B. W. Randolph.

The Virgin-Birth of Our Lord A paper read (in substance) before the confraternity of the Holy Trinity at Cambridge online

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But if such was the belief of Christians everywhere in the early
years of the second century, can we trace the evidence further
back? In answering this question, we are brought face to face
with the Gospels. But first it must be noted that the positive
evidence for such a subject must, in the nature of the case, be
much more limited than the evidence for the Resurrection. The
Apostles were primarily witnesses of what they themselves had seen.
There are two persons, and two only, from whom we could reasonably
expect to hear the truth about the mystery of the miraculous
Conception - Mary and Joseph; and when we open the Gospels we have,
as everybody knows, two narratives of the Nativity - St. Luke's
and St. Matthew's.

(I) St. Luke, in describing the Nativity, is using an Aramaic
document. There is a great difference in style between the preface,
which is his own, and that of the narrative which follows. It was
an Aramaic document (as Godet, Weiss, and Dr. Sanday agree); but
more than this, as Bishop Gore has pointed out: "It breathes the
spirit of the Messianic hope, before it had received the rude and
crushing blow involved in the rejection of the Messiah."* The
Christology of the passage is pre-Christian: "He shall be great,
and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall
give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign
over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there
shall be no end."+

* Gore, Dissertations, p. 16.
+ St. Luke i. 32, 33.
"How can all this," Dr. Chase asks, "be the invention of a believer
in the Messiahship of Jesus when the Jews had rejected Him, and
when the Resurrection and Ascension had raised the conception
of His Messiahship to the height of a spiritual and universal
sovereignty? The Christology of these passages is a striking proof
of their primitive character."# It is indeed difficult to see how
men can read the Benedictus or Magnificat without realizing this.
Every verse in them is full of Jewish thought and Jewish
expressions, such as would have been impossible had they been the
inventions of a later date.

# Chase, Supernatural Elements in our Lord's Earthly Life.

That is to say, these two chapters bear traces on the face of them
of being what they profess to be - a true and genuine account of
the human Birth of Jesus Christ, received ultimately from her who
alone could be competent to give it - the Virgin-Mother herself. For
it must be Mary's account if it is genuine. It is given to us by
St. Luke, who tells us that he "had traced the course of all things
accurately from the first," and who had gathered information
concerning, be it observed, "those things which are most surely
believed among the disciples."* "It is an account," says Bishop
Gore, "which there is no evidence to show the imagination of an
early Christian capable of producing; for its consummate fitness,
reserve, sobriety, and loftiness are unquestionable. What solid
reason is there for not accepting it?"+ It is extraordinarily
difficult to imagine that St. Luke, whose accuracy and care have
been, in recent years, so severely tested and found not wanting,
should have been so careless as to append to his Gospel a spurious
account of so momentous an occurrence as the human Birth of our
Lord. "Historical accuracy is not a capricious and intermittent
impulse," writes Bishop Alexander. "It is a fixed habit of mind,
the result of a particular discipline. Historians of the school
of the author of the Acts of the Apostles are not men to build a
flamboyant portal of romance over the entrance to the austere
temple of truth."#

* St. Luke i. 1-4.
+ Gore, Dissertations, p. 18.
# Bishop Alexander's Leading Ideas of the Gospels, pp. 154, 155.

(2) The account in St. Matthew's Gospel, if genuine, must have
come from Joseph. It is his perplexities which are in question,
and Divine intimations are given to him, on three occasions,
how to act for the safety of the mother and the Child. The facts
which appear in the Third Gospel are clearly prior to those
reported in the First: the Annunciation, Mary's visit to Judaea,
her return to Nazareth, precede Joseph's discovery and dream,
which follow appropriately upon the Virgin's return. How this
account has been preserved in the First Gospel we do not know,
for we know so very little about the authorship of that Gospel;
but there is nothing at all unreasonable in Bishop Gore's
conjecture* that St. Joseph (who must have died before the public
ministry of our Lord began) left some document detailing the
circumstances of the Birth of Jesus Christ; that this document
would have been given to Mary (to vindicate, by means of it, when
occasion demanded, her own virginity), and that after Pentecost
she may have given it to the family of Joseph, the now believing
"brethren of the Lord," and from their hands it passed into those
of the author of the First Gospel.

