[This essay is part Q in my series, An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity on the crisis in Christian apologetics. Other parts completed to date:F. Angels, demons and aliens and H. Human Origins.]
The question I wish to discuss in this post is not “Is it true that Jesus was virginally conceived?” or even “Is it possible that Jesus was virginally conceived?” but “Is there any good evidence (historical, prophetic or otherwise) that Jesus was virginally conceived?” What I want to argue in today’s post is that even for someone who accepts the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is unpersuasive and the arguments marshaled in support of it are riddled with fallacies.
I would like to make it clear at the outset that I am not asserting that Jesus was conceived naturally. Generations of Christians down the ages have drawn hope and inspiration from their belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and who am I to contradict them? After all, I’m one of them. What I am questioning is not the belief itself, but the justification for treating it as an essential teaching of the faith, as the vast majority of Christians continue to do (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Calvinists and “Evangelical Christians”). As far as I can tell, there is no rational justification for doing so, and any attempt to argue for the Virgin Birth is sheer foolishness. Treating the doctrine as a “hill to die on” can only damage the credibility of Christianity, because it turns every argument against the doctrine into an argument against Christianity. Here’s why I think we should at least listen to the doubters, and why Christians who choose to believe in Jesus’ virginal conception should do so tentatively, acknowledging that they might, after all, be mistaken.
First of all, the arguments put forward by Christian apologists in favor of Jesus’ virginal conception are vitiated by ten fatal errors:
(i) the naive assumption that beliefs that change the course of history (such as the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin) require an adequate cause, and that world-changing beliefs never arise for silly or trivial reasons;
(ii) a failure to distinguish between the inspiration for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception (which I shall argue was probably pagan), the model that was used to create that story (which was obviously Jewish), and the prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) that was appealed to by the early Christians, in order to confirm the truth of that story, retrospectively;
(iii) a naive willingness to believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth came directly from Mary, or from other members of Jesus’ family;
(iv) an exaggerated conception of the reliability of oral transmission, when it comes to the traditions surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth;
(v) the unwarranted claim that the stories of Jesus’ virginal conception date were circulating as early as one generation after Jesus’ death, coupled with the widely held (but incorrect) belief that at least two generations are required for legends to spring up and take hold;
(vi) the belief that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels provide independent attestation of the virginal conception of Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem;
(vii) Biblical anachronism, or a willingness to read beliefs held by later generations of Christians back into the earliest days of Christianity (e.g. “Matthew and Luke believed that Jesus was virginally conceived, and Mark doesn’t say that he wasn’t, so we may presume that he believed as Matthew and Luke did”);
(viii) a lowering of the epistemic bar: specifically, a willingness to accept any explanation, however strained and implausible, of the discrepancies between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and the historical problems associated with these accounts, so long as it’s possibly true;
(ix) the “adoption fallacy”: the lazy and historically inaccurate belief that Jesus would have been publicly recognized as Joseph’s son, and as David’s descendant, simply by virtue of being adopted by Joseph;
(x) a tendency to confuse signs with miracles, when discussing Isaiah 7:14 (e.g. “King Ahaz asked the Lord for a sign, and God promised him that a young woman would conceive, which wouldn’t have been much of a sign unless the woman was a virgin, so the traditional Christian reading of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 as foretelling Jesus’ virginal conception is right, after all.”)
Second, I find the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception unsatisfactory, for the following reasons:
(i) we have no reports of the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception, dating from Jesus’ lifetime (c. 5 B.C. to c.30 A.D.) or from the first few years after his death;
(ii) we have no reports quoting the testimony of eyewitnesses who were present when an angel announced to Joseph or Mary that this miracle would occur, or who saw or heard anything supernatural relating to Jesus’ birth;
(iii) the earliest Christian writers to mention Jesus’ mother (St. Paul and St. Mark) appear to have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally;
(iv) the first two Gospels to report Jesus’ virginal conception (Matthew and Luke) are highly problematic: they are at odds with themselves (internally inconsistent), at odds with each other (mutually contradictory) and at odds with Jewish beliefs and practice (notably, in their claims about the Messiah’s ancestry and about Jesus being Joseph’s adopted son). What’s more, some scholars believe that the original version of Luke’s Gospel did not even include the story about him being born of a virgin, and that the first two chapters were added on later. In any case, Matthew and Luke are not independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception, as many Christian apologists claim;
(v) Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ infancy also refer to alleged events which are historically questionable (e.g. the Star of Bethlehem and the census under Quirinius), thereby undermining their credibility as witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception;
(vi) although it’s true that any natural historical explanation of how belief in Jesus’ virginal conception may have arisen involves making some ad hoc assumptions, the miracle itself is much more ad hoc, as it would require God to make millions of arbitrary choices when selecting Jesus’ genome.
Putting it more succinctly: we have no contemporaneous reports and no eyewitness reports of Jesus’ virginal conception; we also have early contrary reports; the first reports we have of the miracle may not be original (in Luke’s case), and to make matters worse, are internally inconsistent, mutually contradictory and of questionable historical reliability; and finally, the miracle itself is far more ad hoc than any secular explanation of how belief in the miracle may have arisen among Christians.
Having debunked the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, I shall examine contemporary defenses of the doctrine on historical grounds: in particular, the argument by some Christian apologists (notably, N. T. Wright) that the early Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception is best explained by the hypothesis that it is based on shared memories of a genuine historical event. I will show that this argument rests on faulty logic, and that contrary to the claims of Christian apologists, it is fairly easy to formulate a plausible hypothesis as to how the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin might have arisen, without invoking any miracles.
Next, I shall examine the question of whether there are any genuine Biblical prophecies of Jesus’ virginal conception. As I’ll show, most contemporary Biblical scholars believe there are none, and with good reason. In the words of the highly respected Christian Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner, “There is almost total unanimity among scholars that Isaiah’s prediction here to Ahaz is a prediction coming to a young woman in Isaiah’s lifetime” (Matthew: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Matthew a Commentary), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Revised and expanded edition, 2004, p. 35).
I conclude that in the absence of any prophetic or historical evidence for the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, the only remaining grounds for holding it are theological ones. However, purely theological grounds, I shall argue, constitute an inadequate basis for belief in such an extraordinary miracle, and they are inadequate grounds for requiring other Christians to believe in it, as well. Christians would therefore be well-advised to cease making the doctrine a touchstone of orthodoxy, despite its almost universal acceptance within the Christian community since the early second century A.D. Those Christians who choose to believe in the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception should acknowledge that they do so on the basis of faith alone, and not rational argumentation. Such Christians should also have the intellectual humility to acknowledge that they might be mistaken.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Michael Alter, who sent me well over a dozen helpful and interesting articles relating to the topic of Jesus’ virginal conception.
[N.B. Minor edits made to this article since it was posted are shown in dark green below.]
The scholarly consensus on the historical and prophetic evidence for the Virgin Birth
Mainstream Biblical scholars, including many Christian scholars, have long recognized that the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is far from convincing.
In his monumental work, Matthew: A Commentary, the Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Matthew a Commentary) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, Revised and expanded edition, 2004), Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner freely acknowledges the weakness of the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, despite the fact that he personally believes in the doctrine:
What should Christians think about Jesus’ origin? First, the awkward fact needs to be stated immediately: the modern scholarly consensus is that the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on a very slim historical foundation… The two major modern scientific commentaries on Matthew agree that the doctrine has a weak historical basis: “[A]ll [the evidential details] point rather strongly in one direction: affirmation of the virgin birth entangles one in difficult dilemmas … historical reasoning offers little support for [the traditional belief]” (Davies and Allison, 1:216). “The prospects are not favorable for the historicity of the virgin birth” (Luz, 1:118; 5th ed. 1:145). (2004, p. 37)
Indeed, for more than a century, there has been a scholarly consensus that the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is unconvincing. Allow me to quote from Professor Vincent Taylor’s authoritative study, The Historical Evidence for the Virgin Birth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920). Professor Taylor, who was one of the outstanding New Testament scholars of his day and who was himself a believer in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, writes with admirable lucidity and objectivity. After candidly acknowledging in his concluding chapter that “we cannot determine the question by weighing evidence alone,” he continues:
If we attempt to confine ourselves to a purely historical inquiry, the verdict must be “Not proven”.  It is true, on the one hand, that the late appearance of the tradition is not an insuperable difficulty. The theory of a long-treasured secret has a logic of its own. On the other hand, by the conditions of the case, we are unable to interrogate the witnesses. We cannot ask them whence they derived what they tell us. We cannot demonstrate that the story they relate has the ultimate authority of Mary. All that we can reach is a primitive belief, generally accepted within New Testament times, which presumably implies an earlier private tradition. Beyond that point we cannot travel — within the limits of the evidence alone. (1920, pp. 158-159)
Having acknowledged that the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is weak, Christian scholars such as Bruner and Taylor are forced to defend their belief in this dogma on theological grounds. Later, in part 9, I shall discuss the question of whether such a stance is epistemically reasonable, given that we would expect there to be some historical tradition of the miracle having occurred, on the assumption that it did actually occur.
Let’s now examine the reasons why the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is so unconvincing.
Which way from here?
You now have three options.
Option A: Readers who do not wish to read the in-depth analysis that follows can skip straight to the Summary.
Option B: A better option, which I recommend (and which is nearly as short as Option A) would be to read the Introduction: The top ten flaws in Christian apologists’ arguments for Jesus’ virginal conception and then proceed to the Summary.
Option C: Finally, readers who would like to read the entire article but who don’t want to read too much at one sitting might find it easier to read each of the links in the menu below on a separate day.
INTRODUCTION: THE FLAWS IN THE ARGUMENTS FOR JESUS’ VIRGINAL CONCEPTION
Ten fatal flaws in the arguments in favor of Jesus’ virginal conception by Christian apologists
The argument in favor of Jesus’ virginal conception by Christian apologists are vitiated by ten fatal errors:
|Fallacy #1: The notion that world-changing beliefs never arise “out of the blue”|
First, apologists naively assume that major changes in people’s beliefs (e.g. the sudden willingness of many first-century Christian converts to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin) require a cause which is adequate to explain them (i.e. public evidence, such as a miracle), and that new beliefs never arise for silly or trivial reasons.
For example, the distinguished New Testament scholar, Rev. Dr. N. T. Wright, in his online article, Suspending scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth (ABC Religion & Ethics blog, December 28, 2011) ridicules the skeptical theory that belief in Jesus’ virginal conception may have spontaneously arisen within the first fifty years of Christianity from a story that someone made up (intending it to be understood metaphorically), which some Christians mistakenly took as literal:
This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage. Difficult – unless, of course, you believe in miracles, which most people who disbelieve the virginal conception don’t.
Now, I don’t personally hold that belief in Jesus’ virginal conception arose in such a fashion, and I’ll be proposing an alternative hypothesis of my own in part 7 below. But the point I want to make here is that beliefs – even highly influential ones – can sometimes arise for the silliest of reasons. Comparing the spontaneous origin of an idea to a miracle of nature (as Wright does) is therefore absurd.
As an example, consider the Taiping Rebellion, which swept across China from 1850 to 1864 and claimed 20 to 30 million lives before being suppressed by forces loyal to the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty. The leader of the rebellion was Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus, who came from a poor village in Guangdong, in the south of China. In 1837, after having failed (for the third time) the imperial examination that every candidate needed to pass in order to become a scholar-official in China’s civil service, Hong returned home, fell sick with a nervous breakdown and was bedridden and delirious for several days, during which time he experienced mystical visions of a heavenly family that he never knew he had. In his visions, his heavenly father lamented that men were worshiping demons instead of worshiping him, and gave Hong a sword with which to slay the demons – which he did, with the help of his celestial older brother and a heavenly army. Six years later, in 1843, after reading a pamphlet he had previously received from a Protestant Christian missionary, Hong declared that he now understood what his visions meant: in reality, he was the younger brother of Jesus (his celestial older brother in the visions), and henceforth, his mission was to rid China of “devils”, including the corrupt Qing government and its Confucian teachings.
Hong was quite sincere, and many people came to believe in his visions. But my point is that Hong’s bizarre beliefs, which misled so many people, arose from an odd confluence of circumstances: a delirious vision coupled with a chance encounter with a Protestant missionary. Neither event, taken by itself, would have led to a mass movement, but the fortuitous combination of the two created a spark that led to a fourteen-year civil war, which was the bloodiest conflict of the 19th century. Sometimes, large-scale effects can spring from the most trivial of causes. And had the Taiping Rebellion taken place in the ninth century instead of the nineteenth, it is highly unlikely that historians living today would be able to even identify its causes: they would have been lost in the dim mists of antiquity.
|Fallacy #2: Confusing the motivation for a story with the model used to create a story, and confusing the origination of a belief with the confirmation of that belief|
Second, Christian apologists fail to distinguish between the motivation for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception (which I shall argue was probably pagan), the model that was used to create that story (which was clearly Jewish), and the prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) that was appealed to by the early Christians, in order to retrospectively confirm the truth of that story.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright commits this fallacy in the article I quoted above, when he argues that the accounts of Jesus’ miraculous conception in Matthew and Luke could not have had a pagan origin, as they are “fiercely Jewish”; nor could they have been based on the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (which was never invoked by Jews to suggest that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, before the time of Jesus). If the stories were indeed made up, as skeptics maintain, then we are faced with the problem that “the only conceivable parallels are pagan ones.” The skeptic is thus forced to postulate a very odd hypothesis, according to Wright:
We would have to suppose that, within the first fifty years of Christianity a double move took place: from an early, very Jewish, high Christology, to a sudden paganization, and back to a very Jewish storytelling again. The evangelists would then have thoroughly deconstructed their own deep intentions, suggesting that the climax of YHWH’s purpose for Israel took place through a pagan-style miraculous birth.
Even more bizarrely, contends Wright, the skeptic has to suppose that the original account of Jesus’ virginal conception was intended purely as a metaphor, but some early Christians failed to realize this, and understood it to be literal.
In reply: Wright is surely correct when he argues that the prophecy in Isaiah cannot have served as the source of Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception. No-one had ever interpreted it that way before. And he is also right when he points out that the Gospel infancy narratives are quite unlike pagan myths about the miraculous births of Alexander and Augustus. The models used for Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives were undoubtedly Jewish. (For instance, Wright suggests that Matthew’s account was modeled on the Biblical story of the birth of Samson in Judges 13.) But that does not necessarily mean that the impetus for the stories was a Jewish one. Pagan converts to Christianity, accustomed to hearing miraculous accounts of the births of their own gods, may well have wondered how a divine person such as Jesus was conceived and born: would not his birth have been even more miraculous? A virginal conception would therefore have struck these pagan converts as only fitting. And perhaps their bias in favor of a supernatural conception was retrospectively confirmed when one of them stumbled across the Septuagint reading of Isaiah 7:14 (“The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”) and asked his Christian friends, “Hey, what’s this?”
After winning over his Christian friends to his way of thinking, a popular clamor may have arisen among these converts for a suitable story of Jesus’ conception and birth. Educated Greek-speaking Jewish Christians may have undertaken the task. Naturally, these Greek-speaking Jewish Christians would have spurned pagan accounts, which generally involved a god having sexual intercourse with a young woman, and turned to the Old Testament for inspiration when composing their account – which is how we ended up with the story we have today. The hypothesis I’ve proposed does not require any pagan backsliding; nor does it suppose that anyone made up a purely metaphorical account. On my proposal, the people who composed Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives were reasoning backwards (“This is how it must have been”), using the best models they had: Old Testament accounts of miraculous (but not virginal) conceptions.
|Fallacy #3: A naive willingness to believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth came directly from Mary, or from other members of Jesus’ family|
Third, some Christian apologists display a naive willingness to believe that the traditions surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth may have come from Jesus’ mother, Mary, or other members of his family. For instance, C. S. Lewis scholar Robert Stackpole suggests that Luke’s infancy narrative is based on a tradition that goes all the way back to Mary herself, in his blog article: The Mystery of the Virginal Conception (Part 2) (January 8, 2020):
An early Christian tradition claims that St. Luke became acquainted with Mary personally, and received much of his material from her. Indeed, at two points in his book he hints at his source when he writes: “And Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). In fact, the preface to St. Luke’s gospel (Lk 1:1-4) suggests that the story of the virginal conception of Jesus was already in circulation in the Christian community when Luke wrote (arguably, ca. 60-63 AD), for it was evidently among those things of which “Theophilus” already had been “informed” (Lk 1:4).
Stackpole’s proposal that Luke got his account of Jesus’ conception and birth directly from Mary is rejected as highly improbable even by conservative scholar Richard Bauckham, who pronounces the following verdict in his essay, “Luke’s infancy narrative as oral history in scriptural form” (in The Christian world around the New Testament, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017, Volume 2, pp. 131-142; also available online in document form):
Of course, in the case of his infancy narrative, readers would not expect Luke to have had direct contact with eyewitnesses. That he was lucky enough to meet Mary before her death is unlikely, even if not completely impossible. (2017, p. 132)
Bauckham argues that as Luke was writing a biography of Jesus, in which he claims to employ best historical practice, he would have interviewed at least some eyewitnesses in composing his Gospel, but allows that he used literary sources as well. However, he freely admits that Luke did not use such sources when writing his narrative of Jesus’ infancy, and that much of what he wrote was made-up:
I see no reason to doubt that Luke himself composed the songs in his infancy narrative… We should also see Luke’s creative hand in the speeches and dialogues, which along with the canticles convey much of the rich christological meaning of the infancy narrative. Given Luke’s skill and versatility as a writer, I do not think it likely that he had literary sources for his infancy narrative, and we certainly have no hope of reconstructing them. (2017, p. 133)
As I see it, there are two major problems with Stackpole’s claim that Luke may have based his infancy narrative on the recollections of Jesus’ mother, Mary. For one thing, Luke does not claim in his preface (Luke 1:1-4) to have personally interviewed eyewitnesses, let alone Jesus’ mother; he only claims to have based his work on other, earlier eyewitness accounts of what Jesus said and did. Additionally, the vast majority of Biblical scholars believe that Luke’s Gospel dates from 80 A.D. at the earliest. By that time, Jesus’ mother would have been dead, so any information Luke may have received about Jesus’ conception and birth would have had to pass through a chain of oral transmission, by word of mouth, until it either reached Luke’s ears or was written down in some document that Luke used when writing his Gospel.
It is possible, of course, that Luke may have been in contact with other members of Jesus’ family. Bauckham himself thinks that Luke obtained his genealogy of Jesus, as well as other family traditions, from these members of the family – especially James, the brother of Jesus, whom he would have met if he actually accompanied St. Paul in his travels. (Bauckham develops this theory in his book, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church [London: T&T Clark, 1990; republished 2004], which is reviewed here.) However, Bauckham freely acknowledges that the grounds for his view are “controversial” and that “many scholars argue that [Luke’s infancy narrative] is discredited by its clear historical mistakes and implausible accounts” (2017, pp. 133-134). (For his part, Bauckham considers the alleged errors to be more apparent than real.) It needs to be kept in mind that Bauckham’s view is a speculative one, for which we have no direct evidence whatsoever. But even if Luke did obtain some traditions relating to Jesus’ infancy from member of Jesus’ family, that would hardly bolster our confidence in Jesus’ virginal conception. For in Luke’s Gospel, the only witness to the angelic announcement of this miracle was Mary herself. Could Mary have told Jesus’ brothers about this incident later on? Possibly. But if she did, then why did Jesus’ own brothers disbelieve in him, during his earthly ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:1-5)? Had they heard from Mary about Jesus’ virginal conception, they would certainly not have said that he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21 – see Bart Ehrman’s related article here).
|Fallacy #4: An exaggerated notion of the reliability of oral transmission|
Fourth, apologists tend to have an exaggerated conception of the reliability of oral transmission, when it comes to the traditions surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth.
Did Jesus order his disciples to memorize his life and teachings?
One scholar who has defended the reliability of oral traditions is Birger Gerhardsson, a Scandinavian specialist in New Testament and early Judaism, whose 1961 work, Memory and Manuscript, criticized the skeptical views of the form critics and argued that Jesus, as a first-century rabbi, would have instructed his disciples by requiring them to memorize his teachings, word for word, in order to preserve them as accurately as possible over time. However, there are several problems with Gerhardsson’s views, as Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman notes in his work, Jesus before the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2016). For one thing, “as anyone who reads the Gospels knows, there is not a single word about Jesus having his followers memorize his teachings” (p. 68). Jesus didn’t have an “oral law” that he wished to transmit. For another thing, although Jesus is called “rabbi” in the Gospels, rabbinic teachings only became a significant feature of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., when the rabbis “became prominent among Jewish teachers” (p. 68). Which brings us to our next point: Gerhardsson’s claims about what Jesus, as a first-century rabbi, would have done, are highly anachronistic. Ehrman points out that “Gerhardsson bases his views on what we know from the Mishnah and the Talmud” (p. 68). But the Mishnah dates from 200 A.D. and the Talmud is even later, whereas Jesus lived and taught in the late ’20s of the first century. Experts in rabbinic materials “do not think we can take practices written in about the year 200 and assume that they have any relevance for the situation in the year 29” (p. 68). In any case, “we have clear and certain evidence that Jesus and his followers were not passing along his teachings, or accounts of his deeds, as they were memorized verbatim” (p. 69) – namely, the contradictions between the Gospels. For instance, in Mark’s account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, Jairus (who is with Jesus) is informed by people coming from his house that his daughter has already died and that there is no point in bothering Jesus any further, while in Matthew’s account, it is Jairus himself who informs Jesus of his daghter’s death and requests that Jesus bring her back to life. Whatever accounts for the differences between these two accounts, it certainly isn’t rote memorization. Finally, what Gerhardsson overlooks is that the disciples of Jesus did not write the Gospels: as Ehrman argues in his book, the disciples were “lower-class, illiterate peasants who spoke Aramaic,” while the Gospels were written by “highly educated Greek-speaking Christians forty to sixty-five years later” – by which time the stories “had been in circulation for decades” (p. 70).
I should add that even if Jesus had instructed his disciples to memorize his sayings in the manner hypothesized by Gerhardsson, there’s no evidence to suggest that he told them to memorize his biography in the same way – let alone the intimate details of his conception, birth and infancy. No other rabbi asked his disciples to memorize the story of his infancy, either. So Gerhardsson’s hypothesis provides us with no reason whatsoever to trust the infancy narratives in the Gospels.
How accurate are oral traditions, over the course time? A case study from Egypt
Another defender of the accuracy of the oral traditions we have about Jesus is Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who was formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem). Rev. Bailey suggests that “the informal yet controlled oral tradition of the settled Middle Eastern village can provide a methodological framework within which to perceive and interpret the bulk of the materials before us” – by which he means “the types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels.” In an article titled, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” (Themelios 20.2 (January 1995): 4-11), Bailey argues that this format would have enabled the faithful transmission of oral traditions relating to the life of Jesus:
Thus, in summary and conclusion, here we have observed a classical methodology for the preservation, control and transmission of tradition that provides, on the one hand, assurance of authenticity and, on the other hand, freedom within limits for various forms of that tradition. Furthermore, the types of material that appear in the Synoptic Gospels include primarily the same forms that we have found preserved by informal controlled oral tradition such as proverbs, parables, poems, dialogues, conflict stories and historical narratives…
…In the light of the reality described above the assumption that the early Christians were not interested in history becomes untenable. To remember the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm their own unique identity. The stories had to be told and controlled or everything that made them who they were was lost.
(1995, p. 10, emphasis original)
However, contrary to what Bailey asserts in his article, chains of oral transmission of a story are notoriously unreliable, as Bart Ehrman documents in chapter five of his book, Jesus before the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2016). One example of a faithfully transmitted oral account cited by Bailey relates to a nineteenth-century missionary in Egypt named John Hogg. Hogg’s daughter, Rena, wrote a biography of her father in 1914. Bailey heard oral accounts of Hogg’s life between 1955 and 1965 (i.e. about four or five decades after Rena had written them), and when he compared them to Rena’s written account, claimed that he found “the same stories told in almost the same way” (1995, p. 9). But as Ehrman points out in his book, when New Testament scholar Theodore Weeden sat down and compared Rena’s 1914 biography with Bailey’s version of the stories he heard about Hogg, he found massive discrepancies:
Were the stories the same? Not even close. The stories were vastly different. The episodes were radically changed. The events were altered. The words were not at all the same. Weeden shows this in detail. (2016, p. 77)
Oral traditions: Vansina’s verdict
In chapter five of his book, Ehrman cites the research of Jan Vansina, a recognized expert in the field who studied oral traditions in Africa from 1955-1960. One major limitation of these chains of transmission is that stories change in the telling, even when they’re being told by the same person:
The problem with this chain of transmission is that something can go wrong at every point (if by “go wrong” we mean “changed from what actually happened”)…
Vansina argues that when testimonies are recited frequently, because of the vagaries inherent in the oral mode of transmission, they change more often than when recited on only one occasion… As Vansina puts it, in words reminiscent of Albert Lord, “Every time a tradition is recited the testimony may be a variant version.”
