The Virgin Birth
Westerners are well informed enough about the science and mechanics of
human conception to know that virgin birth is impossible. They may be less
clear that to accept a virgin birth also compromises the vast stretch of
many other modern disciplines - though this is no doubt instinctively
So while the tale of the virgin Mary giving birth in
a stable is dutifully proclaimed and sung about, few regard it as
something "which really happened just as the Bible says".
What they may not know (or care about) is that the birth narrative of
Matthew 1.18-25 was never intended to be history in the modern sense. The
gospel authors were not giving an historical account as a modern historian
would do. Rather, they intended to teach theology about the eternal
meaning of Jesus of Nazareth for the Hebrew nation and the world.
The lack of good history in the Nativity accounts has long been known to
Christian academics and well educated clergy. Here are some of the main
points, briefly put.
The author uses the words "Jesus Christ" here and only once more
in his whole Gospel (1.1). The title "Christ" is, of course, the Greek
for "Messiah" or "The Anointed One". The point is again made that Jesus
was special - and this should alert us to the strong possibility that
Matthew is making a theological point rather than necessarily giving us
the history of "what really happened".
The name "Jesus" is Greek for the Hebrew name "Joshua" (Yeshua
in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus), which means "God is
salvation" or "God saves".
This is probably why Matthew 1.21 reads, "... and you will name him Jesus
because he will save his people from their sins". The name later lost
this meaning when it was translated into Greek and when Christianity
became primarily a non-Jewish religion.
But, once again, the author of this Gospel is making a theological point
as well as recording a name. The "Christ" part isn't really a name -
though that's what it later became - but a title. In more modern times
it was, in effect, turned into a patronym or surname, rather like
"Smith". It was initially Chrestus, the Latin equivalent of the
Greek word for the Hebrew title "Messiah".
The name Yeshua was quite common at the time, which is why the
Jewish-Roman historian Josephus refers to him as "Jesus, who is called
the Christ" to distinguish him from others with the same name. The Roman
historian Tacitus, writing in the early second century, uses "Christ" as
though it were the surname of Jesus.
Most translations render the discovery of Mary's pregnancy as
coming about after she and Joseph were betrothed (engaged) but before
they had been formally "married".
The Greek word actually means "before they came together". This could
denote either "before they moved in together" or "before they had sex".
Jewish couples of that period were probably usually married about a year
after their betrothal. There is some evidence that a couple might live
together until they could afford a dowry.
But pious Jews warned that a godly man would not sleep with his fianc�e
before the wedding. Unlike recent times a suggestion in this case of
immorality or sexual sin would have been quite unlikely.
This is because most people lived not in the so-called "nuclear family"
of today but as part of an extended family. Living together before
marriage would therefore usually have been a well-supervised
The author of Matthew's Gospel may have been familiar with the
many narratives from ancient literature. They tell how famous men were
conceived in mysterious circumstances in which the gods participated by
fertilising the mother and passing on special powers to the offspring.
This doesn't imply, as some have suggested, that the tale of the birth
was lifted or copied from another religion or other source. All that can
reasonably be concluded is that the author of the Gospel used a literary
device from folklore, perhaps prompted by orally transmitted tales,
which were common in the ancient world.
Today we would usually distinguish carefully between fact and fiction, or
between history and myth. These categories were unknown in the first
century, when this Gospel was written. The story was understood as
history by later generations and until modern times.
It was the advent in the nineteenth century of biblical criticism,
that analytical discipline which "tortures" the biblical texts to
discover their true nature, which first brought the realisation that the
narratives of Jesus' birth are not history.
Analysis of the Hebrew and Greek terms translated "virgin" in
English texts may imply virgo intacta. But many scholars conclude
that the quotation of Isaiah 7.14 in verse 23 most likely means "young
girl" rather than "virgin".
The possibility of a woman conceiving a male child without sexual
intercourse (parthogenesis) is, I understand, scientifically impossible
since the female can't supply the necessary male chromosome. The
traditional idea of a virgin birth could easily, however, be inferred
from this word by generations which came later. Greeks and Romans were
more likely to draw the traditional conclusion than were Jewish
people. This may explain why the Nativity tale was more easily taken up
in the early Church whose members were mainly non-Hebrews.
The tradition of a virginal birth is recounted only here and in Luke
1.26-38. But the two accounts are so different that some scholars think
they derive from different sources. The Catholic scholar J P Meier
thinks that each "... certainly goes back earlier than the two Gospels
that now contain it" .
That these verses are a construction of the author is reinforced
by the first verse of Chapter 2, which doesn't follow from the
information in the previous chapter. Many scholars have observed that it
appears in fact to be the beginning of another birth narrative
The early emphasis on this story as "proof" that Jesus was born of a
virgin, without his parents having had sexual intercourse causes great, if
not insurmountable, difficulties for most people today. J P Meier's
conclusion is sensible. He writes:
Taken by itself, historical-critical research simply does not have
the sources and tools available to reach a final decision of the
historicity of the virginal conception ... One's acceptance or
rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one's own
philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one
gives Church teaching.
The doctrine of the virgin birth remains enshrined in the Church's
creeds, and as a teaching that must be assented to by Roman Catholics on
pain of censure.
But it no longer looms important in the contemporary mind. I suspect
that this is because Jesus himself and traditional Christianity at large
is also relatively unimportant to the great majority of human beings in
the West and elsewhere today.
 A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, Doubleday, 1991