Epiphany of Jesus

Virgin birth of Jesus

The virgin birth of Jesus is a religious tenet of Christianity and Islam which holds that Mary miraculously conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin. A universally held belief in the Christian church by the second century, this doctrine was included in the two most widely used Christian creeds, which state that Jesus "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary" (the Nicene Creed as revised by the First Council of Constantinople) and was "born of the Virgin Mary" (Apostles' Creed), and was not seriously challenged, except by some minor sects, before the Enlightenment theology of the eighteenth century.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke say that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. These gospels, later tradition and current doctrine present Jesus' conception as a miracle involving no natural father, no sexual intercourse, and no male seed in any form. The Gospel of Matthew additionally presents the virgin birth of Jesus as fulfilling a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah.

Reference to the virgin birth of Jesus usually directs thought to his virginal conception, rather than to his actual birth. But in Roman Catholic and Orthodox usage, the term "Virgin Birth" means not only that Mary was a virgin when she conceived, but also that she gave birth as a virgin (remaining a virgo intacta), a belief attested since the second century. See Perpetual virginity of Mary.

Mary's virginity at the conception of Jesus is also a tenet of Islam. The Qur'an frequently refers to Jesus with the matronymic Jesus son of Mary (Isa bin Maryam).

New Testament


The New Testament has four accounts of Jesus' life, commonly known as gospels. While they have much in common there are also differences of coverage and focus. The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, essentially begin with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist; whereas the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, essentially begin with Jesus' birth.

Mark and John contain no birth narrative. The other two gospels, which are the only ones to give accounts of the infancy of Jesus (the first two chapters in each), explicitly state that Jesus was conceived without human father.


The Gospel of Matthew (c 80-85) begins with a genealogy leading from Abraham to Joseph, but then calls Joseph the husband of Mary "of whom (Mary) Jesus was born, who is called Christ" (). It then explicitly states that, when Mary was found to be pregnant, she had not lived with Joseph, to whom she was engaged and that he did not have marital relations with her before the child was born (). It declares: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" in fulfilment of the prophecy of , which Matthew refers to as: "A virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (). On the actual text of Isaiah see the Old Testament section below.

The Gospel of Matthew presents the virgin birth of Jesus as fulfilling a prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew adapts to his purpose. Hebrew has a specific word, betulah, for a virgin, and a more general word, `almah, for a young woman. Since `almah is the word used in the Hebrew text of Isaiah, some commentators, whether Christian or not, have believed it at least possible that Isaiah had in mind only a normal conception by a young mother and that Matthew applied this text of Scripture to the birth of the one he believed to be Messiah, as John seems to have applied to his death another text of Scripture that in its original context referred to the Passover lamb. Others believe that Isaiah was indeed directly prophesying the future virgin birth of the Messiah.

The author of Matthew may have recounted the virgin birth story to answer contemporary Jewish slanders about Jesus' origin.

Miraculous but not virginal births appear in Jesus' own Hebrew tradition, as well as in other traditions. Hindu and Zoroastrian accounts of virgin births still involve male seed, while Christian and Muslim accounts of Jesus' virgin birth do not.


Like Matthew, Luke (c 85-90) includes infancy narratives and a genealogy.

In Mary asks how she is to conceive and bear a son, since she is a virgin; and she is told it will happen by the power of God. gives a genealogy, different from that given by Matthew. It traces the ancestry of Joseph, whose son, Luke says, Jesus was thought to be, back beyond King David and Abraham, to the origin of the human race.

When the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-38), she responds with the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), a prayer of joy, probably from an early Christian liturgy. The Magnificat is one of several formal set pieces the author encorporates into the gospel.


Many writers have taken as significant that two separate gospels attest to the virgin birth, although their details vary. In this view, the virgin conception and birth constitute a tradition that fits within the criterion of multiple attestation. The accounts of Matthew and Luke are taken as independent testimonies of the tradition, thus adding significantly to the evidence for the historical reality of the event of the birth. That the conception itself was indeed miraculous appears to rest on a "single attestation", that of Mary. The attestation of the angel to Joseph on the miraculous nature of the conception would not be accepted by many scholars as historiographically valid.