Traditions experience massive changes not only because people have bad memories. That may be true as well, but even more important, as Vansina discovered, when people pass along “testimonies” about the past, they are telling the story for a particular reason to a particular audience, and “the amount of interest [the teller] can arouse in his audience largely depends on the way he tells the story and on the individual twist he gives it.” As a result, “the tradition inevitably becomes distorted.” Moreover, since the story is told from one person to the next and then to the next and then to the next, “each informant who forms a link in a chain of transmission creates new variants, and changes are made every time the tale is told. It is therefore not surprising that very often the original testimony has disappeared altogether. (2016, pp. 190-192)
Ehrman’s comment on these findings is a telling one:
Anyone interested in knowing about the historical Jesus based on the chain of testimonies about him that eventually came to be written down should certainly sit up and take note. (2016, p. 192)
In fairness, however, Ehrman acknowledges that oral traditions often (though not always) manage to preserve the essence of a story, over time:
Vansina found that despite enormous differences and even discrepant accounts, the gist of a report is often retained in the various retellings. He did note, however, that this was not always the case. (2016, p. 192)
The upshot of all this is that oral tradition is not the apologist’s friend. While it may preserve the essence of a story, it may also distort, mislead and even create events out of whole cloth. So when we learn that most scholars believe that the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written around forty years after Jesus’ death, and that Luke’s Gospel, which made use of Mark and other written sources, was written at least fifty years after Jesus’ death, the question arises: how reliable are the oral traditions which preceded these written sources? And is Jesus’ virginal conception part of the original message, or is it a subsequent addition to the story?
|Fallacy #5: The naive but incorrect belief that two generations are required for legends to take hold within a community|
Fifth, apologists are prone to making the unwarranted claim that the stories of Jesus’ virginal conception date were circulating as early as one generation after Jesus’ death, coupled with the naively held belief that at least two generations are required for legends to spring up and take hold.
Both of these claims are made the Canadian philosopher and apologist Michael Horner in an article titled, “Can I trust the Bible?” written for the Christian devotional booklet, “Knowing Jesus Personally”:
First, there just wasn’t enough time for any legendary development to replace what really happened. Professor A. N. Sherwin-White, a classical historian of Roman and Greek history contemporaneous with Jesus, has studied the rate at which legends developed in the ancient near east. He found that “…even two generations is too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historical core.” The Gospels and their sources are well within this time frame.
In the interests of accuracy, I should point out that Sherwin-White was not claiming that legends could not form within the space of two generations, as some Christian apologists (not Horner) have misunderstood him to mean; rather, he was claiming that they could not completely displace the historical core of a story within that period. As author Kris Komarnitsky pithily puts it in a 2013 article: “Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule above is not primarily focused on how fast myth can grow; it is primarily focused on how fast the historical core can be erased.” The quote from Sherwin-White proves nothing with regard to the accuracy of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth, since even if the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception turned out to be legendary, the Gospel infancy narratives nevertheless contain other information which is solidly historical: for instance, the fact that Jesus’ parents were Joseph and Mary, that Jesus was born in the reign of King Herod the Great, and that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.
I should also point out that Matthew and Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth in Bethlehem are believed by most scholars to have been written at least fifty years after Jesus’ death. By my reckoning, that’s two generations.
Finally, I’d like to quote from the conclusion of Kris Komarnitsky‘s online essay, Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule (May 2013):
The second and final point to make about Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule is that, as far as I can tell, it has never gathered any consensus among classical historians. If anyone were to ever try to do so, it would not surprise me if the vast majority of them either disagreed with it or gave the same response Roman historian J.J. Nicholls gave in 1964: “…the discussion, as far as it goes, is interesting, but it is too sketchy to be convincing.” Out of the seven reviews of Sherwin-White’s book that I could find in English that specifically addressed his myth-growth-rate essay (all from the 1960s), only two were more supportive than this toward Sherwin-White’s two-generation rule.
|Fallacy #6: The belief that Matthew and Luke’s Gospels provide independent attestation to the virginal conception of Jesus, and his birth in Bethlehem|
Sixth, Christian apologists often attempt to argue that the tradition of Jesus’ virginal conception is reliable, because it is attested by two independent sources: Matthew and Luke. They have been making this argument for a long time. Nearly one hundred years ago, in article titled, “The Virgin Birth” in The Bible To-day (19.3 (December, 1924): 75-79), Dr. J. Gresham Machen defended the doctrine on precisely these grounds:
… [W]e have an unequivocal double witness to the virgin birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. These two witnesses are clearly independent. If one thing is clear to modern scholars—and to every common-sense reader—it is that Matthew has not used Luke and Luke has not used Matthew. The very difficulty of fitting the two infancy narratives together is, to the believer in the virgin birth, a blessing in disguise; for it demonstrates at least the complete independence of the two accounts. The unanimity of these two independent witnesses constitutes the very strongest possible testimony to the central fact about which they are perfectly and obviously agreed.
More recently, Christian apologist Randal Rauser, in his 2012 Christmas Eve debate with Jonathan M. S. Pearce, invoked an argument from “double attestation”: the virginal conception is independently attested in Matthew and Luke, whose accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth are strikingly different, so the original tradition must predate both Gospels by a considerable margin.
World-renowned expert on oral transmission Jan Vansina exposes the fallacy in this argument in the following passage, which is taken from his highly acclaimed text, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1985):
…We cannot assume that the testimony of two different informants from the same community or even society is really independent. This is very important. In history, proof is given only when two independent sources confirm the same event or situation, but…it is not possible to do this with oral tradition wherever a corpus exists and information flows are unstemmed (i.e., in most cases). Feedback and contamination is the norm…No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as independent sources, even though they have different authors…they stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community. Once this is realized, it is easy to see that it also applies to John, the fourth Gospel… (1985, p. 159)
I’d like to make two more quick observations: first, given that Matthew and Luke are believed to have been composed around 80 A.D., all we can say for sure is that if their accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth were composed independently of one another, Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception is likely to go back to 70 A.D. or earlier. We really cannot be more dogmatic than that. That still leaves us with forty years of tradition to account for.
Second, not all scholars are convinced that Luke’s account is independent of Matthew’s. New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre has written an excellent book, “The Case against Q” (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002) on why he thinks that Luke, in writing his Gospel used Matthew’s Gospel as a source. One tantalizing piece of evidence is the fact that Matthew and Luke often agree against Mark when they report the same incident as Mark, but where both authors include several additional verses, agreeing almost word for word, which Mark curiously lacks. (One example is shown in the image above.) The most straightforward explanation is that Luke copied from Matthew. Readers can also peruse Professor Goodacre’s online book, “The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze” (London: T & T Clark International, 2001) or watch a video presentation of his views here (an interview with Derek Lambert on September 6, 2020). If Goodacre is right, then the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke may date back no earlier than 80 A.D., after all (the date when Matthew’s Gospel was composed).
|Fallacy #7: Biblical anachronism, or reading the beliefs of later generations of Christians back into the earliest days of Christianity|
Seventh, apologists are guilty of Biblical anachronism, when they display a willingness to read beliefs held by later generations of Christians back into the earliest days of Christianity (e.g. “Matthew and Luke believed that Jesus was virginally conceived, and Mark doesn’t say that he wasn’t, so he probably believed as Matthew and Luke did”).
Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace exhibits this kind of thinking in an article titled, Why doesn’t Mark say anything about Jesus’ birth? (December 11, 2015) on his Cold Case Christianity blog, where he discusses the fact that Jesus is referred to as the “son of Mary” by the people of his hometown, Nazareth:
It is highly unusual for the “many listeners” in this first century Jewish culture to describe Jesus as the “son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph”. These first century eyewitnesses of Jesus apparently knew something about Jesus’ birth narrative and chose to trace Jesus’ lineage back through His mother rather than through His father (as would customarily have been the case). This early reference in the Gospel of Mark may expose the fact that Mark was aware of the “virgin conception” and that the first eyewitnesses of Jesus were also aware of Mary’s marital status at the time of her conception.
In the above passage, Wallace is making inferences about the beliefs of “the first eyewitnesses of Jesus,” solely on the basis of the fact that Jesus is called “son of Mary” in Mark 6:3 – a phrase with several possible interpretations, which may not even be the original reading of the verse, but which (if genuine) probably means nothing more than the fact that Jesus was commonly known by that description, in his hometown. The reason why Mark didn’t alter the phrase is that it was not seen as derogatory in casual conversation. By itself, Mark 6:3 does not count as evidence either for or against the virginal conception of Jesus, and Wallace is guilty of making an unjustified inferential leap when using it to draw conclusions about the beliefs of the earliest Christians.
|Fallacy #8: In order to refute skeptical objections, all Christians need to do is show that the Gospel accounts might be right|
Eighth, apologists are guilty of lowering of the epistemic bar, when they display a willingness to accept any explanation, however strained and implausible, of the discrepancies between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and the historical problems associated with these accounts, so long as it’s possibly true.
John F. McCarthy exemplifies this fallacy in an article he wrote for the Roman Theological Forum (No. 11, May 1987) titled, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus”. In his article, McCarthy defends what’s known as the “levirate marriage” solution to the alleged discrepancy between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, which disagree as to who Joseph’s father was: namely, that Jacob and Heli (Joseph’s father according to Matthew and Luke, respectively) were actually half-brothers. To his credit, McCarthy acknowledges the objections of Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown to this supposed “solution,” and attempts to rebut them, before triumphantly concluding that “Brown does not present cogent grounds for abandoning the possibility of a solution through levirate marriage” (his italics), and that the explanation of a levirate marriage “cannot be logically excluded” (again, his italics). But this is setting the bar too low: almost any proposed harmonization of a discrepancy can be defended as possible, but that does not make it plausible, let alone true. Moreover, as I shall argue in part 4 below, McCarthy’s argument proves too much: by applying his logic, one could harmonize any two conflicting genealogies of a historical personage.
|Fallacy #9: Jesus’ adoption by Joseph solves any problems relating to legal paternity and Davidic descent|
Ninth, many apologists commit what I call the “adoption fallacy”: the lazy and historically inaccurate belief that Jesus would have been publicly recognized as Joseph’s son, and as David’s descendant, simply by virtue of being adopted by Joseph. Professor Yigal Levin draws attention to Christian scholars’ uncritical acceptance of this assumption in his article, Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.4 (2006) 415-442):
So how, according to Mathew and Luke, could Jesus have been both the son of Joseph, descended from David, and the Son of God, born to a virgin? The evangelists did not seem to concern themselves with thisapparent contradiction, and many scholars have just assumed that they and their audiences were simply not perturbed by it…
But the solution that most commentators have suggested has been that Jesus was considered Joseph’s son by adoption… In any case, the general assumption is that Jesus inherited his Davidic status by means of adoption. But when pressed for either precedence or proof of such adoption, the vast majority of commentators simply refer to ‘Jewish custom’ or ‘Jewish Law’. As early as 1930, Machen stated that in the Jews’ ‘Semitic way of thinking’, they looked upon ‘adoptive fatherhood in a much more realistic way than we look upon it’ (Machen 1930: 129). Six decades later Meier (1991: 217) still claimed that,
the Jewish milieu out of which the Infancy Narratives came regularly traced a child’s genealogy through his or her father, whether or not the ‘father’ was actually the biological parent…in the eyes of the Old Testament, the legal father is the real father, whether or not he physically procreated the child.
…The general hypothesis is apparently that since both evangelists, or at least Matthew, were ostensibly Jews, writing at least in part to a Jewish audience, their legal assumptions must have also been based on the Jewish law of the time. (pp. 421-423)
But as Levin points out, the problem is this belief has absolutely no basis in reality:
However, while adoption is known in some Ancient Near Eastern legal codes, Jewish law, both in antiquity and in the modern era, has no such legal institution. (p. 423)
“No such legal institution” as adoption in Jewish law?! I would call that a major problem for Christian apologists. And it all stems from lazy thinking and a failure to ask probing questions.
|Fallacy #10: Confusing signs and miracles, and assuming that a sign for one person must also be a sign for everyone|
Finally, when discussing the prophetic evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, many apologists tend to confuse signs with miracles, when discussing Isaiah 7:14. One frequently hears the following argument: King Ahaz asked the Lord for a sign, and God promised him that a young woman would conceive, which wouldn’t have been much of a sign unless the woman was a virgin. The argument is a very old one: it goes back to the time of St. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 A.D.), one of the earliest Christian apologists, who deploys it against an imaginary Jewish interlocutor in his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 84):
Moreover, the prophecy, ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,’ was uttered respecting Him [i.e. Jesus – VJT]. For if He to whom Isaiah referred was not to be begotten of a virgin, of whom did the Holy Spirit declare, ‘Behold, the Lord Himself shall give us a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son?’ For if He also were to be begotten of sexual intercourse, like all other first-born sons, why did God say that He would give a sign which is not common to all the first-born sons?
Christian apologist Jonathan Sarfati puts forward the same argument in his article, The virginal conception of Christ at creation.com (first published in Apologia 3(2):4–11, 1994; last updated 24 December 2014), where he defends the traditional Christian translation of the Hebrew word ‘almāh in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin”:
The word for virgin here is עלמה (‘almāh). Some liberals and Orthodox Jews claim that the word really means ‘young woman’, and this is reflected in Bible translations such as the NEB, RSV, NRSV, and GNB. Such people fail to explain why a young woman’s bearing a son should be a sign — it happens all the time.
The fallacy here is twofold: first, what King Ahaz asked for from God was a sign, not a miracle; and second, the fact that the sign was intended by God to have special significance for Ahaz does not necessarily imply that it would have any significance for us, living today. Biblical scholar James Tabor, Professor of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, explains how the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 would have served as a sign to King Ahaz in a blog article titled, A Virgin Shall Conceive…What Does it Really Mean? (June 30, 2019).
Anyone reading Isaiah 7:14 in context would realize it is talking about the divinely sanctioned birth of a normal child in Isaiah’s time to a young woman of that time – the 7th century BC. This birth was to be a sign to Ahaz, the king of Judah, that despite the threats of the Assyrians, poised in the north to conquer Jerusalem, God would be with his people (“Immanuel”) and protect them…
The idea then is not that a “young woman” will bear a child without a human father, but rather that a special child will be born, and that birth will be a sign of salvation for the people.
The Hebrew term אוֹת (ʾot, “sign”) can refer to a miraculous event (see v. 11), but it does not carry this sense inherently… The sign outlined in vv. 14-17 involves God’s providential control over events and their timing, but not necessarily miraculous intervention.
I have identified ten common fallacies committed by Christian apologists when discussing the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, but the list I have drawn up here is far from being an exhaustive one. Nevertheless, it suffices to illustrate my point that we need to be vigilant against sloppy thinking, when discussing theological matters.
I shall now discuss the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, beginning with the historical evidence.
You have a choice at this point. You may either continue reading, or skip straight to the Summary. It’s entirely up to you.
PROBLEMS WITH THE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE FOR JESUS’ VIRGINAL CONCEPTION
1. We have no reports of the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception, dating from Jesus’ lifetime (c. 5 B.C. to c.30 A.D.) or the first few years after his death.
The earliest Biblical accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception are dated by most scholars to around fifty years after Jesus’ death.
Fifty years is plenty of time for a miraculous legend to spring up and take hold in a community. Indeed, we have documented cases of miraculous legends springing up and taking hold among believers, as little as ten years after a person’s death.
Whatever one may think of the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection, it is generally acknowledged by scholars that the earliest, pre-Pauline creed attesting to Christian faith in the Resurrection dates from just a few years after Jesus’ death – around 35 to 40 A.D. St. Paul quotes from this creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (verse 8 was of course added by Paul himself). However, there are some scholars who argue that the pre-Pauline creed was initially much shorter, that it originally ended at verse 5, and that the appearances of Jesus to the 500, James and the disciples were added later on. In any case, virtually all scholars are agreed that the pre-Pauline creed is roughly contemporaneous with the miracle it alleges took place (i.e. the Resurrection), and that it originally included, at the very least, a reference to Jesus appearing to Peter (Cephas) and then to “the Twelve.” That much is fairly certain.
By contrast, we have no contemporaneous attestation to Christian belief in the virginal conception of Jesus. The earliest accounts we have are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are dated by most scholars to around fifty years after Jesus’ death. (For instance, Professor James H. Charlesworth, a world-renowned biblical archaeologist and New Testament scholar who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary until 2019, dates Mark’s Gospel to the late sixties or early seventies A.D., Matthew to around 85 A.D., Luke-Acts to 80-90, or possibly 90-110, and John’s Gospel in its final form to 95, in his book, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008], p. 42. In his book, he argues that the Evangelists were not eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and thought. Charlesworth’s opinions are broadly representative of scholarship in his field.)
In other words, a full two generations elapsed between the time of Jesus’ death and the time when the stories of his miraculous birth were written. Two generations is more than enough time for legendary accounts to spring up and take hold. We have examples of both Jewish and Christian legands that sprang up about famous people within a similar period, or even within a much shorter period, and gained widespread acceptance.
(i) Legends surrounding the Baal Shem Tov (Israel ben Eliezer)
Let me begin with Jewish legends. In his book, Jesus before the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2016, pp. 95-100), Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman describes the case of a Jewish holy man named Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), known as the Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic mystic whose life, deeds and teachings were narrated just 54 years after his death by a Jewish Rabbi, Dov Ber, who was the son-in-law of Eliezer’s personal scribe and secretary, Rabbi Alexander the Shoher. Throughout his biography, Dov Ber insists that his tales are based on reliable sources – “truthful people,” as he calls them – including the Baal Shem Tov’s personal secretary, and also a rabbi who had heard some of the stories from his own teacher. “I was careful to write down all the things I heard from truthful people. In each case I wrote down from whom I heard it. Thank God, who endowed me with memory, I neither added nor omitted anything. Every word is true and I did not change a word.” The stories describe the Baal Shem Tov’s supernatural powers, including the power to be transformed into a brightly glowing presence shining like a rainbow, and the power to break a long drought by casting out a demon and imprisoning it in a forest. (Dov Ber claims that he actually heard these two stories from the Baal Shem Tov’s personal scribe.) In another story, told to Dov Ber by a rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov touches a tree with his finger and starts a fire that warms a certain rabbi and his servants, preventing them from freezing to death while traveling on a long journey in winter. All in all, Dov Ber’s account contains 251 short tales. Despite the fairly short time interval (just fifty years) and the fact that Dov Ber interviewed eyewitnesses as well as “truthful people,” his account contains a great deal of material that is obviously legendary.
(ii) The legend of St. Genevieve
As an example of a Christian miraculous legend that sprang up and gained widespread acceptance within the space of just ten years, we have the story of St. Genevieve, which is described by Dr. Richard Carrier, whose Ph.D. is in ancient history, in an online article titled, Why I don’t buy the Resurrection story (6th ed., 2006):
In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened–by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn’t.
For readers who may be interested, here are the relevant sources, cited by Dr. Carrier:
For the Vita Genofevae see the translation of the earliest mss. (“Text A”) in Sainted Women of the Dark Ages by Jo Ann McNamara and John Halborg, 1992, pp. 17 ff. Their introduction gives background and further sources. See also The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Geneviève” for more sources. I only mention a few of the most incredible of her miracles–by section number, cf. monsters: 34; righted ships: 39; exorcisms: 44-47, etc.; calmed storms: 50; oil: 51; water: 19; healings: 20, 32, 36, etc.; blinded thieves: 23, 33, etc.
Any prudent investigator would be skeptical of such accounts – and rightly so. That being the case, should we not be similarly skeptical of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being born of a virgin, which were written some fifty years after Jesus’ death?
2. We have no later reports quoting the testimony of eyewitnesses who were there when an angel announced to Joseph or Mary that the miracle of the Virgin Birth would take place, or who saw or heard anything supernatural relating to Jesus’ birth.
We have no first-hand testimonial evidence for the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. Only two gospels mention this miracle (Matthew and Luke), and neither Matthew nor Luke gives us firsthand testimonial evidence for such an extraordinary miracle. Even if the evangelists had personally interviewed Mary and Joseph (which neither of them claims to have done), this would constitute only second-hand testimony in the case of Mary, which means that we are unable to independently cross-examine her. As for Joseph’s testimony, it’s worthless because it’s entirely based on what he was told by an angel to do in a dream. But in any case, neither Matthew nor Luke actually quotes the testimony of eyewitnesses, in their accounts of Jesus’ birth. In his preface (Luke 1:1-4), Luke does not claim to have personally interviewed eyewitnesses; he only claims to have based his work on other, earlier eyewitness accounts of what Jesus said and did. Finally, Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy (Luke 1-2) appears to have been added on to his original Gospel narrative, which naturally begins with chapter 3. Thus we have no guarantee that Luke’s infancy narrative was even indirectly based on eyewitness testimony.
In January 2020, skeptic John Loftus (M.A., M.Div., M.Th.) debated Catholic apologist William Albrecht (who has a B.A. in theology) on the topic, “Was Jesus Born of a Virgin?” In his opening statement, Loftus laid bare the gaping holes in the historical evidence for the Virgin Birth. The greatest problem is the lack of corroborating evidence – and in particular, the lack of first-hand eyewitness testimony:
The most significant problem for my debate opponent is that there’s no objective evidence to corroborate the virgin birth stories in the New Testament. None. None at all! Where’s the evidence Mary was a virgin? … Where’s the evidence that neither Joseph nor any other man was not the father? …
We don’t even have firsthand testimonial evidence for it, since the story is related to us by others, not Mary, or Joseph. At best, all we have is the second-hand testimony of one person, Mary, or two if we include Joseph who was unreasonably convinced Mary was a virgin because of a dream, yes, a dream (see Matthew 1:19-24). We never get to independently cross-examine them, along with the people who knew them, which we would need to do, since they may have a very good reason for lying, like a pregnancy out of wedlock! Before there can be a virgin birth one must first show Mary wasn’t pregnant. One must also show neither Joseph nor any other man was not the baby daddy.
If we examine the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we find that neither Matthew nor Luke actually quotes the testimony of eyewitnesses, in their accounts of Jesus’ birth.
(a) Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s Gospel gives no indication of where its account of Jesus’ birth and infancy comes from: it does not quote the testimony of either Mary or Joseph. Nor does Matthew claim to have spoken to Mary or Joseph. In any case, the evidence he presents for the virginal conception of Jesus is fatally flawed, as it is based entirely on what Joseph was told in a dream. Here’s how Matthew narrates it in chapter 1 of his Gospel:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” …
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. (Matthew 1: 18-21, 24; NIV)
Quoting the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, John Loftus exposed the problem with evidence of this kind, in his 2020 debate with William Albrecht:
With regard to Joseph’s dream, Thomas Hobbes tells us, “For a man to say God hath spoken to him in a Dream, is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him; which is not of force to win belief from any man.” [Leviathan, chap. 32.6]
(b) Luke’s Gospel
So much for Matthew’s Gospel. What about Luke? Some Christians have cited the preface to his Gospel as evidence that he personally interviewed eyewitnesses. But let’s look at what he actually says:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has some perceptive comments on the significance of Luke’s preface in his recent book, Jesus before the Gospels (New York: HarperOne, 2016, p. 107):
It is important to note that Luke decidedly does not say that he himself interviewed eyewitnesses or bases his account on what he directly learned from eyewitnesses. He simply says that the stories of Jesus were transmitted in the years before he wrote first by eyewitnesses and then by those who proclaimed the Christian Gospel. That obviously is true enough: the stories of Jesus were first told by people who knew him. If Luke had wanted to indicate that his principal sources of information for these stories were interviews he had conducted with the actual disciples of Jesus, why would he not say so?
In short: all Luke claims in his preface is to have based his work on other, earlier eyewitness accounts of what Jesus said and did. What’s more, some Biblical scholars believe that Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy (Luke 1-2) was added on to his original Gospel narrative, which naturally begins with chapter 3, for reasons that will be discussed below in part 4. Since we cannot be sure whether the first two chapters of Luke were part of his original Gospel, we have no guarantee that Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy is based even indirectly on eyewitness testimony.
What we do know, however, is that Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist and the birth and infancy of Jesus (Luke 1:5-2:52) is strikingly similar to the Biblical account of the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:26). And the resemblances between Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) are unmistakable. Now, the fact that Luke modeled his account of Jesus’ birth on the Biblical account of Samuel’s birth does not render his account historically worthless. But it does mean that Luke’s account cannot be regarded as an interview with a surviving eyewitness (e.g. Mary). At the very best, it may contain nuggets of genuine eyewitness recollections.
To sum up: Matthew’s account of Jesus being born of a virgin names no sources and is largely based on angelic messages heard in dreams, while Luke’s account of Jesus’ miraculous birth also names no eyewitnesses and was written down some fifty years after Jesus’ death. Should we not be skeptical of such sources?
