St Columba Altarpiece, c. 1455, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
St Columba Altarpiece, c. 1455, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Why Christianity is Unbelivable: Part 2, Virgin Birth

By K.R. Bellew

K.R. Bellew is a former Bible college instructor turned atheist to Christianity.

In Part 1 of this series, we showed that Christianity has very weak historical proof of its claims to a resurrected Jesus. In fact, if it were not for the fact that Christians existed in the 2nd century, we would know almost nothing of Christianity. However, it would be a grave error to assume that what the Christians of the 2nd century believed to be true was the same thing that the Christians of Paul's time believed to be true. In the latter half of the 2nd century, claims about Jesus are embellished greatly in efforts to elevate the status of Jesus and to prove he was the Messiah.

Main point of this article

In this section, concerning the Virgin Birth, the main point is to show that the Gospel writers invented the Virgin Birth as part of efforts to show Jesus to be the Messiah and that he was divinely inspired. If it can be shown that this was a fabrication (and other stories that try to establish Jesus as the Messiah are not true), then other stories must also be viewed with suspect (like embellished resurrection stories).

To the casual reader who picks up a Bible and reads the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), it is common to believe that the Gospels were written in chronological order as they appear in the New Testament. However, it is nearly universally accepted that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke followed several years later. The Gospel of Mark was first published anonymously. It's authorship was not established until the 2nd century. It appears that this writing was a popular early Christian document that whetted the appetite of the early Christian movement for more information on Jesus.

The traditional view of the four Gospels blends the stories together, giving the impression that one is reading the views of four men who were in the thick of it with Jesus, but, as previously stated, this is not the case.

In the traditional blended view, we're told that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she was with child. A miraculous Virgin Birth is described. We're told of a Roman census that occurs that forces Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. We're told of an evil king who kills every baby under two-years old in an attempt to keep Jesus from making it into the world. We're told of Wise Men who travel a great distance led by some "star in the east" to give gifts to the baby Jesus. We're then told of an adult Jesus who gets baptized by a famous preacher, then he heals the sick, raises the dead, walks on water, stills storms, curses a fig tree, performs exorcisms (sends devils into suicidal pigs), then prepares for martyrdom. He rides into Jerusalem with a donkey and a colt and gets crucified. This causes day to turn to night (from noon to 3:00PM ) and an earth quake which is so severe that graves break open. When the graves break open, a whole bunch of people come alive, crawl out of the graves and walk through the streets like zombies. These zombies are seen (we're told) by MANY people. However, the theatrics are not over. The veil of the Temple suddenly rips in half from top to bottom (The veil is like a huge room-separating curtain in the Temple ). A few days later, we're told that Jesus rose from the dead. Then, he teleports around Jerusalem and Galilee , sometimes he disguises himself and sometimes not. Forty days later, we're told he floats into the sky like a hot-air balloon and disappears.

The above is the view you have if you read the Gospels with no historical context. If you just take it as being written all at once around the time of Christ, but that's not the way it happened. The only stories people know of the life of Jesus come from the Gospels written a generation or more after Christ's death, but the Gospels were shaped by the political and religious frictions of the time. When you understand these, you understand the motivations behind why certain events in the Gospels must be presented the way they are. You understand why some fabrications are required for Christianity to establish itself as a universal religion based on orthodox rules. I believe there were at least three main frictions that shaped the Gospels.

 

  1. The desperate need to prove Jesus was the divinely-inspired Messiah.

  2. To show that this messiah and his religion were not a threat to the Romans (turn the other cheek and pay your taxes).

  3. To combat specific Christian doctrines dividing Christianity at the end of the 1st century.

Of these three frictions, I'm going to concentrate only on the first one for part 2 of Why Christianity is Unbelievable. The following timeline applies to this discussion.

