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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Virgin Birth

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VIRGIN BIRTH.Introductory.—A cursory examination of the Gospel narratives is sufficient to reveal certain apparent inconsistencies of statement and implication regarding the parentage of Jesus. He is popularly regarded and spoken of as the son of Joseph (cf. Matthew 13:55 ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ Luke 4:22, John 1:45; John 6:42); and even in the Nativity narrative of the Third Gospel, Mary and Joseph are several times referred to as ‘his parents’ (γονεῖς, Luke 2:27; Luke 2:41; Luke 2:43),* [Note: Once ‘his father and his mother’ (Luke 2:33).] while once the mother of Jesus herself is made to say, ‘Thy father [i.e. Joseph] and I sought thee sorrowing’ (Luke 2:48). It is quite clear that Jesus was popularly looked upon by His contemporaries as Joseph’s son by natural generation. On the other hand, both the First and the Third Gospels contain special sections dealing with the circumstances of the birth of Jesus in detail, and, though obviously independent, the two traditions embodied in the Nativity narratives agree in stating unequivocally that Jesus was born of a virgin mother without the intervention of a human father (Matthew 1:18 f., Luke 1:34-35).

No real inconsistency is, however, necessarily involved in the narratives as they stand. The secret of Jesus’ birth may have been for long jealously guarded within the narrow circle among whom it was originally known. It apparently formed no part of the early Apostolic teaching and preaching, and was not included in the common form of the Synoptic Gospel-tradition (note that the Second Gospel begins with the Baptism). In preserving, therefore, the popular references to Jesus as Joseph’s son, the First and Third Gospels conform to psychological and historic truth. In one part of the narrative, popular opinion is accurately reflected and expressed; in the other, knowledge of a special character derived from private sources.

That no inconsistency was felt to exist in this double use of description appears from the fact that it occurs even in the Apocryphal Gospels, where the virginity of the mother of Jesus is often insisted upon with unnecessary stress. Thus in the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (ch. 27) the following, e.g., occurs: ‘And some went away to the chief priests, and to the chiefs of the Pharisees, and told them that Jesus the son of Joseph had done great signs,’ etc. A few pages further on (ch. 30) Jesus is made to say: ‘But I am an alien in your courts, because I have no carnal parent.’ On the other hand, if such references as those cited above from the Gospels had exhibited a mechanical consistency in describing Jesus as the Son of Mary (to the entire exclusion of Joseph), the representation would have justly been impugned as violating the canons of historical and psychological truth.

In social life and as a member of the Jewish nation, Jesus, during His earthly life, would necessarily be regarded as Joseph’s son. As Dalman has pointed out, ‘If no other fatherhood was alleged, then the child must have been regarded as bestowed by God upon the house of Joseph’; and while Joseph was alive, Mary and her son were undoubtedly under his legal protection. This consideration will help to explain the fact that both genealogies trace the Davidic descent of Jesus through Joseph (not through Mary). On any view Jesus belonged to the family of Joseph; and if any formal and official birth-register ever had any independent existence in the Temple or elsewhere, Jesus would naturally appear therein as Joseph’s son.

The genealogy in Matthew 1 in anything like its present form can hardly have formed part of such a document. Special didactic features are too pronounced in it. [Note: for this point a discussion in ZNTW by the present writer (1905, Heft 1, p. 85).] Regarding the text of Matthew 1:16 see esp. Sanday, art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (ii. 644 f.) On the other hand, the genealogy in the Third Gospel (Luke 3:23-38) has a greater appearance of independence, and may have been incorporated by the Evangelist from a written source (cf. Sanday, op. cit. 645).

It would be strange, indeed, if the writer of the Fourth Gospel possessed no knowledge of the tradition of the virgin birth of Jesus as embodied in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Silence in this case would presumably imply not ignorance, but tacit acceptance. Unless the tradition were contradicted either explicitly or tacitly, the presumption in such a case is that it was accepted. It is certainly significant that the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, Which occupies a similar place to that of the genealogy in the First Gospel, traces the origin of the Logos, which became incarnate in Christ, to the inner life of God. What the genealogies attempted to do partially is here carried out fundamentally and finally. The question arises, Is the Prologue intended to be a tacit correction of the Matthaean and Lukan Nativity traditions? Or are these—at any rate as regards their central feature—the virgin birth—silently accepted and supplemented by the statement of fuller and deeper truth? The latter alternative accords with the characteristic manner and method of the Fourth Evangelist. So far from excluding the possibility of the virgin birth, it may be argued that the Prologue presupposes it. In view of the fact that the tradition of the virgin birth must already have been current in certain Christian circles, and can hardly have been unknown to the writer of the Johannine Prologue, this conclusion becomes at least highly probable. If the writer had conceived of the method of the Incarnation of the pre-existent Logos as being otherwise, we should at least have expected to find some hint or suggestion to that effect. In the only verse, however, in the Prologue where any allusion to birth occurs (John 1:13), the reference is certainly not incompatible with the tradition of the virgin birth, but may be regarded as lending it, if anything, some presumptive support.