Nevertheless, there are many conservative Christians who continue to argue that Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ miraculous conception, birth and infancy contain a small but solid core of historically accurate memories. However, even this modest claim faces several problems, which we’ll discuss in parts 4 and 5 below: Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth appear to be at odds with what earlier Christian authors have to say about Jesus’ mother Mary; each account seem to contradict itself on the subject of Jesus’ ancestry, and to make matters worse, Matthew and Luke also appear to contradict one another; and finally, some of the historical information they contain is highly questionable. But before we examine these accounts, let’s look at what the earliest Christian authors had to say about Jesus’ conception and birth.
3. The earliest Christian writers to mention Jesus’ mother (St. Paul and St. Mark) appear to have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally.
(a) Regarding St. Paul:
In Romans 1:3, Paul refers to Jesus as a descendant of David. But according to the Jewish Torah (Numbers 1:18), tribal lineage is determined solely by the biological father, and the idea of Jesus being David’s son by adoption would have been utterly foreign within the world of first-century Judaism. It follows that if Paul believed that Jesus was descended from David, he did not believe that Jesus was conceived of a virgin.
Although Paul declares Jesus to be “of the seed of David” in Romans 1:3-4, he fails to make any reference to the Holy Spirit’s role in Jesus’ birth; instead, he tells us that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” Such a striking omission is incomprehensible if he believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin.
Finally, in Galatians 4:4, Paul not only declares that Jesus was “born of a woman,” but also “born under the law, that he might redeem them which were under the law” (Galatians 4:4), which implies that Jesus had to become just like the people he came to redeem, in order to become their redeemer. That would seem to rule out a virginal conception.
(b) Regarding St. Mark:
Mark 3:21 describes an incident in Jesus’ early ministry where his mother and brothers come to take him out of the public eye, because they think he’s crazy. (At least, that’s the best translation of the Greek.) But if Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally, then she would have known he was not crazy. Her apparent belief that her son had gone out of his mind indicates that she (and by extension, Mark) believed that Jesus was conceived naturally, like other human beings.
Mark 6:3 (where Jesus is called “son of Mary” by the people of his hometown of Nazareth) does not count as evidence either for or against the virginal conception of Jesus. Jesus’ townsfolk may well have said something along those lines because that is how they knew him. Alternatively, the reading “son of Mary” may not be original: a copyist may have changed the original “the son of the carpenter and Mary” to “the carpenter, the son of Mary.”
Mark 10:47-48 shows that Mark regarded Jesus as a son of David, and there are several verses (Mark 1:11, 5:7, 9:7, 14:61-62) where Mark refers to Jesus as the Son of God. However, Mark, writing in the first century, would have seen no tension between Jesus being the Son of God and his being a son of David. From both a Jewish and a Roman standpoint, there was nothing to prevent Jesus, the Anointed King, from being both ‘Son of God’ and a son of man. The idea that divine descent precluded human parentage seems to be unique to the first chapters of Matthew and Luke.
All in all, it seems reasonable to conclude that in all likelihood, neither St. Paul nor St. Mark knew of the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, and that they actually believed he was conceived naturally.
(a) St. Paul seems to have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally
There are three passages in St. Paul’s writings which allude to Jesus’ birth:
(On “sinful flesh” in Romans 8:3, compare Romans 5:12 (ESV): “12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”)
(i) Arguments suggesting that St. Paul believed Jesus was conceived and born in a natural manner
Critical scholars have long been aware that the earliest New Testament author, St. Paul, appears to have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally. Here’s how the highly influential and scholarly Encyclopaedia Biblica (edited by Thomas Kelly Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black; Toronto: George N. Morang and Company Limited, 1899) sums up the evidence in its article on Mary (Vol. 3, p. 155, cols. 2957-2958) by Professor T. K. Cheyne, written over a century ago:
One testimony, that of Paul, is unquestionably older than that of our canonical gospels. (a) At the very outset, his statement in Rom. 1:3 that Jesus was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, is irreconcilable with the virgin birth. Otherwise reference must certainly have been made to the share which the Holy Ghost (who is also mentioned) had in his generation. Now, 1:4, the antithesis to ‘according to the flesh’ (κατὰ σάρκα) not being strictly adhered to, proceeds to define what Jesus has become in virtue of his resurrection. In this reference, however, the Holy Spirit does not figure as the author of the being of Jesus at his birth but as the higher and, strictly speaking, the abiding element of his being – in short, as what in an ordinary mortal constitutes the soul. (b) In Rom. 8:3 God sends forth his son ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (ἐν ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας). Since the apostle in Rom. 5:12 traces the sinfulness of mankind to its descent from Adam, such a statement would certainly be impossible, the virgin birth being held. (c) The most important passage, however, is found in Gal. 4:4. Not indeed because the expression runs ‘made of a woman’ (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός] and not ‘made of a virgin’ (γενόμενον ἐκ παρθένον), for after all a ‘virgin’ (παρθένος) is also a ‘woman’ (γύνή) and it could reasonably be urged that Paul was under no compelling necessity to lay emphasis on the idea of παρθένος. The force of the passage for the present discussion lies in what follows: ‘born under the law, that he might redeem them which were under the law.’ Here what is shown is that in order to become their redeemer it behoved Jesus to be completely like those he came to redeem. Thus also the phrase ‘born of a woman’ denotes a birth differing in no essential particular from ordinary human births.
St. Paul’s words state an antithesis; they speak of the Son from two standpoints, that of the body and that of the spirit (SH., Rom., p. 7). “According to the flesh”, He was “born (γενόμενον) of the seed of David”, but, “according to the spirit of holiness”, He was designated (ὁρισθέντος) Son of God “by the resurrection of the dead”. It is very difficult to think that the antithesis would have been stated in this way, if the Apostle had been thinking of the Virgin Birth. “Born of the seed of David” contains no reference to the doctrine. The Divine Sonship, indeed, is not mentioned until the following clause, and there it is said to be predicated, not in the Virgin Birth, but in the Resurrection. Without pressing the view that “according to the flesh born of the seed of David” implies an ordinary human birth, we may certainly claim that the Miraculous Conception is a thought entirely foreign to the passage. (1920, p. 12)
In Taylor’s opinion, St. Paul’s language in Philippians 2:7 and Romans 8:3 in no way indicates that he believed in Jesus’ virginal conception; rather, what is being affirmed here is his belief in Christ’s resurrection:
Most significant in this connexion are Phil. ii. 7 (“Being made in the likeness of man”) and Rom. viii. 3 (which speaks of the Son as sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh”). These passages are important because they clearly imply a difference between the humanity of Christ and ordinary humanity. This difference — indicated by the word “likeness” (ὁμοιώμα) – is certainly not a difference in mode of origin. Its character is manifest in Rom. viii. 3; it lies in the sinlessness and moral perfection of Jesus. There is no indication that the Apostle is thinking of anything further, and the same is true of Phil. ii. 7. (1920, p. 13)
(ii) Does St. Paul mean to contrast Jesus’ being “born” with Ishmael’s being “begotten”?
In his article, The virginal conception of Christ at creation.com (first published in Apologia 3(2):4–11, 1994; last updated 24 December 2014), Christian apologist Jonathan Sarfati argues on grammatical grounds that St. Paul is hinting at a virginal conception in Galatians 4:4, contrasting his language in this passage with the way he speaks about the birth of Ishmael, in the same chapter:
In fact, Paul does use language which implies acceptance of the Virginal Conception. He uses the general Greek verb γίνομαι (ginomai), not γεννάω (gennaō) since ginomai tends to associate the husband in Rom. 1:3, Phil. 2:7, and especially Gal. 4:4, “God sent forth His Son, coming (γενόμενον genomenon) from a woman.” By contrast, in 4:23 Ishmael “was born” (γεγέννηται gegennētai, from gennaō).[38,39]
However, Biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer rebutted this line of argument back in 1973, in his influential essay, The Virginal Conception of Jesus in the New Testament (Theological Studies, 34, 541 – 575), where he traces it back to its original source:
More recently, W. C. Robinson (“A Re-Study of the Virgin Birth of Christ: God’s Son Was Born of a Woman: Mary’s Son Prayed ‘Abba Father,'” Evangelical Quarterly 37  1-15) has tried to draw an argument from Paul’s use of genomenon for Jesus, “born” of a woman in contrast to Ishmael or Isaac, who were “begotten” (gegennëtai) according to the flesh or the Spirit. The trouble with his view is that genesthai can mean either to “be born” or to “be begotten” (see Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Cambridge, Eng., 1957], p. 157) and gennan can mean either to “beget,” i.e., become the father of, or to “bear,” i.e., become the mother of (ibid., p. 154). So this distinction proposed by Robinson breaks down. (1973, p. 554, footnote 45).
I conclude that there is no good reason to believe that St. Paul is hinting at a virginal conception in Galatians 4:4.
(iii) Would Jesus’ adoption by Joseph resolve the difficulties cited above?
Writing from an evangelical Christian standpoint, pastor Luke Wayne of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry argues for a more orthodox interpretation of St. Paul’s writings in his online article, Did Paul deny the virgin birth? (CARM, December 15, 2018). Briefly, Wayne argues that:
(1) Jesus could still have been a biological descendant of David if his mother was descended from David;
(2) even if Mary was not a descendant of David, Jesus was still Joseph’s adopted son by virtue of Joseph’s marriage to Mary, which would have been enough to make him “of the seed of David”;
(3) the term “seed of David” implies nothing about Jesus’ biological descent, since in Galatians 3:28-29, Paul argues that anyone who is in Christ is Abraham’s seed;
(4) finally, Paul’s statement that Jesus was made of the seed of David “according to the flesh” implies nothing about Jesus’ ancestry because Paul also believed (Philippians 2:5-7) that the Son actually existed before David.
(2) as Professor Yigal Levin explains in his scholarly article, Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line (which I’ll discuss in part 4 below), the idea of Jesus being David’s son by adoption would have made no sense within the world of first-century Judaism;
(3) it is not the phrase “seed of David” which is problematic for the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, but rather, the complete absence of any reference to the Holy Spirit’s role in Jesus’ birth in Romans 1:3-4;
(4) in Romans 1:4, Jesus is not called “Son of God” prior to his birth, but is said to have been appointed Son of God by virtue of his resurrection from the dead – and in any case, Jesus’ pre-existence with God before his birth in no way precludes his being conceived naturally, of a biological father and mother;
(5) Wayne does not address the question of why Paul elsewhere declares that Jesus was not only “born of a woman” but also “born under the law, that he might redeem them which were under the law” (Gal. iv. 4), which implies that “in order to become their redeemer it behoved Jesus to be completely like those he came to redeem” (Encyclopedia Biblica, vol. 3, col. 2958, art. “Mary“).
(iv) St. Paul on Christ as the Second Adam
Finally, Associate Professor Brandon Crowe, of Westminster Theological Seminary, appeals to St. Paul’s explicit parallelism between Adam and Jesus Christ (the second Adam) in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 as evidence that he was acquainted with the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, in his online article, The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ (thegospelcoalition.org, January 15, 2020; modified 29 April 2020):
Paul deals in Romans 5 with two covenant heads of humanity, Adam and Christ. Both are representatives, whose actions have consequences for others. It is difficult to see how Paul’s Adam-Christ parallel would stand, and how Jesus would not have been implicated in the sin of Adam, if Paul did not believe in the virgin birth (cf. 1 Cor 15:22, 47–48).
However, Professor Vincent Taylor anticipated this line of argument in his monograph, The Historical Evidence for the Virgin Birth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), where he seems to have satisfactorily rebutted it:
In a question of this kind, we must distinguish between what the doctrine of the “Second Adam” may or may not “postulate” in our own minds, and what St. Paul’s thoughts may have been. Certainly he gives us no reason to suppose that the Virgin Birth was in the background of his mind when he wrote Rom. v. 12-21. There would be as much justification, if not more, for the contrary suggestion. So far as 1 Cor. xv. 44-9 is concerned — (verse 47 reads: “The second man is of heaven”) — the reference is to the Resurrection, not the Incarnation. (1920, pp. 12-13)
 Cf. H. R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ, p. 69: “… the passage [1 Cor. xv. 44-9] is throughout concerned not in the least with the pre-existent but with the exalted Christ. It was only in virtue of resurrection that He became the archetype and head of a new race.” Mackintosh says that the Virgin Birth is “not present” in Gal. iv. 4, “not even hinted at” (p. 528).
Regarding Professor Crowe’s question as to how Jesus would have avoided being implicated in the sin of Adam, on St. Paul’s view, if he did not believe in Jesus’ virginal conception, one fairly obvious answer that suggests itself is: Jesus would have been implicated in Adam’s sin, had God not raised him from the dead. In other words, for Paul, Jesus was vindicated retrospectively, rather than prospectively.
(v) Did the early Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception ultimately derive from St. Paul’s teachings?
I would be remiss if I did not point out that Biblical scholar James Tabor, who is Professor of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has argued in his online article, Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth? (Huffington Post, February 22, 2013), that although St. Paul himself knew nothing of Jesus’ virginal conception (as he writes, “Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph”), the teaching is rooted in Paul’s exalted understanding of who Jesus was. As Tabor points out, St. Paul taught that “Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being.” Tabor believes it was this doctrine which ultimately gave rise to the Christian teaching that Jesus was born of a virgin, and he sees texts such as Galatians 4:4 (“In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman…”) as presaging the teaching that Jesus was uniquely God’s Son, and that he was conceived without a human father:
The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God — eliminating any necessity for a human father.
On the other hand, some scholars have argued for the contrary view – for instance, Professor Thomas Kelly Cheyne (cited above) argued that the doctrine of Jesus’ pre-existence made his virginal conception unnecessary: “He who has already lived the life of a divine being in heaven does not need to be ushered into the world in any such manner” (Encyclopedia Biblica, Toronto: George N. Morang and Company Limited, 1899, vol. 3, article “Mary,” col. 2964).
In part 7 below, I shall argue that a belief in Jesus’ exalted status as “Lord,” and as ruling at God’s right hand, may have provided the theological impetus behind later Christian belief in the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception.
(vi) Conclusion: did St. Paul know about Jesus’ virginal conception?
My own tentative conclusion is that St. Paul probably believed that Jesus was conceived as we are, and that his biological father (Joseph) was a descendant of David. Not all Biblical scholars would agree with me here: for instance, Catholic Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown is strictly agnostic on the issue of what Paul believed. In his inaugural address, The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971, he concludes: “Ultimately, however, there seems to be no way to establish persuasively whether or not Paul knew of the virginal conception” (p. 27). However, to my mind, the “No” case appears to be supported by stronger arguments than the “Yes” case. Regarding St. Paul’s personal theological views, Professor Vincent Taylor sums up the evidence very aptly in his scholarly work, The Historical Evidence for the Virgin Birth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920):
It is reasonable to urge that St. Paul would have phrased his references to the Incarnation somewhat differently, if he had known of the Virgin Birth, and that, on the whole, his words are best explained by presuming his ignorance of the tradition.…
Unless, on other grounds, it can be shown that the tradition was known in Apostolic circles during St. Paul’s lifetime, his silence must be interpreted to mean lack of knowledge concerning it. (1920, p. 14)
Addendum: The Epistle to the Hebrews
Although he avoids drawing a firm conclusion, Taylor is doubtful as to whether the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception can be found in the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews (mistakenly believed by some Christians to have been written by St. Paul, and composed in the latter half of the first century A.D.):
The Epistle to the Hebrews claims attention because of the developed character of its doctrine of the Person of Christ, and because its writer, while not an eye-witness (ii. 3), has a vivid knowledge of many events in the earthly life of Jesus. As regards the Virgin Birth, the Epistle is completely silent. In the comparison with Melchizedek (vii. 1-3), no stress can be laid on the fact that the latter is described as “without father”; he is also “without mother” and “without genealogy”. The reference to the descent of Jesus from the tribe of Judah (vii. 14) is left quite bare. Even the statements concerning the sinlessness of Christ (iv. 15, vii. 26), and the lofty characterization of the Son as “the effulgence” of God’s glory and “the very impress of his substance” (i. 3), are made without a word as to the method of the Incarnation. It is difficult to read the Epistle without feeling that the writer’s thought is nowhere influenced by the Virgin Birth. (1920, p. 23)
One verse which creates special difficulties for the view that the author of the epistle was acquainted with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is Hebrews 2:17: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
I conclude that in all likelihood, neither St. Paul nor the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was acquainted with the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception.
(b) The author of Mark’s Gospel probably believed that Jesus was conceived naturally
(i) The significance of Mark 3:21, where Jesus’ family declares him to be “out of his mind”
What about Mark’s Gospel? In a blog article titled, “Does Mark’s Gospel implicitly deny the virgin birth?” (December 27, 2014), Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman explains why he believes it implicitly denies the virgin birth. Ehrman rests his case on Mark 3:21, which describes an incident in Jesus’ early ministry where his family come to take him out of the public eye, because they think he’s crazy. The verse is normally translated “Now when his family heard these things they came out in order to seize him, for they were saying ‘He is out of his mind.'” Ehrman acknowledges that the verse can be translated differently, to mean that other people were saying Jesus was crazy, but argues that this translation is grammatically farfetched:
…In Mark 3:21, when it says “for they were saying” there is no noun or pronoun expressed to indicated who the “they” is. And so, by the rules of grammar, it almost certainly refers to the closest antecedent, which in this case is “those who were on his side,” i.e., his family. In other words, the ones who came to seize him were the ones saying that he is out of his mind…
What does all this have to do with the Virgin birth? Mark does not narrate an account of Jesus’ birth. Mark never says a word about Jesus’ mother being a virgin. Mark does not presuppose that Jesus had an unusual birth of any kind. And in Mark (you don’t find this story in Matthew and Luke!!), Jesus’ mother does not seem to know that he is a divinely born son of God. On the contrary, she thinks he has gone out of his mind. Mark not only lacks a virgin birth story; it seems to presuppose that they never could have been a virgin birth. Or Mary would understand who Jesus is. But she does not.
(ii) The meaning of Mark 6:3, where Jesus is called “the son of Mary”
It might be asked whether Mark 6:3, which refers to Jesus as “the carpenter, the son of Mary,” was intended by Mark to be an allusion to the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception. I would refer readers to ThaddeusB‘s highly informative discussion of this issue over at Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange (What are the implications of calling Jesus “the son of Mary” in Mark 6:3?). Six explanations, which are taken from Mary in the New Testament (Fortress/Paulist Press, 1978), edited by Raymond Brown, Karl Donfried, Joseph Fitzmyer and John Reumann, and Harvey Arthur’s scholarly article, “Son of Mary” (Novum Testamentum, Vol. 15, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1973), pp. 38-58, doi:10.2307/1559926), are put forward and carefully considered:
1. Mark is trying to stress the human characteristics of Jesus in response to “God only” view of his audience. That is, Joseph is not mentioned because Mary is his only human parent.
2. Mark is hinting at the virginal conception of Jesus. That is, Joseph is not mentioned because the unusual nature of a “son of [a woman]” passage was a sort of “code phrase” for early Christians by which they understood that Jesus lacked a human father.
3. The villagers intended the comment as a slur and Mark simply reported it. That is, the villagers were implying Jesus was illegitimate.
4. The phrase was simply the most natural way to refer to Jesus because Mary was more well known (either to the villagers or Mark’s audience), [or] possibly because Joseph was long dead.
5. Mark didn’t write “son of Mary” – that phraseology was the result of textual corruption either through scribal error or to avoid a (different) theological difficulty.
6. That “son of [a woman]” was the normal way to refer to children of widows.
In the end, ThaddeusB settles on two explanations as being most likely:
The most plausible explanation for the origin of the “son of Mary” phrase in Mark 6:3 is that Jesus’ townsfolk actually said something along those lines because that is simply how they knew him. Mark didn’t change or explain the phrase, because it was not seen as an insult in informal conversation…
If that theory is incorrect, the next most plausible explanation is that an early copyist (intentionally or subconsciously) changed the original “the son of the carpenter and Mary” to “the carpenter, the son of Mary” to avoid implying a human father and did not see the change as problematic, because “son of [a woman]” did not have an automatically negative connotation.
If we reject that theory, all that is left is “we don’t know why”. The remaining theories – widowed mother, [a]llusion to illegitimacy, theological considerations – lack any concrete evidence and are thus based entirely on speculations.
In short, Mark 6:3 does not count as evidence either for or against the virginal conception of Jesus.
(iii) Jesus’ Davidic ancestry in Mark
What about Jesus’ Davidic ancestry? Several times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the Son of God (Mark 1:1 [not found in all manuscripts], 1:11, 5:7, 9:7, 14:61-62), but at the same time, the author of Mark’s Gospel also refers to Jesus as “Son of David” on one occasion, in the touching story of blind Bartimaeus receiving his sight (Mark 10:46-52), where Bartimaeus calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47-48). This invites the question: could Mark have regarded Jesus as the Son of God if he also believed that Jesus was conceived naturally and descended from David through his father, Joseph?
Professor Yigal Levin, of Bar-Ilan University, answers this question in the affirmative in his scholarly article, Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.4 (2006) 415-442). Professor Levin argues that Mark would have seen no tension between Jesus being the Son of God and his being a son of David:
The Jewish world of the first century CE had several different concepts of the future Messiah, of which the Royal Davidic Messiah was but one. … However, within the literature of the New Testament, and hence within the early Christian community that produced that literature, the concept of Jesus’ Davidic descent was apparently a given ‘fact’. Besides its multiple attestation in Matthew and in Luke–Acts, it is also affirmed by Mark (10.47-48; 12.35-37), by Paul (Rom. 1.3), by the author of 2 Timothy (2.8) and by John of Patmos (Rev. 3.7; 5.5; 22.16), and implied elsewhere (see also Rowland 1998)…
For a start, it seems important to point out that, from both Jewish and Roman points of view, there is absolutely no reason that Jesus, as the Anointed King, could not have been both ‘Son of God’ and a son of man. The Jewish scriptures picture all humans as God’s ‘children’ (as the author of Luke emphasizes in 3.38), Israel as his ‘firstborn son’ (Exod. 4.22-23; Jer. 31.8) and David especially so (Pss. 2.7; 89.26-27 [MT 27-28]). Luke himself recalls Jesus promising the disciples that they will be ‘children of the Most High’, if they are ‘merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (6.35-36). But this is never meant in the physical sense, to the exclusion of human paternity. In fact, in 2 Sam. 7.12-14, God promises David of his ‘offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body… I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me’. In other words, God will be the ‘father’ of David’s biological son! From a scriptural viewpoint, the establishment of Jesus the Messiah as ‘Son of God’ did not necessitate his being born of a virgin. The same is true within the early church. The writer of Mark, for example, uses the term ‘Son of God’ repetitively, without any need for a virgin birth to explain the concept. To him, the idea of a Royal Messiah being God’s adopted son seems quite natural (cf. Juel 1992; Collins 1999).
The idea that divine descent precluded human parentage seems to be unique to the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. Even within the New Testament, the prevalent view seems to have been that Jesus only became ‘Son of God’ at either his baptism (cf. Mk. 1.9-11) or his resurrection (Paul in Rom. 1.4 and even as quoted by ‘Luke’ in Acts 13.33!). (2006, pp. 417-419)
(iv) The verdict of Vincent Taylor: could Mark have had good reasons for remaining silent about Jesus’ virginal conception, in his Gospel?
It has been suggested by some apologists that St. Mark may have had a good reason for not mentioning Jesus’ virginal conception in his Gospel. Perhaps it was unsafe for him to so; or perhaps St. Mark only wished to describe Jesus’ public ministry, and not his birth and his resurrection appearances. These suggestions are comprehensively rebutted in Professor Vincent Taylor‘s acclaimed study, The Historical Evidence for the Virgin Birth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920):
There is much greater significance in St. Mark’s silence than is sometimes allowed. Why should he, as an Evangelist, remain silent about the Virgin Birth, if he knew of it, and believed in it? The deep interest which he takes in the descent of the Spirit at the Baptism, and his evident intention to describe this event as a crucial moment in the life of Jesus, set up a strong presumption that, had he known of the Miraculous Conception, he would have introduced it into his narrative. There is no sufficient analogy in his silence about other events in the life of Jesus which later writers record; no omission can be compared with this. Nor will reasons of prudence account for his silence; the Second Gospel is probably too late for this argument to have weight. There is still less force in the suggestion that St. Mark’s intention was to describe only the public ministry of Jesus. This solution evades the difficulty, and comes perilously near to saying that St. Mark does not record the Virgin Birth tradition because he does not record it! The Second Gospel describes not only the death and burial of Jesus, but also the visit of the women to the tomb, and probably, in its original ending, some of the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus. These facts are enough to show how inadequate it would be to describe the Gospel as an account of the public ministry of Jesus.
Having regard to all the facts of the case, the probability is that St. Mark’s silence must be explained on the ground that the Evangelist had no knowledge of the Virgin Birth tradition. (1920, pp. 20-21)
To sum up: both St. Paul and St. Mark (who are the earliest authors we have that mention Jesus’ mother Mary), appear to have regarded Jesus’ birth as a purely natural event, and appear not to have regarded Mary as having been given any supernatural revelation of Jesus’ Divine status. What’s more, they did not seem to have perceived any incompatibility between Jesus being the Son of God and his being a biological descendant of David who was conceived naturally of Joseph and Mary.
