Virgin birth of Jesus

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The Annunciation, by Guido Reni, 1621 GuidoReniAnnunciation.jpg
The Annunciation, by Guido Reni, 1621

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 sexual intercourse with her husband Joseph. [1] 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, [1] but the scholarly consensus is that its historical foundations are very flimsy. [2]


Cultural context

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico La Anunciacion, by Fra Angelico, from Prado in Google Earth - main panel.jpg
The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico

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. [3] This cultural milieu was conducive to miraculous birth stories - they were common in biblical tradition going back to Abraham and Sarah. [4] - and the most likely cultural context for both Matthew and Luke is Jewish Christian or mixed Gentile/Jewish-Christian circles rooted in Jewish tradition. [5]

Tales of virgin birth and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world, [6] 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. [7] 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. [8] Nevertheless, "plausible sources that tell of virgin birth in areas convincingly close to the gospels' own probable origins have proven extremely hard to demonstrate". [9] 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. [9]

The Gospel of Luke says Mary is a virgin betrothed to Joseph, [10] while the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus' virginal conception happens before Mary lives with Joseph in his house, [11] because, in a Jewish wedding, by being betrothed to a man, the woman is already his wife, yet she does not start living in his house until the wedding is over. [12] [Notes 1] Mary's response to Gabriel - "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (meaning, no sexual relations) [13] - is an affirmation of Mary the wife of Joseph's virginity and obedience to the Torah that forbids adultery. [14] [15]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph intends to divorce Mary on suspicion of adultery [16] because he is a righteous man, i.e., he is obedient to the Torah [17] that mandates divorcing one's unfaithful wife. [18] [19] Because he is obedient, Joseph relents of his intention when, in a dream, he is informed by an angel of the virginal conception of Jesus. [20]

New Testament narratives: Matthew and Luke

Events in the
Life of Jesus
according to the canonical gospels
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Matthew 1:18-25

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. [21] [22] 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). [23]

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 1:26-38

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. [24]

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. [2] 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, and John's Jesus has both father and mother and virginal conception is not mentioned. [25]

In the entire Christian corpus the virgin birth is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke: [26] 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. [27] [28] [29] Matthew and Luke did not find it in Mark, nor did one of them derive it from the other, nor did they find it in a common source. [26] 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. [30] 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. [31]

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. [32] [33]

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. [34] 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. [35] 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. [35]

Throughout Christian history a small number of groups have denied the virgin birth, particularly in the Near East. [36] The Ebionites considered Jesus the Messiah, but rejected his divine nature and regarded him as fully human. [37] The Nestorian Church and Assyrian Church of the East supported a physically human nature of Jesus. [38] Others, like Marcion, held that Christ's divinity meant that his human life, death and resurrection were only an appearance. [39] 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. [40] The story was still current in the Middle Ages in satirical parody of the Christian gospels called the Toledot Yeshu. [41] [42] The Toledot Yeshu contains no historical facts, and was probably created as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity. [41] In America, the Strangite Mormon church denies the virgin birth of Christ, saying that his full humanity was indispensable if his sacrifice for sin was to be real. [43]

Celebrations, devotions and art

Mary writing the Magnificat, by Marie Ellenrieder, 1833 Ellenrieder Maria 1833.jpg
Mary writing the Magnificat, by Marie Ellenrieder, 1833

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. [44] 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. [45] 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. [46]

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. [47] Annunciation scenes also amount to the most frequent appearances of Gabriel in medieval art. [48] 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. [49]

In Islam

Muslims accept the virgin birth, affirming that Jesus was "incarnate of the Holy Ghost by the Virgin Mary," as the Nicene Creed formulates, but not that he was "Very God of Very God, begotten, not made." [50] Mohammad appears to have gained his knowledge of the story through the late 2nd century Gospel of James rather than through the canonical gospels. [51]

See also


  1. Kiddushin (betrothal) is far more binding than an engagement as we understand the term in modern Western culture; in fact, Maimonides speaks of a period of engagement before the kiddushin. Once kiddushin is complete, the relationship can only be dissolved by death or divorce. However, the spouses do not live together at that time, and the mutual obligations created by the marital relationship do not take effect until the nisuin is complete.

