- The Legal Necessity of the Virgin Birth
- The Theological Necessity of the Virgin Birth
- The Narrative Necessity for the Virgin Birth
- Mary Was a Virgin at the Time of Jesus' Birth
- The Problem of Isaiah 7:14
The Legal Necessity for the Virgin Birth Jesus as Mediator
In the world of the first century, businesses and families were not separate institutions; they were combined in the institution of the household. There was no legal document that corresponded to our power of attorney; the son possessed the father’s power of attorney by virtue of being his son. If a man had no son, but had a trustworthy slave, it was a common practice for him to adopt the slave as a son so that he could empowered the slave (now his son) to run the business. [See note 1]
In this social context, the only way for a person to act on behalf of another in a way that corresponds to our power of attorney is to be that person’s son. Thus the phrases,
Son of God and
Son of Humanity have different meanings in our canonical documents.
- They indicate Jesus’ character or essence, along the lines of such phrases as
sons of thunderMark 3:17 and
daughters of songEcclesiastes 12:4. In this sense, the term
Son of Godmeans that Jesus shares God’s deity, and the term
Son of Humanitymeans that Jesus shares our humanity.
- However, the overwhelming use of the term
son of…in the canon is not metaphorical but legal. In the legal context of the New Testament, the legal significance is that the son is the agent of the father. In this sense, the term
Son of Godmeans that Jesus acts as God’s agent, and the term
Son of Humanitymeans that Jesus acts as the agent of the human race.
We see these two meanings working together in the following passage:
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. The Judeans gathered around him and said to him,How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.Jesus answered,I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.
The Judeans took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied,I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?The Judeans answered,It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.Jesus answered,Is it not written in your law,Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.I said, you are gods? If those to whom the word of God came were calledgods—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said,I am God’s Son? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.
—John 10:22-39, NRSV
In verse 25, Jesus states that He is doing works in His Father’s name. He concludes His discourse by driving this point in with the redundant statement that He and His Father are one in verse 30. This is clearly a claim of legal agency on behalf of God, based on sonship. The Pharisees understand this very clearly as implying that Jesus shares God’s divine essence, and for this reason they want to stone him. Jesus then argues from the Psalms, which call the people of God אלהים, an ambiguous word that means both
judges, but is translated in the Septuagint [See note 2] as θεοι, which can only mean
gods. He then goes further, explicitly claiming God’s power of attorney by establishing Himself as the Son of God and claiming to have authorization to act on behalf of God. This effectively, and perhaps deliberately, got Him only deeper into trouble and they intensified their efforts against Him, albeit unsuccessfully for the time being.
Many people correctly recognize that the phrase
Son of Humanity means that Jesus shares our essence, that He is truly human. It refutes the Docetic view that Jesus did not assume human form, was not born, did not die, and did not exist in any corporeal way. Since this is the case, it is also true that the phrase
Son of God means that Jesus shares His Father’s divine essence. In the monotheistic context of Judaism, it means that He is the God who created the universe, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, who revealed Himself to Abraham and gave the law to Moses. It means that when Jesus says,
It was not that way in the beginning, He is not just appealing to an earlier passage in the Torah, but revealing His own original intentMatthew 19:3-9. If the phrase
Son of Humanity is a statement of essence, then the phrase,
Son of God is also.
Many people correctly recognize that the phrase
Son of God means that Jesus exercises the prerogatives of deity. It derives from the legal reality that the son possesses the power of attorney of his father and that all his deeds have the same force as if his father did them. Thus the Son of God is able to heal, to forgive sins against God, and to conduct exorcisms on His own authority. [See note 3] Since this is the case, it is also true that the phrase
Son of Humanity also means that Jesus acts on behalf of the entire human race. We see this in Paul’s writings where he draws a parallel with Adam1 Corinthians 15, the only other person who, by virtue of being the ancestor of all, was able to create a predicament for all. Jesus is clearly not the Son of all, so this phrase,
Son of Humanity, has legal force. He has the power of attorney for the entire human race.