The only two New Testament authors who did perceive a tension between Jesus’ divine sonship and his being Joseph’s son were the authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. It is in these Gospels that we find the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception articulated. But even these accounts turn out to contradict themselves on the question of Jesus’ parentage, as we’ll see below.
4. The first two Gospels to report Jesus’ virginal conception (Matthew and Luke) are highly problematic: they are at odds with themselves (internally inconsistent), at odds with each other (mutually contradictory) and at odds with the Hebrew Bible (notably, in their claims about the Messiah’s ancestry and about Jesus being Joseph’s adopted son). Additionally, the claim made by many Christian apologists that Matthew and Luke are independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception is incorrect.
(a) Did Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels originally portray Jesus as virginally conceived, and are their sources in agreement?
Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are the only two books in the New Testament that attest to Jesus’ virginal conception, but a big question mark hangs over both testimonies.
Biblical scholars continue to debate whether Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth in Bethlehem (Luke 1-2) was originally part of his Gospel, or whether it was added on later. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman argue that the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel were added on later, for reasons summarized here. Even if the first two chapters are original to Luke, it is not certain that Luke was describing a virginal conception, anyway. Jesus scholar Geza Vermes argues that Luke’s Annunciation narrative refers instead to a conception by a prepubescent Mary, who was very young when she was betrothed to Joseph. In a 2006 article, “Face to Faith” (The Guardian, December 16, 2006), Vermes notes that “virgin in Jewish parlance could designate a girl too physically immature to conceive.” But even if the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary does refer to a virginal conception in Luke 1:34-35, “there is considerable agreement that chapter 2 of Luke may have come from a tradition independent of [Luke] 1:34-35 and ignorant of a virginal conception,” as Fr. Raymond Brown points out in his inaugural address, “The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus” (pp. 28-29), delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971. What’s more, adds Brown, “the modifying phrase in Lk 3:23 (“Jesus being the son, as was supposed, of Joseph, the son of Heli… “) may be Luke’s correction of a genealogy that originally listed Jesus as the natural son of Joseph.”
While Matthew’s Gospel contains an unmistakable reference to Jesus’ virginal conception in its first chapter (Matthew 1:18-25), the genealogy in the same chapter seems to predate belief in Jesus’ virginal conception. To complicate matters further, one of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel, the Syriac Sinaiticus (c. 400 A.D.), even declares Joseph to be the biological father of Jesus, in its genealogy: “Joseph, to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary, begot Jesus” (Matthew 1:16). (However, the “standard reading,” supported by the vast majority of manuscripts, simply refers to Joseph as “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”)
(b) Contrary to what many Christian apologists claim, Matthew and Luke do not provide independent attestation of Jesus’ virginal conception
In any case, Matthew and Luke are not independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception, as Christian apologists commonly claim. Despite the fact that Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ infancy are so strikingly divergent, they agree on a common core of at least a dozen facts, calling into question the oft-heard assertion by Christian apologists that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels provide two independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception. It is entirely possible, as Professor Mark Goodacre has argued, that Luke deliberately altered Matthew’s infancy narrative, expunging the reference to the magi because he thought it was theologically inappropriate and replacing Matthew’s account, which is written male-centered perspective of Joseph, with an account written entirely from Mary’s perspective. In other words, Luke’s infancy narrative may have been written as a theological counter-narrative to the account in Matthew’s Gospel. If that’s the case, then we don’t have two independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception, after all.
But even if Luke didn’t make use of Matthew’s Gospel, it would be wrong to think of Matthew and Luke as independent witnesses, because both accounts ultimately stem from oral traditions, where information was allowed to flow freely. Ultimately, all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) “stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community,” as Professor Jan Vansina, an acknowledged expert on oral tradition, puts it (Oral Tradition as History, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1985, p. 159).
In any case, both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were written a full fifty years after the death of Jesus – which raises the question: how reliable are they, in their narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth? The short answer is that there are good grounds for considering them quite unreliable.
(c) Problems with the genealogies of Jesus
First of all, there are good reasons for thinking that the genealogies of Jesus (found in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels) could only have been originally composed by people who had no knowledge of Jesus’ virginal conception. For there would be no point in drawing up a genealogy of Jesus that went though Joseph unless Joseph was actually Jesus’ biological father. As Numbers 1 and Numbers 36 make abundantly clear (see especially Numbers 1:17-19 and Numbers 36:5-9), which clan and tribe an Israelite belongs to depends on who their biological father was. So from a Jewish perspective, it would make no sense to claim descent from David unless your biological father was a descendant of his. But of Jesus were conceived virginally, then obviously, he could make no such claim.
Christian scholars have suggested that Jesus was Joseph’s son (and David’s descendant) by adoption, but as Professor Yigal Levin, of Bar-Ilan University, has pointed out, the reality is that “Jewish law, both in antiquity and in the modern era, has no such legal institution” (“Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.4 (2006):423). Consequently, the idea of Jesus being David’s son by adoption would have made no sense within the world of first-century Judaism, or even within Judaism today. Levin concludes that Matthew and Luke’s way of harmonizing Jesus’ Davidic descent with his Divine Sonship makes sense only within a Roman, and not a Jewish legal framework.
In any case, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, which traces his Davidic ancestry through David’s son Nathan, rather than his son Solomon, runs afoul of Jewish requirements that the Messiah must be direct male descendant of King Solomon (I Chronicles 22:10). Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is even more problematic, as it traces Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through King Jeconiah, whose descendants were actually barred by God from sitting on the throne of David (Jeremiah 22:30). As if that were not bad enough, Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus explicitly contradict one another. They can’t even agree on who Joseph’s father was. Attempts to reconcile the genealogies found in the two Gospels collapse under a mountain of difficulties. Briefly: the theory that one genealogy of Jesus is Joseph’s, while the other is Mary’s, is at odds with Scripture, which plainly states (Numbers 1:17-19; Numbers 36:6-9) that one’s tribal lineage is traced through one’s biological father; hence, female genealogies are irrelevant to one’s bloodline. The theory that Matthew’s genealogy deals with legal inheritance, while Luke’s relates to biological paternity, won’t hold water, either: since there is no adoption in Jewish law, inheritance of lineage claims is always through one’s biological father. In any case, there’s no evidence that genealogies were ever traced through adoptive fathers in Palestine. The suggestion that Jacob and Heli were half-brothers, and that Heli married but died childless, but after that, his brother Jacob married Heli’s widow, and they had a son named Joseph, fails to explain why Heli and Jacob had different fathers. Nor does it explain why the two genealogies diverge at the name of Joseph’s father, but reunite 500 years earlier at the names of Zerubbabel and Shealtiel, only to diverge once again, until they meet up once more at David (c. 1000 B.C.).
In short: there is simply no reasonable way to reconcile Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus with Luke’s. And in any case, the idea of tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to David makes no sense, unless he was actually a biological descendant of David.
(d) Contradictions between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ infancy
Second, if we turn to Jesus’ virginal conception, we find that Matthew and Luke offer completely different explanations as to why Jesus was born of a virgin: was it to fulfill a prophecy (as in Matthew) or because it is the Spirit of God that has made Mary pregnant (as in Luke)? The two accounts of Jesus’ infancy also contradict one another: Luke says that 40 days after Jesus’ birth, his family returned directly to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had lived before, whereas Matthew insists that shortly after Jesus’ birth, his family instead went to and stayed in Egypt until the death of King Herod, only returning after his death and settling in a town called Nazareth, in order to fulfill a prophecy. They can’t both be right: either Matthew or Luke must be factually mistaken. That being the case, why should we trust these authors when they narrate a miracle in connection with Jesus’ conception?
(a) Was the story of Jesus’ virginal conception part of the original version of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, or was it tacked on later?
Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are the only two books in the New Testament that attest to Jesus’ virginal conception, but some scholars think that Luke’s account of Jesus’ virginal conception in may have been added subsequently, while others suggest that it may not have even referred to a virginal conception. Let’s have a look at the reasons why.
(i) Luke’s Gospel
Were chapters 1 and 2 of Luke originally part of his Gospel?
What about Luke’s Gospel? In a blog article titled, Did Luke originally have chapters 1-2? (August 15, 2013), Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman summarizes the reasons why many scholars now believe that chapters 1 and 2 are not original to Luke’s Gospel, but were added on later:
- The beginning of ch. 3 reads like the *beginning* of a narrative, not the continuation of a narrative.
- The beginning of ch. 3 is the same, in substance, as the beginning of the source of Luke’s Gospel, Mark (they both begin with Jesus being baptized).
- Some of the central themes of chs. 1-2 are never referred to elsewhere in either the rest of the Gospel or the book of Acts (e.g., Jesus having come from Bethlehem; his mother being a virgin), even though lots of other themes from early chapters (e..g, the baptism by John) *are* referred to later.
- The voice at the baptism (“today I have begotten you” as “my son”) does not seem to make sense given the narrative of chs. 1-2 (where, according to 1:35, Jesus is the son of God because God made his mother pregnant)
- The genealogy that is given in ch. 3 doesn’t make sense if the Gospel already had chs. 1-2. The genealogy is given *after* the baptism. But the natural place for a genealogy is at the point in which a person is *born* (since the genealogy traces the bloodline up to the time of birth), not at the point of baptism (as a 30 year old!). Without chs. 1-2, however, the genealogy makes sense at the baptism, since it is at the baptism that Jesus is made the son of God according to the voice from heaven, and so immediately afterward the genealogy is given, in which Jesus’ family line is traced not only to Adam (so that he is the son of Adam) but from Adam to God (so that he is the son of God).
In his blog article, Arguments that Luke Did Not Originally Have the Virgin Birth (October 22, 2015), Biblical scholars Bart Ehrman mentions an additional reason for doubting that Luke’s Gospel originally contained an infancy narrative:
…[T]he style and emphases of chs. 1-2 are different from the rest of the Gospel. In particular, these opening chapters are written in a style very much reminiscent of what you find in the Greek Old Testament (the “Septuagint” as it is called). The rest of Luke’s book is not. It does make sense that chs. 1-2 would be. For the author of these chapters, Jesus’ birth is in close continuity with the earlier acts of God as found in Scripture, so much so that one can easily draw parallels between Jesus’ miraculous birth and the miraculous births of famous OT figures (especially, for example, the prophet Samuel).
From a contrasting perspective, Professor Andrew Lincoln argues on literary grounds that Luke’s Gospel must have originally included reference to a virginal conception in his paper, “Conceiving Jesus: re-examining Jesus’ conception in canon, Christology and creed” (a talk given to The Severn Forum on March 5, 2015):
So, as in other accounts of great figures in the Graeco-Roman world, Luke depicts Jesus as Son of God with a divine conception. Any doubts that Luke’s Gospel fits this convention should be dispelled when we remember how Luke completes his life of Jesus. His is the only one of the Synoptic Gospels to end with an explicit ascension (24:51,52), bringing his narrative as a whole into line with that of a number of other ancient historical and biographical depictions of those who were considered to be among the immortals and who have both a divine conception at the beginning and an ascension to heaven at the end of their lives. (pp. 4-5)
For my part, I find Lincoln’s reasoning persuasive on this point. However, the lack of literary resemblance between Luke 1-2 and the rest of Luke’s Gospel, coupled with the fact that events referred to in the infancy narrative are not referred to elsewhere in the Gospel, as well as the very odd placement of Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3, leads me to conclude that the author of Luke’s Gospel may have decided to include first two chapters at the last moment, and that these chapters may have come from an outside source. But we cannot know for sure.
What is worth noting here, however, is that the structure of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life appears to have been modeled on that of pagan biographies of the immortals, although as we’ll see in part 7 below, the actual content of Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception was drawn from Jewish sources (1 Samuel 1; Judges 13). As a biographer, Luke evidently felt that he had to include a preface describing Jesus’ miraculous conception, for literary reasons. While this buttresses the authenticity of the passage, it hardly inspires confidence in its historicity.
Was Jesus God’s son or Joseph’s? Why the contradiction didn’t bother Luke
In his 2015 paper cited above, Professor Lincoln also acknowledges that Luke’s Gospel (and the book of Acts) also contains traces of a very different tradition, asserting that Jesus was born naturally:
…Luke’s Acts was one of the witnesses for the “seed of David” tradition in the speeches of Peter and Paul. Not only so but also in the rest of his infancy narrative and later in the story the references to Joseph, Mary and Jesus show no knowledge of the announcement of a virginal conception. Instead Jesus’ Davidic descent through Joseph is underlined and Joseph is straightforwardly referred to as Jesus’ father (e.g. 2:33,48). The people of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, respond to his synagogue sermon with “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (4:22). There is no mention in Luke of anything like adoption as an explanation; in this account it is Mary and not Joseph who is to do the naming of Jesus (1:31). (p. 5)
So how does Lincoln believe that Luke managed to harmonize the two conflicting birth traditions? Lincoln’s answer is that Luke was content to let them stand side by side, as complementary rather than conflicting accounts:
Biographers and others were sometimes content to do just what Luke does – to juxtapose two different sorts of accounts, one natural and one miraculous, about their subjects’ origins and to leave readers to make of the relationship what they will. So, for example, Plutarch does this with the conceptions of Romulus, Theseus and Alexander (Romulus 2-4; Theseus 2,3,36; Alexander 2,3) and Suetonius does it with Alexander (Divus Augustus 4,94). Evidently it was thought not to be inconsistent or inappropriate simultaneously to entertain different stories about the origins of a great figure, one involving ordinary physical lineage and the other, suitable in the light of the later heroic achievements of such a figure, involving a miraculous conception and an origin with the gods. It may well be, then, that Luke-Acts contains both a virginal conception and the tradition of the seed of David through Joseph not because the evangelist is a hopeless editor or unable to see what to us is a blatant inconsistency but because ancient conventions about dual paternity allow him and his readers to be quite comfortable juxtaposing both notions. (p. 5)
Was Luke describing a virginal conception in his Annunciation scene?
In any case, it is not certain that Luke was describing a virginal conception, anyway: Jesus scholar Geza Vermes argues that Luke’s Annunciation narrative refers instead to a conception by a prepubescent Mary, who was very young when she was betrothed to Joseph. Professor Vermes handily summarizes his reasons in a Guardian article titled “Face to faith” (The Guardian, December 16, 2006):
In Luke the virginal conception was announced to a girl on the point of marrying Joseph. Mary was baffled. How could she become a mother before they had come together? One may wonder whether her astonishment resulted from the knowledge that, not having reached the age of puberty, she was not yet ready for motherhood, for virgin in Jewish parlance could designate a girl too physically immature to conceive. The angel, in his answer, seems to argue that God could allow the pre-pubertal Mary to conceive just as he had caused the post-menopausal Elizabeth to become pregnant. Again in Jewish parlance, a married woman past child-bearing age was a virgin for a second time.
Does chapter 2 of Luke know of the virgin birth?
Finally, as Fr. Raymond Brown points out in his inaugural address, The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971, the second chapter of Luke’s infancy narrative appears to derive from a source which knows nothing about Jesus’ virginal conception, and Luke’s original genealogy of Jesus may have listed Jesus as Joseph’s son:
As for Luke, most scholars have given up the thesis that Lk 1:34-35, which contains the only clear reference in this infancy narrative to virginal conception, is a post-Lucan scribal addition. Yet there is considerable agreement that chapter 2 of Luke may have come from a tradition independent of 1:34-35 and ignorant of a virginal conception. Certainly Mary’s puzzlement in 2:48-49 is explained more easily on this supposition. Also, the modifying phrase in Lk 3:23 (“Jesus being the son, as was supposed, of Joseph, the son of Heli … “) may be Luke’s correction of a genealogy that originally listed Jesus as the natural son of Joseph. (1971, pp. 28-29)
The foregoing considerations prompt me to ask: if it is doubtful whether Luke’s original Gospel even included a narrative of Jesus’ virginal conception, and if traditions of a natural conception are also to be found within Luke’s Gospel, then why should the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception be regarded by most Christians as an essential tenet of Christianity? Doesn’t the evidence cited above call it into question?
(ii) Matthew’s Gospel
It is fairly certain that the original version of Matthew’s Gospel included a reference to Jesus’ virginal conception. Professor Andrew Lincoln, in a paper titled, “Conceiving Jesus: re-examining Jesus’ conception in canon, Christology and creed” (a talk given to The Severn Forum on March 5, 2015), has recently argued that Matthew’s Gospel also contains passages which unmistakably point to a virginal conception – namely, Matthew’s “underlining of conception from the holy Spirit before the angelic announcement (1:18), his use of the LXX Isa. 7:14 passage (1:22,23) and his adding to Joseph’s obedience the comment that ‘he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son’ (1:25a),” which, says Lincoln, is very similar to “Graeco-Roman biographies about birth from the gods” (p. 4).
However, the original version of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus may have included a statement that Joseph begot Jesus. As the late Biblical scholar Géza Vermes (1924-2013) points out in an article in The Guardian, titled “Face to faith” (December 16, 2006), some ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s genealogy actually declare Joseph to be the father of Jesus:
In some ancient Greek, Latin and Aramaic manuscripts, Matthew specifically asserts the paternity of Joseph: “Jacob begot Joseph, and Joseph, to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed, begot Jesus.”
In his work, The Nativity: History and Legend (New York: Doubleday, 2006), Vermes describes how the oldest Semitic version of Matthew’s Gospel contradicts the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, in its genealogy of Jesus:
Of all the textual testimonies that run counter to the traditional orthodox stance, perhaps the most significant is the oldest Semitic witness, an early Syriac version of Matthew. It was found in the library of the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai by two learned and adventurous Scottish ladies, Mrs. Agnes Smith Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Dunlop Gibson, and published in 1894. The so-called Sinaitic Syriac, or syrsyn, characteristically preserves even in connection with Jesus the formula which runs through the whole genealogy: “Joseph to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary, begot Jesus. But this is not a one-off accident. Five verses later, the same Syriac version characteristically supplements the words of the angel addressed to Joseph, “she [Mary] will bear a son,” by adding “she will bear a son for you,” which is a commonly used expression to denote paternity. Both passages concur in making crystal clear who the father is meant to be and revealing what must have been the Semitic original subjacent to Matthew 1:16. (2006, pp. 26-27)
In the interests of fairness, however, I should note that the NET Bible (New English Translation), a free on-line English translation of the Bible with over 60,000 translators’ notes, published in 2005 and sponsored by the Biblical Studies Foundation, adopts a contrary viewpoint to that of Vermes. In footnote to Matthew 1, it notes that the Syrian Sinaitic manuscript reading cited by Vermes is not found in any Greek manuscripts and mentions one scholar’s suggestion that it may have been “produced by a careless scribe who simply reproduced the set formula of the preceding lines in the genealogy.” By contrast, the standard reading of Matthew 1:16, which refers to “Joseph, the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born,” has “overwhelming support from a variety of witnesses … and therefore should be regarded as authentic” (see footnote 9).
My tentative conclusion is that although Matthew himself believed in Jesus’ virginal conception, he may have drawn upon genealogical sources which did not. In any case, as we’ll see in part (c) below, there are reasons for thinking that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels could only have been originally composed by people who had no knowledge of Jesus’ virginal conception.
(b) Why Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy are not independent, as Christian apologists allege
“The Synoptic Problem – Did Luke rework Matthew’s Gospel? The Case Against Q” (Professor Mark Goodacre is interviewed by Derek Lambert (September 6, 2020))
In my Introduction above, I identified ten common fallacies committed by Christian apologists arguing for the historicity of Jesus’ virginal conception. Fallacy #6 was the widely held belief that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels provide independent attestation to the virginal conception of Jesus.
Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy are so strikingly divergent that it is common to hear even scholars claim that they agree on almost nothing. However, as Catholic Biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer reminds his readers in his commentary, The Gospel According to Luke (I–IX): The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1981), the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke actually agree on a common core of at least a dozen facts:
1. Jesus’ birth is related to the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5; Matt 2:1)
2. Mary, his mother to be, is a virgin engaged to Joseph, but they have not yet come to live together (Luke 1:27,34; 2:5; Matt 1:18)
3. Joseph is of the house of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4; Matt 1:16, 20).
4. An angel from heaven announces the coming birth of Jesus (Luke 1:28–30; Matt 1:20–21)
5. Jesus is recognized himself to be a son of David (Luke 1:32; Matt 1:1)
6. His conception is to take place through the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)
7. Joseph is not involved in the conception (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:18–25)
8. The name “Jesus” is imposed by heaven prior to his birth (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21)
9. The angel identifies Jesus as “Savior” (Luke 2:11; Matt 1:21)
10. Jesus is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 1:24–25)
11. Jesus is born at Bethlehem (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 2:1)
12. Jesus settles, with Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39,51; Matt 2:22–23). (1981, p. 307)
Christian apologist Jason Engwer has an even longer list of no less than 40 points of agreement, in his blog article, Agreement Between Matthew And Luke About Jesus’ Childhood (Triablogue, November 30, 2013).
This agreement is important, as it calls into question the oft-heard assertion by Christian apologists that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels provide two independent witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception. This assertion relies on the questionable hypothesis (known as the “Q” hypothesis) that Matthew and Luke were written independently, each using Mark and a second hypothetical source called “Q” which contained many of Jesus’ sayings.
Professor Mark Goodacre is one of several scholars who rejects the “Q” hypothesis accepted by most scholars, and defends the alternative Farrer hypothesis, that Luke used Mark and Matthew. Readers who would like to learn more can watch the Youtube video above, or peruse his books, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze [Sheffield Academic Press, 2001]), which is available online, and his better-known work, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002). In a podcast (December 6, 2012), Professor Goodacre argues that Luke deliberately altered Matthew’s infancy narrative. First, he expunged Matthew’s story of the magi, because he regarded the presence of magicians at Jesus’ birth as theologically inappropriate. Second, Luke replaced Matthew’s account (which was written from the male-centered perspective of Joseph) with an account written entirely from Mary’s perspective, as it was she (and not Joseph) who actually gave birth to Jesus. Additionally, as Goodacre points out on page 132 of his 2001 book, The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives even share words in common, including the following key sentence:
She will give birth to a son and
you shall call him Jesus. (Matthew 1.21)
You will give birth to a son and
you shall call him Jesus (Luke 1.31)
If Goodacre is correct, then Luke is not an independent witness to Jesus’ virginal conception, but rather, the author of a theological counter-narrative, written in reply to Matthew’s Gospel. That leaves us with only one original source of the story (Matthew). In the interests of fairness, I should state that Goodacre’s proposal that Luke drew directly on Matthew’s Gospel has not yet won general scholarly acceptance: for a critical but fair-minded review of Goodacre’s book, see “On Dispensing with Q?: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew” by John S. Kloppenborg (New Testament Studies 49 , pp. 210-236).
But even if the widely accepted Q hypothesis is correct, it would still be wrong to regard Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception as two independent accounts, since both accounts ultimately stem from oral traditions. And when one is dealing with oral traditions, one needs to keep in mind the words of Jan Vansina (cited in the Introduction above), who is an acknowledged expert on the subject:
In history, proof is given only when two independent sources confirm the same event or situation, but… it is not possible to do this with oral tradition wherever a corpus exists and information flows are unstemmed (i.e., in most cases)… No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as independent sources, even though they have different authors… they stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community. (Oral Tradition as History, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1985, p. 159)
Finally, as we noted above, the current scholarly consensus is that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were written no earlier than 80 A.D. That’s a full fifty years after the death of Jesus. In other words, they are very late reports of Jesus’ infancy, written long after Mary and Joseph had died, which means that they are not eyewitness reports. That alone is enough to call their credibility into question. And even if their narratives of Jesus’ infancy were derived from independent traditions, all we could positively conclude from this fact is that belief in Jesus’ virginal conception must go back to at least 70 A.D., since as we saw in part 1 above, legends can spring up and take hold in as little as ten years. 70 A.D. is still forty years after the death of Jesus.
But there are further problems with Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy, as we’ll see below: despite their agreements, the accounts appear to be at odds with Jewish beliefs about the Messiah’s ancestry, as well as being both internally inconsistent and mutually contradictory.
(c) Problems relating to the genealogies of Jesus
Comparison of Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies (Table courtesy of Wikipedia.)
God, Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan,
Maleleel, Jared, Enoch, Mathusala,
Lamech, Noah, Shem, Arphaxad,
Cainan, Sala, Heber, Phalec,
Ragau, Saruch, Nachor, Thara,
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez,
Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon,
Salmon, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David,
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Juda, Phares,
Esrom, Aram, Aminadab, Naasson,
Salmon, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David,
Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah,
Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram,
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz,
Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon,
Nathan, Mattatha, Menan, Melea,
Eliakim, Jonam, Joseph, Judah,
Simeon, Levi, Matthat, Jorim,
Eliezer, Jose, Er, Elmodam,
Cosam, Addi, Melchi, Neri,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Rhesa, Joannan, Juda, Joseph,
Semei, Mattathias, Maath, Nagge,
Esli, Naum, Amos, Mattathias, Joseph,
Jannai, Melchi, Levi, Matthat, Heli,
(i) Internal contradictions: although Matthew and Luke affirm Jesus’ virginal conception, they both contain genealogies of Jesus which implicitly assume that Joseph was Jesus’ father
Both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels contain passages (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38) which are generally held to affirm Jesus’ virginal conception. At the same time, both Gospels contain genealogies of Jesus which implicitly assume the contrary, despite the disclaimers later attached to each of them (see Matthew 1:16; Lk. 3:23). In other words, there is an internal tension within each of these Gospels.
