Why Giles Fraser is wrong about the virgin birth

In his Guardian column on Christmas Eve, Giles Fraser argues that the virgin birth runs contrary to the tenor of Christianity. He suggests the very concept “doesn’t add up theologically” and, perhaps more tellingly, claims the problem is not just an issue of basic biology. Fraser seeks to make three main arguments as to why the virgin birth probably didn’t happen:

  1. It goes against the grain of the biblical narrative
  2. The bible doesn’t seem to major on it
  3. The word virgin is a mistranslation of the Hebrew

The problem with these three lines of argument is that none of them hold any water.

Fraser wants to argue that the virgin birth “doesn’t add up theologically”. Regardless of which theological camp we tend towards, it is important we work out the theological ramifications of real-world events as they happened in reality rather than fix our theological position and then determine which events in history probably took place. Had the Father chosen to beget Jesus by way of a woman and man, there would have been a legitimate theological rationale behind the decision. Likewise, if He chose – as per traditional orthodoxy – to beget the Son by a woman and the Holy Spirit, there would be a legitimate theological rationale for that decision. In either case, the theological justification for the decision (as we perceive it) must be after the event itself, for God will not – in fact, cannot – do that which is theologically unjustifiable.

Though there are events that are theologically unjustifiable (eg for Christ to sin, for God to lie, etc), all events that do come to pass in the actual world must be theologically justifiable. It is therefore poor theology to argue that the virgin birth probably did not happen because it is hard to justify theologically (whether that is true or not). The reality is that, if it happened or not, the event itself will be theologically justifiable with real theological implications had the event not taken place. The question is firstly one of historical fact and then one of theological implications. We do not determine our theological stance and then amend history because certain events do not appear to correspond with our perceived notions of why and how God chooses to work.

In his first line of reason, Fraser argues that the concept of the virgin birth goes against the grain of the bible. He claims:

what separates Christianity from other religious traditions is that – the birth narratives aside – Christianity deliberately refuses the familiar distinction between the pure and the impure. Jesus was born in a cowshed; from lepers to prostitutes, he deliberately courted the ritually unclean; and he spent most of his ministry tearing down barriers between pure and impure – not least, those of the Temple – that separated the “ungodly” from God himself.

In Christianity, purity is abolished. Indeed, the core idea that the all-perfect God almighty might actually steep so low as to be born as a bleeding, defecating human being would have been regarded by all previously orthodox believers – both Greek and Jew – as disgusting. But this is the central insight of Christianity: that in the person of Jesus, there is no contradiction between being fully human and fully divine. Or, in other words, God is perfectly at home in a human life, with all its ritualistic mess, from blood to semen. There is no shame in the constituent elements of our humanity, including the manner in which we are made. Which is why the “pure virgin” tradition runs totally against the grain.

The problem with this view is that it mistakes why things are included within the biblical narrative. Whilst I agree with Fraser that the general tenor of scripture is away from ceremonial cleanliness and outward forms of purity, it seems odd to argue that because the virgin birth runs against this stream of thought it cannot have happened. Surely the inclusion of an event contrary to the author’s overarching themes acts as evidence that this is, in fact, included because it is what happened. It is included as an important fact of matters, not because it’s a nice fable which bolsters the aims of the writer.

If the virgin birth didn’t happen, why would any sensible author (let alone two of them) make it up? It is eminently possible that an event which undermines your case and flies in the face of what you have written may cause you to omit from your record something that actually happened (scores of ancient texts did this all the time). However, it is highly unlikely that one would include something that didn’t happen – making up an entirely fictional event – that undermines the very case one is seeking to make. That makes no sense at all. Fraser’s argument that the virgin birth runs contrary to the tenor of the gospels, far from suggesting it didn’t happen, acts as evidence that it did.

