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The virgin birth of Jesus is the doctrine that Jesus was conceived and born by his mother Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and without a human father. The Catholic church holds it authoritative for faith and Protestants regard it as an explanation of the mixture of the human and divine natures of Jesus, but the scholarly consensus is that its historical foundations are very flimsy.
New Testament narratives: Matthew and Luke
|Events in the|
|Life of Jesus|
according to the Gospels
|Book:Life of Jesus|
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Mary's husband was named Joseph, that he was of the Davidic line, and that he played no role in Jesus's divine conception, but beyond this they are very different. Matthew underlines the virginity of Mary by references to the Book of Isaiah (using the Greek translation in the Septuagint, rather than the mostly Hebrew Masoretic Text) and by his narrative statement that Joseph had no sexual relations with her until after the birth (a choice of words which leaves open the possibility that they did have relations after that).
18: Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
19: Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
20: But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
21: She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
22: All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
24: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
25: but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Luke introduces Mary as a virgin, describes her puzzlement at being told she will bear a child despite her lack of sexual experience, and informs the reader that this pregnancy is to be effected through God's Holy Spirit.
26: In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,
27: to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
28: And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
29: But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30: The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
31: And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32: He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
33: He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34: Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
35: The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
36: And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.
37: For nothing will be impossible with God."
38: Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
Historicity and sources of the narratives
The modern scholarly consensus is that the virgin birth rests on very slender historical foundations. The Pauline epistles do not contain any mention of it and assume Jesus's full humanity, Mark, the earliest gospel, has no birth story and states that Jesus's mother had no belief in her son (as if she had forgotten the angel's visit), while John's Jesus has both father and mother and his conception does not entail divine intervention. In the entire Christian corpus it is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: both are probably from the period AD 80-100, both are anonymous (the attributions to Matthew and Luke were added in the 2nd century), and it is almost certain that neither was the work of an eyewitness.
Matthew and Luke did not find the virgin birth in Mark, nor did one of them derive it from the other, nor did they find it in a common source. Raymond E. Brown suggested in 1973 that Joseph was the source of Matthew's account and Mary of Luke's, but modern scholars consider this "highly unlikely", given that the story emerged so late. It follows that the two narratives were created by the two writers, drawing on ideas in circulation in some Christian circles perhaps by around 65 AD.
The ancient world had no idea that male semen and female ovum were both needed to form a fetus; instead they thought that the male contribution in reproduction consisted of some sort of formative or generative principle, while Mary's bodily fluids would provide all the matter that was needed for Jesus' bodily form, including his male sex. This cultural milieu was conducive to miraculous birth stories - they were common in biblical tradition going back to Abraham and Sarah. They may also have roots in Hellenistic mythology, although there is no emphasis in Hellenistic stories on the virginity of the women giving birth by the gods. Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 to support his narrative, but scholars agree that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, "almah", signifies a girl of childbearing age without reference to virginity, and was aimed at Isaiah's own immediate circumstances.
Tales of virgin birth and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world, and Second Temple Jewish works were also capable of producing accounts of the appearances of angels and miraculous births for ancient heroes such as Melchizedek, Noah, and Moses. Luke's virgin birth story is a standard plot from the Jewish scriptures, as for example in the annunciation scenes for Isaac and for Samson, in which an angel appears and causes apprehension, the angel gives reassurance and announces the coming birth, the mother raises an objection, and the angel gives a sign. Nevertheless, "plausible sources that tell of virgin birth in areas convincingly close to the gospels' own probable origins have proven extremely hard to demonstrate". Similarly, while it is widely accepted that there is a connection with Zoroastrian (Persian) sources underlying Matthew's story of the Magi (the wise men from the East) and the Star of Bethlehem, a wider claim that Zoroastrianism formed the background to the infancy narratives has not achieved acceptance.
Theology and development
Matthew and Luke use the virgin birth (or more accurately the divine conception that precedes it) to mark the moment when Jesus becomes the Son of God, a notable development over Mark, for whom the Sonship dates from Jesus's baptism, and the earlier Christianity of Paul and the pre-Pauline Christians for whom Jesus becomes the Son only at the resurrection or even the Second Coming. The virgin birth was subsequently accepted by Christians as the proof of the divinity of Jesus, but its rebuttal during and after the 18th century European Enlightenment led some to redefine it as mythical, while others reaffirmed it in dogmatic terms. This division remains in place, although some national synods of the Catholic church have replaced a biological understanding with the idea of "theological truth", and some evangelical theologians hold it to be marginal rather than indispensable to the Christian faith.
Throughout Christian history a small number of groups have denied the virgin birth, particularly in the Near East. The Ebionites considered Jesus the Messiah, but rejected his divine nature and regarded him as fully human. The Nestorian Church and Assyrian Church of the East supported a physically human nature of Jesus. Others, like Marcion, held that Christ's divinity meant that his human life, death and resurrection were only an appearance. By about 180 AD Jews were telling how Jesus had been illegitimately conceived by a Roman soldier named Pantera or Pandera, whose name is likely a pun on parthenos, virgin. The story was still current in the Middle Ages in satirical parody of the Christian gospels called the Toledot Yeshu. The Toledot Yeshu contains no historical facts, and was probably created as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity.
Celebrations, devotions and art
Christians celebrate the conception of Jesus on 25 March and his birth on 25 December. (These dates are for the Western tradition, no one knows for certain when Jesus was born.) The Magnificat, based on Luke 1:46-55 is one of four well known Gospel canticles: the Benedictus and the Magnificat in the first chapter, and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc dimittis in the second chapter of Luke, which are now an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition. The Annunciation became an element of Marian devotions in Medieval times, and by the 13th century direct references to it were widespread in French lyrics. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the title "Ever Virgin Mary" as a key element of its Marian veneration, and as part of the Akathists (hymns) to Mary which are an integral part of its liturgy.
This doctrine of the Virgin Birth is often represented in Christian art in terms of the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God, and in Nativity scenes that include the figure of Salome. The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in Western art. Annunciation scenes also amount to the most frequent appearances of Gabriel in medieval art. The depiction of Joseph turning away in some Nativity scenes is a discreet reference to the fatherhood of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of Virgin Birth.
Gallery of art
Holy Doors, Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt, 12th century
Sandro Botticelli (1489–90)
Mikhail Nesterov, Russia, 19th century
Giotto (1267–1337): Nativity with an uninvolved Joseph but without Salome
- Divi filius
- Incarnation (Christianity)
- Isaiah 7:14
- Jesus in Islam
- Perpetual virginity of Mary
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Virgin birth of Jesus
|Preceded by |
Gabriel announces John's
birth to Zechariah
| New Testament |
Mary visits Elisabeth