Virgin Birth

General Information

The accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, specifically the two Annunciation stories (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38), tell of a virginal conception by Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. Belief that Jesus was thus conceived without a human father was more or less universal in the Christian church by the 2d century and is accepted by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant churches.

The origin of the tradition, however, is a controversial subject among modern scholars. Some believe it to be historical, based on information perhaps from Mary or her husband Joseph; for others it is a theological interpretation developed from extraneous sources (Hellenistic Jewish traditions about the birth of Isaac or pagan analogies). Whatever its origin, it may be recognized as a Christological affirmation denoting the divine origin of the Christ event.

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Reginald H. Fuller

Brown, R. E., The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973) and The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (1977); Campenhausen, H. von, The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church (1964); Miguens, M., The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence (1975).

Virgin Birth of Jesus

Advanced Information

Matt. 1:18, 22-25 and Luke 1:26-38 teach that the birth of Jesus resulted from a miraculous conception. He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit without male seed. This is the doctrine of the virgin birth, which must be distinguished from other doctrines concerning Mary such as perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, her assumption, which are rejected by most Protestants, and from views in which the phrase "virgin birth" is taken to indicate some sort of divine involvement in the incarnation without affirming the biological virginity of Jesus' mother. Views of the latter sort are common enough in modern liberal theology, but it is an abuse of language to call them affirmations of the virgin birth; they are denials of the virgin birth, though they may indeed be affirmations of something else.

Possibility and Probability

If one rejects the possibility of miracle in general, as does, e.g., Bultmann, then one must reject the virgin birth as well. But such a generalized rejection of miracle is arbitrary and indefensible on any ground, and it is contrary to the most fundamental presuppositions of Christian thought. The virgin birth is no more miraculous than the atonement or the resurrection or the regeneration of sinners. If miracle is rejected, then nothing important to Christianity can be retained.

If one accepts the general possibility of miracle, one must still ask about the possibility and probability of the virgin birth in particular. For an evangelical Christian the fact that this doctrine is taught in God's inerrant Word settles such questions. Yet this fact does not make historical investigation superfluous. If indeed Scripture is inerrant, it is consistent with all historical discovery. To illustrate this consistency can only be helpful, not only to convince those who doubt the authority of Scripture, but also to confirm the faith of those who accept it. But such investigation must be carried out on principles compatible with the Christian revelation, not (as with Bultmann) on principles antagonistic to it from the outset.

The NT Accounts

On that basis, then, let us examine the credibility of the NT witnesses, Matthew and Luke. Both Gospels are often dated from A.D. 70-100, but if we grant the assumption that Jesus was able to predict the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70; and why would a Christian deny this?), there is ample evidence for dating these Gospels in the 60s or earlier. In any case, the two accounts are generally thought to be independent of each other and thus to be based on a tradition antedating both.

Confirming the antiquity of this tradition is the remarkably "Hebraic" character of both birth accounts: the theology and language of these chapters seem more characteristic of the OT than the NT, as many scholars have noted. This fact renders very unlikely the hypothesis that the virgin birth is a theologoumenon, a story invented by the early church to buttress its Christological dogma. There is here no mention of Jesus' preexistence. His title "Son of God" is seen to be future, as is his inheritance of the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32, 35). In the birth narratives Jesus is the OT Messiah, the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the one who will rescue God's people through mighty deeds, exalting the humble and crushing the proud (Luke 1:46-55). The writers draw no inference from the virgin birth concerning Jesus' deity or ontological sonship to God; rather, they simply record the event as a historical fact and (for Matthew) as a fulfillment of Isa. 7:14.

Not much is known about the author of Matthew, but there is much reason to ascribe the third Gospel to Luke the physician (Col. 4:14), a companion of Paul (II Tim. 4:11; cf. the "we" passages in Acts, such as 27:1ff.) who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-5). Luke claims to have made a careful study of the historical data (1:1-4), and that claim has been repeatedly vindicated in many details even by modern skeptical scholars such as Harnack. Both his vocations, historian and physician, would have prevented him from responding gullibly to reports of a virgin birth. The two birth narratives have been attacked as inconsistent and/or erroneous at several points: the genealogies, the massacre of the children (Matt. 2:16), the census during the time of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-2); but plausible explanations of these difficulties have also been advanced. Jesus' Davidic ancestry (emphasized in both accounts) has been under suspicion also; but as Raymond Brown argues, the presence of Mary and Jesus' brothers, especially James (Acts 1:14; 15:13-21; Gal. 1:19; 2:9), in the early church would probably have prevented the development of legendary material concerning Jesus' origin. All in all, we have good reason, even apart from belief in their inspiration, to trust Luke and Matthew, even where they differ from the verdicts of secular historians ancient and modern.

