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THE VIRGINAL CONCEPTION AND BIRTH OF JESUS


Definition

Jesus' conception occured in a miraculous, non-sexual manner. The Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive God Incarnate without the help of a man. She also gave birth to Him miraculously; He passed through her without wounding her or spoiling her physical virginity.

How This Teaching Exalts Christ

The virginal conception shows that the coming of the Messiah was entirely God's initiative, not the initiative of a man. Children usually come into the world because a man and/or woman decide to have sex. But Jesus came first because God chose to send Him and second because Mary assented to God's will. The initiative was God's, not man's.

Biblical Basis

The virginal conception of Jesus was prophesied in Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14. It came true in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35. Most Christians do not dispute this doctrine's biblical origin.

Early Christians saw His virgin birth indicated in the following verses:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Note that a virgin would both conceive and bear; so she had to remain a virgin in childbearing as well.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Now most women, after the rigor of childbirth, are too tired and weak to actually care for the child like that. Yet the Bible indicates that Mary herself did these things right after giving birth! So though this verse does not explicitly state it, many early Christians saw it as implying that she had an easy, painless childbirth.

Early Christian Witness

For the Virginal Conception:

"The virginity of Mary, her giving birth and also the death of the Lord, were hidden from the prince of this world; three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God" (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 18:2; c. 107 AD)

"(Jesus Christ) was born of a holy Virgin without seed of man, and took flesh without defilement" (Aristides of Athens, Apology, 15; c. 140 AD)

"And hear again how Isaiah in express words foretold that He should be born of a virgin; for he spoke thus: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bring forth a son, and they shall say for His name, 'God with us.'"...This, then, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive," signifies that a virgin should conceive without intercourse. For if she had had intercourse with any one whatever, she was no longer a virgin; but the power of God having come upon the virgin, overshadowed her, and caused her while yet a virgin to conceive." (St Justin the Martyr, First Apology, 33; c. 150 AD)

"And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign, having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at nought and to suffer, that by dying and rising again He might conquer death." (First Apology, 63; c. 150 AD)

For the Virgin Birth:

As we saw in the article on the Immaculate Conception, first century Christians believed that Mary had given birth without labor pains. Here are the quotes again:

"The report concerning the child was noised abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, 'The Virgin Mary has given birth before she was married two months.' And many said, 'She has not given birth; the midwife has not gone up to her, and we heard no cries of pain.'" (Ascension of Isaiah 11; c. 70 AD)

"So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not seek a midwife, because he caused her to give life. She bore as a strong man, with will" (Odes of Solomon 19; c. 80 AD).

Here are some quotes which express the early Christian belief that Mary's birthgiving did not spoil her virginity:
"Who loves you is amazed
and who would understand is slient and confused,
because he cannot probe the Mother
who gave birth in her virginity.
If it is too great to be clarified with words the disputants ought not on that account cross swords with your Son (St Ephraim, Songs of Praise, 1, 2; )

"Believe in the Son of God, the Word before all the ages, who was...in these last days, for your sake, made son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary in an indescribable and stainless way,-for there is no stain where God is and whence salvation comes..." (St. Gregory of Nazianz, Oration on Holy Baptism, 40:45; 381 AD)

"According to the condition of the body (Jesus) was in the womb, He nursed at His mother's breast, He lay in the manger, but superior to that condition, the Virgin conceived and the Virgin bore, so that you might believe that He was God who restored nature, though He was man who, in accord with nature, was born of a human being." (St. Ambrose of Milan, Mystery of the Lord's Incarnation, 6:54; 382 AD)

"Who is this gate (Ezekiel 44:1-4), if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity." (St. Ambrose of Milan, The Consecration of a Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 8:52; c. 391 AD)

Objections
  1. The Virgin Birth doctrine denigrates sex.

    C.S. Lewis once wrote that many who deny the Virgin Birth of Jesus "see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse, which is rapidly becoming the one thing venerated in a world with out veneration" (1). It seems that some people in our sex-obsessed society cannot bear the thought that sex is not the be-all and end-all of existence, and that one could actually live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without it. Mary's virginity seems to them a supreme blasphemy against their false god named "free love". But modern opposition does not change the fact that Jesus was born of a Virgin, as the Bible says (Mt 1:18,25; Lk 1:34-35).

  2. Why else was it necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin?

    The virginal conception was fitting because Jesus is the New Adam and Mary the New Eve. The first Eve came from the first Adam alone, without the help of another; so it was fitting that the second Adam come from the second Eve alone without the help of another (this is the principle of recapitulation). All things considered, it was most fitting that the Messiah be born of a Virgin.

