The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 27

The Virginal Conception: Nativity or Naiveté

Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 27
Watching Now
The Virginal Conception: Nativity or Naiveté


A. The comparative religions question

1. Alexander

2. Caesar

3. Myths

B. The illegitimacy of Jesus

C. Is Matthew a midrash?

D. Commonalities between Matthew and Luke


A. The specific supernatural phenomena in the narratives besides the conception

B. The flight to Egypt

C. Nazareth vs. Bethlehem

D. Herod’s pogrom

E. Quirinius’ census


A. Historical verisimilitude

B. Luke 1:1-4 vs. the rest of chapters 1–2

C. The restrained nature of the predictions

D. Lack of later theological use in NT

E. Anti-Christian polemic in 2nd—5th centuries

  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


The Virginal Conception: Nativity or Naiveté

Lesson Transcript


This is a class on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels Session 27 the Virginal conception, Nativity or Naivete. Can we believe the Christian claim that Jesus was born? From the young Jewish woman, Mary. Of Nazareth. Apart from the normal biological processes. Of an involvement of any man. And certainly her betrothed, Joseph. Once again, as with miracles, more generally, there are questions that emerge from the study of comparative religions. In 1930, the old Princeton scholar J. Gresham Mason published an amazing compendium of all the known traditions from the ancient Mediterranean world in Jewish, as well as in Greek and Roman circles, about anything that might remotely be considered a virginal conception, or more popularly, though slightly inaccurately, a virgin birth. And showed that there are no close parallels. No one has found new texts in the last 80 plus years. Mason's work has often been ignored, but it has never been refuted. What are some of these so called parallels? A famous one involves Alexander the Great's birth to Philip of Macedon, who, at least in later biographers conspicuously absent from his earliest ones, is said to have not been able to his approach his wife on their wedding night because of a giant. Divine python encircling her body and that. Is where the baby Alexander came from. Yes, technically a virginal conception. But is that a parallel? Later, legends about Augustus Caesar also spoke of a virgin birth but again not in. His earliest biographers. Or maybe we need to imagine some of those purely mythical stories of the gods or goddesses disguising themselves. In human farm. And coming to Earth. And having sex with young women who may or may not have. Been virgins. But there is no account in Matthew or Luke.


Of God appearing in human form. Ah, perhaps were to think of a parallel in that very sensitive and delicate story of one of the Greek gods descending to earth with a glorious, bejeweled knife. On which tip was balanced. The Divine Holy Seed. Ever so carefully impregnated. Let's hope it was carefully in the woman's body. A true parallel. Seriously. It is interesting that there is widespread support. For understanding Jesus to have been born out of wedlock. When we talked about non-Christian testimony to the birth of Jesus, we saw that claim repeatedly emerge. We also saw the conviction that it must have been some Roman soldiers stationed in Nazareth whose name was alternately called Parthians or Panthera, or some words similar to the Greek word for Virgin. An easy corruption and easily understandable corruption of the tradition. Jesus would have gone through his life in Orthodox Jewish circles with the stigma for anyone who did not believe in Mary's outrageous story. Of being illegitimate. What Christian author would have made that up, even thinking it would somehow exalt Jesus, making him like one of the gods or Alexander or Augustus. Knowing the downside. Knowing the difficulty of then commending this Jesus as anybody worthy of adoration. If you went through life to use the Aramaic term of the day as a mom's hair. As one who was born out of wedlock. Is Matthew a midrash? Is the story in chapters one and two that so consistently is said to fulfill various Old Testament scriptures, merely a partly legendary composition based on those Old Testament scriptures as a kind of commentary, a midrash on them. Five separate quotations appear in Matthew one and two. Surrounding the. Conception and birth and early months of Jesus life. Isaiah 714, a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call his name Emmanuel.