The Rest of Scripture

Much has been said concerning the "silence" of Scripture about the virgin birth outside of the passages mentioned. This silence is real, but it need not be explained by any ignorance or denial of the virgin birth by other NT writers. It is significant that even the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are "silent" about the virgin birth through fifty of their combined fifty-two chapters. The silence of the rest of the NT can be explained in essentially the same ways as one would explain the partial silence of Matthew, and Luke. The NT deals chiefly with (1) Jesus' preaching, life, death, resurrection (the Gospels and to some extent the epistles); (2) the preaching and missionary work in the early church (Acts especially); (3) teaching concerning the theological and practical problems of the church (Acts, epistles); (4) assurances of the triumph of God's purposes and visions of the end times (Revelation, other NT books). The virgin birth was not part of Jesus' preaching or that of the early church. It was not a controversial matter such as might have been addressed in the epistles (Christology in general was not a particularly controversial matter among the Christians, and even if it had been, the virgin birth most likely was not seen as a means of supporting Christological dogma). The main function of the virgin birth in the NT, to show the fulfillment of prophecy and to describe the events surrounding Jesus' birth, is appropriate only to birth narratives, and only two birth narratives have been preserved in the canon. We must also assume that the early church maintained a certain reserve about public discussion of these matters out of respect for the privacy of Jesus' family, especially Mary.

Is there anything in the NT that contradicts the virgin birth accounts? There are passages where Jesus is described as the son of Joseph: John 1:45; 6:42; Luke 2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48; Matt. 13:55. Clearly, though, Luke and Matthew had no intention of denying the virgin birth of Christ, unless the birth narratives are later additions to the books, and there is no evidence of that. These references clearly refer to Joseph as the legal father of Jesus without reference to the question of biological fatherhood. The same is true in the Johannine references, with the additional fact that the words in question were spoken by those who were not well acquainted with Jesus and/or his family. (The text of Matt. 1:16, saying that Joseph begat Jesus, is certainly not original.)

It is interesting that the Markan variant of Matt. 13:55 (Mark 6:3) eliminates reference to Joseph and speaks of Jesus as "Mary's son," an unusual way of describing parentage in Jewish culture. Some have thought that this indicates some knowledge of the virgin birth by Mark, or even some public knowledge of an irregularity in Jesus' origin, even though Mark has no birth narrative as such. Cf. John 8:41, where Jesus' opponents hint his illegitimacy, a charge which apparently continued to be made into the second century. Brown remarks that such a charge would not have been fabricated by Christians, nor would it have been fabricated by non-Christians probably, unless Jesus' origin were known to be somehow unusual. Thus it is possible that these incidental references to Jesus' birth actually confirm the virgin birth, though this evidence is not of great weight.

Is Isa. 7:14 a prediction of the virgin birth? Matt. 1:22 asserts that the virgin birth "fulfills" that passage, but much controversy has surrounded that assertion, turning on the meaning of the Isaiah passage in context, its LXX translation, and Matthew's use of both. The arguments are too complicated for full treatment here. E. J. Young has mounted one of the few recent scholarly defenses of the traditional position. I would only suggest that for Matthew the concept of "fulfillment" sometimes takes on aesthetic dimensions that go beyond the normal relation between "prediction" and "predicted event" (cf. his use of Zech. 9:9 in 21:1-4). For Matthew, the "fulfillment" may draw the attention of people to the prophecy in startling, even bizarre ways which the prophet himself might never have anticipated. It "corresponds" to the prophecy in unpredictable but exciting ways, as a variation in music corresponds to a theme. It may be that some element of this takes place in Matt. 1:23, though Young's argument may prevail in the long run.

Postbiblical Attestation

Belief in the virgin birth is widely attested in literature from the second century. Ignatius defended the doctrine strongly against the docetists, who held that Jesus only "appeared" to have become man. Some have thought that Ignatius shows acquaintance with a tradition independent of the Gospels affirming the virgin birth. The virgin birth was denied only by Gnostic docetists and by Ebionites, who held Jesus to be a mere human prophet. The silence of some church fathers, like the silence of Scripture, has been cited as evidence of a tradition contrary to this doctrine, but there is no clear evidence of any such things, and the argument from silence can easily be countered as above.

