Should Christians Defend Jesus’ Virgin Birth?
“The notion that Jesus was born to a young Galilean girl who was still a virgin has proven to be one of the most objectionable and mocked beliefs of the Christian faith” (99), Michael Bird contends in his new book What Christians Ought to Believe.
Even a Christian pastor once suggested that it should make no difference to our faith if archaeologists found definitive, biological, DNA proof that Jesus had an earthly father named Larry.
“And yet,” Bird continues, “there it is right in front of us, right there in the Apostles’ Creed, to be confessed by Christians as part of our holy faith.” (99)
What are we to make of this stanza from our creed: “[Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary”? Is it truly necessary to believe in Jesus's virgin birth? If so, what does it mean?
Like every other chapter in his introduction to the Apostles’ Creed, Bird walks us through the critical historical, biblical, and theological issues surrounding this contested facet of our faith to help us understand what Christians ought to believe about Jesus’s virgin birth.
Two Critical Issues about Jesus’s Virgin Birth
Without getting bogged down canvasing the critical, contested historical issues of Jesus’s virgin birth, Bird does offer a few short comments to help us understand these issues' significance. Two particular issues stood out to me: importance and historic parody.
First, Bird helps us gain some perspective on how important the issue is for mapping Jesus’ identity by explaining it only has “relative” importance. That’s not to say Jesus’ virgin conception is unimportant or irrelevant, “but only that it has relative importance within the wider topic of the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (102) Bird points to the christology of Mark, John, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews to underscore his point, insisting its absence in these narratives would make them deficient. Bird is “inclined to understand the nativity stories as a clarification to Jesus’ divine sonship rather than the necessary grounds for it.” (102)
Second, Bird rejects attempts to make the virgin birth story “a late creation intended as a christological parody of stories about ancient persons who were supposedly born of strange and supernatural circumstances.” (102) Some would compare Jesus’ birth narrative to that of the Romans emperor Augustus, who was thought to have been conceived through his mother being impregnated by Apollo. Yet Bird notes that Jesus was accused of being a mamzer, Aramaic slang for an illegitimate child, revealing there was something suspicious surrounding his birth. “An accusation of illegitimacy of course does not prove the virgin conception but it is certainly consistent with it.” (102) Add to this the distinctive Palestinian flavor and the Jewishness of the nativity accounts, and it's not easy to dismiss them "as adaptations of pagan myths by a gentile-dominated church late in the first century.” (102)
The Meaning of Jesus’s Virgin Birth
Bird is less interested in the merits of demythologizing Jesus’s virgin birth and more interested in engaging its meaning and function for understanding God, Jesus, and humanity. Before launching into what it means, Bird clarifies what it doesn’t mean: the virgin birth is not about sinlessness. Bird explains:
there is nothing in the nativity accounts that suggests that Jesus’s sinlessness is at stake. In addition, we know that children receive DNA from both of their parents, mother and father, and Jesus evidently possessed human DNA at least from his mother. So a virgin conception cannot be a necessary requirement for apprehending a mode of humanity partitioned away from human fallenness since biology teaches us otherwise. (104)
Bird quotes from Mark Strauss to further his point, emphasizing the importance of the virgin birth wasn’t about sinlessness but salvation: “What is certain from the text is that the conception of Jesus was a supernatural act of God, confirming that God himself was about to accomplish the salvation which no human being could achieve.” (Four Portraits, 415)
Bird offers five more salient points, which I’ve included in brief. The virgin conception:
- “makes it clear that Israel was the vehicle by which God’s deliverance was brought into the world” (105)
- “underscores the dominant role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’s ministry” and him bringing about redemption (105)
- “provides clarification to Jesus’s identity as the preexistent and eternal Son of God made flesh” (106)
- “means that God’s new world was at last becoming a reality” (106)
- “teaches us about the victory of God and the vanquishing of Satan” (107)
“The Christian faith is a Christmas faith,” Bird concludes, “celebrating the fact that God became one of us through the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary’s body. It is a glorious story about God’s Spirit, Mary’s womb, God’s Word made flesh, and angels singing, ‘Peace on earth.’” (107)
A glorious story, indeed—one Bird invites you to discover by exploring What Christians Ought to Believe through the Apostle’s Creed.
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