Did the Belief in the Virgin Birth Begin?
by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
In the study of law one of the most important subjects is evidence. One of the reasons why so few have arrived at a truth in which they believe absolutely is that they have forgotten the importance of proof. Evidence is one of the important divisions of theology. No belief can be accepted without proof or a "motive of credibility." One might say that the greatest skeptics are the Christians, for they will not believe in the Resurrection until they see the crucified and dead Man arise from the grave by the Power of God Himself. One could take any doctrine of Christianity as an example of proof and of evidence, but we will take one that the modern world has rejected for the last three hundred years (after believing in it for the first sixteen hundred years), namely, the virgin birth of Jesus from His Mother, Mary, who is a virgin.
Before adducing our evidence, it is important to realize that the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, does not derive her belief from the Scriptures alone. This will come as a surprise to those who, whenever they hear of a particular Christian teaching, ask: "Is it in the Bible?" The Church was spread throughout the entire Roman Empire before a single book of the New Testament was written. There were already many Martyrs in the Church before there were either Gospels or Epistles. An authoritative and recognized ministry was carrying on the Lord's work at His command, speaking in His name as witnesses of what they had seen, before anyone decided to write a single line of the New Testament.
To the early followers of Our Lord, and to us, the authority of the Apostles was equal to the authority of Christ, in the sense that it was the continuation of His teaching. Our Lord said: "He that heareth you, heareth Me." The Apostles first taught and then later on, two --— and only two —-- of the Twelve left a Gospel. To His Apostles, Our Lord said: "Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28:19, 20). And again He said: "As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you" (Jn. 20:21). The Apostles were the nucleus of the Church, the new Israel, the first visible manifestation of Christ's Mystical Body. That is why on Pentecost they chose one out of the community of 120 to take the place of Judas. The successor had to be an eyewitness of the Gospel events; that was the absolute condition of being an Apostle. The Church was an organic body of cohesion, the source of unity and authority, with Peter presiding because he was Divinely appointed. It would still be almost twenty-five years before the first of the Gospels would be written; hence those who isolate a single text from the Bible from this Apostolic tradition, or study it apart from it, are living and thinking in a vacuum. The Gospels need tradition as the lungs need air, and as the eyes light, and as the plants the earth! The Good Book was second, and not first. When finally the Gospels were written, they were the mere secretarial reports of what was already believed.
Pick up the Gospel of Luke, which was written sometime before the year 67, and read the opening lines: "For as much as many have taken hand to set forth in order, a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us: According as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed" (Lk. 1:1-4). Luke did not write to Theophilus to tell him something brand new about someone who died over thirty-four years before. Theophilus, like every other member of the Apostolic Church in the Roman Empire, already knew about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, about the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. It is similar to this. If we pick up a history book that tells us that in 1914 World War I began, it does not create that belief in us, it just confirms what we already know. So, too, the Gospels set down in a more systematic way what was already believed. If we had lived in the first twenty-five years of the Church, how would we have answered this question: "How can I know what I am to believe?" We could not have said, "I will look in the Bible." For there was no New Testament Bible then. We would have believed what the Apostolic Church was teaching, and, until the invention of printing, it would have been difficult for any of us to have made ourselves so-called infallible private interpreters of the book.
Never once did Our Lord tell these witnesses of His to write. He Himself wrote only once in His life, and that was on the sand. But He did tell them to preach in His name and to be witnesses to Him to the end of the earth, until the consummation of time. Hence those who take this or that text out of the Bible to prove something are isolating it from the historical atmosphere in which it arose and from the word of mouth that passed Christ's truth. If there are three persons in a room, there are also in it six legs and six arms --— but they never create a problem because they are related to the physical organism. But if we found one arm outside the door, it would be a tremendous problem, because it is isolated from the organic whole. So it is with certain Christian truths that are isolated from the whole —-- for example, the doctrine of penance if it is isolated from Original Sin. It is only in the light of the circle of truth that the segments of the circle have a meaning.
When finally the Gospels were written, they recorded a tradition; they did not create it. It was already there. After a while men had decided to put in writing this living tradition and voice, which explains the beginning of the Gospel of Luke: "That thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed." The Gospels did not start the Church; the Church started the Gospels. The Church did not come out of the Gospels; the Gospels came out of the Church.
The Church preceded the New Testament, not the New Testament the Church. First there was not a Constitution of the United States, and then Americans, who in the light of that Constitution decided to form a government and a nation. The Founding Fathers preceded the Foundation; so the Mystical Body of Christ preceded the reports written later by inspired secretaries. And incidentally, how do we know the Bible is inspired? It does not say so! Matthew does not conclude his Gospel saying: "Be sure to read Mark; he is inspired, too." Furthermore, the Bible is not a book. It is a collection of seventy-two books in all. It is worth opening a Bible to see if we have them all and have not been cheated. These widely scattered books cannot bear witness to their own inspiration. It is only by something outside the Bible that we know it is inspired. We will not go into that point now, but it is worth looking into.