Pagan or Jewish Background? Occasionally someone will suggest that the virgin birth narratives are based not on fact but on pagan or Jewish stories of supernatural births. Such a hypothesis is most unlikely. There is no clear parallel to the notion of a virgin birth in pagan literature, only of births resulting from intercourse between a God and a woman (of which there is no suggestion in Matthew and Luke), resulting in a being half-divine, half-human (which is far different from the biblical Christology). Further, none of the pagan stories locates the event in datable history as the biblical account does. Nor is there any precise parallel in Jewish literature. The closest parallels would be the supernatural births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel in the OT, but these were not virgin births. Isa. 7:14 was not considered a messianic passage in the Jewish literature of the time. It is more likely that the event of the virgin birth influenced Matthew's understanding of Isa. 7:14 than the reverse.

Doctrinal Importance

The consistency of this doctrine with other Christian truth is important to its usefulness and, indeed, to its credibility. For Matthew and Luke the chief importance of the event seems to be that it calls to mind (as a "sign," Isa. 7:14) the great OT promises of salvation through supernaturally born deliverers, while going far beyond them, showing that God's final deliverance has come. But one can also go beyond the specific concerns of Matthew and Luke and see that the virgin birth is fully consistent with the whole range of biblical doctrine. The virgin birth is important because of: (1) The doctrine of Scripture. If Scripture errs here, then why should we trust its claims about other supernatural events, such as the resurrection? (2) The deity of Christ. While we cannot say dogmatically that God could enter the world only through a virgin birth, surely the incarnation is a supernatural event if it is anything. To eliminate the supernatural from this event is inevitably to compromise the divine dimension of it. (3) The humanity of Christ. This was the important thing to Ignatius and the second century fathers. Jesus was really born; he really became one of us. (4) The sinlessness of Christ. If he were born of two human parents, it is very difficult to conceive how he could have been exempted from the guilt of Adam's sin and become a new head to the human race. And it would seem only an arbitrary act of God that Jesus could be born without a sinful nature. Yet Jesus' sinlessness as the new head of the human race and as the atoning lamb of God is absolutely vital to our salvation (II Cor. 5:21; I Pet. 2:22-24; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; Rom. 5:18-19). (5) The nature of grace. The birth of Christ, in which the initiative and power are all of God, is an apt picture of God's saving grace in general of which it is a part. It teaches us that salvation is by God's act, not our human effort. The birth of Jesus is like our new birth, which is also by the Holy Spirit; it is a new creation (II Cor. 5:17).

Is belief in the virgin birth "necessary"? It is possible to be saved without believing it; saved people aren't perfect people. But to reject the virgin birth is to reject God's Word, and disobedience is always serious. Further, disbelief in the virgin birth may lead to compromise in those other areas of doctrine with which it is vitally connected.

J M Frame
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

T. Boslooper, The Virgin Birth; R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah and The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus; F. F. Bruce, Are the NT Documents Reliable? H. von Campenhausen, The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church; R. G. Gromacki, The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity; J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ; J. Murray, Collected Writings, II, 134-35; O . Piper, "The Virgin Birth: The Meaning of the Gospel Accounts," Int 18:131ff.; B. B. Warfield, "The Supernatural Birth of Jesus," in Biblical and Theological Studies; E. J. Young, Commentary on Isaiah.

Virgin Birth of Christ

Catholic Information

The dogma which teaches that the Blessed Mother of Jesus Christ was a virgin before, during, and after the conception and birth of her Divine Son.


Councils and Creeds

The virginity of our Blessed Lady was defined under anathema in the third canon of the Lateran Council held in the time of Pope Martin I, A.D. 649. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, as recited in the Mass, expresses belief in Christ "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary"; the Apostles' Creed professes that Jesus Christ "was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary"; the older form of the same creed uses the expression: "born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary". These professions show:

That the body of Jesus Christ was not sent down from Heaven, nor taken from earth as was that of Adam, but that its matter was supplied by Mary; that Mary co-operated in the formation of Christ's body as every other mother co-operates in the formation of the body of her child, since otherwise Christ could not be said to be born of Mary just as Eve cannot be said to be born of Adam;

that the germ in whose development and growth into the Infant Jesus, Mary co-operated, was fecundated not by any human action, but by the Divine power attributed to the Holy Ghost;

that the supernatural influence of the Holy Ghost extended to the birth of Jesus Christ, not merely preserving Mary's integrity, but also causing Christ's birth or external generation to reflect his eternal birth from the Father in this, that "the Light from Light" proceeded from his mother's womb as a light shed on the world; that the "power of the Most High" passed through the barriers of nature without injuring them; that "the body of the Word" formed by the Holy Ghost penetrated another body after the manner of spirits.