This conclusion is reinforced if the contention of Carr (ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] xviii. [1907] 522) is accepted, that μονογενοῦς (John 1:14), ‘from its position in the Prologue, and from its form as a composite of γίγνεσθαι, must refer not to the eternal generation of the Son of God, but to the human birth of the Son of Man’ (cf. also Allen, Interpreter, Oct. 1905, p. 52 f.). There is also the remarkable reading, known to Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and perhaps Hippolytus, according to which v. 13 directly refers to Christ’s supernatural birth: ‘who (sing.) was born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ Here natural generation by a human father is denied and excluded in the most categorical manner. Even if this reading be not accepted, it is a pertinent question to ask: ‘Why the elaboration of the theme, above all why the θελήματος ἀνδρός, unless he [the writer of the Prologue] has in mind the supernatural birth of the Logos as a kind of pattern or model of the birth of the children of God? As He was born into the world by supernatural conception, not through the process of human generation, so they were born out of the world into the higher life by a spiritual process, symbolized indeed by generation, but transcending it’ (W. C. Allen, ib. p. 57 f.; see, further, the whole of his admirable discussion).

With regard to the alleged silence of St. Paul, it is by no means clear that silence in this case any more than in that of the Johannine writings is to be taken as implying ignorance. Nor is it certain that indirect allusions to the virgin birth are entirely absent in the Pauline Epistles (cf. Galatians 4:4 ‘born of a woman,’ 1 Timothy 2:15). The most that can be urged is that in the Pauline Christology no emphasis was laid on the dogma of the virgin birth.

1. The Gospel sources.—The question really narrows itself down to one concerning the amount of credibility that is to be attached to the Gospel narratives of the Nativity contained in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of these narratives as a whole, or to repeat what has already been said on the subject in the art. Birth of Christ in this work. But one or two points of special significance in this connexion may be dealt with. Recent critical discussion has largely been concerned with these narratives, around which the critical battle has fiercely raged. In the result it may be said with confidence (a) that the Palestinian character and origin of the narratives have been firmly established, and (b) that the attempt to disintegrate the Lukan account has not been attended with signal success.

(a) The establishment of the Palestinian origin and character of the two Birth narratives carries with it important consequences. The narratives have been shown to be Jewish-Christian through and through. It follows that the tradition of the virgin birth gained currency among Christian circles in Palestine at a relatively early date, probably by the middle of the 1st century.* [Note: See W. C. Allen, Interpreter, Feb. 1905, p. 115.] A further inference is that we must look for the origin of this tradition ‘on Palestinian soil at sufficiently early a date to account for its presence in two quite independent forms in the First and Third Gospels. That being so, the view that they are based upon actual facts and came ultimately from the family of Christ Himself, is infinitely probable.’ [Note: C. Allen, ib. p. 122.]

(b) Critical objections have been raised to the integrity of the Lukan Birth narrative. In Luke 2, it is urged, the view of the narrative is that Mary was Joseph’s wife, and that he was the father of Jesus (cf. Luke 2:33 ‘his father and his mother,’ Luke 2:41 ‘his parents,’ Luke 2:48 ‘thy father and I’); the Davidic pedigree of Jesus is traced through Joseph, with the harmonistic explanation ‘as was supposed’ (Luke 3:23); ‘and with this agrees the early reading apparently preserved in the Sinaitic-Syriac, Luke 2:5, “with Mary his wife.” ’ [Note: Estlin Carpenter, The Bible in the XIXth Century, p. 486.] The narrative in ch. 1 could be harmonized with that in ch. 2 if Luke 2:34-35—which contain ‘the only reference to the virgin birth in the Third Gospel’—could be removed as an interpolation. This procedure—which has the support of such scholars (among others) as Harnack, Holtzmann, Pfleiderer, Schmiedel, and Usener—is justified on the following grounds:

