04.03.08 Mt. 1:18-25
JOSEPH IS TOLD OF MARY’S CONCEPTION
18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated ‘God is with us.’ ”
24 When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus.
Words cannot express to the Western mind the trial and tribulation Joseph experienced when he discovered Mary was pregnant. Therefore, it was only fitting that God spoke to him in a dream, and did so several times. Furthermore, the general expectation of a messiah that everyone was talking about, and the incredible news that the elderly Elizabeth was pregnant, certainly added to the affirmation that God was about to do something significant. But a virgin birth was beyond anyone’s wildest expectation.
“Mary had been engaged to Joseph.” As previously stated, a pledge of marriage meant that a marriage contract was signed by the bride and bridegroom. The contract was known as a katuvah, and no respectable couple would have been pledged without one.
Marriages were generally arranged by fathers, but sometimes the bride was selected by the bridegroom, and on rare occasions the matchmaker was the groomsman (Shoshebhin). A marriage began with a betrothal when the katuvah was signed, which was followed by the wedding a year later. The betrothal period was to test the bride’s fidelity, and the time needed for the bridegroom to build a home for his bride and prepare for the coming household.
“Not wanting to disgrace her publicly.” Another translation reads that Joseph did “not want to expose her to public disgrace.” It is often human nature to assume guilt when one is accused of a crime. In first century Judea, a pregnancy outside of marriage was a monumental disgrace and, with the exception of rape, the woman was always considered guilty by her family and community. If judicial action would be taken to enforce the terms of the katuvah, the disgrace would be compounded.
“He had considered.” Most English translations use the word “considered” which fails to do justice to describe the emotions of Joseph. The original word is enthymeomai which has two definitions.
- The first definition is the one generally used in English translations – to ponder or to consider.
- The other meaning is to become very angry or to become very upset.
To say that Joseph “pondered” or “considered” the situation is to say that he was not affected emotionally by Mary’s pregnancy. That obviously does not make sense – most certainly he and his family were incredibly upset. One cannot imagine how angry he must have been. Yet he chose not to permit his anger lead him to a decision he would regret. In spite of his emotional turmoil, he was just and kind in the decision he made, which is why the early church fathers referred to him as “Joseph the Just.”
“Joseph son of David.” The term son in this phrase has a broader meaning than does its English translation. In this case it means any male descendant of David. The humble Joseph of Nazareth was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of the descendants of King David. Archaeological discoveries confirm the presence of Davidic families living in Jerusalem in the first century B.C. An ossuary, or bone box, was discovered in 1971 with an inscription identifying the bones inside as a member of the royal Davidic lineage. This demonstrates that the phrase “son of David” was a matter of pride and influence in first-century Judaism.
However, the phrase “son of David” also was a threatening term to the Romans who crushed the revolts of many messianic pretenders. For that reason, decades after Jesus, Emperor Vespasian (reigned A.D. 69-79) searched for descendants of Jesus with the thought of killing all those who might continue the messianic ideals that gave birth to Christianity. As a result, he found some children of Jesus’ half-brothers and, upon questioning them and seeing the roughness of their hands, realized these men were no threat and released them. Not many years later, Emperors Domitian and Trajan were also concerned about the possible rise of a messianic figure from descendants of Mary and Joseph.
“Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The news of the pregnancy was shocking to Joseph and his family. In a small village, such news was unheard of and was considered a curse upon a family for decades to come. Joseph had the right to keep the dowry she brought into the relationship, and he also could make one of the following four choices:
- Marry her quickly and have everyone assume the child was an early delivery – except that would have broken the traditional one-year waiting period between betrothal and marriage, so the gossip would never end;
- Make a public confession of the pregnancy which would NOT have resulted in the bride being stoned to death (a Mosaic law that was seldom observed) because that would have caused the death of an unborn child. Or,
- Have a quiet divorce and send Mary into another village or city to have the child. After all, one of the two most popular rabbis, Rabbi Hillel, had made divorce easier to obtain with the modern equivalent of “no-fault” divorce (the cause of later discussions by Jesus).
- However, it was not until the angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph that he realized that he was to exercise a fourth choice – to marry her and be the legal father of the boy-child who would be known as “Immanuel” (fulfillment of Isa. 7:14).
Joseph had to choose between God’s mercy and his legal rights. He chose God’s mercy and no doubt was frequently challenged later by the out-of-wedlock birth, even in distant Bethlehem. While the consummation of a marriage typically occurred during the wedding feast, in this case, Mary and Joseph were married before Jesus was born, but the marriage was not consummated until after His birth (Mt. 1:24-25). No doubt they reflected upon the pregnancy in light of a biblical prophecy concerning the Anointed One who was to be born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth.