So we see that in the New Testament, the proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God has two meanings: it means He shares God’s essence, and it means He is God’s authorized representative whose acts have the legal force of divine acts. The proclamation that Jesus is Son of Humanity also has two meanings: it means He shares our human essence, and it means He is the authorized representative of the entire human race, whose acts are binding and effective on all. St. Cyril of Jerusalem reasonedPomazansky, page 179 that if Jesus were not fully human, humans would have not participated in His victory and thus would not benefit from it. Following this reasoning, if Jesus were not fully divine, then His acts would have had no more effect than if we had done them ourselves—which is to say they would have been in vain.
In our society, unlike biblical cultures, there is a legal form called a power of attorney, which can be as broad or as narrow in scope as the originator desires. [See note 4] A buyer, who is unable to attend a real-estate settlement, can solve the problem by providing his real-estate agent with a real-estate power of attorney. The seller can do the same. Imagine how smoothly the transaction would go if the buyer and the seller chose the same attorney-in-fact! That is precisely what is going on in the New Testament and it is what Paul means in Galatians 3:20. Normally there are two mediators, one for each party, but in this case, there is only one mediator who represents both parties. Jesus is simultaneously the agent of God and the agent of the human race. By being God’s agent, He is able to effect salvation; and by being our agent, he makes it possible for us to benefit from it. In the context of the first century, the only way He can obtain that agency is by sharing the essence and agency of God on one hand and the essence and agency of the human race on the other.
For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man… therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son.
—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian ReligionMcNeill, page 466
Now it should be manifestly clear that in the socio-economic structure of the first-century world, it is not possible to be a man’s business agent without being that man’s son. In other words, the ancients would not have found any ambiguity or dualism in Son of Humanity referring to either agency or essence; to them agency and essence are one. Adoption was the legal method of issuing the ancient equivalent of the modern power of attorney—it is through this device that men often empowered slaves with good business acumen to represent them commercially.
In John 1:12, the author tells us that Jesus who was the only (or only begotten) Sonμονογεης υιος gave to those who believed in His authority the power to become the childrenτεκνα of God.
The difference between υιος (son) and τεκνον (child) is not gender but legal authority. The word τεκνον denotes a child or subordinate, such as a disciple or a pupil, while υιος is the legal term for a business agent or a vice-regent. We see this very clearly in the following passage, though it is obscure in the NRSV, which muddles the difference between a υιος; (son) and a τεκνον (child):
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children (υιοι) of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption (υιοθεσια). When we cry,Abba! Father!it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children (τεκνα) of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
—Romans 8:14-17, NRSV
Those who are led by the Spirit are acting as God’s agents, thus they are called υιοι in verse 14, and to become υιοι they have undergone υιοθεσια. Of course, as υιοι, they are also τεκνα, who call God Αββα and are joint heirs with Christ. We find that the primary impact of υιοι in the New Testament is
attorney-in-fact and not
male offspring from the following passage, in which women are declared to be υιοι, not τεκνα as the (mis)translation might lead us to believe:
for in Christ Jesus you are all children (υιοι) of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:26-28, NRSV
The Greek word υιοθεσια, often translated
adoption as a son, or
adoption as children actually means
making into a son. We might make a play on the word
synthesis and render it
sonthesis. This is the regular legal term by which a man undergoes a legal process to make another man his agent and heir. Thus in Pauline theology, the process of becoming a Christian is a
sonthesis that has two immediate effects on us, which the ancient world would have perceived as a unit. It makes us God’s heirs with Jesus Christ and it makes us God’s agents in this world, who are to do all the things that God has prepared for us to do in advance, in anticipation of our adoption. This is not an invention of the Pauline school of theology; it is an extension of Jesus’ teaching in his parable of the talentsMatthew 25:14ff.
