Christmas cards, school plays and hit songs serve both to remind and confuse our culture regarding what really happened 2,000 years ago.
At the heart of the story is the virginal conception of Jesus, popularly called the virgin birth. Even theologians can be quick to dismiss the historicity of the event. Bart Ehrman notes that only Matthew and Luke record the virgin birth and points out: ‘It has always struck scholars as odd that the tradition – which surely would be an important thing to know! – isn’t attested anywhere else in our earliest sources.’
An author’s intention
Of course, such a remark has little relevance to whether the virgin birth is true. The intentions of an author may explain why they do or do not make reference to a particular event. Keith Ward points out that perhaps only Matthew and Luke were closely enough associated with the family of Jesus to know this intimate story. John clearly knows enough to draw attention to the suspicions over Jesus’ parentage (John 8.19-41). And some Jewish traditions after the New Testament invented a fictitious story about Jesus being conceived through adultery. All of this indicates that there was an awareness that Jesus’ birth was out of the ordinary.
But what about a virgin conception? Probably the most common reason for its dismissal has nothing to do with history at all. It is a result of a materialistic prejudice against the supernatural. ‘A virgin conception is a miracle. Miracles are not explicable by normal, scientifically observed processes, therefore miracles cannot happen’. The argument is entirely circular. The virgin birth is only as impossible as the resurrection of Christ, the turning of water into wine or the parting of the Red Sea. The biblical world-view reveals a supernatural dimension to the universe in which miracles are possible. Christians do not claim that miracles are ordinary (they are signs and wonders) but that they are possible.
Another objection to the virgin birth is the claim that it is a common form of legend. All great figures of the ancient world needed some kind of supernatural birth story to highlight their significance even before they reached prominence. Therefore, the Buddha, the Egyptian God Horus, the Pharaoh Hatshepsut and even a Jewish tradition concerning Melchizedek are all offered as examples of virgin births.
The reality is rather different. Once we investigate each story in detail we find the comparisons evaporate. The Buddha was supposedly conceived when his mother, the Queen, was impregnated by a six tusked white elephant that entered her side one night. Horus, the falcon headed god, was conceived by Isis who temporarily resurrected the body of Osiris who had been murdered by another god, in order to sleep with him. The female Pharaoh Hatshepsut is conceived by a sacred symbol when a god takes the form of her husband and meets her one night. Finally, the later Jewish story of Melchizedek, not found in the Old Testament, claims that he was born after his mother had died, already clothed and fully developed as an adult.
Rooted in history
None of these supposed analogies bear any relationship to the nativity story of Jesus. When we turn to the Gospels we do not read about capricious gods impregnating women. Instead, we read very sober accounts rooted in real historical places and political situations. Any honest reading of Matthew and Luke has to admit that these Gospel accounts at least claim to be based upon real people and places. The name of a governor, the context of a census, the geographical locations and cultural practices all provide a solid historical basis. We can even date the event to within a few years. The account of the conception, delivery and infancy of the child are all recorded in realistic prose.
Perhaps some of our embellished nativity plays undermine confidence in the historicity of the Gospel accounts. But the Gospels themselves are our best evidence. The biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus contrast dramatically with the legends and myths of the ancient world. If our friends and neighbours can encounter this evidence then they will have good reason not only to take his birth seriously but to take his life seriously too.
Chris is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.