When Larry King was asked who he would most like to interview among all the famous characters of history, his answer was clear: “Jesus Christ”. The talk show host wanted to know if Christ had indeed been born of a virgin. “The answer to that question would define history for me,” King said.
Undoubtedly, the virgin birth remains one of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ life. His birth is the subject of controversy for opponents of Christianity, be they Jewish people, secular philosophers and scholars, humanist rationalists, or atheists.
The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is not only denied by sceptics and critics of the religious, but even by some theologians. In an attempt to harmonize anti-supernaturalist thinking with the Church’s teachings about Christ, modernist theologians claim that ancient people had a mythical view of the world. Nowadays, they say, “demystifying” Scripture is a necessity, in order to create a modern faith, free from miracles and all the vestiges of pre-scientific thinking. In this sense, the virgin birth is rather a figure of speech. Ancient peoples often attributed the uncommon superiority of a certain public figure to the fact that his mother was a virgin.
“I do not believe in the Virgin Birth, and I hope none of you do.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), American pastor of liberal orientation
Another explanation of the virgin birth, proposed by critics, is the hypothesis of an “illegitimate messiah”. Extracting an obscure piece of information from the Talmud and some Hebrew stories about a certain Yeshu ben Pantera, some liberal critics and theologians believe that Jesus, the son of Mary, was fathered by a certain Pantera, a soldier in the Roman army. The story is quite old, because in 178 AD, Origen, quoting his opponent Celsus, refers to the same scenario. This theory was revived by Marcello Craveri, who, in 1966, published La vita di Gesù (The Life of Jesus) and claimed to have discovered Jesus’ true father: Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera. The theory was based on the discovery of a tombstone in 1859, during the construction of a railway in Bingerbrück, Germany, on which the following Latin text was written:
Tib(erius) Iul(ius) Abdes Pantera
Sidonia ann(orum) LXII
stipen(diorum) XXXX miles exs(ignifer?
coh(orte) I sagittariorum
h(ic) s(itus) e(st)
Tiberius Iulius Abdes Panther
of Sidon, 62,
served 40 years, former flag bearer
cohort I of Sagittarius
The connection between Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera and Mary is based on a multitude of assumptions that cannot be substantiated. First of all, Celsus’ statement that a certain Pantera is the father of Jesus cannot be proved. Celsus brings no evidence, only claiming to have heard this story from an unnamed Jew. There is no indication that this Roman soldier ever met Mary. Critics of Christianity have made all kinds of accusations about them (such as cannibalism or incest), which turned out to be false and malicious.
Jesus’ birth has been the target of ironic insinuations ever since His lifetime, as John the evangelist relates: “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself” (John 8:41). The theory of illegitimacy may have been launched by the Jews as a reply to Jesus’ claim that God was His father. Most likely, hearing Christians speak of Jesus as the “son of the virgin” (parthenos in Greek means “virgin”), the Jews used a mocking pun, calling him ben ha-Pantera (son of Pantera).
The pre-existence of the Messiah
The birth of Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament. The four canonical Gospels emphasise, in unison, the fulfilment of messianic expectations in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. An important passage, quoted in the Gospel of Matthew, is Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This prophecy has an immediate historical context, but at the same time, given the following passages, we understand that the promise of the birth of a son does not strictly concern King Ahaz, but also has a messianic fulfilment: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
In light of the passage in Isaiah, and also in Micah 5:2, the pre-existence of the Messiah was implied in the Jewish context. “From the beginning of the creation of the world, king Messiah was born, for he entered the mind (of God) before even the world was created” (Pesikta Rab., 152 b). 
Matthew’s quote from Isaiah is not intended to prove that Mary was a virgin (which is explicitly mentioned in the Gospel narrative), but to show that Jesus is the expected Messiah, that is, “God with us”, or God incarnate. The Hebrew word almah (translated as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14) appears only 9 times throughout the Old Testament, but never necessarily meaning ‘virgin’. Therefore, translators prefer to render it as “young” (married or not). If the biblical author had intended to convey the categorical idea of virgin birth, it would certainly have been more appropriate for the specific Hebrew term for virgin, bethulah, meaning a woman who has never had sexual relations. The immediate context of the passage in Isaiah 7:14 emphasizes the birth itself and not the way in which it would be realised, namely, whether the child will be born of a virgin or a young woman who was already married.
In the Hebrew context, the Messiah was not expected to be born of a virgin. Not even in the Essenes’ community, which was fully eschatologically oriented and looked upon marriage and sexual intercourse with restraint, is the idea of a Messiah born of a virgin to be found.