The Encyclopaedia Biblica (edited by Thomas Kelly Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black; Toronto: George N. Morang and Company Limited, 1899), in its article on Mary (Vol. 3, p. 155), provides an excellent summary of the reasons why the genealogies of Jesus (found in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels) could only have been originally composed by people who had no knowledge of Jesus’ virginal conception:
The two genealogies of Jesus in Mt. 1:1-17 and Lk. 3:23-38 (see GENEALOGIES ii.) differ so greatly that recourse has often been had to the supposition that they relate, one to Joseph, the other to Mary. Not only, however, is this in flat contradiction to the express statements which refer both of them to Joseph; the reference of either to Mary is further from the outset excluded as soon as it is observed that according to Lk. 1 36 Mary is a kinswoman of the Aaronite Elizabeth (6c). Even if, however, it were true that one of the two genealogies related to Mary, the other would still be that of Joseph, and thus by the mere fact of its existence would furnish the proof which in reality both of them afford, that when they were drawn up there was no thought of the virgin birth of Jesus. Therefore within a gospel which teaches this doctrine the insertion of ‘as was supposed’ (ὡς ἐνομίζετο) (Lk. 3:23) was quite indispensable. But had such an insertion been contemplated from the outset, it would not have been worth while to construct the genealogy at all.
Putting it starkly: what sense would there be in constructing a genealogy attempting to show that Jesus was a descendant of David if he had no biological father?
(ii) Could Jesus have been David’s son by adoption?
Christian scholars have often proposed that Jesus was David’s son by adoption. However, Professor Yigal Levin, of Bar-Ilan University, refutes this proposal in his scholarly article, Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.4 (2006): 415-442), where he poses the following problem to his readers: “how, according to Mathew and Luke, could Jesus have been both the son of Joseph, descended from David, and the Son of God, born to a virgin?” The answer that most Christians (including Christian scholars) have given is “adoption”:
…[T]he solution that most commentators have suggested has been that Jesus was considered Joseph’s son by adoption, either simply through the act of marrying Mary and raising Jesus as his own (Mt.1.24-25), circumcising him and presenting him in the Temple (Lk. 2.21-24), protecting him from Herod (Mt. 2.13-14), travelling with him for the festivals in the Temple (Lk. 2.41-51) and teaching him a vocation (Mt. 13.55), or through some unspecified legal act. For Kingsbury, for instance, this is the very message of the Gospel: ‘although Jesus is the son of David by adoption, his ultimate origin lies in God’(2001:164). In any case, the general assumption is that Jesus inherited his Davidic status by means of adoption.
But when pressed for either precedence or proof of such adoption, the vast majority of commentators simply refer to ‘Jewish custom’ or ‘Jewish Law’...
The general hypothesis is apparently that since both evangelists, or at least Matthew, were ostensibly Jews, writing at least in part to a Jewish audience, their legal assumptions must have also been based on the Jewish law of the time.
However, as Professor Levin points out in his article, the idea of Jesus being David’s son by adoption would have made no sense within the world of first-century Judaism, or even in Judaism today:
…[W]hile adoption is known in some Ancient Near Eastern legal codes, Jewish law, both in antiquity and in the modern era, has no such legal institution. Though there are several biblical stories that would seem to suggest something like adoption (e.g. Abraham complaining that Eliezer ‘son of my house’ will inherit him [Yaron 1960: 7], Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob, Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, Ruth’s child by Naomi, Esther by Mordecai and Raguel by his son-in-law Tobias), almost all of these are cases of adoption within the existing family, often by women, who had little, if any, legal status to pass on, and in no case can it be shown that such an ‘adoption’ had any legal consequences. As summarized by Tigay, ‘if adoption played any role at all in Israelite family institutions, it was an insignificant one’. Also ‘for the post-Exilic period…there is no reliable evidence for adoption at all’ (Tigay 1971: 300). Only one of the Jewish papyri from Elephantine mentions something like adoption, apparently of a manumitted slave (Yaron 1961: 40). And while several biblical passages, based apparently on Ancient Near Eastern terminology, use the idea of adoption as a metaphor for the relationship between God and either Israel or her king, these are only metaphors. In the case of levirate marriage, the child remains with his birth parents, only assuming his dead childless uncle’s name. And while later Halakhah did recognize the right of a legal guardian (epitropos, ‘apotropos’) to designate his charge as the heir to his property (for which see Falk 1978: 326-31), this was never seen as creating ties that superseded those that the child had with his natural parents (Schereschewsky 1971). The above-quoted Mishnah actually deals with inheritance, under the assumption that a man would know his real son, with no reference to adoption. In fact, Jewish Halakhah has no word to even express the concept. While, presumably, a man’s taking in a foundling and raising him as a son would be considered ‘a good deed’, such de facto adoption does not give the child any inherited status. For example, the ‘adopted’ son of a priest would not be considered a priest, and a boy and girl adopted by the same parents would be allowed to marry each other without fear of incest (Gold 1987: 443). And while a child is expected to respect his adoptive parents, he is not supposed to perform the rituals of mourning upon their death (Linzer 1970: 80; cf. also Gold 1994). In a nutshell, there is nothing in Jewish law, in either the Hebrew Bible or in later Halakhah, which can be seen as the model by which Jesus, Son of God, could have been considered the legal, but not genetic, heir to the Davidic throne. (pp. 423-425)
Professor Levin contends that Matthew’s and Luke’s notion that Jesus was both the son of God and the son of David makes sense only within a Roman legal framework:
How, then, could Jesus have been considered both the physical Son of God and the legal son of David? The answer must be found in the primary legal system that was current in the Mediterranean world during the first century CE and that the authors and audiences of Matthew and Luke would have been most familiar with — that of the early Roman Empire.
In stark contrast to Jewish law and, in fact, to that of most other ancient societies, the Roman paterfamilias of the late Republic and of the early Empire had almost unlimited power to deﬁne his own familial ties and loyalties. He could marry almost whomever he wished (but only one at a time) or choose not to marry at all (though this was frowned on), he could form ties and alliances with other families through marriage of his children, he could refuse to recognize his own biological offspring by either exposing or selling them, and he could obtain offspring of his own desire through adoption (Corbier 1991a). (p. 425)
Levin explains that for the Romans, “adoption was intended for the adoptive father, as a means of ensuring the continuity of the family’s name, wealth and rites (hereditas nominis pecuniae sacrorum) through an appropriate heir” (p. 427). However, “the Jewish population of Judea, even that part which had previously been essentially Hellenized, rejected Romanization to a large degree… And so, to a Judean of the ﬁrst century CE, the very concept of legal adoption, in which the adopted son inherits the adopter’s legal status, would have been totally foreign.” (p. 429) What about Jewish communities of the Diaspora, that were scattered throughout the Roman empire? After examining the evidence, Levin concludes: “Not a single one of the sources that we have from those communities mentions anything like the Roman concept of adoption” (p. 431).
What are we to make of all this? Contrary to widespread scholarly claims that the author of Matthew’s Gospel was Jewish, Levin favors the view held by some scholars (notably Meier) that “Matthew and his community had, indeed, already severed their ties from Judaism” and that “the Gospel of Matthew is anti-Jewish and could only have been written by a Gentile” (p. 433). Luke, of course, is widely held to have been a Gentile, although a few scholars believe him to have had a Jewish background. At any rate, concludes Levin, “from the above investigation it would seem to me that whatever the ethnicity of the writers of Matthew and Luke may have been, their cultural and religious assumptions, at least in the matter of Jesus’ Davidic heritage, were far removed from those of contemporary Judaism” (p. 433). Surprisingly, Levin considers Mark to have “the greatest knowledge of, and the greatest hostility towards, Jewish law” among the authors of the three Synoptic Gospels, while Matthew and Luke were “farther removed from Jewish tradition” (p. 433). What’s even more telling is that “the New Testament ‘Son of God’ title that is closest to that used by the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and Domitian is Θεοῦ Υἱὸς, which appears only in Matthew (14.33; 27.43, 54)” (pp. 433-434).
Levin concludes that Matthew and Luke’s way of harmonizing Jesus’ Davidic descent with his Divine Sonship makes sense only within a Roman, and not a Jewish legal framework:
In conclusion, it would seem to me that the authors of both Matthew and Luke, faced with the dual traditions of both Jesus’ Davidic Messianity and his Divine Sonship, dealt with the obvious contradiction in the only way that would have seemed natural to a subject of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Principate: by assuming that Jesus, Son of God, could have been adopted into the royal line of Israel, all the while retaining his status as Θεοῦ Υἱὸς. (p. 434)
An Evangelical response to Levin
Evangelical scholar Greg Rhodea evaluates Levin’s research in his essay, Did Matthew Conceive a Virgin? Isaiah 7:14 and the Birth of Jesus (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56/1 (2013) 63–77). Remarkably, he cheerfully accepts Levin’s findings, but insists that “the apparent contradiction between virginal conception and Davidic descent can be resolved” by Roman adoption procedures, adding that “the Gospel writers betray no evidence that they saw the situation as problematic” (2013, p. 75). But that’s precisely Levin’s point: the reason why the Gospel writers saw no contradiction is that they weren’t Jews, but Gentiles, who lacked familiarity with Jewish traditions. Had they been Jewish, they would have known better than to propose such a reconciliation.
Finally, Rhodea argues that Christians would never have invented the story of Jesus’ virginal conception, if it was already acknowledged by Christians that he was descended from David, precisely because the idea of a virginal conception clashes with the idea of Davidic descent:
…[T]he tradition of the Davidic descent would still seem to resist a later creation of the virginal conception if it were not true. One ought to remember that by skeptical assessment, the virginal conception is a late development. The tradition of Davidic descent in the early church is presumably earlier.
Rhodea concludes by quoting the words of John McHugh (The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament [Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1975] 276–77), to support his conviction that Jesus’ virginal conception represents an authentic tradition rather than an invention:
Could the idea of the virginal conception, without male seed of the line of David, have made its way into the church, and into the Palestinian Church, if it had first been heard of after A.D. 70, when it seems to destroy the very possibility of Jesus’ having been of the seed of David?
It seems to me that McHugh is making some assumptions here. First, as Levin demonstrates convincingly in his essay, the “adoption solution” accepted by most Christians today would not have troubled Gentile converts to Christianity. We don’t know whether most Christians were still converts from Judaism, by the end of the first century A.D. Some scholars (e.g. Ehrman) believe that they made up a majority of Christians by then.
Second, we don’t know how many Christians were left in Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (my guess is: not very many) and we don’t know whether these Palestinian Christians acccepted Jesus’ virginal conception or not. In his carefully argued essay, The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus (an inaugural address given at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971), Fr. Raymond Brown argues that there were some doubters:
Much more important is the rejection of the virginal conception by Jewish Christians. In mid-second century Justin, who himself believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin, acknowledged the existence of Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah but declared that he was of merely human origin. (1971, pp. 20-21)
In a footnote (1971, p. 21, footnote 47), Brown cites Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 48) as evidence for his contention, adding that “Justin’s tone seems to indicate that these Jewish Christians were not considered out-and-out heretics.” (However, by the time of Irenaeus, near 200 A.D., the situation had changed, and “there was much less fluidity about the obligation to accept the virginal conception.”)
I conclude that Matthew and Luke’s notion of Jesus being David’s son by adoption is utterly foreign to Judaism, and that Christian apologists have failed to come to grips with this problem of how Jesus can be legitimately called “son or David” if he was virginally conceived.
(iii) Problems with the genealogies of Jesus, from a Jewish perspective
From a Jewish perspective, both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies appear to be incompatible with his being the Messiah. In order to understand why, a little background is in order. There was a widespread (but by no means universal) expectation within Judaism at the time of Jesus that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Evangelical scholar Greg Rhodea explains the Biblical basis for this belief in his essay, Did Matthew Conceive a Virgin? Isaiah 7:14 and the Birth of Jesus (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56/1 (2013) 63–77):
It is important to realize the place Davidic descent held in first-century messianic expectation. Anticipation of a Davidic savior arose out of the OT promises to David (2 Sam 7:12–13, 16) and the hopes of a Davidic heir who would be raised up accordingly (Isa 11:1–2; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 34:24; 37:25; Hag 2:23; Zech 3:8; 6:12; and perhaps 1 Sam 2:10; Pss 2:2; 6–9; 89:49–51; 132:10–18).
This theme continued to develop in later Judaism. The author of the Psalms of Solomon wrote, “See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David … to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain at least two significant texts. One document explains the promises made to David in 2 Sam 7:12–14: “This (refers to the) ‘branch of David’ who will arise with the Interpreter of the law who [will rise up] in Zi[on] in the [l]ast days” (4Qflor 1:10–14, cf. Jer 23:5; 33:15). Along the same lines, a second document addresses the promises made to David and speaks of “the messiah of righteousness, the branch of David” (1Q242 5:1–4).
Summing up the evidence, Rhodea quotes the scholarly verdict of D. R. Bauer, in his article, “Son of David,” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Andrew T. Le Peau; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992, p. 767):
“Although there was much diversity in messianic speculation among individual Jewish groups, a general consensus emerged within later Judaism that the messiah would be Davidic along the lines set out by the exilic prophets.”
The belief that Jesus was a descendant of David was shared by several New Testament authors and is repeatedly affirmed in the New Testament (see Matthew 1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 21:9, 15; Mark 10:47–48; 12:35–37; Luke 1:27; 1:32; 2:4; 3:31; 18:38–39; 20:41–44; Acts 2:30–31; cf. 2:34; 13:23; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 3:7; 5:5; 22:16). In this respect, the authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels follow Jewish tradition. However, when we look more closely at the genealogies of Jesus which they present to support their contention that Jesus was descended from David, a number of problems arise.
Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is flawed, because it traces his Davidic ancestry through King David’s son Nathan, rather than his son Solomon. As Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin explains in an article written for Chabad.org titled, “Is the Messiah a Descendant of King Solomon?”, Jews have long believed that the Messiah will be a descendant of both David and Solomon – a belief which was articulated by Maimonides (1135-1204) in the preface to his commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin, ch. 10, where he declares, in the context of his discussion of the Twelfth Fundamental Principle of Judaism, that “the king of Israel must come only from the house of David and seed of Solomon,” adding for good measure: “Anyone who rejects this family denies God and the words of His prophets.” The basis for this belief is a promise made by God to King David in the Hebrew Bible (1 Chronicles 22:9-10):
9 Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 10 He shall build a house for my name. He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever.’
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is also deficient, as it traces Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through King Jeconiah, whose descendants were actually barred by God from sitting on the throne of David, by a solemn curse directed by God against King Jeconiah (also called Coniah) and all of his descendants (Jeremiah 22:24-30). The curse concludes as follows:
Thus says the Lord:
“Write this man down as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days,
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David
and ruling again in Judah.”
To sum up: both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies appear to be at odds with traditional Jewish beliefs about the Messiah’s lineage.
An Evangelical response to the above difficulties
Professor Douglas Bookman, in an online article titled, “The Genealogies of Jesus” (April 18, 2020; modified July 21, 2020), attempts to evade the force of this difficulty by combining the strong points of Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies: the former, he contends, traces Joseph’s descent, while the latter traces Mary’s. Bookman argues that Jesus’ virginal conception enabled him to escape the curse directed by God at Jeconiah and all his descendants:
Had Jesus been the physical son of Joseph, He would have inherited that curse. However, He was not the physical son of David through Joseph, but through Mary (compare the relative pronoun, “of whom,” in Matthew 1:16, which in the Greek is feminine singular). “Jesus, genuinely a son of David through Mary according to the flesh (cf. Rom 1:3), by reason of the virgin birth and nonparticipation in the seed of Joseph, qualifies to receive the title without coming under the curse.”
However, as we’ll see below, the view that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus traces his line of descent through Mary is overwhelmingly rejected by scholars today, and for very good reasons. Also, contrary to Professor Bookman’s assertions, nothing in either Matthew’s or Luke’s wording suggests that Jesus is the son of David through Mary, and what’s more, Luke never even mentions Mary in his genealogy of Jesus.
I conclude that neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s genealogy of Jesus resolves the problems associated with Jesus’ Davidic ancestry. Both genealogies would appear to preclude his being the Messiah, on a traditional Jewish understanding, and most likely, neither genealogy is historically accurate.
Where, then, did the two genealogies come from, and why are they different? In his book, The Nativity: History and Legend (Doubleday: New York, 2006), Biblical scholar Geza Vermes proposes two likely-sounding explanations:
Unless we assume the not impossible theory that both evangelists largely shaped the documents themselves – this would not be the only well-meant act of creativity (pia fraus [pious fraud – VJT]) in religious history – the most plausible explanation of the enigma is tht the aim pursued by Matthew and Luke in compiling their genealogies was doctrinal, and not historical. To prove the Davidic family connection of Jesus, a prerequisite of his Messianic standing, they probably employed documents. But since their records are contradictory, they must have laid their hands on separate registers of David’s descendants. All they needed to do was reedit them so they both ended (or started) with Joseph and Jesus (or Jesus and Joseph). This was definitely possible, as we know from Jewish as well as from Christian sources that genealogical lists of this sort were circulating among the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era. (2006, pp. 35-36)
Vermes then proceeds to illustrate his case with the example of the first-century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Hillel, who was said to be a direct descendant of King David, on the basis of a genealogical scroll (yTaanit 68a).
To sum up: the genealogies of Jesus are most likely based on separate lists of David’s descendants that were floating around in the first century, and that were reedited to include the names of Jesus and Joseph. However, neither list of names is suitable for someone claiming to be the Jewish Messiah: Matthew’s is unsuitable because it makes Jesus the descendant of a cursed king, while Luke’s genealogy fails to trace Jesus’ ancestry through David’s son Solomon, choosing Nathan instead.
(iv) Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus explicitly contradict one another
Additionally, the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels explicitly contradict one another. Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman summarizes the contradictions in a blog post titled, Contradictions in the Gospels (April 16, 2019):
Matthew and Luke both give a genealogy of Jesus that is strictly patrilineal: father to son, going back for generations (Matthew 1:1-16 starting with Abraham and bringing the family line down to Joseph, Jesus’ alleged father; Luke 3:23-38 starting with Joseph and taking the family line the other direction, all the way past Abraham to Adam). Question: Who was Joseph’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on –all the way back to King David? Was it Jacob, Mathan, and Eleazar … (Matthew 1:15-16)? Or was it Heli, Matthat, and Levi… (Luke 3:23-24).
In considering the question, note: both genealogies are *explicit* that this is the line of Joseph (not, for example, Mary; or the brother of Joseph; or someone else. Joseph). And note, these are not simply alternative names for the same people: most of the names are *completely* different from one another, all the way back to David. That’s because in Matthew Joseph is the descendant of David’s son Solomon; in Luke he is the descendant of a different son, Nathan. Moreover, the genealogies are patrilineal – not traced through mothers but explicitly through fathers to sons.
Let’s focus on the most obvious contradiction here: who was Joseph’s father? Was it Jacob (as in Matthew’s Gospel) or was it Heli (as in Luke’s Gospel)? Let’s examine three common solutions that have been suggested.
Solution 1: One genealogy of Jesus is Joseph’s genealogy, while the other is Mary’s
One popular Christian response is that despite appearances, the genealogy of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is actually Mary’s genealogy, not Joseph’s. However, Professor Uri Yosef, writing for the Website The Jewish Home, explains why this solution won’t work in an online article titled, Genealogical Scams and Flim-Flams:
According to Torah, Tribal lineage is determined exclusively by the biological (natural) father (e.g., Numbers 1:18). Consequently, female genealogies are irrelevant to bloodline and, in general, are not listed in the Hebrew Bible.
Dr. Douglas Bookman, Professor of Old/New Testament and Bible Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary, mounts an ingenious response to this argument in an online article titled, “The Genealogies of Jesus”. Luke, he says, is tracing Jesus’ descent through his nearest male relative: his maternal grandfather, Heli (Mary’s father). Bookman goes on to argue that this reading can actually be supported on purely linguistic grounds:
First, the name “Joseph” in Luke 3:23 is the only name in the list without the definite article. (Each name In Matthew’s genealogy also has the article.) This is compelling evidence that this name ought not be read as part of Luke’s genealogical list; rather, it is part of the parenthetical statement inserted in that verse. Thus, the verse should read, “Jesus Himself . . . being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Eli.” It is not Joseph who is “the son of Eli,” but Jesus. Eli is best identified as the father of Mary. Luke is dealing resourcefully with a dilemma arising from the fact of Jesus’ virgin birth. Descent was not to be traced through a man’s mother, but through his father. But by reason of His supernatural conception in the womb of a virgin, Jesus had no physical father. Thus, His physical genealogy had to be traced through his nearest male relative, His maternal grandfather.
 A. T. Robertson, Harmony of the Gospels, (New York: Harper & Row, 1922), p. 261.
However, Professor David L. Blank, Professor of Classic Languages at The University of California-Los Angeles, has pointed out (in a private email communication) that the claim that Heli [Eli] in Luke 3:23 is the father of Mary and not Joseph, and that Luke is hinting at this by omitting the definite article before Joseph’s name, is grammatically nonsensical. Eli, he contends, is indeed the father of Joseph. The absence of a definite article in Greek before the name of Joseph does not indicate that Joseph is being skipped in Luke’s genealogy, and should not be construed as such.
Author Gerald Sigal, in his polemical work, The Virgin Birth Myth: The Misconception of Jesus (Xlibris, 2013, p. 99) makes two additional points which in my opinion merit consideration. First, there are three places in the New Testament where Jesus is called “son of Joseph” (Luke 4:22, John 1:45, 6:42), and in two of these, the definite article is not used. Second, a literal reading of Luke’s genealogy reveals why the article is not needed before “Joseph,” but is required before Heli and his forefathers: Jesus is described as “being [the] son, as was supposed, of Joseph, of the Heli, of the Matthat, …” The article is used to show that each noun is actually a genitive, thereby securely anchoring the list of ancestral names to Joseph. The article is not required when Jesus is referred to as “the son … of Joseph,” because the word “son” makes the connection obvious.
Jesse Johnson (M. Div., M. Th.) who is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA, as well as being on the Board of Directors at The Master’s University and Seminary in Washington DC, presents additional reasons for rejecting the view that Luke’s genealogy is that of Mary, in an online article titled, Is Luke’s genealogy through Mary? (December 19, 2019):
First, saying that Luke goes through Mary does not solve the conflicts in the genealogies. After all, they come together in Zerubbabel, then divide again at Shealtiel, then unite again at David. Identifying Luke as Mary’s doesn’t help this problem...
Darrell Bock agrees, and also notes that it would be ironic if Luke’s gospel had Mary’s genealogy when it is in fact Matthew’s list that includes women, while Luke’s excludes them (in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Luke 352)…
William Hendrickson, who actually does think that Luke presents Mary’s genealogy, gives a very strong argument against the view he himself holds:
“I find it strange that the view according to which Luke presents a genealogy of Mary still finds defenders. Why, Mary’s name is not even mentioned in the list! Is it at all reasonable to assume that a person would present a genealogy without even mentioning the name of the one person who—apart from Jesus himself—should be considered the most important of all?” (NTC, 222-225).
One is therefore compelled to agree with the conclusion of Biblical scholar Fr. John P. Meier: “Any attempt to use one of the two genealogies of Jesus to establish Mary’s lineage is doomed to failure.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, The Roots of the Problem and the Person, New York: Doubleday, 1991, p. 238).
Solution 2: The “legal inheritance” solution – and why I consider it inadequate
A second proposal for removing the discrepancy between Matthew and Luke is that they are entirely different kinds of genealogies: the former deals with legal inheritance, while the latter relates to biological paternity. This solution is favored by Jesse Johnson, in his article, Is Luke’s genealogy through Mary? (December 19, 2019). Johnson quotes Biblical scholars John Nolland and I. Howard Marshall (1934-2015) as proponents of this solution, citing Nolland’s The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 2005):
Matthew gives the legal line of descent from David, stating who was the heir to the throne in each case, but Luke gives the actual descendants of David in the branch of the family to which Joseph belonged. (2005, p. 158)
The Wikipedia article, Genealogy of Jesus, sums up the cardinal difficulties involved with this view:
One of the traditional explanations is that Matthew traces not a genealogy in the modern biological sense, but a record of legal inheritance showing the succession of Jesus in the royal line.
