A Superficial View

It is, in truth, a very superficial way of speaking or thinking of the Virgin birth to say that nothing depends on this belief for our estimate of Christ. Who that reflects on the subject carefully can fail to see that if Christ was virgin born — if He was truly “conceived,” as the creed says, “by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” — there must of necessity enter a supernatural element into His Person; while, if Christ was sinless, much more, if He was the very Word of God incarnate, there must have been a miracle — the most stupendous miracle in the universe — in His origin? If Christ was, as John and Paul affirm and His church has ever believed, the Son of God made flesh, the second Adam, the new redeeming Head of the race, a miracle was to be expected in His earthly origin; without a miracle such a Person could never have been. Why then cavil at the narratives which declare the fact of such a miracle? Who does not see that the Gospel history would have been incomplete without them? Inspiration here only gives to faith what faith on its own grounds imperatively demands for its perfect satisfaction.

The First Promise

One’s mind turns first to that oldest of all evangelical promises, that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the serpent. “I will put enmity,” says Jehovah to the serpent-tempter, “between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15. R. V.). It is a forceless weakening of this first word of Gospel in the Bible to explain it of a lasting feud between the race of men and the brood of serpents. The serpent, as even Dr. Driver attests, is “the representative of the power of evil” — in later Scripture, “he that is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev. 12:9)— and the defeat he sustains from the woman’s seed is a moral and spiritual victory. The “seed” who should destroy him is described emphatically as the woman’s seed. It was the woman through whom sin had entered the race; by the seed of the woman would salvation come. The early church writers often pressed this analogy between Eve and the Virgin Mary. We may reject any element of over-exaltation of Mary they connected with it, but it remains significant that this peculiar phrase should be chosen to designate the future deliverer. I cannot believe the choice to be of accident. The promise to Abraham was that in his seed the families of the earth would be blessed; there the male is emphasized, but here it is the woman — the woman distinctively. There is, perhaps, as good scholars have thought, an allusion to this promise in 1 Timothy 2:15, where, with allusion to Adam and Eve, it is said, “But she shall be saved through her (or the) child-bearing” (R. V.).

The Immanuel Prophecy

The idea of the Messiah, gradually gathering to itself the attributes of a divine King, reaches one of its clearest expressions in the great Immanuel prophecy, extending from Isaiah 7 to 9:7, and centering in the declaration: “The Lord Himself will give you [the unbelieving Ahaz] a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14; Cf. 8:8, 10). This is none other than the child of wonder extolled in chapter 9:6, 7: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, [Father of Eternity], The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,” etc. This is the prophecy quoted as fulfilled in Christ’s birth in Matt. 1 .23, and it seems also alluded to in the glowing promises to Mary in Luke 1:32, 33. It is pointed out in objection that the term rendered “virgin” in Isaiah does not necessarily bear this meaning; it denotes properly only a young unmarried woman. The context, however, seems clearly to lay an emphasis on the unmarried state, and the translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) plainly so understood it when they rendered it by parthenos, a word which does mean “virgin.” The tendency in many quarters now is to admit this (Dr. Cheyne, etc.), and even to seek an explanation of it in alleged Babylonian beliefs in a virgin-birth. This last, however, is quite illusory.[1] It is, on the other hand, singular that the Jews themselves do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah — a fact which disproves the theory that it was this text which suggested the story of a Virgin birth to the early disciples.

Testimony of the Gospel

The germs now indicated in prophetic scriptures had apparently borne no fruit in Jewish expectations of the Messiah, when the event took place which to Christian minds made them luminous with predictive import. In Bethlehem of Judea, as Micah had foretold, was born of a virgin mother He whose “goings forth” were “from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:6). Matthew, who quotes the first part of the verse, can hardly have been ignorant of the hint of pre-existence it contained. This brings us to the testimony to the miraculous birth of Christ in our first and third Gospels — the only Gospels which record the circumstances of Christ’s birth at all. By general consent the narratives in Matthew (chapters 1, 2) and in Luke (chapters 1, 2) are independent — that is, they are not derived one from the other — yet they both affirm, in detailed story, that Jesus, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of a pure virgin, Mary of Nazareth, espoused to Joseph, whose wife she afterwards became. The birth took place at Bethlehem, whither Joseph and Mary had gone for enrollment in a census that was being taken. The announcement was made to Mary beforehand by an angel, and the birth was preceded, attended, and followed by remarkable events that are narrated (birth of the Baptist, with annunciations, angelic vision to the shepherds, visit of wise men from the east, etc.). The narratives should be carefully read at length to understand the comments that follow.

