Virgin birth of Jesus

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This article deals with the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was conceived and born of a virgin. For the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary, his mother, was conceived free from original sin, see Immaculate Conception. For the belief that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, see perpetual virginity of Mary.

The virgin birth of Jesus is the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary through the Holy Spirit without the agency of a human father and born while Mary was yet a virgin.[1] The New Testament references are Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38. It is believed to follow the prophetic message in Isaiah 7:14. It is not expressly mentioned elsewhere in the Christian scriptures,[2] and "the modern scholarly consensus is that the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on a very slim historical foundation."[3]

The virgin birth was universally accepted in the Christian church by the 2nd century and, except for some minor sects, was not seriously challenged until the 18th century. It is enshrined in the creeds that most Christians consider normative, such as the Nicene Creed ("incarnate of the Virgin Mary") and the Apostles' Creed ("born of the Virgin Mary"), and is a basic article of belief in the Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant churches. Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus.[4]

New Testament references

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18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.


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26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

Origins of the birth stories

The Annunciation, by Guido Reni, 1621

Jesus' miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit is explicit only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.[5] Both probably date from the period 80-100 AD,[6] and both were originally anonymous (the attributions to Matthew and Luke were added in the 2nd century).[7] It is widely, though not universally, accepted that both took the gospel of Mark, plus a lost collection of the sayings of Jesus called Q, as their main source material.[8] Mark, which predates them, has no birth story,[9] and the differences between Matthew and Luke are so great that it is highly unlikely either comes from the other or that they shared a common independent source.[5] Some scholars, notably Raymond E. Brown, have suggested that Joseph was the source of Matthew's account and Mary of Luke's.[10][11] Modern scholars consider this "highly unlikely", given that this so-called family tradition supposedly emerged only at a late stage in the Christian tradition.[12]

Old Testament references

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Matthew 1:23 refers to a prophecy from Isaiah, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son." Scholars agree that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, "almah", signifies a girl of childbearing age without reference to virginity,[13] and Isaiah is in any case talking about his own immediate circumstances in the year 735 BC, not the distant future.[14] Matthew continues Isaiah with the prophecy that "they shall call his name Immanuel," which he tells the reader means "God with us." In Isaiah the Immanuel prophecy has an immediate aim, but Matthew uses it to find patterns of God's dealings with Israel rather than a single and specific fulfillment.[14]

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10 Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying,
11 Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.
12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.
13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

In this passage, after king Ahaz refused to ask a sign in verse 12, the prophet addressed the house of David, who would be given the sign from "the Lord". Note the plural "ye" and "you" in verses 13 and 14, and then back to the singular "thou" to Ahaz in verse 16, (and verse 14 is "the Lord", not "the LORD".)


In the genealogy preceding his birth story Matthew calls Joseph "the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."[1:16] In the original Greek, the phrase "of whom", ἐξ ἧς, is feminine singular, clearly showing that it refers to Mary, and that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus.[15] As the story progresses Matthew underlines the virginity of Mary through references to the prophet Isaiah (using the Greek translation rather than the Hebrew original) and by his narrative statement that Joseph had no sexual relations with her until after the birth (a choice of words which leaves open the possibility that they did have relations after that).[16]

Luke differs from Matthew in depicting a virginal conception rather than a virgin birth (there is nothing in Luke that suggests Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary after the angelic visit).[17]

Luke's virgin birth story is a standard plot from the Jewish scriptures, as for example in the annunciation scenes for Isaac and for Samson, in which an angel appears and causes apprehension, the angel gives reassurance and announces the coming birth, the mother raises an objection, and the angel gives a sign.[18]

Thomas Aquinas wrote that human beings incur original sin through being begotten by the active power in a man's semen.[19] Therefore, he felt, it was proper that Christ assumed flesh from a woman, as "the power of a man's semen ought not to have accomplished the formation of Christ's body."[20]

Origins of Jesus outside the birth narratives

The apostle Paul makes three explicit references to Jesus' birth, and in each he assumes Jesus' full humanity and says nothing of the circumstances of the birth.[21] (The three are Galatians 4:4, which speaks of Jesus as "born of a woman, born under the law," Romans 1:1-4, which says that Jesus was "descended from David according to the flesh," and Philippians 2:6-7, in which Jesus is described as "born in the likeness of men.")[21] Some scholars have seen Paul's silence as evidence that he was unaware of any virgin birth tradition (Paul wrote several decades before Matthew and Luke),[22] but others, including Raymond Brown and John Gresham Machen, believe that these passages are not sufficient to determine whether Paul knew of a virgin birth or not, given that his purpose in writing was not biography.[23] In like manner, Machen notes that Paul mentions the Last Supper only in response to problems in Corinth.[24]

Paul's expression "born of a woman, born under the law" has been interpreted as implying that Jesus had no human father.[22] The opening of the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 1:1-4) includes the words: "concerning his Son, who was descended from David (or who came from the offspring of David) according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord". Some, pointing out that the Greek word translated as "descendant" in some Bibles is sperma, which literally means "seed", and interpreting this as indicating descent through the male line,[25][26] take "descended from David according to the flesh" to mean that Joseph, a descendant of David, was the physical father of Jesus, thus denying the virgin birth of Jesus, others take it as indicating that Mary too was a descendant of David.[27][28][29][30] Others point out that here, as in Galatians 4:4, Paul does not use the ordinary word for "born" (γεννητός, gennetos, the word used in Matthew 11:11 in relation to John the Baptist being "born of a woman"), but the word γενόμενος, genomenos, literally meaning "become", "come to be",[31][32] a fact that some interpret as an allusion to incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God.[33][34]

In 1Timothy 1:4, the author urges people not to "occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations". Some scholars see this passage as reflecting a negative view of the developing virgin birth stories and their variant genealogies.[35]

The Quran

According to the Quran, the pains of labor took Mary to the trunk of a palm tree. The voice of Gabriel or Jesus consoled her and told her that God miraculously provides water to drink and dates to eat.

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The Quran says that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. The most detailed account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus is provided in Surah 3 (Al Imran) and 19 (Maryam) wherein it is written that God sent an angel to announce that she could shortly expect to bear a son, despite being a virgin.[36]

The account in Surah 19 [Quran 19:1] of the Quran is close to that in the Gospel of Luke.[37] The Annunciation to Mary is mentioned twice in the Quran and in both instances Mary is told that she was chosen by God to deliver a son. In the first instance, the bearer of the news, who is believed to be archangel Gabriel, delivered the news in (3:42-47) as he takes the form of a man (19:16-22).[38][39] The details of the conception are not discussed but when Mary asks how she can bear a son in view of her chastity she is told that God creates what he wills and that these things are easy for God.[38] The Quran later specifies (21:91 and 66:12) that God breathed "His Spirit" into Mary while she was chaste.[38][39]

Although not specifically mentioned in the Quran, Muslims believe that Jesus and Mary were the only two children not to be touched by Satan at the moment of their birth, for God placed a veil between them and Satan.[40]


According to biblical scholar F. Dale Bruner, "The modern scholarly consensus is that the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on a very slim historical foundation."[3] However, some writers[41][42][43][44][45] take it as significant that the virgin birth is attested by two separate gospels, although the details of each vary. In this view, the virgin conception and birth constitute a tradition that fits within the criterion of multiple attestation, because the accounts of Matthew and Luke are taken as two independent testimonies of the tradition.[46]

According to Matthew, an unnamed angel informs Joseph of the virginal conception; while in Luke the angel Gabriel informs Mary before the conception occurs. There are at least two rival explanations for the "double attestation" of Matthew and Luke regarding the virgin birth of Jesus:[47][48]

  1. The virgin birth was a historical event, and the narratives of Matthew and Luke are based on different aspects of the event according to witnesses' reports of it.[49]
  2. Matthew and Luke both wanted to present Jesus as fulfilling prophecies from Hebrew scripture. Both were aware of prophecies concerning a virgin birth and Bethlehem, and therefore these elements of their stories match. But each author wove these prophecies into an overall narrative in a different way. For example, both authors had to explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he was known to be from Nazareth (as mentioned in all four gospels)—and each came up with an independent explanation.[50]

However, the fact that the virgin birth is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke is considered to produce doubt as to its truth by scholars such as Jürgen Moltmann. He writes: "In the New Testament, Christ's 'virgin birth' is related only by Luke and Matthew. It was unknown, or considered unimportant, in wide areas of early Christian belief (the Pauline and Johannine sectors, for example). But from the third century onwards it became a firm component of the Christian creeds and theological christologies." He also writes: "The virgin birth is not one of the pillars that sustains the New Testament faith in Christ. The confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord, is independent of the virgin birth, and is not based on it." "Moreover, we find the confession of faith in Christ in Christian traditions which know nothing of the virgin birth, or do not mention it." He concludes: "that the virgin birth does not provide the justification for confessing Christ."[51] John L. McKenzie notes that, if these two narratives were missing from the New Testament, "there would be no biblical mention of the virgin birth". He adds, "the event is unusual enough for one to wonder why an author who knew of it would not mention it."[52] Bart D. Ehrman writes, "The tradition that Jesus' mother was a virgin is given by both Matthew and Luke, and to that extent, it's independently attested. But it has always struck scholars as odd that the tradition—which surely would be an important thing to know!—isn't attested anywhere else in our earliest sources, even among writers who would have had a real interest in publicizing the fact that God himself was actually Jesus' father."[53] The Oxford Companion to the Bible, on the fact that nowhere else in the Bible is the virgin birth attested, has:

Such an argument from silence cannot be determinative, but it is an important consideration for people who see the virgin birth as a feature created within the early traditions about Jesus rather than a historical occurrence. Those who doubt the historicity of the virgin birth argue that it was created by the early church as a way of honoring the coming of Jesus as the Son of God or of explaining the idea of God becoming flesh. Miraculous human birth stories are common in biblical tradition, going back to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17.15—19, 18.9—15, I. 1—7), and numerous references to deities impregnating women are found within the Greco-Roman tradition. The mother Of Heracles, for instance, was said to have been impregnated by Zeus (Diodorus Siculus, 4-9, 1—10).[54]

Among other hypotheses that have been proposed as explanations of the origin of the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the birth of Jesus from a virgin is that of professor of humanities and religious studies Stephen L. Harris, who proposed that these were written to answer Jewish slanders about Jesus' illegitimate birth,[55] of which there is evidence from the 2nd century, but which may have been a subsequent polemical Jewish response to the account in Matthew and Luke.[56] Helmut Köster views the narratives of Jesus' virgin birth as having roots in Hellenistic mythology.[57]


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Psilanthropists argue against the virgin birth and contend that Jesus was a "mere human".[58] Psilanthropism existed among early Jewish Christian groups such as Ebionites who considered Jesus the Messiah, but rejected the apostle Paul as an apostate.[59] [60] However, in the 4th century the Nicene Creed rejected the teaching that Jesus was a mere human.[61]

In the 2nd century, Celsus, a pagan anti-Christian Greek philosopher wrote that Jesus's father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. The views of Celsus drew responses from Origen who considered it a fabricated story.[62][63] Raymond E. Brown states that the story of Pantera is a fanciful explanation of the birth of Jesus which includes very little historical evidence.[64]

In the Middle Ages, as part of the conflicts with Christians, a satirical parody of the Christian gospels called the Toledot Yeshu was written. The book referred to Pantera, or Pandera as the father of Jesus.[65][66][67][68][66][68] Robert E. Van Voorst states that the literary origins of Toledot Yeshu cannot be traced with any certainty, and that, given its medieval composition without a fixed form, it is "most unlikely" to contain reliable historical information.[69] The Blackwell Companion to Jesus states that the Toledot Yeshu contains no historical facts as such, and was perhaps created as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity.[70]

Historically notable psilanthropists have included figures such as the translator of the first Bible in Belarusian, Symon Budny (who was excommunicated by the Polish Unitarians[71]), and Joseph Priestley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 18th and 19th centuries.[72][73]

Cultural context

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In 1st-century Judea, Jewish girls were betrothed around the age of twelve or twelve and a half.[74] During the betrothal period, which lasted about a year, the marriage was not consummated and the bride remained in her parents' house.[75] Betrothal was formalised by a contract, and voiding the contract required a divorce document freeing the girl to remarry.[76]

The ancient world had no idea that male semen and female ovum were both needed to form a fetus; instead they thought that the male contribution in reproduction consisted of some sort of formative or generative principle.[77] According to the understanding of the time, Mary's bodily fluids would provide all the matter that was needed for Jesus' bodily form, including his male sex.[78]

Tales of virgin birth and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st century Greco-Roman world,[75] and Second Temple Jewish works were also capable of producing accounts of the appearances of angels and miraculous births for ancient heroes such as Melchizedek, Noah, and Moses.[79] Nevertheless, "plausible sources that tell of virgin birth in areas convincingly close to the gospels' own probable origins have proven extremely hard to demonstrate".[80] Similarly, while it is widely accepted that there is a connection with Zoroastrian (Persian) sources underlying Matthew's story of the Magi (the wise men from the East) and the Star of Bethlehem, a wider claim that Zoroastrianism formed the background to the infancy narratives has not achieved acceptance.[80]

As part of the conflicts between Christians and other groups during the 1st and 2nd centuries, statements were made by both Jews and pagans criticizing the Christian virgin birth narratives.[81] Early Christian, Justin Martyr, countered these arguments in The First Apology of Justin, and in Dialog with Trypho.[82] Perhaps intending to make Jesus' virgin birth more palatable to non-Christians, Justin argued that "the extraordinary birth of Jesus is something that He has in common with Perseus". However, Justin also says that such pagan stories were given them by Satan, and the stories were not really virgin births.[83]

The early Christian document, the Ascension of Isaiah, which may date to the 2nd century, also has a narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus.[84] However, the date and origin of this document is questionable, given that the author disguised his identity behind Isaiah.[85] The narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus can be found also in other New Testament apocrypha, for instance the Protevangelium of James, perhaps written in the 2nd century.[86]

Although parthenogenesis has been hypothesized as a possible biological mechanism for the virgin birth of Jesus,[87] this hypothesis has received no general scholarly support.[88][89]

Christian celebrations and devotions

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Mary writing the Magnificat, by Marie Ellenrieder, 1833

Christians celebrate the conception of Jesus on 25 March[90] (Lady Day) and his birth at Christmas (25 December) or Epiphany (6 January). Among the many traditions associated with Christmas are the construction of cribs and the performance of re-enactments of elements of the story in the Gospels of the birth of Jesus, a tradition started in the 13th century by the Franciscans.[91][92][93]

The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.[94] There has been debate about the reason why Christians came to choose the 25 December date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One theory is that they did so in order to oppose the existing winter-solstice feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) by celebrating on that date the birth of the "Sun of Righteousness".[95]

Another tradition derived the date of Christmas from that of the Annunciation, the virginal conception of Jesus.[95] Since this was supposed to have taken place on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, calculated to have been either 25 March or 6 April, it was believed that the date of Christ's birth will have been nine months later.[96] A tractate falsely attributed to John Chrysostom argued that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year and calculated this as 25 March, a computation also mentioned by Saint Augustine of Hippo.[95]

The Magnificat, based on Luke 1:46-55 is one of four well known Gospel canticles: the Benedictus and the Magnificat in the first chapter, and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc dimittis in the second chapter of Luke, which are now an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition.[97][98][99] The Magnificat is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn.[100][101] The Annunciation, representing the virgin birth, became an element of Marian devotions in Medieval times, and by the 13th century direct references to it were widespread in French lyrics.[102]

The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the title "Ever Virgin Mary" as a key element of its Marian veneration, and as part of the Akathists (hymns) to Mary which are an integral part of its liturgy.[103]

Artistic depictions

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This doctrine of the Virgin Birth is often represented Christian art in terms of the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God, and in Nativity scenes that include the figure of Salome. The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in Western art.[104] Annunciation scenes also amount to the most frequent appearances of Gabriel in medieval art.[105] The depiction of Joseph turning away in some Nativity scenes is a discreet reference to the fatherhood of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of Virgin Birth.[106]

Gallery of art

See also


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  25. Carlson, Paul (1995) "New Testament Contradictions"
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  71. The Jews in old Poland, 1000-1795 ed. Antony Polonsky, Jakub Basista, Andrzej Link-Lenczowski - 1993 p32 "Budny rejected the eternality of Christ and, in the notes to his translation of the New Testament, denied the Virgin birth, assenting that Jesus was Joseph's son. Even among heretical leaders Szymon Budny was considered a heretic and they would have nothing to do with him
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  101. Reeves, Marjorie, Favourite Hymns, 2006, ISBN 0-8264-8097-7, pp. 3–5.
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  103. Peltomaa, Leena Mari, The image of the Virgin Mary in the Akathistos hymn, 2001, ISBN 90-04-12088-2, p. 127.
  104. Guiley, Rosemary, The encyclopedia of angels, 2004, ISBN 0-8160-5023-6, p. 183.
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Further reading

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Virgin birth of Jesus
Preceded by New Testament
Succeeded by
Mary visits Elisabeth