Why the Virgin Birth Really Matters (But not for the reasons you’ve been told)
Hint: It's because of father-lines (blood) and fatherlands (soil)
Does the virgin birth of Jesus really matter for Christians? Or is it just a non-essential belief, a secondary doctrine, that can just sit to the side?
Years ago Rob Bell famously suggested that maybe it wouldn’t matter if “Jesus had an earthly father named Larry.” Maybe the virgin birth was just thrown in as a bit of mythological special sauce to convince local pagan minds, Bell suggested. No big deal if we discard it, right?
His point was that if faith disintegrates when one part is reexamined or reimagined (a favorite word among progressive Christians), then something is wrong and faith wasn’t that strong in the first place.
And if Bell means that we need to have a web of beliefs, with multiple and reinforcing anchor points, rather than a single “foundation” that might crack and crumble, then I agree (but as Bell’s trajectory has become more evident, it seems he didn’t just mean that, unfortunately)
The 3 Typical Reasons
Here are the three typical reasons for affirming the virgin birth of Jesus, of which Bell and other progressives like him are usually pushing against (implicitly or explicitly).
1) The Reliability of Scripture is at Stake
The argument goes something like this. If the authors of Scripture (Matthew and Luke) thought the virgin birth was true, and they thought they were writing history and not mythology, and expected us to join them in these assumptions, then not to take the virgin birth as true means we are abandoning the Bible as our one, sure foundation of faith and truth.
So, to deny the virgin birth is actually to deny the authority of Scripture, and to affirm the virgin birth is to affirm that authority of Scripture.
This is a modern, fundamentalist view of the authority of Scripture (that historical facts mentioned anywhere in Scripture have to be true otherwise every truth of Scripture is in jeopardy). And that view gives birth to the equally modern, progressive reaction that we can change the meaning of “true” to “true and meaningful for me, but not necessarily out in the world” and then somehow hold on to Scripture as “inspiring” (to me/us) but not “inspired” by God (and therefore not really authoritative in a deep sense).
For me, we need to leave behind this kind of modern fundamentalist and modern progressive trap in which the virgin birth is just a proxy war in an all too modern polemic about the Bible (for a better option see my short ebook on How We Got The Bible, or check out N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God).
2) Truly Divine and Truly Human
The argument goes something like this. That Jesus is born of Mary means Jesus is fully human (like us). Because Jesus is not conceived by a man, but of God, mean we can affirm that Jesus is also fully divine (like God). The virgin birth proves that the Incarnation is real—that God (fully divine) came down to save humanity (fully human).
In a sense, I agree that Jesus is fully God and fully human.
But I’d just want to make this connection between the fully humanity and dimity of Jesus and the virgin birth a small part of the web of beliefs concerning Jesus. If we just had Paul’s letters, the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of John (none of which speak of the virgin birth), we would still have an abundance of reasons to affirm the full humanity and divinity of Jesus.
3) The Sinlessness of Jesus
The argument goes something like this. Because in the ancient world, it was thought that conception was solely through the man (planting his seed in the woman’s womb), and that sin was somehow passed biologically, that because Jesus does not have a human father he, therefore, doesn’t inherent our sin nature, and is therefore the perfect, sinless sacrifice to atone for our sin.
This one I disagree with (I disagree specifically with linking the virgin birth to the sinlessness of Jesus…I do, however, affirm that Jesus was sinless).
I’ll just quote colleague Beth Felker Jones: “Sin is not a sexually transmitted disease. The Doctrine of the Virgin birth is about WHO Jesus’s Father IS.”
And that brings us to the main topic.
A New Family with a New Father
Why does the virgin birth matter?
It is a matter of kinship, of a new surrogate kin group, a new family.
It is all about a new attachment bond with God that transcends our biological bonds of family (blood) and our bordered bonds of nation and ethnicity (soil).
Until Christianity disrupted the world, human bonds were formed through patrilineal clans, ruled by the elder patriarch who arranged marriages, accumulated resources, and distributed favors according to what benefited the group as a whole (and particularly himself, and his honor). This was your in-group tribe.
