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No. 9: The Virgin Conception of Christ: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 9
January, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Why was Jesus Christ conceived in a virgin? The great Augustine, who never shrank from seeking to answer such questions, provided an explanation in his treatise On the Trinity (13.18.23). Though it was, Augustine believed, possible in marriage to "make a right use of the carnal concupiscence which is in our members; yet it is liable to motions not voluntary." Involuntary concupiscence "intervenes" in every sexual act, and thus every conception is tainted with original sin. In the case of Jesus, however, "holy virginity became pregnant, not by conjugal intercourse, but by faith — lust being utterly absent." Because Mary conceived without any "intervention" of lust, her seed had "nothing at all . . . of sin." Mary’s conception of Jesus proceeded from "not flesh, but spirit, not lust but faith."

My sense is that Augustine’s view is, with minor variations, a most widespread understanding of the meaning of the virgin conception. But this view, in whatever variety, assumes that there is something innately defiling about sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction. All varieties ultimately make this assumption: Jesus had to be conceived asexually because sexual procreation is somehow sinful. But this idea finds no support in Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture includes what can be described as a poetic celebration of sexual love in the Song of Solomon. (I am not denying that the Song also has other dimensions of meaning.)

In order to arrive at a more biblical understanding of the virgin conception, we need to examine the biblical meaning of virginity, and the immediate contexts of those texts that describe the virgin conception of Christ.

When we survey the Old Testament passages that deal with virginity, we find two emphases. First, in many passages, virginity is a characteristic of a people, not of individual persons. The relationship of Israel to God is described as a marriage covenant, or as a betrothal leading to marriage. This is not a secondary or derived meaning of marriage and virginity, but the central meaning. A husband’s love for his wife images Christ’s love for His Church, not vice versa; Christ’s love is the prototype of which human love is a more or less perfect reflection. Christ’s betrothal to His Church is the original marriage covenant.

Second, virginity in the Old Testament has far more to do with faithfulness than with a mere lack of sexual initiation. On an individual level, faithfulness to one’s betrothed would obviously prevent fornication; but the avoidance of sexual sin is the product of a more significant "covenantal" virginity. On a corporate level, "covenantal" virginity manifests itself in faithful worship of and obedience to God, and Israel becomes a "harlot" and "loses her virginity" by going after other gods.

In Jeremiah 18:13, for example, the "virgin of Israel" is rebuked for having done "a most appalling thing." This is explained in v. 15: "For My people have forgotten Me, they burn incense to worthless gods and they have stumbled from their ways, from the ancient paths, to walk in bypaths, not on a highway." Israel’s intended "virginity" is contrasted not with "impurity" but with "forgetfulness" of the Lord and His laws. Similarly, in Ezekiel 23, Israel and Judah are presented as daughters who "played the harlot in Egypt" and permitted "their virgin bosom" to be fondled by the choice men of Egypt and Assyria.

This imagery is picked up in the New Testament when Paul reminds the Corinthians that his duty is to protect the virginity of the Church by preventing the minds of his readers from being "led astray from the simplicity and purity (or sincerity) to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2-3). Though the notion of virginal purity seems to be present in this passage, it is equally clear that virginity has a richer meaning here than absence of sexual activity. Protecting the virginity of the Church involves ensuring that the bride is single-heartedly devoted to her husband.

One final Old Testament pattern can be brought into play here. Throughout the Old Testament, many deliverers of God’s people were conceived in a miraculous manner. Isaac was born when both his parents were "dead" (cf. Heb. 11:12). Moses was saved from death by his parents’ deception. Samson’s mother was barren. So was Hannah. Each of these births was, in effect, a birth-from-death, a resurrection. It was appropriate that Jesus, as the Deliverer of His people, should also be conceived in a miraculous way. But the conception of Christ far exceeds the types. Jesus was not simply conceived by parents beyond child-bearing years, but by a virgin. Moreover, Jesus was conceived not by the union of sperm and egg, but by the Holy Spirit. Even from His birth, He was, in a preliminary way, the spiritual man: not of the earth, earthy, but the heavenly man.