The implications of sonship as set forth in the New Testament, understood within the socio-economic and legal systems of that age are as follows:
- The phrases
Son of Godand
Son of Humanityexpress both essence and agency. The two meanings cannot be separated in that era. Jesus is simultaneously truly human and truly God; Jesus is simultaneously the attorney-in-fact for the human race and attorney-in-fact for God.
- Ancient theologians saw Jesus’ dual agency as essential for carrying out His act of reconciliation. Since there is only one mediator, He must have both roles. Without being the agent of the human race, His reconciliatory acts would not benefit us. Without being the agent of God, His acts would not be efficacious.
- God adopts people as sons through the agency of Jesus Christ. This imparts both agency and essence to us; the first is discipleship and our call to holy living; the second is the Orthodox doctrine of theosis or, in a slightly different form, the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection.
- Jesus Christ cannot have been adopted, because there was no one to serve as the agent to bring about His adoption. [See note 5] As Calvin says:
For God honors us who have been reborn into new life with the namesons,but bestows the nametrue and only-begottenupon Christ alone. But how is He theonlyson among so many brothers, unless he possesses by nature what we receive as a gift?
—Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion McNeill, volume 1, page 489, 2.14:6
- Therefore Jesus’ essence as Son of God, which is necessary to effect His agency as Son of God, cannot have been imparted. On this basis, the ancient mainline church ruled out Arianism and any form of Adoptionism.
- In the first century, whenever sonship does not come through adoption, it must come from birth. Therefore in order for Jesus to be the Son of God in agency, He must be the Son of God in essence, and since there is no mechanism for Him to have been adopted, He must have acquired this essence from birth.
- The canonical witness is that Jesus was the Son of God from birth.
- Therefore, Jesus’ natural Father had to have been God.
- Since Jesus’ mother was not married and had no previous children before His birth, she had to have been a virgin at least before and during His birth. If Jesus had had a human father, He would not have had the essence of God as a birthright, He could not have acquired it by adoption, and His acts would have been ineffectual.
This is not a modern viewpoint. Irenaeus reasons:
But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare:If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace:I said, Ye are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but ye shall die like men.He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?
— Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 19:1. [See note 6]
Now one might raise the objection that we no longer have the socio-economic and legal institutions of the first century, and that for us, the Virgin Birth is not necessary, because for us, Jesus does not need to possess a divine essence in order to act as a divine agent. This would be true if the incarnation had occurred in this century. However, it occurred in the first century, so our context does not apply. If we assert that a first-century man named Jesus is the incarnate God, then we must affirm that He is incarnate, not just in flesh, but in the times and customs of the era in which the incarnation occurred.
The Theological Necessity for the Virgin Birth Jesus as Sacrifice
So far we have considered only the means by which Jesus obtains His authority to effect our reconciliation; now we shall turn to examine how He carries it out.
The writers of the New Testament canon are in agreement that Jesus’ death must be understood as a paschal sacrifice that has the character of a sin sacrifice. The following three examples from different writers demonstrate this:
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed,Look, here is the Lamb of God!
—John 1:35-36, NRSV
Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
—1 Corinthians 5:7, NRSV
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
—1 Peter 1:18-21, NRSV
The Epistle to the Hebrews develops this idea, placing Jesus in the triple role of sacerdote, sacrifice, and incarnate God, sacrificing HimselfHebrews 1-2,
4:14-5:10, and 7 to Himself to effect atonement for the sins of the world.
If we posit that the first-century Christians saw Jesus effecting their salvation by sacrificing Himself for their sins, we must see this within their context; within the context of the Levitical regulations for sacrifice. John the Baptizer proclaims that Jesus is the paschal lamb, Jesus Himself gives His death a paschal meaning in all four accountsMatthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11 of the Last Supper, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates this theme, and the writer of the Apocalypse reflects it.
