The Virgin Birth was not a Pagan Story

It is popular in some circles to claim that the story of the virgin birth was a pagan insertion into the teaching of the early Church. In various books one can easily find by scanning the shelves of the “religion” section in any decent bookstore this claim functions as a plausibility structure helping uphold the modern and post-modern culture of unbelief. It is used as evidence for the unreliability of the Gospels (though actually the claim presupposes that the Gospels are unreliable). Further, it is used in all sorts of ways that aid and abet the contemporary crusade to redraw gender lines over against both past perversions and the Biblical teachings (which are conflated together in order to lend the crusade moral legitimacy).

Christmas

Of course, people typically believe what they want to believe; but if facts make a difference then there is no reason to resort to pagan mythology to explain the stories of the virgin birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The virgin birth is both quite congruent with the thought-world of first-century Palestinian Judaism with it’s heritage in the Hebrew Scriptures, and exceeds those lines of thought in a way one would expect from a community claiming to be involved with the culmination of Israel’s hope.

[See also, “Wouldn’t be Christmas Without Liberals’ Disdain for Jesus.”]

Births from Death

Since the virgin birth in the Gospels is sometimes purported to contradict the theology and teaching of the Apostle Paul, perhaps we should begin with him: He wrote to the Romans that Abraham was “the father of us all”

in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be” [Gen 15.5]. And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised He was able to perform (Rom 4.17b-21; all quotes from the NASB).

Here we have two themes linked to “the deadness of Sarah’s womb,” a new creation (cf. Gen 1.1-3) and a resurrection. Both of those are mentioned in Rom 4.17.b, though the resurrection theme is the one that receives more attention. Paul is here solidly enmeshed in the Hebrew Scriptures. First, let us consider the idea of a resurrection as a new birth:

As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth,
She writhes and cries out in her labor pains
Thus were we before Thee, O LORD.
We were pregnant, we writhed in labor
We gave birth, as it were, only to wind.
We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth
Nor were inhabitants of the world born.

Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits (Isa 26.17-19).

Now, this prophecy of resurrection as new birth is almost certainly meant to be a prophecy of the restoration of Israel from exile (Isa 26.20-21; cf. Eze 37). Understood this way, the prophecy is identical to other prophecies in Isaiah which speak of a new creation.

For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing
And her people for gladness.
I will also rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in My people;
And there will no longer be heard in her
The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.
No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
Or an old man who does not live out his days;
For the youth will die at the age of one hundred
And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred
Shall be thought accursed.
And they shall build houses and inhabit them;
They shall not build, and another inhabit,
They shall not plant, and another eat;
For as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people,
And My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands
The shall not labor in vain,
Or bear children for calamity;
For they are the seed of those blessed by the LORD,
And their descendants with them (Isa 65.17-23; NASB).

Despite fundamentalist exegesis to the contrary, this passage is not primarily about some miraculous future golden age. Rather, Isaiah is again predicting the return from exile. In going to exile, many Israelites had been slaughtered or enslaved and their property and inheritance were given to others. The prophet is using highly symbolic imagery to say that there will be a time when that calamity will be ended, and the people will live a long time on their own land, enjoying there inheritance from their god.

This prophesied situation is described as a new creation, a “new heavens and a new earth.” This is not about the end of the physical universe. Isaiah in context simply will not permit such a construction to be put on his words. The prophet has already established his meaning in using the language of creation:

I, even I, am He who comforts you.
Who are you that your are afraid of man who dies,
And of the son of man who is made like grass;
That you have forgotten the LORD your Maker,
Who stretched out the heavens,
And laid the foundations of the earth;
That you fear continually all day long because of the fury of the oppressor,
As he makes ready to destroy?
But where is the fury of the oppressor?
The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking. For I am the LORD your god, who stirs up the sea and its waves roar (The LORD of hosts is His name). And I have put My words in your mouth, and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people’” (Isa 51.12-16).

Now Isaiah in this passage is either comparing the original covenant made with Israel on Mount Sinai to the first creation so that the return from exile will be a second creation, or he is simply talking about the return from exile as a second creation. But this passage makes clear that he is not trying to communicate about some literal end to the physical cosmos. He is talking about His covenant with Israel (”I have put my words in your mouth”).

This background, I propose, is what Paul has in mind when he starts using the story of Abraham and Sarah to make his point in his letter to the Romans. We know that Apostle Paul was very familiar with Isaiah, and he in fact ties a passage in this same section of Isaiah when referring to Sarah in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 4.27; Isa 54.1: “Shout for joy, O barren one, you who have borne no child….”)–again, in context, a prophecy of the return from exile. The only question that needs to be addressed is: Why is the experience of Abraham and Sarah worth comparing to Israel in exile and needing to be restored/ reborn/ raised from the dead/ recreated?

