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Definition

The virgin birth of Jesus, which is more accurately labeled the virginal conception of Jesus, teaches that Jesus Christ was born apart from the normal process of procreation, but was supernaturally conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of her, without sin.

Summary

Orthodox Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ was born supernaturally of the virgin Mary. Belief in the virginal conception, commonly called the virgin birth, is built on the witness of Scripture and traces its roots to the earliest recoverable days of Christian theology. In this essay I will first introduce the theological framework of the virgin birth. Second, I will consider the biblical teaching on the virgin birth. This will include both the explicit teaching of the virgin birth, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in other possible allusions to and arguments that presuppose the virgin birth. Third, I will discuss some church fathers whose writings reveal the early and uniform belief in the virgin birth. Fourth, I will mention a few practical implications of the virgin birth.

Theological Framework

The virgin birth refers to the supernatural birth of Jesus Christ apart from the normal, physical process of procreation. Instead, Jesus was uniquely conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The virginal birth is the means by which the eternal Son of God became incarnate as fully human. He was born of Mary with a true body and a reasonable soul. The virgin birth also is the means by which Jesus was born holy and sinless, in distinction from all other children born naturally since Adam. Jesus was not represented by Adam when the first man sinned, and is therefore not “in Adam.” Instead, Jesus is the head of new creation.

In what follows I will discuss some of the biblical basis for the virgin birth, the virgin birth in the history of the church, and some practical implications. I will use the more familiar phrase “virgin birth” to refer throughout to the virginal conception of Jesus. Two caveats may be helpful: I will not discuss (1) the perpetual virginity of Mary, nor will I discuss (2) the theory of the immaculate conception, by which Mary herself was supposedly guarded from original sin. Neither of these doctrines find support in Scripture.

Biblical Basis for the Virgin Birth

Gospels of Matthew and Luke

The clearest places where the virgin birth is taught are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for these are the only two places in Scripture where the birth of Christ is narrated. It is therefore significant that both these texts speak of Jesus’s birth of a virgin.

The Gospel of Luke contains the most details about the birth of Jesus. In the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26–38) the virginity of Mary is mentioned explicitly in Luke 1:27 (Greek: parthenos), and again in Luke 1:34 when Mary wonders how she could be with child since she has never known a man. The context of Luke leaves little doubt that this second reference to the virginity of Mary employs the biblical idiom of “knowing” someone to refer to sexual intimacy. Instead of the normal process of procreation, Gabriel tells Mary that the child to be born of her comes by the agency of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). This verse reveals a close relationship between the Holy Spirit and the holiness of the child—the Holy Spirit will ensure that the child born of Mary (herself a sinner) would be holy. Mary’s son will occupy the throne of his father David, and will reign over a kingdom that will not end (Luke 1:31–33). Mary later gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:5), fulfilling prophecy (Mic 5:2).

The birth of Jesus is also recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 1:20 (cf. 1:18) the Holy Spirit is identified as the means of Mary’s pregnancy, which happened before she and Joseph were united sexually (see also Matt 1:25). The term virgin is applied to Mary in Matthew as it is in Luke, this time by means of Isaiah 7:14 which is quoted in Matthew 1:23: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Though Isaiah’s use of the term virgin has been widely debated, Isaiah does seem to speak of a virgin,1 and Matthew clearly understands Mary to be a virgin.

The Virgin Birth Elsewhere in the New Testament

In the two biblical texts that explicitly narrate the birth of Christ, the Holy Spirit is identified as the agent of Mary’s pregnancy, and Mary is identified as a virgin. These clear texts help us navigate the less explicit texts. Though the virgin birth is not explicitly mentioned in any other NT text, it is certainly not denied, and the NT emphasis on the preexistence of the Son of God fits hand in glove with the virgin birth.

The Gospel of John opens with the divinity of the only begotten Son, who existed in the beginning before the incarnation (John 1:1–18; cf. 17:5). Jesus came from heaven to grant eternal life (e.g., John 6:33, 40, 51). It is possible that John also alludes to the virgin birth. The opponents of Jesus are often marked by misunderstanding in John, and one of the things they misunderstand is Jesus’s origins: they think they know where he comes from, but they lack true understanding. Contrary to the opinion of many, Jesus is not really the Son of Joseph (see John 6:41–42; 8:41; cf. 7:27–28, 40­–42).

It is no problem that the Gospel of Mark does not mention the virgin birth of Jesus, since Mark does not include an infancy narrative at all. Instead, Mark jumps right to the public ministry of Jesus. Jesus bursts onto the scene as an adult with great power and urgency (Mark 1:9).

The Apostle Paul also does not mention the virgin birth, but his theological framework assumes it. Paul speaks of Jesus as a real man (Gal 4:4; 1Cor 15:21) who came from the line of David (Rom 1:3–4), yet who existed before his incarnation (e.g., Phil 2:6; Col 1:15–20).

Paul’s theological framework is particularly clear in Romans 5:12–21, where Paul speaks of Jesus in parallel to Adam. Adam was the first man, and through his representative actions sin and death spread to all people. In contrast, through Jesus comes righteousness and life to all those who are in Christ. Paul deals in Romans 5 with two covenant heads of humanity, Adam and Christ. Both are representatives, whose actions have consequences for others. It is difficult to see how Paul’s Adam-Christ parallel would stand, and how Jesus would not have been implicated in the sin of Adam, if Paul did not believe in the virgin birth (cf. 1Cor 15:22, 47–48).2

Though no other NT writer mentions the virgin birth explicitly, the NT often emphasizes both the preexistence and divinity of Jesus, who took on flesh and blood (cf. Heb 1:2–3; Jas 2:1; 2Pet 1:1; Jude 5; 1Jn 1:1­–4; Rev 1:17–18). The preexistence of the Son of God and his birth of a virgin should be understood as closely related.