Critics of the "double attestation" argument point to differences between the accounts of Matthew and Luke regarding Jesus' birth. According to Matthew, an unnamed angel informs Joseph of the virginal conception; in Luke the angel Gabriel informs Mary before the conception occurs. Matthew says that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born and that they moved first to Egypt, to avoid Herod the Great and later, to avoid living under Herod's son Archelaus, they moved to Nazareth (); according to Luke, the couple lived in Nazareth and only traveled to Bethlehem in order to comply with a Roman census (). Luke mentions that Mary was a relative of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, has the new-born Jesus visited by shepherds, and attributes two long hymns (the Magnificat and the Benedictus) and one short one (the Nunc dimittis) to various characters. None of this is mentioned by Matthew, and Matthew's account of the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocents by Herod, and the flight into Egypt is not mentioned by Luke.

Two rival explanations are put forward for the "double attestation" of Matthew and Luke regarding the virgin birth of Jesus:

  1. The virgin birth was a historical event, and the narratives of Matthew and Luke are based on different aspects of the event according to witnesses' reports of it.
  2. Matthew and Luke both wanted to present Jesus as fulfilling prophecies from Hebrew scripture. Both were aware of prophecies concerning a virgin birth and Bethlehem, and therefore these elements of their stories match. But each author wove these prophecies into an overall narrative in a different way. For example, both authors had to explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he was known to be from Nazareth (as mentioned in all four gospels) — and each came up with an independent explanation.

Among other theories that have been proposed as explanations of the origin of the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the birth of Jesus from a virgin is that of Stephen L Harris, who proposed that these were written to answer Jewish slanders about Jesus' illegitimate birth, of which there is evidence from the second century and later.


According to Uta Ranke-Heinemann the virgin birth of Jesus was meant to and should be understood as an allegory of a special initiative of God and not biologically. It could be compared to the creation of Adam in the sense that both creations were by God. It suits to the legends and diction of the allegories of the antiquity according to which famous people originate from gods (like Augustus as the son of Apollo or Alexander the Great as the son of lightning).


A charge of illegitimacy against Jesus can be traced back at least to about 177-180, when Celsus, drawing on Jewish sources, wrote: "It was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin. In fact, however, his mother was a poor country woman who earned her money by spinning. She had been driven out by her carpenter husband when she was convicted of adultery with a soldier named Panthera. She then wandered about and secretly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, Jesus hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical powers. Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God. According to this view, the accounts in Matthew and Mark were intended as a response to this charge.


Others deny the historical existence of Jesus and of Mary, and thus rule out completely any possibility that the accounts of Matthew and Luke had any historical basis whatever.

Epistles of Paul

The letters of Paul of Tarsus, considered to be the earliest texts in the New Testament, do not state that Jesus' mother was a virgin. Some passages in them have received special attention.

In Galatians 4:4 Paul wrote:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law ...

This phrase speaks of Jesus as born "of a woman", not "of a virgin". Some see this as evidence that Paul knew of no account of the virgin birth of Jesus. Others see the phrase "born of a woman, born under the law" significant enough to imply that Jesus had no human father, especially since the emphasis on the mother and the omission of any mention of both parents is the opposite of that in Hebrew genealogy, where the father is often the only parent mentioned. And some point to the curse upon Jeconiah ()as evidence of God's miraculous working, saying that only by a virgin birth could Jesus have Joseph as a legal father, inheriting the promises through David, while avoiding the curse through Jechoniah that none of his descendants would prosper and sit on the throne of David

The Epistle to the Romans opens with the words:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord ...()

Whether "descended from David according to the flesh" implies physical descent through Joseph is disputed. has:

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 to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

While some see "in the likeness of sinful flesh" as meaning merely that Jesus was externally like any other human being, others suggest that there is a contradiction between the notion of being in the likeness of sinful flesh and having been born of a virgin.

As has been remarked by students of the New Testament, the order of writing of the books shows that the oldest Christian preaching about Jesus concerned his death and resurrection. They turned their attention also to the deeds and words that came to them from the traditions of Jesus' ministry, which were formed into collections arranged in logical rather than chronological order, and which formed a basis for the four canonical Gospels, of which Mark is the earliest. gives an outline similar to Mark's, beginning with the baptism and ending with the resurrection, with no mention of the birth. Only later, for reasons not only of curiosity but also of apologetics and theology, attention was given to the birth and infancy, as in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The absence of reference in Paul's writings to the infancy and even the ministry of Jesus may be seen as fitting this pattern.

