This is the time of year I get asked a lot about Jesus’ conception. Most of the questions come down to whether you have to believe it was supernatural in order to call yourself a Christian.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke imply an unequivocal answer to this question: Yes. But as for the rest of the New Testament, well…
Mark’s Gospel contains no account of Jesus’ conception and birth at all. John’s Gospel honors Mary, but places no emphasis on her virginity. Paul’s letters refers only once to Jesus’ birth: “of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4)
The emphasis for many of the earliest Christians was not so much on Jesus’ divine origin as on his very human one.
There is, of course, that idea that everything about Jesus’ life perfectly fulfilled Jewish prophecies about a coming liberator. And that led to endlessly quoting the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 —a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…
But what this passage originally referred to in the Hebrew language was a young woman (alma), not a virgin (betula), and a son who would deliver his people from an oppressor in the eighth century B.C.E., not in the first century of a new Common Era.
Matthew and Luke got all of this wrong for two reasons. One was that they read the Isaiah passage in a Greek version which mistranslated alma by the Greek word for virgin (parthenos) instead of by its proper equivalent (neanis).
The second reason was that they did not pay sufficient attention to the original context of Isaiah 7:14. In fact, neither Matthew nor Luke appears to have paid much attention to the details of the whole tradition of Messianic prophecies in Judaism. Had they done so, they might have noticed how infrequently Isaiah 7:14 was used to describe what Judaism’s coming Messiah would be like.
Over the years, a lot of people have gotten upset with me over proposing, and at Christmas time no less, that belief in Jesus’ supernatural origin should be considered more an open than a settled issue. What I myself get upset about is the church’s focusing too little on Jesus’ vulnerability and too much on his mother’s virginity.
What Matthew and Luke do well is to exhibit Jesus’ divinity precisely in his vulnerability. I only wish they had been less preoccupied with sex.