The reference to Elisabeth in Luke 2:36 certainly seems to follow better on Luke 2:33. In that passage, moreover, the child whose birth is announced is already designated Messianically as ‘Son of the Most High’: but the title ‘Son of God’ in Luke 2:35 has a quite different signification; it denotes not official adoption, but actual origin: Luke 2:35 is thus a doublet of Luke 2:31-32 on another plane. Moreover, the incredulity of Mary concerning the possibility of motherhood (Luke 2:34) seems inexplicable in one already betrothed; yet it does not (like that of Zacharias, Luke 2:18-20) expose her to rebuke or penalty; the doubt seems introduced only to give occasion for the explanation in Luke 2:35. The real reply of Mary to the original announcement in Luke 2:30-32; Luke 2:36-37 follows in Luke 2:38 ‘Be it unto me according to thy word,’ and her submission to the heavenly will wins the blessing of Elisabeth (Luke 2:42).§ [Note: Estlin Carpenter, ib. p. 487 f.]

A closer examination of the suspected verses does not, however, lend any support to the theory of interpolation. Their phraseology is unmistakably Hebraistic in character, the language being suggested by and derived from the OT. In fact, as Professor Briggs has pointed out, ‘the Annunciation represents the conception of Jesus as due to a theophany.’|| [Note: | The Messiah of the Gospels, p. 50.] The verses are of the same character as the rest of the narrative, and must be the work of a Jewish writer; and there is every reason to believe, with Gunkel, that they are translated from a Hebrew original. This consideration will help to elucidate the meaning of the announcement in Luke 2:31 more closely. The Hebrew original of συλλήψῃ there would be a participle, [Note: the translations in the Hebrew New Testaments.] and the exact rendering would be, ‘Behold, thou art conceiving now.’ An immediate conception is meant, not one that would naturally follow after Joseph had in due course taken her to wife; and this immediate conception is implied by the words ‘with haste’ in Luke 2:39. Besides, Luke 2:36 (‘And behold, Elisabeth, thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age’) implies that a conception of an extraordinary character has been mentioned in the previous verses in reference to Mary; and the words suggest that a not unnatural doubt and surprise on her part are being set at rest (cf. esp. Luke 2:37 ‘for no word of God shall be impossible’). There would be nothing extraordinary in Mary’s conceiving a son as Joseph’s wife.

Again, the Lukan genealogy, far from discrediting, seems to the present writer to offer a positive argument for the authenticity of the suspected verses. Jewish genealogies usually have some edifying purpose in view, and the list in Luke 3:23-38 seems to be no exception to the rule. The striking feature about it is that it traces the descent of Jesus right up to Adam (the son) of God. Evidently, in linking Adam to Christ, the editor or compiler intends to suggest that Christ is the Second Adam, the re-founder of the human race; and that just as the first Adam was son of God by a direct creative act, so also was the Second (by the power of the Holy Spirit). For genealogical purposes it was necessary to link Jesus to previous generations through His foster-father Joseph. But the suggestion is that the Second Adam, like the first, owes His human existence to a direct creative act on the part of God. Luke 3:38 thus supports the genuineness of Luke 1:35 (υἱὸς θεοῦ), and the whole genealogy, viewed in the light of its edifying purpose, guarantees the original character of the alleged interpolation.

The fact that υἱὸς θεοῦ in the genealogy involves the occurrence of υἱός in the physical sense of origin exactly as in Luke 1:35, has an important bearing on the objection noted above, viz. that while in Luke 1:32 (‘Son of the Most High’) ‘son’ denotes official adoption, in Luke 1:35 it describes actual origin.* [Note: The former is a characteristic Hebrew usage.] But the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, it is difficult to see what can have suggested such an otherwise un-Jewish application of the term ‘son’ in such a context, and amid language so Hebraistic, except the actual occurrence of the fact narrated.

