Glossary of Terms

virgin & virgin birth


Oxford Dictionary of the Bible

by W.R.F. Browning (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996)

virgin birth The assertion in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born of Mary without the intervention of a human partner. The pregnancy was initiated by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35). The earliest writers in the NT (Mark and Paul) show no knowledge of such a virginal conception, and it is suggested that the narratives are a midrash on the LXX [Septuagint] of Isa. 7:14 which prophesies a birth from a virgin (in the Greek). The Greek parthnos was used to translate the Hebrew almah, which means a 'young woman', and is so translated at Isa 7:14 by NRSV, REB, NJB, thus correcting the 'virgin' of AV, RV. But modern translations of Matt. 1:23 correctly translate the Greek parthnos by 'virgin' because Matt. is quote the LXX. As early as the 2nd cent. CE the Jewish trontroversalist Trypho was pointing out that the Hebrew did not mean a virgin but that Isa. 7:14 was referring to the natural birth of Hezekiah. Indeed the LXX went out of favour with Greek-speaking Jews, who opted for the literal translation by Aquila in the early and cent. CE. Later in the 2nd cent. the pagan philospher Celsus claimed that Jesus' father was Panthera, a Roman soldier.

Since historical enquiries cannot settle the truth or otherwise of the gospels' accounts, theological arguments are brought in. In favour of the traditional doctrine it is argued that it is appropriate as a means by which God made a decisive break with the old, sinful humanity and inaugurated in Jesus a new, untainted humanity. The miraculous birth came to be regarded as a sign of the divine nature of Jesus. On the other hand, some modern theologians argue that the doctrine must imply that the humanity of Jesus was somehow impaired, since with only one parent he could not have been fully human. If Jesus was provided miraculously with chromosomes, specially created by God, with no human ancestry, how did he have a human inheritance, of the house of David (Matt. 1:17,20; Rom 1:3)?

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

virgin (Heb. bethulah, lit. ‘separated’; Gk. parthenos), in the ot a woman who has not had sexual intercourse with a man, although the word translated ‘virgin’ (bethulah) may also mean simply a young woman of marriageable age, as does the word almah (incorrectly translated ‘virgin’ in the rsv). Bethulah is also used of Israel in the ot (e.g., Jer. 18:15), and frequently in a figurative way when the fate of cities is at issue (e.g., Isa. 23:10, 12).

The Greek word parthenos, used to translate both Hebrew words in the lxx, does not necessarily mean ‘virgin,’ but it is so used in the NT. Paul encourages virgins, both male and female, not to marry, but he does permit it (1 Cor. 7:25-38). The four virgin daughters of Philip who prophesied (Acts 21:9) may be related to the origin of the later order of virgins. Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrneans refers to women in the order of widows (see 1 Tim. 5:9) as virgins. The word is also used metaphorically of the church (2 Cor. 11:2-3) and of the morally faithful (Rev. 14:4).

virgin birth, the tradition of Mary’s conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit apart from sexual intercourse, explicitly mentioned in the nt only in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. In Matt. 1:18-25 it appears as the fulfillment of Isa. 7:14 that a virgin (Gk. parthenos, used in the lxx to translate the Heb. almah, a young woman of marriageable age) would conceive and bear a son. In Luke 1:26-38 miraculous conception (vv. 34, 37) is linked with the title Son of God applied to Jesus, a title formerly used of Davidic kings (cf. vv. 32, 35 with 2 Sam. 7:12-14, Ps. 2:6-7).

Suggested allusions to the tradition elsewhere in the nt (e.g., Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Luke 4:22; John 1:13, 14; Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 7:3) are generally regarded by scholars as uncertain or implausible. The genealogies in Matt. 1:1-16 and Luke 3:28-38 assume Joseph’s paternity, as do Luke 2:41-51 and John 1:45, 6:42.

Mary’s virginal conception is mentioned in early post-nt writings, some of which show it was contested (see The Gospel of Philip 55:23-25).


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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