Thus do we sing each Christmas! And thus also do we profess belief in the virgin birth of Jesus as part of the Christmas story. But is it a true part of Christmas? Is it even true? And if it is, what is its proper place in the whole spectrum of Christian theology?
In the early decades of the twentieth century the virgin birth was the focal point of many of the denials of Christian truth by liberalism. Those who believed the Word of God and recognized that the virgin birth is in the Word rose to its defense in those decades and did a very good job. It was so well defended, in fact, that in recent times liberals have refused even to grapple with the arguments raised on behalf of this great truth of the faith. Things have gone on without much thought about it, but that is in spite of the fact that belief in the virgin birth was part and parcel of Christianity in earlier centuries and that the Scriptures speak so clearly about it.
The earliest intimation of the virgin birth is in Genesis 3:15, in that first announcement of the deliverer who would come. It was said that He would be the offspring of "the woman." Admittedly, this text does not explicitly teach the virgin birth. It does not explicitly exclude a male parent. But it is significant that a male parent is not mentioned and that the one to come is called merely the woman's offspring.
In Isaiah 7:14 a prophecy spoken to Ahaz says that a virgin would conceive and bear a son and that his name would be called Immanuel, which is "God with us." Some scholars have criticized interpretations that relate this text to the virgin birth on the grounds that the Hebrew word translated "virgin" is ' almah, which can also mean a young woman of marriageable age, though not necessarily a virgin. (There is another Hebrew word that would be more explicit, but it may be that the choice of words was deliberate for the sake of Ahaz. There may have been a person who did give birth to a son who was not in any way miraculously overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.)
But when we come to the New Testament we find that text cited by Matthew as referring to the virgin birth of Jesus. Thus he endorses the virgin birth interpretation. Matthew used a Greek term that can only mean virgin, one who has never had intercourse with a man.
Several Old Testament texts lead up to the New Testament doctrine, and then in the early chapters of Luke and Matthew the doctrine of the virgin birth is fully unfolded.
Belief and Unbelief
The doctrine of the virgin birth is not neglected today because it has been disproved. Quite the opposite is the case. It is disregarded out of simple unbelief. When the battle was being waged between the growing forces of liberalism and the conservatives, or fundamentalists, J. Gresham Machen wrote a definitive book on the subject called The Virgin Birth of Christ.1 In that book, with that scholarly precision for which he was known and in a way analogous only to the careful scholarship of a man like John Owen or B. B. Warfield, Machen established the historical foundations for this teaching and destroyed any argument that could possibly be raised on the other side. His book has two parts: first, a historical part in which data is derived from the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew, and then a second, polemical part in which Machen refutes suggestions that belief in the virgin birth could have entered Christianity from pagan mythology or Judaism.
Machen did his work so well that years later, at Harvard University one of the professors in the School of Divinity pointed out (even though he did not endorse Machen's conclusions) that nobody had ever answered Machen's arguments.
When people do not want to believe something they often simply do not answer the arguments. They say, "We've progressed beyond that, or, We've come to see things differently today." That is dishonest. No one has the right to say, "We have gone beyond that, " until he has answered the arguments the man before has raised. If we fail to do that, our new beliefs are mere arrogance. We can advance in knowledge, but we do not advance until we first come to terms with what has gone before.
A Hebrew Source
If the virgin birth is historical, the place to begin is with the documents. So we start with Luke's testimony. What can be said about the early chapters of this gospel?
Luke was a Greek. Moreover, he was apparently a very careful historian. In Acts, where we are able to check his history by its correlation with other material from the time, we find that Luke is extraordinarily accurate. Conservatives would say that Luke is an inerrant historian. But even from the point of view of those who do not believe in inerrancy, Luke is reliable.
We learn from Acts also that Luke was Paul's companion. In certain passages Luke, having written of the travels of Paul in the third person, saying, "He went here," or, "He did that," switched over to the first person and began to use the word we instead, saying, "We did this, " or, "We did that." The first example is in Acts 16:10. Most people understand that Luke was indicating that at those particular points he joined Paul in his travels. If that is correct, we know Luke accompanied Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 21) and therefore, like Paul, also met James and had conversation with others who had known the Lord personally. James was the Lord's brother.
Luke had a historical interest, wrote accurately, and had opportunity to talk with those who knew Jesus Christ in the flesh. Undoubtedly he would have made inquiries to find out what happened in the early days of our Lord's life and even before His birth.
When we come to the early chapters of Luke we find such stories. But it is interesting how we find them. The first four verses of Luke are written in what has often been described as a perfect Greek sentence.
Greek is a beautiful language and is somewhat like German in that it uses numerous participles to introduce and link up dependent clauses. Like German, it is possible for Greek to go on verse after verse without any periods and finally end with a thunderous crescendo, emphasizing the point of the passage. That is what Luke does in these opening verses. Some of our translations disguise this by breaking up the sentence. The New international Version has two sentences. But in the Greek it is all one.
We get a better idea of what the Greek sounds like from the King James Version, for it usually adheres to the Greek word order. It says, "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightiest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou has been instructed" (Luke 1:1-4, KJV).
The interesting thing, however, is that after that introduction, verse 5 immediately introduces something entirely different, something utterly unanticipated. Beginning with verse 5 and continuing through the end of chapter 2, that is, throughout the important opening section of Luke's gospel, we find, not the Greek style of writing that has been found in the first four verses, the very thing we would anticipate of Luke, but rather a style that is obviously Jewish or Semitic.