But the theory of interpolation is confronted with a further radical difficulty. It is not enough to remove the suspected verses to make the narrative congruous with a non-miraculous birth. The significant fact still remains that the figure of Joseph is quite subordinated in the Lukan account, while that of Mary is proportionately enhanced in lonely importance. This feature dominates the whole structure of Luke’s first two chapters; and in this particular a sharp (and obviously designed) contrast is suggested between the nativity of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. While in the case of the Baptist’s birth the annunciation is made to the father (Luke 1:13 f.), in that of Jesus it is made to the mother (Luke 1:28); and while the Baptist’s birth is represented as the occasion of such profound joy on the part of Zacharias that the latter’s dumbness is overcome, and he bursts into the strains of the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), no such rôle is assigned to Joseph. What reason can be adduced for this deliberate minimizing of the part assigned to Joseph—a feature that characterizes the Lukan narrative throughout—except it be that the fundamental fact, dominating and forming the climax of the whole, is the miraculous birth of Jesus of a virgin mother? [Note: the article (cited above) by the present writer in ZNTW, p. 93] [Cf. also the criticism of this theory of interpolation in the art. Birth of Christ, vol. i. p. 203].

(c) The Matthaean account of the virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-25) has already been discussed in the art. cited above (vol. i. p. 206). Here it will be necessary to emphasize only one or two special points. The intensely Jewish character of the narrative, its sobriety and delicacy, have been justly insisted upon. It is difficult to trace in so restrained a narrative the ‘pagan substratum’ of which Usener speaks. The full-blown myth has certainly been divested of all its bloom. In fact, the points of difference far outnumber the resemblances with the ancient myth, as even Cheyne admits (Bible Problems, p. 89 f.). In this connexion the difficult problem arises as to the real significance of the quotation in Mt. of Isaiah 7:14 (LXX Septuagint ): ‘Behold, the virgin (ἡ παρθένος) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’ Two points are clear: (1) No trace exists in Jewish (as distinct from Christian) literature known to us of any Messianic application of this text; nor is it possible to adduce any indubitable evidence from Jewish sources that the belief in the Messiah’s being born of a virgin was ever current among the Jews. (2) It is generally agreed among critical scholars that the narrative of Mt. could not have been suggested by the quotation (Isaiah 7:14), but that the quotation was, in accordance with his usual method, added by the narrator as a proof-passage from Scripture in support of the story.

It is, however, difficult to account for the LXX Septuagint rendering (παρθένος). It may, perhaps, have been adopted under the influence of ‘current mythological ideas’ in order to enhance the mysteriousness of the future Deliverer’s origin, or it may be due simply to the fact that the translators regarded παρθένος as being the true Greek equivalent of הָעַלְמָה, without consciously giving it any definite reference to the Messiah. If, as Gunkel supposes, Messiah’s birth of a virgin had become a fixed element in Jewish Christological belief before the birth of Jesus, which was afterwards transferred in Jewish-Christian legend to our Lord’s nativity, how is it that no trace of such a belief has survived in Jewish literature? Why the reluctance and reserve manifested in proclaiming the alleged fact, if such a birth had come to be regarded as one of the distinguishing marks of the true Messiah? But so far from its being a popular or even familiar belief among the Jews, it may be inferred with practical certainty from Mt.’s narrative that the story of the virgin birth was to Jewish readers a stumbling-block, which it required special apologetic efforts to overcome. Not improbably Jewish calumny regarding Jesus’ birth had already made itself felt before Mt.’s narrative was published. The reference of Isaiah 7:14 to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth can, therefore, only have been suggested by the event, or, at least, by what the narrator looked upon as the actual facts. Consequently the Messianic application is purely Jewish-Christian. In Justin Martyr (Dial. c [Note: circa, about.] . Tryph. lxiii.) there is a curiously interesting collection of proof-passages from Scripture in support of the virgin birth: viz. besides Isaiah 7:14, also Isaiah 53:8 (‘Who shall declare his generation?’), Genesis 49:11, Psalms 110:3 (‘In the beauties of thy saints, from the womb have I begotten thee before the morning star’: so LXX Septuagint ). In the last passage the LXX Septuagint clearly interprets of the pre-existent Messiah;* [Note: for traces of this idea in the LXX, Bousset, Relig. d. Judent.2 303 f.] the application to the virgin birth of Messiah would seem to he Jewish-Christian. Psalms 110 was undoubtedly understood Messianically in the ancient synagogue. Cf. also the passages quoted in Raymundus Martini, Pugio Fidei (ed. Carpzov, p. 154 f.) on the authority of R. Moses ha-Darshan (which cannot now be verified): ‘Redemptor quem suscitabo e vobis non habebit patrem’; cf. Zechariah 6:12, Isaiah 53:2 (‘a root out of a dry ground’), Psalms 110:3; Psalms 2:7.

