On Sunday, December 6th, I led the first in the series of our new Sunday School series on Myth Busters; first up, oddly enough for the second Sunday in Advent, the Virgin Birth.
Many Christians affirm the Virgin birth of Christ Jesus but today it is a contested doctrine, being reinterpreted because of modern sensibilities. In the early 20th century, a small group of Presbyterians in the United States wrote a book on the fundamentals of Christianity, and the Virgin Birth was one of five fundamentals (the divinity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, Christ’s death as atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture) for a Christian to be thought of as adhering to orthodox (right doctrine) Christian teaching. Later, these Christians were rejected from society and called fundamentalists because of their insistence on these doctrines and their exclusion of anyone who did questioned the five fundamentals (even college presidents). Back then, as is now, Christianity was being challenged by science and these beliefs were deemed as irrational. Moderns came to believe that the Virgin Birth was a doctrine that was out of touch with science and everyday experience, for how could a woman have a child without a man being involved?
At issue is the interpretation of Scripture. At Advent season, Christians regularly read Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:34-35, but now there is a call by a lot of Christians to rethink how we understand the Virgin birth (and as we will see later, the life of Christ) all together. In particular, Matthew 1:23 comes under a lot of scrutiny because Matthew claims that Jesus’ birth fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 7: 13-15. In Isaiah, the original Hebrew word for virgin, almah, could mean virgin or young woman. However, when ancient Israelites had to translate their Bible (our Old Testament) into Greek because the whole world spoke Greek because of Alexander the Great first, and then the Roman Empire later, the word was translated into Greek, parthenos, which clearly means virgin. This is the term that Matthew and Luke use. Now, if a person believes that the authors in the Bible should not be trusted first, they may find that the Virgin Birth needs to be re-understood.
It is known that Jewish Rabbis during the medieval ages understood Isaiah 7 to have been a reference to a contemporary of Isaiah. In this passage, Isaiah is addressing a wicked king of Judah, Ahaz, who, from chapter 6, we already know will reject Isaiah’s message according to the word of the LORD of Hosts. A late Old Testament scholar who was a noted authority on Isaiah (who was a Christian) believed that Isaiah 7:13-15 is a reference to King Hezekiah, because the child’s name will be God with us, and in 2nd Kings 18:7, God is with Hezekiah. Isaiah 7 is certainly about the birth of a king that would bring peace and prosperity to the land of Israel.
Others will argue that the Virgin Birth story is not unique to Christianity, and so therefore it could not be true. After all, there are virgin birth stories in other world religions such as Buddhism. Plato, Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Romulus (for whom Rome is named for) all have divine fathers and virgin mothers. All of these men, philosophers great political leaders, were deemed all sons of god.
Yet, this is precisely the problem. In the modern world, virgin births are seen as unusual and the possibility of them happening as impossible. In the ancient world, virgin births were considered to be normal. Virgin births were signs that kings and politicians were from god. The earliest Christians, who wanted to show how normal Christianity was, compared the Virgin Birth to Christ; the one distinction was that all other virgin birth stories were untrue because there is only one true God. In Egypt, a Christian named Origin wrote to defending the virgin birth, “We [Christians] are not the only persons who have recourse to miraculous narratives of this kind.” The virgin birth was seen as something possible, that outsiders could believe, as opposed as something that was out of the ordinary.
Controversies surrounding the birth of Jesus are ultimately not about Mary. They are, like all debates concerning Christ, about Christ and his saving works. The earliest Christians did have to discuss what Mary’s role was. They decided to call her the “bearer of God,” a woman who carried God in her womb. Another group of Christians rejected that mystery and called Mary the “Bearer of Christ” because Christ’s humanity and divinity were two, separate natures. But Christianity rejected this teaching, because God and human became one with Christ, because in Christ, God was reconciling the world according to Paul in Corinthians. The first Christians were right; Mary was carrying God, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. According to Scripture, Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35). And today, together with the first Christians and the Good News according to Matthew and Luke, we affirm the Virgin Birth in the Apostles Creed, believing in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit born of the virgin Mary.
Truth and Peace,