  3. I heard that some ancient writings teach that Jesus is the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.

    This is an ancient slander thrown against Jesus by some of his enemies. It is recorded in the Talmud, which is an ancient writing, but the charge is untrue. First of all, Panthera is not a Roman name, so no Roman soldier would have that name. Second, it is actually a corruption of the Greek word parthenos, or "virgin".

    You see, a common form of mockery back then was to corrupt someone's name. Jesus' early followers used to call Him the Son of the Virgin (that is, "of the Parthenos"). His enemies in turn corrupting that title, calling Him "son of Panthera". They then made up the myth of "Panthera the Roman soldier", His alleged father.

    But it's just an old slander against Jesus, with no truth to it. Had Christ been illegitimate, He could not have been an observant Jew (Deuteronomy 23:2). Since He was one, He was certainly not illegitimate.

  4. Catholics believe that Mary took a vow of virginity, but that was unheard of in Judaism at her time.

    Not true, the Essenes took vows of virginity. Mary most likely heard about their practice and felt called to do so herself.

  5. The Essenes were men who lived a monastic life in the desert; there is no way a woman in that culture could have hoped to remain celibate, since her family would have married her off, as Mary's parents evidently did.

    She felt called by God to do it and so trusted that God would take care of her, which He did.

  6. The Bible does not say that she took a vow of virginity.

    If Mary fully intended to consummate her marriage with Joseph and have children, why would she have asked the angel "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34)? Would she not have assumed Gabriel was saying that one of her future children with Joseph would be the Messiah? Her question would make more sense if she did not intend to have relations at all.

  7. How could Joseph have consented to that?

    He was a righteous man who loved Mary and would certainly have respected God's will and calling for her.

  8. You say that Mary was a virgin in childbearing, but how could she have remained an intact virgin while giving birth to Jesus?

    Jesus came forth from her womb in a miraculous manner, so that he did not harm her physical virginity (even as he later came forth from the tomb without breaking its seal).

  9. Where did you Catholics get that weird idea from?

    It's not weird, it's an early Christians teaching, expressed in second century Christian writings such as the Protoevangelion of James.

  10. I heard it was originally a Gnostic belief which Catholics eventually adopted because it exalted Mary.

    You have it backwards; it was an early Christian belief which Gnostics borrowed because it seemed to support their contention that Jesus did not take flesh from Mary, but passed through her "like water through a pipe". They stole a lot of truths from Christianity and reinterpreted them; mingling them with their own lies. But that does not discount the truths themselves.

  11. Well the notion that Jesus was born miraculously does make Him seem less human.

    How does the manner of ones birth confer humanity? Is a child born by Caesarian section "less human" than one born the natural way? No, both are equally human because both are born of human parents. Jesus is human because he was born of a human mother; the manner in which He exited her womb is irrelevant.

  12. But a fully human Messiah would have been born the natural way.

    This is like saying "A fully human Messiah would not have been transfigured on the mount" or "A fully human Messiah would not have risen from the dead". Jesus is fully human and fully God; as God He did a lot of things which mere humans cannot.

    Jesus exited Mary's womb using the same power which enabled Him to transfigure Himself on the mountain and exit the sealed tomb before it was opened. Could not the God who removed Eve from the side of Adam also have removed the New Adam from the womb of the New Eve? Nothing is impossible for God.

  13. Why all this obsession over the state of Mary's hymen?

    We are not obsessed with Mary's physical integrity; we are simply stating what Christians have always believed. The belief in Mary's perfect physical virginity reveals the importance of the human body.

  14. You also think she did not suffer birth pangs, right?

    Yes; birth pangs were the result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16); since neither Jesus nor Mary were sinners, His birth was painless.

  15. But in Revelation 12:2 it says that the "Woman"--whom you believe to be Mary--cried out and travailed with birth pangs.

    The Woman in Revelations 12 is a composite image of Daughter Zion, Mary and the Church. Not every detail of this figure applies to each. The birth-pangs part applies to Daughter Zion and signifies the suffering the people of Israel went through before the coming of the Messiah. It does not signify actual labor pains on Mary's part.

  16. Well it's not fair that Mary should be exempt from such agony while other women are not!

    I guess it's not fair, but the Bible does not say that God is "fair" by our estimation of fairness. God chose the Jews over all other people as His own; that was not necessarily "fair" but it happened. I could list other such examples from Scripture, but I think you get the point.

Works Cited:

1. C. S. Lewis, "Miracles" The Grand Miracle (New York: Ballantine, 1970): 6.


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