The obviously mythological figure in Revelation 12 of the woman ‘arrayed with the sun’ who ‘was delivered of a son,’ if it Is derived from an earlier Jewish source, shows that the Babylonian myth was not unfamiliar among apocalyptic circles within Judaism. It can hardly, however, have influenced or suggested the Jewish-Christian tradition of the virgin birth. ‘But,’ to use Mr. Allen’s words, ‘it is worth while raising the question whether the author of the book [of Revelation] did not incorporate this section with direct reference to the tradition of the supernatural birth of Christ, with which he must therefore have been acquainted’ (Interp., Feb. 1905, p. 123). It is possible, of course, that in Isaiah 7:14 the prophet makes use of current eschatological ideas, and by the ‘young woman’ means the mother of the coming Deliverer (whom he expected to appear at the same time as the Assyrian invasion). ‘The wonderful child of whom you all know, of whom the ancient prophecy speaks, whose name is Immanuel, is already on the way to being born.’ The prophet is not thinking so much of the circumstances of the birth as the time. What was generally regarded as a vague possibility of the unknown future is announced by the prophet to be a present reality. No stress, it will be noticed, is laid upon the virginity of the mother. The point does not arise. And this remark applies to the later Jewish transformations of the idea (the origin of the Messiah is often pictured as mysterious and obscure); and the ‘woman’ of Revelation 12 is no exception.

It is important to remember that the Nativity narrative of the First Gospel is governed by an apologetic and (partly) polemical purpose. The compiler is meeting Jewish objections and (probably) Jewish calumny, which finds its explanation in a distorted version of the virgin birth. The prominence of Joseph is also noticeable. This may also, perhaps, be due to the compiler’s desire to meet Jewish calumny. It was important to show what exactly Joseph’s relations were to his espoused wife, to make clear that Mary and her child enjoyed his protection, in order to meet Jewish slander. Another motive, too, may have been at work. The Jews were at no time disposed to exalt the unmarried state above the married. The story of the Virgin, with Joseph completely subordinated, might easily lead to such a result, which, from the strict Jewish point of view, it was important to avoid.

2. The sources of the two Nativity narratives.—The present writer’s conclusion, arrived at independently, closely approximates to that of Professor Briggs, who points out that the material of which the ‘Gospel of the Infancy’ is composed is in the form of poetry embedded in prose narrative. This poetry is of the same kind as the poetry of the Old Testament. It was translated from Hebrew originals,* [Note: The poetical pieces are not confined to the ‘Canticles’ usually recognized, but include the words of the Annunciation (Luke 1:28; Luke 1:30-33; Luke 1:35-37) as well as other pieces.] and in its Greek form embodied by St. Luke in his opening chapters. ‘It is probable that the prose which encompasses this poetry comes from the authors of the Gospels, the poetry from other and probably several different authors. Therefore we are not to look for an earlier written Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus, but are to think of a number of early Christian poems with reference to that infancy from which the author of our Gospel [St. Luke] made a selection.… These songs which have been selected for use in the Gospel of Luke doubtless represent reflexion upon these events by Christian poets who put in the mouths of the angels, the mothers and the fathers, the poems which they composed. But the inspired author of the Gospel vouches for their propriety and for their essential conformity to truth and fact.’ [Note: Briggs, Messiah of the Gospels, p. 42 ff.] In the Matthaean narrative the annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:20-21) is probably a citation from one of these Hebrew hymns, which has been translated into Greek. All the hymns were, perhaps, composed for liturgical use, and were so used in the early Jewish-Christian community in Palestine. As we have seen, they will probably have been in existence at least as early as the middle of the 1st cent. a.d. Their whole tone—so intensely Jewish and Messianic, but yet so spiritual—and their primitive Christology suggest early conditions. Their authority must therefore rank exceedingly high. It has often been remarked that the narrative in the First Gospel is written from the standpoint of Joseph, that in the Third from the point of view of Mary. The delicacy of feeling, the exquisite reserve, the intimate touches which mark each narrative, well accord with this conclusion. Sanday’s conjecture, that the Lukan material is based upon a tradition derived from the mother of Jesus through one of the women mentioned in Luke 8:3; Luke 24:10, is a suggestive and valuable one.