* Gore, Dissertations, pp. 28, 29.

The Evangelist dwells, as is well known, on the fulfilment of
prophecy; but in regard to the particular prophecy of Isaiah,
"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call
His name Immanuel,"* it cannot with any probability be said that
the prophecy suggested the event; for it does not seem at all
likely that there was any Jewish expectation that the Christ
should be born of a Virgin. We can understand the prophecy being
adduced in order to attest a story already current (this would be
wholly after St. Matthew's method); but the prophecy itself, with
one's eye on the Hebrew text of Isaiah,+ could scarcely have led
to the fabrication of this particular story about the Messiah's
birth. Probably the notion of a Virgin-born Messiah would have
been alien to ordinary Jewish ideas.# In any case, the Jews did not
so interpret the passage, and in fact, to quote Professor Stanton,
"It is an instance in which the principle would hold that it is
more easy to suppose the meaning of prophetic language to have
been strained to fit facts, than that facts should have been
invented to correspond with prophetic language."^ That is to say,
it is wholly reasonable and entirely in keeping with the method of
the first Evangelist, that when once he had come to know that the
Messiah had been born in Bethlehem of a Virgin-Mother, he should
have recognized in that wondrous birth the fulfilment of the ancient
prophecy of Isaiah. He would then see that whatever primary and
lesser fulfilment the words of Isaiah might have, they were only
completely fulfilled in Him who is the end of all prophecy, who was
conceived of the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary.|
* Isa. vii. 14.
+ See Note at the end.
# So Dr. Chase.
^ Stanton, Jewish and Christian Messiah, p. 378.
| See Eck, The Incarnation, p. 87.

It is hard to bring one's self to speak of the theory put forward
by Professor Usener, in which he says that the story of the
Virgin-Birth is traceable "to a pagan substratum, and that it must
have arisen in Gentile circles."* Surely this is wholly contrary
to all probability. How can any serious student think that any but
Jewish hands could have penned the first two chapters of St.
Matthew's Gospel? "The story," says Professor Chase, "moves, like
that of St. Luke, within the circle of Eastern conceptions; it is
pre-eminently and essentially Jewish. Moreover, if time is to be
found for the complicated interaction between paganism and
Christianity which this theory involves, the First and Third
Gospels must be placed at a date which I believe is
quite untenable."+

* Encyc. Bibl., iii. 3352.
+ Chase, Supernatural Elements in our Lord's Earthly Life, p. 21.

That there are differences and even discrepancies between the two
accounts, which are manifestly independent of one another, serves
surely to strengthen their witness to the great central fact in
which they are at one - that Christ was born of a Virgin-Mother
at Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the king.

There appears, then, to be no reason for doubting that in St.
Luke's Gospel we have a genuine account derived from Mary herself,
and that in St. Matthew's Gospel we have an account left by
St. Joseph, "worked over by the Evangelist in view of his
predominant interest - that of calling attention to the fulfilments
of prophecies."* Wherever, therefore, these two Gospels had reached
in the second half of the first century, there the story of the
Virgin-Birth was known. If the story thus attested by the first and
third Evangelists were really a fiction, it is hard indeed to
believe that it would not have been contradicted by some who were
still living, and who knew that the story was different from that
which the Mother herself had delivered them. "If," says Dean Alford,
speaking of the Third Gospel, "not the mother of our Lord herself,
yet His brethren were certainly living; and the universal reception
of the Gospel in the very earliest ages sufficiently demonstrates
that no objection to this part of the sacred narrative had been
heard of as raised by them."+

* Gore, Dissertations, p. 29.
+ Greek Test., vol. i. Prolog. sect. viii. p. 48.

There is no other alternative but to regard both stories as legends
independently circulated in the ancient Church. "So artificial an
explanation would probably have found little favour with scholars
if there had been no miracle to suggest it. It is too commonly
assumed that evidence which would be good under ordinary
circumstances is bad where the supernatural is involved."*

Certainly it would seem to be in a high degree improbable that
two such accounts as those of the Birth of Jesus Christ which we
have in these two Gospels should be the work of forgers; and this
improbability is further heightened when we compare them with the
legendary accounts of His infancy which were actually current in
the early centuries.+

* Swete, Church Congress Report (1902), p. 163.
+ See Preface, p. xi.



