sense
of come into existence - as against the more specific term gennasthai
in the sense to be born.
- Secondly, against the argument that only two later gospels (Luke and Matthew)
refer to the Virgin birth (and that their birth narratives are generally inconsistent), Dr
Bell cites the much earlier date ascribed by some scholars to their major postulated
common source besides Marks gospel, Q. If this document was written
between 50 and 60 AD, so too may have been any lost written sources of the Virgin Birth
narrative. Moreover because the accounts are quite different I believe we have two
independent witnesses, which makes it more likely that a real occurrence underlies
both accounts (however much they differ in other respects - e.g. in Matthews story
of the Magi and Lukes of the shepherds).
- Thirdly, against the argument that the historical circumstances linked to the
Virgin birth are inaccurate - that there was no recorded census before that which took
place in 6-7 AD, Dr Bell tentatively suggests that Luke 2.2 may refer to a census
before Quirinius became governor of Syria, but concedes that this argument is
harder to answer.
- Fourthly, against the argument that the virginal conception was probably
invented later on in the first century, Dr Bell confidently asserts that this
argument backfires. Christians would not, at once, have made up a story to prove
that Jesus was the divine son of God and insisted that he was born of the seed of
David. The fact that the virginal conception partially invalidates any claim of
descent from David (Jesus then being merely the adopted son of Joseph) makes it more
likely that this was an intractable historical fact. Moreover, the very fact that
the virginal conception was not necessary for theology argues for the virginal
- Fifthly, against the argument that the story simply serves the theological
interests of Luke and Matthew and their intention to prove the fulfilment of earlier
scriptural prophecies, Dr Bell concedes that Jesus may have been born in Nazareth
and not in Bethlehem, but insists that historicity is not disproved by a convenient
alignment with prophecies and their interpretation.
- Sixthly, against the argument that stories of virginal conception were common in
the Jewish and Pagan world (implying that the virgin birth of Jesus was nothing more than
a narrative convention), Dr Bell points out the unique feature of this story - Jesus
is not begotten by a male deity or element but by the creative power of the Holy
In additional support of the doctrine, Dr Bell points to hostile (and possibly early)
citation of the early birth of Jesus to suggest that he was illegitimate, when it might
point to another conclusion - namely that he was virginally conceived. Dr Bell also
comments, it would be difficult to dream up completely such a story
whilst relatives of Jesus were still alive.
Finally, he summarises Such is my analysis and I believe that the virginal
conception is probable.
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