3. Heathen analogies.—As early as the time of Justin Martyr (Dial. c [Note: circa, about.] . Tryph. lxvii.), the mythological tales of virgin birth were cited to discredit the Christian doctrine. ‘Amongst the Grecian fables,’ says Trypho, ‘it is asserted that Perseus was born of the virgin Danae; Jupiter, as they call him, coming down upon her in a shower of gold.’ Such tales are widespread. ‘We can no longer ignore the fact,’ says Mr. Estlin Carpenter, ‘that the idea of a wondrous birth without human fatherhood appears in a multitude of tales which can be traced literally round the world “from China to Peru.” ’ [Note: cit. p. 490.] A large collection of these has been made in Hartland’s Legend of Perseus. But for purposes of comparison here the great majority of them can be dismissed. The Greek fables, which impute the physical origin of great men (heroes and benefactors) to the gods (not only to Zeus, but to Apollo, Mars, Mercury), doubtless are the expression of popular feeling which finds in splendid endowments and achievements something marvellous and inexplicable on natural grounds. The soil for such beliefs in the popular feeling and consciousness was a fertile one. But this was not the case among the Jews. Such feeling assumed quite a different form among them, at any rate within historical times. It is difficult to see how ideas of the kind prevalent in the pagan popular consciousness regarding the sons of the gods could have found an entrance into primitive Christian circles—least of all Jewish-Christian circles. To borrow Dr. Weiss’ words, ‘The shameless glorifying of sensual desire in these myths could only provoke in the primitive Christian consciousness the deepest abhorrence; every endeavour to refer any such idea to Jesus must have appeared a profanation of what was most holy, by thus dragging it through the mire of sensuality.’* [Note: Quoted by Knowling, Our Lord’s Virgin Birth, p. 42 f.] Cheyne, indeed, following Gunkel, has made out a stronger case for the introduction of mythical material regarding the mother of the Messiah from Babylonian sources (cf. Bible Problems, p. 76 f.). As has already been pointed out, the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ of Revelation 12 is clearly mythological. And she was regarded by the author of the chapter as being the mother of the Messiah.

Now it is undoubtedly true that the Jewish Messianic idea bears traces of the influence of the universal myth of the World Redeemer. It is indeed, when analyzed critically, found to be largely a transformed and refined edition of the old material. The universal craving which found varying expression in the world-myth of the coming Deliverer assumed its highest and most spiritual phase in some forms of Jewish Messianic belief. One feature of the myth was the representation of the mother of the coming Deliverer. The mother plays an important rôle, but no father is mentioned. Here in all probability we must see a survival of the idea of the goddess-mother as distinct from the later one of the goddess-wife. [Note: Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, ch. iii.] In Isaiah 7:14 the goddess-mother has been transferred to earth, and has become simply the Israelitish woman who is to bear the wonderful child.

In Rabbinical literature this idea seems to have survived in the various forms in which the conception of the Messiah’s earthly pre-existence comes to expression.

(1) He is represented as leading a hidden life and then suddenly manifests himself (cf. Matthew 24:27; Matthew 24:43-44). In the Midrash Ex. Rabba, i., it is said that as Moses, the first deliverer, was reared at the court of Pharaoh, so the future Deliverer will grow up in the Roman capital. Another Midrash says that the Messiah will suddenly be revealed to Israel in Rome.

(2) The Messiah is represented as born, but not yet revealed. [Note: Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph. viii.): ‘But Christ, if He is come, and is anywhere, is unknown; nor does He know Himself, nor can He be endued with any power till Elijah shall come and anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all men’; cf. also xlix.] Cf. the well-known passage Sanh. 98b, where R. Joshua b. Levi is quoted as saying that the Messiah is already born and is living in concealment at the gates of Rome. According to the Targ. [Note: Targum.] (Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] ) on Micah 4:8, the Messiah is on the earth, but is still in concealment because of the sins of the people.

(3) The Messiah is represented as having been born at some time in the past (according to one account, born at Bethlehem on the day the Temple was destroyed; according to another, born in the days of king David and now dwelling at Rome).§ [Note: JE viii. 511, where the above details are given.]

