The Christmas story is one of the most phenomenal stories in history! And there is good news. The visits from angels, a guiding star, and the virgin conception are all true!
Commonly referred to as the “virgin birth,” the story of Jesus coming to earth is perhaps more accurately termed the “virgin conception.” And it is the basis of the Christmas story.
Today, we can trust that all the miracles leading to the birth of Jesus are true. And that belief doesn’t mean abandoning our intelligence.
Table of Contents
- The Christmas Story According to the Bible
- The Miracles of the Christmas Story
- 6 Criticisms Against the Christmas Story
- 1. “New Testament documents are unreliable resources.”
- 2. “The genealogy accounts in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23b-38) are contradictory.”
- 3. “If the virgin conception/ Incarnation is so important, why isn’t it mentioned in the other gospels or epistles?”
- 4. “There are no corroborating witnesses, that is, no eyewitnesses who saw the event”
- 5. Skeptics believe they have uncovered a historical contradiction regarding the census mentioned in Luke 2:1-3
- Response to the claim of historical contradiction:
- 6. “The virgin conception is a myth stolen from Egyptian, Greek, or Roman Mythology.”
- 3 Additional Proofs for the Virgin Conception and Truthfulness of the Christmas Story
- What’s Your Next Step?
The Christmas Story According to the Bible
Matthew (Matthew 1:18–25) and Luke (Luke 1:26–38) are two essential books of the Bible that tell how Jesus’ mother, Mary, conceived and gave birth to a child (Jesus) by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Mary was a young virgin (parthenos; Luke 1:34) engaged to Joseph (Luke 1:27). So when an angel named Gabriel visited her and explained that she would become pregnant (Luke 1:26-31), it must have seemed impossible.
But through a miracle of God, she conceived Jesus (Matt 1:18) and remained a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus (Matt. 1:25).
In addition to the scorn and skepticism of others, Mary’s pregnancy had additional challenges. Because of a Roman census (Luke 2:1–4), Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth (Luke 1:26) to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7). Once there, Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus, in a stable. She wrapped him up and laid him in a feeding trough for animals (i.e., manger; Luke 2:4-7).
Simultaneously, angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds. We also read about a multitude of heavenly hosts that praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-20)
The Miracles of the Christmas Story
The Christmas story is based on the virgin conception. And the virgin conception is the miracle of the Triune God (i.e., Trinity).
God the Father sent God the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of a virgin named Mary (Luke 1:26-35; cf. Matt. 1:18).
This miracle is called the Incarnation–a theological term that means “God in bodily form.”
In other words, Jesus, who is fully God (Col. 1:15, 19) also became fully human by taking on a perfect human nature (John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 John 4:2; cf. Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:7-8).
But why do we refer to the miracle as the “virgin conception” rather than virgin birth? Because the “conception” is the miracle, not the (natural) birth.
The truthfulness of the virgin conception is under constant attack.
But the basis for the Christmas story can be proved in two ways: (1) by looking at the common criticism against the virgin conception and (2) by looking at the supporting evidence that the Christmas story is true!
6 Criticisms Against the Christmas Story
1. “New Testament documents are unreliable resources.”
Response: In response to this criticism, we can point to two key things that confirm the truthfulness of the virgin conception. Firstly, the reliability of the New Testament documents. And secondly on the New Testament witnesses.
Irrefutable evidence establishes the reliability of the documents and witnesses. In fact, the New Testament’s reliability exceeds any book from the ancient world. If that doesn’t convince you, allow me to share some additional facts about the New Testament’s authenticity:
- New Testament manuscript copies come from originals written by eyewitnesses soon after the events.
- There are multiple manuscript copies–dated nearer to the originals.
- The manuscript copies are copied with 99.5 percent accuracy.
The New Testament documents are more authentic than any other book from antiquity. And they have been corroborated by external evidence.
Additionally, the New Testament authors accurately recorded the events they witnessed. The disciples were men of outstanding moral character. And all except John willingly died for what they believed (the resurrection).
2. “The genealogy accounts in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23b-38) are contradictory.”
Response: These lists are not contradictory but complementary. Two genealogies make sense because Jesus had two lines of ancestors.
Matthew traced Jesus’ lineage through Joseph (legal), while Luke traced his ancestry through Mary (actual).
So, while both lines trace Christ to King David, each is through a different son of David.
Matthew gives Joseph’s legal or official lineage.
- For Jews, the Messiah’s paternal lineage must come from the seed of Abraham and the line of David (cf. Matt. 1:1).
- Matthew traces Jesus through David’s son, Solomon. This heritage gives Jesus rightful inheritance to the throne of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12ff).
- However, Matthew uses a unique phrase at the end of the genealogy. “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16, emphasis added). This phrase suggests the Messiah came from a woman and not a natural father.
On the other hand, Luke lists Christ’s actual (biological) lineage through Mary.
- Luke’s purpose is to show Christ as an actual human.
- He traces Jesus to David’s son, Nathan, through Mary. It is through this lineage that Jesus can rightfully claim to be fully human, the redeemer of humanity.
