It has been suggested by Muslims, following the lead of certain Western writers, that the idea of birth from a virgin was borrowed from pagan sources. It is the fashion to blame Paul for much of this as they claim that Paul professedly ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews’ becomes a ‘Hellenist of the Hellenists’. There is no valid reason for this view and several facts rule out such a possibility.
1. The early Church consistently refused to come to terms with the syncretistic religions.
2. It was precisely this refusal that led to the great persecutions.
3. What impressed the pagan world in the new religion was, not the familiarity, but the difference!
Much also can be said against the use of pagan sources by the gospel writers Matthew and Luke. When a story of the abnormal occurs in pagan myths it is frequently elaborated with indecent detail. They do not really tell of virgin births, but of gods possessed with human passions. A very different tone pervades the New Testament, and we cannot think that Matthew and Luke have borrowed material for their accou nt from such a source. Besides this we cannot believe that the Gospel narratives of the birth are the mere creations of Jewish Christians, because the Jews as a people exalted marriage, not virginity.
On the other hand, one is struck by the exquisite reserve shown by both Matthew and Luke in speaking of this event, lest what is said should be misconstrued. This reticence, together with the freshness and purity of their narratives, is evidence in their favour. There is an entire absence of that morbid reflection and vulgar curiosity which so often mar the pages of pagan myth, the apocryphal gospels and the literature of Islam. If we would see for ourselves what the unrestrained imagination of man can do we should read some of these fabrications.
Example of the incarnation from an apocryphal gospel
Consider, the following extract from one of the apocryphal gospels:
“And Annas the scribe turned him about and saw Mary great with child. And he went hastily to the priest and said unto him: “Joseph, to whom thou bearest witness (that he is righteous) hath sinned, grievously’. And the priest said, ‘Wherein?’ And he said, ‘The virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord, he hath. defiled her and married her by stealth, and hath not declared it to the children of Israel.’ And the priest answered and said: ‘Hath Joseph done this?’ And Annas the scribe said: ‘Send officers and thou shalt find the virgin great with child.’ And the officers went and .found as he had said, and they brought her together with Joseph unto the place of judgment. And the priest said, ‘Mary, wherefore hast thou done this, and wherefore hast thou humbled thy soul and forgotten the Lord thy God, thou that was nurtured in the Holy of Holies and didst receive food at the hand of an angel and didst hear the hymns and didst dance before the Lord, wherefore hast thou done this?’ “But she wept bitterly, saying: ‘As the Lord my God liveth I am pure before Him and I know not a man.’ And the priest said unto Joseph: ‘Wherefore hast thou done this?’ And Joseph said: ‘As the Lord my God liveth I am pure concerning her.’ And the priest said: ‘Bear no false witness, but speak the truth: thou has t married her by stealth and hast not declared it unto the children of Israel, and hast not bowed thine head under the mighty hand that thy seed should be blessed.; And Joseph held his peace.
And the priest said: ‘Restore the virgin whom thou didst receive out of the temple of the Lord.’ And Joseph was full of weeping. And the priest said: ‘I will give you to drink of the water of conviction of the Lord, and it will make manifest your sin before your eyes’.‘ And the priest took thereof and made Joseph drink and sent him into the hill-country. And he returned whole. He made Mary also drink and sent her into the hill-country. And she returned whole. And all the people marvelled, because sin appeared not in them And the priest said, ‘If the Lord God hath not made your sin manifest, neither do I condemn you’ And he let them go. And Joseph took Mary and departed unto his house rejoicing, and. glorifying the God of Israel.” (cp. M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 44-45) .
Example of an Muslim compiler
In the popular Qisasu‘l-Anbiya (‘Stories of the Prophets‘), current throughout the Muslim world, the compiler feels as though he has to explain what Gabriel did to Mary after informing her of the divine message, “That is easy with me” (Surah 19:21). We are told that ‘he breathed in the opening of her chemise; and she had taken it off; and when he departed from her Mary put it on, and so she conceived Jesus, on whom be peace.’ There follows at this point an indecent explanation of the mode of conception.