A look at the New Testament texts in which the virgin conception of Jesus is described leads us back into the Old Testament theme of virginity. In Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth follows directly after a genealogy, and the genealogy should be understood as setting the context for the interpretation of the birth narrative. In particular, Matthew’s genealogy is striking in its references to women. It was unusual for a first-century Jewish genealogy even to include women; but Matthew doesn’t simply include women, he includes some of the most scandalous characters in Old Testament history: Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba. Even Ruth, whose name has more positive associations, took some rather bold action to gain Boaz as her husband. If Matthew wanted to include women in his genealogy, fine; but why these women? Why not Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel?

Of course, we could ask the same questions about the men. It is well known that Matthew’s genealogy skips several of Judah’s kings. But if he wished to skip kings, why not skip Manasseh, for whose sins Israel was sent into exile (2 Kings 23:26-27)? One of the reasons for including these scandalous characters is to show that Jesus entered human history as it really is. Jesus did not enter a sanitized world; He entered a world populated by Manassehs and Amons, Tamars and Bathshebas. Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty, willing to suffer the scandal of a tainted genealogy, to save His people. He entered a world polluted with sin, was born into a lineage replete with scandal, and claimed all of it as His own. He is not ashamed to call them His fathers and mothers.

The bearing of the genealogy on the virgin conception of Christ becomes clearer when we realize that the fifth woman mentioned in the genealogy is Mary — four tainted women, and Mary. Keeping in mind that virginity and harlotry in the Old Testament have to do with the corporate faithfulness or unfaithfulness of Israel, we would be justified in concluding that the five women of Matthew’s genealogy represent Israel under different aspects. The four women represent Israel the harlot; Mary the virgin remnant. The four women represent an Israel that has rejected her Lord, and been delivered over to her own lusts; Mary represents those within Israel who are of Israel.

Several elements in Luke’s gospel point in the same direction. The story of the birth of Christ is interwoven with the story of the birth of John. The angel tells Zacharias that John will be the one to turn "many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God," the one who will "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (1:16-17). In short, John would be the one to call and begin to gather the faithful remnant foretold by the prophets (cf. Is. 11:11-16). Moreover, in Luke’s description of the annunciation, it is emphasized that Mary was living in Nazareth, in Galilee of the Gentiles (cf. Is. 9:1). She lives, in short, outside the mainstream of Jewish life. But the angel tells her that she has found favor with the Lord. The Lord comes to deliver His people not through the "official channels" in Jerusalem, but through a humble virgin of Nazareth, who responds with ready obedience to what the Lord commands.

Thus, given the Old Testament imagery of virginity and the contexts of the narratives of Jesus’ conception, it is possible to understand the virgin conception as a sign of God’s coming to His people through a faithful remnant. This interpretation has the added virtue of strengthening the connection between the virgin conception of Christ and Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew cites in 1:23. In the Isaiah passage, the sign of the virgin was given to Ahaz, who was facing an invasion from Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel. Through Isaiah, the Lord assured Ahaz that he had nothing to fear, and instructed Ahaz to request a sign. Ahaz refused, but the Lord gave a sign anyway: the sign of the virgin.

What does this have to do with the conception of Jesus? Did Matthew simply pull a single text from its context to lend Old Testament support to His gospel? If we understand the virgin conception of Christ in redemptive-historical terms, we can see that Matthew’s reference to Isaiah’s prophecy is perfectly legitimate. The sign to Ahaz was an assurance that Jerusalem would be delivered, an assurance that a remnant of the people would survive. On the other hand, because Ahaz disobeyed God’s command to request a sign, the sign of the virgin was also a sign that the Lord would destroy Ahaz’s house (Is. 7:17).

Applying this to the birth of Christ, we find that the sign of the virgin plays the same role: assurance to the faithful (virgin remnant) that the Lord would deliver, and a threat to the unfaithful (prostituted leadership) of the coming of "days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah" (Is. 7:17). No wonder, then, that Mary, contemplating her pregnancy in the light of the Old Testament prophecy, would sing that the Lord "has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their throne, and has exalted those who were humble" (Lk. 1:51b-52). No wonder Simeon prophesied that Jesus was "appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel" (Lk. 2:34). Both understood the sign of the virgin — in a way, we might add, that Augustine did not.