The Barren Womb

The answer, almost certainly lies in Abraham’s identity as a “new Adam” (and thus Sarah’s identity as a new Eve) in the theology of Genesis. Such a theology is often missed, I think, because of the tendency lately to put up a wall of separation between Genesis 1-12 and the rest of the book. But the calling of Abram and the covenant God makes with him is meant to be interpreted in light of what has gone before. This is the reason the stories were put together in one canonical book. Whatever one’s view of the formation of Genesis, there is certainly no debate that a faithful Jew in the first century would regard it as a single work meant to be interpreted as a whole.

Thus, we find in Genesis three times when God commands someone to “be fruitful and multiply.” First he gives this command to Adam and Eve (1.28). Next, the command is given twice to Noah and his sons (9.1, 7). This takes place, after the entire world has been destroyed in a great flood. The way in which the text records how the waters are made to recede is done in a way that reminds the reader, at many points, of the original creation narrative. Space forbids an elaborate discussion of this point, but it is obvious that Noah, as the forefather of the entire human race to come, is a new Adam over a new creation.

With these precedents in mind, it is extremely significant that God tells Jacob to “be fruitful and multiply” (35.11). But this renewed mandate is actually alluded to earlier in Genesis, back during the time of Abraham’s life. When the god who called Abram made a covenant with him and changed his name to Abraham, he promised, “I will multiply you exceedingly,… and I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (17.2, 6). Like Noah before him, Abraham was served as a new Adam-a new creation.

And amid this struggle for a new creation we see the theme of the barren womb appear repeatedly in Genesis. Sarah was old beyond the age of getting pregnant when Abraham was called by God. Yet God promised Abraham a son, and miraculously caused them to conceive. Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and his wife Rebekah faced exactly the same trial: “Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah . . . to be his wife. And Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived” (Gen 25.20-21). This rather terse statement describes almost twenty years of anguish, for Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau (Gen 25.26). Jacob also faced the same struggle in the case of his wife Rachel (Gen 29.21-30.24).

Furthermore, Abraham’s predecessor, Noah, faced an identical struggle. One hundred and twenty years before the flood, God told him to build an ark for him and his wife and their sons and their wives (Gen 6.3, 18). Yet Noah had no sons at that time, and did not become a father until about twenty years later (Gen 7.6; 5.32). Indeed, the chronological genealogy in Genesis 5 shows us Noah waiting centuries longer than anyone else to have children. Apparently he and his wife also struggle with barrenness until God granted them children.

So the theme of a new creation is intertwined in Genesis with that of a new Adam-and thus a new creation. Isaiah himself seems to be building on this theme (which we have barely touched upon), and the Apostle Paul followed the same motif. I think it would not be too hard to demonstrate that the theme of resurrection is also present in the life of Abraham and is quite central to the concern of giving birth to a son who can be an heir to God’s promise. In order not to make this essay any longer than necessary, however, I will simply say that a new creation and a resurrection are rather easy conceptions to relate and the fact that Isaiah does so is good enough to show that the Apostle Paul is standing firmly in the Scriptural heritage of Israel when he uses Sarah as an example of both.

Of course, just because Paul gives us a Jewish theology of resurrection and new creation from the story of a miraculous birth, does not prove to a skeptic that the Gospels operate out of the same Hebrew background. We need to look at each of the two Gospels which record the virgin birth of Jesus, and consider the evidence.

Matthew’s Nativity

Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy which starts with Abraham. This genealogy is strange in that four particular women are singled out for mention in a passage which otherwise contents itself with the male parent. These women are Tamar (1.3), Rahab (1.5), Ruth (1.5), and “her of Uriah”-in other words, Bathsheba (1.6). Of these four women, only Bathsheba was a Hebrew (but she is left unnamed and her gentile husband is mentioned, the one whom David killed in order to marry Bathsheba). Of the remaining three, one was a professional prostitute (Rahab), one an amateur (Tamar), and one merely an honorable gentile (Ruth). Plainly, Matthew has begun his Gospel bringing to light very strange facts about the ancestry of Jesus. In each case we are presented with a story from the Hebrew Scriptures of an unlikely birth.

Tamar married the eldest of Judah’s three sons. He was killed by God because of his wickedness, according to the story in Genesis 38. His next younger brother took Tamar to be his wife according to the law of the land, but God also killed him because of His wickedness. Judah, apparently decided that somehow Tamar was the reason for these deaths. He told her that the youngest of his three sons was too young to marry, having no intention of ever allowing him to get near Tamar. When Tamar realized that Judah planned to allow her to remain an unmarried widow forever, she took matters into her own hands. She dressed up like a cultic prostitute, and sat down by the road where she knew Judah would be traveling. Judah’s inability or unwillingness to control his libido made him an easy target. Not recognizing his former daughter-in-law because of her veil, she acquired the heir she longed for-indeed, she was doubly blessed with twins. These two twins struggle in the womb at birth resulting in a switch:

it took place while she was giving birth, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But it came about as he drew back his hand, that behold, his brother came out. Then she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez [i.e. “a breach”]. And afterward his brother came out who had the scarlet thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.

