“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14
Perhaps nothing related to Christianity has been as discussed, sifted, evaluated, tested and commented on as the conception and birth of Jesus. According to the gospel writers of the New Testament, or at least two of them, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to Mary, who was a virgin at the time of his birth. Critics and skeptics are just as quick to point out the impossibility of such a claim as believer are to point out that this is the cornerstone of Christian faith and belief. Though the salvation of the human soul is not tied to adherence to a set of specific, prescribed doctrines, but is instead rooted in God’s grace through faith in Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, it would be very difficult to place faith in Jesus as savior from sin and death without accepting the miraculous nature of his birth. It would also be difficult to comprehend the true nature of God as creator of the universe without believing that the creator of life could cause conception to occur by the Holy Spirit, an event which testifies to the very character of God himself.
Criticism of the accuracy of the story among skeptics takes several directions. There are challenges to the veracity and historicity of the Biblical text in the gospel accounts. Mary used her knowledge of the passage in Isaiah to cover an indescretion, or a violation by a Roman soldier. Virgin birth stories are common among pagan religious traditions. The Isaiah passage is not messianic prophecy, but related to the time of Ahaz. The arguments are based on human wisdom and intellect, and limited to the strict observation of known scientific fact. And that is where they fall short of the evidence.
Josh McDowell, a noted Christian apologist, in his book A Ready Defense, states that the recorded history of the New Testament is an accurate historical account of these events. Using an intricate means of demonstrating the accuracy of the New Testament record compared to other ancient documents of the same time period, McDowell lays the groundwork to substantiate the historical record of the gospel accounts, giving particular attention to external evidence that would suggest the Book of Luke in particular is a reliable historical account. Luke and Matthew, who both mention the fact that Mary was a virgin, and emphasize Joseph’s role in both confirming this fact and his compassionate response in discovering that Mary was pregnant.
Matthew cites the Isaiah passage in reference to these events. In Luke, the angel who comes to Mary to make the annoucement and give her reassurance states that nothing is impossible with God. This is consistent with the historical record of God’s visits to his people Israel, it was something they would have understood, and in fact, because of the Isaiah reference, would have been something most Jews of the day would have associated with the concept of Messiah.
For that very reason, it would have been difficult for Mary to appeal to a miraculous conception in order to cover a previous indiscretion, or an encounter with a Roman soldier. The Jewish religious leaders were eventually driven to lay plans to crucify Jesus because he claimed to be divine, which was considered blasphemy. A young girl of Mary’s age could very likely have been stoned to death if found to be pregant without the benefit of marriage, but had she publicly appealed to the divine nature of her conception, she would have likely been considered a blasphemer as well, and met with the same fate. Joseph took the wiser course, originally planning to “put her away” quietly, and then, resting on his own faith, supported by a vision, went ahead and married her. Apparently only he and Mary were aware of the circumstances.
As to whether this was a legend perpetuated by the length of time between the actual events and the writing down of the story, we are talking about a mere 25 years or so. Considering the details involved, the distances between the writers which would preclude a lot of collaboration, the acceptance of the account as fact by believers via the oral discourse involved in passing the word along between Christians of this early period of the church, it is very unlikely that a legend of such detail would have developed. By the time the accounts were actually written down, many of those who were eyewitnesses to the events were still alive to provide verification and though we have no record of it, Mary herself could have still been living when both Luke and Matthew, or even the theoretical “Q” gospel writer, put pen to paper.
There is a measure of faith involved in belief. Faith that has been exercised, fed on the scriptures, and that has resulted in the kind of life transformation that those scriptures describe does not have to take a long leap to conclude that these historical accounts are true. The combination of putting the principles of scripture to life application, of answered prayers, of the personal experience of having the indwelling Holy Spirit produce fruit in your life, are all confirmation that if God intended to bring his son, our savior, into this world through divine conception and human birth, it would happen exactly that way.
Faith, when it is put into practice, works.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comperhend it.” John 1:5