“All this took place to fulfill.” The Jews were expecting a military-messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression, but they needed to understand that Jesus was the Messiah who would deliver them from the oppression of sin. Therefore, everyone naturally questioned whether Jesus was the one they were expecting. For that reason, Matthew went to great lengths to explain that Jesus was the Messiah and the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophecies. Hence, this passage is the first of twelve in which he used the word fulfill which means to give complete meaning to.
“The virgin will become pregnant.” The virgin birth, or more correctly, the virgin conception of Jesus, and its reflection upon Isaiah 7:14 has been the subject of considerable debate. More specifically, the issue has been whether the Hebrew word almah means virgin or a young maiden of marriageable age, and the latter translation is used several times in the Old Testament. At the time of Isaiah and at the time of Jesus, a young maiden who was of marriageable age was also a virgin; the two phrases, virgin and young maiden, are synonymous. Those who insist on the virgin only definition fail to recognize the synonym within its cultural context. Therefore, Isaiah would not have been troubled by the use of either definition in his text. However, it was distinctively different from the Western culture of today where virginity is not always found in young unmarried men and women.
It should be noted, however, that some 250 years earlier when Egyptian Jews translated their Bible into Greek, the word virgin of Isaiah 7:14 was translated into parthenos. The apostle John used the same word, parthenos in reference to the celibate men of Revelation 14:4 which obviously could not refer to young women.
When Isaiah wrote this passage in 735 B.C., when Aram (Syria) and the ten tribes of Israel were united to defeat Ahaz, the king of Judah. The Lord God told Ahaz to ask for a sign (Isa. 7:11). The sign was to be a confirmation that the pending invasion of the two kings would not occur (v. 7). However, Ahaz did not want to test the Lord (v. 12), so God gave him a sign that a virgin would give birth to a child and his name would be “Immanuel” (v. 14). Isaiah continued to be descriptive about the child and identified him as Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isa. 8:1). Within a short period, the prophecy was fulfilled. A young woman, who was a virgin when the prophecy was given, later married and gave birth to a son who was the subject of the prophecy and Ahaz was not defeated. Hence, Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled twice.
By the first century, however, this prophetic narrative was no doubt forgotten and of no futuristic value, until Jesus was born. Matthew then referenced Isaiah 14:7 as a Messianic prophecy and awakened the Jews to the words “virgin” and “Immanuel.” Suddenly, they could see in this passage the hidden meaning, because in the divine plan of God, Jesus would be born of a virgin to break the chain of sin in humanity. Matthew understood the phrase, “The virgin shall be with child,” to be a typological anticipation of Jesus in the same manner as the birth of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was a sign that God (Isa. 8:1, 3) would be with his people (which is the meaning of Immanuel) in the days of Isaiah. When Matthew wrote his gospel several decades after the crucifixion, he said that Jesus was with his people. Therefore, the term “virgin” as used in Isaiah 7:14 clearly meant a “young woman of marriageable age.”
Matthew chose his words carefully to create an escalation of a theme. He made specific use of the word “fulfillment” of the virgin birth with a reflection on the miraculous births of other great prophets. In essence, he said that what had occurred previously was a seemingly insignificant “type and shadow” of a greater event to come. He also used this literary tool in referring to the sign of a boy child to Ahaz with reference to the protection of God. However, the escalation of a future climax was that Mary, a literal virgin, gave birth to Jesus, who was personally “God with us.” This was equally significant to Jesus, who affirmed Himself as the “Immanuel” when He said in his Great Commission that He would “be with you always” (Mt. 28:20).
“They will name him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel, or Emmanuel, meaning God with us, is not found in the New Testament. Yet Jesus was God on earth and was with His people, or, with us. The fact that Immanuel does not appear in Scripture does not mean that there is an error. In ancient thinking there was no difference between a name, a word, or its definition. (See also “The virgin will become pregnant” above.)
“He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son.” In Matthew 1:24-25 the word until indicates that only after the birth of Jesus did Mary and Joseph have a normal marital relationship. This opposes the late third century doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. That doctrine states that the first wife of Joseph died and the children of that marriage became the step-siblings to Jesus. Various old church records have different names for her, including Melcha, Escha, and Salome – and are obviously not in agreement with each other. Furthermore, Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 suggest that the brothers and sisters did originate from the marriage of Mary and Joseph.
04.03.08.Q1 What wedding customs in Galilee shaped the betrothal of Mary and Joseph?
In the Old Testament era of the judges and kings, parents frequently played the role of match-maker. By the first century, those who were getting married had a greater role in the decision. Customs varied from area to area, even the ritual in Galilee were different from those in Jerusalem. But some basics remained the same.