A second fact to be remembered is that this Mystical Body of Christ has a memory, as we have a memory. If our physical life extends back forty-five years, we can remember two world wars. We speak of them as a living witness, not from the books written but from having lived through them, and maybe through having fought in them. We may later on have read the books about these two world wars. Yet they are not the beginning of our knowledge but only a recalling or a deepening of what we already knew. In like manner, Our Lord is the Head of the new humanity, the new fellowship, or the spiritual organism that St. Paul calls His Mystical Body. To this Mystical Body Christ is associated, first in His Apostles, and then in all who believed in Him throughout the centuries. This Body, too, has a memory, reaching back to Christ. It knows that the Resurrection is true because she, the Church, was there. The cells of our body change every seven years, but we are the same personality. The cells of the Mystical Body, which we are, too, may change every fifty or sixty years; yet it is still Christ that lives in that Body.
The Church knows that Christ rose from the dead and that the Spirit descended on the Apostles on Pentecost because the Church was there from the beginning. The Church has a memory of over nineteen hundred years, and this memory is called tradition. The Apostles' Creed, which was an accepted formula in the Church around the year 100 and which summed up the Apostles' teaching, is as follows:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, sitteth at the right Hand of God, the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
There is not one single quotation of the Gospels in the Creed. The early members of the Church were recording the early Christian tradition, of which the Gospels were only the literary expression. There are also several volumes of writings from within the first hundred years of the life of Our Lord; for example, the writing of St. Clement, one of the successors of St. Peter, who wrote in the year 92; and also Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, one of the successors of John the Evangelist; and Irenaeus, who names the twelve bishops of Rome; and Ignatius of Antioch, who said that he wanted to be "ground like wheat between the jaws of lions to be a living bread for His Savior."
Many of these writers do not quote the Gospels. We have fifteen hundred lines from Clement, and yet only two texts of his are from the New Testament; he was recording the Christian beliefs, accepted by the witnesses of Christ. Polycarp quotes the Gospel only three times, for he lived on familiar terms with many who had seen Our Lord, and he wrote what he knew and had learned from the Apostles. Ignatius of Antioch (who lived within seventy years of the life of Our Lord) wrote: "Our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived of the Holy Spirit… and was truly born of a virgin."
There is a double evidence from which we can draw, to learn true Christian teaching: one is the revealed Word of God in the Scriptures --— the other is the continuous teaching of the Church from the very beginning, that is, her living memory. Just as lawyers, in proving a point, use not only the bare statement of law but also the way the courts have understood and interpreted that law, so too, the Scriptures are not a dead letter but are living and breathing in the beautiful context of a spiritual fellowship.
In the year 108, there were still many living who had been boys when Our Lord was crucified --— who as young men saw and conversed with the Apostles before they were Martyred —-- and who, in scattered parts of the Roman Empire, were already familiar with the Christian tradition passed on through the Church. Some of the other Apostles were not Martyred until later --— John did not die until the year 100. Some of these early writers were closer to John and other Apostles than we are to World War I. And this much is certain: if the Apostles, who lived with Our Lord and who heard Him speak on the open hills and in the temple --— who listened to Him preach on the Kingdom of God forty days after His Resurrection --— did not teach the Virgin Birth, no one else would have taught it. It was too unusual an idea for men to make up; it would have been ordinarily too difficult for acceptance if it had not come from Christ Himself!
The one man who might be most inclined to doubt the historical fact of the Virgin Birth on natural grounds (because he was a physician) was the second Evangelist, St. Luke. And yet he tells us the most about it. From the beginning Our Lord had many enemies. Certain aspects of His teaching were denied by heretics, but there was one teaching that no early heretic denied, and that was that He was born of a Virgin. One would think that this should have been the doctrine first attacked, but the Virgin Birth was accepted by believers and early heretics alike. It would have been silly to try to convince anyone of the Virgin Birth if he did not already believe in the Divinity of Christ; that is why, probably, it would have been unwise for Mary to speak of it until after the Resurrection, although Joseph, Elizabeth, and probably John the Baptist already knew of it --— and, need we say, the Son of God Himself, Who brought it all to pass.
"One-texters" say that the Bible speaks of Our Lord as having brethren; therefore, they conclude, He was not born of a Virgin. But this claim can be answered. When a preacher in a pulpit addresses his congregation, "My dear brethren," it does not mean that everyone in the Church has the same mother. Secondly, the word "brother" is used in Sacred Scripture in the wide sense, to cover not only one's relatives but also one's friends; for example, Abraham calls Lot his brother: "Pray let us have no strife between us two, between my shepherds and thine; are we not brethren?" (Gen. 13:8). But Lot was not his brother. Thirdly, several who are mentioned as brothers of Christ, such as James and Joseph, are indicated elsewhere as the sons of another Mary, the sister of the mother of Jesus and wife of Cleophas! "And meanwhile ' his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen, had taken their stand beside the Cross of Jesus" (Jn. 19:25). Fourthly, James, who is particularly mentioned as the brother of Jesus: "But I did not see any of the other Apostles, except James, the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1:19), is regularly named, in the enumeration of the Apostles, as the son of another father, Alphaeus (Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15).
