Doubting the Virgin Birth?
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” …
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
- Luke 1:31, 34
The virgin birth is one of the most debated doctrines of the Christian faith. Today’s reading captures it in a nutshell: Mary, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus, was still a virgin when she got pregnant.
Skeptics roll their eyes at this belief. The virgin birth sounds backward to them, superstitious discomfort with female sexuality. And who can blame them for their doubt?
Surely, there has to be a better explanation.
The most common attempt to explain away the virgin birth is as an error in translation. In Isaiah, the prophet talked about a “virgin” (Hebrew: almah) giving birth to a child (Is. 7:14). ‘Almah’ means “young woman who is not married.” When the verse from Isaiah was translated into Greek in the second or third century BCE that word ‘almah’ was translated to ‘parthenos,’ which means “virgin” (think of the Parthenon, the famous Greek temple to the virgin goddess Athena). Luke and Matthew and the early Christians, according to this theory, ran with that mistranslation and created this story about the birth of Jesus in order to fulfill an ancient prophecy.
“A simple translation correction,” we think, “could clear up all this confusion.” Except that it doesn’t.
First, the difference between “almah” and “parthenos” is exaggerated. Given the ancient Jewish customs around sexuality, it would have been expected that almost every “almah” would also be a “parthenos.”
Second, the context of Isaiah 7:14 – “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The almah will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” – seems to indicate a miraculous conception. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sign.
Finally, the early church would have absolutely zero motivation to make up a story like this. Our ancient ancestors weren’t born yesterday. They all heard the “virgin birth” story as a cover-up for some sexual scandal. This story made Christianity more difficult to believe, not less. Yet Luke and Matthew and the early church still proclaimed that Jesus was born of a virgin.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Luke’s understanding for the necessity that Jesus be born of a virgin (and it’s both fascinating and challenging).
But today we want to invite you to leverage your imagination and mental horsepower to the difficulty before us in this text. Can you think up alternate explanations for the virgin birth?