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Why Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in Matthew and Luke?

A few days ago I raised the question of why anyone should think that you have to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to be a Christian.  The reality is, of course, that many Christians do not believe in it, but recognize that it is a story meant to convey an important theological point – a point that could be true whether or not the story happened – that Jesus was uniquely special in this world, not like us other humans, but in some sense the unique Son of God.   Just as the moral of a fairy tale is valid (or not) independent of whether the tale happened, so too with stories like this in the Gospels, whether you choose to call them myths (in a non-derogatory sense), legends, tales, or simply “stories intending to convey a theological truth.”

It is interesting, and not often noted, that Matthew and Luke – the two Gospels (in fact, the two NT books altogether) that recount the story of the Virgin Birth – do so for different reasons and draw different conclusions from it.   The stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are very different from each other, and appear to contain down right discrepancies.   I don’t actually teach this to my students.  I instead give them an exercise.  If you haven’t ever done this, you should try it.  I have them list everything that happens, event by event, first in Matthew 1-2 and then in Luke 1-2;  and then I have them compare their lists.  What is similar?  What is different?  And are any of the differences actual discrepancies that cannot be reconciled?

The differences are striking, and in fact – as I’ve pointed out on the blog before – some things cannot be reconciled (if Luke is right that the family returned to Nazareth 32 days after the birth [i.e., when the sacrifice that a birthing mother had to give was made], how can Matthew be right that the family fled to Egypt?).

One difference my students almost never notice, though, is a BIG point:  Matthew seems to understand the importance of the Virgin Birth differently from Luke.

In Matthew’s version, Jesus is born of a virgin because this is what was predicted in the prophet Isaiah, as he explicitly states in 1:22-23:  “All this happened in order that the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’”  The quotation comes from Isa. 7:14.

As several readers on the blog have noted, Matthew here is quoting the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which does indeed say that the woman conceiving is a PARTHENOS, a word that by Matthew’s day typically meant “woman who has never had sex.”   Sometimes the word simply means “young woman.”   And that is definitely what the original Hebrew of Isa. 7:14 says, where the Hebrew word for “young woman” (ALMA) is used, rather than the word for “woman who has never had sex” (BETHULAH).

It’s clear why if you simply read Isaiah 7-8 and see what he’s talking about.   The king of Judah is upset because Jerusalem is being laid under siege by two foreign armies.   Isaiah tells him not to be upset, because God is going to save the people.  Here’s the evidence:  “A young woman has conceived and will bear a son.”  The reason the boy will be called “God is with us” is because he will be a sign of God’s presence among his people.  Before the child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong (i.e., in a couple of years), the two antagonistic kings will withdraw their troops and Jerusalem will be saved. (Notice:  the prediction is not that the woman will conceive as a virgin; in the verse it indicates that she has already conceived.  The sign is that her son will not be very old before the political/military disaster is averted).

It’s not clear why the Greek translators of Isaiah used the term PARTHENOS to translate ALMA, but they probably too simply took it in its older sense of “young woman.”  When Matthew took the verse over, however, he applied the meaning more common in his day to the Greek, and understood Isaiah not to be talking about a child born in the day of Isaiah, but a future child to be born of a “virgin.”   Everything in Matthew’s birth narrative is about the fulfillment of prophecy: the birth in Bethlehem, the slaughter of the innocents, the Virgin birth, the flight to Egypt, and even the fact that Jesus’ grew up in Nazareth.   The final verse of ch. 2 is a bit strange on this score.  Why was he raised in Nazareth?  “Thus was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets that “He will be called a Nazarene”(2:23).  That prophecy is never found in the Hebrew Bible, and so scholars have had a field day figuring out what Matthew has in mind.

My point:  for Matthew the virgin birth principally shows that Jesus’ birth was a fulfilment of the divine plan, as revealed by the fact that up and down the line it fulfilled prophecy.

Luke has a different take.  He never gives the “prophecy-fulfillment- formula” you find so often in Matthew (“this happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet….”).   In his case the virgin birth has a completely different function.   Jesus is born of a virgin because it is the Spirit of God that has made Mary pregnant, not a human being, so that in a very literal sense, Jesus is the “son of God.”