According to this theory, Matthew’s immediate goal is therefore not David, but Jeconiah, and in his final group of fourteen, he may freely jump to a maternal grandfather, skip generations, or perhaps even follow an adoptive lineage in order to get there. Attempts have been made to reconstruct Matthew’s route, from the seminal work of Lord Hervey to Masson’s recent work, but all are necessarily highly speculative.
As a starting point, one of Joseph’s two fathers could be by simple adoption, as Augustine suggests, or more likely the special adoption by a father-in-law with no sons, or could be a maternal grandfather. …
A key difficulty with these explanations, however, is that there is no adoption in Jewish law, which of course is the relevant legal tradition even according to Jesus (Matt. 23:1–3), not the Roman legal tradition. If Joseph is not the biological father, his lineage does not apply to Jesus, and there is no provision available within Jewish law for this to be altered. One’s natural father is always one’s father. Nor is inheritance of lineage claims even possible through one’s mother, in Jewish law.
 Johnson, Marshall D. (1988), The purpose of the Biblical genealogies (2nd ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 142, ISBN 978-0-521-35644-2
 Hervey, Arthur Charles (1853), The Genealogies of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Macmillan.
 Masson, Jacques (1982), Jesus, fils de David, dans les généalogies de saint Mathieu et de saint Luc, Paris: Téqui, ISBN 2-85244-511-5
 Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 1, pp. 27–29
 See, on this, the articles “Adoption” by Lewis Dembitz and Kaufmann Kohler in The Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906), available online at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/852-adoption, and “Adoption” by Jeffrey H. Tigay and Ben-Zion (Benno) Schereschewsky in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1st ed. 1972; the entry is reproduced again in the 2nd ed.), Vol. 2, col. 298–303. Lineage cannot be artificially transferred; one’s natural parents are always one’s parents. Guardianship, however, conveys most other rights and duties…
An additional problem with the “legal inheritance” theory, as I shall call it, is Matthew’s language: he repeatedly uses the term “begat” (ἐγέννησεν) in his genealogy. It is true that the verb “beget” can have a more general meaning, as in Psalm 2:7, where the Lord says to the king, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” However, in Matthew’s genealogy, where we can trace the names from Abraham right up to the time of the deportation to Babylon, a comparison with the Hebrew Bible shows quite clearly that “begat” (ἐγέννησεν) is being used in a biological sense: e.g. “Abraham begat Isaac.” To say that the word “begat” suddenly acquires a wider and less literal meaning in the last third of Matthew’s genealogy is highly ad hoc, to say the least.
Bart Ehrman points out a historical problem with the “legal inheritance” theory when he remarks that there’s no evidence that genealogies were ever traced through adoptive fathers in Palestine, during the time of Jesus, in the course of an exchange with Rev. Matt Firth (April 22, 2019) on the topic of Biblical inerrancy.
A final difficulty with the “legal inheritance” theory, to my mind, is that one cannot have an heir to the throne when the throne has been taken away. To speak of a legal inheritance for something which no longer exists is obviously nonsensical. As for the Messiahship, while there was a general expectation that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (as we saw above), there was no “heir apparent”: any male descendant of David who accomplished what the Jewish Messiah was supposed to accomplish would have been considered worthy of the title.
I conclude that the “legal inheritance” theory fails to reconcile the genealogies of Matthew and Luke.
Solution 3: The “levirate marriage” solution – and why it fails
A third way of resolving the discrepancy between the two genealogies is the suggestion that Jacob and Heli were half-brothers, and that Heli married but died childless, but after that, his brother Jacob married Heli’s widow, and they had a son named Joseph. In a response to Ehrman titled, Contradictions in the Gospels (April 16, 2019), Rev. Matt Firth (a Biblical inerrantist) attempts to reconcile the two genealogies of Jesus in this way. On this proposal, Joseph was Jacob’s son biologically, but Heli’s son legally. This harmonization is known as the “levirate marriage” solution. In a follow-up article (Are These Really Contradictions? My Response to Matt Firth, April 22, 2019), Ehrman points out that there’s no evidence that genealogies were ever traced through adoptive fathers at that time in Palestine:
First, I have never seen any evidence of a Jewish genealogy being traced through what you’re calling a “legal” father – that is, an adoptive father, with the actual father having died – as opposed to through the actual father.
In a second follow-up article (Contradictions and Contradictions: Final Response to Matt Firth, May 3, 2019), Ehrman refutes the “levirate marriage” proposal:
If Heli’s blood-brother Jacob married Heli’s widow and they had a child Joseph, so that the child was sometimes referred to as Heli’s and sometime as Jacob’s – wouldn’t Heli and Joseph (sic – should be Jacob – VJT) have the same father? And the same patrilineal line all the way back? But the name of their father is different. And the names in the patrilineal line are *all* different, for many generations, going all the way back to David.
To be sure, it is possible to come up with an explanation of why Heli and Jacob had different fathers. In an article written for the Roman Theological Forum (No. 11, May 1987) titled, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus”, John F. McCarthy discusses a harmonization first proposed by Christians living 1,800 years ago:
According to an explanation going back in essence at least to Julius Africanus in the first half of the third century A.D. (who claimed to have heard it as handed down by the relatives of Jesus), Joseph’s grandmother (Estha) bore Jacob to one husband (Matthan) and Eli to a second (Matthat). Joseph’s mother married Eli, who died without children; then she married his uterine brother Jacob, who raised up Joseph as seed to Eli. Thus Joseph had Eli as his legal father and Jacob as his biological father. The genealogy of Matthew shows the biological ancestry of Jesus, and that of Luke the legal ancestry.
Fr. Raymond Brown rejects this proposed solution in his magisterial work, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), where he concludes: “The theory of a levirate marriage solves so little and has so many difficulties that it should be abandoned as a solution in the problem of the two genealogies, and even in the more restricted problem of Jesus’ overabundance of grandfathers” (p. 504). First, Brown points out that Matthan and Matthat are very similar names. If they are indeed different individuals, then one is faced with the “dubious coincidence” that the mother of Jacob and Eli married two men who had almost identical names. But if they are the same individual, then how do we account for the fact that in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthan’s father is listed as Eleazar, while in Luke’s Gospel, his name is Levi? Must we postulate yet another levirate marriage to account for this discrepancy?
But the weightiest objection marshalled by Brown is that at best, the levirate marriage hypothesis could only explain the discrepancies at the ends of the genealogies, but fails to account for discrepancies in the middle. For instance, Matthew traces Jesus’ descent through Zerubbabel’s son Abiud, while Luke traces it through Zarubbabel’s son Rhesa (where Zerubbabel and Zarubbabel are most likely the same individual, as in both genealogies, their father is named Shealtiel). If we go still earlier back, we find that Matthew traces Jesus’ descent through David’s son Solomon, while Luke traces it through David’s son Nathan. Nevertheless, John F. McCarthy defends the levirate theory by proposing that Jacob’s father Matthan was descended from David through Solomon, while Heli’s (Eli’s) father Matthat was descended from David through Nathan,. McCarthy triumphantly concludes that “Brown does not present cogent grounds for abandoning the possibility of a solution through levirate marriage” (his italics), and that the explanation of a levirate marriage “cannot be logically excluded” (again, his italics). But surely, mere logical possibility is setting the epistemic bar far too low. Almost anything is logically possible, if someone is willing to make enough ad hoc assumptions. And the “levirate marriage” solution is massively ad hoc.
To illustrate my point, here’s one way in which McCarthy tries to explain the fact that both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus list the names of Shealtiel (who’s called Salathiel in the Septuagint) and his son Zerubbabel, around the time of the Babylonian captivity, except that Shealtiel (Salathiel) is listed as the son of King Jeconiah in Matthew, while in Luke, he’s said to be the son of Neri:
Jechonias, having no son, adopted Salathiel, husband of his daughter and son of Neri, who was descended from David through Nathan. Salathiel thus became the legal son and successor of Jechonias. By the Law of the Levirate, the name of Salathiel’s biological father disappears from the genealogy and the name of Jechonias appears. Salathiel becomes a common ancestor of both Jacob and Eli.
The problem with the reconciliation proposed by McCarthy is that it proves too much. Applying the logic of the above passage, it would be possible to harmonize any two genealogies of a historical personage, even if they appeared to wildly contradict one another.
I conclude that attempts to harmonize the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels collapse under the weight of their numerous strained assumptions. They should be abandoned.
(d) Tensions between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy
(i) Matthew and Luke offer different explanations as to why Jesus was born of a virgin
In a blog article titled, “Why was Jesus born of a virgin in Matthew and Luke?” (December 24, 2014), Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points out a little-noticed fact: although Matthew and Luke both affirm the Virgin Birth, they do so for very different reasons. This in itself is not a contradiction (I’ll discuss the contradictions between the two Gospels shortly), but it is a striking contrast nevertheless. Here’s how Ehrman explains it:
Matthew seems to understand the importance of the Virgin Birth differently from Luke.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus is born of a virgin because this is what was predicted in the prophet Isaiah, as he explicitly states in 1:22-23: “All this happened in order that the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” The quotation comes from Isa. 7:14…
My point: for Matthew the virgin birth principally shows that Jesus’ birth was a fulfilment of the divine plan, as revealed by the fact that up and down the line it fulfilled prophecy.
Luke has a different take. He never gives the “prophecy-fulfillment- formula” you find so often in Matthew (“this happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet….”). In his case the virgin birth has a completely different function. Jesus is born of a virgin because it is the Spirit of God that has made Mary pregnant, not a human being, so that in a very literal sense, Jesus is the “son of God.” …
This is not a contradiction between the two accounts. But it is a very big difference.
I should point out here that although Matthew portrays Jesus’ virginal conception as the fulfilment of a prophecy, there are weighty arguments against the proposal (made by some scholars) that early Christian belief in the virginal conception is simply the product of a mistaken reading of Isaiah 7:14. As we’ll see in part 7 and part 8 below, the Jews did not read the passage in this way, and there was no expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. However, Ehrman is correct in pointing out that the author of Matthew’s Gospel saw Jesus’ virginal conception as the fulfilment of a prophecy, while for Luke, it serves a different purpose, in making Jesus the son of God.
(ii) Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy contradict one another
1. Annunciation to Mary in Nazareth
1. Annunciation to Joseph in Bethlehem
In a later blog post titled, Contradictions in the Gospels (April 16, 2019), Professor Bart Ehrman summarizes the contradictions between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy:
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1-23), he is born in Bethlehem. Nothing indicates that his parents came from anywhere else to get there: there is no story here of a trip from Nazareth to register for a census only to find there was “no room in the inn.” They simply are in Bethlehem. When the wise men come to worship the child, the King of the Jews, Herod, learns of Jesus’ existence, and he sends the troops to kill him (2:16-18). Joseph is warned in a dream, and he takes Jesus and Mary and they travel, on foot, to Egypt, where they remain until Herod dies (2:13-15, 19-23). When they return home, though, they cannot return to Bethlehem (presumably their home, since there would be no other reason to ponder coming back there), and so relocate in Nazareth.
In Luke’s account (Luke 2:1-39) Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and they end up in Bethlehem because of a census in which “the entire world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1). Mary is pregnant, full term, and happens to give birth while they are there. After Jesus is circumcised (2:21), and brought to the temple (2:22), they perform the sacrifice required for women who have given birth in order to return to ritual purity (2:24). This is to follow the law laid out in Leviticus 12:2-8; the sacrifice was to happen 33 days after the circumcision (so 40 days after birth). As soon as that is completed, they return straight to Nazareth (2:39). There is no word in Luke about King Herod’s decision to have the child killed or of the flight of the holy family to Egypt. And so, the contradiction: if Luke is right that 40 days after Jesus’ birth, the family returned directly to Nazareth, how can Matthew be right that they instead went and stayed in Egypt until the death of Herod?
In a response to Ehrman (April 16, 2019), Rev. Matt Firth (a Biblical inerrantist) suggests that “Luke is happy to leave out descriptions of intervening events that he knows to have occurred and that his Greek grammatical usage is much more temporally flexible than it might seem on a surface reading,” so that “between Luke 2:38 and Luke 2:39 there was an intervening period in Egypt.” In a follow-up response to Rev. Firth (April 22, 2019), Ehrman points out that the Greek grammar of Luke’s Gospel is at odds with this strained reading of Luke:
In fact the text does indicate that it was immediately after completing the requirements of the law they went back to Galilee (not years later). The Greek says “hōs etelesan” – using the conjunction hōs with our friend the aorist. This is a very common construction in Greek. When hōs is used with an aorist indicative verb it is a temporal conjunction to be translated “when, after.” And when it is used this way, it indicates what happens *next*.
In a second follow-up response to Rev. Firth, Ehrman replies that Rev. Firth’s suggestion upends the entire logic of the passage in Luke:
The family is near Jerusalem (in Bethlehem); they have come to the Jerusalem temple where Jesus is recognized by the prophetess Anna (v. 38); when they finished following the requirements of the law (a reference to Leviticus 12: women who gave birth were to make an offering in the temple 40 days later for ritual cleanings), they went back to Nazareth. There is nothing about a flight to Egypt that lasted, in your reckoning for years. You have simply imported it into the text.
To clinch matters, Luke adds in verse 41 that “every year his [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover” – an assertion which is at odds with Rev. Firth’s suggestion that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for a period of several years, until Herod was dead.
I conclude that Biblical inerrantists’ attempts to harmonize the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are unsuccessful, and that the two narratives do indeed contradict one another. This undermines the Christian belief in their reliability: either Matthew or Luke is factually mistaken. That being the case, one might reasonably ask: why should we trust these authors when they narrate a miracle in connection with Jesus’ conception? Should we not be suspicious of their stories?
5. Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ infancy refer to events which are historically questionable (e.g. the Star of Bethlehem and the census under Quirinius), thereby undermining their credibility as witnesses to Jesus’ virginal conception.
The four most questionable events in Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives of Jesus’ infancy are the Star of Bethlehem and Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (in Matthew’s Gospel) and the Census of Quirinius and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (in Luke’s Gospel).
Regarding the Star of Bethlehem, the work of astronomer Michael Molnar has shown that a scientifically plausible account of the star can be given. However, the real difficulties with the story are historical and literary. First, we don’t know which constellation in the sky would have been associated with Judea by the magi, or Wise Men. Was it Aries, Aquarius or Gemini? Different authorities at the time gave different answers. So we simply don’t know how a horoscope would have been interpreted in antiquity. What’s more, we don’t even know which version of astrology would have been in use, at the time of Jesus’ birth. Second, we don’t know whether Matthew’s account was even intended to be an historical account of Jesus’ birth. What makes us think the author is trying to tell us history, and why should we trust him? There are unmistakable parallels between Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and Jewish legends about Moses’ birth that were current in the first century A.D. (see Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (2.205-206, 210-211)). In both sets of accounts, the child’s birth is foretold by wise men, and the king reacts by ordering a massacre of male children, and an angel appears to the child’s father in a dream and tells him not to be afraid. Finally, Matthew doesn’t list the sources for his story, or critically analyze them as a proper historian would do. In any case, since Matthew was not a historian, he would not have been granted access to official records. Since his highly supernaturalistic account was written eighty years after the events it describes here, we have good reason to question its historical accuracy.
Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents also appears to be mythological. First, it lacks internal plausibility: surely King Herod could have sent spies to tail the Magi on their trip to Bethlehem, and either report back to him on the whereabouts of the infant Jesus or kill him immediately, making a massacre unnecessary. Also, had “all Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:3) been alarmed over the Magi’s reports of the birth of a new Messiah in Bethlehem, why are there no Jewish records of such an event? Second, why does Josephus, who had a known animus against Herod, say nothing about such a sordid massacre? Third, the episode appears to have been made up, in order to (i) fulfill the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 about the children of Rachel (who was said to have been buried near Bethlehem) being massacred, and (ii) provide Jesus and his family with a strong motive for fleeing to Egypt, so as to fulfill the prophecy in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Finally, the incident bears a strong resemblance to the first-century Jewish legends of Moses’ rescue from the slaughter of Hebrew children in Egypt (see above). On the other hand, historian Paul Maier has defended the historicity of the incident, arguing that the relatively small number of infants slaughtered (a dozen or so, by his estimate) would probably have escaped the attention of Josephus. It has also been argued that the Massacre fits in well with Herod’s psychological profile as a paranoid, ruthless killer. Nevertheless, Herod’s failure to have the Magi followed should be enough to show that Matthew’s story, like his story of the Guard at Jesus’ Tomb (Matthew 27:62-28:15), doesn’t hold together: it is internally implausible. That, combined with the unmistakable parallels to Jewish stories about Moses’ infancy that were current in the first century (see above), renders it historically unlikely, in my view, which Maier himself admits is a widely shared one among scholars.
Regarding the census of Quirinius reported in Luke, the biggest hurdle is the date. Matthew’s Gospel reports that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1), who died in 4 B.C., so Jesus was born at the latest in 4 BC, but the census by the Syrian governor Quirinius took place ten years later, in 6 A.D. Attempts to salvage the accuracy of Luke’s Gospel by suggesting that Quirinius was governor twice, or that the text is really saying that the census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria, are strained and grammatically implausible. Dr. Richard Carrier, who is a classical historian, shows convincingly that all attempts to harmonize Matthew and Luke end in failure. They cannot both be right.
What’s more, Luke’s Gospel appears to contradict itself: on the one hand, Jesus is said to have been born in the days of “Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5), whom the vast majority of Biblical historians identify with Herod the Great (d. 4 B.C.), but on the other hand, we are told (Luke 2:1-7) that Jesus was born during the time of the census of Quirinius (6 A.D.). [I should note in passing that Carrier’s idiosyncratic view that Luke 1:5 actually refers not to Herod the Great but to his son Archelaus is rejected by virtually all Biblical scholars. Additionally, Carrier’s proposal requires him to date the start of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus was “about thirty” (Luke 3:23) to 34 or 35 A.D., several years after the start of John the Baptist’s ministry in 29 A.D. (Luke 3:1-2), putting Jesus’ death in 36 A.D. However, virtually all Biblical scholars date Jesus’ death to either 30 or 33 A.D.]
I conclude that Jesus could not have been born in the year 6 A.D. Luke’s dating Jesus’ birth to the time of the census under Quirinius in 6 A.D. is therefore incorrect; Jesus was probably born a few years earlier.
Other objections have been raised regarding the likelihood of an empire-wide census under the Emperor Augustus, and of Jews having to return to their ancestral town to register for the census. On these points, Dr. Richard Carrier has defended Luke (see here), arguing that Emperor Augustus’s decree of 28 B.C. requiring that all provinces of the empire be taxed may have been belatedly applied to Judea in 6 A.D., making it the first time the Augustan decree affected Judea; also, Joseph may have been required to travel to Bethlehem if his family owned even a tiny plot of ancestral land there. In his online article, Census of Quirinius, Professor J. F. McGrath rebuts this proposal, by pointing out that if Joseph owned property in Bethlehem, then he wasn’t poor. So why does Luke portray Joseph and Mary as offering the sacrifice for poor people, when Jesus is presented in the Temple, 40 days after his birth? Also, why did a heavily pregnant Mary have to register for the census, along with Joseph? Why couldn’t she have stayed with her relatives, instead? These problems create additional reasons for doubting the accuracy of Luke’s account.
Regarding Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, Luke appears to have conflated the purification of a woman after childbirth (when the child was a month old) with the presentation and redemption of a firstborn son, ten days later: only the former required a sacrifice of two small birds (mentioned in Luke), while the latter required the payment of five silver shekels (not mentioned by Luke). Luke also appears to have thought that both the husband and wife needed to be purified after the birth of a child see Luke 2:22), and that the Torah required the redemption of a firstborn son to take place in the temple in Jerusalem, whereas most scholars believe that the Law at that time allowed a firstborn son to be presented to any priest. However, conservative scholar Richard Bauckham, in his essay, “Luke’s infancy narrative as oral history in scriptural form” (in The Christian world around the New Testament, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017, Volume 2, pp. 131-142; also available online in document form) has vigorously defended Luke’s account, arguing that both Joseph and Mary may have needed to be purified, that Luke 2:27 (which refers to Mary and Joseph doing “for the child what was customary under the law”) is an implicit reference to the payment of five shekels, and that in fact, the Law of the time would have required all firstborn sons to be presented in the temple in Jerusalem (as mandated by Nehemiah 10:35-36): the silence of contemporary rabbis on the subject proves nothing. Bauckham concludes that “Luke deserves the benefit of the doubt.” Bauckham’s arguments merit serious consideration, so on this particular incident, I find the charge of historical inaccuracy against Luke not proved.
In summary: it turns out that three of the four episodes selected above, which are narrated in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, are historically very unlikely, while the fourth is rather doubtful.
The best way to evaluate the credibility of an account of a long-distant miraculous event (which is by definition supernatural and unrepeatable) is to check whether the non-miraculous events in the story are reported accurately. When we do this with Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, we run into major difficulties, which are admirably summarized by John Loftus in the opening statement of his debate with William Albrecht on the topic, “Was Jesus Born of a Virgin?” I’ll mention just two here.
(a) The Star of Bethlehem
(i) Scientific problems with the narrative, and a possible solution
Matthew tells us that a star led some Wise Men (Magi) to the place where Jesus was born, in Bethlehem: “The star, which they (the Magi) had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9–10, NASB). But as skeptic John Loftus points out, Matthew’s account appears not to make sense, from an astronomical perspective:
The Magi see the Star “leading” or directing them to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Not only are moving stars pre-scientific nonsense, they would be moving in a southern direction, from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem. Stars don’t move in the sky, and they certainly don’t appear to move in a southern direction. They all appear to move from the east to west, like the sun, because of the spin of the earth. Then we’re told the Star stopped in the sky directly over a place in Bethlehem. But there’s no way to determine which specific house a star stopped over, if it did!
To be sure, there are scientific answers to these difficulties. Recently, it has been argued by the astronomer Michael Molnar that arguing that it probably referred to Jupiter appearing in the constellation of Aries (believed by astrologers to be a symbol of Judea) in the year 6 B.C., after which Jupiter was hidden by the Moon. On Molnar’s proposal, Loftus’s objections can be answered: in the first place, the Biblical term “in the east” is a literal translation of the Greek phrase en te anatole, which refers to what’s called a heliacal rising, where a planet (in this case, the planet Jupiter) would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun is due to appear, and then disappear in the early morning sky; and secondly, that Biblical reference to the “star” stopping over the place where Jesus was born refers to a particular, brief moment when a planet stops moving, and changes apparent direction from westward to eastward motion, relative to the fixed background stars. This would have happened on December 19, 6 B.C., but by then, Jesus would have been at least eight months old, as the first heliacal rising of the planet Jupiter was on April 17, 6 B.C. For more details, see here and here.
On the other hand, Molnar, who is not a Biblical scholar, may be barking up the wrong tree with his convoluted exegesis of the phrase, “in the east.” The NET Bible (New English Translation), a free on-line English translation of the Bible with over 60,000 translators’ notes, published in 2005 and sponsored by the Biblical Studies Foundation, rejects the translation, “in the east,” in favor of what it says is the correct meaning, “when it rose,” in Matthew 2:2 and 2:9-10, for reasons explained in a footnote:
The term used for the “East” in v. 1 is ἀνατολαί (anatolai, a plural form that is used typically of the rising of the sun), while in vv. 2 and 9 the singular ἀνατολή (anatolē) is used. The singular is typically used of the rising of a star and as such should not normally be translated “in the east” (cf. BDAG 74 s.v. 1: “because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. 1, [it is] prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical… likew. vs. 9”).
The highly respected ESV also translates Matthew 2:9 without using the phrase “in the east”: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
If the simpler ESV and NET translations are indeed correct, as they appear to be, then Molnar’s ingenious solution is redundant, for linguistic reasons.
(ii) Historical and literary problems with Matthew’s account of the Star of Bethlehem
But even if Molnar’s proposal could successfully resolve all of the scientific problems raised by Loftus above, we still need to address the more fundamental problems with Matthew’s account: first, ambiguities and frequent disagreements between ancient astrologers regarding individuals’ horoscopes, and second, uncertainties as to the genre of Matthew’s infancy narrative: was it history or was it folklore? Jonathan M. S. Pearce discusses both of these points in a blog article titled, Star of Bethlehem: Methodological Difficulties (October 2, 2015). Pearce emphasizes the uncertainties within the ancient study of astrology:
So, the ancient astrologers in the Western tradition already tell us that the act of interpretation is very difficult, and the evidence is that astrologers cannot agree even when they all follow the same rulebook… But more damning is the incredible level at which astrologers will contradict each other and even themselves. One particular example should be examined because of its importance to this study: what constellation or astrological sign corresponded to or influenced what region of the world; this is known as geographical astrology. This is important for Star research because of efforts to find the constellation which would have been associated with Judea. The only specific list that mentioned Judea comes from Ptolemy who connected that region with the zodiac constellation of Aries. However, a century earlier in the writing of Manilius this same general region is under the purview of Aquarius. Later in the same century, Dorotheus of Sidon goes with Gemini.