Micah five two. But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah. Four out of you will come. A ruler who will shepherd my people. Israel. Hozier, 11 one out of Egypt. I called my son Jeremiah, 3115. A voice is heard in Rama, weeping and greeting and great morning Rachael, weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more. And then a statement that's not attributed to a specific text, but through the prophets more generally that he would be called a Nazarene. And it's true. The narrative of Matthew 1 to 2 is comprised entirely of information. That amplifies that. Those five fulfillment quotations. Did Matthew find the texts that prophesied about Jesus and then create his story on their basis, as has been charged in some circles? If so, why did he pick? This precise collection of texts. There is a forward looking direction to Isaiah seven, to Micah five, but not to Hosea 11 out of Egypt. I have called my son is a past tense statement, not a prediction. And in context, it refers to God's calling of Israel collectively. As his spiritual offspring at the time of the Exodus and bringing them into the promised land. If Matthew was freely selecting Old Testament texts and building his story around them, why not pick texts that were all predictive? This is typology. This is recognizing patterns of God acting in history that are recurring. Why pick a text like Jeremiah 31? There is present tense rather than future. A voice is heard in Rama Rachel, weeping for her children, referring to the mothers in Israel at the time of the Babylonian exile. Already type illogically reapplying the story of Rachel's day, collectively personifying the mothers in Israel as like Rachel weeping for her children.


When the sons of Jacob went down to Egypt. If Matthew was making this up, he could make history and prophecy match much more clearly. It's true. Matthew and Luke both have two chapters surrounding Christ's infancy and early years, and much that is different. Luke focuses on the experiences of two women, Elizabeth and Mary, and how their lives become intertwined and the prophecies surrounding the birth of their two very special sons. But there are also our key commonalities, despite literary independence. Both gospels, the two that describe Jesus birth. Know the names of all the main characters. Mary. Joseph. Jesus. Know that supernatural revelation. Explained. A virginal conception. A divine son. Nazareth. Bethlehem. Both are involved in both accounts. The core is there in common. But it's not just the virginal conception. You say. There are other supernatural phenomena. Those angelic revelations to Joseph and Mary. The star. A celestial sign. That's the match I saw and came and then it somehow moved supernaturally to guide them to the very home. Where are the Christ Child Lay? Many attempts have been made to identify that star with some special astronomical phenomenon of the day. And it is possible that we should make such an equation. But at the very least, the movement from Jerusalem to Bethlehem had to be some kind of supernatural event. It can't just be explained naturalistically, coinciding with providential timing. Once we have an acceptance of other miracles in the gospels. Is there some insuperable problem? With this one. What about? The flight to Egypt narrated only in Matthew. It's sometimes alleged that not only is it not in Luke, but there is no place in Luke for it to have even happened. But we do read. In Luke, chapter two. And verse 39, when Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the law of the Lord.


Everything. The only thing that's been narrated is Jesus circumcision and the sacrifice offered in accompaniment with that. Then we're told about how the ancient prophets, Simeon and the Prophetess, Anna, speak about the significance of this child. But 238 brings that episode to an end. There could be easily a gap at this point for other things to have happened that Luke. Does not record just as there is a gap after verse 42, when Luke writes in verse 41 every year, Jesus parents went to Jerusalem and then jumps in verse 42 to when he was 12 years old. Of course, as we've seen in previous talks, the gospel writers are selective, but there's no necessary contradiction here. What about John's gospel that in Chapter seven and other places involves the the debate that Jesus can't be the Messiah because there's no scripture that says that the Messiah will come from from Galilee and certainly not from an out of the way town like Nazareth in Galilee. But John knows. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He presents this story to point out the ignorance of some in the crowds of Jesus origin. Not. That Jesus truly was born in Nazareth. Rather than in Bethlehem. What about the massacre of the innocent children? Josephus itemized us in great detail many of the atrocities perpetrated by Herod the Great and not a hint of this one. Could it really have happened? An escaped Josephus notice. Or been so insignificant that Josephus not record it. Perhaps Bethlehem was estimated to be a city of maybe no more than 500. In Jesus day, even in a community, even in a culture that valued large families, How many children at any given moment would there have been age two and under? Couple dozen.