What are the objections brought against all this evidence? The main
objection is the silence of the other writers of the New Testament.
To reply -

(I) First, we may surely ask - Why should they mention it? This sort
of argument from silence is most precarious. Are we to infer that
because there is no mention of the Cross or the Crucifixion in the
Epistles of St. James or of St. Jude, that it was unknown to this
group of writers, and that they were unaware of the manner of
Christ's Death?

"We might much more naturally infer it than we may infer that
the Virgin-Birth was unknown because St. James speaks of Christ's
Death, and it would therefore have been quite natural for him to
speak of the exact mode of it, whereas our Lord's Birth is very
seldom referred to in the New Testament, and when it is referred
to it would not have aided the argument, or been at all to the
point to mention how that Birth was brought about."*

* A. J. Mason, in the Guardian, November 19, 1902.

Or, because St. John omits all mention of the institution of the
Holy Eucharist, are we to suppose that he knew nothing of that

(2) The subject of the Virgin-Birth was not one which the Apostles
would be likely to dwell on much. They were above all witnesses of
what they had seen and heard. They come before us insisting,
therefore, on what they could themselves personally
attest - especially on the Resurrection. They had seen and heard
the risen Christ, and the Resurrection was at once a vindication
of His Messianic claims, and a manifestation of the dignity of
His Person. "This praeternatural fact, the fulfilment of the
'sign'+ which He had Himself promised, a fact concerning the
reality of which they offered themselves as witnesses, would carry
with it a readiness to accept a fact like the Virgin-Birth,
concerning which the same sort of evidence was not possible."^

+ St. John ii. 18, 19; St. Matt. xii. 40.
^ Hall, The Virgin-Mother, p. 215.

Belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, belief in His Life, in
His Death, in His miracles, in His Resurrection, - these came first,
and these were the subjects of Apostolic preaching,* and belief
in His Virgin-Birth (ultimately attested by Mary and Joseph)
easily followed.

* Acts i. 22; ii. 32.

It is instructive in this connection to draw attention to the Acts
of the Apostles. As every one knows, it is St. Luke's second
volume - the Third Gospel being his first. Now, the Gospel begins
with the account of Christ's miraculous Conception and Birth, but
there is no reference to these mysteries in the rest of the Gospel
or in the Acts. "The reason for the silence in the Acts is the same
as for the silence in the subsequent chapters of the Gospel. The
Jews had to learn the meaning of the Person of Christ from His own
revelation of Himself in His words and works. To have begun with
proclaiming the story of His miraculous Birth would have created
prejudice and hindered the reception of that revelation.

"Similarly, in the Acts, both Jews and Gentiles had first to learn
in the experience of the life of the Church what Jesus had done and
said. Only when they had learned that, was it time to go on and ask
who He was and whence He came."+

The same point is illustrated by St. Mark's silence. "Had he given
any account of our Lord's early years, there would be some ground
for pitting him (so to speak) against St. Matthew and St. Luke."^
But this Gospel begins, as every one knows, with the public
ministry of our Lord. It is, in fact, the Gospel which reflects
the oral teaching and preaching of St. Peter, and so it begins
naturally enough at the point where that Apostle first came in
contact with Christ.

+ Rackham, Acts of the Apostles, p. lxxiv.
^ Hall, The Virgin-Mother, p. 217.

(3) If in these writers of the New Testament expressions had been
used inconsistent with the Virgin-Birth, it would be a very
serious matter: but what are the facts? In the few cases where
the Birth is mentioned, there is nothing said which implies that
His Birth in the flesh was analogous in all respects to ours.

