It is difficult for most Christians to imagine that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth was a late developing tradition in the Christian faith, yet it appears to have been totally unknown until it is introduced in the middle years of the ninth decade in the writings of Matthew. Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is the oldest nativity narrative in the New Testament. Yet, strangely enough, it is not the most familiar. That designation goes to Luke primarily because most of us get our knowledge of the birth story of Jesus by attending annual Christmas pageants.
The story line in almost all pageants follows Luke’s narrative with an annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to Mary in the village of Nazareth and an account of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to be enrolled for some taxation purpose in compliance with an order issued by Caesar Augustus. Then there is the scene where they are told there is no room at the inn, so when the baby Jesus is born, he is wrapped in swaddling cloths (not clothes but cloths) and placed in an animal’s feeding trough or manger. The scene then shifts to hillside shepherds, to whom angels, breaking through the midnight sky, bring the announcement of Jesus’ birth. This then prompts the shepherds to go to Bethlehem to find the baby. When this task is accomplished they depart, leaving Mary to ponder these things and their meaning in her heart.
This is where Luke’s story ends, but in the typical church pageant another scene is tacked on to this narrative. This final scene features a star in the east, the journey of the Magi who follow that star, their arrival at a house in Bethlehem and the presentation of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This merger of separate and incompatible stories is a nightmare for biblical expositors, but churches have never allowed biblical scholarship to get in the way of a good pageant!
Matthew’s story is, by a minimum of ten years, the first account of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. From where, we must wonder, did Matthew get the idea of a virgin birth and the narrative details with which he surrounds it? There are supernatural birth stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the miracle there is either a post-menopausal pregnancy, as was the case of Abraham and Sarah in the birth of Isaac, which is recorded in the book of Genesis, or the overcoming of what the Bible called “barrenness” and the ability to conceive after much prayer and fasting, as was the case with Hannah in the birth of her son Samuel. So the first thing we need to establish is that the idea of a “virgin birth” for Jesus is quite outside the normal boundaries of Hebrew thought.
There is certainly no evidence of a “virgin birth” tradition in any Christian sources prior to the writing of Matthew. There are two written sources that we are certain are pre-Matthew, namely the epistles of Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, or some 30-40 years before Matthew introduced the idea of the virgin birth, and Mark, the first gospel to be written that appears to be some10-15 years earlier than the writing of Matthew’s gospel. There are also two writings which some scholars like to date early in Christian history: they are the Q document and the gospel of Thomas. I do not wish in this column to get into the debate about the dating of these two documents or even about the accuracy of the Q hypothesis. Let me simply state that I have never been convinced of the existence of the Q document and I see no reason to date the gospel of Thomas earlier than the first years of the second century. If, however, both Q’s existence and an early date for both Q and Thomas could be established beyond reasonable doubt, the fact would still remain that there is no mention of a virgin birth for Jesus prior to Matthew’s introduction of this idea in the middle of the ninth decade.
Paul says only two things about Jesus’ origins. He first claims that Jesus was descended from King David “according to the flesh.” That in itself was neither a dramatic nor a special claim. David lived a thousand years before Jesus and had an unspecified number of wives. We know he had many children. In the thousand years, or approximately 50 generations that separated David from Jesus, the direct heirs of David would have included almost every Jew since there would have been about a billion direct heirs! Paul’s second claim is quite mundane: “He was born of a woman,” said Paul. Nothing unusual about that! That is the story of us all. Then Paul adds,” He was born under the law!” That was the reality of every Jew. Paul had clearly never heard of a miraculous birth tradition, primarily, I believe, because such a tradition had not developed prior to Paul’s death.