For generous. And the massacres Josephus describes involve considerably greater numbers of individuals than that. And usually adults. In a world that didn't value infants the way we do certainly didn't value recording historical events involving. Primarily or exclusively infants. Can we accept? Luke Chapter two. With its apparently inaccurate reference to the census when Berenice was governor of Syria. Which from Josephus we know to have occurred in A.D. six. Not early enough to have anything to do with Christ's birth. The updated NIV reminds us of what a reader of Greek can recognize, however, that in Luke two two, another legitimate translation of this verse would be that this census took place before. Queerness was governor of Syria, the much better known census. And maybe that's the solution to that oft mentioned problem. From specific issues that seem to weigh against the virginal conception, we turn to more positive support. Matthew One, two, two. Luke wanted to breathe the very air of. Jewish customs and history and practices in the early part of the first century. Whether it's circumcision on the eighth day. Whether it's the sacrifice for the poor. Which Mary and Joseph apparently were at that time, so that they were allowed to offer a turtle dove or pigeons. Whether it's. Matthew's reference to a house. Not. A manger seen any longer? Because by the time Magi would have come from Arabia or Persia, it would have been weeks, months. Or maybe more than a year later. Is that why Herod killed all of the babies up to the age of two that he could lay his hands on? There is historical verisimilitude. There is also a very fascinating change in style between Luke's very classical and elegant Greek in his Prolog, in his opening four verses and his reasonably good Greek style throughout most of his gospel.


Not quite as elegant because he's often echoing his sources. Mark and perhaps Q. And a very sanitized form of Greek that pervades the rest of chapters one and two, dominated by the perspective of Mary. Did Luke interview Mary during that period between 57 and 59 A.D. when he was in Judea as a free man while Paul was imprisoned under Felix and Festus, hoping soon to be freed to carry on his ministry. Is Luke one and two primarily? Mary's perspective? And perhaps Joseph more responsible for Matthew wanting to. That would suggest some eyewitness history. And back to the supposed issue of parallels. What exactly do we learn about virginal conception? From these opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. The angel appears to marry the Angel Gabriel in Luke one and says, You will conceive. And give birth. To a son. And you are to call him Jesus. He will be great. He will be called the son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever. His kingdom will never end, Mary says. How will this be since I am a virgin? Here is. The glorious physiological detail. Of what is about to happen. Not for the squeamish. The angel answered. The Holy Spirit will come on you. And the power of the most high. We'll overshadow you. It's not squeamish at all. It's not physiological at all. Doesn't satisfy any of our curiosity in our sexually charged world. Holy Spirit will make it happen. Well, then, maybe Matthew. Well, give us the juicy detail, Matthew. Chapter one. Here. The angel appears in a dream to Joseph and says Joseph, son of David. Matthew 120. 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. Not even the statement of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, just that He is from him. How. We're not told. Not any interest. The most restrained description possible. Of what will happen. There may be an allusion in Galatians four four to the virgin birth, as we discussed in an earlier lecture, but if so, it is the only one. The virgin birth is never listed in any series of fundamental Christian truths or teachings. It was embarrassing. It was potentially counterproductive. Which suggests it wasn't invented. But it also suggests. It wasn't invented because no one made very much of it. Later on. And those who did were those who fought against Christianity. Origins reference to Celsus polemic against Christianity. Irenaeus his description of the heresies that denied various teachings of Christianity. Jewish rhetoric and the rabbinic traditions. It was embarrassing. It was awkward. Would not have been invented. It was used against Christians. By outsiders. And what's more, it doesn't even solve the theological issues that it sometimes claimed to solve. How could Jesus be fully God and fully human? It is consistent. With those convictions. But if Jesus was born even of one human parent's DNA, unless one adopts the later Roman Catholic doctrine of the sensuousness of Mary, you still have the problem of. Sinful human. Progeny. And if you do adopt the later Roman Catholic doctrine, then all you do is push the question back one generation. How was Mary conceived? Sinless. And you have to answer. With the apocryphal proto evangelism of James. Her mother's parents. HONORE And you walk him. Had the one sexual encounter in the history of the world.


In which no lustful thought ever drove it. But where in the Bible? Is desire for one's duly married spouse called lustful. That reflect reflects a very negative view of sex in and of itself that cannot have sprung from Judaism. Could only have come at a later date. When. That strand of Hellenistic or Greek thought that devalued the material world inherently had begun to corrupt early Christianity. Seems that there is very good support historically for the virginal conception of Christ. But what about the other end of his life? What about the resurrection? We must turn to that in our next lecture.