- Further, Luke does not say that he is giving Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph. Instead, he makes the unusual claim that Jesus was only the “supposed” son of Joseph (Luke 3:23).
3. “If the virgin conception/ Incarnation is so important, why isn’t it mentioned in the other gospels or epistles?”
Response: To this criticism, I would respond: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Each gospel and epistle had a specific purpose and audience. The absence of the birth narrative in Mark and John does not mean it didn’t happen or the writer was unaware of it. In fact, Mark, John, and Paul all knew about the virgin conception and referred to it.
Mark (whose book was superintended by Peter) was the first gospel written. His book begins with Jesus’ public ministry and is brief with a sense of urgency.
But clearly, Mark knew Jesus’ birth narrative. He calls Jesus the “son of Mary” (Mark 6:3) rather than the “son of Joseph.”
Tracing lineage through the mother was very uncommon in a male-dominated culture. So, why did Mark use this unusual term? He did it to affirm that Jesus was indeed fully human.
John, too, was aware of Jesus’ miraculous conception. In John 8:41, Jesus’ enemies said, “We were not born of sexual immorality.” (John 8:41). They were implying Joseph was not Christ’s father. And that Jesus was illegitimate. Jesus responds with, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (8:46).
Paul also references the virgin conception. In Galatians 4:4, he writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” (Gal. 4:4; cf. Gen. 3:15, emphasis added).
“Born of a woman” refers to Jesus’ virgin conception; to be begotten of a woman is significant in the Jewish patriarchal culture.
4. “There are no corroborating witnesses, that is, no eyewitnesses who saw the event”
Response: Matthew and Luke had access to two incredibly-credible witnesses!
- Mary! Jesus’ mother was the most credible witness to the virgin conception of all. She must have told Luke of her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) in order for him to have written of it.
- Jesus’ half-brothers James (Gal. 1:19; cf. Matt.13:55; Acts 15:13, 21:18; 1Cor. 15:7; Jas. 1:1) and Jude (Jude 1; cf. Matt. 13:55) undoubtedly knew about Jesus’ birth from their mother, Mary, and father, Joseph. After their initial skepticism, they became Christians and martyrs for their beliefs.
5. Skeptics believe they have uncovered a historical contradiction regarding the census mentioned in Luke 2:1-3
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town” (Luke 2:1–3, emphasis added).
Let’s dive into the history to understand this objection more fully.
History records that King Herod died in 4 BC.
- Jesus was born around 6-4 BC (Matt. 2:1, 19-20; Luke 1:5).
- Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 AD, two years after Herod’s death.
- His census took place in 6 or 7 AD (Acts 5:37).
Based on this chronology, critics claim Jesus could not have been born during the census of AD 6-7. Therefore, Luke is in error.
Response to the claim of historical contradiction:
Luke was an impeccable historian. Archeology has proven his meticulous reporting. He perfectly describes more than 80 specific persons, places, events, and facts without error (Hemer, Ramsay, St. Paul)!
Luke would have known the dates of Jesus’ birth. He also knew the date of the 6-7 AD census because he referenced it in Acts 5:37! So, it is unlikely that such a meticulous historian would confuse these dates.
There are several ways to resolve the confusion.
Firstly, there is an alternative translation of Luke 2:2.
- F.F. Bruce suggests the word “first” (prōtos) in Luke 2:2 can be interpreted as “before.”
- Using Bruce’s interpretation, the translation reads, “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was” governor of Syria.”
- In other words, this alternative translation refers to an earlier or “first” census. One occurring before the more famous census of 6–7 AD.
Secondly, this “first” registration (enrollment list) probably refers to the first of three Roman censuses Augustus took during his 44-year reign (Augustus, Deeds) that occurred in 8-7 BC.
Since a Roman census was a massive project, it likely took several years to complete. Meaning it probably continued through Christ’s birth in 6-4 BC.
Thirdly, Quirinius possibly served as governor (also called a “legate”) of Syria on two occasions. He was elected to counsel in 12 BC and probably served with Varus as governor of Syria from 6- 2 BC. His second reign began about 6 AD. As such, he would have been governor during both censuses.
6. “The virgin conception is a myth stolen from Egyptian, Greek, or Roman Mythology.”
This theory argues that the early church used Egyptian (Horus), Persian (Mithras), or Hellenistic myths. They used them to propound that Jesus was the “Son of God.”
There are many reasons to reject this hypothesis. For instance:
- In Greek mythology, Zeus and other gods bore children (demigods) with humans. It was always through physical relations producing demigods (Perseus, Heracles, and Theseus).
- For a Jew, it would be blasphemous for God to engage in the lustful promiscuity of the Greek gods.
- Christians borrowing pagan mythology to enhance the standing of Jesus is wrong-headed. Christian teaching was clearly against paganism.
- Eyewitnesses wrote the New Testament (Luke 1:1-4) soon after the events. Therefore, there was not enough time for myths to develop.
