Scepticism about the virgin birth of Jesus is nothing new. In fact it goes way back, and if you were to consider where it all started you would have to go back further than the so-called “enlightenment” with its disliking of miracles to, well, Mary; “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NRSV). The next sceptic? Yep, you guessed it, Joseph who requires the visit of an angel to help overcome his scepticism. So scepticism is neither new, nor unnatural. But should we be sceptical? And in today’s highly sophisticated society can we still hold to the virgin birth as true? let’s take a look.
I disliked history so much in high school that I didn’t take it as soon as I couldn’t sign up for it. It seemed boring to me, all those dates and people and places. I was more interested in a different kind of date. Fast forward to university and suddenly history came alive for me (along with dating but that is a matter of history). No longer were we told what happened, instead we were given the ancient source materials, like Herodotus and Thucydides, along with the differing opinions of the expert historians and we were told to figure out what really happened for ourselves. In reading the ancient works you very quickly discover that it is best to discount the miraculous if you are to reconstruct what was really happening. This is “good” historical method and very necessary in weeding out the superstitious from the real. After all, we don’t normally experience miracles, so why would we think that the peoples of ancient Greece and elsewhere did too? So should we have this same approach to the Bible and hence “weed out” the miracles? If that is our method then the baby Jesus will soon be thrown out with the bathwater, or least the idea of his being born of a virgin. After all, virgin births never happen do they?
But is it proper to conclude that all miracles in ancient works are legend only including those in the Bible? Consider if you were to follow me on my motorcycle (by which I mean that I am riding it, not you! – and we’ll consider my previous 123hp motorcycle, not my current 13hp motorcycle). You would discover that I normally ride at around 90 km/hr, which is hardly speeding given that the speedometer is optimistic. Sometimes I will do 100, and occasionally 120 on a 400-series highway. You might, based on your experience and observations conclude that motorcycles will not travel more than 120. But that would be incorrect. They can go faster, I choose not to. Just because we do not often see miracles does not mean God can not grant them, it just means he chooses not to. Our knowledge of the universe is closer to someone tracking me on my motorcycle than someone who knows motorcycles well – it really isn’t as much as we like to think! Mary’s scepticism, likely based on her knowledge of the universe, is met with the angel’s reminder that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). If you believe in God, miracles including the virgin birth become a very real possibility. If our Lord can create the universe from nothing he can create a child from whatever he wants. Of course if you don’t believe God exists, the virgin birth will still be considered impossible by you. But how convincing is your argument that God does not exist? To declare the virgin birth is impossible is to take upon yourself the burden of proof. If you are agnostic, then like the believer, the possibility of a virgin birth should still be considered. But just because it is possible, does that make it probable? For the historian, possibility alone will not be convincing.
A sceptic might say that even though a virgin birth is possible with God’s help, it is not likely to happen anyway. And why should we accept the miracles found in the New Testament as legitimate, but not the miracles from other ancient works? If a woman came to you claiming a virgin conception would you believe her? Probably not. Why not? Because of the context, there is usually no reason to consider such a claim to be legitimate. Similarly the miracle claims from ancient works don’t give us much reason to believe. However, it is the context of the virgin birth of Jesus that opens it up to being much more than a mere possibility. And it is the context of Jesus that make all his miracles more than a mere possibility. Why?
Consider the context of the virgin birth. During Advent we considered Israel’s hopes and dreams, and God’s promises for the future. There was an expectation that God would break through for Israel in a significant way. God did this and more through Jesus: His life and teaching were unique in all history, his accomplishment of reconciliation on the cross is unique, his resurrection is unique, his influence and impact were and still are unique. With Jesus being such a unique figure in history, and with his unique fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, we can expect that his birth would be unique also. Yes, virgins never give birth and if we hear such claims we ought to be sceptical. But with Jesus, such a miracle is unique, only making sense if it happens once in history, and indeed making sense that once: The virgin birth is not a puzzling and random miracle, but rather a sensible piece that fits perfectly in the context of God’s purposes. The skeptic may walk away with a sense of “it can’t have happened this way.” But in the eyes of the Christian: “of course it had to happen this way.” A virgin gives birth: can you believe it? Yes, it is a reasonable truth not to mention a most wonderful truth worth celebrating everyday, never-mind just Christmas day!
My family and I trust you are enjoying Christmas, and wish you a Happy New Year!