James Legge, the missionary scholar who first translated the Confucian Classics into English says an interesting thing in his edition of the Analects. He recounts the story of a dream that Confucius’ mother had, in which a Lin, a Chinese unicorn, kneels before her, carrying in its mouth a slip of jade which reveals that her unborn son would grow up to be a “throneless king,” and another dream in which she is told that her son will be a Sage, and that she must give birth in hollow mulberry tree. When she awoke and asked her husband if there was any place that was called “hollow mulberry tree,” he led her to a cave where she gave birth. Legge prefaces these stories with the remark: “As might be expected, the birth of the sage is surrounded with many prodigious occurrences.” He returns to this idea later: “The slightest historical intimation becomes a text with them [the legend-writers], on which they enlarge to the glory of the sage.” To Legge, it was perfectly natural to assume that the fantastic stories told about Confucius, whom he knew to be a real person, were the work of “legend-writers.” Let’s compare such legend-making about the birth of Confucius with what the scriptures tell us about the conception of Jesus.
What do we actually know about the virgin birth? Paul, the earliest Christian writer, apparently knew nothing about it. In Romans 1:1, he talks about Jesus, “who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead [my italics]. . . .” Thus, for Paul, it is not a virgin birth but the resurrection that is the critical event. In Galatians 4:4, he says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman . . . .” He would surely have said “born of a virgin” if he had believed that was the case. (All quotations from the Bible are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.)
The story of Jesus’ birth doesn’t appear in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. At the moment Jesus emerges from the water, God sends the Holy Spirit down in the form of a dove and says, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This is sometimes referred to as the “adoption theory”: at the moment of his baptism, God adopts the man, Jesus, as his son.
Jesus’ birth does appear in Matthew, a generation or two later. As it happens, one of Matthew’s preoccupations is to try to set the life of Jesus into the context of Old Testament prophecies—another way of establishing his “holiness.” In Matthew 1:22-23 he refers to a “prophecy” in Isaiah 7:14 which says: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [my italics].” This is rather odd since in 1:21 Matthew says, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [my italics] . . . .”
Matthew’s citation of Isaiah creates a real problem, since the New Testament was written in Greek, and Matthew, like the other New Testament writers, used the Septuaginta, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew word used by Isaiah in verse 7:14 is ‘almah, which simply means “young woman” (betulah is the Hebrew word that means “virgin”). But Matthew relied on the Septuaginta which translates ‘almah by the word parthenos, which means either “young woman” or “virgin.” He probably misread Isaiah because he was using the Greek translation. (There have been many attempts to explain this difficulty away, none of them persuasive.) Many translations, including the RSV, translate Isaiah more accurately: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son.” I said “more accurately” because the Hebrew word, harah, does not mean “conceive” but “pregnant.” Other translations, including the NEB, are more accurate yet: “A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son.” Thus, it is not a “conception” that is being foretold, but something entirely different.
That can be seen even more clearly when the passage is read in its context. Isaiah’s words are directed to Ahaz, the King of Judah. Because he fears an attack by Syria and Israel, Ahaz is thinking about making an alliance with the Assyrians. Isaiah warns him against doing so, asserting that a child named Immanuel will be born to a young woman who is now pregnant, and that Syria and Israel will be defeated before the child is old enough to tell right from wrong. Who he is doesn’t matter at all since his function in the prophecy is to serve as a sort of human calendar to tell Ahaz that he has a very short time to wait. Ignoring this, Matthew tells us in verse 1:22: “All this [Jesus’ birth 700 years later] took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.”
Since they refuse to accept the obvious explanations, some people try to invent ways out of the problems the texts present. Thus, they claim that the prophecies are fulfilled more than once and in more than one way. This is just special- pleading, and the Ancients who made the prophecies would surely not have understood them in this way. Isaiah is giving specific advice to Ahaz, advice that is vital at this moment.
The only other Gospel account of the virgin birth is Luke’s, and Luke tells an entirely different story from Matthew. In Matthew, Joseph was thinking of “divorcing” Mary because he found that she was pregnant and they had not had a physical relationship, but an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that the child has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. In Luke, the angel appeared to Mary—in the flesh, not in a dream—telling her that she would give birth to a child who would become the Son of the Most High. (Note the italics I have added over words which suggest the adoption theory is intended.) These two different stories are all we have: they seem to contradict Paul and Mark, and there is no other Biblical basis for the idea of a virgin birth—but that doesn’t end the matter.
