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 Jesus’s 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 have happened.’

The lecture addresses six possible arguments against the historicity of this point in the creed.

  • Firstly, against the argument that the Virgin birth is not referred to in the oldest NT texts (i.e. the letters of Paul, Mark’s 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, Paul’s 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 Mark’s 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 Matthew’s story of the Magi and Luke’s 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 conception’.
  • 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 Spirit’.

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.’

Robert Cockcroft
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st December 1997