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Did Luke’s Gospel Originally Have the Virgin Birth?

I have been discussing the intriguing textual variant found in Luke 3:23, where Jesus is said to be baptized.  When he comes out of the water the heavens open up, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove, and voice then comes from heaven.   But what does the voice say?  In most manuscripts the voice says exactly what it does in Mark’s Gospel: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”  But in a few ancient witnesses it says something slightly but significantly different:  “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (or: “given you birth”).

I am arguing that the latter may in fact be the original text of Luke, but that it was changed by scribes who were alert to the problems it posed.  But if that’s what the voice said, then doesn’t that indicate that it was at that moment (Note:  “Today”!) that Jesus became the Son of God?

You may be able to figure out one objection to thinking that this is what Luke originally wrote.  Doesn’t Luke have a birth narrative in the preceding two chapters, where Jesus is born of a virgin?  How could Jesus become the Son of God in Luke 3:23 if he was already the Son of God at his birth?  In Luke 1 it is clear that Jesus is the son of God – literally – at the time of his conception, because it is God himself who makes Mary pregnant.  As the angel Gabriel tells her:  “The Spirit of God will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you, SO, the one born of you will be called holy, the Son of God”  Luke 1:35).

Luke then understands that Jesus was the Son of God because of his miraculous birth.  Doesn’t that show fairly conclusively that he could not have become the Son of God at his baptism?  And doesn’t that show that the voice did NOT say “Today I have begotten you”?

It’s a very good argument, but I don’t think it’s fully persuasive, for a reason that probably would *not* occur to you.

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Arguments that Luke Did Not Originally Have the Virgin Birth
Scribes Who Changed the Voice at Jesus Baptism?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  October 21, 2015

    It’s a fascinating conjecture. I don’t find it entirely convincing. To add two entire chapters to Luke? Chapters that basically change the entire story? That’s a hell of an edit. I just don’t see that happening.

    Rewriting, yes. It would only take a few tweaks. Luke writes a story about how Jesus and John were cousins, who were miraculously begotten around the same time. Meaning they have a shared destiny. Meaning that God, in a sense, fathered both of them, but suppose originally Luke wrote Jesus’ miraculous conception as more similar to John’s–and Isaac’s, and Joseph’s, and Esau’s, and Immanuel’s? Maybe there was no virgin birth, originally, maybe there was. How much would you have to change, really? Maybe we don’t have Luke’s original version, but I find it hard to believe somebody whipped up two very consequential chapters out of whole cloth. Just as easy to whip up a whole new gospel.

    And anyway, if the point was to say “Jesus is this utterly unique person, the Begotten Son of God, born of a virgin through the Holy Spirit”, why bring John into it, and make it clear his birth was miraculous as well? Something we have in no other surviving source about John. I mean, what’s more of a miracle, really–a young fertile woman getting pregnant, or a woman who is clearly barren getting pregnant? It’s not like anybody could PROVE Mary was a virgin. It’s not like we’re ever told they checked. (Ew).

    Possible some people didn’t like Luke’s (very dubious) additions to the story, and that some editions of his gospel ‘lopped them off’, and that would explain Marcion’s copy.

    Given the later emphasis on John the Baptist in Luke, it makes sense, story-wise, to give him a big build-up–a prequel, if you will. Something tells me ‘Luke’ would have done really well in modern Hollywood. Probably be writing Star Wars movies, and come to think of it…….

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      OK, see what you make of today’s post.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 22, 2015

        I think I’m going to reread Luke.

        But that would make Matthew the lone purveyor of a virgin birth story–not merely that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, but that he was personally fathered by Jehovah. Why would the most Jewish of the gospels be the one that commits the worst act of blasphemy, from a Jewish perspective?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 23, 2015

          You would have that problem whether Luke had the account or not. But miraculous births were not opposed to the jewish tradition!

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 24, 2015

            Certainly not, but to openly say that Jehovah had fathered a son upon a mortal woman (as opposed to allowing a woman who had been infertile to conceive through natural means) would have been perceived as pagan nonsense by most religious Jews. That’s the controversial element, and honestly–Matthew doesn’t make it that clear, does he? We tend to impose later elaborations of the story onto the gospel language, which doesn’t entirely support it.

            He also does not say Mary remained a virgin her whole life–Joseph only refrains from consummating the marriage until after Jesus is born. You will not be surprised to hear that we were never read that version of the story at Christmastime in the Catholic Parish I grew up in. Mary’s lifelong and permanent virginity would not have been a necessary element back then, and it would have been hard to make the case that James (an important figure in the early church) was only Jesus’ half-brother, who had been born before him to an earlier wife of Joseph’s. Once the influence of Jesus’ family had dimmed, they could no longer control the narrative. In fact, changing the story, alienating Jesus from his own blood relations, would be an excellent way to diminish that family’s influence.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 21, 2015

    Do any apostolic fathers prior to Marcion quote or mention any verses from Luke 1-2?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      Good question. I think the answer is no. But maybe someone will correct me! I can’t think of any references to the chapters prior to the end of the second century though.

