Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)
It is unlikely that the Evangelists did not believe the story of the virginal conception. After all, they reported many of Jesus’ miracles. Also, there is nothing in their theologies that stands against the concept of Jesus’ virginal conception.
The fact that the earliest and latest Gospels contain nothing at all about Jesus’ early life probably means that the authors had no knowledge of that history. Even if they believed that the most important phase of Jesus’ life started at his baptism, his earlier years would surely have merited at least brief coverage and would have been of so much interest to people. Additionally, ancient people had great interest in the birth stories of their heroes. Mark and John did not know anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood. If these two Evangelists knew about the virginal conception story but did not believe it, they would have probably written what they knew of Jesus’ birth and overlooked or explicitly rejected that story. I am excluding the possibility that the current versions of the Gospels of Mark and John are missing parts as there is no evidence to this effect.
The ignorance of the two Evangelists of that history should not be surprising, as these books were written several decades after the events they describe and in a time where unrecorded history can be as easily lost and forgotten as changed and manipulated. It is still surprising, nevertheless, that the New Testament, which is supposed to be the most authoritative record of Jesus’ life and religion, mentions his miraculous birth and his childhood only in 2 of its 27 books.
No matter how this absence of the virginal conception from Mark and John is explained, it represents a major and significant difference between them and Matthew and Luke. Mark’s and John’s complete silence about Jesus’ early history also raises serious questions about the credibility of these two books, but it does not say anything about the credibility of the story of the virginal conception. To say that Jesus’ childhood was religiously insignificant undermines the credibility of Matthew and Luke whose accounts are laden with miracles. Suggesting that Jesus’ childhood was religiously significant reflects equally as bad on Mark and John.
It may be argued that the infancy story did not need to be reported in all Gospels, and that the four books complement each other. This argument is driven by faith, and it is false. The authors of these books did not sit together and agree who was going to report what, in which case it would have been understandable why the virginal conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus are not reported in all Gospels. Also, there are many events from Jesus’ life that are reported in more than one Gospel, and some of them are found in all four Gospels. These books became parts of one scriptural unit centuries after they were written and after the events they describe. There is clear evidence that the Gospels are not completely independent of each other and that they have used earlier sources. There is no evidence that the four Gospels were intended to or do complement each other, and the many contradictions between these books prove the opposite.
The claim that the four Gospels shed light on the same history from different angles is a more general argument whose use is not restricted to explain the absence of Jesus’ infancy from two Gospels. This argument is often used to explain why there are four Gospels rather than one and different accounts of the same events. It ignores the fact that there have been many more than four Gospels, and that the canon’s embracement of only four of these Gospels and the other New Testament books was the result of a long process that involved many people and much politics.
The Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one Epistles, and Revelation also make no mention of the miracle of Jesus’ conception. Even when a reference is made to Jesus’ birth, the authors of these books do not make any reference to the virginal conception. For instance, when Paul says “but when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4, he seems to either deliberately avoid to mention the virginal conception, or is simply unaware of it. It is not possible that Paul knew and believed in the virginal conception yet did not mention it even when talking specifically about Jesus’ birth. As already noted by others, a reference to the miraculous conception would have been as simple as replacing the word “woman” with “virgin” in Paul’s words above. After all, from the virginal conception point of view, Jesus’ conception was different not because it involved a “woman,” but because that woman was a “virgin.” It is true that Paul does not mention any of Jesus’ miracles, but he clearly believed Jesus did perform and can perform miracles. He prayed to him to heal him (2 Cor. 12:7-9) and claimed to have been converted to Christianity by a major miracle (Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-10, 26:13-18). Paul must have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally. This is confirmed by his tracing of Jesus’ genealogy to David, who is Joseph’s ancestor, and stressing that Jesus was related though the “flesh” to David: “concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). The Second Epistle to Timothy, whose attribution to Paul is doubtful, also stresses that Jesus descended from David (2 Tim. 2:8). In his letter to the Romans, Paul also emphasizes that Jesus came “by human descent” from the Patriarchs (Rom. 9:5).