Machen says, "The prologue of the gospel, embracing the first four verses, is one of the most carefully constructed sentences in the whole New Testament. . . . It would be difficult to imagine a more skillfully formed, and more typically Greek sentence than this. Yet this typically Greek sentence is followed by what is probably the most markedly Semitic section in the whole New Testament."2
Semitic literary style has a number of interesting characteristics. One is called parataxis, "laying something alongside something else." That is, one sentence usually follows another without interwoven subordinate clauses. As we reach such sentences the most noticeable feature is the frequent use of the word and, such as in Luke 1:5--2:52. Again, in the New International Version that is not so evident because the translators have tried to break up things a bit. But we do find it in the King James Version. Here is a sample, beginning with Luke 1:5: "There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia [Abijah]; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years" (emphasis added). There is an obvious change in style.
There is another difference in the style here. It is what is called parallelism. That is very common in Hebrew writing, especially poetry. A sentence is given, then a second sentence that says virtually the same thing but in slightly different words. We see that in Mary's Magnificat (1:46-55), for example. "My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (v.46). In that sentence virtually the same thing is said twice in parallel construction. Again, in verse 51: "He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts." Verses 52-53: "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty."
If we understand style and carefully read these chapters we recognize that Luke has somehow incorporated into his usual Greek-style narrative something that is obviously not Greek but that derives from some other source.
Moreover, not only the style but also the subject matter indicates a change. In reading these chapters, one of the first things we notice is that they are moving not in a Christian environment, the kind of thing that we would expect of a writer who was describing these events long after they had happened and in view of Christ's later ministry, but in a pre-Christian environment.
For example, there is the barrenness of Elizabeth introduced at the beginning and explained later in relation to God's favor or lack of it. Elizabeth says, "In these days he (God] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people" (v.25). That is a Jewish idea. To be a married woman and to be barren was a disgraceful thing. But that was not the case among the Greeks.
Again, there is the announcement of the angel to Zechariah (1:13-17). This is pre-Christian, because the angel speaks of the future in terms of the expectations of Jews within the covenant nation of Israel. We find the same thing in the Magnificat. In those verses we find not a single specific intimation of what the Lord Jesus Christ was to do. They do not mention His ministry. They do not mention His death or resurrection. Instead there is praise to God in language that would have been common to Mary and the Jews of her day, but would not have been common in the later Christian church. A final example is Simeon's prayer in the Temple after Jesus is born. He calls this child "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:32). This too is Jewish. Nothing in this verse betrays the full expansion of the gospel to the Gentiles that by the time of Luke had taken place as the result of Christianity.
What Is There Origin?
That leads to the question, If these things are here and if they do not fit stylistically into what we would normally expect from Luke, who writes good Greek prose, where did Luke acquire these particular facts and perhaps even these particular documents ?
We have to go back to the fact that Luke was undoubtedly a keen historian. He was used to making careful investigations. He says as much in the prologue, for he writes: "I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:3). He was not merely reporting stories or rumors but was relating facts he had carefully investigated and searched out. How did Luke do it? Where did he get these particular facts ? He undoubtedly got them from talking with those who were eyewitnesses of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. In the case of the narratives of Christ's birth, Luke presumably got them from Mary, who would be the original and best of all eyewitnesses. Moreover, he presumably got them in some kind of written version, which may also go back to Mary in some way.
The Unique Christ
A number of conclusions follow. First, the idea of the virgin birth is not some later addition to Christianity but is present in the earliest sources. People often try to undermine Christianity by saying of important doctrines, "This is only something that has been tacked on later by people who found it to be a pious way of representing some subjective experience."
Rudolf Bultmann is one who goes to the extreme in this particular approach, because in Bultmann's theology everything in the New Testament falls into this category. Bultmann will not acknowledge that anything in the New Testament has any relationship to the historical Jesus. He speaks only of the mere "thatness" of Christ's existence. He acknowledges that there was a Christ, but that is all he will say about Him. What we have in the New Testament is different. It is the expression in historical narration of what really happened.
Second, the virgin birth was not invented by Luke (or any other early writer) but was learned by him from the earliest and most reliable of all witnesses--presumably Mary herself, or at least those to whom she passed on the information.
[Third] If that is true, we conclude that the virgin birth is a fact of history. We recognize, of course, that people do not like facts that fail to correspond with their own experience. If they fail to conform, these facts are presumed to have no basis, and skeptics are ready to dispense with them as myth. But that is not a wise procedure. Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (act 1, sc. 5, line 167). People often have a limited philosophy. Many things do not enter into it, But that does not mean that they are untrue. So when we are dealing with these great doctrines of Christianity we must recognize that, in spite of contemporary unbelief, the virgin birth has a place in history.
Fourth, the virgin birth is important because of its unique and miraculous nature, which therefore points to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. It is significant that the life of the Lord Jesus is bracketed by two great miracles. At the beginning is the virgin birth; He came into being without benefit of a human father, and so was the Son of God and son of man in a unique way. At the end is the resurrection: He conquers and transcends the greatest of all enemies, death. What clearer way did God have of drawing attention to this one who is unique in human history?
1. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930; reprint, London: James Clarke, 1958).
2. Ibid., p.46.
The Christ of Christmas. James Montgomery Boice. Moody Press, Chicago. 1983, page 27-32.