That our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and had no earthly father
is a fundamental dogma accepted by all Christians from the earliest times.
The principal evidence for it is found in the Gospels according to St. Luke and St. Matthew.
St. Luke, the companion of St. Paul wrote the Third Gospel.
He was not a Jew but a Greek,
a physician (Col. 4:14) and, as his two books show,
one of the most careful and accurate historians of the ancient world.
He tells us (Luke 1.3) that he had taken special trouble to ascertain what had happened.
He appears to have been at Jerusalem for two years (Acts 24.27)
at a time when many of those who had been with the Lord Jesus were still alive including St. James, the Lord's brother (Acts 21:18).
His account of the birth of our Lord is to be found in the first two chapters of his Gospel.
These chapters are based on a source different from those of the rest of the book and were probably written in Aramaic.
The transition at 1:5 from St. Luke's style to that of his source,
visible in the English and much more striking in the original Greek,
is a transition from a florid Greek style to a simple style
which might be an imitation of the Books of Kings,
thoroughly Hebrew both in form and matter.
St. Luke's source, then, comes from an Aramaic-speaking Christian circle,
and its naive simplicity and freedom from such extravagant marvels as we find in the passages peculiar to St. Matthew (17.27, 27.53) show that it is of extremely early date.
It was probably written by the Blessed Virgin herself or by someone intimate with her, for it represents her point of view throughout (1.26-56, 2.19, 34, 48, 51).
[The question of the variant reading in one Syriac version is omitted here as quite unimportant.]
The author of the First Gospel is unknown.
Modern scholars are agreed that it was probably not written by St. Matthew because Papias, a second-century writer, tells us that St. Matthew wrote in Hebrew,
whereas this Gospel is certainly not a translation from the Hebrew,
and because the Gospel is clearly based on St. Mark's Gospel
which seems unlikely (though not impossible) if the writer was himself an apostle.
(But St. Matthew must have had some connection with it, or it would not have been given his name. It is a probable conjecture that he wrote a collection of the sayings of our Lord, commonly called Q,
[From the German Quelle, source; according to others, chosen by Armitage Robinson as the next letter to P.]
which appears to be one of the chief sources of the First Gospel, and to have also been used by St. Luke.)
It is usually held that the First Gospel was written towards the end of the first century in Galilee.
The account of our Lord's birth and infancy in the first two chapters
represents St. Joseph's point of view,
as St. Luke's account represents the Blessed Virgin's.
Now, the sons and grandsons of St. Joseph presided over the Church of Jerusalem till well into the second century.
It is certain that this Gospel (which was the most popular of the four) could not have been universally accepted without their sanction.
It probably represents their family tradition,
and it is as Jewish in spirit as the first two chapters of St. Luke,
but in a different way.
The two accounts are completely independent.
St. Luke tells the story of the birth of St. John Baptist, the Annunciation, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple.
The First Gospel tells the story of Joseph's dream, the visit of the wise men, and the flight into Egypt.
St. Luke explains how our Lord came to be born at Bethlehem;
the First Gospel, why He was brought up at Nazareth.
They do not contradict one another anywhere, but they cover different ground.
Both agree that He was born at Bethlehem, but brought up at Nazareth.
Both agree that His Mother was a virgin.
We have therefore two completely independent witnesses.
The Virgin Birth is not directly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament,
but it is nowhere denied.
Our Lord is called "the son of Joseph" in St. John 1.45, 6.42, but in both cases by strangers who cannot be supposed to have known the facts about His birth (which must, for obvious reasons, have been kept secret).
St. Mark begins his Gospel with our Lord's Baptism.
St. John begins his with the witness of St. John the Baptist (though St. John 1.13 may be an allusion to the Virgin Birth).
St. Paul does not mention the subject in any of his surviving epistles (why should he?),
but he was so intimate with St. Luke that he must have known what was known to St. Luke:
Gal. 4.4 may be an allusion to the Virgin Birth.
No writer of the New Testament ever calls our Lord the son of Joseph (which was the natural way of referring to Him) except St. John in the two passages above mentioned.
St. Ignatius (about 115) calls the Virgin Birth one of "the three mysteries
of shouting" that is, now proclaimed to all.
From his time onwards all orthodox Christians accepted it.
There were, it is true, heretical sects that denied the Virgin Birth, but they also denied the Godhead of Jesus Christ.
All who believed Him to be God, and some who did not (for instance, Muhammad, and Socinus, the founder of Unitarianism), accepted the Virgin Birth.