So much for Molnar’s naive claim that the constellation of Aries was believed by astrologers to be a symbol of Judea. Which astrologer are we talking about? Concludes Pearce: “Considering how much contradiction there is between astrologers on so much, from methods to meaning, there is no respectable position one can take on how a horoscope would have been interpreted in antiquity.” But it gets worse. We don’t even know which version of astrology would have been in use, at the time of Jesus’ birth:
One of the defining features of the Western horoscope is the arrangement of the cardinal points. These are the locations of the eastern and western horizon (the ascendant and descendant), along with the point on the zodiac that is highest in the sky at the observer’s location and the point 180 degrees opposite on the zodiac (the midheaven and anti-midheaven). The location of these points in a horoscope are very important to interpretation, and considerable calculations are done to find and place them, yet they are absent from the older Babylonian versions of horoscopes. Moreover, we have no good information to help us even guess how ancient, eastern horoscopes were interpreted as most of them failed to include an interpretation, and we have no treatises on the subject. The closest is the astrological text called the Enuma Anu Enlil, written sometime around 1000 BCE, but how this source was applied in the first century is almost impossible to extrapolate.
Pearce concludes: “This means we have almost no basis to discuss how any configuration of the stars would have been interpreted by eastern diviners.”
But the deeper question is whether Matthew’s account was even intended to be an historical account of Jesus’ birth. Pearce goes straight to the heart of the issue, in his article:
Lastly, we should consider an issue that is poorly addressed in the literature by those searching for the Christmas Star: what makes us think the author is trying to tell us history and why ought we trust him or his sources (if he had any concerning the Nativity)? … Are we dealing with a diary of events similar to Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a biography based on eyewitnesses such as Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great (the Anabasis), or do we have folklore and romances as in the stories of King Arthur? When it comes to the Gospels, this is not an easy question… But perhaps key is the fact that the story of the amazing portent at birth indicating greatness of the infant is part and parcel of stories told of heroes, kings, and gods in antiquity. This includes stellar features as well. Famous stars leading heroes to their destination include that of Timoleon on his way to Sicily and Aeneas on his way to Italy. We also have the parallels between Jesus’s birth and Moses’s, especially in non-canonical sources concerning the latter (which include a star at his birth interpreted by ‘wise men’ of sorts). Put simply, how does one categorize the story?
Excursus: Parallels between the births of Jesus and Moses
In his groundbreaking work, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977, p. 113), Fr. Raymond Brown draws readers’ attention to the parallels between the account of Moses’ birth in the book of Exodus and Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy:
|2:13-14 Herod was going to search for the child to destroy him, so Joseph took the child and his mother and went away||2:15 The Pharaoh sought to eliminate Moses, so Moses went away|
|2:16 Herod commanded that the boys of Bethlehem under age two be killed||1:22 Pharaoh commanded that all male Hebrew infants be killed|
|2:19 Herod died||2:23 The king of Egypt died|
|2:19-20 The angel of the Lord says to Joseph in Egypt, “return to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead”||4:19 The Lord said to Moses in Midian, “return to Egypt, for all those who were seeking your life are dead”|
|2:21 Joseph took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel||4:20 Moses took along his wife and children and returned to Egypt|
If we look at popular Jewish stories about the birth of Moses that were current in the first century A.D., the parallels with Matthew’s narrative are even more apparent. Here, for instance, is what the Jewish historian Josephus records about the infancy of Moses, in his Jewish Antiquities (2.205-206, 210-211):
While they [the Hebrews – VJT] were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes–persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future–announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king, on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river…
Amaram(es), a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God …. And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that …. “This child, whose birth has filled the Egyptians with such dread that they have condemned to destruction all the offspring of the Israelites, shall indeed be yours; he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt, and be remembered, so long as the universe shall endure, not by Hebrews alone but even by alien nations.”
(Thackeray, H St et al 1926-65. Josephus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 10 vols LCL.)
In Josephus’ account, the birth of Moses, like that of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, is foretold by wise men, and the king reacts by ordering a massacre of male children. On top of that, an angel appears to Moses’s father Amram in a dream and tells him not to worry, and that God will rescue the child. The parallels are unmistakable.
Professor John Dominic Crossan has more to say about Matthew 2’s Mosaic connections in his essay, Virgin mother or bastard child? (HTS Theological Studies 59(3) 2003).
In his above-cited article, Star of Bethlehem: Methodological Difficulties (October 2, 2015), Jonathan M. S. Pearce wraps up his case for the non-historical character of Matthew’s birth narrative by noting that “Matthew… does not discuss his sources, does not separate witnesses, and provides not a hint of skepticism or critical engagement with the stories” – unlike proper historians of the time in which he wrote, such as Tacitus (and to a lesser extent, Suetonius). Since Matthew’s methods are less rigorous and his access to reliable information is remote (remember that he wrote his account fifty years after Jesus’ death and over eighty years after Jesus’ birth, and unlike Roman historians, he would not have been granted privileged access to historical records from the time when Jesus lived), Pearce concludes that we have to regard Matthew as highly suspect when it comes to historical facts, assuming he is even trying to tell us facts.
Let me conclude by quoting the verdict of Jesus scholar Professor Geza Vermes, in his article, Matthew’s Nativity is charming and frightening… but it’s a Jewish myth (The Telegraph, December 19, 2004):
We are led inescapably to this conclusion: that the awesomely influential Nativity story in the first book of the New Testament is a speculative, rather than a historical text. Far from being a report of a literal happening, it is an amalgam of flawed Greek-Christian scriptural references, and of “birth tales” current in Judaism in the first century AD. The story with which we are all so familiar is not fact, but folklore.
(b) The Census of Quirinius in Luke
The difficulties with Luke’s account, in a nutshell
The historical difficulties associated with Luke’s account of the census under Quirinius are handily summarized in th following quote, which is taken from the online commentary on Luke 2, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which concludes that Luke’s memory of the event is badly muddled:
* [2:1–2] Although universal registrations of Roman citizens are attested in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and A.D. 14 and enrollments in individual provinces of those who are not Roman citizens are also attested, such a universal census of the Roman world under Caesar Augustus is unknown outside the New Testament. Moreover, there are notorious historical problems connected with Luke’s dating the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and the various attempts to resolve the difficulties have proved unsuccessful. P. Sulpicius Quirinius became legate of the province of Syria in A.D. 6–7 when Judea was annexed to the province of Syria. At that time, a provincial census of Judea was taken up. If Quirinius had been legate of Syria previously, it would have to have been before 10 B.C. because the various legates of Syria from 10 B.C. to 4 B.C. (the death of Herod) are known, and such a dating for an earlier census under Quirinius would create additional problems for dating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Lk 3:1, 23). A previous legateship after 4 B.C. (and before A.D. 6) would not fit with the dating of Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod (Lk 1:5; Mt 2:1). Luke may simply be combining Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem with his vague recollection of a census under Quirinius (see also Acts 5:37) to underline the significance of this birth for the whole Roman world: through this child born in Bethlehem peace and salvation come to the empire.
The central contradiction between Matthew and Luke
Dr. Richard Carrier’s carefully argued essay, The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th ed., 2011) is essential reading for anyone wishing to familiarize themselves with the difficulties relating to Luke’s account of the census under Quirinius. (Although Carrier is not a Biblical cholar, he is a trained classical historian.) Carrier’s main conclusions are worth quoting at length. First, Carrier summarizes the central contradiction between Matthew and Luke, before adding that although he regards neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy as historical, he thinks Luke is more likely to be correct than Matthew:
The Gospel of Luke claims (2.1-2) that Jesus was born during a census that we know from the historian Josephus took place after Herod the Great died, and after his successor, Archelaus, was deposed. But Matthew claims (2.1-3) that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive–possibly two years before he died (2:7-16). Other elements of their stories also contradict each other. Since Josephus precisely dates the census to 6 A.D. and Herod’s death to 4 B.C., and the sequence is indisputable, Luke and Matthew contradict each other.
I think using [Luke’s using] a census in the story to explain both of Jesus’ reputed ancestral homes (the village of Nazareth and the town the messiah had to come from, Bethlehem) is rather convenient and looks more clever than genuine. And Luke’s probable use of Josephus suggests a deliberate attempt to paint a veneer of genuine history around an otherwise questionable hagiography. For Luke’s accuracy is only provable in details such as these, which were already painstakingly researched by other men and published in Luke’s own day….[T]hough Matthew’s account looks and smells like a fantastical legend (see below), I do not see Luke’s account as historically impossible, as some have tried to argue. To the contrary, I think Luke strained to force his story to seem more plausible than it already was when it got to him. But if one of the two authors must be correct, then Matthew is far more likely the one who has it wrong.…
The failure of attempts to harmonize Matthew (4 B.C.) and Luke (6 A.D.) on the date of Jesus’ birth
Next, Carrier explains at some length why the various attempts to reconcile Matthew and Luke all fail:
Some have tried to reconcile Matthew and Luke by inventing a second governorship of Quirinius, placing it in the reign of Herod the Great. However, we have no evidence at all that Quirinius served as governor of Syria twice, much less that he did so when Herod was king of Judaea. Moreover, no one ever governed the same province twice in the whole of Roman history, making the very proposal implausible. Three inscriptions and a coin have been used to imply otherwise, but none of these items contain any of the information claimed by those who want Quirinius to have been twice governor, and they offer no support to the theory. We also know who was governing Syria between 12 and 3 B.C. and therefore Quirinius could not have been governor then (or before, since he was not qualified before the year 12). Also, in section 3 it will be shown that there was never any such thing as a dual governorship, nor could there have been, given the nature of Roman political and social organization, and even if Quirinius had been governor or co-governor of Syria at an earlier date, no census could have been conducted in Judaea while Herod or his successor Archelaus were alive.
Even if Quirinius had been governor a previous time, conveniently during the reign of Herod the Great, and conducted a census, that census could not have included Judaea, for Judaea was not under direct Roman control at that time, and not being directly taxed. There is no example of, or rationale for, a census of an independent kingdom ever being conducted in Roman history. Therefore, the census Luke describes could only have been taken after the death of Herod, when Judaea was annexed to the Roman province of Syria, just as Josephus describes. All attempts to argue otherwise have no merit: Luke did not mean a census before Quirinius, could not have imagined Quirinius holding some other position besides governor, and could not have mistook him for someone else…
Some have tried to argue that the Greek of Luke actually might mean a census “before” the reign of Quirinius rather than the “first” census in his reign. As to this, even Sherwin-White remarks that he has “no space to bother with the more fantastic theories…such as that of W. Heichelheim’s (and others’) suggestion (Roman Syria, 161) that prôtê in Luke iii.2 means proteron, [which] could only be accepted if supported by a parallel in Luke himself.”[10.1] He would no doubt have elaborated if he thought it worthwhile to refute such a “fantastic” conjecture. For in fact this argument is completely disallowed by the rules of Greek grammar. First of all, the basic meaning is clear and unambiguous, so there is no reason even to look for another meaning. The passage says hautê apographê prôtê egeneto hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias Kyrêniou, or with interlinear translation, hautê(this) apographê(census) prôtê[the] (first) egeneto(happened to be) hêgemoneuontos[while] (governing) tês Syrias(Syria) Kyrêniou[was] (Quirinius). The correct word order, in English, is “this happened to be the first census while Quirinius was governing Syria.” This is very straightforward, and all translations render it in such a manner…
Another proposal is that hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias might mean simply “holding a command in Syria” and since Quirinius is known to have fought a war in Asia Minor between 6 B.C. and 1 B.C. (see above), perhaps Luke means to refer to the time when Quirinius was fighting this war, and not actually “legate of Syria.” This doesn’t actually solve any of the problems already discussed so far–no census of Judaea could have been held before 6 A.D. But the argument is not even reasonable to begin with. First, it makes no sense to date an event in Judaea by referring to a special command in a war in Asia. Why not simply name the actual legate in Syria? There is no reason to pass over the most obvious man and name another who has absolutely nothing to do with Judaea, much less a census there… Second, just because Quirinius was probably assigned a Syrian legion to fight bandits on the mountain border between Galatia and Cilicia, it does not follow that he had any kind of command in Syria…
Some are tempted to propose the notion that Luke made a mistake: that he really meant Publius Quinctilius Varus rather than Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Of course, this would entail that Luke is wrong, and thus would admit that the text as we have it (which reads “Quirinius”) contradicts Matthew. And it fails to solve the census problem anyway (as discussed above).…
So there is no basis for imagining any scribal error in Luke. Certainly, if Luke borrowed his information from Josephus (cf. Luke and Josephus), then he clearly meant Quirinius. And it is not likely that Luke was mistaking the men, rather than making a mistake in writing the name: Quirinius is a cognomen [family name – VJT], but Quinctilius is a nomen [like a “nick name,” and similar to our middle name – VJT]…
One might try to argue that the census was actually not Roman at all, but conducted by Herod…. Had Herod conducted such a census on his own initiative, it would have been a truly remarkable event, and could not have escaped mention by historians such as Josephus. And Herod the Great enjoyed the greatest favor and freedom of any client king ever under Roman influence, so any Roman attempt to “force” Herod to run a census would have been even more inexplicable and unprecedented…
For the sake of completeness I will address an argument some Christian apologists advocate out of desperation to preserve Biblical infallibility, drawing on a particular work by Jack Finegan (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed., 1998). This is the assertion that in fact Herod the Great was still living in 2 B.C., and since we do not know who was governing Syria then, it was “obviously” Quirinius. Besides having no evidence whatsoever for either fact (and thus it is an entirely ad hoc theory), the evidence we do have stands against such a thesis. For example, Josephus says, point blank, that Varus, not Quirinius, was governor when Herod died (Jewish War 1.9-10)…
There is no way to rescue the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting each other on this one point of historical fact. The contradiction is plain and irrefutable, and stands as proof of the fallibility of the Bible, as well as the falsehood of at least one of the two New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus.
Of course, some apologists have proposed their own “solutions” to these difficulties. I discussed some of these proposals in a TSZ post, four years ago: maybe Josephus misdated the census of Quirinius (refuted here by Carrier), or maybe (as suggested in a 2009 article by Jared Compton) Quirinius actually governed Syria twice (first in a semi-official capacity from 3-2 B.C., and later, from 6-12 A.D., as Legate of Syria), and what Luke is really saying is that just before Quirinius was governor of Syria in 3–2 B.C., there was a census in Herod’s domain – a reading which Carrier argues makes no sense grammatically. After studying these attempts to preserve Luke’s accuracy as a historian, I have come to the conclusion that the solutions proposed by modern Christian apologists are desperately ad hoc and for the most part, historically misinformed.
Was Luke talking about a census or an oath of loyalty?
But apologists don’t like to give up a case, particularly when the accuracy of the New Testament is at stake. In an article titled Quirinius: An Archaeological Biography (Bible Archaeology Report, December 19, 2019), Bryan Windle makes yet another attempt to rescue Luke’s accuracy:
As mentioned in the previous bioarchaeography of Caesar Augustus, he himself records a census that was begun in 8 BC, and another event in 2 BC in which the “entire Roman people” gave him the title of “Father of My Country.” Josephus likely makes note of this event and says that 6000 pharisees refused to swear loyalty to Caesar. Some modern scholars have theorized that there was an empire-wide registration associated with this event, which would explain how Josephus knew there were 6000 pharisees who refused to take the oath to Caesar. One ancient writer – Orosius – likely referred to this registration when he wrote that census Luke refers to was the one in which all great nations took an oath of loyalty to Caesar and were “made part of one society.”
However, Carrier has anticipated this objection, which is similar to one made by Jack Finegan, in his essay, and his response is devastating:
Finegan argues it [the event described by Luke – VJT] was when “the people of Rome” proclaimed Augustus Pater Patriae, “Father of his Country” (§ 525), but Finegan has badly erred here: this is a reference to a vote by Roman citizens, which would have nothing whatever to do with Judaeans. By confusing a vote with an oath-taking, Finegan conjures the false claim that Luke is referring to the registration of oaths of loyalty. Of course, this is already shot down by the fact that Herod was not alive in 2 B.C., as we’ve seen. And we have no record of such an oath in Judaea in that year or any year near it, despite the fact that Josephus usually records them: the last such oaths commanded by Herod were in 20 B.C.[17.4] and in 8 or 7 B.C.[17.5] Worse, this thesis is inherently implausible: Luke does not use the vocabulary of oath-swearing, nor does he describe such a process. For example, Joseph would not travel to Bethlehem if all he had to do was swear an oath of allegiance–that had to be done where he lived.[17.6]
Joseph’s journey only makes sense in the context of a census, where family land could require his presence (see second part of Luke’s Description of the Census above). Likewise, “that all that was inhabited be recorded,” using apographô as the verb, repeated again as the noun apographê, can only refer to a census: a register made for taxing. Indeed, the word does not even mean “count,” but “written up,” which meant a detailed record-making, and this term is never used in reference to registering oaths.
In the light of the evidence, I think the only conclusion an unbiased inquirer can reach is that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contradict one another by an interval of ten years, when it comes to the date of Jesus’ birth.
Other difficulties with Luke’s account of the census
In his online article, Census of Quirinius, Professor J. F. McGrath outlines further problems with Luke’s account. Specifically: according to Luke 2:1-6, Joseph and his fiancee Mary had to register in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea, for the census under Quirinius. But if Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Galilee, then the only likely reason why they would have had to register in faraway Bethlehem, in Judea, is that Joseph owned property there. (This is the explanation proposed by Dr. Richard Carrier, in a section of his essay titled, Luke’s Description of the Census.) But if that’s what Joseph did, then he wasn’t poor. So why does Luke portray Joseph and Mary as offering the sacrifice for poor people, when Jesus is presented in the Temple, 40 days after his birth? Also, why did Mary have to register for the census, along with Joseph? Why couldn’t she have stayed with her relatives, instead?
…[I]t is possible to maintain that Joseph had property in Bethlehem, and thus was only temporarily absent from there while living in Nazareth. But this attempted ‘solution’ simply raises another problem, namely why someone with property in Bethlehem is forced to rely on the hospitality of others when he goes there for the census. [That Joseph and Mary depended on the hospitality of others in Luke’s version of the story is clear, even though in Matthew’s version they are living in a house that is presumably their own. For the cultural background to the Lucan story follow THIS LINK]. And so Luke’s version, which has Joseph and Mary not only rely on the hospitality of others, but also offer the sacrifice the Law specified for those who were not wealthy (Luke 2:24; cf. Leviticus 5:7), excludes the one possible reason for the journey to have taken place: namely, the possibility that Joseph owned property in that area. Luke also tells us that Mary had relatives not far away, and so there is simply no reason why she should not have stayed with them, since women did not normally own property and were not required to register in the case of a census of this source.
We saw above that Dr. Carrier was inclined to give Luke the benefit of the doubt when he states that Jews would have had to return to their ancestral town, in order to register for the census. However, Carrier has no answer regarding the inconsistency that Professor McGrath highlights in the passage above, between Joseph’s wealth and his humble gift at the Temple, which would have made sense only if he was poor.
Does Luke contradict himself regarding the date of Jesus’ birth?
Unlike the vast majority of Biblical scholars, Dr. Carrier theorizes that the “Herod king of Judea” referred to in Luke 1:5 is not Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C., but his son Herod Archelaus, who was ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea from 4 B.C. to 6 A.D. Carrier’s idiosyncratic view is that Jesus (assuming he existed) was probably born in 6 or 7 A.D. However, Carrier’s proposal requires him to date the start of Jesus’ ministry (when Jesus was “about thirty” according to Luke 3:23) to 34 or 35 A.D., several years after the start of John the Baptist’s ministry in 29 A.D. (Luke 3:1-2), putting Jesus’ death in 36 A.D. Virtually all Biblical scholars reject this proposal and date Jesus’ death to either 30 or 33 A.D. If they are right, then Jesus could not have been born in the year 6 A.D., and Luke’s chronology is not only mistaken, but internally inconsistent, as he places the birth of Jesus in the days of King Herod the Great (who died in 4 B.C.), while at the same time insisting that it occurred during the census under Quirinius in 6 A.D. Luke’s account of Jesus being born at the time of the census of Quirinius (in 6 A.D.) must therefore be mistaken.
To sum up: it looks as if Matthew’s stories of the Star of Bethlehem and Herod’s Massacre have no historical basis, and it also looks as if Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth during the census under Quirinius in 6 A.D. is mistaken, too. And if the Gospels cannot be trusted when narrating historical events, how much less should we trust them when narrating supernatural ones, such as the virginal conception of Jesus?
6. Why the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception is massively ad hoc, when viewed from a biological perspective, and why that weakens the historical evidence for the miracle
There are no known cases of parthenogenesis occurring naturally among mammals, and even if there were any, the progeny would be female, not male. What’s more, any mammal that was created by parthenogenesis would have double doses of maternally imprinted genes and would lack paternally imprinted genes, which would probably result in developmental abnormalities.
It is often said that the ancients were ignorant of human biology and unduly credulous regarding reports of miracles, but they certainly knew that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby, and even in the early days of Christianity, there were many skeptics who scoffed at the notion of a virgin conceiving.
Recently, skeptics have raised the question, “Where did Jesus get his Y-chromosome?” Christians who answer that God made it, while Mary supplied the rest of Jesus’ genome, fail to realize that they are changing the traditional doctrine, according to which Jesus took his flesh entirely from Mary. Or as St. Paul puts it, “God sent His Son, made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4, KJV). The only orthodox solution is to say that God transformed one of Mary’s X-chromosomes into a Y-chromosome in the ovum from which Jesus developed, as well as adjusting the imprinting of Mary’s genes to make Jesus’ embryo like a normal male embryo.
But the real difficulty with the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception from a scientific perspective is that in order to generate Jesus’ embryo, God would have had to make millions of purely arbitrary choices, when rearranging the genome of one of the Virgin Mary’s ova. This in turn makes the doctrine much more ad hoc than any rival, naturalistic explanation of Jesus’ conception and birth – which means that it is no longer possible to argue for the doctrine on historical grounds.
(i) Is a virginal conception (parthenogenesis) scientifically possible?
According to the Wikipedia article on parthenogenesis, there are no known cases among mammals, in nature, and if there were any such cases, they would be female:
There are no known cases of naturally occurring mammalian parthenogenesis in the wild. Parthenogenetic progeny of mammals would have two X chromosomes, and would therefore be female…
Induced parthenogenesis in mice and monkeys often results in abnormal development. This is because mammals have imprinted genetic regions, where either the maternal or the paternal chromosome is inactivated in the offspring in order for development to proceed normally. A mammal created by parthenogenesis would have double doses of maternally imprinted genes and lack paternally imprinted genes, leading to developmental abnormalities.
…[T]here have been no scientifically confirmed reports of a non-chimeric, clinically healthy human parthenote (i.e. produced from a single, parthenogenetic-activated oocyte).
In an article titled, The Science Behind Jesus’s Virgin Birth (December 27, 2015) at vice.com, reporter Mark Hay cites expert testimony showing that the notion of a woman who was a virgin giving birth to a child has no scientific basis:
“I have been asked [about the virgin birth] many times,” said Warren Booth, a leading expert in parthenogenesis at the University of Tulsa, “and honestly I can come up with no feasible explanation as to how a female that had abstained from intercourse could give birth to a child of either sex.”
Indeed, as Hay explains, to make the Biblical account scientifically plausible, one would have to bizarrely suppose that Mary was either a male-female genetic chimera or intersex:
In her 2012 book Like A Virgin, science writer Aarathi Prasad offers a couple [of] workarounds. One possibility, Prasad theorizes, is that Mary could have been a genetic chimera — meaning, formed from both male and female embryos—which would have meant she had Y chromosomal material that could have been absorbed into her theoretically self-created Christ child. Alternatively, Prasad offers, Mary could have been intersex — having both female and male genetic characteristics. Specifically, she could have been born with ovotestes, a condition in which a woman gets an X chromosome from her father that contains a sprinkle of Y chromosome, leading to the development of a hybrid ovary-testes organ. If Mary only manifested her male material in her gonads and, again, had a perfect balance of masculine and feminine tissues and hormones, her ovotestes could have produced sperm and eggs simultaneously, sending them down the fallopian tubes together, and resulting in fertilization and implantation within her functional uterus.
It goes without saying that the two scenarios described above are astronomically unlikely, and that neither has been observed in nature. Michael Alter has also pointed out that both scenarios would make Mary physically blemished, from a Biblical perspective.
Of course, the absence of scientific plausibility for the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception shouldn’t trouble devout Christians, as God, the Author of the laws of nature, is not bound by His own laws. Or as Christian apologist Jonathan Sarfati puts it in his article, The virginal conception of Christ at creation.com (first published in Apologia 3(2):4–11, 1994; last updated 24 December 2014), “if God made the heavens and the earth, a Virginal Conception is no trouble for Him.”
(ii) Did the scientific ignorance of the ancients make it easier for them to believe in the story of Jesus’ virginal conception?