      • Avatar
        Gary  October 26, 2015

        When discussing this topic on a Christian forum recently, a Christian referred me to a couple of comments by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50 AD- c. 110 AD) where he says that Jesus was born of a virgin. So if Ignatius truly made these comments, that would verify that the virgin birth story was already in wide circulation prior to Marcion.

        I personally find it very odd that neither the author of Mark nor Paul ever mention a virgin birth. It seems to me that the virgin birth claim developed sometime after the writing of Mark, circa 65-75 AD.

        When I bring up the possibility that the original Luke did not have the first two chapters which include the virgin birth narrative, Christians say to me: “How could such a new twist to the story of Jesus have developed so soon in the first century if some of Jesus’ family, disciples, and friends were still alive to verify its accuracy? If Jesus had truly been Joseph’s son, wouldn’t SOMEONE have said, “Hey. Wait a minute. Jesus nor his mother ever claimed that he was the virgin-born son of Yahweh. This virgin birth story is bogus nonsense.”

        Dr. Ehrman, two questions.
        1. What do you think is the source of the virgin birth story?
        2. If it was not historically true, why is there no record of anyone denying its veracity?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 26, 2015

          I answered one of the issues in today’s post. But it’s interesting to think of the source. I’ll deal with that anon.

  3. Avatar
    crucker  October 21, 2015

    This may get addressed in a later post, but do you think that the genealogy in Luke 3 was also a later addition or original to the text? It makes sense to me that the geneology would fit with an adoptionist view, but would present problems for a docetist view. Would Marcion have not known about that just as he did not know about chapters 1-2?

  4. Avatar
    LWE  October 21, 2015

    Interesting that the denial of Virgin Birth seems to point out to a more human Jesus – but to Marcion, who took issue with the “Birth” part, it signified the opposite!

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 21, 2015

    Glad you’re addressing this! It’s a topic I find very interesting. I’m wondering if the writing style in those chapters is different.

    About Marcion’s belief…as I recall, Paul, at a very early date, felt it necessary to say Jesus had been “born of a woman.” So there may have been a number of early Christians who believed, or at least theorized, that he was an “angelic” being who’d appeared on Earth in the form of a grown man. (And Paul also thought he was an angelic being…but had, nevertheless, incarnated by being born of a woman.)

    Does Luke show enough interest in the Septuagint to suggest that he may have been familiar with the mistranslation of Isaiah that gave Matthew his “virgin” idea? Of course, if he was – and hadn’t read “Matthew”! – he probably wouldn’t have imagined it had anything to do with the Messiah.

  6. Avatar
    J.J.  October 21, 2015

    This is always an intriguing theory since the style and content of Luke 1-2 is quite distinct from Luke 3-24, and Luke 3:1-2 sounds like a historical introduction that could start a book. But Marcion’s evidence for this is somewhat convoluted. In the same sentence that Epiphanius says that Marcion’s gospel lacked what we call Luke chapters 1-2, he also indicates that Marcion’s gospel lacked the genealogy and baptism of Jesus (which is much of what we call Luke chapter 3). So do you think the Gospel of Luke initially lacked the genealogy and baptism of Jesus? Or do you think Marcion removed that? Or do you think Epiphanius is wrong–although it sounds like Epiphanius had a copy of Marcion’s gospel before him because he goes on to compare the wording of dozens of other passages? Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      Yes, I think it’s unbelievably hard to know what marcion’s text actually was. See the most recent efforts by Jason beDuhn and especially Dieter Roth.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  October 22, 2015

        Yeah, I don’t know what to make of some of Epiphanius’ statements (not to mention Hippolytus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian at times). I mean a few paragraphs later Epiphanius describes (and quotes from) Marcion’s Pauline corpus… which he enumerates to be eleven letters… including both Ephesians and Laodiceans. Really peculiar.

  7. Avatar
    moose  October 21, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman.

    Maybe you’re right. But listen. This same phrase from Mark’s Gospel: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” is used elsewhere. The same phrase is used in the transfiguration of Christ.

    Matt 17:5 “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”
    Mark 9:7. “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
    Luke 9:36: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

    This time on the top of a mountain, together with Moses and Elijah. From the Tanakh we know that both Moses and Elijah met the Lord on Mount Sinai(Exodus 19) / Mount Horeb(1 Kings 19). Moses met the Lord on Mount Sinai after the division of the Red Sea – after the baptism.

    2. Peter 1:17: He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

    The sacred Mountain!? It’s just one sacred mountain in the OT!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      Yup, the “son” voice is significant in mark. Note also at the crucifixion.

  8. Robert
    Robert  October 21, 2015

    In case anyone would like to review what Bart has already said here about this topic, here are some links:




  9. Avatar
    SteleDan  October 21, 2015

    Is the common idea that John is most familiar with Luke’s synoptic tradition and for the very reason you mention here is why John seems not only to omit, but shows ignorance of the Bethlehem tradition (John 7:42)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      It’s debated whether he knew Luke or not. My sense is not.

  10. Avatar
    spazevedo1  October 21, 2015

    Very interesting theory, but hard to sustain. Waiting for next post…

  11. Avatar
    Jim  October 21, 2015

    Are there any indications from the writings of the church fathers that Marcion knew of (and altered?) the book of Acts?

