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Born of a Virgin?

Thomas Whitley

Matthew and Luke are very clear about their understanding of the process by which Jesus was born – Mary, a virgin, will conceive a child, Jesus. Luke even “describes” the process in 1:34-35a:

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you.

Both accounts make it very clear that Mary had not had sex with Joseph (or anyone else for that matter). For, the Messiah had to be borne by a virgin, right? Well, maybe not. To get a fuller grasp on the topic we need to look at the text that is cited as the prophecy which this virgin birth fulfills.

Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 as follows:

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.

There is just one problem with this citation, it is not actually what Isaiah 7:14 says. Isaiah 7:14 really says,

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

The Hebrew word that here is translated as young woman is almah, which just means “young girl.” It can sometimes carry with it the implication that the young girl is of marriageable age, but it does not explicitly (or otherwise) imply that she is a virgin. The problem came about when this passage was translated into Greek by the Septuagint. As is common in the Septuagint, mistakes were made in translation. Thus, the Septuagint translated almah as parthenos, which does mean “virgin.”

Then if the original did not speak of a virgin giving birth, then how did this get picked up by early Christians? Good question. Most Jews and early Christians would have been fluent in Greek and (very) likely not fluent in Hebrew, thus they would have read the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the “Old Testament”) and not the Hebrew Bible. As a result, when they read this “prophecy” they read virgin and not young girl, so when they composed their birth narratives, they had to make sure that Mary’s virginity was intact.

Another problem with the virgin birth stories is that none of the earliest sources seem to know of a virgin birth tradition. Paul’s writings are the earliest writings in the New Testament and they contain no mention of a virgin birth. The gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel written (Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source when writing their gospels), and it contains no virgin birth narrative. Mark starts at Jesus’ baptism.

The final issue that I have with upholding the doctrine of the virgin birth is that the original “prophecy” was not in the least intended to speak about a guy named Jesus who would be born hundreds of years later. We need to look at Isaiah 7:10-16 for context:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” The Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

This statement was speaking (most likely) about Ahaz’s wife and the child with which she was pregnant, Hezekiah, the most prominent king throughout the book of Isaiah. This text makes the most sense when the child is understood as Hezekiah since the sign is being given to Ahaz and because of the references that follow. The extent of Immanuel’s land, for instance, as described in Isa 8:8, matches what we know of Hezekiah’s reign. Further, the final two verses give a historical context, one that is not set in the distant future. Before the child can tell right from wrong he will be eating curds and honey and the land that you are in will be deserted by those who are ruling over you. This is a message of hope that is to be fulfilled soon. In addition, the woman of whom Isaiah 7:14 is speaking is already pregnant:

Look, the young woman is with child

Isaiah 7:14 is not telling of some future woman who will conceive a child, as many want to read it.

So, I do not accept the virgin birth doctrine for all of the reasons above and then some. This does not diminish my view of God at all, though it may diminish your view of my view of God. It simply subjects the biblical text to the same process of scrutiny to which every other historical document is subjected. Simply put, I cannot believe something for which I would have to disregard my intellectual and historical integrity. The process and the outcome may not be the same for you and I am perfectly content with that. My desire is not to get more people to think like I do, it is simply to supply people with the information and knowledge that I have, sometimes coupled with my opinions/perspectives/convictions, and allow people to make their own educated decisions about what they do or do not believe.