This is clear in the Annunciation story, where Mary first learns, to her great surprise, that she is going to conceive a child.  She can’t understand or believe it.  But the angel Gabriel tells her how it will happen: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the one who is born will be called holy, the son of God.”   One of the key words here is a fairly innocent looking one “therefore.”  You should always ask what the therefore is there for.   In this case, the REASON Jesus will be called holy, the son of God, is precisely because it is the Holy Spirit of God who makes Mary conceive.   The Virgin Birth shows that Jesus is God’s son, no one else’s.

It is not clear whether Matthew agreed with Luke that the virgin birth literally made Jesus the son of God, or if Luke agreed with Matthew that the virgin birth transpired in order to fulfill Scripture.  This is not a contradiction between the two accounts.   But it is a very big difference.   What mattered to Matthew was the fulfilment of Scripture; what mattered to Luke was the divine ancestry of Jesus.   Later readers would simply combine the two accounts, as if they were saying the same thing, and then would throw in the Gospel of John which is not saying the same thing at all, and end up with the idea that Christ “was incarnate by the Virgin Mary.”   I’ll say more about that in a later post.


Does Mark’s Gospel Implicitly Deny the Virgin Birth?
Why Was the Gospel of Mark Attributed to Mark?

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Comments

  1. Lasha Bezhanishvili  December 24, 2014

    I am interested in one important detail presented only in Luke. The Annunciation story has some peculiarity in it. Angel tells a woman who is about to marry that she is going to have a child. Why would she be surprised? Her first reaction should not have been: “Oh will I give birth before sex?”, because it would have been logical to assume that she would have child at least in a year as she was getting married.

    Isn’t Luke stressing the “perpetual virginity” of Mary which is not present in Matthew? Because in Matthew Joseph seems to be a normal husband of Mary who is going to fulfill his marital duties afterwards. John’s Gospel also hints this when Jesus asks John to take care of her mother(as though she did not have other sons) while on the cross.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      My sense is that Mary is surprised because she’s not planning on having sex anytime soon. But I don’t think Luke holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Note 2:7 — she gave birth to her “first born.” That normally would suggest that later there were others.

      • Lasha Bezhanishvili  December 28, 2014

        Thank you for the answer. Yes, I completely forgot “firstborn” is also in Luke, without any textual variants. Matthew’s version of “firstborn” has numerous variants though. But still, it seems rather odd for Mary to be surprised.

        And what about Gospel of John? It is not explicitly mentioned but it seems to be implied that after Jesus’ death on the cross, Mary had nobody else to take care of her, which is the reason why Jesus tells John to take care of her. Where are his brothers and sisters? Why can’t they take care of her? John is not some sort of wealthy guy who could take care of someone, Jesus’ brothers would have been better candidates for it.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 29, 2014

          Jesus does have brothers in John (see John 7).

          • Lasha Bezhanishvili  December 29, 2014

            I am sorry I did not remember that before your response. Thus all four gospels acknowledge that Jesus had brothers. On the other hand it is remarkable that after II century, Church Fathers(apart from Helvidius) who fought over numerous issues, did not fight over concept of perpetual virginity of Mary, which is one single doctrine that is easiest to refute from Bible.

  2. Mhamed Errifi  December 24, 2014

    There is Gods wisdom from the creation of jesus in order to complet the logic . before jesus human being were created in these 3 cases
    Case 1 : human being without father and mother that one was Adam
    Case 2: human being with father and no mother that one was Eve
    Case 3: human being with father and mother that one was the rest of people

    so where is human being with mother and no father so case 4 is missing and I believe for that reason Jesus was created to complet logic

  3. Samuel Riad  December 24, 2014

    I read this same argument in Jesus Interrupted. But what are the odds of claiming someone was born of a virgin? Doesn’t it seem very improbable that both Matthew and Luke developed the same theme independently? Or was the virgin birth an earlier oral tradition about Jesus that both Matthew and Luke included in their respective gospels each for his own purposes?

  4. JoeWallack  December 24, 2014

    “PARTHENOS, a word that by Matthew’s day typically meant “woman who has never had sex.” Sometimes the word simply means “young woman.”