Consider St. John's Gospel. The silence on the Virgin-Birth can
occasion, one would think, no real difficulty. His Gospel is a
supplementary record, and he does not, for the most part, repeat
historical statements already made by the other Evangelists. It
seems altogether impossible to suppose that St. John was ignorant
of the Virgin-Birth. Ignatius, who was Bishop of Antioch quite at
the beginning of the second century, and therefore only a few
years after the writing of this Gospel, calls it (the
Virgin-Birth) a mystery of open proclamation in the Church.
(Eph., 19.) Indeed, on any theory of the date or authorship of
this Gospel, there is every reason for believing that the
Virgin-Birth was, at the time it was compiled, part and parcel of
the tradition of the Church. But when St. John does speak of the
Incarnation, in the prologue to his Gospel, when he says, "The
Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," (St. John i. 14.) there
is nothing in these words to suggest anything inconsistent with
the miraculous story related by St. Matthew and St. Luke. In fact,
we may say more than this. We may say that his teaching about the
Pre-existent Divine Logos who "was made flesh, and dwelt among
us," is felt to be a natural explanation of St. Matthew's
narrative as well as of St. Luke's; for, as we shall see, it is
the question of the Divine Pre-existence of the Logos on which the
reasonableness of the doctrine of the Virgin-Birth really turns.
St. John does, in fact, in connection with this mystery of the
Virgin-Birth, what he does in the case of Baptism and the Holy
Eucharist, "he supplies the justifying principle - in this case the
principle of the Incarnation - without supplying what was
already current and well known, the record of the fact."*

* Gore, Dissertations, p. 8, seq.

And it may be added, further, that Mary's word at Cana of Galilee:
"They have no wine," and her subsequent order to the servants:
"Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it," (St. John ii. 3, 5.)
are a clear indication that in the view of St. John she regarded
Him as a miraculous Person, and expected of Him miraculous action.+
I think that, in regard to the Gospels, their relationship to
one another may be summed up in the words of Bishop Alexander:
"The fact of the Incarnation is recorded by St. Matthew and
St. Luke; it is assumed by St. Mark; the idea which vitalizes
the fact is dominant in St. John."^

+ Gore, loc. cit.
^ Bishop Alexander's Leading Ideas, Introd., p. xxiv.

Consider next St. Paul's references to the Incarnation: -

"God sent forth His Son, born of a woman." (Gal. iv. 4) He does
not say, "born of human parents."

"His Son our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according
to the flesh." (Rom. i. 3.)

"Being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with
God; but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form
of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men." (Phil. ii. 6, 7.)

These are the passages in which St. Paul refers to the Birth of
Jesus Christ. Not one of them is inconsistent with the fact that
He was born of a Virgin. But one can say more than this. Every
one of these passages infers that He who was born in time had
existed before. They either assert or imply a Divine pre-existence.
He who was "made in the likeness of men" was already pre-existent
in the "form of God," and was, in fact, "equal with God." This
being the case, does it not prepare us for the further truth that,
when He entered into the conditions of human life, He entered it
not in all respects like us? I should mar if I ventured to
abbreviate Dr. Mason's admirable words, in which he presses
this argument -

"Like causes produce like effects. In similar circumstances, you
may expect the same forces to operate in the same way. But when
some new force is introduced, you cannot expect the same results.
The Birth of Christ, if He is what all the writers of the New
Testament believed Him to be, was necessarily unlike ours in that
one great respect. We had no existence before we were born,
however poets and poetical philosophers may play with the notion.
But the New Testament writers believed that He whom we know as
Jesus Christ was living with a full, vigorous, personal life for
ages before He appeared in the world as man. They maintained that
He was present and active in the making of the world, and
immanent in the development of human history, which formed
a new beginning at His Birth. They said He was God, the Only
Begotten Son of the Eternal Father, who came down from heaven,
and voluntarily entered into the conditions of human life. Admit
the possibility that they were right, and you will no longer
ask that His mode of entrance into our conditions should be
in all things like our own. If you acknowledge that Jesus Christ
was Divine first and became human afterwards, you cannot but say
with St. Ambrose, when you hear that He was born of a Virgin:
'Talis decet partus Deum' - a birth of that kind is befitting to
one who is God. We do not - no one ever did - believe Christ to be
God because He was born of a Virgin; that is not the order of
thought [and we have seen that it was certainly not the order of
Apostolic preaching]; but we can recognize that if He was God, it
was not unnatural for Him to be so born. No sound genuine
historical criticism can deny that the Virgin-Birth was part of
the Creed of Primitive Christianity, and that nothing that can be
truly called science can object to that belief, unless it starts
with the assumption, which, of course, it cannot even attempt to
prove, that Christ was never more than man."*

Similarly Professor Stanton: "The chief ground on which thoughtful
Christian believers are ready to accept it [the miraculous Conception]
is that, believing in the personal indissoluble union between God and
man in Jesus Christ, the miraculous Birth of Jesus Christ is the only
fitting accompaniment for this unions and, so to speak, the natural
expression of it in the order of outward effects."+

* Guardian, November 19, 1902.
+ Stanton, Jewish and Christian Messiah p. 376.



