Why care about the virgin birth?

By Robin Schumacher

There is no getting around the proclamation of Jesus' virgin birth at Christmas. Numerous hymns and songs mention the teaching, as do scores of Christmas messages from church pulpits.

But is the idea of Jesus' virgin birth that big a deal?

Many years ago, emerging church teacher Rob Bell asked that very question in his work, Velvet Elvis:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionyslan religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being "born of a virgin" also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? What if that spring was seriously questioned? Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?
Although immediately afterwards, Bell claims a commitment to the historic teachings of the Christian faith, his not-so-subtle questioning of Jesus' virgin birth (which uses some of the top skeptical arguments against the event) leaves a person wondering about that commitment. He asks if a 'brick' like the virgin birth were removed from the foundation of Christianity, would the faith still be left standing?

I'd like to give you two reasons why I believe the answer to that question is no and why the virgin birth of Jesus is critical to the Christian faith.

The Bible Teaches the Virgin Birth

While Bell and others question the legitimacy of the Bible's teaching on the virgin birth, I believe the matter to be quite clear in both the Old and New Testaments. The doctrine actually has its start in the first book of the Bible.

The very first verse in Scripture that contains a messianic prophecy, Genesis 3:15, speaks about the virgin birth: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel." Notice that the seed mentioned is of a woman and not of a man — a fact that should not be overlooked as the Jews were a very patriarchal culture, with men being typically identified as the one begetting children.

Paul carries this exact same idea forward in Galatians 4:4-5 when he says, "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (emphasis mine).

Of course, the most famous prediction of the virgin birth (and the one most targeted by skeptics) is found in Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel."

Critics of the Isaiah passage point out that the Hebrew word used for virgin — "alma" — does not literally mean virgin, but "young maiden." However, skeptics overlook the fact that each time the Bible uses that word for a woman (Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Psalm 68:25, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8), it never refers to one that has sexually known a man.

Moreover, the writers of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, translated between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC), who were certainly no Christians, understood what was meant as they used the word Parthenos for Isaiah 7:14, which only means "virgin."

The same Greek term is used by the gospel writers in the New Testament when referring to Mary at the time she received the angelic message about Christ's upcoming birth. For example, Luke 1:26-34 uses the word several times with the clear intention being to impress upon his readers that Mary never sexually knew a man up to that point. In addition, Mary's confusion at how she could become pregnant also demonstrates this fact.

There are other subtle scriptural pointers to Jesus' virgin birth. For example, in Matthew 1:16, Matthew says, "Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah." The word/term "by whom" is feminine, singular in the Greek, indicating that Jesus was born of Mary only and not of Mary and Joseph.

Further, two times Matthew uses the phrase "the Child and His mother" to refer to Jesus and Mary (Matthew 2:13, 20) with Joseph also being in the context of the passage. Matthew seems to go out of his way to ensure Jesus is always associated with Mary, but never referred to as Joseph's son.

Lastly, the fact that questions circulated about Jesus' true father are seen in John 8:40-41, where Christ's enemies mock him by saying, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God." Clearly implied in their statement is that Joseph was not thought of as the earthly father of Jesus.

So the first reason why the virgin birth cannot be separated from the Christian faith is that the Bible teaches it in both the Old and New Testaments. It should also be pointed out that the doctrine of the virgin birth differs from and precedes various pagan god myths about god-men being born into the world. As an example, Mithras, the pagan god cited by Bell, was supposedly born out of a rock and not from a woman and is historically dated as being introduced into Roman culture in the late first century A.D.

Salvation Demand a Virgin Birth

The second reason why Christianity cannot stand without the virgin birth of Christ is that salvation absolutely requires it.

The Bible teaches that since the Fall (Genesis 3), each person is born in the sinful image of their parents (Genesis 5:3; Psalm 51:5). Paul states this explicitly when he writes, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).

To escape the sin disease, and for Jesus to be the spotless/sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19), He had to be virgin born. A. W. Tozer puts it like this:
He took that nature [humanity] unto Him by the virgin birth. The reason He took it by the virgin birth was that He could assume to Himself human nature without assuming any of the tainted human sin. So when you hear someone questioning the virgin birth of Jesus, saying it doesn't make any difference who His father was, it doesn't make any difference how He was born, you need to speak truth to them.

So does Christianity depend on the "brick" of the virgin birth? Yes, it does. Scripture teaches it and salvation requires it. The criticality of the doctrine is one even understood by non-Christians like Larry King. When he was asked what one question he would put to Jesus, he replied: "I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me."

Published 12-17-14