Modern and Ancient Controversies over the Virgin Birth of Jesus -- By: James P. Sweeney

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 160:638 (Apr 2003)
Article: Modern and Ancient Controversies over the Virgin Birth of Jesus
Author: James P. Sweeney


Modern and Ancient Controversies over the Virgin Birth of Jesus

James P. Sweeneya

Controversy related to Jesus’ unique human origin is frequently traced to the so-called Enlightenment period, when a rationalist approach to religious issues was widely propagated.1 This approach was also characteristic of the still earlier English Deism.2 The metaphysical assumptions that characterized the approach to religion by the Enlightenment and Deism are widely attested in the present day as well. However, controversy over Jesus’ unique human origin is not restricted to these philosophies or contemporary thought. Questions about Jesus’ unique human origin go back to the context of His own ministry. And denials of Jesus’ virgin birth are also evident in the early patristic period.

Contemporary Controversy over the Virgin Birth

The virgin birth of Christ has been described as the “doctrine, based on narratives of Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1–2 and related passages in the Scriptures, that Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin mother.”3 Brown preferred the more precise language of “virginal conception” in order to distinguish it from the apocryphal accounts in which Mary is said to have given birth supernaturally without pain and to emphasize that this doctrine is concerned primarily with the product of the birth—the humanity of Jesus—rather than the manner of conception.4 Yet it is unlikely that “virginal conception” will catch on as a substitute description. It is important to stress, however, that the virgin birth means that when Mary conceived and gave birth she was a virgin. In the language of Matthew 1:25, “[Joseph] had no union with [Mary] until she gave birth to a son” (NIV). This was a miraculous event,5 which is the basis of the controversy.

In the writings of contemporary scholars it is not difficult to find controversy over Jesus’ unique human origin. This is not totally unexpected, given the prevalence of philosophical naturalism

that dominates scholarly studies.6 Whether it is the influential Bultmanni...

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