Did the “Virgin Conception” First Appear Late in History?

Conception Late in HistorySome critics have argued the “virgin conception” of Jesus is a late mythological addition attributed to Christian believers many centuries after the fact. These skeptics presume, of course, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written far later than the 1st Century, when eyewitnesses would have been available to refute the additional mythology. The history of the early Church reveals, however, that the “virgin conception” was recognized and accepted very early in history. The first opponents of Christianity recognized that Mary gave birth to Jesus without an identified earthly father and claimed that Jesus was, therefore, illegitimate. Celsus (a Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity) echoed this charge in the 2nd Century in his work entitled, “The True Discourse”. It’s clear that the issue of Jesus’ parentage was an early concern, and the first believers were committed to the idea of the “virgin conception”:

The Early Church Fathers Believed It
The early leaders of the Church taught that Jesus was born of a virgin and they wrote about this in their letters to those they led. They agreed with the Gospel of Matthew and interpreted Isaiah’s prophesies as predictions of the virgin conception:

Ignatius (35-117AD, the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch)
“He was truly born of a virgin” (from his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”, written around 103AD)

Justin Martyr (100-165AD, the early Christian Apologist)
“But you (Jews) and your teachers venture to claim that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold the virgin will conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman will conceive, and bear a son.’ Furthermore, you explain the prophecy as if (it referred) to Hezekiah, who was your king. Therefore, I will endeavor to soon discuss this point in opposition to you“. (from his “Dialogue with Trypho”, written around 160AD)

Irenaeus (115-202AD, the Bishop of Lugdunum)
“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards his creation, humbled himself to be born of the virgin. Thereby, He united man through Himself to God.” (from his “Against Heresies”, written around 180AD)

Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD, the Christian Theologian)
“… Jesus, whom of the lightening flash of Divinity the virgin bore.” (from his “Paedagogus, Book I”, written around 195AD)

Tertullian (160-220AD, the Christian Apologist)
“This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient time, descended into a certain virgin, And He was made flesh in her womb. So, in His birth, God and man were united.” (from his “Apology”, written around 195AD)

Origen (185-254AD, the Christian Apologist and Theologian)
“A sign has been given to the house of David. For the virgin conceived, was pregnant, and brought forth a son.” (from his “Contra Celsus, Book I”, written around 225AD)

The Early Non-Canonical Writings Affirmed It
In addition to the writings of the earliest Church leaders, there is also evidence from many non-canonical books and gospels that the “virgin conception” was an early established belief. While these writings are not considered scripture, they do reflect the fact that the story of the “virgin conception” was already well known by the time the Christian “Pseudepigraphon” was forming:

Ascension of Isaiah (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century)
This text was written very near the time of the canonical Gospels and records a narrative of the miraculous appearance of Jesus to the Virgin Mary:

“And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant.” (Chapter 11, verses 2-5)

The Infancy Gospel of James (approximately 150AD)
This apocryphal Gospel also includes a claim to Mary’s perpetual virginity and presents her as the new “Eve”:

“And the priest said unto Joseph: Unto thee hath it fallen to take the virgin of the Lord and keep her for thyself.” (Chapter 9, verse 1)

The Early Creeds Proclaimed It
The early recognition of the “virgin conception” is also apparent in the creeds that emerged in the Church from the earliest times. Even before the emergence of the first creed of the Church (the Apostle’s Creed), the first believers were forming creedal statements that included the “virgin conception”:

Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” (Late 1st to Early 2nd Century)
Irenaeus’ early written work was highly influential to believers at the time, and he was an excellent apologist for the faith. He found himself battling with a number of false teachings within Christendom, and as a result, he developed a statement of faith designed to affirm a number of Christian truths, including the “virgin conception”:

“…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; And in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race…”

The “Interrogatory” Creed of Hippolytus (approximately 215 AD)
Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus and he included language that was distinctly similar to Irenaeus’ “Rule of Faith” in his “Baptismal Instructions”. Hippolytus used the following instructional statement to prepare his new converts for baptism and to confirm that they had a correct understanding of the Christian Worldview:

“Do you believe in God the Father All Governing? Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, Who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died (and was buried) and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church and in the resurrection of the body?”

The Apostle’s Creed
The first widely accepted creed of the Christian Church continued the claims of both Irenaeus and Hippolytus related to the “virgin conception”:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen”

The early Church believed that Jesus was conceived of a virgin. These writers did not invent the concept, as it appeared within just a few years of the canonical Gospels (Ignatius wrote to the Smyrnaeans approximately 10-13 years after John wrote his Gospel). They simply repeated what they had been taught by the first generation eyewitnesses. The “virgin conception” was not a late invention that appeared for the first time centuries after the fact. It is, instead, part of the early, reliable testimony related to the nature of Jesus.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene

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