Timeline

 

The Apostle Paul was First to Tell the World about Jesus

If Jesus existed, the history of Christianity started as follows. Jesus was crucified around 30 CE. The disciples of Jesus do very little with the message of Jesus after his death. About 20 years later, a religious Pharisee by the name of Saul converts to Christianity after claiming to have a vision of Jesus, and he changes his name to Paul. It would be Paul who would tell the world about Jesus. Paul had three major missionary journeys telling people about Jesus before he is killed by the Romans for sedition. His story of Jesus was very different than the story that would be published after Paul's death. The stories that Paul never read would be called Gospels. It wasn't until the second century that the gospels got their names: The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Post-Pauline Church

The post-Pauline church was still very Jewish. If you wanted to gain Jewish religious followers, one of the things you needed was a Messiah. Paul said Jesus was the Messiah, but he never tried very hard to prove it in his writings. When the Gospels were written, the Jews had recently had several failed Messiahs. According to the Jewish historian Josephus - Yehuda of Galilee (6 CE), Theudas (44 CE), and Benjamin the Egyptian (60 CE) were all crucified for claiming to be Messiah. They had also endured an incredible war and destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem . The Jews must have been wondering if a Messiah would ever be successful.

Would the Messiah ever succeed?

To this question, Christianity tried to offer an answer. They claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he had already won the war, but the war was not with the Romans. It was with Satan.

To prove that Jesus was the divinely-inspired Messiah, the Gospel would claim that Jesus was born of a Virgin according to prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (which was written about 732 years before Jesus). The Christian message would be very clear. Mary never had sex before she conceived. This is why Jesus would also be called: The Son of God.

Here's Matthew's account (Matt.1:18-25 -NIV):

[18] This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. [19] Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

[20] But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. [21] She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

[22] All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: [23]"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" which means, "God with us."

[24] When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. [25] But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Luke's account is a follows (Luke 1:26 -35 -NIV):

[26] In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth , a town in Galilee , [27] to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. [28] The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

[29] Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. [30] But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. [31] You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. [32] He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, [33] and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

[34] "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

[35] The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

A Virgin Birth would be an incredible miracle. If Jesus was conceived through a Virgin Birth by cooperation between Mary and the Holy Spirit of God, how could you ever tell the story of Jesus without mentioning this fantastic event? What more proof do you need that Jesus was the Messiah if God, Himself, fathered him? You would think that if this were true, everyone would know about it and talk about it.

Note : The fact that women contribute an ovum that the sperm fertilizes was not a known concept in Bible times. The idea that the woman contributed half of the DNA required for the chromosomes to build a human was entirely unknown. To the ancient world, the man's "seed" contained everything required to grow a human. It only needed a womb in which to be planted, then, it could grow. In fact, a woman's womb was viewed like a crop field in the Bible. Just as crop fields could be barren and not allow seeds to grow, so a woman's womb might be barren. The barren womb is a common concept in the Bible. However, you will never find reference to a man who could not reproduce due to low sperm count. Therefore, it would be a mistake to view the authors of the Virgin Birth as thinking that Mary contributed anything to the creation of Jesus except her womb.

Paul Does Not Know of the Virgin Birth

Paul wrote his epistles 25 to 35 years before the first mention of the Virgin Birth. Paul apparently knows nothing of a Virgin Birth. He never mentions it, even when doing so would bolster his point. It's not that Paul never mentions the birth of Jesus. In fact, Paul mentions the birth of Jesus twice. Once, Paul says that Jesus was "born of the seed of David" (Rom. 1:3 KJV). Saying that Jesus was "born of the seed of David" would imply that Paul believed that "human seed" was used to create Jesus. Otherwise, Paul would have said, "born of the seed of David and God." In the same breath, Paul says that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God because of his resurrection from the dead, not because God caused his mother to conceive.

Paul writes in Romans 1:3,4 KJV, c.60 CE

[3] Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;

[4] And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:

 

Paul writes in Galatians 4: 4 NIV, c. 49 CE

[4] But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,

To Paul, there was nothing miraculous about the birth of Jesus or the way Jesus was conceived. He is clearly making the point that the birth of Christ was as natural as any other. In fact, the point is specifically made to combat the idea that there was something supernatural about the way Jesus came into the world. For example, Jesus was not vomited out of the mouth of a giant snake. He was born naturally -of a woman. If there were anything unnatural about Christ's birth, this would have been a good time to bring it up.

Mark, the First Biographer of Jesus, Does Not Record the Virgin Birth

The next biblical writer (chronologically speaking), Mark, created the first major biographical work on the life of Jesus. If Jesus had a Virgin Birth, why did Mark not record this in the first biography of Christ? It would be like someone writing the biography of Lisa Maria Presley and leaving off that her father was Elvis. Actually, it would be like that times a million. It's unthinkable (unless it were not true).