Old Testament

Stories of miraculous or unexpected births occur throughout the Bible. Early in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Sarah gives birth to Isaac when she is 90 years old. In Genesis and later books, other women also give birth after years of infertility. There is something of a pattern of waiting for a son promised to the father or mother, a son who goes on to rescue the nation, often by leading it. This is considered by certain scholars to be distinctive of the Hebrew theology of a divine right of kings. Jesus' birth narrative is, therefore, interpreted as knowingly based on this particular archetype of a divine mandate to rescue, rule or both. A Christian is, literally, one who believes Jesus is the Christ, a divinely appointed saviour and king. Difference of opinion mainly concerns the historicity of New Testament accounts, rather than interpretation of their intention.

Unlike the account that Matthew and Luke give of the miraculous conception of Jesus, all the miraculous births in Old Testament times, and that of John the Baptist in the New Testament, are presented as the result of sexual intercourse between a married couple.

There has been controversy among scholars about the translation and the meaning of a small section of Isaiah containing the word "עלמה" (almah), translated variously as young woman or as virgin. Matthew, writing in Greek about the virgin birth of Jesus, quotes the Septuagint text of this passage, which uses the Greek word "παρθένος" (parthenos, of which "virgin" is the correct English translation) to render the less precise Hebrew word.

In the King James Version of the Bible, a traditional Protestant translation, the verses of Isaiah appear as follows:

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

However, several notable modern translations do not use virgin for `almah in this passage.

A plausible explanation of the purpose of the passage in Isaiah is that the original prophecy was spoken in 734 BC, when, before a soon-to-be-born child knows the difference between good and evil, Syria (which threatened Israel at the time) would be conquered. This prophecy would be fulfilled 2 years later, when Syria was defeated by the Assyrians in 732 BC. This child also appears in chapter 8, where it is said that, before he comes of age, the northern kingdom of Israel would be destroyed, which occurred also at the hands of Assyria in 722 BC.

Those who do not believe that this passage is a direct reference to the birth of Jesus, object that Jesus was not in fact named "Immanuel" and point to other problems such as: (1) what does the "butter and honey" refer to? (One possible response to the "butter and honey" problem: it is a reference to one who, metaphorically, "has eaten good meat his entire life in order to spit out the bad meat if it ever touched his lips". The "butter and honey" reference is immediately followed by the comment on an ability to choose between good and evil, which may suggest that they are related.) (2) Why is Jesus, who was sinless from birth in the traditional Christian understanding, described as having to learn to refuse the evil and choose the good? and (3) This passage within the latter translations states that the "young woman" within this prophecy is "with child" (in the present tense, i.e. already pregnant, in English translations, though the present/future grammatical distinction does not exist in the Hebrew language). Readers of these English translations then find this prophecy difficult to apply to the coming Messiah Jesus, as it would have already been fulfilled during Isaiah's time.

Some say that the passage is a double reference— a sign both to Ahaz that the alliance against him would be destroyed, and to the house of David as a whole that was threatened with extinction. The Hebrew text uses "singular you" for the former and "plural you' for the latter. With the former, Isaiah reassures Ahaz that the alliance would be destroyed before his own son Shear Jashub, who was present (v. 3), would "learn to refuse the evil and choose the good".

A more common view among Christian commentators is that Matthew applied this text to the conception of Jesus in much the same way that John applied to the crucified Jesus' legs not being broken like those of the two who were crucified with him.

Bethulah and `almah

Of the two Hebrew words בתולה (bethulah) and עלמה (`almah), most commentators interpret betulah as meaning a virgin, and `almah as meaning a nubile young woman. In regular narrative, `almah denotes youth explicitly, virginity is suggested only loosely and implicitly. Hence, some have argued that, strictly speaking, the youth of a mother, not virginity, was all that was suggested by Isaiah.

Some have argued, on the contrary, that bethulah does not necessarily indicate virginity and that `almah does mean a virgin. While in modern Hebrew usage bethulah is used to mean a virgin, in Biblical Hebrew it is found in followed by the statement "and no man had known her", which, it is claimed, would be unnecessary if the word bethulah itself conveyed this information. Another argument is based on , where bethulah is used of a widow; but it is not certain that here it referred to a woman who had had sexual relations, since marriage was considered to begin with betrothal, some time before cohabitation began. As for the word `almah, this same minority view holds that the young women to whom it was applied in the Old Testament were all in fact virgins.

