If Jesus from Nazareth was
born out of wedlock he cannot be who he claimed he was.
One of the biggest questions concerning Jesus
from Nazareth is the nature of his birth. The Gospel writers contend he was
born supernaturally—of a virgin. Some today feel he was simply illegitimate.
Jesus claimed to be God. He also claimed perfection. But if the supernatural details connected with his birth are not true, we can only be skeptical concerning his other claims. It is therefore important to know what really happened at the beginning of his life. Was Jesus virgin-born or was he illegitimate?
The Chronology of Jesus' Birth
An angel appeared to a young, unmarried woman in the Galilean city of Nazareth. She was a virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph.
"Hail, favored one," said the angel. "The Lord is with you." Mary was startled not so much by the angel's presence, but by his greeting.
"Don't be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son whom you shall name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of is father David, and he will reign forever."
"How can this happen, since I don't know any man physically?" Mary questioned.
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. For this reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. With God, nothing is impossible."
"I am a slave of the Lord," Mary responded graciously. "Let it happen to me as you have said." At this statement, the angel departed.
A few days after the angel's appearance, Mary left Nazareth and traveled to see Elizabeth who was a relative living in Judea and whose husband Zacharias was a priest. When she entered their house, Elizabeth was suddenly filled with the Spirit of God.
"Blessed among women are you. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why has the mother of my Lord come to visit me? For when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, my baby leaped in my womb for joy. You are blessed because you believed there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken by the Lord."
Mary responded by saying, "My soul exalts the Lord, for he has had regard for my humble state. From now on all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:26-48).
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, then returned to Nazareth. Not long after she returned, it became obvious to her husband-to-be that she was pregnant. The Hebrew law stated if a betrothed virgin was found to be pregnant, she was to be taken out and stoned to death. Joseph evidently decided not to make an issue of her apparent unfaithfulness. We are told he decided to divorce her secretly, so she wouldn't be publicly disgrace.
Although by our standards we would not consider Mary and Joseph married, under the Hebrew law, betrothal constituted a binding legal contract. There was a year between the betrothing ceremony and the actual wedding feast. Although the couple never came together physically until after the marriage, they were considered legally married once the betrothal had taken place. (See Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred H. Wight (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953), pages 129, 130.
That night an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Joseph, son of David, don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. That which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins."
So when Joseph awoke in the morning, he did as the angel had told him and took Mary as his wife. (Matthew 2:18-25).
Several months later a decree came from Caesar Augustus that a census was going to be taken of the Roman Empire. The census required that everyone was to travel to the city of his origin. So Joseph took his new wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea so they could be registered.
Shortly after they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her son. They laid him in an animal feeding trough (or manger) because there was no room for them in the local inn.
That night angels appeared on the hillside near the village and told some startled shepherds, "Don't be afraid. Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. You will find the baby lying in a feeding trough."
So the shepherds entered the village and found Joseph and Mary. And in the feeding trough, they found the baby. When they saw that everything was just as they had been told, they told the new parents about the angels. (Luke 2:1-10).
Eight days after the child was born, Joseph and Mary took him five miles up to Jerusalem to be dedicated to the Lord. While they were in the Temple, a devout man name Simeon came up to the couple and asked to take the child in his arms. Simeon claimed he had been told by the Holy Spirit he would not die before he saw the Lord's Messiah.
"Now, Lord you can let your servant die in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation."
Turning to Mary, Simeon said, "This child is appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel. He is a sign. A sword will pierce even your own soul."
While he was talking, an old prophetess named Anna came up to the child. She too began to give thanks to God for this child which she had never seen before, and she told everyone he would redeem Israel. (Matthew 14:24-36; Mark 6:47-56; John 6:16-21).
Approximately two years after Jesus was born, several astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem. "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and have come to worship him."
When Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea, heard of the astrologers and what they were asking, he became worried. He called in the chief priests and asked, "Where does the Scripture say the Messiah will be born?"
"In Bethlehem of Judea," they answered.
So Herod called the men from the East and asked them when they had first seen the star. When they told him approximately two years earlier, he informed them that they would probably find the child in Bethlehem of Judea.
Then the crafty old king said, "Make a careful search for the child, and when you find him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship him."
When the astrologers left, they once again saw the star. It led them right to Bethlehem. When they came into the house in which the child and his family were now staying, they worshiped him and gave precious perfumes and gold to the young king. Before they left to return to their own country, they were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod. So they took a different route that would allow them to bypass Jerusalem.
When the corrupt old king realized the wise men had gone, he sent his soldiers to destroy every male child two years old and under. Jesus escaped only because Joseph had also been warned in a dream to flee with the child and his mother to Egypt. When Herod the Great finally died, the young family heard of his death and returned to Nazareth, where Jesus spent his early years. (Matthew 2:1-21).
The Psychology of the Story
When we look at the accounts of the birth of Jesus, one thread is clearly seen through the whole story. Almost everyone who comes into contact with the child either realizes instinctively that the baby is the Messiah or is told so by some heavenly visitor. Elizabeth gives honor to the coming Messiah when the presence of the baby in Mary's womb isn't at all obvious. Simeon and Anna mysteriously pick out the child from those many other babies who had been brought to the Temple for dedication. Then of course there is King Herod, who knew all too well that it was predicted that the Messiah was to come—so he took no chances.