His second line of attack is equally problematic. He argues that the virgin birth is only mentioned in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke and then plays no further role in the New Testament. The inference is either that the virgin birth is of no great import or that, as only Matthew and Luke mention it, the event probably didn’t happen. But this position doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

On this view, whole swathes of the bible should be thrown out because certain events are mentioned in one (or two) places and mentioned no more. Significant chunks of Old Testament narrative receive no further reference in the New Testament. Are we to infer that all these events, therefore, didn’t take place? It seems highly questionable, at best, to infer that something didn’t happen simply because it is not mentioned repeatedly throughout the biblical text. Are we to expect every point of fact and historical event to be mentioned two, three or more times before we can begin to believe it actually happened? More to the point, the virgin birth is attested independently by Matthew and Luke. So, though it may only be mentioned in their gospels, these are two separate authors verifying the same event. We aren’t exactly dealing with a single author making a totally unsubstantiated claim.

Finally, Fraser argues that “most scholars agree that virgin is probably a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman”. Apart from being untrue (most scholars do not believe this; many liberal scholars believe it), it is hermeneutically doubtful. If Isaiah meant to say young woman, Is 7:14 would read as follows: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Not much of a sign is it. In fact, given most young women at the time gave birth, this translation amounts to no sign at all!

Further, if Isaiah had really meant young woman, why do both Matthew and Luke seem convinced he intended the word virgin? Matthew tells us that Joseph was going to divorce Mary as he found her pregnant before their marriage. This makes clear that Joseph initially presumed adultery and was himself not the father. The only explanation for why he didn’t divorce Mary was the dream in which he was told this was a virgin birth of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Luke leaves us with no uncertainty when – recounting the angelic visit to Mary – he records her saying “How will this be since I know not a man?” If Isaiah did not intend to convey the word virgin, why did Matthew and Luke camp out on the fact he did – especially in light of the earlier point that it flew in the face of the tenor of the rest of their gospels?

It also seems worth mentioning that Fraser places greater store by the prophecy of Isaiah (predicting events several centuries ahead of time) over and above the two comments from Matthew and Luke, who were both around at the time. If Isaiah was prophesying that Jesus would merely be born of a young woman, his prophecy has no actual value. How many boys called Yeshua would have been born of young women? It is the kind of “prophecy” that anyone could make – a bloke will be born of a woman – there’ll be no missing the Messiah now! Fraser is arguing that a non-sign of a woman giving birth to a son, written by a man several centuries prior to the birth of Christ, trumps two independent witnesses writing shortly after events took place. On top of that, if Matthew and Luke knew the prophecies of Isaiah (which certainly Matthew would have done and Luke might well have done), would they so cack-handedly get it wrong by making the most preposterous claim possible? It seems unlikely.

Based on the historicity of the events (from which we ought to draw our theological conclusions), the virgin birth seems far more likely than any of the arguments advanced by Fraser. Even were we to accept the view that we must theologically justify the event first, and then determine whether it actually took place, is it true that the virgin birth just “doesn’t add up theologically”? That is a questionable.

Of course, we run into the textual problems of why Isaiah appears to say “born of a virgin” and why Matthew and Luke certainly do so. Beyond this we must ask how, for example, do we account for the deity of Christ if he was born like any other man and therefore, to all intents and purposes, just a man like the rest of us? If such is the case, are we to reject the impeccability of Christ as, according to Paul, all in Adam (which Jesus would be if born of a man and woman) inherit his sin nature? How would Jesus have had a nature any different to ours? To that end, how would he be able to deal with the problem of sin and bring reconciliation to God? In what meaningful way would Jesus be the Son of God if he was, in fact, just a man born like any other man? These are but a few of the theological issues that flow from a non-virgin birth.

It is therefore both historically, textually and theologically justifiable to believe in a virgin birth. Fraser’s Jesus would prove to be just another guy, with a nature like the rest of us, who is no more capable of bringing us to God than I am. If we consider the bible in any way authoritative, it is hard to deny the reality of the virgin birth.

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