Tonight's Debate Opener vs William Albrecht On "Was Jesus Born of a Virgin?"

My debate opponent believes a virgin named Mary gave birth to a divine child named Jesus over two-thousand years ago. The most significant problem is that theologians cannot explain how a human being and a god can be one and the same, that is, 100% human and 100% divine, with every essential characteristic of humanity and divinity included. How can a god be a god if he has a body? How can an infinite timeless god exist in time? Conversely, how can a human be a human if he or she doesn’t have a body? How can a finite human take on eternal godlike characteristics and still remain a human being? How can a human be perfectly good incapable of being tempted to sin, and yet also be tempted to sin? Christians themselves have shown the incoherence of a divine/human being by their 2000 year long disagreements over it.

Make no mistake about it. This is what my debate opponent is aiming at in this debate. The virgin birth is a first step toward claiming Jesus was God incarnate. My aim is to stop him short of this first step, even though his case isn’t done until he tackles the second step by dealing with some formidable philosophical objections to a divine/human being. With no such being there's no virgin birth either.

Let’s start by talking about the kind of evidence we need.

All claims about the objective world require sufficient objective evidence appropriate to the nature of the claim. This applies to ordinary claims, extraordinary claims and miraculous claims. The amount and quality of the evidence required is dependent on the type of claim being made.

An ordinary claim is one made about events that are commonplace within nature, which require ordinary levels of evidence. Most all of these claims are based on testimonial evidence alone. That is, the trustworthiness of the person making the claim is enough to establish them, especially where there’s no reason to suspect deception and there’s no dispute by others as to the facts. [“Earlier today I was in Indiana.”]

An extraordinary claim is one made about events that are extremely unusual, rare and even strange within the world of nature. Mere testimonial evidence is helpful but not enough to establish these claims. They require some strong objective evidence for them. That is, the more unusual the claim is then the stronger the objective evidence must be for them. [“I was abducted by an alien”].

A miraculous claim is one made about events that are impossible to take place by natural processes alone, which requires a high level of strong objective evidence for them. As David Hume argued, “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” The fact that a miracle requires extraordinary evidence over and above the fallibility of ordinary human testimony is not an unreasonable demand. It’s the nature of the beast. A forensic TV show I watched had a character say, “The evidence doesn’t lie. People do.” If this is acknowledged in criminal investigations it should be acknowledged much more so in miraculous investigations. So mere testimonial evidence is insufficient when it comes to miracle claims, especially when it comes to miracle claims in the distant past from sources we cannot cross-examine for consistency and truth.

Tonight, I’m going to show that the required objective evidence for the miraculous birth of Jesus is not there, at all. Beyond this I'll I’m going to show the testimonial evidence in the New Testament is insufficient. My main point is that if the gospels are inaccurate and untrustworthy in historical matters that we can check, then there’s absolutely no reason to think they are accurate and trustworthy when it comes to the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus either.

The most significant problem for my debate opponent is that there’s no objective evidence to corroborate the virgin birth stories in the New Testament. None. None at all! Where’s the evidence Mary was a virgin? We hear nothing about her wearing a barbaric chastity belt to prove her virginity. No one checked for an intact hymen before she gave birth either. Where’s the evidence that neither Joseph nor any other man was not the father? Maury Povich was not there with a DNA test to verify Joseph was not the baby daddy, nor did he test others.

We don’t even have firsthand testimonial evidence for it, since the story is related to us by others, not Mary, or Joseph. At best, all we have is the second-hand testimony of one person, Mary, or two if we include Joseph who was unreasonably convinced Mary was a virgin because of a dream, yes, a dream (see Matthew 1:19-24). We never get to independently cross-examine them, along with the people who knew them, which we would need to do, since they may have a very good reason for lying, like a pregnancy out of wedlock! Before there can be a virgin birth one must first show Mary wasn't pregnant. One must also show neither Joseph nor any other man was not the baby daddy.