Perhaps this strange nativity seems too unlike the miracle birth of Isaac by the elderly Sarah, or the overcoming of barrenness in the case of Rebekah and Rachel. But there are important themes which link these births in Genesis: In each case there is a struggle over birth order in which the younger triumphs over the older:

  • Before Isaac was born, Ishmael was born to Sarah’s maidservant by Abram. When Isaac was weaned Ishmael was sent away.
  • Rebekah gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the two was promised the greater inheritance from God. Isaac tried to thwart God’s will and rob Jacob of anyinheritance, making him Esau’s virtual slave. But Rebekah protected her seed and the plan backfired. Jacob inherited the covenant.
  • Rachel was barren while her sister Leah had sons. Thus, when God finally granted her a child, Joseph, there was conflict between the brothers. This youngest of all of Jacob’s children (except Benjamin who was born later) was given visions that he would rule all his family. This dream was fulfilled when he became the highest authority in the known world under Pharaoh.
  • Joseph had two sons whom he brought to his father Jacob for him to bless. Jacob blessed both of them but crossed his hands so that the younger child received the greater blessing. This is important, because the story of Judah and Tamar occurs right in the middle of Joseph’s story. They are meant to mutually interpret one another. Two brothers both have two sons in which the younger is switched to the place of the older.
  • To relate all this back to the new creation motif, we find this same sibling switching going on in the case of Adam and Eve. There younger of their first two sons, Abel, was preferred by God to the older, Cain. So Cain killed Abel. As a result Cain was disinherited entirely and a third son was born, Seth, to reclaim the inheritance.
  • Likewise, of Noah’s three sons, Seth is named first even though he was not the firstborn son (cf. Gen 5.32; 11.10). Apparently, Ham was firstborn but was demoted because of his attack on his father (Gen 9.20-27).

Thus, the story of Tamar, even though she was not barren in the same way as the other matriarchs of Genesis, fits quite nicely within the same framework of themes-especially that of a new creation.

Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that there are several unmistakable links between Rahab and Tamar. While Tamar played the part of a prostitute and Rahab actually was one, other features in the story bind them together much more closely. Both use deception to gain an inheritance and escape from Canaanite society into Hebrew society. Both stories feature the use of red thread (Gen 38.28; Jos 2.18). In both, the woman demands a pledge from a man to guarantee that a promise would be fulfilled (Gen 38.17; Jos 2.12).

Ruth was a Moabitess who married a Hebrew who had abandoned his Israelite heritage and come to live in her land. When her husband and father-in-law died she refused to return to her natural family, but insisted on accompanying her mother-in-law to Israel. Ruth meets Boaz, one of Naomi’s kindred, and they get married and have a son, who is identified in the story as an ancestor of King David.

However, there is even more going on in this story which links it to the theme of miraculous birth. Early on, Naomi mentions that she is too old to have any more sons (1.11ff). Yet when Ruth gives birth to Obed by Boaz, the “neighbor women” say “A son has been born to Naomi!” (4.17). Ruth acted as a surrogate and thus Naomi’s aged barrenness was ended so that she could have an heir.

Furthermore, earlier in the story, Naomi renames herself as Marah or “bitterness” (1.20). Only a few paragraphs after alluding to this story, Matthew is going to introduce another woman with that name, Mary, who is also barren and whose barrenness will be ended by God’s intervention.

My point, quite simply, is that we find in Matthew plenty of evidence that he was writing in a firmly Hebrew context with Hebrew stories functioning as the foundation by which he understood his Christian message. True, he brought up facts which subverted a popular understanding of that Hebrew heritage (the gentiles involved in the lineage of Jesus), but even these facts were themselves only understandable in light of the Hebrew scriptures.

What is entirely lacking in Matthew’s Gospel is any evidence of pagan ideas. To claim that the virgin conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb is some sort of pagan interpolation is simply unsupported by any of the surrounding context. On the contrary, there is plenty in the surrounding context to indicate that Matthew’s view of the virgin birth was framed by the Hebrew heritage of miracle-births as new creations. Granted, Matthew does not directly speak of those births in Genesis. Nevertheless, the women he does mention are close enough in context for us to suspect that he has those concerns. There is certainly no indication of pagan concerns.

Luke’s Nativity

What is probable in Matthew’s narrative becomes explicit in Luke’s. Luke is crystal clear that (1) the virgin birth is to be understood as the culmination of the miracle births overcoming barrenness recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, and (2) the virgin birth entails the birth of a new creation, a new Adam.

