Luke doesn’t waste time in his gospel hitting the controversial issues. Last week we looked a bit at one of the most universal questions posed by man: “Why do the good suffer?” and today we’re hitting one of the most confounding and disputed miracles of the life of Christ, his virgin conception.
The virgin conception has always been controversial, yet just as often recognized as essential to our faith. The ancient creeds all include the line, “born of the virgin Mary.” During the modernist controversies that racked the Ivy League seminaries of early last century, the virgin birth was identified and defended as one of the five fundamentals of the faith.
Larry King, the CNN talk show host, was once asked who he would most want to interview if he could choose anyone from all of history. He said, 'Jesus Christ.' The questioner said, 'And what would you like to ask Him?' King replied, "I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me'.
The virgin birth has always been considered defining and elemental to the Christian faith. It has also been widely ridiculed. Countless comedians have made the easy joke at the expense of Mary’s reputation. Belief in the virgin birth signifies one as being a simpleton, unscientific, a rube. The late Christopher Hitchens, atheist author of “God is not Great” would often, when finding himself needing to score a quick point in a public debate, would merely ask his Christian opponent, “Do you really believe in the virginal birth of Jesus?” When the Christian opponent would invariably answer in the affirmative, Hitchens would chuckle, raise an eyebrow to the audience, and simply say, “I rest my case.”
To be honest, I was torn between which direction to go with this sermon. I actually wrote two other sermons before settling on the direction I am going to go today. Originally I was just going to go through the text, verse by verse, contrasting Gabriel’s visitation with Mary to his previous visitation with Zechariah. Yet I decided that instead we would look at the virgin birth through the lens of apologetics. After all, Luke’s purpose in writing is that “we would have certainty regarding the things that we have been taught”. Therefore, in keeping with Luke purposes in writing, we will examine some of the objections to the virginal conception of Jesus and hopefully come to greater confidence in our faith.
1) The Virgin birth didn’t happen because virgin births can’t happen.
a. Naturalism presupposition
b. Circular argument
c. Mary had the same objection, she wasn’t ignorant.
d. The Christian worldview assumes that God can and does intervene.
2) The Virgin birth is not found in the earliest books of the N.T.
a. Paul’s letters: does Paul really have no hint of the life and birth of Jesus?
i. Galatians 4:4: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
ii. Romans 8:3: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
i. Not Mark’s purpose in writing: Mark’s purpose seems to be to introduce us to the ministry of Jesus – the gospel starts from his baptism. This is an argument from omission.
ii. Mark may assume a virgin birth: Mark 6:3, in Jesus’s hometown, people took offense at him and what he’s saying, scoffing and asking, “Is this not Mary’s son?” You would not normally refer to a son being of his mother, but rather of his father. At the very least this demonstrates that there is, even in Mark, a hint of unusual origins.
c. Luke writes Acts before destruction of Temple, around 30 years after Jesus death. Is this enough time to write up such a fictional account, when the eyewitnesses are still present? Most people who hold to this want to push the date of the gospels back until after the end of the first century.
3) The Virgin birth is Jewish-Christian fiction based on Isaiah 7:14.
a. Luke is Gentile writing to Gentiles. Doesn’t even mention Isaiah 7:14.
b. Isaiah 7:14 was not considered a messianic prophesy – there was no pressure to fit the life of Jesus into this prophesy. In fact, it may have been the other way.
c. There is no way that Nazareth would have been part of the story.
4) The Virgin birth is lifted from Greco-Roman mythology.
a. This is the darling of YouTube and Internet conspiracy theories. The early church needed their savior to have an interesting supernatural birth story to compete with all the other demi-gods and heroic personages of their myths and legends. It is claimed that nearly every detail of Jesus’ life was lifted from these pagan myths. The Roman god Mithras and the Egyptian god Horus/Osiris are often cited as examples.
i. Upon any rudimentary inspection, the parallels break down.
1. Horus: Zeitgeist claims: Born on 25 December, born of a virgin, star in the east, adored by 3 kings. The first thing you should note is that even if Zeitgeist had its facts right about Horus, the New Testament says nothing about the 25 of December or 3 kings. Yet, Zeitgeist isn’t even close when it comes to getting facts right about Horace. There are at least four different stories of Horus’ birth, none of which are associated with the date of December 25. In one of the stories, the less graphic one, Horus’ mom, in the form of a falcon has intercourse with Horus’ dad’s dead body. In another story, Horus is born out of his dad’s dead body without his mom even being in the picture. In another case he is born when a flood overflows the banks of the Nile River.
2. Mirthra: born of a virgin in a cave, that is not true. Mithra was born a grown man out of the rock of a mountain. In his notes detailing the research he had done, the director actually tries to argue that the mountain from which Horace emerged was a virgin mother. Undeterred, the director also cites a different origin story for Mithras, in which Mithras was, along with his twin brother, “born of a virgin who becomes pregnant from the water of the Milky Fountain of Immortality”. The source cited was from a book written in 1921, which has been discredited by Mithraic scholars since.
ii. The virgin conception stands alone, apart from all myths. Compare these mythological stories with the simple story we have here in Luke. "In our discussion of the genre of the birth Narratives we noted that any comparison of Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 to pagan divine birth stories leads to the conclusion that the Gospel stories cannot be explained simply on the basis of such comparisons. This is particularly the case in regard to the matter of the virginal conception, for what we find in Matthew and Luke is not the story of some sort of sacred marriage (hieros gamos) or a divine being descending to earth and, in the guise of a man, mating with a human woman, but rather the story of a miraculous conception without aid of any man, divine or other wise. The Gospel story is rather about how Mary conceived without any form of intercourse through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As such this story is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the OT." [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Birth of Jesus"]
iii. We are crossing genres. This is the difference between me starting off my bedtime stories with Keiden saying “Once upon a time” and “Once there was a man”. Luke must be a liar, and of the worst sort; for after stating that the entire purpose for writing his gospel was to do careful investigation, to write history, so we can have certainty, he lied regarding the very first story introducing Jesus, writing myth.
To me, this is untenable.
Why does it matter?
1) The miraculous births of John and Jesus usher in the new miraculous age of the kingdom. This is how the passage ends – “nothing is impossible with God”
2) The virgin birth ties Jesus into the promise-plan of God. If you want to tie the birth of Jesus into an ancient story, see that he is rooted in the the story of the Bible.
3) The virgin conception clearly provide people with a clear picture that in Jesus the human and divine met. Later theologians understood the virgin birth to be the vehicle God used to connect Jesus to the human race and the line of David without connecting him to the sin of Adam.
4) The virgin conception underscores the fact that salvation is from God. The angels first words to Mary: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you, do not be afraid, for you have found devour with God.” See John 1:13 “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”