Conclusion in respect of whether the Gospel writers used pagan sources
It is plain to see that these narratives have been soiled and debased by the coarse touch of a type of writer very different from those who gave us the narratives in Matthew and Luke. The one account is the reverent description of fact, the others the unclean imagination of fiction. The pity of it is, as scholars unanimously agree, that details for the story in the Quran have been most obviously drawn from these very apocryphal gospels, which the Christian Church has never recognized. It is sheer presumption, therefore, for Muslims to claim that it has been the Quran and Islam that have saved the names of Mary and Jesus from slander and calumny. The obvious rejoinder to all such claims is that there is in the gospels, no suggestion of any slur on the names of Jesus and His mother, it was only among hostile Jews that any calumny existed. Joseph’s action alone, as recorded in Matthew, was sufficient vindication.
When all is said, we need to remind ourselves that the case we are considering cannot be treated as that of an ordinary man. The narrative of the life of Jesus in the gospels, itself prevents us from doing that. We are dealing with the central figure in history, with One whose earthly career closed with the Resurrection. Of Him it has been felt to be not unreasonable to hold that a supernatural entry provides but a fitting prelude to the life He lived. Indeed, apart from Him, the very idea of a supernatural conception is not even plausible.
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Objection has been raised that no reference to the Virgin Birth is to be found in the rest of the New Testament but the scantiness of such reference that we have do have reasonable explanations. The sources of our knowledge of the circumstances of our Saviour’s coming into the world are limited to Matthew and Luke, apart from them there are no explicit references in the New Testament to the virgin birth although the apostle Paul may be alluding to this fact in Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3.
The narratives of Matthew and Luke
The exclusive interest in the birth narratives by these two evangelists lay not necessarily on the unique constitution of the person miraculously born but rather in the fact that God was beginning to fulfil His long time intention of visiting and redeeming His people. The significance therefore lay in the direction of soteriology.
Matthew’s history and purpose is about fulfilments. He tells us that Jesus fulfils all righteousness, the Law and the Prophets and connects his gospel with the old covenant which includes such material that confirms that Jesus is the promised Messiah:
> “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might b e fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying……………………………. ” (Matthew 1:21,22)
Such events require the genealogical root to David and the city to which the promised Messiah should come and therefore the historical birth narratives are valid.
Luke also was concerned about matters of fulfilment in connection with salvation:
> “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end………………. ” (Luke 1:31-33).
> “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; The oath which he swore to our father Abraham ………………………………………. ” (Luke 1:68-73 ff)
We are told how he carefully examined eye-witness reports and satisfied himself that these accounts were correct. His gospel is tenderly presented with expressions of strong sympathies to human feelings as he feels the compassions and hardships that are involved in life. This is shown in his account of Mary; certain details concerning the birth of Christ were very intimate and Luke records that Mary kept many things to herself. The silence of Mary, in not relating further details to the other apostles, was then possibly due to her natural personal hesitancy.
The Remainder of the New Testament
No statement in the New Testament is at variance with these gospel stories even though the other two gospel writers make no mention of the birth narratives. The repeated sinlessness of Christ in the New Testament is best accounted by accepting the reliability of the story of the virgin birth.
The Gospel of Mark begins not with the birth of Christ but with the public preaching of John the Baptist. Mark is traditionally known as the interpreter of the preaching of Peter and the preaching of the gospel is his main theme as he leads on from John the Baptist most naturally into the public preaching of Christ. The birth narratives did not figure in his purpose.
The Gospel of John takes us back to a time before the birth narratives as he begins his prologue with the eternal generation of the Son. Writing many years after the Synoptic Gospels he does not repeat the material found there so understandably does not mention the birth narratives. He does however, rectify an earlier misunderstanding that was held concerning himself (John 21:23) and we would have thought that if any error concerning the birth narratives existed he would have sought to correct them. He does no such thing.
Similarly, St. Paul, in his letters there are many historical incidents to which he does not refer. There is no mention of Christ’s baptism, temptation or transfiguration nor is there any reference to the miracles or parables of Jesus. The Apostle in his letters deals with issues of contention which arose from time to time but there was no contention over the virgin birth. It is also possible that because much of Paul’s preaching was made amongst the pagan Gentiles reference to Christ’s birth and its supernatural circumstances might have left an entirely erroneous impression.
Copyright © 2014 “Message 4 Muslims” All rights reserved. This article is an abridgement from book entitled ‘The People of the Mosque’ by L. Bevan Jones