Was the Virgin Birth Real?

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Mary’s willingness to risk everything allowed all of us to gain so much more.

The last time I wrote in this space we looked at the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. Frankly, folks, if you believe that a man rose from the dead, believing that his mom conceived him without the help of a male partner isn’t that much of a stretch.

Seriously, if you saw the very first Jurassic Park movie back in 1993, you may remember that the scientists only cloned female dinosaurs so that the animals could not reproduce. But when one of the characters is wandering through the island, he discovers a nest of eggs. He looks at them, awestruck, and says, “Nature finds a way!” The biologists among us can point to non-fictional examples of how animals reproduce without the aid of sex: binary fission in bacteria, fragmentation among blackworms, and—most applicable for this conversation—female copperhead snakes reproducing through parthenogenesis, which literally means “virgin birth.” A cell produced alongside the female’s egg acts as a sperm cell and essentially fertilizes the egg.

So is it much of a stretch to believe that God somehow enabled a human to conceive without sex? No.

But: yes. In bacteria, blackworms, and copperheads, the process is repeated. As far as we know, a human virgin birth has occurred only once. That’s the challenge. It happened once, long ago, to a teenage girl who had no witnesses when an angel showed up and announced that the “power of the Most High would overshadow” her and make her pregnant (Luke 1:35). The girl was also engaged at the time. So we are trusting the word of a young girl and her betrothed, who himself thought Mary’s story was completely mad and planned to put her away quietly—until he had his own word from an angel.

Teenage girl. Engaged boy. Angels. No witnesses. Ooookaaaaaay.

In considering the virgin birth, we weigh what we know about science, reproduction, God, and teenagers. In that quartet, the first two seem most verifiable. Until we remember that this God has a long history of messing about in people’s reproductive lives. Is this story any more unusual than aged Abraham conceiving with senior citizen Sarah? Is this story any more unbelievable than the times in Scripture when people pray for a child and then have one? Hannah’s story is unbelievable. As is Rachel’s. As is the story of the mother of Samson. As is the story of Elizabeth, another senior citizen, and her aging husband, Zechariah.

It’s that last story that Gabriel cites as evidence for what will happen for Mary: “And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible for God.” Hearing that, Mary goes all in: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord,” she tells the angel. “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:36-38, NRSV).

All of these stories are hard to believe, which brings us to the heart of the matter: Is this a story to be believed? Are we willing to trust the word of a teenager?

Before you answer, consider this: Did Mary gain anything—anything—by claiming that the conception was without a man? No. Did she have everything—her standing in the community, the assessment of her mental health, her engagement to a righteous man—did she have everything to lose by claiming “parthenogenesis”? Yes, she did.

There was no good reason for Mary to tell this story except that it was true. And her willingness to risk everything allowed all of us to gain so much more. Thank you, Mary. And thanks be to God.

About the Author

Mary Hulst is university pastor for Calvin University and teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (1)


Thanks, Mary, for this article that stacks the evidence in favor of an actual virgin birth.  I appreciate your insights into what many consider an accounting of Jesus’ beginnings here on earth.  But have you considered you may only be preaching to the choir?  Those in the church (the choir), especially our denomination, generally do not doubt the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Christians believe he was born as a human (while retaining his divinity) to Mary without the aid of a human father.  Your readers, Mary, do not doubt the virgin birth.
To those outside the church, the story is quite different.  Although the virgin birth of Jesus in a manger is a sweet story, it is no more factual than the story of Santa Claus.  Non Christians love the manger scene, but care little about it’s significance.  All religions have their heros; Christianity has Jesus.  Just as Christians put no stock in the heros and miracles of other religions, so people of other religions and of no particular religion put no stock in Jesus.  He’s just a legendary character.  It’s a nice story.  But we say, the Bible is the inspired word of God and true.  So also is the claim for the Scriptures of other religions.
As a legendary figure, non Christians attribute to Jesus his virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine, feeding five thousand people from a child’s lunch, raising Lazarus from the dead, restoring sight to blind people, instantly healing lepers.  These and many other so called miracles are what contribute to the legendary character of Jesus, just as the so called miracles of other religions contribute to the legendary character of their heros. But as the miracles of other religions are beyond validation and logic (and not to be believed) so also are the miracles of Jesus, including the virgin birth.  This is the assertion of those of other religions or those who are not Christians.
So, as I said, you are preaching to the choir.  But beyond the church, your argument for the virgin birth makes little factual sense.  I think to convince non Christians of the virgin birth, we’ll have to take a different approach.  In our culture of multiple religions and the increasing numbers of non religious people, the message of Jesus is being lost.  And the doubting question for those outside the church is still, “Was the Virgin Birth Real?”  I think their mind is made up.  Thanks, Mary, for a thoughtful article.