This is how the author of Shaken Creeds: The Virgin Birth Doctrine summarizes these serious differences and the significance of the chronology of these books:
Thus neither the authors of the Epistles which are the earliest of our New Testament books, nor the authors of the earliest and the latest of our four Canonical Gospels, make any mention of a Virgin Birth. The Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke are our only authorities for the story, and they, as we have already seen, were not written until about the middle of the first half of the second century. Then for the first time, more than a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus, and nearly a century after the date assigned to his death, appears the first mention of the Virgin Birth….
Even if a much earlier date be assigned to the publication of these two Gospels, the argument against the doctrine [of the Virgin Birth] on the score of lateness is not impaired. No scholar, however orthodox, denies that the Epistles are the earliest Christian documents in our Canon, or that the Epistles contain no reference to the Virgin Birth story, or that the Gospels were not written until at least three-quarters of a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus. So even the most conservative confess that the story first appears in two comparatively late documents, and that it is peculiar to these two out of all the other New Testament scriptures. Our “witnesses” are two. As we have already seen, neither of them is a first-hand witness. (Rhys 1922: 82-84)
Rhys concludes that the apostles had either never heard of or did not believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. This is the same conclusion that has to be reached about Mark’s and John’s failure to mention the virginal conception, although because these two, like Matthew and Luke, were particularly interested in Jesus’ history, it is far more likely that they simply did not know about the virginal conception, as they did not report anything about Jesus’ early history, as I explained above.
Even the Qur’an, which does not share the Bible’s great interest in historical details and covers Jesus’ story only briefly, mentions the virginal conception four times in three different chapters — twice in passing (3.59, 4.171) and twice in more detail (3.45-47, 19.17-22). This further highlights the oddity of the complete silence of all but two of the New Testament books on this unique miracle.
Another group of Qur’anic verses (19.27-33) show Mary’s people, expectedly, question Jesus’ legitimacy and tell us how the infant Jesus responded on behalf of his mother. In the New Testament, there is no mention that people were aware of Jesus’ miraculous virginal conception. This applies even to Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s shepherds who visited the newborn Jesus. They saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, and in the absence of any mention of their knowledge of the miracle, the implication is that they thought that Joseph was the baby’s father. The presence of Joseph in Mary’s life must have had at least some people think that her conception was the result of her relationship with Joseph. This natural conclusion did not escape the author of the Infancy Gospel of James. In one episode of this nativity story, news that Mary was pregnant came to the knowledge of the high priest who accused the couple of getting married secretly. The author solves the problem by having Mary and Joseph pass the test of the “water of the Lord” and thus prove their innocence (InJam. 11). Yet apart from a passing reference in John (8:37-41), we do not read in the New Testament about people suggesting that Jesus was the son of a normal relationship nor any rebuttals for such claims. If this means that people were not aware of the virginal conception then they must have believed that Joseph was Mary’s husband, otherwise she would have been accused of adultery and, according to the Jewish law (Lev. 20:10), stoned to death.
Rhys also sets out to prove that the first two chapters in Matthew and Luke, in which the virginal conception is mentioned, were added to their respective books later. He thinks, as many scholars do, that the story of the virginal conception was a relatively late invention that was forced into Matthew and Luke, as well as written in some apocryphal books. One interesting observation is that while Acts and the Gospel of Luke were both written by the same person, the earlier of the two does not mention the virginal conception. It is indeed difficult to understand why the author who was so impressed and fascinated by the virginal conception in his later book did not mention it at all in the first! Is it possible that he learned about it later? Additionally, Acts indicates that Jesus’ apostles knew him only from the time of his baptism by John (Acts 1:22).
Scholars have noted that if the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are ignored, these two Gospels would share with Mark and John the same starting point: Jesus’ baptism. The gospel of the Jewish Christian group of the Ebionites (Aramaic: “poor men”), which seems to be a revision of Matthew, also omits the nativity story and starts with the story of John in the wilderness. Irenaeus, the 2nd century bishop of Lyon, pointed out that the Ebionites believed that Jesus was the product of a normal relationship between Mary and Joseph:
Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassable, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.26.1-2)
Rhys (1922: 79) also argues that had the virginal conception been true, the baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit would have be unnecessary, as Jesus is supposed to have received the Holy Spirit in his miraculous birth.