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  1. 1 2 Carrigan 2000, p. 1359.
  2. 1 2 Bruner 2004, p. 37.
  3. Lincoln 2013, p. 195-196,258.
  4. Schowalter 1993, p. 790.
  5. Hurtado 2005, p. 328.
  6. Lachs 1987, p. 6.
  7. Casey 1991, p. 152.
  8. Kodell 1992, p. 939.
  9. 1 2 Welburn 2008, p. 2.
  10. USCCB Luke 1:27
  11. USCCB Matthew 1:18
  12. Jewish Virtual Library: Marriage in Judaism
  13. USCCB Luke 1:34 commentary Mary’s questioning response is a denial of sexual relations and is used by Luke to lead to the angel’s declaration about the Spirit’s role in the conception of this child (Lk 1:35). According to Luke, the virginal conception of Jesus takes place through the holy Spirit, the power of God, and therefore Jesus has a unique relationship to Yahweh: he is Son of God.
  14. Jewish Encyclopedia: Adultery Sexual intercourse of a married woman with any man other than her husband. The crime can be committed only by and with a married woman; for the unlawful intercourse of a married man with an unmarried woman is not technically Adultery in the Jewish law.
  15. Jewish Virtual Library: Adultery The extramarital intercourse of a married man is not per se a crime in biblical or later Jewish law. This distinction stems from the economic aspect of Israelite marriage: the wife is the husband's possession, and adultery constitutes a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife, as the husband's possession, has no such right to him. Adultery is prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), where it is listed between murder and theft (cf. Jer. 7:9; Ezek. 16:38; Hos. 4:2; Ps. 50:18; Prov. 6:30 ff.; Job 24:14–15) among offenses against one's fellow.
  16. [ USCCB Matthew 1:19
  17. USCCB Matthew 1:19 commentary as a devout observer of the Mosaic law, Joseph wished to break his union with someone whom he suspected of gross violation of the law. It is commonly said that the law required him to do so, but the texts usually given in support of that view, e.g., Dt 22:20–21 do not clearly pertain to Joseph’s situation...the penalty for proved adultery was death by stoning; cf. Dt 22:21–23.
  18. USCCB Deuteronomy 24:1
  19. Chabad Devarim - Deuteronomy - Chapter 24 [In this case] he has an obligation to divorce her, lest she find favor in his eyes [and he might consequently wish to keep her, which he must not do, since she had committed an act of impropriety]. — [Gittin 90b]
  20. USCCB Matthew 1:20-24
  21. Robinson 2009, p. 111.
  22. Lincoln 2013, p. 99.
  23. Morris 1992, p. 31-32.
  24. Carroll 2012, p. 39.
  25. Lincoln 2013, p. 21-25.
  26. 1 2 Hurtado 2005, p. 318.
  27. Boring & Craddock 2009, p. 12.
  28. Fredriksen 2008, p. 7.
  29. Reddish 2011, p. 13.
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  35. 1 2 Kärkkäinen 2009, p. 175.
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  38. Eirini Artemi, Cyril of Alexandria's critique of the term THEOTOKOS by Nestorius Constantinople, Acta theol. vol.32 no.2 Bloemfontein Dec. 2012
  39. Wahlde 2015, p. 62-63.
  40. Voorst 2000, p. 117.
  41. 1 2 Cook 2011, p. unpaginated.
  42. Evans 1998, p. 450.
  43. Book of the Law of the Lord, Chapter XIV, "Note on the Sacrifice of Christ." Read at XIV: EUCHARIST.
  44. Simpler 1990, p. 396.
  45. O'Sullivan, Daniel E., Marian devotion in thirteenth-century French lyric, 2005, ISBN   0-8020-3885-9, pp. 14–15.
  46. Peltomaa 2001, p. 127.
  47. Guiley, Rosemary, The encyclopedia of angels, 2004, ISBN   0-8160-5023-6, p. 183.
  48. Ross, Leslie, Medieval art: a topical dictionary, 1996, ISBN   0-313-29329-5, p. 99.
  49. Grabar, André, Christian iconography: a study of its origins, 1968, Taylor & Francis, p. 130.
  50. Akyol 2017, p. 127-128.
  51. Bell 2012, p. 110.


Virgin birth of Jesus
Preceded by
Gabriel announces John's
birth to Zechariah
New Testament
Succeeded by
Mary visits Elisabeth