It is sometimes argued that our Lord's claim to be the son of David implies
that He was the son of Joseph.
This objection is based on a misunderstanding.
He was legally, but only legally, of the house of David.
But it was the legal aspect in which the Jews were interested.
We know nothing of the parentage of the Blessed Virgin (except that she was Elizabeth's cousin St. Luke 1.36).
The traditional names of her parents come from an apocryphal gospel that is of no historical value.
Our Lord's claim to be the heir of David, to have sprung out of Judah (Heb.7.14, Rev.5.5), is based on the fact that legally, though not actually, He was the son of Joseph.
So much for the positive evidence.
There is also very important negative evidence.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the story of the Virgin Birth is not true.
We have still to account for its existence.
It can only have come from a Jewish source or from a Gentile source.
As the two accounts of it that we have are both thoroughly Jewish,
the theory of a Jewish source is much more likely.
But we are at once met by the difficulty that the Jews did not honour virginity.
To die a virgin was to them one of the greatest of misfortunes (Judges 11.37, etc.).
No one could serve as a priest or be a member of the Sanhedrin unless he was married.
It was regarded as the first duty of both men and women to marry, produce children, and replenish the earth (Gen.9.1).
There was no celibacy in the Hebrew religion.
[The Essenes were celibate, but they were very unorthodox, and they had no influence on the New Testament.]
Therefore it is quite contrary to Jewish ideas that the Messiah should be born of a virgin, as abhorrent as drinking blood (John 6.53, 60).
It has, however, been suggested that the story of the Virgin Birth is based on a misunderstanding of Isa.7.14
Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel,
and that the argument was, "The Messiah was to be born of a virgin; Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah; therefore He must have been born of a virgin; therefore He was born of a virgin."
But this objection will not bear examination.
The Hebrew word in Isaiah does not mean a virgin,
but a young woman, married or unmarried.
It is not a prophecy of the Messiah,
and no emphasis is laid on the mother's virginity.
It is a prophecy of an Assyrian invasion,
and the point is that before the child, who is shortly to be born,
is old enough to know right from wrong,
the Assyrians will have destroyed Samaria and Damascus,
and the population will be reduced to famine rations (butter and honey).
There is no evidence that anyone ever referred this passage to the Messiah until the writer of St. Matthew's Gospel did so (1.22), but he was fond of taking passages of the prophets out of their context and referring them to incidents in our Lord's life.
It was the event that caused the reference, not the reference the belief in the event. In St. Luke's account, which is probably the older of the two, there is no reference to this passage in Isaiah.
We conclude, then, that the story of the Virgin Birth cannot be a Jewish legend.
It is most unlikely that the circle of devout and orthodox Jews to which the
two Gospels introduce us would have listened for a moment to Gentile stories,
the "abominations of the heathen".
There were many Greek stories of heroes sprung from the union of gods and mortal women.
Such stories were told even of historical characters such as Plato and Alexander the Great.
But there was no story of a virgin birth, in the proper sense, among the Greeks or any other nation.
Professor Lobstein has ransacked the world for such stories and has found nothing even remotely resembling the story of the Virgin Birth in the Gospels.
The only known legend which is anything like it is the story in some of the later lives of the Buddha that he was born of a virgin, which is not found in the earlier and more authentic lives nor in any Buddhist book written before Christ or in the early centuries after Christ.
It is probably due to Christian influence.
But if it is incredible that the story of the Virgin Birth could have come
from either a Jewish or a Gentile source, we cannot account for the rise of
the story except by believing that it is true.
So much for the external evidence, positive and negative.
It would be very difficult to accept this or any evidence, however strong, for the virgin birth of an ordinary man;
for a virgin birth is a miracle, and we can see no reason why God should work a miracle of this kind in the case of even a Plato or a Shakespeare.
But Jesus Christ is not an ordinary man.
He is not even a Plato or a Shakespeare.
He is the Son of God incarnate and is therefore absolutely unique.
No one else was ever born of a virgin,
but then, no one else was the Incarnate Son of God or ever will be.
We do not believe that He is the Son of God because He was born of a Virgin,
but we believe that He was born of a Virgin
because we believe on other grounds that He is the Son of God,
and because there is sufficient reason for God to work a miracle in this case
though perhaps not in the case of any other man.
We do not expect anyone who does not believe in the Godhead of our Lord Jesus Christ to believe in the Virgin Birth (though, as we have seen, Muhammad and Socinus did so), but we maintain that anyone who believes that our Lord Jesus Christ is God Incarnate ought to have no difficulty, with such strong evidence, in believing that He was born of a Virgin.