The minimum age for betrothal was twelve for girls and thirteen for boys, although the mid-teens were preferred for girls and eighteen for boys. The formality began when the young man came to the girl’s family and presented them with a formal, legally binding contract known as a katuvah. This covenant contract stated the marriage proposal and the sum of money or other valuables he would pay to her parents to have her as his wife. This payment was known as the “bride price.” The purpose was to compensate the father for the loss of a worker in the family. But more importantly, the “price” was to assure that his wife was costly and, therefore, she was to be cherished. The katuvah also stated that the young man promised to honor, love, support, and care for her, providing all the necessities of life. If the terms of the contract were accepted by both families, it was signed and the couple celebrated by sharing a cup of wine together. Only then was the covenant sealed and the couple considered betrothed. Thereafter the bride wore a veil whenever in public which signified to any possible suitors that she had made a marriage commitment. While in the ancient world women were often considered to be mere property, Judaism elevated them to a higher status.
Because a katuvah was a legal contract, a termination resulted by one spouse receiving a certificate of divorce from the other and each party was permitted to re-enter another betrothal. The Talmud stated that, the bond, created by God is so strong that, after betrothal, a woman requires a divorce before she can marry another man. If there was a divorce or death, the tragic event was recorded in the genealogical records in the temple.
During the betrothal time, the bridegroom would “prepare a place for her” while the bride prepared herself for her bridegroom and new home. The new home was simply another room added onto the existing home of the groom’s family home. Seldom did a young bridegroom build a single-family dwelling on a building lot away from his family. While the young bridegroom constructed the room, there was plenty of help from family and friends and his father eventually declared its completion.
Jesus was born during the one-year period of Mary’s betrothal. After Jesus was born they had their wedding ceremony, after which the couple had a very short honeymoon. Then they returned, and with family and friends, they celebrated with a feast.
The Jews were not alone in this practice; it was the cultural norm among many people groups in the ancient Middle East. Centuries earlier the code of Hammurabi stated in Acts 159-160 that if a bridegroom broke the betrothal, the bride’s father retained the bride’s price (gift). However, if the future father-in-law broke the covenant, he would have to pay double the bride price to the bridegroom. The legal codes of Lipit-Ishtar (No. 29) and Eshnunna (No. 25) had similar requirements. These are mentioned because to the modern student, the cultural and religious norms tend to blend together at times. One is not always certain if a belief or action is for religious or cultural reasons. Many of the daily activities of the average Jew were similar to those of Gentiles. The important difference, of course, was the religious element and whatever influences that would have had upon daily life.
During the betrothal period the couple was considered to be husband and wife, although the wedding was still in the future. If either one died prior to the wedding the surviving partner would have been considered a virgin and as a widow or widower, and would be free to marry someone else.
04.03.08.Q2 Why could Joseph not have stoned Mary to death (Deut. 22:23-24; Mt. 1:18-25)?
The Mosaic Law requires the stoning of an unfaithful man and woman (Deut. 22:23-24) and, as stated previously, but by the first century this punishment was seldom enforced among Jews. By this time Jewish leaders differentiated between two types of adulterous women – the married woman and engaged virgin. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 50a, the punishments were as follows:
- The adulterous married woman was sentenced to death by hanging
- The adulterous betrothed virgin was sentenced to death by stoning.
Granted, in either case the punishment was death. It was simply a matter of how the execution was to be performed. However, the Romans removed the authority for the Sanhedrin to exercise capital punishment in Judea. The Babylonian comment could have been written for two reasons:
- For Jews living in the Diaspora who were not under the authority of the laws of Judea.
- To reflect the ideals of Judaism, not for the actual intended punishment.
Either way, if she was found guilty by the rabbinic court, the end was the same. Nonetheless, being unfaithful was one thing, but being pregnant and unfaithful was another. Joseph could not, would not, have stoned Mary for four reasons:
- As previously stated, the custom of stoning an adulterous woman was completely out of use by the first century in most areas where Jews lived. At a later time the scribes and Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman they accused of adultery. But that was only a hypothetical question, which leads to the second reason.
- Capital punishment was eliminated by the Romans under the reign of Herod the Great with the exception of Gentiles who entered restricted areas of the temple. Herod’s domain included the district of Galilee, but the legal authority of the Sanhedrin was limited to Judea.
- The stoning could not have been committed by Joseph, because the couple’s wedding had not yet taken place. Cultural rules required her father or older brother to carry out the death sentence. The same is true today among orthodox Muslims, where the family execution is known as an “honor killing” and is supported by Sharia Law. However, such an execution would have only occurred after a judicial action, not by a family in revenge.
- But the most important reason is the fact that since Mary was pregnant, stoning her would have resulted in the death to an innocent child, which would have made the executioner guilty of the child’s murder.