John believes that Jesus was, in fact, the “Word” which existed before the infant Jesus was born: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).” This “Word” seems to be the creative power of God which existed from the very beginning, as in John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” This complex theological notion of Jesus is worlds apart from the simple conception and birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.
Moreover, Matthew and Luke are inconsistent in many ways, and one of these bears directly upon the question of the virgin birth. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17), and Luke includes one in 3:23-38. This presents two problems. The first is that the genealogies are quite different and cannot be reconciled, although there have been many ingenious, if not tortured, efforts to do so. The second is that the reason for including them must be to show that Jesus is the descendant of David through Joseph, thus fulfilling the prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:13: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you. When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body [my italics], and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son.” If Jesus is not descended from David, then he cannot be the Messiah, whose birth is believed to be foretold here. But of course, he cannot be descended from David if he is the product of a virgin birth. (Take note of the statement, “I will be his father,” for this, too, supports the adoption theory!)
The idea of the virgin birth became a serious issue for the early followers of Jesus. The Ebionites were Jewish followers of Jesus whose first leader was James, the brother of Jesus. All of these early groups had the same roots, and each of them thought that the others were wrong. It’s simply not true that Christianity had a definite form from the beginning and that all other views were heretical departures from it. In fact, James, Peter, and the other Jewish followers of Jesus were almost certainly the original “Christians.” Nonetheless, they were opposed by some other groups because they did not believe that Jesus’ death was atonement for our sins—a view which set them clearly against the position taken by Paul, and they did not believe in virgin birth, which they took to be a pagan notion. Instead, they believed that Jesus became the Son of God through his baptism—that, of course, is why Mark begins with the baptism and not with a birth story.
It should be remembered that Jewish Jesus followers probably outnumbered Gentiles for a fair part of the first century, and it is clear that Jesus believed his mission was to save the Jews, not the Gentiles. That, of course, is what one would expect from the Messiah, who was a purely Jewish figure who would come to deliver His people and establish His kingdom. In Matthew 10:5-6 we have, “These twelve [the apostles] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans [who are given separate treatment because they were “heretic” Jews, and thus especially to be despised]. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” In Mark 7:25-30 we find the story of the Greek woman born in Phoenicia who asks Jesus to cure her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Jesus replies, “First let the Children [the Jews] eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs [the Gentiles] (Mark 7:27). We find the same story in Matthew 15:22-26, but Matthew makes it a Canaanite woman instead of a Greek, and he makes it much more specific: “Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel [my italics].’ The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord help me!’ she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
This very specific anti-Gentile bias is contradicted in only a few places, which are surely late additions. In Mark 16:15, there is: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” But the early copies of Mark end at 16:8 and omit the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. Thus, Mark 16:15 is a late addition to the Bible, and this is almost certainly the case of the other, similar verses. In Matthew 28:19, we have: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And in Luke 44:47 we have: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations.” These would have been added because Paul had been extremely successful in proselytizing the gentiles.
Now we can understand why the genealogies (which contradict the notion of the virgin birth since they tell us that Jesus is descended from David through Joseph) are present in Luke and Matthew: both were originally written for an audience of mostly Jewish Jesus followers who believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah. For them, the genealogies were important, and the virgin birth was impossible. And this, too, suggests that the references to the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke are errors of interpretation or late additions.
There are several reasons why the notion of virgin birth was thought to be both impossible and pagan by the Jewish “Christians.” To begin with, there is no parallel for it in the Old Testament, although claims of women becoming pregnant by the gods, were common in pagan writings, and were even made by various women in New Testament times. Moreover, the Jews didn’t claim any special status for virgins, but they were thought to have special purity by the Greeks and Romans, who even had virgin goddesses. Of course, some people argue that the pagan myths are so different from the story of the conception of Jesus that they have no relevance of any kind. The Ebionites didn’t think so, and Justin Martyr—who earned his name by being killed for his faith during the reign of Marcus Aurelius—didn’t think so either. In his book The First Apology, in which he defends Christianity to the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, he claims that the pagan stories of gods fathering humans are not really different from the Christian story of the virgin birth.
We have seen that the notion of the virgin birth is almost certainly a late addition to Christianity, made after the missionary emphasis changed from saving the Jews to converting the gentiles. It is true that this idea further glorified Jesus, but it must have been particularly attractive to church leaders for practical reasons: it was a familiar notion that made Christianity more appealing to pagans. This was critical because the early church was struggling to define itself (which meant to stifle other sects with different views) and to survive in competition with the various pagan mystery religions.