Church Fathers

The perpetual virginity of our Blessed Lady was taught and proposed to our belief not merely by the councils and creeds, but also by the early Fathers. The words of the prophet Isaias (vii, 14) are understood in this sense by

St. Irenaeus (III, 21; see Eusebius, H.E., V, viii), Origen (Adv. Cels., I, 35), Tertullian (Adv. Marcion., III, 13; Adv. Judæos, IX), St. Justin (Dial. con. Tryph., 84), St. John Chrysostom (Hom. v in Matth., n. 3; in Isa., VII, n. 5); St. Epiphanius (Hær., xxviii, n. 7), Eusebius (Demonstrat. ev., VIII, i), Rufinus (Lib. fid., 43), St. Basil (in Isa., vii, 14; Hom. in S. Generat. Christi, n. 4, if St. Basil be the author of these two passages), St. Jerome and Theodoretus (in Isa., vii, 14), St. Isidore (Adv. Judæos, I, x, n. 3), St. Ildefonsus (De perpetua virginit. s. Mariæ, iii).

St. Jerome devotes his entire treatise against Helvidius to the perpetual virginity of Our Blessed Lady (see especially nos. 4, 13, 18).

The contrary doctrine is called:

"madness and blasphemy" by Gennadius (De dogm. eccl., lxix), "madness" by Origen (in Luc., h, vii), "sacrilege" by St. Ambrose (De instit. virg., V, xxxv), "impiety and smacking of atheism" by Philostorgius (VI, 2), "perfidy" by St. Bede (hom. v, and xxii), "full of blasphemies" by the author of Prædestin. (i, 84), "perfidy of the Jews" by Pope Siricius (ep. ix, 3), "heresy" by St. Augustine (De Hær. h., lvi).

St. Epiphanius probably excels all others in his invectives against the opponents of Our Lady's virginity (Hær., lxxviii, 1, 11, 23).

Sacred Scripture

There can be no doubt as to the Church's teaching and as to the existence of an early Christian tradition maintaining the perpetual virginity of our Blessed Lady and consequently the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The mystery of the virginal conception is furthermore taught by the third Gospel and confirmed by the first. According to St. Luke (1:34-35), "Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." The intercourse of man is excluded in the conception of Our Blessed Lord. According to St. Matthew, St. Joseph, when perplexed by the pregnancy of Mary, is told by the angel: "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost" (1:20).


Whence did the Evangelists derive their information? As far as we know, only two created beings were witnesses of the annunciation, the angel and the Blessed Virgin. Later on the angel informed St. Joseph concerning the mystery. We do not know whether Elizabeth, though "filled with the Holy Ghost", learned the full truth supernaturally, but we may suppose that Mary confided the secret both to her friend and her spouse, thus completing the partial revelation received by both.

Between these data and the story of the Evangelists there is a gap which cannot be filled from any express clue furnished by either Scripture or tradition. If we compare the narrative of the first Evangelist with that of the third, we find that St. Matthew may have drawn his information from the knowledge of St. Joseph independently of any information furnished by Mary. The first Gospel merely states (1:18): "When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost." St. Joseph could supply these facts either from personal knowledge or from the words of the angel: "That which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost." The narrative of St. Luke, on the other hand, must ultimately be traced back to the testimony of Our Blessed Lady, unless we are prepared to admit unnecessarily another independent revelation. The evangelist himself points to Mary as the source of his account of the infancy of Jesus, when he says that Mary kept all these words in her heart (2:19, 51). Zahn [1] does not hesitate to say that Mary is pointed out by these expressions as the bearer of the traditions in Luke 1 and 2.

A. How did St. Luke derive his account from the Blessed Virgin? It has been supposed by some that he received his information from Mary herself. In the Middle Ages he is at times called the "chaplain" of Mary [2]; J. Nirsch [3] calls St. Luke the Evangelist of the Mother of God, believing that he wrote the history of the infancy from her mouth and heart. Besides, there is the implied testimony of the Evangelist, who assures us twice that Mary had kept all these words in her heart. But this does not necessitate an immediate oral communication of the history of the infancy on the part of Mary; it merely shows that Mary is the ultimate source of the account. If St. Luke had received the history of the infancy from the Blessed Virgin by way of oral communication, its presentation in the third Gospel naturally would show the form and style of its Greek author. In point of fact the history of the infancy as found in the third Gospel (1:5 to 2:52) betrays in its contents, its language, and style a Jewish-Christian source. The whole passage reads like a chapter from the First Book of Machabees; Jewish customs, and laws and peculiarities are introduced without any further explanation; the "Magnificat", the "Benedictus", and the "Nunc dimittis" are filled with national Jewish ideas. As to the style and language of the history of the infancy, both are so thoroughly Semitic that the passage must be retranslated into Hebrew or Aramaic in order to be properly appreciated. We must conclude, then, that St. Luke's immediate source for the history of the infancy was not an oral, but a written one.