Mary thought Jesus was out of his mind.

Further proof that Mark was unaware of a Virgin Birth is the way he has Mary, the mother of Jesus, react when Jesus begins his preaching ministry. In Mark chapter 3, Mark tells us that Jesus chose his 12 disciples. One of the first things he tells them is that they are going to be given supernatural powers to be able to cast out demons. Word of this spreads very quickly and the local religious leaders begin to raise an eyebrow of incredulity. Word gets back to Jesus' family that Jesus is offending the local religious leaders. Mary and her other sons (brothers of Jesus) rush to where Jesus is and begin to try and save face with the religious leaders. They basically say to them, "Don't mind him. He's out of his mind. He's a little crazy. We'll just take him home now."

Mark 3:21-31 NIV

[21] When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him home with them. "He's out of his mind," they said.

[22] But the teachers of religious law who had arrived from Jerusalem said, "He's possessed by Satan, the prince of demons. That's where he gets the power to cast out demons.

[31] Jesus' mother and brothers arrived at the house where he was teaching. They stood outside and sent word for him to come out and talk with them.

If Mary really had received a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who told her about the great things that Jesus would do- If God had "overshadowed" her and planted divine seed in her womb- If Magi really appeared at the birth of Jesus to proclaim the birth of a divine Messiah, Mary would not question anything Jesus did related to supernatural claims. She certainly would not say Jesus was crazy for making these claims. Mary and Joseph would also have fully explained these events to all family members (who would question her unwed pregnancy), which, according to Luke, also included the most famous wild-man preacher of the day, John the Baptist, cousin of Christ.

I believe that the reason Mark did not record the Virgin Birth was that the doctrine had not yet been invented. It was probably another 10 years before the Gospel of Matthew would first record anything about a Virgin Birth.

 

The Virgin Birth story didn't appear until 85 years later

The first time we learn about the Virgin Birth of Jesus was about 85 years after the alleged event. The fact that the first two people to write about the life of Jesus, Paul and Mark, do not mention the Virgin Birth, suggests that the Virgin Birth was probably a later invention.

Why would someone invent the Virgin Birth? It was invented because it was one of many things that attempt to prove that Jesus was more than a normal man. He needed to be a divinely-inspired man fit for a supernatural cause.

If the Virgin Birth is proven to be an invention, other similar claims should also be viewed with suspicion like his miracles (which Paul never mentions), his exorcisms (which Paul never mentions) and his post-resurrection ministry in a human body (which Paul never mentions).

The Virgin Birth was used to prove that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 regarding being born of a virgin. This was done to prove Jesus was the expected Messiah. The problem is - Isaiah 7:14 was not a messianic prophecy.

 

Isaiah 7:14

[14] Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

At some point, early Christians interpreted Isaiah 7:14 to be a messianic prophecy. Anyone who reads the Gospels critically knows that the writers were looking for messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. They decided that Isaiah 7:14 was such a prophecy, so they needed Jesus to fulfill it. After all, Jesus cannot be the messiah if he only fulfills a few of the messianic prophecies. He must fulfill them all. Therefore, Matthew records that Jesus has a Virgin Birth.

Native Hebrew-speaking Jewish scholars told early Christian they had misinterpreted Isaiah 7:14

Not only was the Virgin Birth an invention, but the early Christian interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 was soon under attack by the Jewish, Hebrew-speaking scholars of their day. We have multiple records that the Jews informed the Christians that not only was Isaiah 7:14 not a messianic prophecy, but that Christians had misinterpreted the original Hebrew word for "virgin". The Hebrew word that is translated as "virgin" was "almah", which means simply "young woman." The native Hebrew-speaking Jewish scholars told the Christians that if Isaiah wanted to be specific about her lack of sexual experience, Isaiah would have used the word "bethulah."

It is true that most "almah" type (young women) who were not married would be a virgin. Sex outside of marriage was forbidden. However, an almah who was married would not be referred to as a "bethulah" type young woman (because she has had sex). Also, you would never refer to a young woman who was a harlot as a "bethulah." She would simply be a whore who is also an almah. The ancient Jews made this point repeatedly to Christians to let them know that they had misinterpreted Isaiah 7:14. If Isaiah wanted to specify a young woman who would conceive a child without sex, he would have written, "Behold, a 'bethulah' will conceive."

