Questions Surrounding Jesus’ Birth/Part 10

By: Dr. John Ankerberg with various Scholars; ©{{{copyright}}}
Can We Believe that “Miraculous” Events—Such as the Virgin Birth—Really Happen?

Ed. note: This article is based upon the transcript from programs produced by the John Ankerberg Show. Additional material has been added for this print version.

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Can We Believe that “Miraculous” Events—Such as the Virgin Birth—Really Happen?

Dr. John Ankerberg: The ABC Special raised many questions about the events and people surrounding Jesus’ birth. Have the Gospel writers presented accurate, historical information? Did Luke make historical errors in dating Jesus’ birth just before a Roman census was taken? Maybe one of the biggest problems people have is with the miraculous aspect of the virgin birth itself. Dr. N. T. Wright taught at Oxford University in England for 22 years. He is presently canon theologian of Westminster Abbey and is respected as one of the foremost historical Jesus scholars in the world today. We talked with him about how he approaches the virgin birth of Jesus as a historian.

Dr. N. T. Wright:[1] It’s interesting that in both Britain and America, when people ask about the truth of Christianity, often they seem to be interested in the empty tomb and in the virgin birth–and as though those two things were somehow equal and parallel. It’s very interesting in the New Testament that the Resurrection is everywhere but the virginal conception of Jesus is only in those two little bits at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. And really, for Paul, for Hebrews, for John, you can say the whole of the Christian Gospel without mentioning the birth of Jesus. That’s not to say it’s unimportant. It’s just to say it’s not nearly as important as Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Take them away and you haven’t got a Gospel at all.

Dr. John Ankerberg: I’ve got to ask you this question now because it comes up. You have material, information, but you have 20th century people that come to this material with presuppositions. Can history straight-out lead us to the conclusion that Jesus was God–He did the supernatural; miracles took place, etc.? Or does something have to happen before we approach that material? Because a naturalist would say, “Hey, if I see the miracles, they didn’t happen because miracles don’t happen.” How would you advise people to look at these texts?

Dr. Darrell Bock:[2] It’s a good question and I think it’s an important question for our day because I think most people do approach the Bible and they go, “This is pretty unusual stuff.” And the fact is, it is. And in fact, that’s the point. The fact that it’s unusual is the point. You know, virgin births don’t happen every day, and the reason God did it this way was to mark Jesus out as unique, as special, so that Joseph finds himself in the dilemma of having this girl that he’s betrothed to pregnant. He knows he’s not responsible. In his mind that leads to only one conclusion: some other guy did this. Now there has to be an explanation for why that doesn’t work. And the interesting thing is in thinking about–that states it positively–thinking about it negatively, you have to come to the view of, does the alternative explanation make sense? Let’s work with the virgin birth. I think it’s a problem to say that the early Church created a cover-up for an illegitimate Jesus because someone would have known that birth was illegitimate and if there really was a belief that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate, He never would have gotten out of the starting blocks as the Messiah, as the holy, chosen Messiah of God.
Dr. Claire Pfann:[3] It’s historically probable that Jesus was born of a virgin, and both Matthew and Luke, working independently decades after His birth as they searched for the data that they can put together on His birth, come up with that as one of the 12 points that they share in common–a virgin birth, a divine conception. There have been many slurs and innuendos about Jesus, but in this they both agreed.
The testimony of Scripture about His conception is a clear testimony. And again, both Matthew and Luke share the fact that this was not a child born out of immorality but a child born under unique and divine circumstances. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we actually find the expectation that the Messiah would also be called the Son of the Most High and the Son of God, just as we see in the Gospel of Luke. And in the Gospel of John, we again get that type of innuendo, that sarcasm, as the enemies of Jesus say to Him in John chapter 7, “We were not born of fornication. We know who our father is,” implying that He was. Once again, the Gospel of John does not give any type of rebuttal because the Gospel of John assumes that its readers know the true circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
Dr. N. T. Wright: And indeed, what we can see in Matthew, the way he tells the story of the genealogy from Abraham, through David, through the Exile to Jesus, he tells it in such a way to highlight the strange births that happened from time to time in that sequence; for instance, David and Bathsheba illicitly getting together and producing Solomon, perhaps as a way of sorting softening the blow that this is really very strange but this is actually how God did it.
Now, of course, I cannot prove the virginal conception of Jesus, and I don’t think you can prove it in the same way as I would prove the Resurrection–that you can’t explain the rise of early Christianity without it. Because as I say, you can explain Paul’s theology without ever mentioning the virginal conception because Paul never does, so that it’s not the same kind of argument.
What I want to say, though, is that if the Resurrection happened in the way that the New Testament says it does–and frankly, if it didn’t, I can’t explain as a historian how early Christianity got off the ground–then that forces me to hold my modern mind open to say, If God was really in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, ought I not to expect some other strange things as well? And when I then have these stories which look so strange and yet, Why would they do that?–maybe it really did happen.

