The Unimportance of the Virgin Birth (Repost – 2013)

Annunciation (greek icon)
Image via Wikipedia

We have four gospels in the New Testament, but half of them mention the Virgin Birth (Matthew and Luke), and only at the announcement of that Birth. Further, that means only two books of the 27 in the New Testament mention the Virgin Birth. There is nothing beyond Matthew and Luke in the entire New Testament pertaining to the Virgin Birth (although Galatians 4.4 might allude to in a strictly Pauline way).

Why?

This is a pivotal prophecy – one which no Messiah could do with out. Granted the Jews believe that the Hebrew means ‘young woman’ and indeed, it very well may. (Of course, what great sign from God would be a young woman with child?) Of course the Septuagint’s Translators understood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’. Even without the prophesy in Isaiah, we have the words of God in Genesis concerning the Messiah being of the seed of a woman (Genesis 3.15). The first mention of the Messiah concerns the Virgin Birth – yet, again, it is mentioned twice in the New Testament.

This point is used by scholars and liberal theologians to attack the Virgin Birth. But what is the answer? Why, if the Virgin Birth is so important to the Messiah, is it mentioned briefly, twice, in the New Testament?

The answer is simple. The great majority of Scripture was written by the Apostle Paul. He was not writing to unbelievers, but to long-established congregations. He was writing doctrine for the Church, not to the unbelievers. It was not Luke’s job in Acts to detail to the unbelievers prophesies of Christ, as his was the history of the Church. According to Papias,

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.

We find that Mark is the preachings of Peter – Mark wrote as Peter preached. (This does not line up with the scholarly ‘Q’ source, but Papias is rather old.) John wrote his gospel to fill in the gaps, which is evident by his epilogue,

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31 NKJV)

So, John wrote what the others did not, and for a purpose, to declare without a doubt the deity of Christ. He started at the very beginning (John 1.1), before the Virgin Birth, but allude to the act of the divine in the birth (John 1.14).

Matthew wrote to a community, most likely of converts and unbelievers, as did Luke. Mark was transcripts of preaching; John had a different agenda of deity. Paul wrote to established congregations, to affirm their faith and to establish a continuing doctrine for the Church as did Peter, James, and Jude. It is not mentioned by Paul because it was unnecessary to to bring up such a basic principle of Christ for those Christians who were years removed from conversion.

The Virgin Birth was not the Evangelists’ way of exploring the uniqueness of Christ, nor was it a myth conjured from surrounding paganism. The indwelling of the Virgin by the Spirit (Breath) of God is the initial sign of the coming salvation. It is a real event, meaningful to the Jews as a sign of the Messiah. It was used to show that Christ was the promised Messiah, God with us, and indeed, to the Gentiles to show that He alone fulfilled the prophesies. Once past the miracles, as with Paul, it was necessary to build up sound doctrine that relied upon Tradition and Scripture. It was not that the Virgin Birth was unknown to Paul or refuted by Paul, but it was not Paul’s mission to those congregations, to relay the foundation of the truth of Christ.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Post By Joel Watts (10,049 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

Connect

48 thoughts on The Unimportance of the Virgin Birth (Repost – 2013)

  1. Very good. Would you say that belief in the virgin birth of Christ is essential to Christian faith? A rejection of the virgin birth seems tantamount to me to a rejection of Christ’s deity.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post! A couple of questions/thoughts come to mind.

    First, in the cultural context in which Paul wrote, wouldn’t Paul’s language in Romans, ‘descended from David according to the flesh’, have implied patrilineal descent from David?

    Second, doesn’t the fact that in John we find incarnation without the virgin birth, while in Matthew and Luke we find the reverse, suggest that the connection modern Christians often make between the two did not seem as essential to these ancient authors?

    • I would agree that people make a great deal out of somethings now which were not such a great thing then. I note that while some see the Virgin Birth in Mark’s Gospel, I haven’t found it, except through the lens of conservative commentators.

      How does Paul’s language play in context if we assume that Luke wrote ‘Paul’s Gospel’ or that Luke genealogy was at the very least Pauline in some regard? Does then the patrilneal descent, contrary to recognized practices of the time, maybe jump in adoption? Or perhaps since in Paul’s radical theology, that since there is neither male or female in Christ, descent can come from the woman now?

  3. Is the idea that the ‘sin gene’ is located on the Y chromosome? That would mean all women are sinless (which of course my wife told me many times, but I never really believed it…)

  4. Necessary vs Sufficient: The VIrgin Birth was necessary but not sufficient. I think Polycarp posted this just because he thought my last argument for the Virgin Birth did not go as far as it could (it did not), this one does less yet says more :).

  5. Woot! multipost because I did not scroll up far enough. I though my earlier post failed to get posted.

    Dawg I heard you liked posts so I put a post in my post so you could post while you post.

    Or something.

  6. “The great majority of Scripture was written by the Apostle Paul.”

    This reminds me of Tea Party claims to be a majority, when in fact they are a minority group in the minority Republican party. About one tenth of Scripture (as usually understood by Christians) was written by the Apostle Paul. Even in the New Testament it is a small minority. But this statement, presumably from 2009, apparently reflects the fundamentalist position that this is the only part of the Bible that counts.

  7. I don’t have a problem with the virgin birth, although there is no little doubt in my mind that this meets the authorial intent of Isaiah’s passage. But “essential”? “Cornerstone”? Hmmm…

    There is endless debate over which passages in the OT constitute Messianic prophecy, and just because a passage was appropriated to that purpose later does not dictate that it was intended to be used that way. A case in point is the famous “out of Egypt”, pesher-style recycling of a passage not considered Messianic by even many of the more conservative biblical scholars.

    I understand if you want to make it essential because of the creeds or because of some theory of how Jesus escaped original sin, but neither of those are at all compelling to me. For you, what is it that makes it a cornerstone prophecy?

  8. My views on ‘prophecy’ have changed somewhat, to instead of a foretelling, to being Incarnational. Thus, with the Hosea ‘prophecy’ it wasn’t a prophecy as such, but served to be completed by Christ to show that He was the Person/People/Messiah/Israel of God.

    However, I believe that the Virgin Birth is essential to Christian doctrine – and not just based on the part in Isaiah – because of the deity of Christ. If Christ is a mere man, then the Virgin Birth could be reinterpreted to be applied just like it was used by other famous men of the period, only to show their exaltedness.

  9. I agree that the function of prophecy was not prediction (primarily, anyway). But whether we are then justified to think of any post hoc inferences as “fulfilments”, more-or-less, is an altogether separate question.

    I don’t think the virgin conception was required to put God into Christ any more than most Christians think sex was required, or you or I think that God need have formed man personally out of the dust. What are miracles for? Why should we require God to play by our rules?

    Anyway, that’s why I’m not convinced. If he was born by a virgin, fine. If not…well, God’s God, and isn’t required to manually prime the pump, as it were.

  10. First paragraph, yeah, I kinda agree.

    2nd paragraph. I think that the sinless Incarnation was needed to reproduce a sinless humanity. It redeemed the flesh. (Of course, I fully recognize that this belief is more of a theological necessity)

    I would consider the Virgin Birth something well outside our rulebook.

Leave a Reply, Please!