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.