There is another criticism that has been directed at Matthew’s use of an Old Testament prophecy to suggest that the virginal conception had been predicted. The Evangelist states that Mary became “pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18), and that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). He then has the following quotation from “the prophet”: “‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). This prophet is Isaiah, and the prophecy Matthew quotes is this: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). As is clear from the New English Translation of the Bible, which is used in this book, the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about a virgin! It uses the word ‘almah, which means “young woman,” who may and may not be virgin. The word ‘almah does not mean virgin inherently. It is the feminine form of the masculine noun ‘elem which is used in 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, ‘almah is translated into parthenos. The latter means “virgin,” but it also used in the Septuagint for another two Hebrew words for “girl” and “young woman.” Matthew does not quote the original Hebrew Bible which talks about a young woman, but he uses the Greek translation which employs a word that is more suggestive of a virgin.
Bible scholar Robert Miller (2003: 201-206) argues that even if Matthew meant to use “parthenos” to mean “virgin,” he would still not necessarily have meant a virginal conception. He might have meant to talk about a lady who was then a virgin and was going to become naturally pregnant later. Miller’s argument is derived from his uncommon view that Matthew did not have a virginal conception on his mind when he wrote his Gospel.
That said, since the Hebrew term may still mean “a virgin,” a conclusive argument cannot be made for either position.
The real problem in Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy is that he takes it completely out of context in order to apply it to Jesus’ conception. Around 735 BCE, Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, King of the northern kingdom of Israel, formed an alliance against the threat of invasion by the neighboring superpower of Assyria. They wanted Ahaz, King of the southern kingdom of Judea, to join their coalition, but Ahaz was fearful of becoming Assyria’s enemy. Rezin and Pekah then sent their armies to depose Ahaz and install a new king who would join their alliance. Ahaz thought of allying himself with Assyria to seek its powerful protection against Rezin and Pekah’s advancing armies toward Jerusalem. God sent Prophet Isaiah to ally Ahaz’s fears and give him a sign: a young woman will give birth to a boy called Immanuel, and before this boy is old enough to differentiate between right and wrong, the lands of Rezin and Pekah would be destroyed:
For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear, will be desolate. (Isa. 7:14-16)
The text goes on to talk about events that would follow.
Matthew has completely misused Isaiah’s prophecy in applying it to Jesus’ birth. First, there was nothing special or miraculous about the conception or birth that Isaiah described. Second, the birth was not itself significant, as it was only a sign to Ahaz about future events. Third, that birth would be a sign only if it happened during Ahaz’s life. Fourth, while Isaiah talked about a child called Immanuel (Isa. 7:14, 8:8), Jesus is never actually called “Immanuel” anywhere in the New Testament. The context of Isaiah’s prophecy could not be clearer, so Matthew must have consciously decided to take the prophecy out of its context and apply it to Jesus.
This is not the only Old Testament prophecy that Matthew misuses to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies that he links to the coming of the Messiah, to show that Jesus is the awaited Messiah. The fact that the cited prophecies are forced to seem applicable to their respective parts of the Jesus story makes it highly unlikely that Matthew used those prophecies as a source of inspiration to fabricate the relevant episodes. If Matthew was using his imagination to create history, his keen interest on linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies would have made him come up with events that are much easier to match to those prophecies. Yet almost every time he linked an episode in Jesus’ life to a Biblical passage the latter had to be taken out of context, changed, and/or clumsily applied, which means that it is far more likely that the Evangelist was reporting what he believed to be history. He simply used the Old Testament to provide support for the history he had learned about, believed in, and accordingly reported. In the case of the virginal birth, Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about the conception of a virgin but a “young woman” and is not applicable to Jesus’ story anyway, so this Biblical passage could not have inspired Matthew with the story. He simply wanted an Old Testament text that he thought he could apply to the story which he already knew to give it Christological dimensions. He reported a story that was already in circulation as part of the tradition of Jesus’ birth which he believed. Whether that tradition is historical or not is, of course, a different matter.
Additionally, the suggestion that Matthew made up the events he reported makes the fulfillment argument which he persistently pursued completely meaningless. Matthew must have genuinely believed in the events he reported to diligently seek reference to these events in the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the Christ (France, 1979: 120).
The fact that other apocryphal gospels misuse prophecies more or less in the same way Matthew does does not necessarily mean that they copied Matthew. It is more likely that these writings, including Matthew, were based on earlier oral or written sources.