The general reader of the New Testament assumes that the four gospel portraits of Jesus are historically accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Most Christians have been taught that the scriptures are divinely inspired and thus unquestionably accurate. Therefore, if there are differences between the gospels, they cannot possibly be significant, and the four accounts can be easily blended or harmonized with one another. For instance, the two different birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke have been blended for so long that the average Christian is not aware that they are entirely different and inconsistent accounts. Nor is the average Christian aware that the gospel of Mark—the earliest written gospel—not only says nothing about Jesus’ birth, but it also says nothing about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into the sky. (Any reputable translation of Mark’s gospel will note that the last twelve verses of the final chapter—Mark 16:9-20—are not part of the earliest copies of this gospel, and are therefore a later addition.)
A close reading of the gospels creates a problem for the reader. They simply do not agree. The virgin birth of Jesus is a good example of the inconsistency and errors found in the Biblical texts.
Jesus died around 30 CE. The earliest writings of the New Testament are the letters of Paul written in the 50s, about 20 years after the crucifixion. Paul’s writings predate the earliest gospel—that of Mark—by about 20 years. Paul says nothing about Jesus having a miraculous conception and birth. He only says that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).
Mark’s gospel, written about 70 CE, likewise has nothing to say about the birth or early life of Jesus. These two facts together indicate that for the first half century after the death of Jesus, the birth of Jesus was a non-issue. There was certainly nothing miraculous to crow about. In addition, two additional early gospels—Q and Thomas—also are silent about a supernatural birth.
Then, around 80 or 85, the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. They both knew one key fact—that Jesus was from Nazareth. But both writers also wanted to convince their readers that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and that meant integrating two “prophecies” into the story, one about a birth in Bethlehem and the other about being born of a virgin.
By the first century, Jewish scholars had compiled various lists of verses from their scriptures that they believed referred to a coming Messiah. Many of these texts were seen as prophecies or future predictions. However, most were simply intended for the time and place in which they were written, and had no long-term future implications. One of these so-called prophecies was that the Messiah would be born of a virgin—a young woman who had conceived a child miraculously without sexual intercourse.
This is an important doctrine for many Christians because they believe that the virgin birth is a sign of Jesus’ divinity. However, modern readers need to understand that in first century Judaism the virgin birth of the Messiah would never have been a sign of his divinity (an idea that would have been abhorrent to the Jews), it was simply a sign that the person was destined to be the Messiah, a very human role.
This so-called prophecy, however, was the result of a simple mistranslation of a verse in the book of Isaiah. When the Hebrew scriptures were first translated from Hebrew to Greek several centuries before the birth of Jesus, the translators used the Greek word parthenos—which means “virgin”—instead of the correct translation of the original Hebrew word in the scroll of Isaiah—almah—which means “a young woman of marriageable age.”
The mistranslation of this text from Isaiah led directly to the church doctrine about the virginity of Mary. This in turn led to a whole slew of even crazier ideas about Mary in the Roman Catholic Church—for instance, that Mary herself was herself immaculately conceived so that she was born without original sin, and that her other children were really Jesus’ cousins—allowing Mary to remain a sinless virgin until her death and assumption into heaven.
If one carefully reads the text in Isaiah in its original context, one wonders how it ever became a prophecy about a future Messiah. About seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah (active c. 740-701 BCE) had advised King Ahaz of Judah (c. 755-715 BCE) that he was playing with fire by allying himself the powerful King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria and turning his back on the nations of Israel and Aram (modern Syria) which were under assault by the Assyrians. Isaiah pointed to a young pregnant woman in the court of King Ahaz, and predicted that she would give birth to a son and would name him Immanu-el (God is with us). He also predicted that before the child reached puberty (knowing the difference between good and evil), the armies of Assyria would bring untold destruction to the region.
Isaiah said to the king and his court:
Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:13-17)
This was clearly a short-term prophecy about a geo-political situation facing the kingdoms of Judah, Israel and Aram. It required no prophetic foreknowledge into the future, just a savvy take on the current international situation. Centuries later, however, two sentences were taken out of context and treated as a prophecy about a future Jewish Messiah.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, a young woman became a virgin and for those who looked for a future Messiah, a miraculous virgin birth was now a requirement. Here is how the words of Isaiah were used in Matthew’s gospel:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Note that the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, not Emmanuel as the “prophecy” foretells. That provides a nice way to tie the prophecy to Jesus without requiring a name change.
In addition to Matthew’s gospel, Luke’s gospel also recounts the birth of Jesus and his miraculous conception. He too incorporates a dream—this time to Mary.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:26-35)
Matthew and Luke created two very different narratives to describe the circumstances around the birth of Jesus. They both knew that the Messiah was expected to be born in the city of King David’s birth—Bethlehem—based on another “prophecy” from the book of Micah (Micah 5:2). Because Jesus was widely known to be from Nazareth, each author found it necessary to craft a different tale to integrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for a census. In Matthew’s gospel, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem (no census and no travel is mentioned), they later escape to Egypt after the birth (to fulfill another “prophecy”), and then out of fear they eventually move to the town of Nazareth. These two gospel stories are widely different, and yet every Christmas they are mashed together in a seamless whole so no one knows that the narratives do not agree on their “facts.”
About fifteen years after the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the gospel of John was written. There is nothing in John’s gospel about a virginal conception. So prior to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the record is silent about a miraculous birth, and after Matthew and Luke were written, John’s gospel says nothing about a unique pregnancy. What does all this have to say about the literal factuality and internal consistency of the New Testament? In the opinion of most biblical scholars, it calls it all into question.
There is one more point on the topic of the virginal conception that is sometimes raised: if Mary knew that Jesus had been conceived miraculously and was somehow divine, why did she and Jesus’ brothers think he had gone out of his mind when he began to heal people and gather a band of disciples at the outset of his ministry? According to Mark’s gospel, they wanted to take him back home and restrain him (Mark 3:21). So much for a divinely-conceived Jesus.