Doctrine Ch.8 - The Virgin Birth

This doctrine is rejected as mythology, even by many believers. But no Christian would invent a story that makes Jesus illegitimate! This wouldn’t make him appear at all holy or special.

In our present society it is easy to forget how utterly unacceptable any slur on your parentage used to be—and in many cultures this is still the worst insult imaginable. When Americans first tried to combat Saddam Hussein’s army, they faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: they couldn’t find it! The Iraqis had prepared vast warrens of underground bunkers over a huge area, and even after several weeks of bombing, the US had failed to kill or even dislodge significant numbers. Someone who knew the Iraqi culture came up with a brilliant and successful ruse. The Americans fitted loudspeakers on armored cars that were filled with snipers. They drove across the apparently empty desert broadcasting in Arabic: “Your mothers were born illegitimately.” This was so unbearable for the Iraqi soldiers that they poured out of their hidden bunkers firing wildly at the loudspeakers, even though they knew they’d be easy targets for the snipers.

5-minute summary

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Insults about Jesus’ parentage

In Nazareth, everyone knew that Jesus’ conception was illegitimate, because it occurred fewer than nine months after his parents’ marriage, and everyone could count. In fact, after spending three months at Elizabeth’s house (Luke 1:56) and other delays, Mary probably had a visible bump on her wedding day. It would have been more socially acceptable if Joseph had been the father, but he denied this. So when Jesus had the temerity to preach at his home village, the gossiping turned into public outrage: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3). This tirade is all the more damning because of who it leaves out—Jesus’ father! It was outrageously insulting to call him “bar Mary” and then list all his family members without naming his father.

       Jews in the time of Jesus took their father’s name as their surname. Matthew’s list of disciples includes “James son of Zebedee” and “James son of Alphaeus” (see Matt 10:2-4). In Aramaic, the Jewish language of the time, this would have been “James bar Zebedee” and “James bar Alphaeus,” just like “Simon bar Jonah” (Matt 16:17). This is the pattern found in all Jewish literature of that period and, like our surnames, they kept these names even after their father had died. This sometimes caused confusion if the names were too common, in which case other surnames were used. Simon was a particularly common name, and most rabbis with this name were therefore named after their village or in other ways. There were two Simons among the twelve disciples, so one was given the nickname “Peter” (i.e., “Rocky”) and the other was named “the Zealot,” which may indicate his birthplace, his mood, or even his political sympathies (Matt 10:2-4). However, nowhere in the extensive volumes of ancient Jewish literature, which include several hundred names, is there any other example of a man who was named, like Jesus, after his mother. Even after someone’s father had died, he continued being named after him, so Joseph’s death would not explain why Jesus was called “son of Mary.” This glaring omission of the name “Joseph” proclaimed the basis of the insult: no one knew who Jesus’ father was.

       While only Mark records this insult at Nazareth, the other Gospels couldn’t ignore the charge that Jesus was illegitimate. They each respond to it in different ways, because they all have their own styles. Mark reads like a tabloid newspaper with its short sentences and immediacy. Matthew, like a serious business paper, is concerned about the political and religious establishments, and seeks to highlight corruption and hypocrisy. Luke is like a campaigning newssheet, interested in social concerns and the disadvantaged, such as lepers, women, and the poor. And the Gospel of John is like a more thoughtful weekly news magazine because it was written after a time of theological reflection and with the perspective of hindsight. But while the Gospels all have different emphases, none can ignore Jesus’ illegitimacy.

       Any good salesman will tell you that the best way to deal with a potential criticism is to address it head-on, and that’s what Matthew and Luke did when they gave extended details about Jesus’ parentage. Matthew, being concerned about the establishment, emphasized the regal star at the time of Jesus’ birth, the emissaries from the East, and the malevolent interest of King Herod, who considered Jesus a possible rival. Luke also stressed that Jesus’ birth was special, but concentrated on the humble shepherds and the celestial choir. In preparation for this, he started his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus from Adam to Joseph, and then he presented the surprise: Jesus was not the son of Joseph but of the Holy Spirit. To confirm that God was behind this miracle, he depicted the piety of Mary and her relative Elizabeth, the elderly priest’s wife whom Mary traveled to visit as soon as she fell pregnant. The unspoken implication is that Mary would not have confided in Elizabeth if she had anything to be ashamed of.

