by Luke Wayne
The virgin birth is one of the most distinctive and well-known Christian claims about the coming of Jesus. Even those who have only a vague idea of what Christians believe often know that Jesus is supposed to have been born to a virgin mother. Belief in the literal virgin birth of Jesus is very important. It has ramifications on our understanding of prophecy, the deity of Christ, and the gospel itself. Yet, there are some who argue that the earliest Christians didn't believe in the virgin birth at all. Most such critics simply argue from silence, pointing out that only two of the gospel writers mention the virgin birth. This, however, proves nothing. The vast majority of our articles here on CARM do not mention the virgin birth, yet every writer for CARM affirms that the virgin birth is true. Just because you believe something doesn't mean you mention it in everything you ever say or write. Thus, it need not worry us that one cannot find every Christian doctrine explicitly stated by every biblical writer.
Yet, other critics go further. They claim that Paul explicitly affirms that Jesus had a biological human father, thus denying the virgin birth. This claim, if true, would indeed present a serious problem. The reality is, however, that Paul claimed no such thing.
Romans 1:3 and the Virgin Birth
The verse to which these critics appeal is in the opening section of Paul's letter to the Romans, where he writes:
"concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," (Romans 1:3).
The argument from this verse has three facets:
- Paul says that Jesus was "born" of a descendant of David. This, the critics say, proves that Jesus was Joseph's biological son and not just his legal son.
- The word translated "descendant" here is literally the word for "seed." He was born of the "seed" of David. Indeed, the Greek word for seed is "sperma" from which we get "sperm." This, they say, implies literal physical male descent.
- Finally, they argue that "according to the flesh" drives home the point that Paul is talking about Jesus' normal physical descent from Joseph.
The critics insist that, while any one of these factors might be explained away, the combination of them emphatically declares Jesus to have had a biological human father in the Davidic line. The argument, however, is inherently flawed. None of the three points actually implies what the critic says it does, and thus the combination of them doesn't add up to imply it either. Let's examine them in order:
"...who was born..."
The first point is that Jesus was "born" a descendant of David. Thus, they say, he could not be such a descendant by adoption or legal right but rather must have been one biologically. The case, of course, becomes moot if Mary was a descendant of David. It can both be true that Jesus was born of a virgin and that Jesus is a biological descendant of David if the virgin to whom He was born is herself a biological descendant of David. Thus, the critic must assume that only Joseph was a descendant of David. If Mary was as well, then points 1 and 3 in the critic's argument are negated and the second point (a rather weak one, as we will see) stands alone. Indeed, this is how the early church widely understood the issue. Tertullian, for example, writes that "He is of the seed of David in consequence of Mary’s flesh,"1 a statement that both affirms Mary to be of the seed of David and also demonstrates that, to ancient readers, "seed" did not automatically imply a biological father. He likewise wrote that:
"Now, since He is the blossom of the stem which sprouts from the root of Jesse; since, moreover, the root of Jesse is the family of David, and the stem of the root is Mary descended from David, and the blossom of the stem is Mary’s son, who is called Jesus Christ, will not He also be the fruit?"2
Augustine also explained that "Mary herself also was descended in some way, according to the laws of blood, from the lineage of David."3 Similar quotes can be multiplied. The point is that the early church widely believed that Mary was a descendant of David and thus saw no conflict between these sources.
Yet the problems with the first point run deeper. Even if we assume that Mary was not a descendant of David and that Jesus was reckoned a "son of David" on account of Joseph alone, the word "born" still does not prove that Joseph was the biological father. Mary and Joseph were married when Jesus was born. Thus, from birth, Jesus would be Joseph's son. A virgin-born child miraculously given to a married couple would not be considered a fatherless orphan. The parents who received Him would be the child's true parents, even if they were not both biologically connected to the child. Jesus, thus, would have rightly and truly been considered Joseph's son at birth. So, regardless of what one assumes about Mary's genealogy, the idea that Jesus was born Joseph's son and of the line of David does not in any way negate the idea of the virgin birth.
And there are still more problems with this assertion. The Greek word translated here as "born" is not actually the normal term for being born. Some translations like the KJV carefully make this distinction by rendering the verse:
"Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh," (Romans 1:3, KJV).
Paul seems perhaps to be describing something more than a typical human birth here. Jesus was not merely "born," in the normal sense, as a descendant of David. He was made to become a descendant of David. Paul's wording here seems to imply that Jesus already existed before this. The Son pre-existed His human life, but when He came to earth, He was made to be a descendant of David, at least according to the flesh. If Paul is indeed describing the incarnation here, he is describing a reality closely related to and in perfect harmony with the virgin birth. At any rate, he is certainly not contradicting the virgin birth.
The Seed of David
As we have noted, it is clear that ancient readers did not see the word "seed" as demanding male lineage since they claimed that Jesus was the "seed of David" through Mary. More to our point, however, Paul himself clearly did not see the word "seed" to imply biological, paternal lineage. Indeed, to Paul, it did not demand a biological connection at all! Note, for example, what Paul has to say about the "seed of Abraham:"
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise," (Galatians 3:28-29).
Just as in Romans 1:3 "descendant of David" is literally "seed of David," so too here in Galatians. Anyone who is in Christ is Abraham's seed, even Greeks with no biological connection to the man. Similarly, elsewhere in Romans, Paul writes:
"For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all," (Romans 4:16).
Again, the descendants (literally "seed") of Abraham are the faithful, regardless of lineage. Thus, while the verbal connection between the Greek "sperma" and the English "sperm" can seem provocative, the fact is that "sperma" just meant "seed," and one's "seed" was not necessarily one's biological descendants but rather heirs of the same covenantal promise. That is, at least, how Paul uses the word. Jesus is thus of the "seed" of David in that He is the final heir of the covenant God made with David. That is what Paul means to say. Nothing here conflicts with the virgin birth.
According to the Flesh
The term "according to the flesh" is certainly speaking of Jesus' bodily reality. Paul does not see Jesus' human birth as His origin. As Paul explains elsewhere:
"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men," (Philippians 2:5-7).
Paul affirms that Jesus existed as God in eternity past but, at the appointed time, took on the form of a man. Paul says that the divine Son was "made in the likeness of men," just as he says in Romans that he was "made of the seed of David according to the flesh." Thus, Paul is explaining that Jesus is not a descendant of David in the sense of coming into existence after David. Paul believes that the Son actually existed before David. Rather, in the incarnation, He came as David's physical heir. Once again, this phrase need not say anything about the biology of the matter. Paul elsewhere instructs:
"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ," (Ephesians 6:5).
This does not mean your masters who are biologically connected to you. Rather, it means your finite master who governs your present bodily state. In the same way, all Paul is saying is that, when Jesus came to earth in bodily form as a man, He came as the covenantal heir of David, in fulfillment of God's promise.
None of the points in the skeptic's argument hold up here, and combining three bad arguments doesn't produce a good one. Paul does not deny the virgin birth in Romans 1:3. Indeed, by affirming the incarnation (here and elsewhere), Paul's teaching is quite consistent with the idea of the virgin birth. Likewise, by teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's Messianic promises, Paul affirms the same logic that Matthew draws on to support the virgin birth as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Thus, while Paul did not directly and explicitly mention the virgin birth in his canonical letters, he taught a faith that was in perfect harmony with the teaching of the virgin birth found in the gospels (including the Gospel of Luke, one of Paul's traveling companions).