Why I Believe in the Virginal Conception of Jesus
Hello blogging friends,
Well, its close to Christmas, so I thought I’d reflect on a Christmas issue. I’ve gotten a number of e-mails from people the last few weeks asking me about the “virgin birth.” (This, by the way, is a mistaken way of referring to the issue, since the Gospels don’t claim there was anything unique about Jesus’ birth. It’s his conception that was supernatural.) Some of these folks have grown concerned because of the allegations that the Gospel accounts are derived from similar pagan stories.
This claim was quite popular in liberal circles in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century but fell into disfavor by the mid-20th century as many scholars demonstrated – conclusively in my opinion – that the alleged parallels simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. I am thus somewhat surprised by how popular this old claim seems to have become in the last several years. I’m finding it turning up on e-mails, websites, books and even some recent films (e.g. Zeitgiest; Religulous).
I don’t have the time or motivation to go into a detailed comparative analysis of each of the alleged parallels. (See reading list below). But I thought some might find it helpful for me to briefly share four reasons why I think this pagan-origin theory is bogus and why I in fact accept the story of Jesus’ virginal conception.
First, I think it’s extremely unlikely that first century, orthodox, Palestinian Jews would borrow material from pagan stories. All the historical evidence indicates that Palestinian Jews were strongly resistant to pagan stories and practices.
Second, unlike the pagan stories, the accounts that are included in the Gospel were not about someone who lived “once upon a time,” but someone who lived in the very recent past and in the region where the story was originally being told. Even if the earliest Jewish Christians would have been capable of incorporating pagan legends into their proclamation, its hard to see how they could have plausibly done this while Jesus’ brother and mother along with others who knew him were still alive. (I would argue that both Matthew and Luke were written prior to 70 AD, but even if one accepts a later dating of 70 to 90 AD this is still very close to the event by historical standards. Plus, we must remember that the Gospel material was passed on and protected orally before being written. On the importance of oral traditions in non-literate cultures, see Eddy, Boyd, The Jesus Legend).
Third, unlike any other literature that contains alleged supernatural conceptions, Matthew and especially Luke give us many historical reasons for accepting their general historicity (here too, see The Jesus Legend). The infancy narratives of Jesus in particular bear all the marks of reports that go back to the earliest witnesses. (See Machen and Brown below).
Finally, the alleged parallels to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ conception are simply not very impressive. There are, of course, numerous accounts of gods having sex with each other to produce a divine mythic hero and even some accounts of a male god having intercourse with a woman to produce a partly divine hero. But these are not accounts of virginal conceptions for the simple reason that the divine or human females had sex! So far as I know, there are three possible exceptions to this (Krishna, Buddha and the son of Zoroaster), but even in these accounts it’s a stretch to say they parallel the Gospel accounts of a seed being created ex nihilo and planted in the womb of a woman who had never had sex. And, in any case, we have absolutely no historical reasons for thinking any of these accounts is at all rooted in history or that the earliest Christians knew about them – let alone borrowed from them.
Of course, none of this proves that Mary supernaturally conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin. The nature of the subject is that it’s impossible to prove (true or false). And, I should add that my faith in Christ doesn’t hang or fall on the historicity of this particular story. At the same time, I find I have many compelling historical (as well as existential and philosophical) reasons for accepting the general portrait of Jesus in the Gospels, and since the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is part of this broader story, I’m willing to accept it.
I encourage you to do the same.
Brown, R., The Birth of the Messiah (1977). First rate scholarly investigation of the Gospels birth narratives with some discussion of their uniqueness.
Eddy, P, Boyd, G. The Jesus Legend (2007) . Provides a comprehensive refutation of Jesus-legend theories and a defense of the general reliability of the Synoptic Gospel tradition.
Machen G. The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930). Old, but still an incredibly well researched and argued defense of Jesus’ virginal conception and how it’s implausible to suppose its pagan in origin.