One of the mainstays of the Christmas story is the virgin birth. But why is this so important? Would we really lose anything if we didn’t have to affirm this traditional teaching?
Why should the “true meaning of Christmas” feature a young woman’s virginity? And why has the Christian tradition made the virgin birth (or more technically, the virginal conception) of Jesus such a make-or-break issue?
Here I offer five observations on the significance and reality of Jesus’ virginal conception. My goal is to show why Jesus’s virginal conception is not an irrelevant issue, but is important for understanding the coming in flesh (or incarnation) of Christ.
Five Observations about the Virginal Conception
1. First, we should affirm the virginal conception of Jesus because the Bible teaches it clearly. Matthew affirms at least three times that Mary was pregnant even though she was a virgin (Matt. 1:18, 23–25). Similarly, in Luke Mary is explicitly identified as a virgin (Luke 1:27), and Mary herself states that she is a virgin when she receives news of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:34).
Some have found it curious that the other two Gospels do not include the virginal conception, and perhaps some even wonder if the lack of this event in Mark and John threatens the historicity of Matthew and Luke. But the Bible is true in all it affirms, and it affirms the historicity of the virginal conception. Further, neither Mark nor John contradicts Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Gospel does not include any account of Jesus’s birth, but Jesus first appears in Mark as a grown man. Further John’s Gospel is quite consistent with Jesus’s virginal conception: John focuses on the heavenly origin of Jesus, which provides helpful clarification about the virginal conception (see point #2 below). Additionally, John’s Gospel includes several passages where those who think they know where Jesus is from are actually mistaken (see John 6:41–42; 7:27–28, 40–42). Some opponents in John even suggest Jesus was born of sexual immorality (John 8:41). This may allude to the “questionable circumstances” pertaining to Jesus’s birth in his own day.
Admittedly, Matthew and Luke do not necessarily explain in great detail why the virginal conception of Jesus is important, but on reflection in light of additional biblical texts, it comes into clearer focus. This leads to a second point.
2. Second, the virginal conception of Jesus is important because Jesus is not a man who became God, but God who became man. This means he did not begin to exist in the womb of Mary, but as eternal Son of God he exists eternally. Jesus is not essentially the son of Mary, but he is the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who took to himself a true human nature in Mary’s womb. It was thus fitting for the one who is always Son not to come to earth by means of the normal act of procreation—for most properly the Father of Jesus is the eternal Father. Additionally, the Son of God is not dependent on any human action for the incarnation. The virginal conception was a fitting way for the eternal Son of God to take a true, sinless human nature. This leads to a third point.
3. Third, the virginal conception points to Jesus’s role as a New Adam. Adam is the representative of all those who descend from him by ordinary procreation. Jesus’s birth as a man marked the interruption of the normal process of procreation, and signaled that he was not represented by Adam—the head of humanity—when Adam fell into sin. Jesus’s human nature was not tainted in any way by sin, but was created entirely pure (see Luke 1:35). Jesus is the holy Son of God who came to redeem sinners; there was no imperfection in his human nature that needed fixing.
The Apostle Paul describes Christ as a new and last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:45–49), which requires that Jesus was not born in the same way as everyone else. In theological terms, Jesus was free from original sin. It is again important to remember that Jesus is ontologically (that is, in his essence) the eternal, holy, sinless Son of God. The human nature he assumed in the incarnation thus must be holy and without sin for it to be united to the holy person of the Son of God.
4. Fourth, the virginal conception is not a myth. It is true that some ancient figures were said to be supernaturally born (such as Perseus, Hercules, Alexander the Great, or Plato), but these were embellished stories that were not typically virginal conceptions—instead, they often brought into view some sort of physical relationship between a god and a woman. The Bible is much different in comparison. There is no sort of physical, sexual relationship with Mary in view when the Bible recounts the virginal conception, and polytheism of the ancient world is far different from the monotheistic context of Scripture.
The virginal conception of Jesus is remarkable; but that does not mean it is not historical. Luke, who has so much to say about the virginal conception, opens his Gospel by assuring his readers that the details he includes are true (Luke 1:1–4). This also shows us that Luke knew the difference between things that really happened, and things that didn’t happen. It is an odd claim I sometimes encounter which says that the ancients did not really care about what really happened. Nonsense. Luke writes explicitly about what really happened, when, and where, and he also wants his readers to know what really happened (see Luke 1:1–5; 3:1–2).
5. Fifth, the virginal conception does not simply reflect the naivete of people who lived in a pre-scientific age. People in the ancient world knew quite well that children were not born of virgins. The virginal conception is a miracle. We do not believe the Bible because we can scientifically explain all its claims, but we take its claims by faith.
Miracles are not simply contraventions of the “natural order of things,” as though the universe runs along mechanically. Instead, we should understand that God is always in charge of our world, and miraculous interventions of God are stark reminders of that reality. Is it really surprising that when the second person of the Trinity took on flesh in the incarnation, his conception was miraculous?
To affirm the virginal conception of Jesus is to affirm the clear teaching of Scripture; to deny the virginal conception is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture. The virginal conception was fitting for the birth in time as a true man of One who exists eternally as Son of God.
So while we cannot prove the virginal conception scientifically, neither can we explain other wonderful truths of Scripture scientifically. The Bible’s claims call for faith. This applies not only to the birth of our Savior, but also (among other events) to his death and resurrection. As the church father Irenaeus once observed, “if one does not accept His birth from a Virgin, how can he accept His resurrection from the dead?”1
Brandon D. Crowe (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. You can read more of his content at faculty.wts.edu.