What we know is that neither of the two earliest New Testament writers refer to the virgin birth of Jesus. That’s very telling. Neither the apostle Paul nor the author of the gospel of Mark referred to it. It’s inconceivable neither of them mentioned it. The virgin birth story was an unimportant afterthought for the later gospels of Matthew and Luke. This only makes sense as a non-historical myth made up on hindsight to explain how Jesus came down from the sky above the clouds to earth.

Additionally, in the gospel of Mark the family of Jesus themselves thought he was crazy, not God's son. “He is out of his mind” they said, and tried “to take charge of him (Mark 3:19–21, 31–35). This makes no sense if the virgin birth stories are true in the later gospels of Matthew and Luke. How could his mother Mary forget how her son Jesus was conceived, or what was said about him at the time of his birth? The angel Gabriel said he would be called “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Her cousin Elizabeth said Mary was the “mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43), and she herself said, “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). No mother would ever forget the circumstances of his birth, if it happened as reported.

In Luke’s gospel when Mary first hears from the angel Gabriel that she’s to give birth, she objects by saying, “How shall this be, since I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). Surely Mary wouldn’t feel it necessary to inform Gabriel that she hadn’t had sex with a man. If this conversation took place at all, she would’ve said, “How shall this be, since I know not my husband.” The way it’s written in Luke is to justify Mary’s virginity to the reader, rather than to tell us what she said. So Mary’s stated objection to the angel is a literary invention.

Now one might simply trust the anonymous gospel writer(s) who wrote this extraordinary story down, but why? How is it possible that THEY could find out a virgin named Mary gave birth to a deity? No reasonable investigation could take Mary and/or Joseph’s word for it. With regard to Joseph’s dream, Thomas Hobbes tells us, “For a man to say God hath spoken to him in a Dream, is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him; which is not of force to win belief from any man.” [Leviathan, chap. 32.6] So it’s down to unreliable hearsay testimonial evidence from Mary. Why should we believe her? Would you?

It gets worse. There are seven facts to consider.

1) The Genealogies are Inaccurate and Irrelevant. The royal genealogies of Jesus in the later gospels of Luke (3:23–37) and Matthew (1:1–17) have historical problems with them. For instance, Matthew’s gospel makes Jesus a descendent of king Jeconiah (1:11), even though the prophet Jeremiah had proclaimed none of Jeconiah’s descendents would ever sit of the throne of David (Jer. 22:30). Someone messed up big time here, don’t you think?

The genealogies of Jesus are irrelevant if he was born of a virgin. Jewish royal lineages are traced through men not women, so Luke’s genealogy is irrelevant since it traces the lineage of Jesus through Mary. Matthew’s genealogy is equally irrelevant, since it traces the lineage of Jesus through Joseph, who was not his father, according to gospel accounts. To desperately claim Mary’s baby was a new divine creation unrelated to the lineages of either Mary or Joseph, also makes the genealogies irrelevant. For then it wouldn’t matter which mother’s womb God decided to create his son inside.

Modern genetics decisively render the genealogies irrelevant since one cannot even have a human being without the genetic contributions of both a male seed and a female egg. To claim, as Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown did, that Jesus was “technically” the adopted son of Joseph, is absurd and also irrelevant since only blood lines count in royal lineages. Adopted sons would never legitimately inherit any throne.

2) Jesus Was Not Born in Bethlehem. In Matthew 2:5 we’re told Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. But the precise phrase “Bethlehem Ephratah” in the original prophecy of Micah 5:2 refers not to a town, but to a family clan: the clan of Bethlehem, who was the son of Caleb’s second wife, Ephratah (1 Chron. 2:19, 2:50–51, 4:4). Furthermore, Micah’s prophecy predicts a military commander who would rule over the land of Assyria (which never happened), and was certainly not about a future Messiah.

The earliest gospel of Mark begins by saying Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, not from Bethlehem (Mark 1:9). Let that sink it. The first gospel says he’s from Nazareth. In the later Gospel of John, Jesus was rejected as the Messiah precisely because the people of Nazareth knew he was born and raised in their town! That’s the whole reason they rejected him as the Messiah! They rhetorically asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee?” They said, “A prophet does not come out of Galilee” (John 7:42, 52). [He was from Nazareth. Therefore he's not the Messiah.]