In an Ugaritic tablet, the words in that language cognate to bethulah and `almah are both used in relation to the goddess Anath who by union with the male lunar deity was to bear a son.. The Aramaic counterpart of bethûlah was used of married women. The same holds for other cognate languages, "there is in fact no word for 'virgin' in Sumerian or Akkadian.

Comparison of Isaiah and pre-biblical literature

The poetic or elevated prose context of the Isaiah prophecy, lends itself to comparison with pre-biblical literature of similar genre in cognate languages, for establishing the semantic domain of its vocabulary. Semitic poetry is characterized by synonymous parallelism, that is, instead of the rhyming common in European verse of recent centuries, couplets are often formed by using near-synonyms. Cyrus H. Gordon considers a poetic passage in Ugaritic, a north-west Semitic language neighbour to Hebrew.

It all boils down to this: the distinctive Hebrew word for 'virgin' is betulah, whereas `almah means a 'young woman' who may be a virgin, but is not necessarily so. The aim of this note is rather to call attention to a source that has not yet been brought into the discussion. From Ugarit of around 1400 B.C. comes a text celebrating the marriage of the male and female lunar deities. It is there predicted that the goddess will bear a son ... The terminology is remarkably close to that in Isaiah 7:14. However, the Ugaritic statement that the bride will bear a son is fortunately given in parallelistic form; in 77:7 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew `almah 'young woman' [>Glmh<]; in 77:5 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew betulah 'virgin' [>btlt<]. Therefore, the New Testament rendering of `almah as 'virgin' for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.

The argument that Gordon, Feinberg and others go on to make is that Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah referring to a virgin is consistent with early Jewish interpretation. This includes the Jewish interpretation of the passage provided by the LXX, produced centuries before Matthew.


The Septuagint's Greek term παρθένος (parthenos) is considered by many to be an inexact rendering of the Hebrew word `almah in the text of Isaiah.

The Greek word παρθένος, from which terms such as parthenogenesis are derived, normally means "virgin", though there are four instances in classical Greek where it is used to mean unmarried women who are not virgins. The Septuagint uses the word to translate three different Hebrew words: bethulah, "maiden/virgin"; `almah, "maiden/virgin"; and נערה, na`arah, "maiden, young woman, servant", as seen in the following examples:

Genesis 24:16 And the damsel [parthenos = Hebrew na`arah] was very fair to look upon, a virgin [parthenos = Hebrew bethulah], neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.
Judges 21:12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins [parthenous = Hebrew bethulah], that had known no man by lying with any male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

Archaeological evidence is claimed to show that Jewish speakers of Greek used the word parthenos elastically, in that Jewish catacombs in Rome identify married men and women as "virgins". It has been suggested that in this case the word was used to call attention to the fact that the deceased was someone's first spouse.

As Christianity spread, Greek-speaking Jews stopped using the word παρθένος as a translation of עלמה, replacing it with νεᾶνις (neanis), meaning a "young (juvenile) woman".

Christianity and similar traditions

The argument that Old Testament prophecies of the virgin birth of Jesus were what inspired seemingly similar pagan myths was made by Justin Martyr in The First Apology of Justin, written in the second century. He made this argument also in his Dialog with Trypho, in which he debates with a Jew called Trypho:
"Be well assured, then, Trypho," I continued, "that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by Jupiter's intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that the Devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?

Some writers point out that if in fact the writer of Isaiah intended to borrow the idea of a virgin birth from an older pagan tradition, we might expect to find Isaiah using more explicit language to indicate that a virgin was meant. Others says that, if Isaiah had borrowed the story from pagans, he might be expected to speak in the same way as the pagans. This is the view of "the scholar quoted", who notes a "remarkable" similarity of the Ugaritic and the Hebrew. It is also said that Isaiah may speak the same way as the pagans simply because he came from a similar sociological and semantic context, and that, if Isaiah's prophecy came directly from God, he had no tradition to conform to, and could have expanded the meaning to make it completely unambiguous, and accordingly it could be argued that his not making it unambiguous is a difficulty for certain interpretations of the text, though the ambiguity could be seen as being intended, if one supposes that God had a dual purpose for the text: to serve one function in Isaiah's time and another function later. Isaiah's prophecy departs from the Ugaritic version of the predicted birth by having the female human, whereas in the Ugaritic culture, the virgin was another deity, on par with the male, a departure that would in any case be necessary, since Judaism has only one deity, spoken of as male. Isaiah departs much further still from the Ugaritic story by not attributing the forthcoming birth to sexual union on the part of any deity, male or female.


