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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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:
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".
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.
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.
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.
Life of Jesus: Conception of Jesus