Summary: The Apostles Creed - Born of the Virgin Mary
Do we really mean it when we say, each week, that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary? Do we really believe that Jesus was born to a virgin? That Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally? Or doesn’t it really matter?
This is one of those areas of doctrine that most people outside the church are likely to question, if not dismiss outright. After all, we all know how life comes about. It either happens the natural way or else, these days at least, by artificial insemination, but either way you need a man and a woman. You need an egg and a sperm. Spontaneous generation of a fertilised egg by a woman is just plain impossible! So it can’t be true can it?
And in any case why does it matter? Would it make any difference to our belief in Jesus if it weren’t true?
Well, we’ll see in a few minutes why it does matter whether it’s true, but first let me just address this question of whether it could be true. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I’m sure some of you just won’t care But there will be some for whom this is an important question.
Let me ask you first of all, why do people have such trouble with the concept of a virgin birth? It’s because it’s never happened in their experience isn’t it? This is a unique and unrepeatable event. We’re so used to the scientific principle, that we can’t cope with something that’s outside normal experience. We want to be able to run an experiment to prove it. And by definition a unique event can’t be repeated. So we dismiss it purely on the grounds that it’s unique. But think about that. If we dismissed something just be cause it was a unique event, we’d never discover anything new, would we? Because every new discovery is a unique event to start with.
When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin growing on some jelly in his lab, it was a unique event. It had never happened before. There was no scientific explanation for it. But if he’d let that deter him where would we be today?
So the fact that this is a unique event in the history of biological science isn’t an argument that it didn’t happen. All we can say is that the odds against it were very high.
In fact if you think about it, the same could be said, and often is, about Jesus’ miracles. And of course the greatest of those miracles was the resurrection. Which is harder to believe: that Jesus was born to a virgin or that he rose from the dead? I don’t think you can separate them can you? Both are equally unique. Both are equally inexplicable as far as our scientific understanding of the world is concerned. Yet both form the foundation of our Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the Saviour of the world.
I think most Christians would agree that the evidence for the resurrection is convincing. The man who wrote "Who moved the Stone" was an English lawyer who set out to disprove the resurrection from the point of view of a court of law, but in the end came to the conclusion that in fact the case was proven. Jesus’ resurrection was the only feasible explanation that fitted all the facts. So if such an unlikely and unique event as the resurrection took place the way it’s described, why not the virgin birth? After all, God was involved. Let me read you what Wayne Grudem says in his Systematic Theology (1994): "Certainly such a miracle [as the virgin birth] is not too hard for the God who created the universe and everything in it -- anyone who affirms that a virgin birth is ’impossible’ is just confessing his or her own unbelief in the God of the Bible" (p. 532).
Well let’s think about where we get this idea of Jesus being born while Mary was still a virgin. What about the textual evidence? The argument is often made that the stories of Jesus’ birth were just made up to fit with the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. But the trouble is, the word that’s used there for virgin is actually the word for young woman, which is how the NRSV translates it. It was a word that was used for a young unmarried woman so the idea of virginity fitted with it, but it wasn’t the technical word for virgin. So when Matthew picks this prophecy is he making up the story about Mary and Jesus to fit Isaiah, or is he going from the account he received from Joseph & Mary and finding a correlation with Isaiah. Well, I must say I think the latter explanation fits better. It certainly doesn’t require him to jump from young woman to virgin for some reason.