The same thing appears to be true of Mark. Mark includes two narratives that point to the fact that he had never heard of a miraculous birth tradition. First, there is Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism with which he opens his gospel. Jesus in this narrative is a completely normal human being who comes to John the Baptist to be baptized. It is in this baptism that the Spirit of God enters him and it is at his baptism that God is said to have proclaimed him: “my son.” If the baptism was the moment of the God-infusing of Jesus, then clearly there is the assumption that his birth was routine and ordinary. The second revealing note in Mark is that in chapter three the mother of Jesus is reported to have responded negatively to his public ministry and to his notoriety and to have moved to “take him away.” The text says that his mother and his brothers thought he was “beside himself,” or out of his mind. That is hardly the response of a woman in whose virginal womb this Jesus was found. Mark gives no evidence that he had ever heard the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, primarily, I believe, because it had not yet been developed.
Matthew is its originator. It was a ninth decade addition to the developing Jesus story. If that is so, as I am convinced it is, then we need to ask why a miraculous birth was an appealing idea to Matthew. Here we can only speculate, but at least these speculations are educated.
There appears to have been an attack made on Jesus’ legitimacy, probably by the enemies of the Jesus movement. A popular line of attack against religious change agents in the first century was to raise suspicions about their origins, to question their paternity. Religious troublemakers were all thought to be base born people. The reason we can be fairly certain that these attacks were abroad is that two of them appear in the texts of the other gospels. The first is found in Mark. After an impressive sermon in the synagogue in his home region, Mark says that the crowd began to question from where it was that Jesus had gotten such wisdom. In that context anonymous voices in the crowd began to question his origins. “Is not this the carpenter?” they asked. Then they continued this probing of his roots by saying “Is not this the son of Mary.” This was the first time in any written Christian document that the name “Mary” is used for the mother of Jesus. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that in first century Jewish society, to refer to a grown man as the son of a woman was to raise public questions about his paternity and thus about his legitimacy. The charge of illegitimacy was surely around in that period of time when the life of Jesus was being portrayed.
The second illustration of this same thing comes at a somewhat later date. It is recorded only in the eighth chapter of the gospel of John. Once again a crowd is discussing Jesus’ origins. He cannot be the Christ, they assert, because no one will know the origins of the messiah, but “we know where this man (Jesus) comes from.” Later, a voice in the crowd is quoted as saying to Jesus: “We were not born of fornication.” The NRSV translates this text: “We were not illegitimate.” The clear impression is that Jesus was. I suspect that these attacks on Jesus’ origins and the questions about his paternity were so prevalent that Matthew decided to defend him against these charges. For this purpose, he developed his narrative of the virgin birth, which covers Jesus with legitimacy by asserting that Jesus was conceived and born without benefit of a male agent. He was “the Son” of God.
To buttress his story, Matthew found a text in Isaiah (7:14) on which he could base his story, thus portraying the virgin birth as the fulfillment of the scriptures. He proceeded to interpret that text so that he had it read, “Behold a virgin will conceive.” The only problem with this interpretation was that this is not what the text actually said at all. It said rather, “Behold, a woman is with child.” Those two things are clearly not the same! Nevertheless, Matthew used it and he wrapped around it the mythology of celestial bodies that announced this wondrous birth and guiding stars, which brought Gentiles to pay him homage with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, each of which was highly symbolic. This child is holy, Matthew was proclaiming, this life is the child of Almighty God.
Did Matthew recognize how weak his argument was? I think he did and that is why he opened his story of Jesus’ virgin birth with 17 verses dedicated to Jesus’ ancestry in which he has included the four sexually-compromised women.
What Matthew was saying is that Jesus is of God. His is a holy life, but his holiness lay in the fact that he was born of the Spirit, not that his flesh was divine. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written, to be born of the Spirit had very different connotations from the suggestions that the Holy Spirit was your biological father. Matthew is also saying that even if you are not convinced by his supernatural argument, God can still raise up a holy life even if God has to work through the incest of Tamar, the prostitution of Rahab, the seduction of Ruth and the adultery of Bathsheba. That is why Matthew begins his story of Jesus’ birth with the “shady ladies” of the genealogy. Do you see how rich this story is when the text is not literalized and when one dares to read it with Jewish eyes?