Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

We saw that ‘Christ’ is an Old Testament title.  Let us now look at this question: was Jesus of Nazareth that ‘Christ’ predicted in the Old Testament?

From the Line of David

David, author of Psalms, shown in Historical Timeline

Psalm 132 in the Old Testament, written 1000 years before Jesus lived, contained a specific prophecy.  It said:

10 For the sake of your servant David,
do not reject your anointed one.

11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
a sure oath he will not revoke:
One of your own descendants
I will place on your throne….
13 For the Lord has chosen Zion…,
17 “Here I will make a horn grow for David
and set up a lamp for my anointed one.  (Psalm 132:10-17)

Long before Jesus, the Psalms predicted that God’s anointed one (i.e. ‘Christ’) would come from David.  This is why the gospels show Jesus to be in David’s genealogy. They want us to see that Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

The New Testament begins with this right from its first verse.

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Matthew 1:1

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But how do we know that they did not just make up the genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  They were sympathetic to Jesus and so perhaps wanted to exaggerate the truth.

When trying to find out what really happened, it helps to have the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand to see the facts but does not agree with the overall belief. So such a witness has motive for refuting testimony that might be false.  Suppose there was a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident – so they are hostile witnesses.  Person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident, and person B admits this. Then we could assume that this part of the dispute is true since person B has nothing to gain agreeing to this point.

In the same way, looking at records of hostile historical witnesses can help us determine what really happened with Jesus.  New Testament scholar Dr. FF Bruce studied Jewish Rabbi references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following comment about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement:

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, hostile Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ claim that Jesus was from David.  They did not accept Jesus’ claim to ‘Christ’ and opposed the Gospel claims about him. But they still admitted that Jesus was in the royal family of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.  Even the hostile witnesses agree on this point.

Was he Born of a Virgin?

The possibility remains that Jesus fulfilled this prophesy simply ‘by chance’.  There were also others from the Royal family.  But being born of a virgin!  There is no possibility that this could happen ‘by chance’.  It is either:

  1. A misunderstanding,
  2. A fraud, or
  3. A miracle – no other option is open.

The Genesis account of Adam hinted at a coming virgin birth. In the New Testament, Luke and Matthew clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  Matthew also claimed that this was a fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BCE) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’)

Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Perhaps this was just a misunderstanding.  The original Hebrew הָעַלְמָ֗ה (pronounced haalmah), translated ‘virgin’, can also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah meant to say, long ago in 750 BCE.  With a religious need on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when Isaiah had really meant ‘young woman’.  Add the unfortunate pregnancy of Mary before her marriage, and it developed into ‘divine fulfillment’ in the birth of Jesus.

The Witness of the Septuagint

Many people have advanced explanations somewhat like this. One cannot refute this because it is impossible to prove whether someone was a virgin or not.  But that explanation is too simplistic.  Jewish rabbis translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek around 250 BCE. This Greek translation of the Old Testament was called The Septuagint. So two hundred fifty years before Jesus lived Jewish rabbis wrote down their interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. How did these Jewish rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’? Many people seem to know that the original Hebrew הָעַלְמָ֗ה can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’. But few bring up the witness of the Septuagint which translates it as παρθένος  (pronounced parthenos), which specifically means ‘virgin’. 

In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis in 250 BCE, over two hundred years before Jesus’ birth, understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’.  The Gospel writers or by early Christians did not invent the virgin birth.  It was in Jewish thinking long before Jesus came.

The Rabbis knew what virgin entailed

Why would leading Jewish rabbis in 250 BCE make such a fantastic translation prophesying a virgin having a son? If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific, let’s think again. People in that time were farmers.  They knew how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham knew that after a certain age came menopause and then childbearing was impossible. No, rabbis in 250 BCE did not know modern chemistry and physics, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was impossible to have a virgin birth.  But they did not shrink back and translate it as ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint. No, they stated it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

Mary’s Context

Now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  No one can prove that Mary was a virgin. But remarkably, she was in the only and very brief stage of life where it could remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were common.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child?  Because if he had had an older brother or sister then we would know for certain that Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  The chance was 9 out of 10 that the virgin ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling. But against the odds he didn’t.

Now add the remarkable timing of Mary’s engagement onto this.  If she had been married even for a few days, the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she became pregnant while not yet engaged she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but single woman she would have had to remain alone – if she had been allowed to live.

It is these remarkable and unlikely ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin birth impossible to disprove that strikes me.  These coincidences are not expected. Rather they show a sense of balance and timing as if a Mind were arranging events with plan and intent.

Witness of the rabbinical Writings

If Mary had been married before Jesus was born or if Jesus had older siblings, then hostile Jewish witnesses would surely have pointed that out.  Instead, it seems that, once again, they agree with the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes while explaining how rabbinical writings mention Jesus.

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as Jesus’ time, there is hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant opposition to him.  But the difference is that back then there were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute some basic points that they could definitely  refute, if these points had been made up or been in error.