The Virgin Birth

Chapter IV

The Virgin Birth

The Orthodox Christian is inclined to lay a greater stress upon the theological aspect of his religion than upon the ethical; that is to say, he is more interested in the worship of Christ as God than in the following of His example as man. It is more pleasing to him to think of our Lord as having been born in a miraculous manner, to the accompaniment of the shouts of the host of heaven, and as having lived a gloriously spectacular life, performing miracles and ministered to by angels, than it is to regard Him as having been, while on earth, simply a man, battling with the same difficulties with which we ourselves have to contend.

This tendency to emphasise His godhead, so that He may be worshipped, rather then to emphasis His manhood, so that He may be followed, was also apparently in early Christian days; for the desire to fall down and adore instead of to stand up and obey is a chronic human weakness. Thus it came about that some sixty years or so after the Crucifixion the story began to be circulated that Jesus had been “conceived by the Holy Ghost,” and had had no human father.

One might have supposed that such a belief would have been seen to detract from the value of His exemplary life, for it implied that that life had enjoyed the advantage of being only half mortal, and was therefore no example for mere men, since He had not inherited, as we do, the mortal tendencies and failings of a human mother and father. But the point was overlooked; and, indeed, this wish to regard our Lord as having been more than mortal even during His mortal incarnation became, as the centuries passed, so strong that it was found necessary to ascribe a kind of divinity to His earthly mother also, so that He might be considered as altogether non-human.

In 1854 the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God,” which had been vaguely preached for many centuries, was officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as a tenet of the Faith, this having the meaning that the mother of Jesus, form the moment of her conception by her parents, was miraculously free from the taint of Original Sin, and thus remained all her life in a non-human state of sinlessness. This dogma, taken together with the fact that the Church had already canonised her parents as saints, implies that Jesus did not set an imitable example to ordinary men of how a man’s life could be lived, for He inherited no parental failings and had no such handicap as that under which we ourselves labour.

This is all to the liking of those who are temperamentally disposed towards worship, and who therefore, as I say, prefer to think of our Lord as God and not as Man: but those to whom His greatest appeal is His heroic manhood would prefer to think, as did the early Christians in the days before Theology took hold of the Faith, that in His incarnation He was simply the son of an obscure carpenter, named Joseph, and of his wife, probably called Mary. I say, “probably,” in the first place because there is no certainty that the name of the mother of Jesus was Mary, the earliest reference to her under that name being in a possibly interpolated passage in Acts, (1) which book was not written until between fifty and seventy years after the Crucifixion; and, in the second place, because so many gods and semi-divine heroes have mothers whose names are variations of “Mary”: Adonis, son of Myrrha; Hermes, the Greek Logos, son of Maia; Cyrus, the son of Mariana or Mandane; Moses, the son of Miriam; Joshua, according to the Chronicle of Tabari, the son of Miriam; Buddha, the son of Maya; Krishna, the son of Maritala; and so on, until one begins to think that the name of our Lord’s mother may have been forgotten and a stock name substituted.

In regard to the Virgin Birth, it is significant that there is no reference to it in the Epistles which form the earliest Christian documents; but, on the contrary, St. Paul speaks of Jesus as “made of the seed of David according to the flesh,” (2) that is to say, of the seed of Joseph, David’s descendant. The earliest Gospel, that of St. Mark, dating between 70  and 100 A. D., does not mention it; nor does the Gospel of St. John, dating from some time not earlier than 100 A. D. The Book of Revelation, written between 69 and 93 A. D., is silent on the subject, though had the Virgin Birth then been an important tenet of the faith it would undoubtedly have figured in the mystical symbolism of that composition. The story appears for the first time in the Gospel of St. Luke, which may have been written as late as 100 A. D.; and there we are told that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Ghost before the consummation of her marriage with Joseph, though it is implied that he believed the baby to be his own son, (3) and that this was the general opinion. (4) In the Gospel of St. Matthew, perhaps ten years later again, the account was developed. Joseph is now said to have been aware that the child was not his and to have been restrained from divorcing Mary by an angel who came to him in a dream and told him that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Ghost.

It seems clear, therefore, that the story was not known, or at any rate was not accepted, before 100 A. D., that is to say, a whole century after the date of the events it records. But both in St. Matthew and in St. Luke the genealogy of our Lord is given, for the purpose of showing that Jesus was descended from David; for the promised Messiah was to be of the seed of David. These genealogies, however, are traced through Joseph; and if Joseph was not then thought to be the father of Jesus it is difficult to understand why the pedigree was given at all, for there is no suggestion anywhere that Mary was related to Joseph or was also descended from David, nor does she figure in the genealogies. The Syriac version of the Gospels, discovered in 1892, (5) throws more light upon the subject, for there, at the end of the genealogy, the definite statement is made that “Jacob had a son, Joseph, to whom was betrothed the Virgin Mary; and Joseph had a son, Jesus, called the Christ.” It seems, in fact, that we have to deal with a contradiction due to the later insertion of the story of the Virgin Birth beside the earlier story of the descent of Jesus from David through Joseph; and, in this case, we may place its inception somewhere in the Second Century.

