The Apostles Creed (5)
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary
There is a fascinating Old Testament context to the Gospel stories about the conception and birth of Jesus. It is the context of childlessness. Abraham and Sarah were childless and both past the normal age for reproduction. Genesis 15 :4-6 reads ‘a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir...Abram believed the Lord and he accredited it to him as righteousness’. Sarah however organised a surrogate birth through her servant Hagar. Abram acquiesced to this thereby backsliding on his Covenant with God. God kept his side of the Covenant though. Genesis 17:19 reads ‘your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. Sarah was doubtful. Genesis 18: 12 ‘ So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought,’After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’ Then the promise was fulfilled. Genesis 21: 2 reads ‘Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age’.
The problem occurred again. Genesis 25:21 reads ‘Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife (Rebekah) because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer and she became pregnant. She gave birth to Esau and Jacob. Childlessness preceded a significant birth once more in the case of Hannah. 1 Samuel 1 tells us about Elkanah; he had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah was his first and favourite but she was childless. Peninnah had given birth to children and she tormented Hannah because of her childlessness. Elkanah displayed the naivety of men when he said to Hannah, ‘Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?’. Hannah had gone to pray at the sanctuary at Shiloh. She wept bitterly in her prayers and the priest Eli was watching her. Hannah said to God, ‘If you will give me a son I will give him back to the Lord to serve him all his days’. Because of her visible distress, Eli thought Hannah was drunk but she reassured him. He said ‘Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him’. Verses 19/20 read ‘Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel’. He grew up to be the faithful prophet and spiritual leader of the People of God over many years.
The pregnancies of Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah were brought about by the particular providence and good purpose of God along with the normal human male and female process of reproduction. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, which we know well, the angel Gabriel announced directly to Mary that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit even though she was betrothed but not yet married. Like Abraham of old she believed this was possible and accepted this maternal vocation. ‘I am the Lord’s servant’ Mary answered, ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’. It is possible that in her mind she was thinking that she would participate in the normal process of conceiving a child along with the Holy Spirit. And that would be with Joseph. Significantly in Matthew 1 we are told that Joseph was told in a dream not to abandon Mary though he was not the father of her embryonic child. He too was obedient to that vision and direction which was against the custom of the time. Furthermore in verse 25 we read, ‘Joseph did not consummate their marriage until Mary gave birth to a son, And he gave him the name Jesus’. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth are very different from the birth stories of Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah in which husband and wife together conceived a child for God’s good purposes. Why would they be? It was possible for the Jewish Messiah to be born of normal human process within the will of God together with the creative power of the Holy Spirit. Why would Matthew begin his account of Jesus’ life with detailed genealogy and then make up a fiction about his birth? Why would Luke who recorded many details about Jesus’ life in his Gospel and then wrote the Book of Acts, a history of the early Church, fabricate a story about Jesus’ birth? It does not make sense.
Even so, many people today find it difficult to accept the virgin conception and birth of Jesus. The passage from Isaiah can be interpreted to refer to the time it was uttered. Some language commentators suggest that the word used for virgin really just meant ‘young woman’. This conception and birth was an unusual social occurrence which presented the necessity for difficult explanations from Mary and from Joseph to their immediate family members. Betrothal though – what we call becoming engaged – was a binding contract in Judaism. It required formal divorce for dissolution. We know that Joseph had decided against this public process to protect Mary. He was a good and considerate man. He was enough of a normal man not to want to marry Mary either, pregnant not by himself. 20th and 21st century academic commentators underestimate the levels of personal piety represented in the lives of Mary and Joseph. Too good to be true? Furthermore, scholars suggest that the virgin birth is not mentioned in the rest of the New Testament. Paul does not discuss it anywhere.
There are some wild and fanciful theories that can be dismissed. General ideas about intercourse between humans and divine beings existed in the ancient world, in literature and poetry and in science fiction to this day. So the virgin birth could be a made-up story along these lines. It is simply not possible for a human being to be born without two parents, without two sets of chromosomes. There is in nature something called parthenogenesis. It is an equivalent of single parent conception and is found commonly in birds, fish and reptiles. Could this have happened to Mary? Fake news existed all around the Christian community from its earliest days. One story did the rounds and it was that Mary had had an affair with a Roman soldier called Panthera. Strangely enough, some current feminists favour this attempted explanation. The virgin conception and birth is about a pre-nuptial scandal. What used to be called locally as ‘a have to’ case.
The standard answers to these theories are as follows. Matthew and Luke would never have introduced a suspect pagan narrative into their Gospels. Why would Matthew and Luke deliberately include such difficult and implausible narratives unless they were true? If they were trying a cover up why did they not just say that Jesus was born after the marriage had taken place? The context was the community of the Jews, the Israelites, the people of God. God had dealt in miracles throughout history. The miracle was the sign and hallmark of God’s intervention among his people. The calling of humble people to serve God is the signature of his intervention to this day.
Why though, was the male element in the conception diminished and negated. Feminists are always complaining that the Bible is a patriarchal book all about men. But if it is, it is about men behaving badly and then being redeemed. Joseph did not however behave badly. He behaved well. There is an argument that the virgin conception and birth were the means whereby Jesus was sinless. This is not a wholly good argument and the Roman Catholic Church felt obliged to add a doctrine as late as 1854 about Mary’s immaculate conception, making her out of necessity made sinless too at the moment of conception by her Son.
Where are we with all this? This is history. It is not myth, fable or fiction. This is incarnation. John 1: 1 says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’. Incarnation requires pre-existence. Paul understood this. Colossians 1:15-16 reads ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy’.
Pre-existence requires virgin birth. The facts about Jesus’ birth would have been less well known than those of his public life and his very visible death. Jesus was not a newly created individual. He was the eternal Son of God. He was not an adopted Son. He was God’s original Son, part of his eternal nature. Belief and understanding that Jesus did not have a human father was confirmed as the Church grew and it was contained in the earliest statements of faith.
It is fair to deduce from the resurrection of Jesus and that he was identifiable as being Jesus that his body was not the same as our human bodies. Peter is recorded as having said (Acts 2:24) that ‘it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’. It is consistent with the miraculous episodes in his public ministry that he should have resurrected and that he should have been born in the way Matthew and Luke relate. Take The Transfiguration as told in Mark 9 ‘There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus….Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
People can dismiss this as being untrue and foolish just as they can dismiss any concept of God. But Christianity is the high point of human experience when you think about what it really means. Do you doubt your own existence? Why then doubt Jesus’ existence? Its greatness is its crown and triumph. If you can make creation, you can make a single life.
It was the Holy Spirit whose intervention conceived Jesus. Mary gave her consent. The Holy Spirit who was involved in creation itself. The presence and power of God in the lives of his called people for centuries.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.