  12. Avatar
    wje  October 22, 2015

    Good evening, Bart. A couple of blogs ago I asked if it was okay to go off the new testatment beaten path and ask about some old testament stuff. You said all right as long as it was one question. So here goes. In the book of Genesis God is quoted quite a few times as saying let “us” do this, that, or the other thing. I never gave this much thought and assumed it referred to the trinity. But Jehovah is one being. The official form of orthodox trinity did not appear until 300? A. D. or somewhere around that time. Genesis was written around when? 400, 500 B.C? So Christian ideas about the trinity were not present at that time. Who or what is the “us” mentioned in Genesis.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      Right — that’s a big one! It is usually thought that God is speaking to the other divine beings with him (his “divine council” — as for example is discussed in Job 1, with the “sons of God” around him speaking with him).

  13. Avatar
    fred  October 22, 2015

    Didn’t Luke take the baptism anecdote from Mark? If you’re right about the Luke variant being original, it raises the question of why Luke would alter Mark in this way: Was Luke an Adoptijonist, fitting what he received into his own framework? Or…does it imply the version of Mark used by Luke had the same Adoptionist wording? The latter seems ad hoc, since we have no evidence that this wording ever existed in Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      Yes indeed! Luke changed Mark LOTS — not just here but throughout his Gospel; and one of the best ways to study Luke is precisely to see how he changed Mark. That approach is called Redaction Criticism (redactor = editor)

  14. Avatar
    sinetheo  October 22, 2015

    So if Marcion had the original scriptures then the other church leaders had the forged ones? Wouldn’t they have caught on to this and noticed they were changed? Or perhaps they changed it and wanted to blame the original on Marcion then?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      My point in this thread is that there were lots of differences among all the manuscripts of Luke and the other books of the NT — not just two sets (one original and one altered).

  15. Avatar
    teg51  October 22, 2015

    Interesting, do you think that the gospels as a whole favor the docetic interpretation of Jesus as Luke seems to suggest, or do you think Mark and Mathew are different?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2015

      I don’t think any of the Gospels has a docetic Christology.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 22, 2015

    Very interesting. It’s amazing what people have thought about Jesus. Quite a variety, some of which seems quite weird, such as Jesus not being born, but appearing on earth as an adult. What does Marcion do about Biblical references to Mary after the birth of Jesus?

  17. Avatar
    hmltonius  October 22, 2015

    The Scofield concludes Joseph was the son of Jacob in Matthew where Matthew says Joseph was the son of Jacob but does not conclude Joseph was the son of Heli in Luke where Luke says Joseph was the son of Heli. Something has to give. Are there any credible scholars who believe that because the Greek word for “begat” wasn’t used, Luke was really giving the genealogy of Joseph’s father in-law?

    in Matthew why mention Joseph’s genealogy at all if Jesus is not genetically related to Joseph and, in Luke, why mention Joseph at all if Luke is giving Mary’s genealogy? Luke should have forgiven any confusion to readers getting this wrong by not perceiving “Jesus…being the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli” obviously meant we were reading Mary’s genealogy.

    How can any reputable scholar say or published these study guides with a straight face? It seems to me they have to play a constant game of Twister in their minds to sincerely convince themselves the Gospels universally harmonize.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Yes, Scofield is playing fast and loose with the text. And the question of why give the genealogy of someone who is not related to the line is one of the classic problems of both Matthew and Luke!

  18. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  October 22, 2015

    hello bart

    in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (i.e., around 29 CE), Christ descended from heaven as a full-grown man and began his ministry.
    i want to make comment about the quote above before i ask my question
    this is what it has run through my head many times and i did not know Marcion before . it makes sense because if jesus were god or son of god he should not have entered to this world just like we did. all of us we enter this world through our mother wombs since jesus he too experienced the same thing therefore he cant be divine .

    my question

    you said : In Luke 1 it is clear that Jesus is the son of God – literally – at the time of his conception, because it is God himself who makes Mary pregnant.

    but christians dont believe in that , are you the only scholar who believe Jesus is the son of God literally

  19. Avatar
    Adam0685  October 23, 2015

    Do you think Paul knew of the virgin birth story?

  20. cheito
    cheito  October 23, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    According to Paul whose words and testimony in my estimation are more reliable that Matthew Mark and Luke, Paul States that Jesus was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh.

    Romans 1:3-concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,

    My question: Whose Flesh? Miriam’s’ or Josephs’?

    As for the virgin birth, Paul doesn’t mention anything about it, so perhaps it’s not part of luke, But Marcion erred in mind and Paul’s statement in Romans 1:3

    Paul could have said that Jesus was born a Virgin who was a descendant of David according to the flesh, but he didn’t.


    I do believe that the genealogy in luke was interpolated after Luke 3:22.
    I think that immediately after luke 3:22 one should continue reading Like 4:1… It seems to me that Luke 23-28 were added on.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2015

      “According to the flesh” is simply a standard phrase meaning “insofar as he was a human.”

      • cheito
        cheito  October 29, 2015

        I meant to say if Jesus were to take a DNA test whose DNA would they find in his body? His mother’s or his father’s?

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