B. It is hardly probable that Mary herself wrote the history of the infancy as was supposed by A. Plummer [4]; it is more credible that the Evangelist used a memoir written by a Jewish Christian, possibly a convert Jewish priest (cf. Acts 6:7), perhaps even a member or friend of Zachary's family [5]. But, whatever may be the immediate source of St. Luke's account, the Evangelist knows that he has "diligently attained to all things from the beginning", according to the testimony of those "who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:2).

As to the original language of St. Luke's source, we may agree with the judgment of Lagarde [6] that the first two chapters of St. Luke present a Hebrew rather than a Greek or an Aramaic colouring. Writers have not been wanting who have tried to prove that St. Luke's written source for his first two chapters was composed in Hebrew [7]. But these proofs are not cogent; St. Luke's Hebraisms may have their origin in an Aramaic source, or even in a Greek original composed in the language of the Septuagint. Still, considering the fact that Aramaic was the language commonly spoken in Palestine at that time, we must conclude that Our Blessed Lady's secret was originally written in Aramaic, though it must have been translated into Greek before St. Luke utilized it [8]. As the Greek of Luke 2:41-52 is more idiomatic than the language of Luke 1:4-2:40, it has been inferred that the Evangelist's written source reached only to 2:40; but as in 2:51, expressions are repeated which occur in 2:19, it may be safely inferred that both passages were taken from the same source.

The Evangelist recast the source of the history of the infancy before incorporating it into his Gospel; for the use of words and expressions in Luke 1 and 2 agrees with the language in the following chapters [9]. Harnack [10] and Dalman [11] suggest that St. Luke may be the original author of his first two chapters, adopting the language and style of the Septuagint; but Vogel [12] and Zahn [13] maintain that such a literary feat would be impossible for a Greek-speaking writer. What has been said explains why it is quite impossible to reconstruct St. Luke's original source; the attempt of Resch [14] to reconstruct the original Gospel of the infancy or the source of the first two chapters of the first and third Gospel and the basis of the prologue to the fourth, is a failure, in spite of its ingenuity. Conrady [15] believed that he had found the common source of the canonical history of the infancy in the so-called "Protevangelium Jacobi", which, according to him, was written in Hebrew by an Egyptian Jew about A.D. 120, and was soon after translated into Greek; it should be kept in mind, however, that the Greek text is not a translation, but the original, and a mere compilation from the canonical Gospels. All we can say therefore, concerning St. Luke's source for his history of the infancy of Jesus is reduced to the scanty information that it must have been a Greek translation of an Aramaic document based, in the last instance, on the testimony of Our Blessed Lady.


Modern theology adhering to the principle of historical development, and denying the possibility of any miraculous intervention in the course of history, cannot consistently admit the historical actuality of the virgin birth. According to modern views, Jesus was really the son of Joseph and Mary and was endowed by an admiring posterity with the halo of Divinity; the story of his virgin birth was in keeping with the myths concerning the extraordinary births of the heroes of other nations [16]; the original text of the Gospels knew nothing of the virgin birth [17]. Without insisting on the arbitrariness of the philosophical assumptions implied in the position of modern theology, we shall briefly review its critical attitude towards the text of the Gospels and its attempts to account for the early Christian tradition concerning the virgin birth of Christ.

A. Integrity of the Gospel Text

Wellhausen [18] contended that the original text of the third Gospel began with our present third chapter, the first two chapters being a later addition. But Harnack seems to have foreseen this theory before it was proposed by Wellhausen; for he showed that the two chapters in question belonged to the author of the third Gospel and of the Acts [19]. Holtzmann [20] considers Luke 1:34-35 as a later addition; Hillmann [21] believes that the words hos enouizeto of Luke 3:23 ought to be considered in the same light. Weinel [22] believes that the removal of the words epei andra ou ginosko from Luke 1:34 leaves the third Gospel without a cogent proof for the virgin birth; Harnack not only agrees with the omissions of Holtzmann and Hillmann, but deletes also the word parthenos from Luke 1:27 [23]. Other friends of modern theology are rather sceptical as to the solidity of these text-critical theories; Hilgenfield [24], Clement [25], and Gunkel [26] reject Harnack's arguments without reserve. Bardenhewer [27] weighs them singly and finds them wanting.

In the light of the arguments for the genuineness of the portions of the third Gospel rejected by the above named critics, it is hard to understand how they can be omitted by any unprejudiced student of the sacred text.