As Uta Ranke-Heinemann notes, Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI) said in his book, Einführung in das Christentum, that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity does not depend upon the notion of virgin birth, and would not be compromised if Jesus had had ordinary human parentage. He goes on to say that it is not a “biological” but an “ontological” fact. This agrees rather well with Mark’s account, and even with Paul’s, to say nothing of the “prophecy” in 2 Samuel.
Notes Scholars have long recognized that the biblical sayings that are least consistent with the standard church dogma are most likely to be remnants of the earliest texts. After all, later writers would describe events in ways consistent with the dogma they believed. This supports the stories about the Greek (or Canaanite) woman and the notion that Jesus’ mission was to “save” the Jews. Legge and the other missionaries owed their presence in China largely to the Opium War, one of the most disgraceful events in the history of East/West relations. The Portuguese had introduced the shipment of opium into China, and its sale had become very lucrative for Western nations and very damaging to the Chinese people—even now we associate them unfairly with “opium dens.” When the Chinese government tried to stop this trade, it fell afoul of the West which was chafing under the restrictions placed upon its merchants. Finally, in 1839, the Chinese moved to destroy the opium on board the ships in Canton in their own version of the “Boston Tea Party,” but this led to disaster. In revenge, the British fleet demolished their fortifications, and required that Hong Kong be ceded to Britain and that six million dollars be paid in reparation. In the final settlement of 1842, an indemnity of 21 million dollars was exacted, and four other ports were made trading ports. This led to social turmoil, governmental instability, and growing hatred of the West which culminated in the “Second Opium War.” Again the Chinese lost, and opium was legalized in 1858. After this, merchants and missionaries--and opium!--had free access to China, for the Chinese no longer had a say in the matter. Legge dedicated his translation of Confucius to “the Honorable Joseph J. Jardine, Esq.” In the preface he explains that Mr. Jardine had agreed to underwrite its publication, saying in 1856, “We make our money in China, and we should be glad to assist in whatever promises to be of benefit to it.” Mr. Jardine certainly did make his money in China. The second largest quantity of opium destroyed by the Chinese in 1839, 1700 chests, came from Dent and Jardine. (The third largest quantity, 1500 chests, came from the American firm of Russell and Co.!) Legge refers only obliquely to the Opium Wars: “It is a rude awakening from its complacency of centuries which China has now received. Its ancient landmarks are swept away. Opinions will differ as to the justice or injustice of the grounds upon which they have been assailed, and I do not feel called to judge or pronounce here concerning them [!]” And then he goes on: “There is hope for them if they will look away from all their ancient sages, and turn to Him, who sends them, along with the dissolution of their ancient state [my italics], the knowledge of Himself, the only living and true God, and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent.” The servility forced upon the Chinese by the Opium Wars left them humiliated and deeply mistrustful of the West. This finally played a role in the defeat of the Western-style government of Sun Yat Sen and the installation of a communist regime; after all, Communism was opposed to the West, and as the Russian example demonstrated, it promised the strength necessary to stand up against it. Indeed, God works in mysterious ways. All biblical quotations are from the NIV (New International Version) unless otherwise noted. I have used it because evangelicals and fundamentalists have a strong prejudice in its favor although other translations such as the RSV (Revised Standard Version) and the NEB (New English Bible) are actually more accurate in many places (such as Isaiah 7:14). The NEB is my favorite, but the New Oxford Annotated Bible, an edition of the RSV, may have the most useful notes of the inexpensive bibles that are readily available. The following books will be interesting for anyone who wishes to read further about these things. There are many more, for much has been written on this subject because the virgin birth has always proved troublesome to theologians. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994. Ranke-Heinemann is a Catholic theologian and a historian of religion at the University of Essen. As a matter of interest, she lost a Chair in Catholic Theology because she questioned the virgin birth in 1987. A devout and erudite Christian, she does not suffer fools gladly. John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. Spong is an Episcopal bishop who writes widely on religious matters. He is rather too versatile for my taste, taking up ever-new themes in book-after-book while exploring his own spiritual growth. Nonetheless, there is some useful information here. James Legge, ed. Analects, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean. New York: Dover, 1971. (A republication of the 1893 edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford.) Legge’s translations are classics, and they are especially useful since the Chinese characters are given together with the English text. The Chinese type used is particularly beautiful.