1. Luke begins, not with the birth of Jesus, but with the birth of John. Indeed, John’s and Jesus birth-stories are literarily linked together thus:

Angelic announcement of John’s future birth and sign given-muteness (1.5-25)
Angelic announcement of Jesus’ future birth and sign given-Elizabeth’s pregnancy (1.26-56)

Birth of John with prophecies and growth (1.57-80)
Birth of Jesus with prophecies and growth (2.1-52)

John’s ministry (3.1-20)
Jesus’ ministry (3.21ff)

The step parallelism here gives us a key for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ conception. The basic direction given to us from John to Jesus is that of from good to better, or from better to best. John’s father is given an announcement and he requests a sign, but he does so in a way that deserves a rebuke. Jesus’ mother is given an announcement and she requests a sign, but in an obedient manner. John receives prophecies, but Jesus receives more prophecies. John grows, but Jesus’ growth is recorded in more detail.

Furthermore, the birth of John is an obvious repeat of the births of Isaac and Samson and Samuel. It is a miracle birth given to an elderly barren woman, announced by an angel, in the temple precincts. Jesus’ birth is obviously meant to surpass that of John in greatness, but it is along the same basic lines set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus is the ultimate miracle birth.

2. The angel tells Mary that, because her son will be conceived by the Holy Spirit without using a man, he will be called “the son of God” (1.35). This statement has been jumped on as proof of some sort of pagan myth of a god impregnating a woman with a demi-god son, but Luke tells us quite clearly what it means to be God’s son and it has nothing to do with paganism:

Now it came about when all the people were baptized that Jesus also was baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My Beloved Son, in You I am well pleased. And when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age being supposedly the son of Joseph . . . the son of Adam, the son of God (3.21-23, 38).

Luke tells us that Jesus was the son of God like Adam was the son of God. Jesus is a new Adam. The virgin birth is not an explanation for how Jesus was divine, but rather it shows that God “directly” worked in order to bring Jesus into the world so that Jesus would be like Adam who also was brought into the world through a “direct” act. Jesus was a new creation. This becomes all the more clear when we realize that “spirit” and “breath” are the same word in the koine scriptures. Just as the breath of God in Adam’s nostrils made him a living being, so the Spirit hovering over Mary (Luke1.35; cf. Gen 1.2!) brought Jesus into the world. Jesus is the second Adam.

Thus, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus has nothing to do with pagan ideas. One can gratuitously assert that they must be the reason for the virgin birth, but there is no evidence of such a relationship. Rather, Jesus’ birth is planted firmly on the foundation laid in the Hebrew scriptures-the foundation of a miracle birth and a new creation.

Luke Identifies Jesus with God

Luke also clearly states that Jesus is Divine. When Zacharias prophesies over his infant son, John, he quotes Malachi 3.1: “And you, child will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on ‘before the LORD to prepare His ways’” (Luke 1.76). Now, there is no question that Luke portrays John as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Indeed, the visitation of God in Malachi 3.1 is unmistakably alluded to in Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem:

And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were selling, saying to them, “It is written, ‘And My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘robber’s den’” (Luke 19.41-46).

Malachi prophesied that YHWH, the god of Israel would visit and judge his temple (3.1ff). Luke is clear that messenger preceding the god of Israel is John the Baptist. Thus, Jesus is the god of Israel. There is no other way Luke can be interpreted. What N. T. Wright says of the Apostle Paul applies fully to Luke: Luke is at his most Christian precisely when and where he is being most Jewish.

What Does this Prove?

Someone might try to use the material above to assert that Luke and Matthew were simply devising stories which fit with the Hebrew scriptures and portrayed Jesus as a new creation. What can I say to this? The fact is that, if Matthew and Luke were brilliant students of the Hebrew scriptures and had no qualms about making up stories, then they might have written what they in fact wrote. On the other hand, if the god of Israel is indeed God-the creator, sustainer, judge, and savior of the universe-and if He sent His Son to be born of a virgin in first-century Palestine for the salvation of the human race, then again Matthew and Luke might have written what they in fact wrote. It all depends on one’s position regarding larger world view questions. It is amazing to me that anyone can think they can account for the origin of Christianity through such natural processes, but since people think they can account for the origin of creation through natural processes, it should not surprise me that they think the same of the New Creation.

Conclusion

There is no evidence of pagan influence behind the story of the virgin birth. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence of Hebrew influence. The virgin birth designates a new creation, that Jesus is a New Adam. It is the eminently reasonable culmination of all the miracle births recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. While this fact may not be sufficient to prove Christianity true, I hope it will at least give people pause who have been making such unsubstantiated claims about the virgin birth.