Since everyone knew the Messiah would not come from Galilee, Matthew and Luke invented conflicting stories to overcome this insurmountable problem. In Matthew’s gospel—the one most concerned with making Jesus fit prophecy—Joseph’s family is living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born (Matt. 2). In order to explain how Jesus got to Nazareth, Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt because of Herod (Matt. 2:15). After Herod died, Joseph took his family to Nazareth and lived there (Matt. 2:21–23). Luke’s gospel, by contrast, claims Joseph and Mary lived in the town of Nazareth but traveled to Bethlehem for a Roman census, at which time Jesus was born (Luke 1:26; 2:4). After he was born they went back home to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).

When we compare Matthew and Luke’s accounts, Raymond Brown concludes, “Despite efforts stemming from preconceptions of biblical inerrancy or of Marian piety, it is exceedingly doubtful that both accounts can be considered historical. A review of the implications explains why the historicity of the infancy narratives has been questioned by so many scholars, even by those who do not in advance (i.e., a priori) rule out the miraculous.”

To make these stories work they invented a world-wide Roman census (per Luke), to get the holy family to Bethlehem, and the slaughter of the innocents by Herod (per Matthew), to explain why the holy family left Bethlehem for good. Matthew's gospel invented a Messianic Star for emphasis, which was overkill, based on Numbers 24:17. But there was no census, no massacre of children and no Bethlehem star. [As we’ll see in the next three facts to consider].

3) There Was No Census. Luke’s gospel tells us something bizarre, that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register for the census because “he was from the house and lineage of David.” (Luke 2:4) According to Luke’s genealogy king David had lived forty-two generations earlier. Why should everyone have had to register for a census in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? There would be millions of ancestors by that time, and the whole empire would have been uprooted. Why forty-two generations and not thirty-five, or sixteen? If this requirement was only for the lineage of King David, what was Caesar Augustus thinking when he ordered it? He had a king, Herod.

Both Matthew and Luke said Jesus was born during the time of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1, Luke 1:5). Herod died in 4 BC, so Jesus was born at the latest in 4 BC. The only known census of that period was a local one in Galilee which took place in 6 AD by Syrian governor Quirinius. There’s a gap of ten years between Herod’s death and the alleged census, which means there was no census at the birth of Jesus, if he was born during the reign of Herod. But Luke's gospel said it was a world-wide census, not a local one. And that census didn’t take place at all, for as Raymond Brown tells: “A census of the known world under Caesar Augustus never happened" and he reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD.

4) There Was No Slaughter of the Innocents. In Matthew’s gospel king Herod was said to have ordered all the male children “in Bethlehem and all the surrounding countryside” to be slaughtered (2:16). But there is no other account of such a massacre in any other source. It’s clear that the first century Jewish historian Josephus hated Herod. He chronicled in detail his crimes, many of which were lesser in kind than this alleged wholesale massacre of children. Yet nowhere does Josephus’ mention this slaughter even though he was in a position to know of it, and even though he would want to mention it. So the story is a gospel fiction, like the virgin birth story.

5) There Was No Star of Bethlehem. Matthew’s gospel says: “The star, which they (the Magi) had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.” (2:9–10). There is no independent corroboration of this tale by any other source, Christian or otherwise. No astrologer/astronomer anywhere in the world recorded this event, even though they systematically searched the stars for guidance and predictions of the future. More significantly the author of Luke chose not to include the story of a Star, Magi, or the attempt on Jesus’ life, which is telling, since his gospel was written after “a careful study of everything” he says, so readers could know what actually took place from what didn’t. (1:1-4).

Theories for this Star include a comet, a supernova, or the conjunction of planets. The fatal problem is that none of them conform to what the text actually says in Matthew’s gospel. The Magi see the Star “leading” or directing them to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Not only are moving stars pre-scientific nonsense, they would be moving in a southern direction, from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem. Stars don’t move in the sky, and they certainly don't appear to move in a southerner direction. They all appear to move from the east to west, like the sun, because of the spin of the earth. Then we’re told the Star stopped in the sky directly over a place in Bethlehem. But there’s no way to determine which specific house a star stopped over, if it did! This is only consistent with pre-scientific notions of the earth being the center of the universe with the stars being moved by a god who sits on a throne in the sky.