    I think your “typically” is wrong. The lexicons show that the word was ambiguous at the time. Most of the uses do not indicate whether or not a virgin. Virgin status would have been relatively unimportant to the Greeks at the time compared to the “Hebrews”. Brown in his classic “Birth” confesses this. It was “Matthew’s” use of “parthenos” that subsequently gave it a primary meaning of “virgin”.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I’ll have to look it up! (I’m out of the country and away from my books just now).

  5. jhm  December 24, 2014

    How important was the (Greek translation?) Hebrew bible to early gentile converts to Christianity (or whatever you may wish to call it at this early stage)? Did they (people like Paul) actually have and use a Greek translation in the conversion process?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I think as soon as someone was converted they were introduced to the teachings of Scripture, as a rule.

  6. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  December 24, 2014

    Once again your talent and skill for explaining things clearly and concisely shines.

    As for the topic, fascinating, as always.

    Thank you for a great year of posts.

    Best to you and everyone this holiday season and beyond.

    Tracy Cramer
    Austin, Texas

  7. bobnaumann  December 24, 2014

    An excellent exegesis. Wonder why so few Christians understand what the Bibles actually says about the Birth of Jesus.

  8. Judith  December 24, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you. It’s one of the best ever, I think, and they are all truly excellent.

    Please allow me to ask something random to the extreme:

    Why is it there endless speculation about who Jesus was, how He was born, how He died and not all that much about what He taught? Of course, there is some of that, too, but the emphasis seems to be not on His teachings. If we so-called Christians were more dedicated to truly following His teachings, then the world would be very different, wouldn’t you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I think there’s a lot of speculation on the nature of his teaching, at least among scholars. For example, did he proclaim an apocalytpic messaage that the world was soon to end, as a lot of us think? Or was he unconcerned about such things and taught “wisdom” for people to follow in life here and now, as others think? But yes, I do agree, if more people followed his ethical teachings, this would be a very much better world.

  9. RonaldTaska  December 24, 2014

    I had listed the numerous differences in the two accounts before, but am one of those who also missed the “big point” of each of the two books understanding the virgin birth differently. Thanks once again for the education. Obviously, the two authors used different sources for their virgin birth stories.

  10. Wilusa  December 24, 2014

    A really great summary, and it’s nice that you allow non-members to read all of it!

  11. bamurray  December 24, 2014

    So did Matthew and Luke independently come up with the idea of a virgin birth, or was it already floating around in the oral traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I think it must have been around before either of their Gospels.

  12. gridiron1950  December 24, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman: I’m new to your blog but have found little, if anything, with which I disagree. I am curious, however, as to your opinion regarding my personal conclusion that the introduction of a virgin birth might well be the point that, more than any other factor, led to the rejection of Jews willingness to accept Christianity. Do you agree with my conclusion in this regard?

    Also, given the fact that the Hebrew Bible clearly commands Jews who where knowledgeable in the Hebrew Scriptures to reject anything that was contrary to what their fathers believed and had taught them, I’d like to know your opinion as to whether or not Christianity’s claim, especially after the Council of Nicaea, that the Holy Spirit impregnated Jesus’ mother, Mary, was, standing alone, sufficient to cause Jews to reject Christianity’s claim that Jesus and God were of the same substance. Specifically, in the words of the Nicene Creed, Jesus was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”? More specifically, it is difficult to imagine how much more specific the Hebrew Scriptures could have been in stating that God is not a man, nor the “son of man,” nor would He share His glory with any many.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      No, my sense is that Jews were rejecting the Christian message long before Christians started advocating the idea of a virgin birth. The major stumbling block (as Paul himself tells us) was the claim that a crucified man was the messiah; the messiah was supposed to be the *opposite* of someone who was destroyed by his enemies.

      • simonelli  December 29, 2014

        The Jewish religious authority demanded His death, even today all religious authorities of the world are His enemies; because for them, there is no one thing more dangerous than the gospel.

  13. steffi  December 24, 2014

    Bart.

    Is it likely that accounts of Mary’s conceiving Jesus in a supernatural way arose coincidentally and at roughly the same time in the communities for which these two evangelists were writing?

    Surely there must have been a source (unwritten?) that Matt. and Luke drew upon for this tradition , no?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I think there must have been an oral tradition of Jesus’ virgin birth prior to both of these Gospels.