For example, in Genesis 24:16, Rebekah was called a "bethulah" because no man had had sex with her. Bethulah could be used as a noun as well as an adjective. Deut. 22:14 , 15 reads, "If a husband find his new wife "not a maid [bethulah]," then on his complaint her parents must "bring forth the tokens of the virginity [bethulah] of the maid [naarah]". Many other examples can be sited.

Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist who wrote about 155 CE, records this debate in one of his letters called A Dialogue with Trypho .

Justin responds to Trypho's accusations saying:

"But since you and your teachers venture to affirm that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son"

Justin also tries to address the argument against the Virgin Birth that the prophecy was long fulfilled before Christ's birth.

For Justin Martyr's A Dialogue with Trypho , see: Link

(Thanks again to Peter Kirby for making these works available online)

Later, Jerome, who was probably one of the greatest linguists of the 4th century (he translated the Bible into Latin, which is called the Vulgate) records how the Jews are constantly telling Christianity about this mistake, and he admits that they are right.

Jerome, Against Jovinianus

[32] Isaiah tells of the mystery of our faith and hope: "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." I know that the Jews are accustomed to meet us with the objection that in Hebrew the word Almah does not mean a virgin, but a young woman. And, to speak truth, a virgin is properly called Bethulah..."

 

(Jerome, Against Jovinianus , Book 1, chapter 32; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, p. 370). See this online at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.vi.I.html

Current day Christian apologist, in a desperate attempt to save face, have devised several tortured explanations trying to prove that Isaiah meant that the woman to whom he was referring would be a virgin when she conceived. However, it doesn't take a theologian to see that the woman who fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 8 was not a virgin at conception. Also, native Hebrew-speaking Jews of the day were pointing out that Christians, who probably spoke Aramaic or Greek, had misinterpreted the Hebrew. How can today's Christian students of ancient Hebrew language have a better understanding than the native Hebrew speakers of early Christianity?

 

How was the Mistake Made?

There were a variety of Greek translations of Isaiah (which was originally in Hebrew) floating around in the 1st century. Most of these Greek translations were known to be of poor translation quality. Some believe that the early Christians were reading a poor-quality Greek translation that may have caused confusion (Virtually all early New Testament manuscripts we have are written in Greek). While there were several Greek version of Isaiah in the 1st century that may have affected Christian interpretation, only one of these is extant today in the Christian version of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). Therefore, it difficult to know for sure if this is the source of the error. However, this is a possibility.

Also, during the time the Gospels were written, there were many stories of virgin birth and virgin goddesses in Roman and Greek mythologies (Athena and Zeus, Hercules, Danae, etc). While it seems fantastic today to us to think that people took those mythologies seriously, they did. On the other hand, look at how many people take the Virgin Birth of Christ seriously. Much could be written about early Christianity being influenced by its surrounding culture.

I'm not saying that the popular idea of the time of pagan virgin births was the source of the Christian virgin birth. However, because it was a popular idea of the time, it made the early Christians less critical of the thought when they ran into a verse that read that a child will be born as a sign. Pagan virgin births may not have been the source of the doctrine, but Pagan ideas could have been the alcohol that removed their inhibitions.

Church Father, Justin Martyr, writing around 155 CE, tries to put to rest the absurdity of a Virgin Birth by saying the following:

 

Justin Martyr, First Apology," Vol. 1, Chap. 22, p. 69 in the Reeves edition

" By declaring the Logos the first-begotten of God, our master, Jesus Christ, to be born of a virgin without any human mixture, we Christians say no more in this than what you pagans say of those whom you style the sons of Jove ."

 

See also: Link

 

What does Isaiah 7:14 Really Prophecy?

What was Isaiah 7:14 actually talking about if not the Virgin Birth of a Messiah? It is actually fairly clear in our current translation. Isaiah 7 writes concerning the year 732 BCE. The Jewish kingdom had split from a united twelve tribes to ten tribes in the north (called Israel ) and two tribes to the south (called Judah ). Ahaz was king of the southern kingdom of Judah . He was very anxious that the ten northern tribes ( Israel ) were going to attack him with an alliance with Syria.