They are found in all manuscripts, translations, and early Christian citations, in all printed editions - in brief, in all the documents considered by the critics as reliable witnesses for the genuineness of a text. Furthermore, in the narrative of St. Luke, each verse is like a link in a chain, so that no verse can be removed as an interpolation without destroying the whole.

Moreover, verses 34 and 35 are in the Lucan history what the keystone is in an arch, what a diamond is in its setting; the text of the Gospel without these two verses resembles an unfinished arch, a setting bereft of its precious stones [28].

Finally, the Lucan account left us by the critics is not in keeping with the rest of the Evangelist's narrative. According to the critics, verses 26-33 and 36-38 relate the promise of the birth of the Messias, the son of Joseph and Mary, just as the verses immediately preceding relate the promise of the birth of the precursor, the son of Zachary and Elizabeth. But there is a great difference: the precursor's story is filled with miracles - as Zachary's sudden dumbness, John's wonderful conception - while the account of Christ's conception offers nothing extraordinary; in the one case the angel is sent to the child's father, Zachary, while in the other the angel appears to Mary; in the one case Elizabeth is said to have conceived "after those days", while there is nothing added about Mary's conception [29]. The complete traditional text of the Gospel explains these differences, but the critically mutilated text leaves them inexplicable.

The friends of modern theology at first believed that they possessed a solid foundation for denying the virgin birth in the Codex Syrus Sinaiticus discovered by Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson in 1892, more accurately investigated in 1893, published in 1894, and supplemented in 1896. According to this codex, Matthew 1:16 reads: "Joseph to whom was espoused Mary the Virgin, begot Jesus who is called Christ." Still, the Syriac translator cannot have been ignorant of the virgin birth. Why did he leave the expression "the virgin" in the immediate context? How did he understand verses 18, 20, and 25, if he did not know anything of the virgin birth? Hence, either the Syriac text has been slightly altered by a transcriber (only one letter had to be changed) or the translator understood the word begot of conventional, not of carnal, fatherhood, a meaning it has in verses 8 and 12.

B. Non-historical Source of the Virgin Birth

The opponents of the historical actuality of the virgin birth grant that either the Evangelists or the interpolators of the Gospels borrowed their material from an early Christian tradition, but they endeavour to show that this tradition has no solid historical foundation. About A.D. 153 St. Justin (Apol., I, xxi) told his pagan readers that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ ought not to seem incredible to them, since many of the most esteemed pagan writers spoke of a number of sons of Zeus. About A.D. 178 the Platonic philosopher Celsus ridiculed the virgin birth of Christ, comparing it with the Greek myths of Danae, Melanippe, and Antiope; Origen (c. Cels. I, xxxvii) answered that Celsus wrote more like a buffoon than a philosopher. But modern theologians again derive the virgin birth of Our Lord from unhistorical sources, though their theories do not agree.

The Pagan Origin Theory

A first class of writers have recourse to pagan mythology in order to account for the early Christian tradition concerning the virgin birth of Jesus. Usener [30] argues that the early Gentile Christians must have attributed to Christ what their pagan ancestors had attributed to their pagan heroes; hence the Divine sonship of Christ is a product of the religious thought of Gentile Christians. Hillmann [31] and Holtzmann [32] agree substantially with Usener's theory. Conrady [33] found in the Virgin Mary a Christian imitation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the mother of Horus; but Holtzmann [34] declares that he cannot follow this "daring construction without a feeling of fear and dizziness", and Usener [35] is afraid that his friend Conrady moves on a precipitous track. Soltau [36] tries to transfer the supernatural origin of Augustus to Jesus, but Lobstein [37] fears that Soltau's attempt may throw discredit on science itself, and Kreyher [38] refutes the theory more at length.

In general, the derivation of the virgin birth from pagan mythology through the medium of Gentile Christians implies several inexplicable difficulties:

Why should the Christian recently converted from paganism revert to his pagan superstitions in his conception of Christian doctrines?

How could the product of pagan thought find its way among Jewish Christians without leaving as much as a vestige of opposition on the part of the Jewish Christians?

How could this importation into Jewish Christianity be effected at an age early enough to produce the Jewish Christian sources from which either the Evangelists or the interpolators of the Gospels derived their material? Why did not the relatives of Christ's parents protest against the novel views concerning Christ's origin?

Besides, the very argument on which rests the importation of the virgin birth from pagan myths into Christianity is fallacious, to say the least. Its major premise assumes that similar phenomena not merely may, but must, spring from similar causes; its minor premise contends that Christ's virgin birth and the mythical divine sonships of the pagan world are similar phenomena, a contention false on the face of it.