  14. Jana  December 24, 2014

    I’ve not read your books before (but am busy doing so now) and it’s mind boggling to consider that a mistranslation of a single word has shaped doctrine and dogma. So is it possible to muse that some poor guy with a secondary understanding of Greek determined history?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I’d say that’s putting too much weight on it — Luke too has a virgin birth story, and probably the story was floating around before either one of them (since the two of them have it independently of one another).

      • Jana  December 27, 2014

        So because the story was floating around among others, then the translation of Parthenos would have been apropos?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 28, 2014

          Yes, I think first there was the story, then there was Matthew’s attempt to show that it was a fulfillment of Scripture.

  15. han23614  December 25, 2014

    I read that Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroaster, Babylonian, Chinese and Greek mythologies have some kind of miraculous births.

    Considering that virgin birth is an extraordinary event yet both Matthew and Luke mention it, and that the two tell different stories, it is interesting to see two Gospels deal with the virgin birth and tell two different stories.

    Where would they have gotten the virgin birth idea?

    Would Matthew and Luke have known the other virgin birth account?

    By the way, merry Christmas Dr. Ehrman!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I don’t think that either knew the other’s account, but some version of the story must have been floating around that they both had access to.

      • Jana  December 27, 2014

        Both Buddhism (and I can look up the text again) as well as Hinduism hold that it was only when the world began to fall into decay that intercourse was necessary to conceive as well as humans living shorter lives.

  16. dragonfly  December 25, 2014

    The Nazarene verse is a bit strange. Do you subscribe to any particular explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      I think it is a reference to Isa. 11:1, that a NZR (root) of David will spring forth.

  17. simonelli  December 25, 2014

    Bart, In the book of Genesis God had prepared for the eventual virgin birth of His Son, we read in Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise Him on the heel.” It should be noted that man’s seed is planted in lust; in other words “the sin of COVET.” The first sin of COVET in the Universe was committed by Satan, for it is written somewhere that he said; “I will make myself like the most High” Adam was enticed by Satan to COVET the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore the seed of Adam contains the ORIGINAL SIN of COVET: we cannot stop ourselves from COVETING. However we know that the woman seed “the egg” is realised naturally every month without the help of coveting . Now, when Jesus was in the desert He was able to reject all the COVETS proposed to Him by Satan. Therefore I believe in the virgin birth, but that doesn’t make us Christians, having the mind of Christ is what makes a Christian a true Christian.
    God had and still has a plan in place, for those who love His Son, for they will inherit Got and with Him the Universe. Jesus and true Christians through Him, know what God is doing in their life.

  18. Awareness  December 25, 2014

    “This is clear in the Annunciation story, where Mary first learns, to her great surprise, that she is going to conceive a child. …”

    Doesn’t this mean that Mary wasn’t consenting … that God forced himself upon a teenage girl?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      At the end of the story she humbly submits to the divine will.

  19. JBSeth1  December 25, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    What a perfect message to share with the world on Christmas eve.

    Thank you.

    John

  20. Jason  December 26, 2014

    Is there any indication that either author might have been in some measure reacting to more localized Nazarene traditions that Mary was impregnated by someone other than Joseph (Pantera?) and both were offering preemptive arguments to well known or obvious evidence that Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s kid?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2014

      It’s possible. Many people have wondered if the virgin birth traditions originated in an attempt to explain why Jesus was born out of wedlock.

      • Wilusa  December 27, 2014

        In their society, might a premature birth (to a couple wed less than nine months) have been considered scandalous, even if there was no reason to doubt that the woman’s husband was the father?

        In small-city USA, in the 1920s…

        My mother was a virgin on her wedding night; but her first child was born almost two weeks short of nine months later. The family doctor explained that the infant was full-term, but there was no reason to be embarrassed: “nine months” is an arbitrary figure many people have in their heads, but it’s really dependent on the woman’s menstrual cycle, and “full-term” can be that much shorter.

        No problem at all…for my family. But my mother knew of another young woman who had the same experience, and was so mortified that she had a nervous breakdown!

      • simonelli  December 29, 2014

        Jesus wasn’t born out of wedlock: Luke 2:5, If they were only engaged they would not need to register together. They were married but the marriage was not yet consummated.

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