This is the time of year more than any other when the subject of the virgin birth of Christ seems to show up in conversations both public and private. The point of the discussion varies from time to time, but it seems primarily to serve apologetic interests along the following lines. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, this evidential argument says, God foretold through Isaiah that a virgin would conceive and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14). Seven centuries later, Mary, a virgin from Nazareth in Galilee, receives a surprise visit from an angel. He assures her of God’s favor and informs her that she will conceive by divine power and bear a son. It all happens as predicted, leaving us with two miracles: Jesus is born to the virgin Mary–exactly as Isaiah prophesied 700 years in advance.
The argument ranks high within the canon of fundamentalist and evangelical evidences. During the years 1910-1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola) published twelve volumes under the name The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The set containing ninety chapters by conservative scholars responding to modernism’s slippage from the supernatural and denials of historical orthodox doctrine. Leading the charge with chapter one of volume one was James Orr, making the case for “The Virgin Birth of Christ.” But as needful as these essays might have been at the time, it is possible that the early church did not assign this doctrine the relative ranking among other Christian truths that it later came to have.
The statistics alone are startling. The New Testament contains twenty-seven documents or “books,” written by nine men. Some Christian doctrines are so significant that they appear in most or all twenty-seven books, so widely known as to be mentioned by all nine authors. The explanation that Mary’s first pregnancy resulted from a miracle and not from a man–or, to use the familiar shorthand, “the Virgin Birth”–is not a doctrine of that kind. For starters, only Matthew and Luke (two writers out of nine) mention this astonishing detail, and it appears only in their respective Gospels (two books out of twenty-seven). Totally mum on this subject are Jesus’ half-brothers James and Jude; apostles Peter, John, and Paul; John Mark (Barnabas’ cousin); and the author of Hebrews (my guess: Barnabas).
When Matthew writes his Gospel intended for a Jewish audience, he begins with a royal genealogy that establishes Jesus’ legal standing as an heir to David’s throne. Normally women were not named in genealogies, but Matthew includes five females: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “Uriah’s wife” (Bathsheba), and Mary. And what do these women share, beyond participation in a royal lineage? Each in her day was the butt of coarse jokes, the subject of gossip, the object of ridicule and scorn.
These female ancestors of the Messiah knew what it meant to live with a cloud of suspicion above one’s pretty head. Gradually they had grown deaf to the clucking and murmuring of judgmental old biddies; become blind to the slicing, self-righteous glances of women their own age; numb to the painful remarks regarding the wickedness of sexual misconduct by daughters of the covenant. Yes, these are special women. And Mary has made the list. The neighbors are talking, all right; a brief explanation of the facts is clearly in order.