Does the Virgin Birth Really Matter?
Article by Greg Lanier, Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary
The Advent season crescendos with the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Awkward conversations with children about the definition of “virgin” aside, this assertion — that Jesus was born to a young Nazarene woman, but not as a result of conjugal relations with her betrothed, Joseph, or any other man — is a central claim of Christianity.
It is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed (“conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”) and the Nicene Creed (“he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary”). Yet the assertion goes even further back.
Aristides (d. AD 134) attests that Christians in his day affirmed that Jesus “from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh” (Apology §2), and Irenaeus (d. 130) states, “The Church . . . has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith . . . [including] the birth from a virgin” (Against Heresies 1.10).
It is vital, then, that we have an opportunity each year to reflect on this staggering, foundational fact of Christianity: Jesus — unlike any other human who ever existed — was born without a human father.
‘Born of the Virgin Mary’
Where do we see this in Scripture? Let’s begin with the first part of the creedal phrase, “born of the virgin Mary.”
Though the New Testament regularly teaches the full deity of Jesus, we cannot overlook the emphasis on his humanity. Paul speaks directly about how Jesus was “born of woman” (Galatians 4:4) and “born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). He also affirms that Jesus is a second and greater Adam (Romans 5:14, 19), and that he is “the man Christ Jesus” who mediates between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all similarly emphasize how the divine Son “became flesh” (John 1:14), “has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2), “was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16), and “partook” of “flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14). The human birth of Jesus is essential to the New Testament.
But the second part of the phrase, “born of the virgin Mary,” is well-established in the Gospels. Luke’s account of Gabriel’s annunciation repeats “virgin” twice (Luke 1:26–27), and Mary’s response likewise emphasizes how she has not known a man (Luke 1:34). Gabriel gives telltale clues about the metaphysics of the virgin birth, in that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” (Greek episkiazō) Mary (Luke 1:35). This verb is used elsewhere for the glorious manifestation of God on earth (Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:34; Exodus 40:35), implying that God’s Spirit is the active agent of the special creation of the human body of Jesus in Mary’s womb.
Matthew is even more emphatic about the virgin conception of Jesus, beginning with the genealogy. Nearly forty times, Matthew uses an active verb (egennēsen) for how one male “begat” another male in the family tree (Matthew 1:2–16). Even in the four references to mothers (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba), Matthew still uses the formula of father-“begat”-son.
But for Jesus, he abruptly breaks the pattern. Unlike before, he does not say that Joseph “begat” Jesus. Rather, he uses a passive form (egennēthē) to state quite precisely that Jesus “was begotten” not of Joseph, but “of” Mary (Matthew 1:16). And the use of the passive further means that Mary did not “beget” Jesus, but someone else. Who?
Matthew answers in 1:18: “before [Mary and Joseph] came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph is alarmed because he knows he did not impregnate Mary. To prevent a divorce, the angel reassures him that the child is “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). And to avoid lingering suspicions about Mary’s virginity, Matthew confirms that Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth” (Matthew 1:25).
Luke and Matthew repeatedly affirm the phrase “of the virgin Mary” from the creed. The fact that their narratives highlight different details (shepherds, magi, etc.) but are united on this point shows that the claim about Jesus’s virgin birth goes back even before them.
How far back?
‘They Shall Call His Name Immanuel’
Surprisingly, the virgin birth goes back to the Old Testament: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (Matthew 1:22–23).
This citation of Isaiah 7:14 is well-known. Some have speculated that Matthew invented the virgin birth in order to fabricate a slam-dunk fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. However, as shown above, the virgin birth is so thoroughly woven into Matthew’s account that an Isaiah proof text is not, strictly speaking, necessary. So, what function does Isaiah 7:14 play in the story?
Isaiah 7–8 deals with the threat posed by foreign powers to God’s people. Isaiah brings warning and comfort to Israel’s king, and central to these interactions are three symbolically named children: Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“the spoil speeds, the prey hastens”), warning of impending judgment (Isaiah 8:3–4); Shear-Jashub (“a remnant will return”), reiterating God’s promise of future restoration (Isaiah 7:3); and Immanuel (“God with us”), pointing to God’s sustaining presence (Isaiah 7:14). Isaiah provides such “signs” to Israel (Isaiah 7:10–11; 8:18) to call them to trust in the Lord (Isaiah 7:9; 8:13–14).
Matthew’s use of Isaiah, then, is not a simplistic proof of a virgin-birth prophecy; rather, it suggests that God’s presence is now realized in the Christ-child himself. Such broader significance is confirmed by Matthew’s other Old Testament “fulfillment” citations in his birth narrative. When he cites the Bethlehem prophecy of Micah 5:2 (Matthew 2:5–6), he conveys how Jesus is the shepherd-king bringing a new exodus.
When he cites Hosea 11:1 (Matthew 2:14–15), he reveals Jesus as the ultimate “Son” — the embodiment of Israel — whom God delivers from Egypt. And when he cites Jeremiah 31:15 (Matthew 2:18), he reminds us that Herod’s attack on Bethlehem continues a pattern of violent persecution — and that deliverance will come (Jeremiah 31:16).
In short, Matthew’s “Immanuel” quotation — viewed in its own context as well as in conjunction with his other Old Testament quotations — shows that the virgin birth of Jesus has redemptive-historical significance. As God enfleshed in the womb of a virgin, Jesus became the sign that salvation had arrived for God’s people.
Building on this, what can we say are the theological implications of the virgin birth?
God keeps his promises. Matthew’s reference to Isaiah reminds us of the myriad ways Christ brings Old Testament prophecies to completion. Justin Martyr and Origen emphasized how this fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 proves the truthfulness of God’s word (Dialogue with Trypho 66, 84; Against Celsus 1.35).
Jesus is truly the divine Son. The virgin birth plays a key role in helping explain how Jesus is God’s Son. The church fathers regularly argue that the lack of a physical, human father means that the only true father — the one who “begets” the Son — is the heavenly Father (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 19.3; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.10.6). Perhaps Jesus himself recognizes this at age 12, when he rebuffs Mary and Joseph by saying he needed to be in “my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49).
Jesus is truly man, though not “ordinary.” The virgin birth of Jesus also helps maintain a tight balance: he is not only divine Son, but also fully man. His human substance is derived from Mary, so that he can be tempted fully just like us (Hebrews 4:15) and offer atonement through blood (Romans 3:25). Yet his lack of a human father frees him of “ordinary generation” from Adam that taints all with sin (Hebrews 4:15; Westminster Confession of Faith 6.3), so that he can offer atonement for the elect (Hebrews 7:27).
Christianity is supernatural. Finally, the virgin birth reminds us that the bedrock of Christianity is the miraculous inbreaking of the triune God into creation. Christianity and bare naturalism cannot coexist. The virgin birth cannot be explained away. Either the Spirit conceived the Father’s incarnate Son in the womb of the virgin Mary — a unique datum of history — or we have no God-man as our Savior.
Perhaps the best reminder of the ancient roots of this conviction is in Luke 1:43, when Mary’s relative Elizabeth greets her as “the mother of my Lord.” Mary is truly the human mother, and a virgin, at that. Yet the supernatural child in her womb is — even as an unborn baby — the divine Lord. That’s a stunning advent.
Greg Lanier (PhD, Cambridge) is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. His work on early Christology includes Divine Conceptual Metaphors and the Christology of Luke’s Gospel (T&T Clark, 2018), Is Jesus Truly God? (Crossway, 2020), and Corpus Christologicum (Hendrickson, 2021).