Matthew’s Account of the Virgin Birth
Just who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he “the fruit of an adulterous union of Mary with a certain soldier whose name was Pantheras” as the pagan philosopher, Celsus charged?
Was he the natural son of Joseph as German theologian, Adolf Harnack suggested?
Or was he, in fact, precisely who he claimed to be, the divine Son of God?
In view of his claims, if he was not the Son of God, he was either a self-deceived lunatic, or a vicious imposter. The doctrine of the virgin birth is, therefore, inseparably bound to both the claims and character of Jesus Christ.
Though there are several portions of scripture which might be studied with profit relative to this theme, this article will deal primarily with Matthew chapter one , summarizing that apostle’s inspired arguments for the virgin birth of Jesus.
Joseph: Legal, But Not Biological Father
Matthew commences his book by chronicling the legal genealogy of Jesus. In so doing he employs the verb “begat” (Gr.
gennao) no less than thirty-nine times. From Abraham to Joseph, it is “begat” all the way — until Jesus. He writes:
“and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Mt. 1:16)
The term “begat” is conspicuously absent as a connective between Joseph and Jesus. This is a cautiously worded suggestion of the virgin birth.
Joseph Excluded by Grammar
Additionally, the inspired writer stresses concerning Mary, “of whom was born Jesus.” The pronoun “whom” (
hes) is singular number, feminine gender, thus excluding Joseph from any involvement in the Lord’s birth.
Conceived During the Betrothal
It is carefully stated that Mary’s conception occurred while she and Joseph were but “betrothed” (Mt. 1:18).
The betrothal, according to Jewish practice, embraced an interval of time (usually about twelve months for a virgin) between the formal agreement to marry and the moving of the bride into the groom’s home, at which point sexual cohabitation commenced.
Before They Were Intimate
Matthew specifically says that the conception was “before they came together.”
The Greek term
sunerchomai is frequently used “of coming together in a sexual sense” (Arndt and Gingrich, 795). There had thus been no sexual union.
Mary was said to be “found” (
heurethe) with child. This word indicates a discovery or detection (Winer, 769).
Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy, and this, of course, was a surprise given the fact that he had not been intimate with her. His reaction is evidence of his lack of complicity.
“Of the Holy Spirit”
Matthew observes that Mary’s conception was “of the Holy Spirit.” Lenski pungently observed:
“In this brief phrase Matthew records what is popularly called the virgin birth, and on this phrase hangs the entire paragraph, yea, all else that the New Testament reports concerning the Word made flesh.... [Jesus] entered our race as Matthew here declares, or he did not. If he did not, if Jesus was an ordinary bastard, or Joseph’s natural son by an act of forbidden cohabitation, then they who will may call him their Savior — their lascivious fancy cannot raise him from the mire into which they have cast him” (42).
Joseph Intended to Put Her Away
It is further revealed that Joseph was “minded to put her away.” The term “put away” is
apolusai, literally to “loose away” or to divorce (Arndt and Gingrich, 96).
Under Jewish law betrothal could be voided only by divorce. Joseph, believing that Mary had been unfaithful to him, was “minded” (
boulomai, indicating a decision reached after prior deliberation) to divorce her.
He knew he was not the father of her child. Thus, Harnack’s foolish speculation is refuted.
An Angel’s Testimony
There was also the independent testimony of an angel who declared to Mary that “that which is conceived is of the Holy Spirit.”
Compare with Luke’s parallel account: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee” (Lk. 1:35).
Isaiah’s Prophecy Fulfilled
Matthew contends that Mary miraculously conceived “that it might be fulfilled” (Mt. 1:22) as the Lord had spoken through Isaiah:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child” (Is. 7:14).
Isaiah employed the Hebrew word
almah. Much controversy has surrounded this word as a result of modernism’s rejection of the virgin birth. But Edward J. Young has observed that
almah “is never used of a married woman” (287).
Robert Dick Wilson, an incomparable scholar who mastered some forty-five languages, thoroughly researched the word and declared:
Alma, so far as known, never meant ‘young married woman’; and secondly since the presumption in common law and usage was and is, that every
almais virgin and virtuous, until she is proved not to be, we have a right to assume that ... the
almaof Is. 7:14 and all other
almaswere virgin, until and unless it shall be proven that they were not.... The language itself is not the difficulty. The great and only difficulty lies in disbelief in predictive prophecy and in the almighty power of God; or in the desire to throw discredit upon the divine Sonship of Jesus” (316).
In his rendition of the passage, Matthew uses the Greek word
parthenos is “virgin” as the consultation of a Greek lexicon will reveal.
The fact that
parthenos in rare instances may refer to one who is technically a non-virgin is no argument against the unquestionably normal usage of the word.
For example, Dinah is called a
parthenos even after she was raped (Gen. 34:3, LXX). However, the Old Testament frequently uses former appellations in a figurative sense to denominate subsequent situations.
Abigail is called Nabal’s “wife” even after she married David (2 Sam. 2:2), and Jerusalem is referred to as “the faithful city” while playing the “harlot” (Isa. 1:21). Or it may be that Dinah is called a
parthenos even after her violation to stress her non-consent in the horrible act.
Isaiah makes it clear that Mary would conceive as a virgin. There is no way that a virgin can conceive other than by a miracle. If a virgin marries (thus losing her virginity), conceives and bears a child, it certainly can in no way be called a “virgin birth.”
Isaiah must, therefore, have had exclusive reference to Mary’s virginal conception. I reject the view which asserts that the use of
almah in Isaiah 7:14 involved a double prophecy, i.e. a young woman of the prophet’s own time, in addition to Mary. (See William Hendriksen, p. 134-143.)
The Prophetic Name
The child’s name was to be called “Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us” (Mt. 1:23).
The use of “God” in a compound name does not in itself, of course, demand the deity of the person so named. It is plain, however, that Matthew’s use of the name does involve the divine nature of Christ.
The apostle was writing a gospel narrative primarily for the Jews. He did not, therefore, need to give them the interpretation of Immanuel. But he did, and this was to stress the point that with the birth of Jesus, deity had come to earth!
Christ could not have been a divine being in the flesh had he been the offspring of both a human father and mother. Thus, the very name “Immanuel,” as used by the inspired writer, argues for the virgin birth.
Jospeh Refrained from Intimacy
Finally, it is stated that Joseph took Mary as his wife but “knew her not till she brought forth a son” (Mt. 1:25). The verb “know” (
ginosko) is used frequently in both sacred and profane literature as a euphemism for sexual relations (cf. Gen. 4:1, 17; Lk. 1:34).
Here the exact verb form is
eginosken, in the imperfect tense, suggesting that Joseph “kept on refraining from sexual contact” with Mary until after the birth of Jesus, though not necessarily beyond that time (cf. Mt. 13:55, 56).
Those, therefore, who reject the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, do not do so from want of biblical evidence. Rather, such repudiation results from abject infidelity!
- Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Hendricksen, William. 1973. Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1943. The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- Wilson, Robert Dick. 1926. "The Meaning of ’Alma (A.V. “Virgin”) in Isaiah VII. 14" Princeton Theological Review. Vol 24, No. 2.
- Winer, G. B. 1825. A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
- Young, Edward J. 1985. The Book of Isaiah. Vol. I. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.