In the curious story of the Messiah’s birth quoted by Lightfoot (Horœ, on Matthew 2:1), the birth of the Messiah (whose name is Menahem, son of Hezekiah) is connected with Bethlehem and the destruction of the Temple. His mother’s name is not given, she being described simply as ‘the mother of Menahem.’ At Bethlehem she is found with her infant son by the Jew who has been mysteriously apprised of Messiah’s birth. The Jew leaves, and ‘after some days returns to that city, and says to her, “How does the little infant?” And she said: “From the time you saw me last spirits and tempests came, and snatched him away out of my hands.” ’

In all these forms of the myth it is to be observed that the mother of the Redeemer is nowhere called a ‘virgin.’ Where the mention of a father does not occur, this feature may be due to the prominence of the mother in an earlier social stage, surviving in the form of the goddess-mother; an idea which later assumed the form of the Messiah’s being concealed and unknown, and manifesting Himself suddenly. It is also to be observed that in Revelation 12 the woman is a heavenly being: in other words, the conception in this passage is nearer the primitive myth than it is in Isaiah 7:14. It is difficult to imagine how the representation in Revelation 12 can have suggested the idea of the virgin birth, though it is easy to see that the prominence assigned to the virgin mother of Jesus in the Christian story may have influenced the author of Revelation in selecting so crude a piece of mythological material for the purposes of his book. In other words, it was the Gospel story that suggested the selection of the mythical representation in Revelation 12. It would be easier to suppose that the LXX Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14 had given rise to the story of the virgin birth than the mythical figure in Revelation.

In order to overcome this difficulty, Professor Cheyne is driven to conjecture ‘that in some of the early Jewish versions of the Oriental myth of the Divine Redeemer (which has not, so far as we know as yet, been preserved) the mother of the Holy Child was called a “virgin” ’ (Bible Problems, p. 81). And, further, it is necessary to suppose that παρθένος (‘virgin’), which in its original application (e.g. to the great mother-goddess of Asia Minor) meant one who was not bound by the marriage tie (and therefore connoted anything but the virginity of Luke 1:34), in the process of transition to the conjectured Jewish version of the myth, lost its original connotation, and was interpreted in the strict sense; ‘for nothing is easier than for Divine titles to pass from one religion to another, and for their original meaning to be forgotten’ (ib.). This, however, is hardly a plausible explanation of the idea of virgin birth in its various heathen forms. Some at least of these inherently possessed a high religious value (cf. the Egyptian examples cited by J. Estlin Carpenter, op. cit. p. 491 f.). On the whole question, some weighty words of Professor Sanday may well be pondered. ‘If we believe that the course of human ideas, however mixed in their character—as all human things are mixed—is yet part of a single development, and that development presided over by a Providence which at once imparts to it unity and prescribes its goal,—those who believe this may well see in the fantastic outgrowth of myth and legend something not wholly undesigned or wholly unconnected with the Great Event which was to be, but rather a dim unconscious preparation for that Event, a groping towards it of the human spirit, a prophetic instinct gradually moulding the forms of thought in which it was to find expression’ (op. cit. p. 647).

It is, however, all-important to remember that the Gospel narratives belong to the sphere of history, and were produced under the limitations that condition the record of historic facts. The creations of the mythopœic fancy flourish in a different atmosphere. ‘They are part of a common stock of imaginative material reproduced without purpose or authority from age to age and land to land, destitute of historic significance.’* [Note: Estlin Carpenter, ib. 490.]

4. Results of the discussion.—Is the Gospel story of the virgin birth a legend? If so, it must have grown up within the Jewish-Christian community of Palestine, and must represent a primitive Christological dogma expressing the idea of the perfect moral and spiritual purity of Jesus as Son of God. The Christian consciousness, it might be urged, working on such a passage as ‘Thou art my Son, this day I have begotten thee’ (Psalms 2:7), together with the Scripture promise of the fulness of the Spirit that should rest upon the Messiah (Isaiah 11:2), may have been led to transfer these ideas to the physical beginnings of Jesus’ life.* [Note: This is substantially the position taken up by Lobstein in his Essay on The Virgin Birth of Christ (Eng. tr., Williams & Nor-gate, 1903). Lobstein contends that ‘the conception of the miraculous birth of Christ is the fruit of religious feeling, the echo of Christian experience, the poetic and popular expression of an affirmation of faith’ (p. 96). He also denies pagan influence, and maintains that the conception ‘has its roots deep down in Israel’s religion transformed by the new faith’ (p. 75, cf. p. 69 f.).] But in the absence of any analogous developments in the Christian consciousness elsewhere, this is hard to believe. Why did the Christological process assume just this form, and in this (a priori most unlikely) quarter? The impulse must have been given from without. But the hypothesis that it was imported from heathen sources into so strictly Jewish a circle is incredible; consequently it must have grown out of a conviction, cherished originally within a limited Palestinian circle of believers, that the traditional belief among them was based upon facts, of which some members of that community had been the original depositaries and witnesses.