In view of this teaching that Jesus is the universal paschal lamb, the writers of the gospels had to overcome objections that their immediate readers would have brought to the story. Anyone who lived in a time when the Romans still executed criminals by crucifixion would have known that it was common practice to break the legs of the victims to hasten their death, when that was necessary for some reason. Yet anyone who kept Passover knew that if Jesus had had any broken bones, it would have disqualified Him from being the universal paschal lambExodus 12:43-46. The gospel writers had effectively painted themselves into a corner by relating that Jesus was executed on the day before the Sabbath, because readers would have understood that the Sanhedrin would have insisted on burying the corpses before sundown in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath. Being familiar with crucifixion, and perhaps even witnessing it from time to time, they would also know that this is not normally enough time for the convict to die unassisted. So the writers purposefully document that Jesus did not sleep the previous night, suffered whipping and scourging, and was so fatigued that He was unable to complete the task of carrying His own cross to Golgotha. This makes their assertion more believable, that Jesus had already died before the soldiers came to break legs, at the point where they had to relate it.
All this demonstrates that the Levitical regulations were forefront in the writers’ minds, and that it was also necessary to overcome the ban on sacrificing the first-born sons of Israel in Exodus 13:15.
The only way that Jesus could qualify as being simultaneously the first-born and not a son of Israel was for Him to have been born of a virgin. So in this we have found a Jewish reason for asserting the Virgin Birth.
The Narrative Necessity for the Virgin Birth
We might explain the Virgin Birth as an embellishment to the narrative in the canonical gospels, designed to attract pagans whose gods frequently had heroic births, but it does not explain why this detail is included in Matthew, which was written for a Jewish audience. For Jews, a pagan embellishment creates more problems than it solves. And it does not seem to have been effective with pagans either, because Justin Martyr found it to be a hindrance rather than a help with pagans:
And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus.
—Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 22. [See note 7]
The question that should arise at this point is not why Justin attempted this defense, but why it didn’t work. Perhaps ancient pagan intellectuals understood, as modern Hindu intellectuals do, that their religious myths were myths. Perhaps they also understood Jesus Christ as a historic personage and were amused (actually, they laughed out loud) the inclusion of an apparent mythical element in a historical narrative. In any event, Justin’s defense shows that the Virgin Birth was actually an impediment to pagans. It is clear from Irenaeus that his ancient contemporaries had a clear understanding of human reproduction that ruled out Virgin Births:
For what great thing or what sign should have been in this, that a young woman conceiving by a man should bring forth—a thing which happens to all women that produce offspring?
—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21:6 [See note 8]
We also might explain the Virgin Birth as an attempt by canonical writers to give Jesus a heroic birth in the fine tradition of the Hebrew canon, but this theory also creates more problems than it solves. First, not all heroes in the Hebrew canon have irregular births: Moses did, but Joshua, David, and Solomon did not. Second, it introduces an element that even pagans found ridiculous in a historical account. While it may be true that the theme of an irregular birth is a literary feature of ancient hagiography, it seems more probable, in light of the fact that it is not an invariable feature, that people with irregular births tend to suffer from social stigma or family pressures that lead them to overachievement. In that case, the irregular birth narratives appear in hagiographies in order to interpret actual occurrences and to give us insight into the etiology of the heroic person’s character.
Going on the hypothesis that Jesus actually had an irregular birth that needed to be explained, let us examine the probable historicity and narrative function of the following aspects of the canonical gospels:
- The annunciation to Mary
- Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s premature pregnancy
- Mary’s visit of her cousin Elizabeth
- Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve
- The character of Jesus’ ministry
- The resurrection
The Annunciation to Mary
Modern theologians belong to socio-economic classes in which visions and angelic visitations are deprecated, and those who experience them are subject to psychiatric examination and diagnosis. They often conclude that such experiences are features of more naïve, bygone eras, or that they are literary embellishments inserted by the writer.
However, there are socio-economic classes today in which these experiences are acceptable. One only needs to teach senior high school or to have a teenaged daughter to understand that young girls commonly have grandiose fantasies about their future spouses and children. Certainly some of the girls with grandiose fantasies eventually fulfill them; we cannot rule out the possibility that a woman who had a remarkable child must not have had a grandiose fantasy in her youth!