- There are no literary marks of the myth genre on the virgin conception narratives. Instead, they contain precise and historically substantiated references. These include real people, places, and events (e.g., Luke 3:1–2)
- No Egyptian, Greek, or Roman myth corresponds to the virginal conception of a monotheistic God in human form (cf. Matt. 1:18–25; John 1:1–3, 14).
- Any stories of Greek gods becoming human via a virgin birth occurred after the time of Christ. Hence, Christianity influenced mythology, not the reverse.
- As mythology tells it, the Egyptian god Horus’ mother was not a virgin
- The Roman Mithras emerged a full adult from the side of a rock.
3 Additional Proofs for the Virgin Conception and Truthfulness of the Christmas Story
Now that we’ve refuted the common criticisms of the virgin conception, I want to offer three additional reasons to believe the virgin conception is confirmed.
1. Joseph’s Reaction Proves the Virgin Conception
There is unmistakable evidence for the truthfulness of the virgin conception. It is Joseph’s reaction. Mary was “pledged to be married” (Matt. 1:18), meaning she had not had sexual intercourse with Joseph.
But Mary conceived “before they came together.” Thus, it was not a natural conception.
Joseph’s initial reaction clearly shows that he had not had sexual intercourse with Mary. Clearly, he suspected infidelity. And he had decided to divorce her quietly not to embarrass her publicly (1:19).
In fact, an angel needed to appear to Joseph to reassure him of Mary’s miraculous conception (1:20).
Finally, Joseph’s reaction exemplifies the “principle of embarrassment.”
- Think of it this way: the narrative is likely true when an author reveals embarrassing details about a sympathetic character.
- So, when Matthew exposed Joseph’s embarrassing reaction, we are right to believe that this information supports the truthfulness of the virgin conception.
2. Fulfilled Prophecy Proves the Christmas Story
Firstly, Matthew 1:22-23 directly references Isaiah 7:14. This Isaiah quote is a prophecy about the virgin conception. He writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)” (cf. Is 9:6, 7; 11:1–5, emphasis added).
Secondly, Genesis 3:15 is the earliest Messianic prediction of a virgin conception. The reference “her offspring” implies the Messiah would come by a woman, not a natural father. This matriarchal reference is noteworthy in a patriarchal culture. Descendants were traced through their father (cf. Gen. 5; 11).
Additionally, Micah 5:2 prophesied Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
3. Finally, Christians should ask the critics, “Why would Matthew and Luke make the Christmas story up?”
Whether you face critics of the virgin conception or have some doubts yourself, it’s helpful to doubt those doubts!
By that, I mean that if a critic doesn’t believe the Christmas story, okay.
But how then do they explain the reason for the virgin conception accounts in the gospels?
We ask the critic three questions. For instance:
Firstly, the idea of God conceiving a child! “Why would devout Jews (Matthew and Paul–Luke’s primary resource) make up such a blasphemous story?
- They wouldn’t!
- Matthew and Luke’s sources include Jesus’ family, Mary, James, and Jude. They were God-fearing Jews who saw themselves in continuity with the Old Testament.
- Such people would not have made up an irreverent story of the virgin conception.
Secondly, “What is the plausible motivation for inventing and recording this fable?”
- There is none!
- It is inconceivable that Matthew, Luke, and Paul lied about the virgin conception.
- All the disciples except for John were martyred without ever recanting their beliefs.
Thirdly, “Where would such a story come from?”
- The Incarnation did not fit into first-century Jewish thinking.
- First-century Jews would not have expected a virgin birth based on the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. They interpreted the Hebrew word for virgin (alma) as “young woman.”
- They would not have used pagan myths (see above).
- Granted, the Old Testament does have miraculous birth stories. But there was a big difference. There was always a biological father.
In short, there is no intelligent reason for inventing the virgin conception.
Therefore, the only reason for recording the Christmas story is because it is TRUE!
What’s Your Next Step?
Christmas celebrates the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, the redeemer of humankind.
What does redeemer mean?
The word redeemed–and all that it signifies–demonstrates God himself (Jesus) took on human nature at the Incarnation. Jesus lived a sinless life.
In doing so, he willingly sacrificed himself for us. While on the cross, he took the punishment for our sins.
Now that is something worth celebrating.
Augustus, Caesar. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). #8. Trans. Thomas Bushnell. 1998.
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable. InterVarsity, 1960.
Corduan, W. No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity. Broadman & Holman, 1997, pp. 218–220
Elwell, W. A., B. J. Beitzel, B. J. “Virgin Birth of Jesus.” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, Baker, 1988, pp. 2124–2126.
Geisler, Norman L. “Virgin Birth of Christ.” The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide, Baker Books, 2012, pp. 577-582
Habermas, G. Verdict of History. Thomas Nelson, 1988.
Machen, J. G. The Virgin Birth of Christ. 1930. Baker, 1977.
Hemer, Colin J., The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Eisenbrauns, 1990.
Ramsay, William. St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
—. Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? 1898. New York: Putnam, 1960.
Youngblood, R. F., et al., eds. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.