Therefore, a divorce was Joseph’s only option until an angel directed him to do otherwise. But a quiet divorce was an expensive option for Joseph because he would have been obligated to support her. His decision to consider this, illustrates the fact that for Mary’s sake, he would take the expensive route rather than the socially honorable and economically affordable one.
And this is why: during the previous two centuries, the Pharisees attempted to bring the people back to basic Torah instruction by emphasizing the kindness of God rather than legalistic attitudes. This was obviously contradictory to many of their other rules and contrary to what many students of the Bible learn today. One of the reforms they instituted was that a husband had to pay support for the wife he divorced. Not all Pharisees agreed as there were many religious sects under the Pharisee umbrella. Amazingly, while they are justly criticized for their legalistic harshness, they should also be noted for some of their kind and responsible landmark decisions.
In summary, if Joseph had accused Mary of adultery, a public divorce based on adultery would have cost him nothing. He would have saved his family’s honor, and kept her dowry. A quiet divorce would have cost him alimony payments. However, then he received a message from an angel and he chose to follow the difficult road of life that God had chosen for them.
04.03.08.Q3 Why do the gospels fail to call Jesus the “Prince of Peace?” as predicted in Isaiah 9:6 (see Mt. 1:18-25)?
Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Prince of Peace,” yet nowhere is the title found in the gospels or in the New Testament. Jesus is, however, referred to as “the Prince of Life” (Acts 3:15), “a Prince and Savior” (Acts 5:31), and “Prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). The book of Isaiah is sometimes referred to as the “Gospel of the Old Testament,” because it contains so many prophecies of His first coming as well as His second. When Jesus was on earth He came as a servant and teacher. When He returns He will rule the nations of the earth for a thousand years and, as such, then He will be the Prince of Peace.
In His first coming, Jesus taught the principles of the Kingdom of God, whereby men’s hearts can be changed and, consequently, they can obtain an inner peace that is beyond all human understanding. In His second coming, Jesus will rule this earth and institute international peace. He may not have received the official title of “Prince of Peace” by any New Testament writers, but those who accepted Him and allowed Him to transform their lives, certainly know Him as such. In Bible times, the definition of a word, phrase, or title was no different than the word, phrase, or title itself.
04.03.08.Q4 Can the concept of the virgin birth be supported historically (Mt. 1:18-25)?
Throughout Church history there has been unanimous agreement on this biblical subject. Only on rare occasion did anyone challenge this basic doctrine, and those individuals were identified as heretics and quickly removed from Church. Only in modern times has it been controversial, and in some circles, popular, to challenge it. Yet, there are a number of non-Christian witnesses to the event. One of them is the Qu’ran, which reads as follows:
Jesus was of virgin birth and performed many miracles. But those to whom he came as a Prophet rejected him, and plotted for his death. Their plots failed for God’s plan is above man’s plots.
Qu’ran, Sura 3:35
The virgin birth is also evidenced by the number of hostile witnesses who wrote against it. If the birth was a myth, then the witnesses would have been dismissed as such. But so many believed it, so that about the year A.D. 180, Celsus, a Greek philosopher, vigorously attacked all aspects of Christianity and espoused the virtues of classical paganism in a writing titled On the True Doctrine. He claimed that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but had a father by the name of Panthera.
In the Greek, this name sounds nearly the same as the same word for “virgin” and, therefore, it was an insulting pun. While his work has been lost in history, portions of it were preserved through the literary work of church father, Origen of Alexandria. In the year A.D. 248, Origen wrote a rebuttal entitled, Against (or Contra) Celsus. It is from this academic discussion that historians know that Celsus promoted philosophical hatred against the Christian faith.
Let us imagine what a Jew – let alone a philosopher – might put to Jesus: “Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumors about the true and unsavory circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in royal David’s city of Bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town and of a woman who earned her living by spinning? Is it not the case that her deceit was discovered, that she was pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panthera she was driven away by her husband, the carpenter, and convicted of adultery? Indeed, is it not so that in her disgrace, wandering far from home she gave birth to a male child in silence and humiliation? What more? Is it not so that you hired yourself out as a workman in Egypt, learned magical crafts and gained something of a name for yourself which now you flaunt among your kinsmen?”
Celsus, quoted by Origen in Contra Celsus 1.28-34
Celsus claimed that there was an error by the gospel writers in writing the Greek word panthenos (meaning virgin), and what was meant was Parthera, a masculine name. His theory may have come from Jewish sources who also opposed the Christian movement because it was emptying synagogues and converting others into churches. Like Celsus, Jewish critics claimed that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but His mother was a prostitute and His true father was a Roman soldier known as Pandira or Parthera.
