How much of the Gospel accounts about Jesus are historical? What actually happened in Jesus’ life and what was the invention of the Gospel writers? E.P. Sanders says in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, “The clearest cases of invention are in the birth narratives.” (p. 85) Sanders then goes on to describe a number of descrepencies between the accounts of Matthew and Luke to demonstrate that they are inventions by the evangelists. First of all, we must remember that our job is not to prove that the Gospels pass the standards of 21st century historical method. These are first century historical accounts and they are completely in line with those standards. I won’t go through every one of Sanders objections but I will mention one. Sanders says that is very unlikely that Joseph would have to go back to Bethlehem, the home of his ancestor David, because Joseph would have had millions of ancestors. Why pick this one? Well, King David is not just any ancestor. Part of Joseph’s identity would be in his belonging to the line of David. Also, the word for inn does not have to mean an inn in our modern sense. It could just as easily have been the family home. Perhaps Joseph was originally from Bethlehem and his family was still living there. Because so much of the family had returned to the home there was no room for Joseph and Mary. Joseph was just going back where he was born and had originally lived before moving to Nazareth.
Again, I want to stress that our job is not to prove that every verse of the Bible fits with every other verse but rather to determine what actually happened with Jesus. Was there a virgin birth? To determine if there is a historical event behind a narrative, we like to see at least two independent accounts. We have to watch with the Gospels because we know that Matthew and Luke used Mark. Just because the same event is described in the same way in all three does not mean that we have three sources, in those cases we likely only have one and that is Mark’s. How does the virgin birth fit into this? When we examine Matthew and Luke’s accounts, we quickly see that this is not a copying of the same account. These are two separate and independent traditions about the virgin birth, one focusing on Joseph and the other on Mary. This is exactly what we want to see in making a historical judgment.
So where did the virgin birth traditions come from? Some critics suggest that the evangelists constructed a life of Jesus by compiling various Old Testament texts and putting it in a historical framework. Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 about a virgin giving birth and so perhaps that was the inspiration for the whole tradition. The problem is that the Hebrew word for virgin is almah which is more properly ‘young woman.’ While most young women would have been virgins, the point is that the Jews were not sitting around waiting for a virgin to give birth to the Messiah, it was not a part of their expectations. What seems to have happened is that a tradition about Jesus being born to a virgin already existed and Matthew wanting to show how Jesus fit with the Old Testament found the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) version where almah is translated into parthenos or virgin. So in this case, the historical tradition came before the Scriptural proof.
Others look for a pagan origin. The Roman author Suetonius describes the Emperor Augustus as being conceived when his mother was in the temple of Apollo. Therefore, the evangelists are trying to set Jesus as the true Lord in comparison to the Roman lord Augustus. The problem is that Suetonius was born in 69 AD and that the Gospels were long written by the time he wrote The Twelve Caesars. We also know that Suetonius was aware of the Christians and wrote about them. Who influenced who? Other attempts at pagan origins include Horus and Mithra. Mithra was born from a rock, which I suppose is a virgin, but far from the idea in the Gospels. Horus was conceived when Isis had sexual intercourse with her dead husband Osiris. Not exactly a virgin birth!
While there are details in the accounts of Matthew and Luke that we do not understand, the best explanation is that they were recording two independent traditions about Jesus’ virgin birth that went back to a historical event.