When subjected to the criteria properly applicable to it, such a tradition would seem to possess high claims to historical credibility. The restrained character of both narratives of the virgin birth, the verisimilitude of small details, the reserve that characterizes them, their very inconsistencies, argue against the hypothesis of invention or of their being mere mythical figments. And these characteristics distinguish them as much from the apocryphal Christian versions as from heathen myths. Everything, indeed, suggests their ‘essential conformity to truth and fact.’ The essential truth embodied in the Christian tradition has been admirably stated by Professor Briggs: [Note: cit. p. 49 f.]

‘The virgin conception of Jesus … is not to be interpreted as if it were a miracle in violation of the laws of nature, but rather as brought about by God Himself present in theophany. The conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary differs from all other conceptions of children by their mothers, in that there was no human father. The place of the human father was taken by God Himself; not that God appeared in theophany in human form to beget the child, after the analogy of the mythologies of the ethnic religions, but that God in a theophany in an extraordinary way, unrevealed to us, and without violation of the laws of maternity, impregnates the Virgin Mary with the holy seed. The words of the angel imply a theophanic presence; for though it might be urged that the coming of the Spirit upon her was an invisible coming, after the analogy of many passages of the Old Testament, yet the parallel statement that the Divine power overshadowed her cannot be so interpreted. For it not only in itself represents that the Divine power covered her with a shadow, but this is to be thought of, after the uniform usage of Scripture, as a bright cloud of glory, hovering over her, resting upon her, or enveloping her with a halo of Divinity, in the moment when the Divine energy enabled her to conceive the child Jesus.’

The evidence suggests that the secret of Jesus’ birth was not at first generally made known. ‘The doctrine of the Virgin Birth was not generally revealed in the earlier part of the Apostolic Age.’ Mr. Arthur Wright (Synopsis2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. xlii) believes it ‘to have been kept back until conflict with heresy brought it forward.’ This is not improbable. It has already been pointed out above that in all probability one strong motive at work in the Matthaean account was to meet Jewish calumny regarding Jesus’ birth. If this view is correct, the Matthaean narrative must have been composed later than the Lukan, which shows no such strong interest, and contains more original material.

5. Meaning of the virgin birth.—If we assume, then, that the virgin birth is a fact, in accordance with the conclusions reached above, we have further to ask, What is the meaning of the fact? In the Lukan account the birth is already invested with a Christological significance. Jesus is Son of God, because He is begotten in the womb of the Virgin by the Divine energy. This represents an early stage in Christological development. In St. Mark the Divine Sonship of Jesus is connected with the Baptism (Mark 1:11); in St. Luke (Luke 1:34-35), with the supernatural birth; in St. Paul, with the Resurrection; in St. John (Prologue to the Fourth Gospel), with the essential and eternal relationship subsisting between the Father and the Son.

But the central and abiding significance of the fact consists in the expression it affords of the perfect moral and spiritual purity of Jesus. It proclaims the entrance into the world of a sinless manhood, in which ‘the sinful entail’ has been broken. ‘It involves the introduction of a new factor, to which the taint of sin does not attach. If like produces like, the element of unlikeness must come from that to which it has itself affinity. Our names for the process do but largely cover our ignorance, but we may be sure that there is essential truth contained in the scriptural phrase, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God.” ’* [Note: Sanday (ut cit. supra).]

Literature.—To the literature already cited in the body of the art. and in the art. Birth of Christ, add W. C. Allen, ‘St. Matthew’ (ICC [Note: CC International Critical Commentary.] ) on chs. 1–2; an art. by Briggs in the North American Review (June 1906) on ‘Criticism and the Dogma of the Virgin Birth’; a series of Lectures on ‘The Virgin Birth of Christ,’ by Dr. J. Orr (1907).

G. H. Box.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Virgin Birth'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/v/virgin-birth.html. 1906-1918.

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