       John is more subtle, but he couldn’t ignore this well-known charge against Jesus. In this Gospel it is answered when a heckler brought it up in an attempt to disrupt Jesus’ preaching. Jesus had just claimed to come from his father in heaven (John 8:18), so the heckler called out, “Where is your father?” (v. 19). When some in the crowd would have muttered, “What does he mean?,” the gossips were no doubt delighted to share the juicy details. At first Jesus ignored the interruption and continued to teach about his origins from above (vv. 21-23), but when he proclaimed that those who reject him will die in their sins (v. 24) the heckler demanded: “Who are you?” (v. 25)—that is, “What’s your name?” He probably hoped for an answer like “Jesus son of Joseph,” so that he could dispute it, but instead, a little later, Jesus evaded this by calling himself “the Son of Man” (v. 28). Shortly after this, the heckler said: “We are Abraham’s descendants” (i.e., “we are good Jews”), and Jesus retorted that if they were really Abraham’s descendants, they wouldn’t be trying to kill him (vv. 33-40). Now the gloves were off, and the heckler delivered an undisguised accusation: “We are not illegitimate” (v. 41)! You can almost hear the collective sharp intake of breath. Jesus answered, “You belong to your father, the devil. … There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (v. 44). But no one was convinced by this response. They called him mad, and a blasphemer, and then tried to stone him so that he had to hide and slip away (vv. 48-58). By telling the story this way, John acknowledged that this charge was ultimately unanswerable.

       This kind of slur about Jesus’ birth continued for hundreds of years in rabbinic literature, where Jesus is called “son of Pandera.” The origin of this tradition is unknown, but it was fairly early. It is linked to first-century rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, second-century Greek anti-Christian Celsus, and to Rabbi Hisda at the end of the third century. By that time, Hisda was having to explain who Pandera was, because some rabbis no longer remembered—he asserted that Pandera referred to an illicit lover.1

       How do historians view these charges about Jesus’ parentage? After his death and resurrection, the Jews were understandably skeptical about explanations in the Gospels that Jesus’ father was God himself. Modern historians are equally skeptical, as they should be, because otherwise they’d be accepting the veracity of all kinds of miracles claimed for holy men of all religions throughout history. The less likely an event is, the more evidence is required to support it. However, the fact that this slur was made against Jesus by his contemporaries actually adds weight to the claimed miracle of virgin birth.

       The job of historians is to question the motivation and accuracy of ancient reports and to decide, on the basis of other facts and their knowledge of human psychology, what actually happened. So, for example, when historians read Suetonius’ report that several miracles and signs accompanied the birth of Emperor Augustus,2 they have to decide whether this was overenthusiastic hype or overt propaganda. And when they investigate the birth of Jesus, we wouldn’t expect them to use different criteria. Historical method can never easily accept a miracle because, by any criteria of what is likely to have happened, a miracle will always be at the bottom of the list. Miracles are, by their nature, special, so they are never likely.

You wouldn’t make it up

There are significant reasons why it is also unlikely that Joseph and Mary would have invented such a strange explanation for Jesus’ birth. First, they lived in a society that was relatively well educated and sophisticated, and the religious leaders of the time were particularly skeptical about improbable and unprecedented miracles. Most Jews would have regarded the story of a virgin birth as unbelievable at best and blasphemous at worst. Second, Joseph and Mary would have attracted less criticism if they’d said the child was the result of rape by a Roman soldier or due to premarital lovemaking. Conceiving a child while betrothed was viewed as unfortunate, but the child was still regarded as legitimate.3 And if Joseph was brave enough to marry this apparently fallen woman, it makes sense that he would also have the courage to tell the truth. This story of a miraculous virgin birth was particularly dubious and, as the incidental references in the Gospels of John and Mark demonstrate, it was simply disbelieved by most Jews. They didn’t believe it in his home village or in the rest of the country, and anyone who understood that society could have predicted that this story wouldn’t be believed.

       Historians therefore have to choose between two equally unlikely scenarios. Either a group of religious Jews adamantly proclaimed an extremely naive and potentially blasphemous story, or there really was a miraculous birth. This is an uncomfortable choice, except for those who do not rule out the miraculous.

       For all Christians, Jesus being the brunt of gossips is a precious additional insight into his life of suffering. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be despised and rejected, sorrowful and grieving, afflicted with illness, wounds, and punishments so severe that people would assume that he was being stricken by God (Isa 53:3-5). The question of his parentage was a scandal he bore alongside all those who are falsely branded with moral disapproval for something outside their control—for example, those who don’t know their parents, rape victims, and those who suffer moral stigma as a result of child abuse or homosexual inclinations. Jesus’ illegitimacy is a further demonstration that when God became human, he shared all our suffering and every aspect of our fallen humanity so that he could represent and redeem everyone.

1^ Eliezer is at Tosefta Hullin 2:22-24 (; Celsus at Contra Celsum 1.32 (, and R. Hisda at Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104b, which was censored out of many manuscripts (
2^ Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Augustus 94 (
3^ Mishnah Qiddushin 3:12 interpreted by Tarfon in the mid-second century (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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