We dare not say that God the Father could not have made His Son to be born
of two human parents, but we say that though the virgin birth of any other
man would be incredible or almost incredible, the Virgin Birth of the Son of
God is in accordance with all that we know of God's dealings with His creatures.
In this case and in this case only, there is sufficient reason for God to work a unique miracle and, to this extent, to alter the course of nature.
For if Jesus Christ had been the son of Joseph or any other man, it would
be impossible to avoid believing that the Son of God united Himself to a new
In that case either Jesus Christ is the amalgamation of two persons, one Divine and one human (which is the Nestorian heresy), or He destroyed the human person and took his place, which is inconsistent with the love and justice of God.
Every child that is born of a human father is a new person.
But Jesus Christ was not a new person.
He was the eternal Son of God.
It seems to have been for this reason that He was born without a human father.
He took human nature in order to redeem mankind;
but He did not become a new human person,
for this would have been to act against reason which even God cannot do.
Moreover, every human being inherits from his parents a tendency to sin,
which is called by theologians "original sin".
It was from this that our Lord came to free mankind.
But He could not have freed men from it if He had not been free from it Himself.
And it is hard to see how He could have been free from it Himself if He had been born like any other child of two human parents.
Therefore, if we believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God,
not only is there sufficient internal evidence for His Virgin Birth,
but it is more difficult to believe that He was begotten by an earthly father
than that He was born of a Virgin.
There is, however, one line of defence of the Virgin Birth,
which we must entirely reject.
It has been suggested that it was a case of what is called "parthenogenesis",
which sounds scientific but is entirely unreasonable and irrelevant (as well as irreverent).
Parthenogenesis is the process found in some of the lower species of animals,
which are sometimes produced by the female parent only.
No case of it has ever been known, not merely in man but in any species of mammals.
If, then, our Lord's birth had been a case of parthenogenesis, it would have been just as miraculous, just as much outside the order of nature, as we believe it to have been without any reference to parthenogenesis.
Besides, if it had been a case of parthenogenesis, it would have been a meaningless
accident like the birth of a calf with five legs.
To believe that our Lord's birth was a freak of nature and had no connection with His nature or His character would be of no use whatever.
We believe that He was born of a Virgin because He was the Son of God, not because some biological accident attended His birth.
The theory of parthenogenesis is therefore to be rejected as merely stupid.
Whatever He was, our Lord was not a freak.
Finally, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a dogma the acceptance of which
is a condition of membership of the Church.
We have shown that there is sufficient evidence for it, both external and internal.
We believe it on good authority, in the sense of "auctoritas".
But besides this, the Church requires her members to accept it
because it is a necessary part of the whole system of Christian teaching.
No one is compelled to become or to remain a member of the Church;
but if he wishes to do so, he must obey the conditions of membership,
one of which is that he must accept the articles of the Apostles, and Nicene Creeds, including "born of the Virgin Mary".
If the evidence does not convince anyone, he may say, "I do not find this evidence sufficient, but I know that the Church is wiser than I am, and I accept it on her authority".
Or he may say, "Since I cannot honestly say that I accept this doctrine, I cannot be a full member of the Church".
In either case, such a man ought not to continue to serve as an ordained minister of the Church, for he would be bound to teach the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and he cannot do so honestly if he does not believe it himself.
It has been argued that to say "I believe in Jesus Christ ... born of
the Virgin Mary" may mean no more than
"her who is commonly known as the Virgin Mary"; as when we say "the
Gospel according to St. Matthew", we do not necessarily commit ourselves
to believing that St. Matthew wrote it.
But such an argument is not really honest.
The purpose of that article of the creed is to commit those who recite it to the belief that our Lord had no human father.
To recite it without any such belief is to say that one believes what in fact one does not believe.
If a man's conscience allows him to do this, the Church is justified in saying that a man with such an ill-informed conscience is not a fit person to serve in her ministry.
For the bishop, priest, or deacon is bound, not merely to recite the words at least twice every day,
[Anglican bishops, priests, and deacons are under obligation to say Mattins and Evensong every day.]
but to teach them to others, and to answer those who raise objections to them.
And if one may recite this particular article of the Creed in one's own sense, which is not that of the Church, why not any other?
The real difficulty that prevents people from believing in the Virgin Birth
is not want of evidence,
but a belief in a "closed universe",
and the impossibility of miracles.
But he who believes this, cannot believe in the Incarnation,
and therefore cannot be a Christian at all.