Yet while the Jewish leadership looked upon Jesus with great disdain, some admired His ability to perform miracles. This is evidenced by two interesting accounts that happened later – possibly in the second or early third century. In both stories someone was sick and someone else offered to pray in the name of Jesus, but it is a prayer in the name of Jesus, the son of Pandira, a/k/a the son of Parthera. These are examples of the unique healing power of Jesus – one is accepted, the other, denied.
- Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had an ill grandchild with a life-threatening disease in the throat. Someone came and mumbled a prayer “In the name of Jesus, the son of Pandira” and the child was healed.
- A certain Rabbi Eliezer ben Damah was bitten by a poisonous snake and a Jacobus Capharsamensis came to visit him. Jacobus offered to pray a prayer of healing in the name of Jesus the son of Pandira, but Rabbi Ishmael denied the offer of prayer. Consequently, he died.
While these accounts occurred long after the resurrection of Jesus, they reflect three important insights:
- The power that was in the name of Jesus, even if He was incorrectly identified (“son of Pandira”).
- The power associated with the name of Jesus and how rabbis reacted to it.
- The on-going struggle the Jewish people had with the identity of Jesus.
The core issue was that the rabbis did not want to admit who Jesus was; certainly not that He was born of a virgin, even though He had demonstrated all the signs and wonders predicted in the Bible.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Jesus is described as a Balaam, one who deceived the Jewish people. While the Talmud does not give proper names, it does record a story of a woman who “played harlot with carpenters.” The context of the account obviously reflects upon Mary and Joseph. By stating this, the Talmud does provide witness of the dynamic impact Jesus had upon the Jewish community and their rejection of Him throughout history. On a side note, to use a name dignified someone, to speak of them without a name added insult.
In the Greek culture, with its cultural passion of sexual desires, the Athenians named their city’s patron goddess Athene, He Parthenos meaning “the Virgin.” Even within the pagan culture, the word was commonly understood to mean “virgin.” While some critics have suggested that the virgin birth was invented by the Church, there are three distinct reasons that, when taken together, suggest otherwise and support the biblical account.
- The first century church believed in the historical virgin birth;
- There was no pre-Christian speculation that the Messiah would have been born as a virgin. Isaiah 7:14 was not recognized as a prophecy until after Jesus was born.
- Since the messiah would be a son of David it was thought he would have to be naturally conceived. The idea of a virgin birth was a radically new concept within the Jewish community. No one writing a fictitious account would deliberately create an issue that would have caused criticism. Therefore, for church leaders to invent the idea of a virgin birth would have been an invitation for criticism.
By the fifth or sixth century a Jewish writer picked up the heresy of Celsus and placed it in an anti-Christian book titled Toledot-Yeshu meaning Generations of Yeshua that was obviously written for a Jewish audience. The writer identified the Roman soldier as Yosef ben-Pandera (Jewish name?) and the factitious account became part of the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 104b, and Sanhedrin 67a, as well as the Tosefta Chullin 2:22-23.
04.03.08.Q5 What is the significance of the virgin birth (Mt. 1:18-25)?
This is a theological question that is beyond the scope of this paper, but three brief answers are as follows:
- Throughout the Old Testament Period, the miraculous birth of a child to elderly parents was a well-established pattern that God used to announce that a special person was born – usually a prophet. The virgin birth of Jesus was the culmination of all the miraculous births recorded throughout Jewish history.
- The virgin birth is critical in that it broke the generational curse of sin that has plagued humanity since Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptations of Satan. The basic understanding of sin is critical in order to comprehend the significance of what Jesus saved us from, as well as what He saved us to. The absolute purity and holiness of Jesus could begin only with a virgin birth. Thus He did not receive the curse that had been transmitted from generation to generation since Adam. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were nothing less than a continuance of that purity and holiness.
- Another reason for the virgin birth, one that is often overlooked, arises in Jeremiah 22:24-30. This passage pertains to the curse of Jechoniah, who is in the line of Joseph. Joseph could not have been the biological father of Jesus, because of two issues (mankind’s sin and the curse of Jechoniah), but he became the legal adopted father, or step-father of Jesus. According to rabbinic writings, Mary is referred to as “Miriam, the daughter of Heli” meaning the genealogy of Jesus was recognized as being through Mary and not Joseph.
By a gracious and merciful God, we have Christ Jesus who bore our sins (past, present, and future) on the cross. The parallel between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21, and to a lesser extent, in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 are important. Every person who has ever lived has inherited a sin nature from Adam. But Jesus, born of a virgin, did not have that sin nature, although He had the opportunity and temptations to sin. Yet He chose not to sin. By His sinless life, death, and resurrection, He not only brought salvation by which man would be saved from the consequences of sin, but also be saved to salvation with Himself. This incredible gift of eternal life is available to anyone who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior and commits their life to Him. Acceptance of the virgin birth as a historical fact is foundational in understanding who Jesus is and the development of one’s relationship with Him. It was through Eve, a virgin in the Garden of Eden, that death entered into the world. Now through Mary, a virgin, life would enter into the world.