The pseudepigraphon Ascension of Isaiah (probably of the first half of second century) has a narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus (AI 11:8). The narrative of the virgin nativity of Jesus can be found also in many Infancy Gospels, for instance the Gospel of James (probably about 150). A somewhat similar story concerning Melchizedek can be found in the Exaltation of Melchizedek, the last section of the Second Book of Enoch considered by some an addition, see also Melchizedek in the Second Book of Enoch.

Other miraculous births

Outside the Bible, legendary heroes and even actual kings are frequently portrayed as offspring of gods. Both Pharaohs and Roman emperors were considered gods, the latter being considered in Rome itself as divinized only after death. Extra-biblical birth narratives typically involve sexual intercourse, sometimes involving rape or deceit, by a god in human or animal form — for example, the stories of Leda, Europa or the birth of Hercules. However, an example of a story where the woman's physical virginity is explicitly maintained by the god who impregnates her by artificial insemination is found in a Hindu Purana. "The sun-god said: O beautiful Pṛthā, your meeting with the demigods cannot be fruitless. Therefore, let me place my seed in your womb so that you may bear a son. I shall arrange to keep your virginity intact, since you are still an unmarried girl. Zoroastrianism also holds that the end-of-time Saoshyant (literally, "saviour") will be miraculously conceived by a virgin who has swum in a lake where Zoroaster's seed is preserved.

The birth narrative of Jesus is distinctive in that it speaks of the Holy Spirit, not of male seed, as the active agent in his conception.

Some have tried to demonstrate Christian dependence on a Roman mystery cult called Mithraism, which was established prior to Christianity. Early reconstructions of the Mithras legend proposed, from Persian sources, that he might have been born of the union of Mother Earth and Ahuramazda, however the theory has not endured. Carvings illustrating the legend reinforce documentary sources that focus on Mithras being born purely from rock (saxigenus), as Athena, the daughter of Zeus and Metis, sprang from the forehead of Zeus.


Christians celebrate the conception of Jesus on 25 March (Lady Day) and his birth at Christmas (25 December) or Epiphany (6 January). Among the many traditions associated with Christmas are the construction of cribs and the performance of re-enactments of elements of the story in the Gospels of the birth of Jesus.

There has been debate about the reason why Christians came to choose the 25 December date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One theory is that they did so in order to oppose the existing winter-solstice feast of the Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) by celebrating on that date the birth of the "Sun of Righteousness". Another tradition derived the date of Christmas from that of the Annunciation, the virginal conception of Jesus. Since this was supposed to have taken place on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, calculated to have been either 25 March or 6 April, it was believed that the date of Christ's birth will have been nine months later. A tractate falsely attributed to John Chrysostom argued that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year and calculated this as 25 March, a computation also mentioned by Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Immaculate Conception distinct from virginal conception

The virginal conception of Jesus by Mary is often mistakenly confused with the Roman Catholic Church teaching of her "Immaculate Conception", namely Mary's conception by her mother in the normal way, but free from original sin. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception has been defined as follows: "The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

Scientific issues

In Christian and Islamic belief, the virgin birth of Jesus was not a case of parthogenesis (the scientific name for virgin birth), such as occurs naturally in some species, and has been artificially induced even in mammals, but generally produces only female offspring. Like the story of Jesus' resurrection, the conception of Jesus is seen as a strictly miraculous occurrence, not explainable as a natural process, no matter how exceptional, or as a scientific achievement. In fact, scientists believe that not even the most advanced techniques could induce parthenogenesis in humans, especially for producing male offspring.

See also


Further reading

External links

Gabriel announces Mary's motherhood to Jesus
Life of Jesus: Conception of Jesus
New Testament

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