So whether Gabriel’s visit to Mary was objective or subjective, it is a probable occurrence, and it can be considered historical in the sense that Mary truly experienced it at the time in her life that Luke relates it. The incident, however, also contributes the embarrassing detail that Mary is pregnant before her marriage.
This incident is related to explain Jesus’ irregular birth, which consisted in the fact that his mother was prematurely pregnant.
Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s premature pregnancy
In Matthew, which was written to a Jewish audience, Joseph discovers that his betrothed is already pregnant and considers putting her away for adultery. On the strength of a dream, he relents. This incident teaches the Virgin Birth to Jews, an audience that is the least susceptible to pagan elements being used as embellishments of stories, which indicates that the writer had a problem to overcome that was more severe than the problem created by his solution, namely, that Joseph did not divorce Mary. If he had found that his wife-to-be were not a virgin, he would have been required by law and custom to divorce her. The only possible ground for relenting was that she was a virgin despite her pregnancy.
The incident is related to overcome the problem that Joseph did not divorce Mary, even though he was not the father of her child.
Mary’s Visit to her Cousin Elizabeth
Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth also contributes an embarrassing detail, namely that Mary was sent out of town during her pregnancy. There is no particular narrative reason why her visit had to take place at this particular point. Since it is a long-standing custom to send prematurely pregnant daughters to live with out-of-town relatives until they give birth, it seems that this must be a real occurrence that was adapted to the narrative necessity of tying together the stories of Jesus and John—which confirms that Mary actually had an irregular pregnancy.
This incident is related to give meaning to the fact that Mary’s parents either did not know about or accept her explanation of her pregnancy and sent her out of town while she was pregnant.
Jesus in the Temple at the Age of Twelve
Mary and Joseph make a routine visit to Jerusalem, and on the way home, it turns out that Jesus was left behind. When they return to look for Him, they find Him in the Temple, which He termed His Father’s house. He was twelve years old at the time.
This incident does not advance the plot of Luke at all. It shows Jesus as a precocious youth, which is something readers might deduce on their own anyway, so it contributes no information. There were only three people involved in the story who might serve as sources for Luke: Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. Joseph does not figure in the New Testament canon or any early writings after about this time; in fact, by tradition he is already dead by the time of the crucifixion. Thus Joseph was not available to Luke as a source of information. Luke [See note 9] cannot claim the risen Jesus as a source, because by his own account, Jesus had ascended before the time of writing and was not available for interviews. Mary, however, was alive at the time of the crucifixion and, by John’s account, a part of the Christian community. So it appears that she was Luke’s direct or indirect source.
Another problem with this incident is that it is embarrassing to Mary. She forgot her own child and had to go back and look for Him, and when she found Him, He was claiming God as His Father. We might reconstruct the event as follows: Mary’s special child had caused her embarrassment during pregnancy and had become problematical, so she subconsciously wanted Him to go away and she left Him behind. Since the visit to Elizabeth shows that her community did not believe there was anything special about Jesus’ birth, it is possible that she had comforted Him against taunts by telling Him of her (subjective or objective) visitation by the angel. She and Joseph returned to fetch Him, but found Him relating the story of the angel and His paternity to the elders in the Temple. The incident and Jesus’ age stuck in her guilty memory, because she was responsible for the content of His story, which would have been blasphemous. He was only one year shy of the age of majority, when He could be punished for what He claimed. Mary’s ears burned all the way back to Galilee, and it was only in the aftermath of the resurrection that the incident ceased to be shameful and became her vindication.
This incident is a private recollection of Mary of actual events that vindicate her account of Jesus’ birth.
The Character of Jesus’ Ministry
Jesus’ ministry was grounded in the idea that He is God’s Son in some special, essential way that made Him God’s agent in the world, able to forgive sins on God’s behalf, able to raise the dead on the last day and judge all flesh, and able to effect the adoption of other people into sonship with God.
