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.
There is no doubt, therefore, about the testimony to the Virgin birth, and the question which now arises is — What is the value of these parts of the Gospels as evidence? Are they genuine parts of the Gospels? Or are they late and untrustworthy additions? From what sources may they be presumed to be derived? It is on the truth of the narratives that our belief in the Virgin birth depends. Can they be trusted? Or are they mere fables, inventions, legends, to which no credit can be attached?
The answer to several of these questions can be given in very brief form. The narratives of the nativity in Matthew and Luke are undoubtedly genuine parts of their respective Gospels. They have been there since ever the Gospels themselves had an existence. The proof of this is convincing. The chapters in question are found in every manuscript and version of the Gospels known to exist. There are hundreds of manuscripts, some of them very old, belonging to different parts of the world, and many versions in different languages (Latin, Syriac, Egyptian, etc.), but these narratives of the Virgin birth are found in all. We know, indeed, that a section of the early Jewish Christians — the Ebionites, as they are commonly called — possessed a Gospel based on Matthew from which the chapters on the nativity were absent. But this was not the real Gospel of Matthew: it was at best a mutilated and corrupted form of it. The genuine Gospel, as the manuscripts attest, always had these chapters.
Next, as to the Gospels themselves, they were not of late and non-apostolic origin; but were written by apostolic men, and were from the first accepted and circulated in the church as trustworthy embodiments of sound apostolic tradition. Luke’s Gospel was from Luke’s own pen — its genuineness has recently received a powerful vindication from Prof. Harnack, of Berlin — and Matthew’s Gospel, while some dubiety still rests on its original language (Aramaic or Greek), passed without challenge in the early church as the genuine Gospel of the Apostle Matthew. Criticism has more recently raised the question whether it is only the “groundwork” of the discourses (the “Logia”) that comes directly from Matthew. However this may be settled, it is certain that the Gospel in its Greek form always passed as Matthew’s. It must, therefore, if not written by him, have had his immediate authority. The narratives come to us, accordingly, with high apostolic sanction.
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.
Against the acceptance of these early, well-attested narratives, what, now, have the objectors to allege? I pass by the attempts to show, by critical elimination (expurging Luke 1:35, and some other clauses), that Luke’s narrative was not a narrative of a Virgin birth at all. This is a vain attempt in face of the testimony of manuscript authorities. Neither need I dwell on the alleged “discrepancies” in the genealogies and narratives. These are not serious, when the independence and different standpoints of the narratives are acknowledged. The genealogies, tracing the descent of Christ from David along different lines, present problems which exercise the minds of scholars, but they do not touch the central fact of the belief of both Evangelists in the birth of Jesus from a virgin. Even in a Syriac manuscript which contains the certainly wrong reading, “Joseph begat Jesus,” the narrative goes on, as usual, to recount the Virgin birth. It is not a contradiction, if Matthew is silent on the earlier residence in Nazareth, which Luke’s object led him fully to describe.
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.