6) The Prophecies Are Faked. In Matthew 1:20–23 the author claims that Isaiah 7:14 predicts Jesus’ virgin birth. The context for the prophecy in Isaiah tells us that before a son born of a “young woman” (not a virgin) “is old enough to know how to choose between right and wrong the countries of two kings (i.e., Syria and Samaria) will be destroyed” (7:15-16). The prophecy in the original Hebrew says nothing whatsoever about a virginal conception. Period. It says nothing about a messiah, either. The prophecy was actually fulfilled in Isaiah 8:3 with the birth of the son Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

The Hebrew word for virgin is betulah. It’s used five times in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 7:14 isn’t one of them. The word used in Isaiah 7:14 is ‘almah, which means young woman, or simply girl. It does not specify a virgin. Full Stop. The gospel of Matthew’s error was to use a 200 year old Greek translation of the Hebrew which used the word parthenos. Originally the Greek word parthenos meant “young girl,” but by the time Matthew wrote his gospel that word had been changed by usage to signify a “virgin” rather than a young girl. This is not unlike how the words nice and gay have changed in meaning over the years. So Matthew grossly misunderstood the original Hebrew text in Isaiah by incorrectly claiming Jesus was to be born of a virgin.

A second prophecy in Isaiah 9:6–7 reads: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” [See Luke 1:31-33] Any Jew writing at that time might express the same hope for a Messiah/savior who would rescue their nation from their oppressors. But an expressed hope for a future Messiah is not to be considered a prediction, unless along with that expressed hope are specific details whereby we can check to see if it was fulfilled in a specific person. Isaiah provides none. With no details there isn’t any real prediction.

German theologian Ute Ranke-Heinemann concludes after her own study: “If we wish to continue seeing Luke’s accounts… as historical events, we’d have to take a large leap of faith: We’d have to assume that while on verifiable matters of historical fact Luke tells all sorts of fairy tales but on supernatural matters—which by definition can never be checked—he simply reports the facts. By his arbitrary treatment of history, Luke has shown himself to be an unhistorical reporter—a teller of fairy tales.” [Putting Away Childish Things, p. 14]

7) The Virgin Birth of Jesus Has Pagan Parallels. Robert Miller shows us many important people in the ancient world were believed to have been the product of virgin births: “People in the ancient world believed that heroes were the sons of gods because of the extraordinary qualities of their adult lives, not because there was public information about the intimate details of how their mothers became pregnant. In fact, in some biographies the god takes on the physical form of the woman’s husband in order to have sex with her.” [Born Divine, p. 134] And then he proceeds to document some of these stories. There was Theagenes, the Olympic champion, who was regarded as divine for being one of the greatest athlete’s in the ancient world. Hercules was the most widely revered hero of the ancient world. He was promoted to divine status after his death, and it was said he was fathered by Zeus. Alexander the Great was believed to be conceived of a virgin and fathered in turn by Heracles. Augustus Caesar was believed to be conceived of a virgin and fathered by Apollo, as was Plato, the philosopher. Apollonius of Tyana was believed to be a holy man born of a virgin and fathered by Zeus. Pythagoras the philosopher was believed to be a son of Apollo. There were also savior-gods, like Krishna, Osiris, Dionysus, and Tammuz, who were born of virgins and known to the Gospel writers centuries before.

Justin Martyr was a second-century Christian apologist who tried to convince the pagans of his day of the truth of Christianity. In his First Apology to Roman people he wrote:
When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter...Of what kind of deeds recorded of each of these reputed sons of Jupiter, it is needless to tell to those who already know...[I]f we even affirm that he [Jesus] was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus.
All that these virgin birth claims show is that someone thought these people were important, and that’s it. None of them are taken to be literal virgin births, probably not even in that day! So it should not come as a surprise that the early Christians came up with similar myths about Jesus. It’s myth all the way down with no historical reality to it. There’s no reason to accept this extraordinary claim at all.

To read my analysis of the debate see here.