Matthew 1:18, The Virgin Birth, part II of V

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

//As mentioned yesterday, I’m presenting a short series on the virgin birth to explain why many Christians do not feel it’s necessary to believe literally in this particular miracle. They find it more likely that Jesus’ birth was as normal as any other. Yesterday, I discussed the Virgin Birth from the perspective of internal evidence in the Bible, and pointed out that the earliest Biblical writings seem to contradict a miraculous birth. Perhaps stories of Jesus’ birth first surfaced 40-50 years after his death.

Today, I’d like to focus on what it means to say someone had a miraculous birth. We must remember that the New Testament is primarily a first-century collection of writings, portraying a first-century mindset. The virgin birth stories in the Bible were written in an age and for an audience who understood such stories to be not literal events, but a means of honoring great men, heroes, or gods. Hellenistic stories were rife with the idea of a god impregnating a human woman. The births of Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great are good examples. Jesus was neither the first nor the last in a long line of miracle births throughout the known world.

Thus, when a pagan polemicist named Celsus attacks Christianity in his letter On the True Doctrine, he does not bother to address the impossibility of a literal virgin birth for Christ, but rather, whether Christ deserves such a tale told about him. Celsus states, in pretending to address Jesus, “After all, the old myths of the Greeks that attribute a divine birth to Perseus, Amphion, Aeacus and Minor are equally good evidence of their wondrous works on behalf of mankind–and are certainly no less lacking in plausibility than the stories of your followers. What have you done by word of deed that is quite so wonderful as those heroes of old?”

So if early readers of the Gospel at first considered the virgin birth to be more of an honorific story, why and when did Christians begin to think of it as a literal event? Second-century apologist Justin Martyr may have helped: he insisted that while the majority of Christians of his era still did not believe literally in the virgin birth story (because it sounded too much like the pagan myth of Danae, impregnated by Zeus), we still should believe it happened as written (see Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, by Justin Martyr).