by Aaron Petty
Virgins don’t tend to give birth. That statement is as uncontroversial as any. Yet every Christmas, billions of Christians across the globe gather to celebrate a virgin doing just that.
On its face, such a belief would appear to be a crystal clear vindication of the sentiment that ancient religion is simply incompatible with our modern understanding of reality. Surely through science and reason we have progressed past the time when such mythological claims were given any serious thought. When presented with a claim of the miraculous such as the Virgin Birth, the rational person does best to waste no energy entertaining such fantasy and instead seeks out a naturalistic explanation. In the case of Christmas, who was Jesus’ biological father? He must have had one. Was it Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, or someone else?
Christians, however, uphold the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Though the Person of Christ is the heart of Christianity, not the circumstances of His birth, these circumstances are important, as evinced by the affirmations of the Virgin Birth in two of the most important Christian creeds1: The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed.2
Christians cannot evade the difficulty of defending the Virgin Birth by conceding to a naturalistic explanation or by emphasizing some metaphorical truth of the miraculous claim. Such evasion would look something like claiming that, “yes, Jesus had a real father, but His connection to God, His Heavenly Father, superseded that biological relationship, and thus He was, in a nonliteral sense, born of a Virgin.”
Such an explanation simply won’t work. Not only is it entirely at odds with the Gospel accounts,3 it would also exclude Jesus from being the Messiah of Israel as prophesied in the Old Testament. Isaiah 7:14 states, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”4 Matthew and Luke reference this text in their accounts of the life of Jesus. If in fact the Virgin Birth did not occur, this deals a striking blow to orthodox Christian theology.
So, are Christians merely clinging to an absurd doctrine out of necessity?
To begin, we should examine why a virgin birth strikes us as so far-fetched. We struggle to believe that such an event could occur for the same reason that Mary herself did5: again, virgins don’t tend to give birth. Mary and Joseph may not have understood meiosis, fertilization, and embryonic development. But they knew that there is a causal, or at least correlational, relationship between intercourse and pregnancy. The observational and experimental tools of modern science give us great insight into the mechanisms of sexual reproduction, but an instinctive skepticism towards virgin birth long preceded such technologies.
Of course, our lack of modern observation of virgin birth does not constitute proof against the possibility of such an event occurring. Such an argument would constitute a form of the Black Swan fallacy, in which the absence of an event’s occurrence is used as proof that such an event is impossible. Deductively, this is invalid. Inductively, however, it is quite powerful. Virgin births don’t happen with any frequency, so we should indeed be skeptical when one is claimed to have occurred.
This reflects the remarkable consistency of physical phenomena, a consistency which allows scientists to formulate reliable laws of science. These laws are descriptive, meaning they are defined by observed phenomena and can thus be “violated” when a new phenomena occurs. Think, for example, of Newton’s Laws. They worked really well (and still do) for most everyday phenomena, but when it comes, say, to modeling the atom, Newton’s Laws aren’t sufficient to describe electronic behavior. The laws of quantum mechanics, a more recent formulation, do much better.
To say that the behavior of electrons violates the laws of classical mechanics is true, but that points to a shortcoming of the laws, not that electrons should be prosecuted for breaking the laws of physics. The same logic holds true for the proposition that pregnancy is always preceded by intercourse. If, in fact, a virgin birth did occur, our law of science is wrong—at least in one instance.
This only shows that the Virgin Birth does not violate any inviolable laws. As a scientist, I want more. The logical possibility of the Virgin Birth isn’t completely satisfying to me. I want a mechanism.
Unfortunately, the Bible isn’t a textbook, so it doesn’t offer much on this front. I believe that Jesus was male, and thus had a Y chromosome, which rules out parthenogenesis.6 An unfertilized egg contains everything necessary for embryonic development except for half of a genome (which is typically provided by the father). So perhaps the male (or all) DNA in Jesus’ genome was somehow synthesized in the womb from free nucleotides. This leaves the significant question of where the genetic information came from. To make a long story short, I don’t know how Jesus’ conception occurred. But because of my confidence that it occurred, I have confidence that there is some physical mechanism by which it occurred.
While this conclusion may not satiate the scientific urge, this does not indicate a lack of warrant behind such an analytical approach. Claims of the miraculous ought to be interrogated seriously. However, such an approach is not sufficient on its own. In isolation, this approach risks reducing Christianity to a set of historical claims involving the supernatural. This gets it wrong. Christianity is a set of claims about reality; reality as it was in the past, as it is in the present, and as it will be in the future. Likewise, miraculous claims such as the Virgin Birth have implications for the present.
So what does the Virgin Birth mean for us today?
To start, we can learn from our incredulity. Our perception of the consistency of the universe is not illusory. This is what causes us to be skeptical of the Virgin Birth, but it also teaches us that God is a consistent God. This we can deduce from the fact that God created the universe and is thus responsible for its character. The consistency which allows us to formulate scientific laws reflects the consistency of God’s unchanging character.7 He has been and will be merciful for eternity. His nature has always been full of grace and truth.8 His holiness is from everlasting to everlasting.9 He has always looked upon His people with love. He makes His promises and He keeps them.
Of these promises, the greatest was God’s promise to deliver His people. For all of human history, the world waited. Every day was a day that the Messiah did not come. For many, this was enough to give up hope. The consistency of God’s seeming absence seemed insurmountable. Nothing new could happen. But God was not absent. He was always present, sustaining the hope of His people through God-given faith that He would fulfill his promise.
And one night in the little town of Bethlehem, He did. God became man. Jesus was born. This—irregular as it was—had always been the plan. God had planned to send His Son to Earth since the beginning of time, and even sans time.10 Christmas, the day of Jesus’ birth, is the consummation of an idea which has existed for all of time. For all of time, God intended that Jesus would be born in a stable to poor and frightened parents in a tiny town, gather a following of disciples, be executed, and rise from the dead, to save us from our sins.11
In the unpredictability of Christmas, the out-of-nowhere-ness of if, God was shouting to us the importance of the moment. Jesus’ birth was irregular precisely because it was intended to be. The physical irregularity of a baby being born of a virgin was a signpost to the immense irregularity of God becoming man. The seeming absurdity of this miracle pointed to the seeming foolishness12 of a God so loving that He would send His Son to die on a Cross for the sins of many. If we can distill the “meaning of Christmas,” it surely has something to do with the paradox that our God is the God of both consistency and surprise. Christmas, that wondrous, unexpected event, had been God’s plan forever. He ordained to give us history’s greatest surprise, Jesus, in a way that would surprise and perplex us—right down to the circumstances of His conception. God, our Maker, gives us our analytical sensibilities that we might wonder at His work when it is exactly what we expect and when it is greater than we could ever expect.
Aaron Petty is a junior at Duke University studying Chemistry and Biochemistry. He currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Duke Crux.
This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.
- Statements of faith; from Latin, credo, “I believe”
- Three Historic Christian Creeds – Grace Communion International (gci.org)
- Matthew 1:18-23, Luke 1:31-37
- Isaiah 7:14, ESV
- Luke 1:34
- The growth of an embryo from a mother’s cell and DNA, which, interestingly, has recently been observed in condors, an endangered species. It has not been observed in mammals. Newly Recorded Condor ‘Virgin Birth’ Is Another Way Birds Are Like Reptiles | Audubon
- Hebrews 13:8; Malachi 3:6; 1 Samuel 15:29
- John 1:14
- Psalm 41:13
- This refers to the state at which time had not begun and the Trinitarian God was all that existed.
- Matthew 1:21
- 1 Corinthians 1:25
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