Luke 1:32-35 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. (NASB)
Why argue for Jesus’ virgin birth?
Today’s post will aim to begin offering a suggested method of arguing for the virgin birth/conception of Jesus. So why is it so important to argue for the virgin birth? The virgin birth stands as a central theological truth to rightly interpreting the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The early 20th century theologian J. Gresham Machan argues forcefully for the virgin birth’s place with respect to the overall life and mission of Jesus (1):
“But if the virgin birth represents the beginning of a new era in the course of the universe, a true entrance of the creative power of God, in sharp distinction from the order of nature, then, we think, when it is taken in connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in the connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in connection with the evidence of His resurrection, it is no longer a meaningless freak, but becomes an organic part of a mighty redeeming work of God, the reality of which is supported by a weight of evidence adequate even to overcome the initial presumption against it.”
Machen’s 1930 book is a landmark text that presents a proper defense and explanation of the virgin birth. His point is well taken in situating the priority the virgin birth plays in one’s overall understanding of all Jesus came to achieve in His first coming. With the significance of the virgin birth established, we will now briefly offer a four-fold strategy for arguing for it. Sketching out such an apologetic will intersect with four primary disciplines: biblical theology, Biblical languages, philosophy and history. Today’s post will feature the first two of these disciplines which will provide the first two planks in offering a way to argue for the virgin birth.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology
This first plank in the overall strategy for arguing for the virgin birth attempts to communicate the meaning of it in light of major Biblical themes. Biblical theology is that particular area of theology that attempts to understand the overall major themes that unfold throughout the entirety of the Biblical text. So what key Biblical doctrines might be included to understand the significance of the virginal conception of Jesus in His humanity?
To begin, the doctrine of sin presented in the Old and New Testaments indicates that the moral and spiritual curse pronounced upon Adam and Eve is reckoned along the male side of the human bloodline (see Genesis 5 and 1 Peter 1:17-18 for example). As God’s plan of salvation unfolds throughout the Old Testament, the need of a Redeemer who would be both God and man becomes faintly outlined. In brief, the deity of this predicted redeemer would need to be fully Divine, since salvation is of the Lord (see Isaiah 43:10-11; Jonah 2:9).
Old Testament texts such as Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14 reveal a second important truth: that the humanity of the Redeemer would be a genuine humanity brought about by the “seed of a woman” and by way of “the virgin conceiving a son”. The humanity of the Redeemer needed to be truly human and yet without sin. Only a virgin-born human being could be guaranteed of not having their humanity tainted with sin derived from a paternal human bloodline. Other Old Testament texts such as Micah 5:1-3 dovetail both truths of the predicted Redeemer’s deity and humanity as fitting the profile of the Person needed to accomplish salvation.
Thoughts such as the ones above drive forward the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Luke 3:23-38) contains 77 names as reckoned per Mary’s side of His humanity. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Matthew 1:1-17) portrays how Jesus is legally the son of David per Joseph lineage. Joseph plays no biological role in Jesus’ humanity, which is the point of Luke’s record. Both genealogies together operate along the major Biblical themes mentioned above. Keeping such truths in mind will enable one to keep focused as they argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of the Biblical languages
When we consider the two key verses that assert Jesus’ virgin-birth: Luke 1:34 and Matthew 1:23, part of making the case for Jesus’ virgin birth involves considering the Greek words behind the English translation “virgin”. Matthew 1:23 states in the NASB: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” The word translated “the virgin” is the Greek word ἡ παρθένος (par-then-os). Despite the protests of critics, this Greek word’s meaning of “virgin” is consistently defined as the proper translation of both Matthew 1:23 and its Old Testament quotation of the Greek version (i.e Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14 in the major scholarly Greek dictionaries (lexicons).(2)
The second major verse that asserts the virgin birth is Mary’s statement in Luke 1:34. Mary’s statement asserts this doctrine by way of her describing what she is not, as rendered by the NKJV: “Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” The NASB renders this same verse by having the grammatically equivalent statement rendered positively as: “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s assertion of “not knowing a man” bears out the lack of her experience of having physical intimacy with any man, which is a very specific way of making explicit her virginity. Both Matthew and Luke’s inclusion of the fact of the virgin birth is soundly supported by studies in the Biblical languages.
So far we have observed how to argue for the virgin birth from the stand-point of Biblical theology and studies in the Biblical languages. We could say that these first two planks represent the Biblical data itself. The next two areas from whence one can argue for the virgin birth (philosophical considerations and history) deal more with the defensive side of the overall case. In the next post, we will begin considering how to argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of philosophical considerations with respect to the possibility of miracles.
More next time….
1. J. Gresham Machen. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Page 217. 1930. Reprinted 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers)
2. Two Greek dictionaries or lexicons are worth noting in connection with the meaning of “par-then-os” in Matthew 1:23. The first is the lexicon edited by Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 777. This particular lexicon (called by the abbreviated name “BDAG”) is considered the most up-to-date and reliable Greek lexicon covering the Greek and New Testament and other Greek literature. The portion of BDAG pertinent to this post notes: παρθένος, ου, ἡ (s. prec. entry; Hom.+, gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, w. or without focus on virginity; s. esp. PKöln VI, 245, 12 and ASP 31, ’91 p. 39) and ὁ (s. reff. in b) in our lit. one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person
ⓐ female of marriageable age w. focus on virginity ἡ παρθένος Mt 25:1, 7, 11; 1 Cor 7:25 (FStrobel, NovT 2, ’58, 199–227), 28, 34; Pol 5:3; Hv 4, 2, 1; Hs 9, 1, 2; 9, 2, 3; 5; 9, 3, 2; 4f; 9, 4, 3; 5f; 8 al.; AcPl Ox 6, 16 (cp. Aa I 241, 15); GJs 13:1. After Is 7:14 (הָעַלְמָה הָרָה; on this ASchulz, BZ 23, ’35, 229–41; WBrownlee, The Mng. of Qumran for the Bible, esp. Is, ’64, 274–81) Mt 1:23 (cp. Menand., Sicyonius 372f παρθένος γʼ ἔτι, ἄπειρος ἀνδρός). Of Mary also Lk 1:27ab; GJs 9:1; 10:1; 15:2; 16:1; 19:3; ISm 1:1 and prob.
A second Greek dictionary of near-equal prominence is the Intermediate Dictionary Greek-English Dictionary by George Liddell. In his entry for par-then-os we read for the primary entry: παρθένιος, α, ον, and ος, ον, (παρθένος) like παρθένειος, of a maiden or virgin, maiden, maidenly, Od., Hes., Aesch., etc. Whenever we look at any Greek dictionary, we must consider all the entries and then determine which meaning fits the context of the passage. the remaining entries in Liddell’s lexicon reads: 2. παρθένιος, ὁ, the son of an unmarried girl, Il.:—but, π. ἀνήρ the husband of maidenhood, first husband, Plut.
II. metaph. pure, undefiled, h. Hom.; π. μύρτα, of white myrtle-berries, Ar. As we have already explored the Biblical theology of this word, as well as considered what was read in the other Greek Lexicon “BDAG”, the primary entry in Liddell would be the most appropriate rendering for the word we find in Matthew 1:23.