Critics of the virgin birth believe that we are dealing with a classic case of syncretism. It is assumed that the pagans who converted to Christianity attributed what was commonly found in heroes and demigods to Jesus, that is, a miraculous birth. The theory does not stand, because it is very difficult to explain how Jewish Christians would have accepted the idea of a miraculous birth if it belonged to a community of Gentile Christians. Also, how could this idea be accepted so early that it was even included in the Gospels, that is, during the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples? In fact, history shows that the virgin birth is not a mythological sequence.
Mesopotamians and Egyptians: In Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology, we find two kinds of miraculous births: that of the gods and that of emperors who were considered demigods (like the pharaohs)—that is, the fruit of the union between a god and a human being. In neither of the two situations is the mother’s virginity particularly emphasized.
Indians: In some Hindu movements, Krishna was born of a virgin as the incarnation of Vishnu—considered the Supreme Being. But Hinduism also claims that Vishnu incarnated as a fish, a turtle, or a lion.
Persians: Zoroaster’s birth is said to have been foretold, and the Persians claimed that demons were trying to end his life from infancy, but, protected by the god Ahura Mazda, he would survive. Unlike the alleged Zoroastrian origin of the idea of a virgin birth, ancient Zoroastrian writings say that the prophet was born out of normal conjugal relations between parents, and the demons tried to prevent his conception. A much later tradition, on the other hand, claims that Zoroaster’s mother, Dughdova, was a virgin, and that the birth happened in a flash of light.
Greeks and Romans: Later, the leitmotif of the birth of great heroes as a result of the relationship between gods and humans is found in Greek and Roman worldviews. Unlike the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Greco-Roman stories are quite romanticized, the birth of the child being generally the fruit of a passionate love between the god and a beautiful earthling. For example, Zeus falls in love with Danae and enters the girl’s bedroom in the form of a golden rain. From his love for Danae, Perseus was born. Another hero, Heracles (called Hercules by the Romans) is the son of Zeus and Alcmene. In order to join Alcmene, Zeus is said to have taken on the appearance of her husband, Amphitryon, who had gone to war. Caesar Augustus claimed to have been born after a relationship between a god (who took the form of a serpent) and his mother, Olympia.
There are major differences between pagan mythologies, which generally depict the birth of a certain hero after sexual union between deities and women, and the Gospel narratives, which describe the act of conceiving Jesus as the result of a supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit. The former are stories about the concubinage between deities and people, totally different from the biblical account. “The yawning chasm between these pagan myths of polytheistic promiscuity and the lofty monotheism of the virgin birth of Jesus is too wide for careful research to cross.” The similarities are too few and the differences too great. Therefore, Mary does not appear in the guise of a girl seduced by divinity, but of a humble servant who receives the news with obedience and faithfulness.
What do the Gospels say?
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:18-25, NIV)
From the Gospels’ point of view (Matthew chapter 1 and Luke chapter 1 and 2), the virgin birth of Jesus is a consequence of the divine plan for Him to come into our world as the Son of God. In fact, the emphasis is not so much on the virgin birth as it is on the miraculous birth “of the Holy Spirit”.
In the prologue to his Gospel, John confirms the supernatural origin of Jesus Christ: “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… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14). Certainly, the birth of the Son of God could have taken place in an ordinary, domestic context, but challenges to the idea of Christ’s divine origin would have been much fiercer. The virgin birth highlights the supernatural character of Jesus. He is not a simple man, or just a charismatic rabbi. He came into this world from outside, in a way that left no doubt about His origin.
The virgin birth of Jesus proves, first of all, that Jesus was human. This has implications for understanding the human dimension of Jesus’ life. Temptations and passions were real to Him, as they can be to any human being. Also, the virgin birth gives Jesus a unique status. He is the only one in human history who came into the world in this way. His unique birth is, in a sense, the preface to a unique life, a unique destiny. Jesus came into the world like no other, and lived and died like no other. Then, the virgin birth points to the old messianic promise in Genesis 3:15. God had promised that the “offspring of the woman,” not the man’s, would crush the serpent’s head (that is, defeat Satan). The virgin birth confirmed the fulfilment of this promise. Jesus was the Messiah who was to defeat God’s adversary.
Those close to him believed that Jesus was “the carpenter’s son”, but He acknowledged only one father—His heavenly Father.
The doctrine of the virgin birth has implications for the doctrines of the incarnation of Christ and of His divinity. It is not a theological trend, but the natural consequence of recognizing the divine origin of Jesus. Denial of the virgin birth means denial of the divinity of Jesus. If He were only the product of ordinary sexual union between a man and a woman, Jesus would have been, at most, a deified man, not God incarnate. But if He was born of a virgin, this fact elucidates the whole story: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).