The Jewish Origin Theory (Isaiah 7:14)

A second class of writers derive the early Christian tradition of the virgin birth from Jewish Christian influence. Harnack [39] is of the opinion that the virgin birth originated from Isaiah 7:14; Lobstein [40] adds the "poetic traditions surrounding the cradle of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel" as another source of the belief in the virgin birth. Modern theology does not grant that Isaiah 7:14, contains a real prophecy fulfilled in the virgin birth of Christ; it must maintain, therefore, that St. Matthew misunderstood the passage when he said: "Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying; Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son," etc. (1:22-23). How do Harnack and Lobstein explain such a misunderstanding on the part of the Evangelist? There is no indication that the Jewish contemporaries of St. Matthew understood the prophet's words in this sense. Hillmann [41] proves that belief in the virgin birth is not contained in the Old Testament, and therefore cannot have been taken from it. Dalman [42] maintains that the Jewish people never expected a fatherless birth of the Messias, and that there exists no vestige of such a Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.

Those who derive the virgin birth from Isaiah 7:14, must maintain that an accidental misinterpretation of the Prophet by the Evangelist replaced historic truth among the early Christians in spite of the better knowledge and the testimony of the disciples and kindred of Jesus. Zahn [43] calls such a supposition "altogether fantastic"; Usener [44] pronounce the attempt to make Isaiah 7:14 the origin of the virgin birth, instead of its seal, an inversion of the natural order. Though Catholic exegesis endeavours to find in the Old Testament prophetic indications of the virgin birth, still it grants that the Jewish Christians arrived at the full meaning of Isaiah 7:14, only through its accomplishment [45].

The Syncretic Theory

There is a third theory which endeavours to account for the prevalence of the doctrine of the virgin birth among the early Jewish Christians. Gunkel [46] grants that the idea of virgin birth is a pagan idea, wholly foreign to the Jewish conception of God; but he also grants that this idea could not have found its way into early Jewish Christianity through pagan influence. Hence he believes that the idea had found its way among the Jews in pre-Christian times, so that the Judaism which flowed directly into early Christianity had undergone a certain amount of syncretism. Hilgenfeld [47] tries to derive the Christian teaching of the virgin birth neither from classical paganism nor from pure Judaism, but from the Essene depreciation of marriage. The theories of both Gunkel and Hilgenfeld are based on airy combinations rather than historical evidence. Neither writer produces any historical proof for his assertions. Gunkel, indeed, incidentally draws attention to Parsee ideas, to the Buddha legend, and to Roman and Greek fables. But the Romans and Greeks did not exert such a notable influence on pre-Christian Judaism; and that the Buddha legend reached as far as Palestine cannot be seriously maintained by Gunkel [48]. Even Harnack [49] regards the theory that the idea of virgin birth penetrated among the Jews through Parsee influence, as an unprovable assumption.

Publication information Written by A.J. Maas. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