The growth of such a story may well be understood, for tales of the births of pagan gods and heroes from the union of a deity with a mortal maiden were common. The famous Egyptian Queen, Hetshepsut, was stated to have been the daughter of the union of the god Amon with her mortal mother; and a similar story regarding the birth of Amenophis III, fully illustrated by sculptures, was to be read and seen by any traveller in Egypt who happened to visit the temple of Amon at Thebes. So also the great Cyrus was said to have been the son of a god by union with a mortal maiden, and this Cyrus was thought by the Jews at one time to be the Messiah. (6) The Egyptian writer, Asclepiades, states that Julius Caesar was miraculously conceived by Apollo in the womb of his mother when she was in the temple of that god. The famous hero, Perseus, was the son of the god Zeus by a virgin princess named Danae, a fact which caused Justin Martyr, one of the Christian Fathers in the middle of the Second Century, to write: “When I hear that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent (Satan) has counterfeited this,” (7) apparently to excite doubt in regard to the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus which was then beginning to be believed.

According to one legend, the father of the philosopher Plato was warned in a dream of the child’s coming birth, his wife, who was still a virgin, having been divinely fertilised; (8) and Plutarch mentions the common belief that women might conceive at the approach of a spirit divinity. Apollonius of Tyana, the contemporary of Jesus, was likewise said to have been born of the union of a god with his mother, to whom the coming birth was announced somewhat as in the Christian tale. In China the philosophers Fohi and Lao-Kium were both born of virgin mothers; and the Persian Zoroaster was miraculously conceived in the same manner. The mother of the god Attis, according to one legend, was the Virgin Nana; and the Egyptian goddess Neit conceived without union with a male, and brought forth Ra. Herodotus tells us how a ray of light descended on the Sacred Cow of Egypt, which thereupon conceived and brought forth the god Apis. Plutarch, in his book on Isis and Osiris, says that such conceptions occur through the ear; and in mediaeval pictures we sometimes see a ray of light descending in like manner into Mary’s ear. Tertullian states (9) that our Lord was conceived by a ray of light which thus struck upon the Virgin.

The story of a miraculous conception having gained credence in regard to Jesus, it seems that the old Hebrew prophecy in reference to the birth of the Messiah had to be adjusted to it. Both in St. Matthew and St. Luke the prophetic words of Isaiah are referred to: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son”; (10) and the Greek word parthenos, usually meaning an actual virgin, is employed. But Isaiah had really used the Hebrew almah, which does not necessarily mean a virgin at all; (11) and thus the original tradition did not require the Messiah to be born of a virgin.

But in spite of the circulation of the story of the Virgin Birth nobody paid much attention to it in early times, and the view held by St. Paul (12) that Jesus was the son of Joseph but had been declared the Son of God “through the Spirit of Holiness” was generally accepted. His actual nativity was not celebrated, but the anniversary of His baptism was regarded as the important annual event, because, as Chrysostom says: “It was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptised.” It was widely thought that His divine life only began with his baptism, and as late as about 450 A. D., Pope Leo (13) had to correct some of his bishops for thinking that Jesus was “born of the Holy Ghost” at this baptism; which shows how unimportant the real nativity and the stories regarding it were considered to be.

In view of these facts it seems a pity that the Virgin Birth of Jesus should insisted upon as an article of the Creed. Some people, it is true, find no difficulty in accepting it, since parthenogenesis, or conception without male fertilization, is a known fact in the lower animal, if not in the human world. But other people boggle at it: firstly, because it diminishes the fullness of our Lord’s victory over the flesh to suppose that He was only half a human; secondly, because it is sufficient to the idea of His divinity to suppose, as did the early Christians, that the Spirit of God first suffused His personality at the beginning of His ministry; thirdly because all the evidence goes to show that the story was not known until a century after His birth; and lastly, because at that time the pagan world was so full of such legends that the early Christians could hardly have escaped their influence.


  • Acts i. 14.
  • Romans i. 3.
  • Luke ii. 5, 16, 41.
  • Luke iii. 23.
  • Abbe’ Houton, La Question Biblique, p. 245; E. Giran, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 56.
  • Isaiah xiv. I.
  • Dial, with Trypho, co. 70.
  • Diongenes Laertius, b. iii., c. i., sec. I; J. M. Robertson, Christianity and Mythology, p. 318, note 6.
  • Tertullian, A. polog. xxi.
  • Isaiah vii. 14.
  • Compare Joel i. 8, where an almah’s husband is mentioned.
  • Rom, i. 4.
  • 18th Epistle to Bishops of Sicily.