Sources of the Narratives

As to the sources of the narratives, not a little can be gleaned from the study of their internal character. Here two facts reveal themselves. The first is that the narrative of Luke is based on some old, archaic, highly original Aramaic writing. Its Aramaic character gleams through its every part. In style, tone, conception, it is highly primitive — emanates, apparently, from that circle of devout people in Jerusalem to whom its own pages introduce us (Luke 2:25, 36-38). It has, therefore, the highest claim to credit. The second fact is even more important. A perusal of the narratives shows clearly — what might have been expected — that the information they convey was derived from no lower source than Joseph and Mary themselves. This is a marked feature of contrast in the narratives — that Matthew’s narrative is all told from Joseph’s point of view, and Luke’s is all told from Mary’s. The signs of this are unmistakable. Matthew tells about Joseph’s difficulties and action, and says little or nothing about Mary’s thoughts and feelings. Luke tells much about Mary — even her inmost thoughts — but says next to nothing directly about Joseph. The narratives, in short, are not, as some would have it, contradictory, but are independent and complementary. The one supplements and completes the other. Both together are needed to give the whole story. They bear in themselves the stamp of truth, honesty, and purity, and are worthy of all acceptation, as they were evidently held to be in the early church.

Silence of Mark and John

The objection on which most stress is laid (apart from what is called the evidently “mythical” character of the narratives) is the silence on the Virgin birth in the remaining Gospels, and other parts of the New Testament. This, it is held, conclusively proves that the Virgin birth was not known in the earliest Christian circles, and was a legend of later origin. As respects the Gospels — Mark and John — the objection would only apply if it was the design of these Gospels to narrate, as the others do, the circumstances of the nativity. But this was evidently not their design. Both Mark and John knew that Jesus had a human birth — an infancy and early life — and that His mother was called Mary, but of deliberate purpose they tell us nothing about it. Mark begins his Gospel with Christ’s entrance on His public ministry, and says nothing of the period before, especially of how Jesus came to be called “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). John traces the divine descent of Jesus, and tells us that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14); but how this miracle of becoming flesh was wrought he does not say. It did not lie within his plan. He knew the church tradition on the subject: he had the Gospels narrating the birth of Jesus from the Virgin in his hands: and he takes the knowledge of their teaching for granted. To speak of contradiction in a case like this is out of the question.

Silence of Paul

How far Paul was acquainted with the facts of Christ’s earthly origin it is not easy to say. To a certain extent these facts would always be regarded as among the privacies of the innermost Christian circles — so long at least as Mary lived — and the details may not have been fully known till the Gospels were published. Paul admittedly did not base his preaching of his Gospel on these private, interior matters, but on the broad, public facts of Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection. It would be going too far, however, to infer from this that Paul had no knowledge of the miracle of Christ’s birth. Luke was Paul’s companion, and doubtless shared with Paul all the knowledge which he himself had gathered on this and other subjects. One thing certain is, that Paul could not have believed in the divine dignity, the pre-existence, the sinless perfection, and redeeming headship, of Jesus as he did, and not have been convinced that His entrance into humanity was no ordinary event of nature, but implied an unparalleled miracle of some kind. This Son of God, who “emptied” Himself, who was “born of a woman, born under the law,” who “knew no sin” (Phil. 2:7, 8; Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:21), was not, and could not be, a simple product of nature. God must have wrought creatively in His human origin. The Virgin birth would be to Paul the most reasonable and credible of events. So also to John, who held the same high view of Christ’s dignity and holiness.

Christ’s Sinlessness a Proof

It is sometimes argued that a Virgin birth is no aid to the explanation of Christ’s sinlessness. Mary being herself sinful in nature, it is held the taint of corruption would be conveyed by one parent as really as by two. It is overlooked that the whole fact is not expressed by saying that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. There is the other factor — “conceived by the Holy Ghost.” What happened was a divine, creative miracle wrought in the production of this new humanity which secured, from its earliest germinal beginnings, freedom from the slightest taint of sin. Paternal generation in such an origin is superfluous. The birth of Jesus was not, as in ordinary births, the creation of a new personality. It was a divine Person — already existing — entering on this new mode of existence. Miracle could alone effect such a wonder. Because His human nature had this miraculous origin Christ was the “holy” One from the commencement (Luke 1:35). Sinless He was, as His whole life demonstrated; but when, in all time, did natural generation give birth to a sinless personality?