Summary: The fact of the virgin birth of Jesus is essential to Christian doctrine.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for 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 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”
If the Roman Catholics make too much of Mary, mother of Jesus, we as protestants too often, I think, do not make enough; or perhaps we make too much of her in a different sense, with our speculations and assumptions.
We do not really know a great deal about the historical Mary. Much of what people think they know is largely a compilation of tradition and religious speculation.
We think she was young, although that could mean fourteen or it could mean twenty-four or any age in between, since people in their mid twenties were still considered very young in that day and culture. On the other hand, we really only know from the Bible that she was a maiden, so from that we infer her youth.
The verse from Isaiah that is quoted by Matthew, Isaiah 7:14, uses a word that could mean a number of things, but Jewish Rabbis will be quick to point out that there is a different Hebrew word that more specifically refers to a virgin, which Isaiah did use in other places but not here.
So the debates go on and on, Christian teachers insisting that the prophecy refers to a virgin and Jews insisting that it refers simply to a young unmarried woman of marriageable age.
Rabbi Tovia Singer, on a web page, answers the question of a visitor to the site saying,
“The stakes are high for Christendom, because if the Hebrew word alma does not mean virgin, Matthew is misquoting the prophet Isaiah, and both a key tenet of Christianity and the credibility of the first Gospel collapses.”
I am certain that this Rabbi is very sincere, but this Rabbi is sincerely wrong. In the ancient world and especially in this culture it was a given that a young, unmarried woman was by definition a virgin. Therefore whether this word employed by Isaiah can be used otherwise or not, virginity is at least implied.
Of course we would also add here that as Christians we attribute all Scripture to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, and we include the New Testament in the definition of Scripture, so we believe Matthew’s writing to be from the same source and accompanied by the same authority as Isaiah’s.
[A personal aside here: Isn’t it amazing that men can believe God powerful and able to do the astounding things recorded for us throughout Scripture, but will not attribute to Him the ability to bring forth life from a womb without the aid of a man? After all, the first time He did it from the dirt!]
I don’t want to go into a study of the Isaiah passage here, but it will suffice to say that Isaiah was prophesying to Ahaz that the northern confederacy of Aram and Israel would not overcome the southern kingdom of Judah, giving him a sign that would indicate how soon Isaiah’s prophecy would come to pass.
A young woman will have a child and while he is still very young the alliance between Aram and Israel will be broken. That’s all there was to the historical application.
It is the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel writer, who reveals to us that the words of the prophet also had meaning in regards to the Messiah.
It is the Gospel writer, not the Old Testament prophet, who employs a word that specifically refers to a virgin, and no matter the terminology of the Old Testament prophecy, what we need to understand is that this all happened to Mary before she and Joseph came together – that’s in verse 18 of Matthew 1 – and after the angelic visit to Joseph’s dream we see that Joseph went ahead and married her but kept her a virgin until after the Child was born – that’s in verse 25 – but most importantly, and I think this tends to get overlooked in all the hubbub that is made over whether or not Mary was a virgin…most importantly, - and remember that this news came not through a man but an angelic messenger – the Child in her was conceived of the Holy Spirit.