Throughout the story there is a consistency of supernatural events. The appearance of the angel to Mary is followed by appearances to Joseph and the shepherds. Then there are the dreams of the wise men and Joseph. The star is another mysterious sign. The divine conception, when supported by all the other supernatural events, doesn't really seem out-of-place. The authors of the New Testament accounts made no excuse for the many extraordinary events in the story. They did not seem to be ashamed to communicate that the whole affair was a series of supernatural events.
Now I find the behavior of Mary interesting. She resisted the message of the angel, saying she had never had relations with a man, claiming to be a virgin. It seems illogical she would try to lie about her chastity to an obviously supernatural visitor. There is nothing in the narrative that suggests Mary's character was anything less than what she claimed it to be. There is not even the slightest evidence to suggest she had been involved with another man.
When Mary realized she was pregnant, where did she go? She went to the home of Elizabeth and Zacharias and remained there for three months. That was time enough to make her situation obvious to them. If Mary had been pregnant by someone other than God, she would not have gone to these relatives.
Zacharias was a priest, and as such he was under compulsion from the law to expose unchastity. He was required to reveal all forms of immorality. Either Mary was extremely foolish by going to this priest's home, or she felt she had nothing to fear. Only Mary knew how she became pregnant. Her behavior is a solid clue toward substantiating that the event really took place.
Joseph and Mary were betrothed. That meant they were somewhere in the middle of their year-long engagement period. No doubt they had spent many hours under the watchful eye of a chaperon, making plans for their future together. Then Joseph discovered Mary was carrying a child. He must have felt emotionally crushed. He knew he wasn't the father. The only conclusion he could come to was that he had been betrayed.
Joseph knew if this situation came to the attention of the authorities, she could be stoned to death. Because he loved her and didn't want to see her disgraced, he decided to find a private home where Mary could have her baby. He must have been relieved when the angel informed him the child Mary was carrying was from the Holy Spirit.
Although some have suggested the theory that Joseph was the real father, it is obvious from the narrative that Joseph knew better. He knew the had nothing to do with the conception. Even after the marriage ceremony took place, their union was not consummated until after the child was born. Joseph's behavior is more evidence that some type of supernatural conception took place.
The Prophetical Setting for the Birth
In the Hebrew Scriptures there are many prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. Almost all Jews believed these prophecies and longed for the day when their Savior would arrive.
A number of these prophecies predict the nature of the Messiah's birth. In Genesis 3:15 we read that Satan will be bruised by a "woman's seed." Biologically speaking, the man has the seed—so this is impossible without a supernatural conception.
Then in Isaiah 7:14 we read, "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means 'God with us')." Virgins don't stay virgins when they conceive, unless the conception is performed supernaturally. The child is also specifically identified as God.
Isaiah 9:6, 7 says, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace." This passage is definitely talking of a man who is to be born, and yet he is also going to be God at the same time: a God-Man.
Finally, in Micah 5:2 we are give the place of his birth. Out of Bethlehem would come a "ruler in Israel, whose origin is from the ancient of days."
These prophecies predicted four distinct things: that the child would be a male, that he would be born solely of a virgin, that he would be born in Bethlehem, and that he would be God. It is astronomically against the odds that all of these prophecies for a such a supernatural birth could be fulfilled in one child's birth purely by accident. But the Gospel writers claim Jesus' birth does in fact fulfill each of these predictions.
In Israel a woman without a son was looked upon as barren, regardless of how many daughters she had. With no son, she and her husband had no heir. No heir meant it was impossible for the Messiah to come from their house. Most Jews not only planned to have a son, but kept a careful record of their ancestry so that could trace their family back to the patriarch Jacob. In Israel, your tribe and your ancestors were extremely important.
Within the biblical narrative two genealogies are given. One, in the Book of Luke, traces Mary's family tree. The other, in the book of Matthew, traces the genealogy of Joseph. The bona fides which Jesus from Nazareth possesses according to those two genealogies indicate that he was entitled to sit on the throne of David—which is exactly what the Messiah would do.
As with so many of the issues concerning Jesus, his birth is an either/or proposition. If the claims for a supernatural birth are not true, he must be illegitimate. If he is illegitimate, he is not the God he and others claim him to be.
As with the miracles of Jesus, the evidence supporting this event is logical and consistent. Mary, the only one who knew for certain, claimed it was a virgin conception. Joseph, the man who was prepared not to divorce his betrothed fiancé, married her because he believed the child was of God. Zacharias, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds, and the wise men all bore witness that they received supernatural information concerning the child's miraculous birth.
The modern mind has difficulty accepting anything labeled "supernatural." But "supernatural" is not a synonym for "impossible." The term describes those events which are not normally observed. Because the divine is totally outside of our experience, it therefore becomes impossible for us to understand it completely. If God exists, whether or not we understand or comprehend him, it must certainly be possible for him to perform miracles such as a virgin conception.
Based upon the accounts in the gospel records as they are given, we have every reason to believe Jesus was conceived in a supernatural way. There is nothing in the narrative to suggest he was illegitimate. I think we are on safe ground when we say the prophet from Nazareth had a miraculous birth.