[1] "Einleitung in das Neue Testament", 2nd ed., II, 406, Leipzig, 1900 [2] cf. Du Cange, "Gloss. med. et inf. latinitatis", s.v. "Capellani"; ed. L. Favre [3] "Das Grab der heiligen Jungfrau Maria", 51, Mainz, 1896 [4] "A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke" in "The International Critical Commentary", Edinburgh, 1896, p. 7 [5] cf. Blass, "Evangelium secundum Lucam", xxiii, Leipzig, 1897 [6] "Mitteilungen", III, 345, Göttingen, 1889 [7] cf. Gunkel, "Zum religions-geschichtl. Verständnis des Neuen Testaments", pp. 67 sq., Göttingen, 1903 [8] cf. Bardenhewer, "Maria Verkündigung" in "Biblische Studien", X, v, pp. 32 sq., Freiburg, 1905 [9] cf. Feine, "Eine vorkanonische Ueberlieferung des Lukas in Evangelium und Apostelgeschichte", Gotha, 1891, p. 19; Zimmermann, "Theol. Stud. und Krit.", 1903, 250 sqq. [10] Sitzungsber. der Berliner Akad., 1900, pp. 547 sqq. [11] "Die Worte Jesu", I, 31 sq., Leipzig, 1898 [12] "Zur Charakteristik des Lukas nach Sprache und Stil", Leipzig, 1897, p. 33 [13] Einleitung, 2nd ed., ii, 406 [14] "Das Kindheitesevangelium nach Lukas und Matthäus" in "Texte und Untersuchungen zur Gesch. der altchristl. Literatur", X, v, 319, Leipzig, 1897 [15] "Die Quelle der kanonischen Kindheitsgeschichte Jesus", Göttingen, 1900 [16] Gunkel, "Zum religionsgesch. Verst. des N.T.", p, 65, Göttingen, 1903 [17] Usener, "Geburt und Kindheit Christi" in "Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft", IV, 1903, 8 [18] "Das Evangelium Lukä", Berlin, 1904 [19] Sitzungsberichte der Kgl. preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1900, 547 [20] "Handkommentar züm Neuen Testament", I, 31 sq., Freiburg, 1889 [21] "Die Kindheitsgeschichte Jesu nach Lukas kritisch untersucht" in "Jahrb. für protest. Theol.", XVII, 225 sqq., 1891 [22] "Die Auslegung des apostolischen Bekenntnisses von F. Kattenbusch und die neut. Forschung" in "Zeitschrift für d. n. t. Wissensch.", II, 37 sqq., 1901; cf. Kattenbusch, "Das apostolische Symbol", II, 621, Leipzig, 1897-1900 [23] Zeitschrift für d. n. t. Wissensch., 53 sqq., 1901 [24] "Die Geburt Jesu aus der Jungfrau in dem Lukasevangelium" in "Zeitschr. für wissenschaftl. Theologie", XLIV, 313 sqq., 1901 [25] Theol. Literaturzeitung, 1902, 299 [26] op. cit., p. 68 [27] "Maria Verkündigung", pp. 8-12, Freiburg, 1905 [28] cf. Feine, "Eine vorkanonische Ueberlieferung", 39, Gotha, 1891 [29] Bardenhewer, op. cit., 13 sqq.; Gunkel, op. cit., 68 [30] "Religionsgeschichtl. Untersuchungen", I, 69 sqq., Bonn, 1899; "Geburt und Kindheit Christi" in "Zeitschrift für d. n. t. Wissensch.", IV, 1903, 15 sqq. [31] Jahrb. f. protest. Theol., XVII, 1891, 231 sqq. [32] "Lehrb. d. n. t. Theol.", I, 413 sqq., Freiburg, 1897 [33] "Die Quelle der kanonisch. Kindheitsgesch. Jesus", Göttingen, 1900, 278 sqq. [34] Theol. Literaturzeit., 1901, p. 136 [35] Zeitschr. f. d. n. t. Wissensch., 1903, p. 8 [36] "Die Geburtsgeschichte Jesu Christi", Leipzig, 1902, p. 24 [37] Theol. Literaturzeitung, 1902, p. 523 [38] "Die jungfräuliche Geburt des Herrn", Gutersloh, 1904 [39] "Lehrb. d. Dogmengesch.", 3rd ed., I, 95 sq., Freiburg, 1894 [40] "Die Lehre von der übernatürlichen Geburt Christi", 2nd ed., 28-31, Freiburg, 1896 [41] "Jahrb. f. protest. Theol.", 1891, XVII, 233 sqq., 1891 [42] Die Worte Jesu, I, Leipzig, 1898, 226 [43] "Das Evangelium des Matthäus ausgelegt", 2nd ed., Leipziig, 1905, pp. 83 sq. [44] "Religionsgesch. Untersuch.", I, Bonn, 1889, 75 [45] Bardenhewer op. cit., 23; cf. Flunk, Zeitschrift f. kathol. Theol.", XXVIII, 1904, 663 [46] op. cit., 65 sqq. [47] "Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol.", 1900, XLIII, 271; 1901, XLIV, 235 [48] cf. Oldenberg, "Theol. Literaturzeit.", 1905, 65 sq. [49] "Dogmengesch.", 3rd ed., Freiburg, 1894, 96

Besides the works cited in the course of this article, we may draw attention to the dogmatic treatises on the supernatural origin of the Humanity of Christ through the Holy Ghost from the Virgin Mary especially: WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Catholic Theology, II (London and New York, 1898), 105 sqq.; 208 sqq.; HUNTER, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, II (New York, 1896), 567 sqq.; also to the principal commentaries on Matt., i, ii; Luke, i, ii. Among Protestant writings we may mention the tr. of LOBSTEIN, The Virgin Birth of Christ (London, 1903); BRIGGS, Criticism and the Dogma of the Virgin Birth in North Am. Rev. (June, 1906); ALLEN in Interpreter (Febr., 1905), 115 sqq.; (Oct., 1905), 52 sqq.; CARR in Expository Times, XVIII, 522, 1907; USENER, s. v. Nativity in Encyclo. Bibl., III, 3852; CHEYNE, Bible Problems (1905), 89 sqq.; CARPENTER, Bible in the Nineteenth Century (1903), 491 sqq.; RANDOLPH, The Virgin Birth of Our Lord (1903).

Also, see:
Virgin Mary
Assumption of Mary
Immaculate Conception

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