Dr. John Ankerberg: In the ABC Special Peter Jennings said, “One thing that almost everyone we talked to agrees on is the religious power of these stories;”–talking about the stories in the New Testament and especially the Christmas story–”they don’t depend on whether they can be verified by historical analysis.” What do you think about that?

Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, I think they do have power. I think part of their power is in the history: the fact that these things did happen. In fact, I’d argue that part of their persuasiveness historically has been the fact that people believe that God did something special in Jesus; He was responsible for the birth; angels did appear. And although you could treat it like an English literature story, like a novel, and say, “Well, there’s still truth in it even if it didn’t happen,” there’s perhaps some truth in that at one level. But that’s not what the Gospels are. That’s other kinds of literature.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Now, during the ABC Special, some of the professors of the Jesus Seminar said Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, He was born in Nazareth; that the story of Jesus’ birth was simply fabricated by the early church after Christ passed off the scene. But if one follows the logic of the critics, if some Christians created the story Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then there should have been other Christians creating stories that Jesus was born somewhere else. But that is not the case. Historians know that all the traditions, all the stories, all the accounts that have come down to us about where Jesus was born identify only one city, the city of Bethlehem, as being the place where it happened.

Claire Pfann is a faculty member at the Center for the Study of Early Christianity and assistant dean for academic affairs at the University of the Holy Land. She is an expert on Jewish birth practices and the culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. I asked her to summarize some of the information found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke concerning the birth of Jesus.

Dr. Claire Pfann: Now, they don’t have a lot of information to tell about Jesus’ childhood or infancy, with just two chapters they could hardly cover 30 years. However, they do share at least 12 very important items in common, including the names of his parents, Joseph and Mary, the fact that he’s descended from the house of David, the fact that his conception was divine, that there was an angelic announcement concerning his conception. The choice of the name Jesus before his birth is shared by both Matthew and Luke, as well as the birth at Bethlehem and the subsequent move of his family to Nazareth. So they have a skeletal amount of information that they share in common about the infancy and childhood of Jesus, and they present it in their infancy narratives.
The genealogies of Matthew and Luke are really quite an interesting subject for study, even if on the surface they seem quite boring. Both Matthew and Luke have quite different purposes to accomplish. Luke wants to show us through his genealogy that Jesus goes back past Abraham, to Adam, to God and that Jesus therefore is a suitable Savior for all of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. Matthew, on the other hand, has a very Jewish purpose to serve with his genealogy and focuses on the Jewish ancestors of Jesus, showing that He is both the Son of Abraham, and the Son of David. He also throws in four women in his genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, all of whom had some sexual impropriety associated with their role in the messianic line, and this is to comfort the community of Jesus and His followers who have been accused of sexual impropriety in His conception.

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  1. Dr. N. T. (Thomas) Wright: Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and was formerly Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. He taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God is regarded as one of the most significant studies in the contemporary “Third Quest” of the historical Jesus.
  2. Dr. Darrell L. Bock: Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture, Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland. He is author of a two-volume commentary on Luke in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series and of the Luke volume in the NIV Application Commentary series.
  3. Mrs. Claire Pfann: Faculty member, Center for the Study of Early Christianity, 1988-present. Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, University of the Holy Land, 1998-present. Contributor, The Comprehensive Concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Production Editor, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVII . Contributor, The Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible. Contributor, Hebrew University Bible Project: “The Alignment of the Aramaic and Greek Texts of Ezra and Daniel.” An expert on Jewish birth practices and culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.

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