The narratives of Jesus’ virgin birth are great places to see how the gospel writers shape the past, according to Christian professor Peter Enns (1). For example, Mark and John don’t mention Jesus’ virgin birth almost as if it is a detail that we can do without. Only Matthew and Luke mention this because to them Jesus’s birth was important, hence why they tell us that he was born from a virgin, Mary. This would mean that Jesus never had a human father, and we can wonder as to why Mark and John neglect this part of Jesus’ life.
Our aim here is not to focus on the historicity of Jesus’ virgin birth, instead, under review is how clear signs of diversity are demonstrated by our gospel authors. Even the two birth narratives themselves in Matthew and Luke have many differences. For example, the Magi (“wise men”) following the star and visiting Jesus is only recorded in Matthew. King Herod’s killing of all the boy babies in order to make sure he does away with Jesus is also only in Matthew. The same goes for Jesus’ family flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s violent threat to kill Jesus. But why didn’t Luke mention these events? We could come up with all sorts of speculations such as that these details weren’t important to him, or that he simply didn’t know about them. This has provided much debate for scholars with many of them holding that Matthew probably created at least some of these scenes to shape his story (2). For example, Enns explains that a star millions of lightyears away probably can’t move and then stop over one specific house on Earth (nor do stars appear to do so from an Earthly vantage point). Also Herod’s massacre of children isn’t relayed to us in any other ancient source, something which has caused suspicion over whether it happened. Would this make Matthew’s author a liar? Enns would argue that it doesn’t unless we were to grade Matthew, and the other gospels, by a standard they weren’t operating under. In other words, Matthew’s portrait of Jesus serves his purpose of comparing Jesus to Moses in order for his audience to remember the exodus story.
Several clues have convinced scholars of this (3). The guiding star, for example, is like the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites to safety across the Red Sea. Herod’s plan to kill the children and Jesus’s escape is like Pharaoh’s attempt to throw the male infants into the Nile with baby Moses escaping. Jesus’ escape into Egypt to avoid Herod’s plan seems to echo Moses and later Israel’s journeys to and from Egypt. So, is Matthew reporting history as we understand the word? Enns believes that would be the wrong question to ask because phrasing it in such a way doesn’t help us to understand what Matthew is trying to do. Enns articulates:
“Matthew intentionally, creatively, connects Jesus to Moses, because this is Matthew’s way of deeply connecting Jesus to Israel’s story. By making Jesus “Moses 2.0” he is telling his readers that Jesus needs to be understood not at a distance from Israel’s story, but as God’s way of taking Israel’s story to the next, climactic stage with Jesus at the center rather than Moses” (4).
However, we see similar intents in Luke’s account. Only Luke mentions angels announcing Jesus’s birth to the shepherds, the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to Mary’s relative, and Elizabeth and Mary paying her a visit to compare pregnancies. In Luke the angel announces to Mary that she will bear Jesus whereas in Matthew’s gospel Joseph is given that message. Like Matthew, Luke is intentionally shaping his story of Jesus:
“Luke’s Jesus is very “kingly” right from the start. A heavenly announcement at Jesus’s birth, which is “good news” and brings “peace,” echoes how Romans talked about the birth of Caesar Augustus, the Caesar at Jesus’s birth. Luke’s birth story is portraying Jesus, not Caesar, as king of the world… Mary’s song of praise to God about her miraculous pregnancy would have sounded very familiar to those who knew the story of David. In the Old Testament the childless Hannah gave birth miraculously to a son, Samuel, who would grow up to anoint David as king. Hannah’s song of thanksgiving to God looks forward to the time when, with David as king, God would humble the proud and arrogant, and exalt the lowly and humble. Mary praises God for the child in her womb for exactly the same reasons. Pairing Hannah and Mary is Luke’s way of saying, “Think David when you think of Jesus.” Jesus is David revisited—Israel’s rightful king” (5).
In concluding, was Jesus really born of a virgin? Undoubtedly, as all the historical certainties concerning his radical message & self-identity, miracle status, and resurrection testify to this. Did the gospel authors creatively shape history to suit their purposes of writing? Yes they did, and it stands as evidence of biblical diversity in God’s word itself.
1. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So (chapter 4: Why Doesn’t God Make Up His Mind?).
2. Enns, P. Ibid. p. 106 (Scribd ebook format)
3. Enns, P. Ibid. p. 106
4. Enns, P. Ibid. p. 107
5. Enns, P. Ibid. p. 107