Before I was a Christian, miracles never bothered me. I didn’t believe in them because I didn’t believe there was a God to do them, but I could see that if someone did believe in God it would be consistent for them to believe that miracles could happen. And sure enough, once I became a follower of Christ, I saw that it was natural to believe the written accounts of His miracles. In changing water into wine, healing lepers, giving sight to the blind and even rising from the dead, Jesus was simply demonstrating the divine power which He claimed was His.
There is one miracle in the gospels, though, which troubled me, and it takes a prominent place at Christmas. That’s when Mary, before she is married to Joseph, becomes pregnant and gives birth to Jesus “by the Holy Spirit”. Even today people are usually too polite to point out the problem here, but it was a source of great disquiet to me, and I’m sure it is to others too. Well, when there is a problem, I think it’s better to drag it out into the open snarling and kicking, rather than remain too polite to mention it, so that’s what I’ll do here.
Basically the problem for me was this: a young unmarried girl being pregnant isn’t usually considered a miracle! It’s not even all that uncommon. There’s an alternative natural explanation which is damaging to the Christian case, embarrassing to individual Christians, and quietly assumed to be the real explanation by everyone else! And that word “embarrassing” really gives the game away. I can imagine an unbeliever saying “Hah! You don’t really think that was a miracle do you? How naïve! People in those times may have been easily taken in by Mary’s story, but these days we aren’t so gullible!” I can easily imagine hearing those words, and they hurt; I don’t like being on the receiving end of them, even in my imagination.
So there’s my problem, and it turns out that it’s not a question about whether miracles can actually happen. It’s my pride which is threatened, not my understanding. After all, this is nowhere near being the most amazing adjustment of the properties of matter in the New Testament: changing 120 gallons of water into wine involves altering far more molecules than switching the state of one cell in Mary’s body. No, rather than having an intellectual difficulty, I’m just afraid of being ridiculed for gullibility and naivety. Dragging the issue into the open has enabled me to realise this. Paul tells me that Christians have to be willing to be “fools for Christ” and that sounds OK, until someone else calls me “fool”!
But my imaginary critic back there overplayed his hand. Everything he said was reasonable apart from one thing which, when you think about it, is clearly false. “People in those times may have been easily taken in…” No, actually I’m pretty sure that people at the time of Jesus knew the Facts of Life just as well as we do, and wouldn’t have been taken in any more easily than us. So, then, how did some of them become convinced about the virgin birth?
Most of the detail about Jesus’ conception and birth is in the gospel of Luke. Once we go there with that question in mind, I think it becomes clear that Luke shares our problem. Luke was actually a doctor, and for that reason he shows a great interest in Jesus’ healing miracles. He isn’t the kind of person who would be gullible about conception. Now that I’ve raised the question I think I can hear him gritting his teeth as he writes his introduction: “… since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” He follows this introduction not by starting where we might expect by writing about Mary, but by diverting to Zechariah and Elizabeth and their easier-to-believe miraculous conception of John the Baptist; here it’s only their age which makes it a miracle for them to have a baby. Only once this first miracle has smoothed the way for us does Luke turn to the message of the angel Gabriel to Mary.
Matthew is also troubled by the whole thing in his gospel. He doesn’t have the medical specialism of Luke, but he notes that even Joseph saw the problem: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph initially jumped to the conclusion we all do, but somehow he became convinced that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful to him after all. (We might think of asking why Joseph is called Mary’s “husband” there. It’s because, although they weren’t yet married, they were betrothed. At that time this meant more than a modern engagement, and breaking the betrothal would constitute a divorce).
So, if both Luke and Matthew found this claimed miracle uncomfortable, why did they include it? After all, the gospel writers all made selections from their material, as they had to. (John admits, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”)
Leaving out the virgin birth was a perfectly possible approach: Mark starts later with John the Baptist and John starts with theology. There’s only one possible explanation. Luke and Matthew had both become convinced that the miraculous birth was true and important; it couldn’t be left out without abandoning something vital about their message. That something was their determination to report honestly, even including details which might damage their case.
(Matthew even records that Gabriel appeared to Joseph “in a dream”. Are you mad, Matthew? Don’t say it was a dream! Just leave Joseph out of it entirely… but no, Matthew writes this because as far as he’s concerned it’s what happened. He’s recording what happened, not composing a story.)
So then, how could people at the time have become convinced that this miracle happened and reject the obvious natural explanation? And how can Christians today follow them and get their heads around it too?
As the gospel writers all try to show us, the miracles associated with Jesus weren’t one-off amazing events. Any single miracle taken on its own is very hard to believe. “They poured all that water into stone jars and then it turned out to be wine? Really? Did anyone keep an eye out for trickery?” “The paralysed man picked up his mat and walked off? Are you sure it was him?” “Jesus appeared to his followers alive? Oh, maybe He didn’t really die on the cross?” The intention of each written gospel is to show us that all these miraculous signs fit a pattern. That pattern also fits with the things Jesus said about himself. “I am the light of the world”. “I am the resurrection and the life”. “I lay down my life only to take it up again”.
To anyone who is struggling to believe the miracle of Christmas I would therefore say this: don’t start there, start at Easter. There is consensus among Bible historians that Jesus was a real person, that he was baptized by John the Baptist and that he was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. But every written reference to that death also describes him coming back to life! Jesus’ triumph over death is the conclusion that all four of the gospel writers deliberately lead to, and the quality of the historical evidence supporting it is such that, if it wasn’t a miracle, historians would assure us it happened. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us so many different details that it’s clear they never cooked up their stories together, yet they are all consistent and give us a clear picture. Letters by Paul and James back them up. Even non-Christian historians like Josephus mention the event.
All the miracles and sayings of Jesus in the gospels, including the miracle of His birth, lead towards and are consistent with His death and resurrection. That resurrection is the culminating miracle which all the forgoing ones support in a clear pattern. So there’s not really any reason to pick just one part and say “you have to be gullible to believe that bit”. The pattern needs to be seen whole, and accepted or rejected as a whole. There is no need to let fear of ridicule push us into chipping off just one corner, when in fact the whole pattern makes sense with it in place.