Finally, there is a teaching that the blood of the unborn child comes from the father and, therefore, the transfer of sin was broken by the virgin birth. However, modern science has proven this blood theory to be wrong. As previously stated, Roman Catholics also grappled with the problem of the transfer of sin from the Virgin Mary to Christ Jesus. They resolved the issue with the belief that she too was born of a virgin, so she too was pure and holy. Protestants disagree because this does not reconcile with Scripture as Psalm 51:5 suggests states that the sinful nature is generational, passing from one generation to another at time of conception. The complete answer remains a divine mystery. However, the miracle of Jesus is that He not only was born of a virgin, but He also received His human nature from His sanctified mother and, hence, her sinful nature did not enter Him. Holiness is a work of the Holy Spirit, not the absence of a male sperm.
04.03.08.Q6 How does one explain other so-called virgin births in history?
Critics have long stated that the claim of a virgin birth was typical of the day; the early Church simply mimicked what existed in the neighboring pagan cultures. The Egyptian pharaohs claimed it, as did Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and Augustus Caesar even claimed to have walked on water. Virgin births were associated with deity, meaning that those who claimed to have been born without an earthly father were, in fact, gods. However, when the so-called pagan virgin births are compared to the biblical account, the differences are profound. It leads the reader to conclude that critics simply cannot relate the birth of Jesus to any historical figure.
No pagan account credits the Holy Spirit, or any other spirit, for the conception. Rather, various kings and emperors claimed their virgin act was generally the result of the sexual action of a serpent. Because snakes shed their skin annually, they were symbolic of renewed life, rather than representative of Satan and death, which is a later Christian interpretation. Therefore, it was only natural that the ancients created a myth in which the symbol of renewed life was also the explanation of a new life conceived by a “virgin birth.”
For example, in the second century (A.D.), the Roman historian Suetonius wrote The Lives of the Caesars: the Deified Augustus in which he described the so-called virgin birth of Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus. Suetonius said that he acquired his information from Asclepius of Mendes, who authored Theologumena (Discourse about the Gods). Note the words of Octavian’s mother Attia:
Then a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke she purified herself, as after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body the mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.
Suetonius, The Deified Augustus 94.4
Alexander the Great also claimed to have been born of a “virgin.” Whether his mother was a virgin at the time of her conception, or if she, after a normal marital relationship, conceived him by non-human means is unknown. Nonetheless, according to one myth, Alexander was conceived by a divine snake and another myth claimed the conception was by a lightning bolt. The Greek historian Plutarch said the following of Alexander,
 … It is said that his father Philip fell in love with Olympias, Alexander’s mother, at the time when they were both initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace…. On the night before the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a crash of thunder, that her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, and that there followed a blinding flash from which a great sheet of flame blazed up and spread far and wide before it finally died away …. [The soothsayer] Aristander of Telmessus … declared that the woman must be pregnant. At another time a serpent was seen stretched out at Olympias’ side as she slept, and it was this more than anything else, we are told, which weakened Philip’s passion and cooled his affection for her, so that from that time on he seldom came to sleep with her. The reason for this may either have been that he was afraid she would cast some evil spell or charm upon him or else that he recoiled from her embrace because he believed that she was the consort of some higher being.
 … According to Eratosthenes, Olympias, when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage ….
Plutarch, Life of Alexander, Selections from Chapters 2 – 3
History is filled with religious and political figures who claimed to have been born of a mortal woman and divine father. One critic stated how stupid other people’s myths are, implying that Christians are likewise as foolish for their belief. Yet he fails to recognize that the biblical account is radically different from other accounts. Those who claim that the church fathers copied the virgin birth concept cannot explain the huge difference between the gospel account and pagan accounts. Therefore, it could not have been a “copycat” version.
04.03.08.Q7 Could the idea of a virgin birth have been borrowed from pagan sources as critics claim (Mt. 1:18-25)?
Impossible! While this question has been answered to some degree in the preceding paragraphs, the following is to be noted: Pagan mythologies, primarily those of the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, were extremely hostile to Judaism. Therefore, no respectable Jew would ever have considered taking an element from a pagan religion, especially one as radical as a virgin birth. The concept of stealing such an idea would have caused riots in the synagogues. Yet the Jews were known to acknowledge miraculous births to elderly parents, but a virgin birth was too close to paganism for them. Another observation is that the gospels were written in a Jewish context, which included the firm belief that no mere human could be a god or be transformed into a god. The Greeks, however, believed that certain individuals could be deified.