The Virgin Birth in Church History

Corroborating the biblical witness of the virgin birth, belief in the virgin birth of Jesus has been a mark of orthodox Christian theology from the earliest known Christian writings outside of the NT. The virgin birth is affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed, which has roots very early in the church. The church leader Ignatius of Antioch, writing perhaps as early as A.D. 110–117 mentions the virgin birth on several occasions.3 The second-century church fathers Aristides of Athens (d. ca. A.D. 138), Justin Martyr (d. A.D. 165), Melito of Sardis (ca. A.D. 170), and Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. A.D. 180) all affirm the virgin birth.4

Practical Implications: The Virgin Birth and Salvation

Despite the long-held belief in the virgin birth and its biblical basis, it has often been targeted as a passé tenet that does not hold up to modern, scientific scrutiny. The virgin birth was one of the flash points of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies of the early twentieth century. More recently it has been argued that holding to the virgin birth would downplay the shared humanity between Jesus and sinful humanity, since it would mean Jesus did not participate in the process of evolution.5

Yet the virgin birth is not a take-it-or-leave-it matter; the issue touches whether we believe in God’s supernatural intervention in the world, the biblical teaching on sin, the unique parallel between Adam and Christ, the plain meaning of Scripture, and the historic, unifying creeds of Christianity. I mention a few practical issues by way of conclusion.6

First, the virgin birth shows us that our redeemer is fully, truly a man—yet without sin. Jesus was born supernaturally, but not in a way that makes his humanity different from ours (Heb 2:10–11). As one who was conceived uniquely of a woman by the agency of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is guarded from original sin and stands uniquely parallel to Adam. Were Jesus to have been born with a sinful nature, he would not be the sinless Savior. The virgin birth is the means by which the holy Son of God was incarnate, born without sin.

Second, the virgin birth also assumes the preexistent, divine sonship of Jesus. The virgin birth is fitting for one who is already Son of God before the incarnation. Our Savior is not only a man, but he is the divine Son of God. He is uniquely the God-man—the only one who can accomplish salvation. He is Immanuel—God with us (Matt 1:23). This is covenantal language, reflecting the high covenant promise of God walking among us as our God (cf. Lev 26:12).

Third, the virgin birth shows us God’s initiative in salvation. Salvation is a gift. Before the incarnation of the Son of God, many had tried to bring lasting salvation. But God’s plan is worked out in his timing, and in his way. The power of God is contrasted with the weakness and powerlessness of human beings to accomplish lasting salvation.

Conclusion

The virgin birth is not an isolated doctrine; it is tied closely to the person and work of Christ. For as by a sinful man comes death, by a sinless man comes the resurrection of the dead (cf. 1Cor 15:21). The church father Irenaeus captured it memorably, “if one does not accept [the Son of God’s] birth from a Virgin, how can he accept His resurrection from the dead?”7

Footnotes

1See Christophe Rico, La mère de l’Enfant-Roi Isaïe 7,14: «ʿAlmâ» et «Parthenos» dans l’univers biblique: un point de vue linguistique, Étude de la Bible en ses traditions 258 (Paris: Cerf, 2013).
2See J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 2nd ed. (1930; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965), 262–63.
3Ephesians 7:2; 18:2; 19:1; Smyrnaeans 1:1.
4See, e.g., Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 66–70, 84–85; 1 Apology 22, 33; Melito of Sardis, On the Passover 66, 70–71, 104; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.1; 3.4.2; 3.5.1; 3.9.2; 3.16.2; 3.18.3; 3.18.7; 3.19.1–3; 3.21–22; 4.9.2; 4.23.1; 5.19.1; 5.21.1; idem, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 32–33, 36–39, 53–57; Aristides, Apology 2; Machen, Virgin Birth, 2–43, cf. 317–79.
5Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), e.g., 9, 255, 258–59.
6These follow closely my discussion in Brandon D. Crowe, Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin?, Christian Answers to Hard Questions (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2013), 26–28.
7Irenaeus, Dem. 38. Translation from On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. and ed John Behr, Popular Patristics Series 17 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 64.

Further Reading

  • Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–8, esp. §§366–67 (3:286–95).
  • Crowe, Brandon D. “Of the Virgin’s Womb.TableTalk 12 (2018): 20–21.
  • Crowe, Brandon D. Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? Christian Answers to Hard Questions. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; Philadelphia; Westminster Seminary Press, 2013.
  • Holmes, Michael W., ed. and trans. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
  • Holmes, Michael W., ed. and trans. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. 3rd Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
  • On the Apostolic Preaching. Translated and edited by John Behr. Popular Patristics Series 17. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
  • Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
  • Lighfoot, John. The Apostolic Fathers.
  • Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. 1930. Repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965.
  • Mohler, Albert. “Must Christians Believe in the Virgin Birth?” Ligonier.com
  • Rico, Christophe. La mère de l’Enfant-Roi Isaïe 7,14: «ʿAlmâ» et «Parthenos» dans l’univers biblique: un point de vue linguistique. Étude de la Bible en ses traditions 258. Paris: Cerf, 2013.
  • Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Translated by George Musgrave Giger. Edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97, esp. question 13.5 (2:306–10). Latin version available online here.
  • Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics. 5 vols. Translated and edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2012–16, esp. 3:187–91.

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