Why do we think Mary was a virgin? Does it matter if she wasn’t? Why do we find it so unbelievable? The easiest answer to the first question is that two separate accounts in the Bible tell us she was. Matthew tells us that before Joseph and Mary “came together”, she was “found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). In Luke’s Gospel, Mary explicitly asks the question: “How can this be, since I’m a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
Just to be clear, Jesus’ birth wasn’t anything out of the ordinary (stables aside!). It was his conception that was extraordinary. It’s unbelievable because, quite frankly, we all know where babies come from! If you don’t believe God exists, don’t think the Bible is reliable and don’t think miracles occur outside of fiction, you will obviously struggle to think of Mary’s virgin birth as anything other than entirely made up.
Maybe people in biblical times believed everything they were told because they didn’t have the advanced scientific knowledge we have now. Apart from being patronising, I don’t think that’s true. Mary doesn’t just accept the news. Unsurprisingly, she asks: “How?”. She knows what she’s hearing isn’t normal. Likewise, Joseph’s reaction is exactly what you’d expect from a man who understood that miracles were out of the ordinary. He assumes Mary’s baby has come from some dodgy activity on her part and plans to call off the engagement (Matthew 1:19).
If Jesus wasn’t a miracle baby, one alternative explanation is that someone other than Joseph was his dad. However, historians have pointed out that in a small religious village like Nazareth, someone would likely have known about Mary’s affair. The news would have eventually reached Joseph, and he wouldn’t have stayed with Mary. Another alternative is that the Gospel writers just made it up to make Jesus seem more magical. However, there was no Jewish idea of the Messiah being born of a virgin. The only references to virgin births at this time were in pagan stories, so it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would have written a virgin birth into Jesus’ story unless it was actually true.
How could Jesus have been conceived without a father? Surely that’s impossible? Well, yes, but that’s what miracles are: exceptions to what normally happens. If you believe in God, it’s arguably not too much of a jump to believe that miracles, though rare, are possible. Oxford maths professor, John Lennox, says: “If there is a God who created the universe, then surely there is no difficulty in believing that he could do special things.”
If Jesus was born in this miraculous way, it means he’s different from every other human. The Bible tells us it’s really important that Jesus was like us, but also distinct. Both human and God. “[Jesus] understands our weaknesses, for he faced all the same testing we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Or as J.John puts it: “Jesus needs to be outside of the problem in order to help fix it, but he also needs to be one of us.”
- Have you ever experienced something that seemed miraculous?
- What is it about the virgin birth that you find hard to believe?
- Would it make any difference to your life if the virgin birth was true?