We might say that Jesus’ ministry is based on an obsession with His own paternity, even going to the extent of calling God His Αββα. If He had an irregular birth for which he suffered taunts and ostracism as a child, and if Mary had consoled Him with her account of the Virgin Birth, we can understand Jesus’ ministry in its emotional dimension as a working-out with His mother of the issue of His irregular birth. All of Jesus’ teachings and actions are predicated upon His essential sonship with God.
The canonical witness depicts Jesus’ disciples as disillusioned during the time that immediately followed the crucifixion. Because Jesus predicated His deeds and teachings upon His paternity, the resurrection appearances, which are all depicted as vindicating His claims about His identity, can also be viewed as vindications of His Virgin Birth.
We could therefore see the whole of Jesus’ ministry as an explication of the dogma of the Virgin Birth.
Mary Was a Virgin at the Time of Jesus’ Birth
If we say that God became incarnate in human history, we must be able to find Him enfleshed in a specific person at a specific time within a specific cultural context—and that context includes the society, the economics, the law, the customs, and the religion of the time and place in which the Incarnation occurred. Otherwise we are advocating a kind of Docetism, where God only appears to be present in history but actually is not.
In this article, I have shown the following:
- As humans, we foreknow our own personal death; that is the fact of it, not the details. The tension between our instinct for survival and our foreknowledge of our eventual death leads us to be estranged from our existence. This estrangement leads us to find a remedy, and the pursuit of that remedy is termed
- The Jewish religious system posits that the estrangement is a predicament caused by archetypal ancestors who disobeyed the commandments of a transcendental, personal deity, and seeks reconciliation through sacerdotal rituals and obedience to divine laws.
- The Christian religious system stands on a Jewish platform, proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the deity from whom we are estranged, and for that reason He can effect a permanent reconciliation. Therefore, Christology is the fundamental doctrine of Christianity and the fundamental task of Christian theology.
- Human beings necessarily live at specific points in history, thereby having specific social, economic, legal, religious, and cultural contexts. If God is incarnate in the Jew Jesus Christ in first-century Palestine, His incarnate existence takes place within that entire context.
At this point, our reasoning works down two parallel paths:
- In the legal context of first-century Palestine, one cannot exercise agency on behalf of another without sharing essence. More specifically, only sons can hold powers of attorney, and they hold them ex officio by virtue of their sonship.
- In the religious context of first-century Palestine, reconciliation with God takes place through sacrifice. There are specific rules governing what can be sacrificed. An unsuitable sacrifice is not efficacious and may even offend God with dire results.
- Jesus acts as God’s agent, as His legal equivalent. That requires Him to be the Son of God.
- Jesus, at the Last Supper, depicts Himself as the sacrifice, a theme reflected by many canonical writers. That means He must meet the ritual requirements for a suitable sacrifice.
- There are two ways to acquire sonship, by adoption and by birth. Jesus effects our sonship through adoption. There is no one to effect His adoption.
- Among other qualifications, the sin sacrifice must be the first-born. Jesus is the first born of Mary and the first (and only) first-born incarnation of God. The sacrificial laws specifically prohibit, not human sacrifice, but the
sacrifice of the first-born sons of Israel.
- Within the legal context of first-century Palestine, Jesus must therefore be the Son of God by birth, not adoption, in order to act as God’s agent.
- Within the religious context of first-century Judaism, Jesus must therefore have slipped through some loophole to be a suitable sacrifice. There must be a sense in which He is not a
first-born son of Israel.
- No person was able to have two natural fathers. If Jesus is the natural son of a man, He cannot be the natural Son of God.
- If Jesus was the natural son of a Jew, He was an illegal sacrifice. If He were virginally conceived, He would not be the natural son of a man, therefore He would not be subject to the prohibition.
- Jesus’ entire ministry is predicated upon His paternity, and can be viewed as an explication of the implications of His Virgin Birth.