“Rights, obligations, and property typically pass along the male line, from fathers to their sons, while daughters, upon marriage, transfer their alliance to their husband’s lineage. Such unilineal descent constructs critical social categories, providing mechanisms for defining identity, inheritance, and authority.” (Link)
“Who’s your daddy?” in the ancient world wasn’t referring to your closest genetic male, your literal father. It was a question of whether or not you could trace lineage to the ruling clan member, the patriarch. The closer the better.
The father-line of patriarchy is connected closely to the idea of the fatherland as a favored, even sacred, location for the people. And both the figurative honor and the literal survival of the father-line and the fatherland must be protected at all costs from out-group members.
There are countless psychological studies about in-group favoritism and preferential treatment and out-group rejection and prejudice. This all comes from humanity’s long history of patrilineal tribalism.
The Virgin Birth Breaks with Father-line and Fatherland
The virgin birth places all those in Christ—those who call themselves Christians, those who follow Jesus—beyond the fatherland and the father-line, beyond patriarchy and promise land, beyond blood and soil, tribalism and nationalism. If God is Jesus’ father, if God is our father in and through Jesus, then blood and soil, patriarchy and promised land, must be put to the side.
According to Joseph Hellerman, in The Ancient Church as Family, Jesus radically expanded the idea of a surrogate kinship group or alternative family. Hellermans shows that:
The kinship metaphor is significantly more pervasive in Jesus’ teaching than in the Old Testament and Second Temple literature.
Jesus emphasizes the change in loyalty to the new kinship group in a much more radical manner than all contemporaries.
The surrogate kinship based in God the Father is more consistently used among followers of Jesus than other Second Temple Judeans of the time.
Jesus was regularly helping his followers understand that they were part of a new family, a new kinship group, with a new Father. People were told not to bury their fathers or mothers (Matt. 8:21-22), and that they needed to turn against their sisters and brothers (Luke 14:26), in order to follow him.
Indeed, when told that his mom and brothers were looking for him, Jesus responded with, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). Obedience to God the Father was the defining characteristic of followers of Jesus, not their bloodlines or borders.
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Mary as the First Follower
Now, if those who “hear the Word of God, receiving the Word and embodying it, giving it flesh, are, in Christ’s own words, his mothers and brother,” then Mary is the first follower of Jesus, the first disciple, the first in the new family of the Father (see John Behr, The Mystery of Christ). And she does with without reference to bloodline or borderland.
When the angel announced to Mary that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” she responded with, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And when it was all explained to Mary, she responded with, “let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1: 26-38).
In other words, she heard the word of God and did it, just like Jesus said that his mothers, sisters, and brother would do (Luke 8:21).
This is faith. This is trust. This is allegiance.
Learn about the Attaching to God (Beyond Anxious and Avoidant Spiritualities) Learning Cohort (new ones forming soon).
The Virgin Birth Matters, Really Matters
It matters that Jesus really was the Son of God who brings us all as adopted children to his Father (in heaven), beyond bloodlines and borderlands.
It matters that Jesus really was born of the virgin Mary, not of a man’s decision or will or way, but according to the Father who only moves according to the consent of others.
It matters that Jesus is really gathering all who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8:21), who are heavy laden and cast down (Matt. 11:28), into a family whose Father is nothing like the fathers of nationalism or patriarchy.
Progressive Christians who think we can get all those benefits—of a new family beyond fatherland and father-line, a new non-violent Father beyond abuse, a new family of love and acceptance—and also think that the virgin birth is an optional belief because they see it as too mythological, they are the ones who are making it to function as a myth.
For the early church, however, the redeeming work of Jesus—who sets up a new family of the Father among all the father-lines and fatherlands of the world—is integrally connected to who Jesus’ Father really is. And the Father of Jesus is connected to Mary, the virgin.
In the next post we’ll look at how Jesus’ birth is the beginning of God’s repair of our ruptured families.