There are some noteworthy observations that have been made of legendary figures. For example, concerning Alexander the Great, none of the legends and myths about him existed during or shortly after his life. Plutarch, who authored Life of Alexander, (see quotation above) lived some four centuries after the world conqueror died – which was more than sufficient time for fanciful stories to become touted as truth. No ancient manuscripts written by eyewitnesses have been uncovered, whereas the gospels, which were written within three or four decades after Jesus, report numerous eyewitnesses – a time far too short for any legends or myths to develop. Furthermore, all but one of the apostles died a martyr’s death. Would anyone die an agonizing death for a fanciful myth? Their commitment to the truth until their dying day is a profound testimony to the accuracy of the four gospels.
Finally, it was common among non-Jewish cultures to freely borrow ideas and philosophies from each other. Jewish people who did likewise became known as “Hellenized Jews” and were severely frowned upon by orthodox Jews who maintained the biblical command to “be a separate people.” Later, the Apostle Paul gave similar instructions in Colossians 2:6-8 and 1 Timothy 6:20. The suggestion that the church fathers borrowed pagan ideas and inserted them into the New Testament demonstrates gross ignorance of the first century Jewish culture and the passion for which the apostles lived and died.
04.03.08.Q8 If Jesus was born of a virgin, why did the Apostle Paul refer to it only once (1 Cor. 15:8)?
He hardly mentioned it because it was an assumed historical fact. Everybody understood this to have occurred and there was no need to question it. Even the pagans who lived in the Bethlehem area admitted the occurrence of the event. The fact that the apostle was silent on the matter simply means that he had more important issues to discuss. But an argument from silence is always a weak argument, especially in this case, when some of the original apostles were still alive.
Yet the Apostle Paul made a number of comments.
- He affirmed the Jesus connection to Abraham (Gal. 3:16)
- He affirmed the genealogy of David to Jesus (Rom. 1:3)
- He affirmed the true humanity and life of Jesus under the Law (Gal. 4:4)
- He affirmed many discussions of inter-personal issues, such as divorce (1 Cor. 7:10), made by Jesus.
- He affirmed the events of the Last Supper, (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and His death, burial, resurrection, and appearances after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8). In light of all that the apostle said and his purpose of writing, it is easy to understand why there was no need to discuss the birth of Jesus or anything else about His human paternity.
- However, Paul did make an interesting reference to the miraculous birth when he mentioned “one abnormally born” (see 1 Cor. 15:8 below).
In his second letter to the Corinthian church he recited a four-line hymn of the early church (15:3b-5), after which he added additional witnesses of the resurrected Jesus. In verse 8 he mentioned the unusual birth, an obvious reference to Jesus.
3a For I passed on to you as most important what I also received:
3b That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that He was buried,
that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 And that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
6 The He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time; most of them are still alive,
But some have fallen asleep.
7 Then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
. See “Katuvah” in Appendix 26.
. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. 44-45.
. Barag and Flusser, “The Ossuary of Yehohanah.” 39-44.
. A partial listing of an estimated 60 messianic pretenders is found in Appendix 25 “False Prophets, Rebels, Significant Events, And Rebellions That Impacted The First Century Jewish World.”
. Eusebius 3.12., (Cruse 81).
. Eusebius 3.19-20, (Cruse 84-85).
. Eusebius 3:32, (Cruse 97-98).
. For related divorce issues, see Josephus, Antiquities. 4.8.23; 15.8,10 and 18.9.6.
. See 08.02.01-05, Marriage, Divorce, Oaths And Forgiveness.
. Poor families had a one or two-day wedding feast, while wealthy families always had a seven-day feast. Mary and Joseph probably had a very quiet one or two day wedding feast.
. Matthews, Manners and Customs. 225; Trutza, “Marriage.” 4:94-96; Maier, In the Fullness of Time. 21; See also Micah 5 and Gal. 4.
. Matthew mentions the fulfillment of prophecies in 2:15, 17, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9 many of which were prophesied in Psalm 2, 16, 22, 110, 118; Isaiah 7 9, 11, 53; Micah 5; and Zechariah 4, 6, 9, 14.
. New International Version Study Bible footnote on Mt. 1:22.
. Niessen. “The Virginity of Almah in Isaiah 7:14.” 134-35, 147.
. Niessen. “The Virginity of Almah in Isaiah 7:14.” 141.
. Vine, “Virgin.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 1:276-77; 2:661.
. Johnson, “Matthew.” 7:255.
. Bruce, Defense. 39.