In his article, Debunking the Nativity: The Male Genome (December 10, 2016) at “A Tippling Philosopher” blog, author Jonathan M.S. Pearce provides a brief overview of what people in antiquity believed about human reproduction:
The understanding of how the whole biology of reproduction took place was woefully inadequate as an accurate representation of reality. The Greeks had done some thinking on the subject. The preformationists believed that the father was like the plough and the mother the field. This meant that the seed and all the ‘genetic’ material was delivered by the father with the mother merely providing the milieu in which the development took place.
Later, Aristotle, based on research into animals, and recognising that children could look like more distant relatives, moved the thinking on a little. He believed the mother provided the material cause whilst the father provided the moving cause.
On Aristotle’s male-centered view, “females served only to nourish what a male had created,” as Anne Crowther puts it in an online review titled, “Hot seeds, cold wombs” (Times Literary Supplement, August 23 & 30, 2019). However, Aristotle’s theory was far from being universally accepted. Hippocrates of Kos (c.460 – c.370 B.C.), the father of medicine, realized that mothers make a contribution to their offspring as well. The Roman physician Galen (129 – c.210 A.D.) held to a similar view. However, the human ovum was not identified by scientists until the year 1827, when it was seen under a microscope for the first time by Karl Ernst von Baer.
In any case, Pearce’s objection that the ancients knew little about how babies were made has little force. As Christian apologist Jonathan Sarfati observes in his article, The virginal conception of Christ at creation.com (first published in Apologia 3(2):4–11, 1994; last updated 24 December 2014),
…the ancients knew very well how babies are made — needing both a man and a woman, although they did not know certain details about spermatozoa and ova. In fact, Joseph (Mt. 1:19) and Mary (Lk. 1:34) questioned the announcements of the Virginal Conception because they did know the facts of life, not because they did not!
I might add that skepticism about Jesus’ virginal conception is almost as old as Christianity itself. Back in the second century (c. 177 A.D.), the pagan Roman philosopher Celsus accused Jesus of having been born illegitimate and of fabricating the story of his birth from a virgin. Here is how Origen summarizes Celsus’ accusations against Jesus (Contra Celsum, Book 1, chapter 28):
For he represents him disputing with Jesus, and confuting Him, as he thinks, on many points; and in the first place, he accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”
Celsus also quoted the testimony of an unnamed Jew who alleged that Mary “bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera” – a story which Origen roundly rejected as a fable (Contra Celsum, Book 1, chapter 32). Regardless of whether one believes Celsus’ accusation or not, it gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that the ancients were credulous and highly prone to believing in miracles.
(iii) Where did Jesus get his Y-chromosome?
“Like his brothers in every respect”: Pearce’s appeal to Hebrews 2:17
In his article, Debunking the Nativity: The Male Genome (December 10, 2016) at “A Tippling Philosopher” blog, author Jonathan M.S. Pearce discusses the possibility that Jesus’ “magically fused with Mary’s egg (or indeed another supernatural egg implanted into Mary) to make a fully workable genetic sequence.” Pearce argues that this solution is problematic on two grounds: first, it “invalidates the claim that Jesus was fully man, since he was clearly half-God,” and second, it “prompts the question as to what criteria were used for deciding such a genome.”
In connection with his first point, Pearce cites Hebrews 2:17 (“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people”) in an attempt to argue that someone whose genes came from God wouldn’t be truly human. However, his argument proves too much, as the same argument could be used to show that Adam would not have been human either, had he been created by God from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and had he grown up without a father or mother. Even theists who reject creationism as unscientific would nevertheless agree that God could have made the first human beings that way, had He so wished, and that these people would have been none the less human for having been created directly by God.
Lincoln on our common humanity with Jesus and the inadequate rationale for his virginal conception
However, Professor Andrew Lincoln, in a paper titled, “Conceiving Jesus: re-examining Jesus’ conception in canon, Christology and creed” (a talk given to The Severn Forum on March 5, 2015) argues that in Jesus’ particular case, either God’s creation of Jesus’ entire genome de novo or His creation of the genes that would normally be contributed by a male creates a host of theological difficulties: either Jesus had no genetic connection with the rest of the human race, or he had a connection (through his X-chromosome) that was just as tainted as ours, making a virginal conception a complete waste of time. [These arguments would not apply to the creation of Adam, as he was the founder of the human race.] In the end, Lincoln arrives at the same conclusion as Pearce – that if Jesus was conceived virginally, then he was not fully human (Hebrews 2:17):
According to our present knowledge, to be a fully human male Jesus would have needed an X chromosome from Mary and a Y chromosome from a human father. Some recent defenders of a literal virginal conception would accept this but reply, “Well, God must have supplied de novo either the genes that had come from a male or both sets of genes.” But both options fail to meet the problem. In the latter case – both sets – Mary would have been simply the surrogate mother of this embryo, which would have no real continuity with the human race to this point, although it could have been a copy of a human being with its genetic endowments. In the former case, if God miraculously supplied a human Y chromosome without sexual contact, what was the point of the miracle and what is the message it conveys about sexuality? Why not use that of Joseph or some other male through the normal means? If the further response is that this was a Y chromosome untainted by previous genetic traits so that Jesus could be the beginning of a new creation, then two further objections remain. Does Jesus then really and fully share the human condition he was to redeem and why could a normal X chromosome be employed, which would have been tainted by previous genetic traits? A traditional answer to the latter question would be to appeal to the immaculate conception of Mary herself, but that logically involves an infinite regress of immaculate conceptions (p. 8)
The point should be clear. Given what we now understand about reproduction, a literal virginal conception means that Jesus would not “have become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Heb. 2:17).
In a later section of his article, Professor Lincoln points out what he describes as “another major irony about the contemporary defence of the virginal conception that holds that God supplied the male Y chromosome”:
Those who propose this don’t appear to realise that they are in fact changing the traditional doctrine. Whereas previously God provided the animating spark through the Spirit and Mary supplied the human substance, now God has to supply part of the human substance, part of Jesus’ humanity. (p. 8)
An orthodox response to Lincoln
It seems to me that Professor Lincoln makes a very powerful case here, but orthodox Christians have a couple of replies available to them. First, Lincoln mis-characterizes the traditional Christian belief about original sin: he seems to be under the mistaken impression that it was traditionally thought to be transmitted genetically from Adam to his descendants, making our genes “tainted.” Now, if this were indeed the case, then as Lincoln rightly points out, nothing but a de novo creation of Jesus’ genes would free him from the taint of original sin – but at the same time, such an act would genetically sever Jesus from the rest of the human race. But is Lincoln correct on this point? It is certainly true that many Christians have linked Jesus’ freedom from original sin to his virginal conception, as Catholic Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown acknowledges in his inaugural address, The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971. Brown traces the history of this line of thinking back to the late fourth century:
Ambrose and Augustine, the Fathers of the Western Church who figured prominently in developing the theology of original sin, explained that Jesus was free from sin because he was conceived of a virgin. Behind this explanation lies the thesis that the transmission of original sin is bound up with the sexual nature of human propagation and the sensual appetites aroused by procreation. (1971, p. 15)
In a footnote on the same page , Brown notes: “While the Greek Fathers did not deal with this matter in terms of original sin, they too related the moral perfection and sinlessness of Jesus to his virginal conception.” However, he adds that “even the defenders of the traditional understanding of the concept [of original sin – VJT] have for the most part abandoned the ‘concupiscence theory’ of the propagation of sin” (1971, p. 15), before concluding that “it is difficult to argue that in order to be free from original sin Jesus had to be conceived of a virgin ” (1971, p. 16).
Indeed, many Christians today would argue that original sin is passed down spiritually, not genetically. As Bodie Hodge of Answers in Genesis helpfully explains, “original sin … is passed along spiritually by virtue that all are descendants of Adam. But God withheld original sin from entering Christ in the womb.” In that case, Jesus’ inheriting an X-chromosome from his mother Mary does not automatically render him “tainted,” after all.
Second, orthodox Christians could argue that God did not create Jesus’ Y-chromsome, but simply transformed one of Mary’s X-chromosomes into a Y-chromosome in the ovum from which Jesus developed, as well as adjusting the imprinting of Mary’s genes, so as to make Jesus’ embryo just like a normal male embryo. As we’ll see below, however, this solution has problems of its own.
A final observation I’d like to make is that Lincoln’s argument against Jesus’ virginal conception in the passage above is based on theological reasoning about the impropriety of God’s creating Jesus’ Y-chromosome, rather than scientific reasoning as such.
Nevertheless, Jonathan M. S. Pearce makes (in passing) an additional argument relating to Jesus’ Y-chromosome, which relies quite heavily on mathematical and scientific reasoning. Pearce’s argument consists of a parenthetical remark, that Jesus’ virginal conception raises the question as to “what criteria were used for deciding such a genome.” I shall develop this question into a proper argument below. What my argument demonstrates is not that the Virgin birth never happened, but that the historical evidence adduced for Jesus’ virginal conception is manifestly insufficient to overcome the ad hoc character of this particular miracle. It is to this argument that we now turn.
(iv) Why a virginal conception would have been massively ad hoc, from a biological perspective
There is a vital difference between explaining what happened and explaining how it happened. With regard to Jesus’ virginal conception, there is no reason to suppose that scientists should be able to do the latter, but they should certainly be able to to the former. What did God do, when He caused Mary to conceive supernaturally?
The point I am making here is that if you had asked an early Christian what God actually did when bringing about the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception, they would have simply answered: “He did the work that a male seed normally does.” More specifically, they would have believed that God, acting like a human father, shaped Jesus’ embryo as a sculptor shapes stone, guiding its development. Different opinions were held about precisely when the embryo received its structure, but that was the general idea.
What we know today (and what the Greeks and Romans didn’t) is that living things are made up of cells, which were not identified until the 17th century. That adds a whole layer of complexity to living things, as there are 37 trillion cells in an adult human body. To be sure, each of us develops from a single cell: a fertilized ovum. But what we now know is that DNA serves as the basis of heredity, and that the DNA in a single human body cell is made up of roughly 3,000,000,000 base pairs, where only four bases can be used: A (adenosine), G (guanine), T (thymine) and C (cytosine). About 99.9 per cent of these base pairs are shared by all human beings, but that still leaves about 3,000,000 base pairs that may vary between any two human individuals, and this variation is largely random.
That means that in order to make Jesus’ embryo, God would have had to make millions of random choices. This is very different from sculpting a statue. An artist, when faced with an array of possible options for the size and shape of a body part, might simply go with the default choice: whatever is found in most human beings. An alternative approach would be to go for the human average. But when it comes to a random sequence of bases, there is no default to fall back on. Nor is there any “average” of A, G, T and C.
What all this means is that Jesus’ virginal conception requires God to make millions of ad hoc choices, without any particular rhyme or reason. And that realization should influence our evaluation of the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception. When an alleged miracle becomes massively ad hoc, we should start questioning whether it actually happened. That’s why we no longer believe in a global Biblical Flood: we now realize that to make it work, God would have had to have done a huge amount of extra work, including working lots of miracles which Scripture never even hints at (e.g. making the Earth’s excess heat go away, after the Flood).
So my first question is: now that we know that the virginal conception of Jesus is even more ad hoc than the miracle of a global Flood would have been (as it involves God making millions of random choices), should we continue to give it credence?
An apologist might reply that the analogy between the Genesis Flood (which requires a host of extra miracles in addition to the Flood itself) and the virginal conception of Jesus is a flawed one, since none of these ad hoc choices in selecting Jesus’ genome would have required a miracle, and that the only miracle involved would have been God’s massive rearrangement of the genome of one of the Virgin Mary’s ova. Fair enough. But I have another question for the apologist.
Any miracle we ascribe to God should at least have the merit of providing an explanation which has greater unifying power and is less ad hoc than rival naturalistic explanations. For example, Dr. William Lane Craig rejects naturalistic explanations of the Resurrection of Jesus precisely because he thinks they all involve making ad hoc assumptions (e.g. about what happened to Jesus’ body), which the miraculous explanation (God raised Jesus from the dead) neatly avoids. In that case, since the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception is massively ad hoc (as we’ve seen), how can it possibly be superior to any rival naturalistic hypothesis, on explanatory grounds? And if it isn’t, then why should we continue to believe it?
I conclude that science has effectively undermined any historical case that could be made in favor of Jesus’ virginal conception, by rendering it massively ad hoc and thus evidentially unsupportable.
7. Are contemporary historical defenses of Jesus’ virginal conception on historical grounds convincing, and if not, how might the doctrine plausibly have arisen?
In this section, I examine what I consider to be the best contemporary defense of the historicity of Jesus’ virginal conception, by Biblical scholar N. T. Wright. Wright’s three-step argument proceeds as follows. First, miracles are a real possibility. (Wright’s book-length study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, has convinced him of this fact.) Second, the Gospel story of Jesus being born of a virgin has no intellectual precedent, in either Jewish tradition (which contained no expectation of a virginal conception) or pagan myths (which are nothing like the “fiercely Jewish” accounts we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke). Finally, if the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception are mere inventions, than how did we end up with two such divergent accounts as those we find in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, within the space of just fifty years? Wright concludes that the skeptical hypothesis that belief in Jesus’ virginal conception arose (and diversified) spontaneously within such a short period is tantamount to “intellectual parthenogenesis” – which is almost as much of a miracle as the real thing!
In reply, it seems to me that Wright commits Fallacy #1 which I identified in the Introduction above: that of assuming that world-changing beliefs never arise spontaneously. Contrary to what Wright assumes, strange beliefs can and sometimes do arise “out of the blue.”
The other main flaw in Wright’s argument is one that I identified as Fallacy #2 in my Introduction: confusing the motivation for a story with the model used to create a story, and confusing the origination of a belief with the confirmation of that belief. The motivation for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception probably came from pagan converts to Christianity, who were accustomed to hearing stories about the miraculous conception and birth of their emperors, and who may well have reasoned that Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, must have had an even more miraculous conception and birth. However, the model used to create the story could not have been pagan, as pagan stories of miraculous conceptions usually involve a god having sexual intercourse with a young woman – a scenario which Jews and Christians alike would have rejected as anthropomorphic. Instead, Jewish models appear to have been used: in Matthew’s case, the conception and birth of Samson (Judges 13) and first-century Jewish folk stories about the birth of Moses; and in Luke’s case, the conception and birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1 and 2). A skillful storyteller would have easily been able to “revamp” one of these narratives into an account of the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus. However, such a miraculous story would never have won any credence among Christian believers without some sort of confirmation that it was true. In the absence of any historical confirmation from Jesus’ own family, nothing less than Divine confirmation would have been deemed necessary. To pagan converts to Christianity, Isaiah 7:14, which appears to foretell a virginal conception in the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible that they would have been accustomed to (“Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’”), would have served as that confirmation, but only in retrospect. However, as late as the fourth century, there were Jewish converts to Christianity who maintained that this verse did not refer to a virginal conception, and that Jesus was conceived naturally.
Having discredited the historical evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, it remains for me to examine whether any kind of case can be mounted for the doctrine, on historical grounds. There are some Christian apologists who freely acknowledge that we do not possess any good evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception, but nevertheless argue that the best explanation for early Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception is that it is based on an actual historical memory of the event, within the early Christian community. Here, I shall focus my investigation on what I consider to be the best contemporary defense along these lines of the historicity of Jesus’ virginal conception, by Biblical scholar N. T. Wright, and I shall endeavor to show that it is unconvincing. I will then argue that contrary to Wright’s claims, it is not too difficult to formulate a plausible secular hypothesis as to how belief in the miracle might have arisen.
(a) Wright’s three-step argument for the historicity of the tradition relating to Jesus’ virginal conception
In an article titled, Suspending scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth (December 28, 2011), written for the ABC Religion & Ethics blog, Biblical scholar N. T. Wright argues eloquently for the historicity of Jesus’ virginal conception. Wright takes as his starting point his conviction (which he defends in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God) that Jesus is truly risen from the dead. This means that miracles are a live possibility. What is special about Jesus is that his coming into the world brings “Israel’s story to its climax.” Next, Wright argues that the Gospel story of Jesus being born of a virgin has no intellectual precedent, in either Jewish tradition (which contained no expectation of a virginal conception) or pagan mythology (otherwise we would not expect them to be so “fiercely Jewish”). Lastly, if the stories of Jesus’ being born of a virgin are inventions, then how did we end up with two such different accounts by the time Matthew and Luke’s Gospel were written?
My argument… works in three stages.
First, the position I have reached about the resurrection and incarnation of Jesus opens the door to reconsidering what we would otherwise probably dismiss. “Miracle,” in the sense of divine intervention “from outside,” is not in question.
What matters is the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, bringing Israel’s story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether or not it happened, this is what it would mean if it did.
Second, there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this?
The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?
Third, if the evangelists believed them to be true, when and by whom were they invented, if by the time of Matthew and Luke two such different, yet so compatible, stories were in circulation?
(b) My reply to Wright’s three-step argument
Before I examine the validity of Wright’s argument, I’d like to call readers’ attention to a central assumption that it makes: that there has to be an explanation of how the idea of Jesus’ virginal conception came to be accepted by Christians in the first place. To believe that no explanation is required, argues Wright, is to “believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage” – a notion which strikes Wright as so absurd that he mockingly compares it to belief in miracles. It should be immediately apparent that Wright’s argument commits a fallacy – namely, Fallacy #1 in our list of fallacies in the Introduction above, or the notion that world-changing beliefs never arise “out of the blue.” As we saw with the case of the Taiping Rebellion, which took the lives of 30 million people in the biggest war of the 19th century, beliefs that change the course of history can and sometimes do arise for the most trivial of reasons. In the case of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuquan’s belief that he was the younger brother of Jesus, which fired up his followers in China, arose as a result of some delirious visions he had while bedridden in 1837, coupled with the fact that he just happened to come across a pamphlet written by a Christian missionary several years later, which (he thought) gave him the key to understanding his visions. We can trace how Hong’s strange belief arose, but only because we live in the modern age. Had Hong’s rebellion taken place in the ninth century instead of the nineteenth (yes, there were Christians in China back then), it is highly doubtful whether historians today would be able to identify the causes of Hong’s sudden conviction that he was Jesus’ younger brother, and it would strike us as a case of “intellectual parthenogenesis.” So even if the skeptic has no explanation of how Christians came to believe in Jesus’ virginal conception, he is perfectly entitled to answer, “So what? I don’t need one.”
It is curious that in his article, Wright makes no mention of the theory, popular in some scholarly circles (see here and here, for instance), that the story of Jesus’ virginal conception arose as a counter-polemic to accusations that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, whether because Mary had a clandestine affair before she got married to Joseph or because she was raped by Roman soldiers. I discuss this theory below in part (c) of my Appendix, where I reject it on the grounds that the Pharisees are depicted as interacting with Jesus (something they would never have done if he was illegitimate), as well as the fact that he was invited to read in the synagogue in his home town (which illegitimate offspring were not allowed to do). Finally, the early tradition that Jesus was a descendant of David (found in Romans 1:3-4) could never have arisen if there had been any suspicion that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate. Professor James McGrath of Butler University, Indianapolis, covers all of these points in his article, “Was Jesus illegitimate? The evidence of his social interactions” (Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 5.1 (2007): 81-100).
Let us now examine the three premises of Wright’s argument. Even if we grant Wright his first premise, that Jesus rose from the dead, it would be fallacious to infer the occurrence of a separate miracle from this fact – especially one which allegedly occurred more than thirty years prior to the Resurrection of Christ. The virginal conception must be argued for on its own merits.
Wright’s third premise is also contestable. As we’ve seen, the two stories are not compatible (contrary to Wright’s claim) and there is no reason to believe that they are independent either. Here, Wright commits Fallacy #6 in our list of fallacies in the Introduction above: the belief that Matthew and Luke’s Gospels provide independent attestation of Jesus’ virginal conception. They don’t. As Jan Vansina, an expert on oral tradition, points out in a passage I quoted at length above, “No one will consider the three synoptic Gospels as independent sources, even though they have different authors… they stemmed from one single oral milieu, from one corpus in one community” (Oral Tradition as History, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1985, p. 159). Additionally, as we saw in part 4(b) above, Professor Mark Goodacre has argued that Luke is not an independent witness to Jesus’ virginal conception, but rather, the author of a theological counter-narrative, written in reply to Matthew’s Gospel. If he is right, then that leaves us with only one original source of the story of Jesus being born of a virgin (Matthew).
In any case, what’s not disputed is that both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ miraculous conception were written several decades after the events they describe: about fifty years afterwards, according to most scholars. Fifty years is certainly long anough for two divergent accounts to spring up: as we saw in part 1 above, miraculous legends can grow up in as little as ten years.
As I see it, what’s wrong with Wright’s second premise is that it fails to disentangle three separate questions: (i) what was the impetus for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception? (ii) what was the model for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception? (iii) what served as confirmation of the story, once it had been written? Wright also makes the error of assuming that the story of Jesus being born of a virgin had a single origin: either Jewish or pagan. (In failing to distinguish these questions, Wright commits Fallacy #2 in our list of fallacies in the Introduction above.) What I am proposing is that the story of Jesus’ virginal conception was critically dependent on both Judaism and paganism: on the former for its original model (in the Jewish Scriptures), and on the latter for its theological impetus. Finally, confirmation of the story came from the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14. This confirmation would have impressed pagan converts to Christianity (but probably not many Jewish ones).
Regarding the impetus for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception, I completely agree with Wright that Jewish converts to Christianity would not have had any such expectation, because of the prevailing Christian belief (shared by many Jews in the first century A.D.) that the Messiah had to be a descendant of David, coupled with the fact that in Judaism, lines of descent were traced from father to son. This would necessitate Jesus’ having a human biological father (presumably, Joseph). Also, as Wright points out, “there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin.” Instead, what I would propose is that the impetus for the story of Jesus’ virginal conception came from pagan converts to Christianity, who would have expected and even demanded a miraculous birth for Jesus. To a pagan mind, the question would have been: how could he not have had one? After all, some of their own emperors, such as Augustus, were said to have been conceived supernaturally. Wouldn’t the conception and birth of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, have been even more grand? The early Christian Father Origen (185-254 A.D.), in his four-volume work, Contra Celsum (Book 1, chapter 35), espouses this line of thinking in the following passage, where he argues that it was more fitting that the Savior, Immanuel (“God with us”), should be born of a virgin:
And which of the two is the more appropriate as the mother of Immanuel (i.e., God with us) — whether a woman who has had intercourse with a man, and who has conceived after the manner of women, or one who is still a pure and holy virgin? Surely it is appropriate only to the latter to produce a being at whose birth it is said, God with us.
In a similar vein, the fourth-century Latin hymn Veni, Redemptor Gentium (“Come thou, Redeemer of the Earth”) by the Christian bishop and theologian, St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 397 A.D.), declares in its opening stanza that a Virgin Birth is the birth that “fits a God”:
Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come, testify Thy Virgin-birth:
All lands admire, — all times applaud;
Such is the birth that fits a God.
It also seems to me that Wright wants to have it both ways, regarding the alleged pagan antecedents of Jesus’ virginal conception: on the one hand, he argues that the tawdry myth of Augustus’s virginal conception is nothing like the quintessentially Jewish narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth that we find in the Gospels, but on the other hand, Wright contends that the pagan parallels would have been strong enough to deter the Gospel authors from including them in their gospels, unless they knew that the miraculous event that they were narrating (i.e. Jesus’ virginal conception) actually happened. Both arguments cannot be correct.
I mentioned above that Jewish Christians would have had a contrary expectation, as they were looking for a Messiah who was from the line of David. So how did belief in Jesus’ virginal conception get off the ground, given that Christianity was originally a Jewish religion? Also, if members of Jesus’ family (such as James) were still alive, wouldn’t they have shot down the proposal that Jesus’ mother conceived him virginally? What I would suggest is that the belief most likely arose outside Palestine, at a time when members of Jesus’ immediate family had passed away (i.e. some time after the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62 A.D.), and at a time when the early Christian Church was mostly made up of Gentiles. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the church in Palestine would have been a shadow of its former self, and in the predominantly Gentile Church that survived, the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception may well have found a more fertile milieu.
However, the model for the story of Jesus being born of a virgin was not a pagan model but a Jewish one. Indeed, the pagan accounts of women impregnated by gods are quite unlike the narratives of Jesus’ birth that we find in Mathew’s and Luke’s Gospels – a point which even Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (who is an agnostic) freely acknowledges in his blog article, “Widespread Claims of Pagan Virgin Births” (December 29, 2014). The most likely reason why the early Christians rejected the pagan miraculous birth narratives as models for their account of Jesus’ miraculous birth is that they generally involved a god having sexual intercourse with a young woman: something unthinkable for Christians who believed in an incorporeal, transcendent Deity. Within the early Christian community, a conscious decision was therefore made to look elsewhere for inspiration. That inspiration came from the Biblical accounts of the births of Samson and Samuel (both of whose mothers were said to have conceived miraculously, as they were well past childbearing age when they gave birth) and Moses (who was the subject of many Jewish myths, back in the first century, as we discussed above in part 5). These accounts were adapted and fashioned into an account of the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus.
(c) But why was Jesus said to have had a virginal conception?