The so-called brethren of Our Lord are nowhere mentioned in the Scripture as the sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary. Our Blessed Lord Himself used the term "brethren" in a large sense. "For one is your Master; and all you are brethren" (Mt. 23:8). "And stretching forth His hand towards His Disciples He said: 'Behold ... my brethren' " (Mt. 12:49). Nowhere in Scripture is it said that Joseph had begotten brothers and sisters of Jesus, as nowhere does it say that Mary had other children besides her Divine Son.
The Gospel of St. John assumes the Virgin Birth. We humans can be born twice: once of our parents and once of the Holy Spirit, given to us by Our Lord in Baptism. This is what Our Lord meant when He told the old man Nicodemus that he must be born again, the first birth being of the flesh, the second of the spirit. What makes us Christian is this second birth through Baptism. But notice how it relates to the Virgin Birth of Our Lord. St. John, in the beginning of his Gospel, says that Our Lord gave us the "power to become the Sons of God." Then he tells us that this happens by a birth. But he immediately distinguishes, saying that it is not like a human birth, because there is in it neither blood, nor sex, nor human will, but solely the power of God. This statement of St. John assumes a common knowledge of the Virgin Birth. But how could any Christian understand such a birth, if it had not already happened? No one who at the end of the first century read the beginning of the Gospel of St. John was amazed that he should speak of a new generation without sex. For by this time, the whole Christian world knew that that is how Christianity had come into being. The Virgin Birth is God's idea, not man's. No one would have thought of it, if it had never happened. Pagan religions have no idea of it; their myths are of the union of gods with women, who bore children following a sexual union. All the love stories of Zeus and the other gods were of this anthropomorphic character. Nothing could be further from the truth than to represent these births as "virgin births."
St. Paul also implies the Virgin Birth of Christ by the use of a different word for "birth." Speaking of the earthly origin of the Son of God, he writes: "That Gospel, promised long ago by means of His prophets in the holy Scriptures, tells us of his Son, descended, in respect of his human birth, from the line of David, but, in respect of the sanctified spirit that was His, marked out miraculously as the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead; Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 1:14). "Then God sent out his Son on a mission to us. He took birth from a woman, took birth as a subject of the law, so as to ransom those who were subject to the law, and make us sons by adoption" (Gal. 4:4-5). "He dispossessed Himself, and took the nature of a slave, fashioned in the likeness of men, and presenting Himself to us in human form" (Phil. 2:7). Whenever St. Paul describes the early incarnation of Our Lord, he never uses the ordinary word to describe birth, which word is used in every other New Testament passage: namely, the verb gennao. But in the four instances where he touches on the temporal beginnings of the Son of God, he uses an entirely different word, genemenos, which comes from an entirely different verb, ginomai.
Never once does he employ the word gennao of Our Lord and His Mother, the word meaning "to be born," which is used throughout the New Testament; but when he speaks of the coming of Our Lord, he uses a form of the verb ginomai which means "to come into existence," "to become." In one passage (Gal. 4:23, 24, 29) he uses the verb "to be born" three times, to describe the birth of Ishmael and Jacob, but refuses to use it in the same chapter and context for the birth of Christ. The New Testament thirty-three times speaks of the birth of a child, and in each instance uses the word gennao, but it is never once used by St. Paul to describe the birth of Christ. St. Paul absolutely avoids saying Our Lord was born in the usual way. Our Lord was born into the human family; He was not born of it. God formed Adam, the first man, without the seed of a man, so why should we shrink from the thought that the new Adam would also be formed without the seed of a man? As Adam was made of the earth, into which God breathed a living soul, so the body of Christ was formed in the flesh of Mary by the Holy Spirit. So firmly rooted was the Virgin Birth in Christian tradition that none of the early apologists ever had to defend the Virgin Birth. It was believed in even by heretics, as surely as the Crucifixion, because it stood on the same footing as a historical fact.
There are two birth stories in the Gospel: those of Jesus and of John the Baptist. But notice the different stress in each story. The Gospel story of John the Baptist centers on the father, Zachary. The Gospel story of the birth of Jesus centers on the mother, Mary. In each instance, there were difficulties from the scientific point of view. Zachary was an old man, and his wife had long since passed the age of bearing children. "And Zachary said to the Angel: 'By what sign am I to be assured of this? I am an old man now, and my wife is far advanced in age’ " (Lk. 1:18). "But Mary said to the Angel, 'How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?’ " (Lk. 1:34). Mary was a Virgin with the vow of virginity. The power of God had to operate in both cases, with Zachary doubting, and Mary accepting. For his doubt, Zachary was made dumb for a time.
No one ever makes a fuss against Zachary and Elizabeth bearing "the greatest man ever born of woman," but some do fuss about the Virgin Birth. This is not because of the human difficulties, for to God these are surmountable. The real reason for incredulity is that the attack on the Virgin Birth is a subtle attack on the Divinity of Christ. He who believes that Our Lord is true God and true man never is troubled with the Virgin Birth.