But we may surely go further than this, and say that, in regard to
St. Paul, his language as to the Second Adam seems to necessitate
the Virgin-Birth. In St. Paul's view there are, so to speak, only
two men: "The first man is of the earth earthy; the second man is
the Lord from heaven" (1 Cor. xx. 47.) - a new starting-point for
humanity. This doctrine of the Second Adam, of this fresh start
given to the human race by Jesus Christ, would seem to require His
Birth of a Virgin, for the Virgin-Birth is bound up with any really
Catholic notion of the Incarnation. For what is the Catholic
doctrine of Incarnation? Do we mean by Incarnation that on an
already existing human being there descended in an extraordinary
measure the Divine Spirit, so that He was by moral association so
closely allied to God that He might be called God? Do we mean that
some preminent saint, called Jesus, responded with such "signal
readiness" to the Divine Voice, "and realized more worthily than
any other man 'the Divine idea' of human excellence, so that to Him,
by a laxity of phrase not free from profaneness, men might thus
ascribe a so-called 'moral Divinity'"? Then, I say quite freely,
if that is what we mean, that the Virgin-Birth is, so far as we can
see, an altogether gratuitous addition, an unnecessary miracle. That
is, so far as I can understand it, the idea of Incarnation
entertained by moderns who reject or question the Catholic Faith.

But let me say as clearly as possible that this is not, and never
has been, what the Christian Church means by Incarnation. The New
Testament does not tell us of a deified man: no, we begin with a
Divine Person. "The 'I' in Him, His very self, is Divine, not
human; yet has He condescended to take our humanity into union
with His Divine Person, to assume it as His own." He who was from
all eternity a single Divine Person took upon Him our nature, and
was "made man;" and if this be so, what other entrance into
our condition is imaginable save that which we confess in the
Creed - that He was "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the
Virgin Mary"? "The Creeds pass immediately from confessing Jesus
Christ to be 'the only Son of God' to the fact that He was 'born
of the Virgin Mary,' and neither of those articles of the Catholic
Faith can be abandoned without disturbing the foundations of
the other."*

* Swete, Church Congress Report (1901), p. 164.

If Christ was born naturally of human parents, He must, one would
think, have taken to Himself a human personality; He must have
existed in two persons as well as in two natures. But what we are
to insist on in thinking of and teaching this mystery is this
truth of the single Divine Personality of our Lord. The old
Nestorian heresy (with certain important modifications) is
being resuscitated among us. Nestorianism, new and old, begins
from below, and speaks of a man who by moral "association"
became "Divine;" it speaks, that is to say, of a deified man.
The Christian Faith begins from above-it speaks of Him who from
all eternity was God, taking upon Him our flesh. He took upon Him
our nature, but He did not assume a human personality. He wrapped
our human nature round His own Divine Person. On the Nestorian
theory, God did but benefit one man by raising him to a unique
dignity; on the Catholic theory, He benefitted the race of men,
by raising human nature into union with His Divine Person.

Those who speak, somewhat incautiously surely, of Incarnation,
while they deny or question the Virgin-Birth, should be asked to
consider what they say and to reflect what their words imply. A
man born naturally of human parents but taken up, on account of
a wonderfully high moral character, into close union with God,
can never differ in kind from any saint. He can never benefit
the race of men save by way of example. His death can never
effect our redemption, for it does not differ in kind from the
death of a martyr. Being only a great saint himself, he cannot
represent mankind either on the Cross or before the Throne. One
man has been assumed into heaven. But this is wholly a different
thing from the Faith of Christendom, which is that God has taken
human nature into union with His Divine Person, in that nature


Online LibraryB. W. RandolphThe Virgin-Birth of Our Lord A paper read (in substance) before the confraternity of the Holy Trinity at Cambridge → online text (page 2 of 3)