Luke 1:30-35 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 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.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of historical investigation
Whenever we consider the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, what strikes the reader is the overt way they are passed off as genuine history. Skeptics will often attempt to pass-off the virgin-birth narratives of Matthew and Luke as legendary embellishments. Furthermore, critics will often claim that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke cannot be possibly reliable sources of information. Nearly all of these criticisms are based on a view of the world that excludes the possibility of the miraculous.
In the last two posts, we have considered how one may argue for the virgin birth. For the reader’s convenience, the links for the last two parts in this series are found in the following links:
Since we have already addressed the biblical importance of the virgin birth and responded to the skeptical attacks on miracles, there only remains the final task of showing how this event is a historical one. By showing the virgin birth to be a historical event, the proponent of Jesus’ virgin birth only needs to show why a supernatural explanation of the events recorded in Matthew 1:1-2:23 and Luke 1:1-3:38 exceeds any rival naturalistic explanations of those events. Such an effort can be done through the standard methods used by historians investigating any event in history.
Philosopher Richard Swinburne has noted three factors necessary in assessing any historical explanation or hypothesis for a given event:
1. Testimony of eye-witnesses about the event and data left behind after the event’s occurrence.
2. General background information that is independent of the first factor (background information would include the behavior of the eyewitnesses, statements made by villains in the sequence of events)
3. The likelihood of the evidence (i.e statements about the virgin birth) being true under certain conditions (the historical setting of the Census of Caesar Augustus, Mary and Joseph’s betrothal, the songs of Elizabeth and Mary).
Whenever anyone investigates historical documents or events like what we find recorded in Matthew and Luke, a set of standard criteria or “tests for corroboration” are used by historians to determine the probability of the occurrence of a given event. New Testament scholar Darrell L. Bock in book: “Who is Jesus” lists the criteria used by historians.(1) A few will be listed below to give the reader a taste of how one would go about historically investigating the virgin birth:
1. Multiple sources or attestation: In standard New Testament studies, whether done by conservative or liberal scholarship, each of the documents of the New Testament are counted as one source. Hence, Matthew and Luke would each be counted as one source. The virgin birth would be considered multiply attested in the sources we have on the life of Jesus.
2. Criteria of embarrassment. In this second test, historians look for embarrassing details. If a given historical event is embellished or invented by the author, the events in question will contain no problems and the characters will possess no “embarrassing” details. One of the marks of true history is the so-called “warts and all”. Certainly Joseph’s contemplation of divorcing Mary (a taboo in 1st century Jewish culture); the inclusion of four women of questionable character in Jesus genealogy (Tamar, Rahab,Ruth, Bathsheba) and the appearance of Gentiles (i.e the Magi) in a positive light all point to the historicity of the events in question.
3. Multiple attestation of forms. This rule has to do with the various ways and literary methods used by the author to conveying his account. In the birth narratives of Jesus we find Matthew and Luke using genealogies, eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ identity by people like Simeon and Anna; songs or poetry sung by Elizabeth and Mary and historical narratives concerning certain rulers, geographical locations and events.
Tests like the ones above work together to determine or “corroborate” the event in question. Events like the virgin birth can be tested and shown to not only be proper articles of faith, but also proper subjects of history.
It is one thing to establish the historicity of the event, but it is quite another to accept the explanation of the event. Throughout the last two centuries, skeptics have offered an array of naturalistic explanations of the birth narratives of Jesus. When weighing various historical explanations, we look for which ones consistently handle the evidence from the standpoint of such factors as: explanatory scope, power, coherence of details and least amount of unwarranted assumptions. Such examples of naturalistic explanations are:
1). Mary and Joseph naturally conceived Jesus out of wedlock
2). The virgin birth is a myth symbolizing certain moral lessons
3). The birth narratives are a mixture of myth and history
4). The birth narratives are based-off of pagan myths (such as the Egyptian myth of Osiris) can still be found among those who oppose the virgin birth.
In assessing all of these naturalistic theories and others like them, early twentieth century scholar J. Gresham Machen rightly notes:(2)
“How did this strange belief (of the virgin birth) ever arise? This question is of course answered at once if the belief was founded upon fact; if Jesus was really born of a virgin, it is not difficult to understand how the Church came to believe that He was so born. But if this obvious answer be rejected, the question to which it is an attempted answer still remains.”
Over the course of two-centuries, no naturalistic explanation of the birth narratives of Jesus has succeeded in offering an adequate explanation and handling of all the details recorded in Matthew and Luke.
Over the last couple of posts, we have attempted to offer a method for arguing for the virgin birth. We have considered a four-fold method of making the case for the virgin-birth conception of Jesus’ humanity: Biblical theology, Biblical languages, philosophical considerations and historical considerations. In these series of posts, we have worked through each area. It is suggested that if this four-fold method be used, such an approach can present a very powerful cumulative case for the Biblical truth of the virgin birth of Jesus.
1. Darrell L. Bock. Who is Jesus? Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. Howard Books. 2012
2. J. Gresham Machen. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Page 269. 1930. Reprinted 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers.