Liberal theologians have long denied the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection story and other tenets of traditional doctrine. Of more recent date the virgin birth has been attacked with particular vehemence in Britain.
SOME five years ago Angela Tilby wrote in the London Times: "Of all the articles of the Christian faith, none is more widely disbelieved than the virgin birth. The idea that God the Son took flesh from a human mother and was born as a man without the aid of a human father strikes many modern Christians as absurd and incredible." Much more recently a prominent bishop commented that "we have no right to insist on the literal truth of the story about the virgin birth of Jesus" (The Times, November 27, 1984). It's easy enough for traditionalists to assign blame to two or three outspoken theologians. But what the theologians really represent is a surfacing of deeply felt, usually unexpressed, doubts in the hearts of the clergy. Increasingly the so-called poetic nature of the nativity stories is stressed in the media. A strict interpretation of the Bible text is summarily dismissed. Perhaps a little historical perspective on this problem will clarify the controversy.
Brief Modern History
Adolf Harnack was a German liberal scholar. In 1892 he remarked to his students that he did not believe the virgin birth. In his view Jesus of Nazareth was no' more than a very capable teacher. Harnack touched off a heated controversy that has ebbed and flowed ever since. Then Emil Brunner wrote a book about Jesus Christ in 1927 in which he questioned the virgin birth. After World War II Rudolf Bultmann began his now famous approach of "demythologizing" the Bible. To him New Testament myth had to be separated from New Testament fact. Miracles were indeed statements of faith — but not factual stories. Students training for the priesthood and ministry have read the published works of these theologians as a regular part of their educational routine. Many have absorbed such teachings, however unconsciously. They have become unsure. They do not understand who or what Jesus Christ really was and is. Their disbelief now extends to the virgin birth. Thinking men and women are now examining the New Testament documents for themselves. They have no option but to test what they hear, as did the Bereans, who searched "the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11). Can one honestly believe the virgin birth? Two accounts of Jesus' birth appear in the gospels — one by Luke and the other by Matthew. Space only allows for an analysis of Luke's version.
Luke as Gospel Writer
Luke was a physician who conducted himself like the professional he was. His gospel was written for a prominent Roman official. He chose his sources carefully. He talked to eyewitnesses. He recorded truth. It is unthinkable that Luke would produce a careless assemblage of half-truths. Notice Luke's prologue: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of what you have been informed" (Luke 1:1-4, Revised Standard Version throughout remainder of article). Luke's sober intention was to convey truth — not myths or half — truths. This Greek-speaking physician was nobody's fool. He was a well-educated man. Here is the thoughtful conclusion of Professor A. Plummer about Luke the physician and gospel writer and the apostle Paul: "It is not improbable that it was at Tarsus, where there was a school of philosophy and literature rivalling those of Alexandria and Athens, that they first met. Luke may have studied medicine at Tarsus. Nowhere else in Asia Minor could he obtain so good an education" (St. Luke, pp. 20-21, T.&T. Clark, 1896). Luke is one of the most versatile and prolific of all the New Testament writers. He uses 800 Greek words not employed elsewhere in the New Testament. He spent valuable time with another prolific writer — the apostle Paul who, like Moses, was not only educated in biblical doctrine, but in this world's secular and legal knowledge as well. Only Luke sets the birth and ministry of Christ in the wider context of the Roman Empire. Considerable historical and chronological data are used in his account. He is conscious of the impact of Christ's teaching in the whole of the civilized world. He realizes the gospel goes far beyond Palestinian borders. The point is, here is a man uniquely equipped to write an account of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ to one in high office. Luke understands the Graeco-Roman world. He possesses literary gifts and historical awareness. He has professional experience.
Luke's Birth Accounts
The birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ are set in the days of Herod (Luke 1:5). The account begins with Zechariah, who is approached in the Temple by the archangel Gabriel while Zechariah is performing his priestly duties. Gabriel predicts the birth of John. Not unnaturally, Zechariah protests his and his wife's advanced age. Nevertheless Elizabeth conceives (verse 24). This crucial account follows: "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary" (verses 26-27). God is director of this entire scenario. Gabriel was sent by the Creator. The archangel said to the betrothed virgin Mary, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God" (verse 30). What is to happen to Mary as a result of God's favor? "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus" (verse 31).
Notice the account carefully. Notice how Scripture affirms Mary's virginity. In verse 27 Luke says that Mary was a virgin. In verse 34 Mary herself states she was a virgin. In verses 35 through 37 the archangel Gabriel affirms her virginity. But what was Mary's reaction to the angelic greeting? Just what you'd expect in a real life situation. Luke records that "she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be" (verse 29). And when Gabriel tells her of the coming birth, her reaction is very human. "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" (verse 34). Mary was betrothed, but not yet living with a husband. She presents the natural difficulties. Then Gabriel proceeds to strengthen her faith. Notice how. He focuses her attention on Elizabeth's miraculous experience. "And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible" (verses 36-37).