- Therefore, it is christologically necessary for Jesus to have been virginally conceived.
Why We Cannot Prove the Virgin Birth
It is, of course, impossible to advance a medical proof of Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ birth, because for that we need a gynecological examination during her pregnancy, and it is too late for that. It is also impossible to advance a legal proof of Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ birth, because for that we need to call witnesses, all of whom are dead. However, we can demonstrate that it was theologically necessary for ancient Christian writers to assert her virginity at Jesus’ birth, and that is what I have just done.
Mary’s virginity, at least at the time of Jesus’ birth, is the cornerstone of any valid Christology, because in order to assert that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God, it is necessary to bring in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. Within that context, Jesus acted as the agent of God and served as a sacrifice for sin. Jesus could not be the agent of God without being God’s natural Son, and since one man’s paternity rules out another’s, Jesus could not have had a human father. Jesus also could not be a fit sacrifice for sin if He had had a human father, because then He would have fallen under the ban against sacrificing first-born sons.
Why We Must Affirm the Virgin Birth Anyway
If we formulate a Christology that denies the Virgin Birth, we deny that God was fully present within the historical context of Jesus Christ. That constitutes a significant erosion, if not outright rejection of the Incarnation, and thus a disconnect from historic Christianity.
Appendix: The Problem of Isaiah 7:14
Luke and Matthew both state outright that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke first establishes Mary’s virginity through a direct statement in 1:27, then recounts Mary’s question about how it is possible for her to bear a child while still a virgin in 1:34. Matthew, however, considers her virginity to be a necessary fulfillment of a prophecy:
Look, the virgin (παρθενος) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,which means,God is with us.
—Matthew 1:23, NRSV
Obviously the wording comes from the Septuagint, which reads as follows:
Ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον και καλεσεις το ονομα αυτου Εμμανουηλ.
—Isaiah 7:14b, SeptuagintRahlfs, Volume II, page 575
However authoritative the Septuagint may have been in first-century Greek-speaking synagogues, it was nevertheless a translation of a Hebrew original. The question is whether παρθενος is a proper translation of the Hebrew word כתולה. The common argumentation is that כתולה only refers to a young marriageable woman, and that the usage of this word in the Old Testament and in cognate languages do not conclusively point to the meaning of παρθενος. This is not a modern debate. Irenaeus states:
For truly this prediction was uttered before the removal of the people to Babylon; that is, anterior to the supremacy acquired by the Medes and Persians. But it was interpreted into Greek by the Jews themselves, much before the period of our Lord’s advent, that there might remain no suspicion that perchance the Jews, complying with our [predisposition], did put this interpretation upon these words. They indeed, had they been cognizant of our future existence, and that we should use these proofs from the Scriptures, would themselves never have hesitated to burn their own Scriptures, which do declare that all other nations partake of (eternal) life…
—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21:1 [See note 10]
Irenaeus validly points out that the translation of כתולה to παρθενος is a Jewish translation done in ignorance of future Christian use of the passage. I would like to point out that Mary, virgin or not, would still fulfill this prophecy. In either case she was a כתולה, because no one takes the word to exclude virgins. However, it does appear to me that παρθενος is the prophet’s intent, that the Seventy, the translators, perceived this to be the case, and that they intentionally translated it as παρθενος. A young woman giving birth is hardly a prophetic sign, since that is the normal course of events. It is like prophesying that some great event will occur on a day on which there is a sunrise.
For what great thing or what sign should have been in this, that a young woman conceiving by a man should bring forth—a thing which happens to all women that produce offspring?
—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21:6 [See note 11]
So clearly, the translators of the Septuagint must have assumed that when the prophet wrote כתולה, he did so with the understanding that young women who are marriageable are generally virgins, and that he chose this word because he meant a virgin who was a young and marriageable, and alternative words at his disposal would allow the reader to understand, perhaps, an elderly virgin.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the debate over the citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, it cannot disprove the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, because Mary, virgin or not, was a כתולה.