The Bible tells us (in Isaiah 7) that God spoke to Ahaz and told Ahaz to ask God for a sign that would put Ahaz's mind at ease that Judah would not be destroyed by such an alliance. We're told that Ahaz could ask for any sign he wanted, no matter how difficult. I would have asked for a giant pile of gold, but Ahaz replies that he could not tempt God such by asking for a sign.

 

The sign predicted the mechanisms that put in motion Judah's ultimate destruction by the Assyrians

Isaiah tells Ahaz that, whether he asks for it or not, God is going to give him a sign that the kingdom of Judah would not be destroyed by an alliance of Israel and Syria . Isaiah tells Ahaz that the sign to him would be that a young woman would have a son, and before that son was old enough to eat solid food, the ten tribes (Israel) and Syria would be destroyed by the Assyrians. However, Isaiah goes on to tell him that this is not necessarily good news, because the Assyrians will eventually destroy Judah. It is not a prophecy of complete deliverance. It is only a short reprieve followed by destruction. In actuality, the sign given to Ahaz was to predict the mechanisms that put in motion Judah 's ultimate destruction by the Assyrians.

As you can see, this prophecy was to be a sign to Ahaz-- not a struggling Jewish community a little more than 700 years later. If the birth of Jesus was to be the sign to the King of Judah, Ahaz would be dead before it was fulfilled. The idea that this is a double-meaning prophecy is silly and out of context. No place is that hinted.

There was nothing special about the way that the child was conceived that would be a sign to Ahaz. What would be a sign is that the baby would be born, and something would happen before the baby boy was old enough to eat solid food or know right from wrong.

In fact, we don't have to wait long for this prophecy to be fulfilled. In the very next chapter (Isaiah 8), Isaiah has sex with his wife and writes about it this way:

 

Isaiah 8:3,4 (New Living Translation)

[3] Then I slept with my wife, and she became pregnant and had a son. And the LORD said, "Call him Maher-shalal-hash-baz. [4] This name prophesies that within a couple of years, before this child is old enough to say `Papa' or `Mama,' the king of Assyria will invade both Damascus and Samaria and carry away their riches."

 

The woman who fulfilled the prophecy was not a virgin at conception

Obviously, Mrs. Isaiah was not a virgin when the child was born. Isaiah says right in verse 3 that he had sex with her. Since she was his wife, I'm guessing that it wasn't her first time, but even if it were, it is not a parallel to the Virgin Birth experience claimed by Christianity which claims no sex prior to conception. The Christian interpretation obviously got confused by whatever word was translated as "virgin." Again, if the early Christians used a poor-quality Greek version of Isaiah that is no longer extant, we may never know exactly what confused them.

In summary, the first two writers about the life of Jesus know nothing of the Virgin Birth. The Virgin Birth is not mentioned until about 85 years after the birth of Jesus by only two of the four Gospel writers. It is probably mentioned because the Gospel writers think it is necessary for Jesus to be born of a Virgin in order to fulfill messianic prophecy. Early Chirstians may also desire Jesus to appear to have a virgin birth to lift his status to that of other virgin-birthed men who were worshipped.

The scripture that is supposed to prophecy that the Messiah will be to a virgin (specifically, a woman who never had sex), was misinterpreted by early Christians because of the word "virgin," as attested by native Hebrew-speaking Jews not long after the time the Gospels were written.

Lastly, the prophecy has nothing to do with a messiah delivering the Jews, but it speaks of a child being born as a specific sign to Ahaz that he will not be destroyed the way he thinks he will be destroyed. Instead, he will be destroyed by the Assyrians. To claim that this utterly sad story of failure is a prophecy of hope for a messiah is ludicrous.

This attempt to establish the Virgin Birth so late in the game is a fumble by the early Christians. It sheds light on a desperate attempt to establish Jesus as the legitimate messiah. An attempt that will include embellishments and fabrications where needed, including an embellished resurrection story to combat the growing threat of Christian Gnosticism. Perhaps the Gospel writer really believed the stories of Jesus, and that the end justified the means. Nonetheless, I believe this shows that the writer is willing to invent stories to frame the life of Jesus in the required messianic painting. This is how early Christians gave birth to a Messiah.