A Miracle-working God
Such is the crux of the whole matter. God is a miracle-working God. Miraculous biblical incidents are recorded from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, God did create natural law. But the Creator is superior to the created and can transcend natural law. Birth is not normally possible after menopause. It occurred twice in biblical history. The first occurrence involved the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. Again the reaction was typically human. Abraham said: "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is Ľninety years old, bear a child?" (Gen. 17:17). Sarah said: "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?" (Gen. 18:13). Notice how God answered these questions. "Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son" (verse 14). "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Each must answer this question for himself or herself. Must we reject miracles because they are not the norm in secular human experience? Notice the wisdom of Winston Churchill: "The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still" (My Early Life, page 126, 1930, MacMillan & Co.).
Which Is the Greater Miracle?
It is foolish to view the virgin birth in isolation. As Angela Tilby wrote in the London Times, November 28, 1981: "The virgin birth is not inherently less plausible than the physical resurrection of Jesus." The virgin birth is no harder for God than resurrecting Jesus Christ — and certainly no harder than creating the first man from the dust of the ground — or fashioning Eve from Adam's rib. Which miracle is harder for God? Let's put it another way. God created the heavens and the earth "out of things which do not appear" (Heb. 11:3). Visible matter is therefore not eternal in nature. God created Adam out of dust, without any father or mother. God created Eve out of a rib, without any father or mother. Was it then impossible for God to be the Father of Jesus without benefit of a human father? Which is the greater miracle? But what was the archangel Gabriel telling Mary? Simply this. If God could make it possible for Elizabeth and Zechariah to have a son John in their old age, Mary could bear a child as a virgin. "For with God nothing will be impossible."
Questions on the Virgin Birth
Why does John Mark, the writer of the gospel of Mark, fail to report a virgin birth?
Mark is the briefest of the four gospels. He simply omits the first 30 years of Jesus' life-beginning his gospel with Jesus' ministry. Says Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God' (Revised Standard Version throughout). Even here a virgin birth is inferred.
What about the silence of the apostle Paul?
Paul's epistles were all what theologians term "occasional" letters. That is, they were written to either inform or correct a specific congregation or an individual because of problems that arose during the course of his apostolic duties. None is a catalog of Christian doctrine. Certainly nothing in Paul's epistles contradicts a virgin birth. Notice Galatians 4:4: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman.... " At the outset of everyone of Paul's 14 letters, there is a reference to the Father-Son relationship in the God family. Note an excerpt from the salutation in II Corinthians 1:3: " Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Also in Colossians 1:3: "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Draw your own conclusions.
What about Matthew's quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Old Testament? Is not the word virgin a mistranslation? Does not the Hebrew word almah mean "young woman"?
The Hebrew word almah can be translated "young woman," "girl" or "maiden," as well as "virgin." As The New Bible Commentary Revised puts it: "It presumes rather than states virginity" (page 596). Almah is used to describe Rebekah as a "young woman" before her marriage to Isaac (Gen. 24:43). She was a virgin (verse 16). Almah is never used to describe a married woman. Says The New Bible Dictionary: "In using the word alma, however, Isaiah employs the one word which is never applied (either in the Bible or in other Near Eastern sources) to anyone but an unmarried woman" (page 557). This is not true of btula — the other term that may be translated "virgin." Continues The New Bible Dictionary, " The word btula may designate a virgin, but when it does the explanatory phrase' and a man had not known her' is often added... the word btula may also indicate a married woman." Moses uses both Hebrew words to describe the virgin Rebekah (see Genesis 24:16, 43). But why did Isaiah use almah to describe the one who would bear Immanuel (meaning "God with us")? Simply stated, the prophet had to choose one of the two term s. Neither always means virgin. There is no precise word in Hebrew that always means virgin. Since almah never means a young married woman, one living with a husband, it is the better term for Isaiah 7:14. It is interesting to note that the Septuagint — the most important Greek translation of the Old Testament — translates the Hebrew word almah (Isa 7:14) into the Greek parthenos. This particular Greek word always means "virgin. " This was the judgment of some 70 Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek about 250 B.C. All that aside remember that here the Greek New Testament interprets the Hebrew The angel explained to Joseph: "'Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit....' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel' (which means, God with us)" (Matt. 1:20-23). Just before his ascension, Christ told his apostles: "'These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets [including Isaiah] and the psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45). That last sentence is the key. The apostles — including Matthew — received an inspired understanding of the correct sense of the Hebrew Scriptures Many times the Hebrew prophets did not fully comprehend the exact nature of what they were writing (Dan. 12:8-9). Matthew was given inspired understanding of many Hebrew scriptures concerning Jesus Christ Isaiah 7:14 was just one.
Matthew's genealogy begins with the genealogy of Joseph. What is the point of a genealogy of a stepfather?
This genealogy shows something vital about Jesus — as well as about his legal father. Matthew 1:1 simply states: " The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." King David was founder of the Jewish royal family. Matthew's genealogy follows the Davidic royal line to Jesus' legal father. Here are Jesus' regal credentials. Why do you think King Herod slaughtered all the male children in Bethlehem age 2 and under (Matt. 2:16)? Herod thought Jesus, as heir to David's throne, might usurp his kingdom. It was left to Luke to explain the actual Davidic bloodline through Jesus' mother Mary.