. Niessen. “The Virginity of Almah in Isaiah 7:14.” 134-41.
. For an exhaustive study on the subject, see Almah – Virgin or Young Woman by George L. Lawlor. His work includes a detailed review of the seven passages where the word almah is used in Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; 1 Chron. 15:20; Ps. 46:1; 68:25; Prov. 30:19; Song of Sol. 1:3; 6:8; and Isa. 7:14.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 54-55.
. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture. 65.
. See “type and shadow” in Appendix 26.
. Franz. “Who is Immanuel?” 113-115.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 55; Green, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament; Berry, Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament.
. The Apocryphal book titled the History of Joseph the Carpenter indicates in Ch. 11 that Joseph had four older sons and several daughters by a previous marriage. This text is significant to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. See also Farrar, Life of Christ. 44.
. Miller, The Jesus of the Bible. 42; This is evidence that some church records, especially after the age of Constantine, are at times unreliable.
. Johnson, “Matthew.” 7:254.
. Lash, The Ancient Jewish Wedding. 6.
. Roman, Jesus of Galilee. 246-47.
. Matthews, Manners and Customs. 225; Trutza, “Marriage.” 4:94-96; Maier, In the Fullness of Time. 21; Lash, The Ancient Jewish Wedding. 7-10, 14.
. Maier, In the Fullness of Time. 16-21; Trutza, “Marriage.” 4:94-96; Goldberg and Rayner, The Jewish People. 372-74; See also Deut. 24:1-4.
. For further study, see the third division of the Mishnah is titled Nashim, (Women). The chapters include instruction pertaining the Ketuboth (Marriage Deeds), Nadarim (Vows), Gittin (Bills of Divorce), and Kiddushin (Betrothals).
. Lash, The Ancient Jewish Wedding. 9.
. Acts 159-160 is a reference to the legislative acts recorded in Hammurabi’s Code.
. Wright and Thompson, “Marriage” 2:955.
. Lash, The Ancient Jewish Wedding. 9-11.
. The practice of killing a woman suspected of sexual activity prior to marriage was practiced among some pagan tribes, and still is practiced in many Muslim communities who call it “honor killing.”
. This subject is explained in further detail in 08.02.07.Q1 “Did Moses quote Hammurabi, and if so, how does this affect the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:18?”
. If the betrothal of a young girl was terminated, then she and her father received the bill of divorce. Mishnah, Gittin 6.2.
. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 134-35.
. See “Pharisees” 02.01.14.
. Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century A.D. and the Qu’ran (Koran) was compiled a century or two later. The more distant a literary work is from the time of its subject, the less reliable it is. Nonetheless, the Koranic quotation is included anyway for the benefit of Muslim readers.
. Barclay, “John.” 2:28.
. Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 33.
. See 04.03.08.Q4 Can the concept of the virgin birth be supported historically?
. Adapted from Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:150.
. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106 a-b.
. Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 33, 67.
. Bruce, Answers to Questions. 39.
. See an interesting parallel account in Shepherd, Massey H. “An Unpublished Dead Sea Scroll Text Parallels Luke’s Infancy Narrative.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16:2 (Mar/April, 1990). 24-26.
. For further study, see 04.03.08.Q7 “How does one explain other so-called virgin births in history?”
. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 113. See also Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash.
. Critics have posed four questions: 1) Was Jesus born of a virgin? 2) Was Jesus the Son of God? 3) Is the Bible the Inspired Word of God? 4) Did He rise from the grave? To affirm negatively to one of more of these questions reflects a loss of faith and denial of who Jesus was in the first century and who He is today.
. Marino, “The Origin, Nature, and Consequences of Sin.” 255-58.
. See a King James Version or New American Standard Version of the Bible.
. Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 2, page 12.
. Lawlor, Almah. 25-35.
. Franz, http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/the-angelic-proclamation-to-the-shepherds-luke-28-15/. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
. Plutarch a/k/a Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, (A.D. 45-120) was a Greek historian, essayist and biographer who is known for two books, Parallel Lives which included the Life of Alexander, and Moralia. His few surviving works appear to have been written in Koine Greek, the common Greek language of the first century. See Warmington, ed. Plutarch’s Lives: Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Caesar, Vol 7.
. http://www.medmalexperts.com/POCM/pagan_ideas_virgin_birth.html Retrieved July 8, 2011. See Warmington, ed. Plutarch’s Lives: Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Caesar, Vol 7.
. http://www.medmalexperts.com/POCM/pagan_ideas_virgin_birth.html. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
. For further study see Dewayne Bryant, “The Pagan Christ in the Popular Culture.” 45-47.
. See 03.04.08.Q4
. For further study on this subject, see Gregory A. Boyd. Jesus under Siege. Chapter 4.