Why on earth?
In the time it takes you to read this page, over 100 more people will have been born, and before you could read the whole of this newspaper from cover to cover the world population will have increased by well over 6,000.
Then, a very few have left a major mark on history and are recognised universally. Philosophers, scientists, rulers, politicians and the founders or leaders of religions are among these. Yet in this elite group one person towers above all the others.
The person concerned is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who was born in Israel about 2,000 years ago. Every aspect of his life was unique, not least his birth. This is affirmed by the New Testament as being a virgin birth, that he was ‘born of the virgin Mary’.
This claim of the Bible has been ridiculed for many different reasons. Here are some of them. Early sceptics said that virgin conception was a myth created to cover up the fact that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier named Panthera, or Pandira, but this attempt to undermine the beginnings of Christianity never had a shred of evidence to back it up.
Some say that the ‘virgin birth’ of Jesus was invented by his followers to outdo stories about pagan gods. For example, Buddha’s mother claimed that a white elephant with six tusks ‘entered my belly’.1 The mother of the Greek god Perseus was supposed to have been impregnated by a shower of golden rain containing the supreme god Zeus, who had quite a reputation for fathering children in bizarre ways.
He was even said to have turned himself into a serpent to fertilise Olympius, the wife of the Macedonian monarch Philip of Macedon, an escapade that led to the birth of Alexander the Great. These grotesque stories bear no resemblance to the Bible’s record of the virgin conception, which has no pagan parallel.
Can we really imagine a respectable Jew like Matthew, committed to the highest moral standards, inventing something that would outdo the most outrageous and bizarre birth myths in pagan culture, and then declaring this to be God’s work? The whole idea never gets off the ground.
Another objection says that a woman conceiving a child without receiving male sperm would be a miracle, and as miracles never happen the whole idea can be rejected out of hand. Not quite! A modern dictionary describes a miracle as an event ‘that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws …’2
We can accept this as a working definition, but to begin investigating something that appears to be a miracle by saying that such a thing never happens is not only irrational but dishonest, as it pronounces the verdict before examining the evidence. As C. S. Lewis put it: ‘Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the texts: we know in advance what they will find, for they have begun by begging the question’.3
As God brought all the laws of nature into existence, surely he has the right to suspend any of them to fulfil his own purposes? We cannot truly believe in the God of the Bible if we trim his power to suit our understanding of how things happen. As the British author Robert Horn wrote, ‘A non-supernatural God is a contradiction in terms. If God exists at all he is God – with powers, wisdom and knowledge infinitely greater than ours’.4
However unlikely they may appear to us, miracles are not a problem to God. For him there is no distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Natural events reflect God’s usual way of working, and supernatural ones his unusual way of working.
God designed sexual intercourse as the normal way for human beings to have children – but to deny that he can overrule this if he chooses to do so is ignorance masquerading as intelligence. As the angel told Mary when announcing that she would conceive Jesus while still a virgin, ‘Nothing will be impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37).
Others suggest that the Jews were rather puritanical about sexual matters and considered sexual intercourse to be ‘unclean’, so they invented a story that shied away from any suggestion that Jesus came about as the result of a physical relationship between a husband and wife. This suggestion is ridiculous, as the Bible has a robustly healthy attitude towards sex and never suggests that within the bounds of marriage it is tainted in any way.
Some doubt the virgin conception of Jesus because there is no other mention of it in the New Testament and none of the early church’s preaching referred to it. But an argument from silence is notoriously weak. Can we assume that because Shakespeare never mentions Canterbury Cathedral he had never heard of it?
We should also note that the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, states that Jesus was ‘born of woman’ (Galatians 4:4), a phrase used nowhere else in the Bible and which strongly points to virgin conception.
Another approach is to suggest that the virgin conception of Jesus was a case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction in which embryos or seeds grow and develop in the female of the species without fertilisation by a male. This is extremely unusual, though it does occur in a few plants (such as roses and orange trees), and in certain fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles. It has also been noted in sharks, whiptails, geckos, rock lizards and some other creatures – but never naturally in mammals.
This cannot in any case have happened in the case of Jesus, for one very simple reason. In the genetic make-up of human beings, the male has ‘x’ and ‘y’ chromosomes, while the female has ‘x’ and ‘x’. If Mary’s pregnancy had been triggered by some unique biological freak, the child born would have been female, as no ‘y’ chromosome would have been present to produce a male.
Other objections to the virgin conception of Jesus are just as flimsy, but some sceptics go even further and claim that Jesus never existed.
In 2005 Luigi Cascioli filed a criminal lawsuit against his old school friend Father Enrico Righi, the parish priest in the Italian holiday resort of Bagnoregio.
The basis of the lawsuit was that the priest had written in his parish bulletin about the existence of Jesus – and Cascioli sued him on the grounds that Righi had been deceiving the people by perpetuating a 2,000-year-old myth. His futile claim hit the headlines, but was by no means unique.
To give just one more example, the twentieth-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell (like Cascioli, an atheist) wrote, ‘Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all’.5 This is a strange claim, as nobody seriously questions the existence of other people who lived more than 2,000 years ago.
It is also absurd, as at least nineteen celebrated first- and second-century authors record more than 100 facts about Jesus. These include Josephus (c. ad 30-100), a celebrated historian once described as ‘perhaps the most distinguished and learned Jew of his day’, the official Roman historian Suetonius (c. ad 69-c. 130), Tacitus (c. ad 55-120), one of the most accurate historians of the ancient world, and Plinius Secondus (c. ad 61-c. 113), a high-profile philosopher, lawyer and author, some of whose writings ‘have attained the status of literary classics’.6
These four non-Christians wrote about the life and death of Jesus as historical events, not myths cobbled together by religious fanatics. As a modern writer puts it: ‘In none of these various testimonies to the fact of Christ is there any slightest hint that he was not a real historical person’.7 Their testimony carries far more weight than the opinions of those who try to airbrush Jesus out of history.
1. Cited by Robert Gromacki, The Virgin Birth, Thomas Nelson, p.12.
2. OxfordDictionary of English, Oxford University Press, p.1120.
3. C. S. Lewis,Miracles, Collins, p.8.
4. Evangelism Today, March 1985.
5. Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, Routledge, p.11.
6. L. Goppelt, cited by J. Piper, Was Qumran the Cradle of Christianity?
7. Roderic Dunkerley, Beyond the Gospels, Penguin Books, p.29.