Legendary television interviewer Larry King was asked who he would want to interview the most and what would he ask that person. He said it would be Jesus Christ and ask whether he indeed was virgin born. The virgin birth of Christ is also something that I have been thinking deeply about. It is one of the more peculiar aspects of Jesus’ life outside the resurrection but frankly it receives so little attention in the New Testament itself. It features prominently in many historic creedal formulas and ever since in Christian theology it has been very prominent. So two questions arise from these different attitudes to the virgin birth in church history. First of all, being a modern believer I know what the virgin birth means to my generation but what did it mean to the early Christians? Second of all, why does the New Testament show far less enthusiasm for this feature of Jesus life than subsequent Christians since? The first question I will answer now and the second in a subsequent post.
Why the virgin birth?
As I mentioned in The Awkwardness of Christmas there are only two infancy narratives of Jesus which are found in Matthew and Luke. They agree in some respects but each story is told in a different way to match the overall narrative of the particular gospel. It is only in these infancy narratives that we have a certain mention of the virgin birth. Some scholars posit the reason for the virgin birth accounts is to counter the claim that Jesus’ was illegitimate. Even though I do think that view has some merit, I do not think it is enough to explain its sparse mention. Secondly, the virgin birth also creates its own problems with unorthodox views of it meaning Jesus was somehow nonhuman or superhuman.
One thing the virgin birth does not do is make Jesus superhuman, endowing him with special abilities. The fact he had to be carried in a woman meant he was vulnerable, entering the world the same way we all do, making him just as human as we are. Yes, the virgin birth does distinguish him but not in terms of possessing diving powers. In both accounts he is given a unique divine vocation, that is to say, he was born to accomplish something in the service of God for God’s people. In all the gospels whenever Jesus does something miraculous it is in fulfilment of his God-given mission. It is never explained as a special ability he has but rather something God used him to accomplish. This sense of divine vocation is very present in the virgin birth accounts, it is offered as the reason for his unique birth. In Matthew it was said he will deliver his people from their sins and in Luke he will be God’s anointed king over his people Israel. The supernatural means through which he was conceived served as a sign that God himself was acting very uniquely in the course of Israel’s history to accomplish something in and for the world. This is actually consistent with the reason why God does the miraculous. It isn’t that he wants to flex his divine muscles but rather it is for a purpose.
Viewing the virgin birth not as a mere miracle but as a divine portent of things to come is very important. Now a sign indicates there is something ahead. However a sign is of no use as an indicator of things to come if no one is anticipating anything. When we do wait for things we expect them to appear in a particular time and place. The historical context of his miraculous birth, being situated in the world of space-time, is crucial to understanding its significance. It wasn’t an odd quirk of nature with God lurking behind it, monkeying around with stuff. It happened in the course of Israelite history. It was a sign of what God was accomplishing in the long story of his relationship with his people Israel. This is the very explanation the accounts themselves offer which is supported by Jesus’ own life and self-understanding in the rest of the gospels. He believed and acted as the climactic fulfilment of the scriptural narrative. With that in mind it is no surprise that his conception was the same. In the fullest sense he lived from start to finish to fulfil what was written about him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.
As I have already said, Matthew and Luke approach the Jewishness of the virgin birth in different ways. Yet in both accounts they plug straight into the biblical narrative. Matthew does this more explicitly by quoting Isaiah but he wasn’t merely proof texting. He rather creatively reinterpreted the original prophecy about the coming of the Assyrians to show God’s faithfulness to his people in their present time of distress. As God promised to be present among his people this child would be Immanuel. What is very curious about this is Matthew used a scripture about YHWH accomplishing a special divine act and applied it to the child. Only God can save people from their sins and yet he said Jesus would do exactly that. What Matthew was saying, to use later Pauline terminology, is that somehow “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” through a “deliverer that will come from Jacob.” The virgin birth account of Matthew is another way of talking about the incarnation. He accords this person unique divine status by giving him a special mission only God could accomplish. YHWH is the only true deliverer of Israel so to talk about Jesus in the same breath means he is divine.
In Luke’s account of the virgin birth, it also tells us Jesus is both fully human and divine. He ingeniously accords him divine status by reinterpreting his messianic vocation. Instead of the Messiah, the Davidic son of God, being just God’s chosen ruler over his people, he shares in God’s unique authority as Lord. Elizabeth describes Mary as the “mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43.) Only the God of Israel has authority over his people yet he somehow shares in the Lord’s exclusive rule. For Luke he places Jesus in the same bracket with God indicating he has divine status. This is consistent with other New Testament formulae of “God/Father + Son/Jesus” to express Jesus’ unique relationship with God which is mainly found in the epistles.
How Matthew and Luke talk about the virgin birth reminds us to have an incarnational understanding of the event rooted in the historical narrative of God and Israel. The incarnation is not God abruptly entering history. As Paul would later tell the Areopagites, he has always been present in the world directing human affairs. The virgin birth is rather the pinnacle of divine activity in and through human history, where he fully participates in his creation’s ‘creatureliness.’ When we say Jesus is fully “divine” and fully “human”, we need to remember they are not abstract concepts but concrete realities. Divinity is not some substance or property but YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Jesus is not born a faceless everyman but as the seed of Abraham and the heir of David. Jesus’ personal identity is as important as God’s personal identity in the incarnation. Many think of Jesus’ story as how the Church slowly divinized a mere, albeit well-intentioned, human. In the New Testament it is rather about how God through the course of human affairs became a man (to everyone’s surprise) and how the early Church came to grips with that astonishingly true event.
I believe this incarnational view of the historic Jewish narrative is the right lens through which to view the virgin birth for three reasons. First of all, this is the contextual explanation offered by the accounts themselves. The angels explained the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth were a heavenly sign on earth that he had a unique divine mission and destiny. In facts angels announcing the birth of children of destiny is straight out of the Old Testament. As a child of Abraham he was to accomplish something only the God of Israel could do in fulfilling the ancient word of promise. Jesus therefore became the sharp focus of Israel’s story, human and divine. Secondly, the virgin birth is consistent with how all the Gospel narratives begin with the prophetic word of God, from Genesis to Zechariah, being fulfilled in Jesus. Finally, the accounts are overall consistent with New Testament incarnational theology. Jesus has a dual identity where he is fully human but has a fully divine origin. The virgin birth acts as the historical anchor of New Testament incarnational theology.