When Did Belief in the Virgin Birth Begin?

In the study of law one of the most important subjects is evidence. One of the reasons why so few have arrived at a truth in which they believe absolutely is that they have forgotten the importance of proof. Evidence is one of the important divisions of theology. No belief can be accepted without proof or a “motive of credibility.” One might say that the greatest skeptics are the Christians, for they will not believe in the Resurrection until they see the crucified and dead Man arise from the grave by the Power of God Himself. One could take any doctrine of Christianity as an example of proof and of evidence, but we will take one that the modern world has rejected for the last three hundred years (after believing in it for the first sixteen hundred years), namely, the virgin birth of Jesus from His Mother, Mary, who is a virgin.

Before adducing our evidence, it is important to realize that the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, does not derive her belief from the Scriptures alone. This will come as a surprise to those who, whenever they hear of a particular Christian teaching, ask: “Is it in the Bible?” The Church was spread throughout the entire Roman Empire before a single book of the New Testament was written. There were already many martyrs in the Church before there were either Gospels or Epistles. An authoritative and recognized ministry was carrying on the Lord’s work at His command, speaking in His name as witnesses of what they had seen, before anyone decided to write a single line of the New Testament.

To the early followers of Our Lord, and to us, the authority of the Apostles was equal to the authority of Christ, in the sense that it was the continuation of His teaching. Our Lord said: “He that heareth you, heareth me.” The Apostles first taught and then later on, two—and only two—of the Twelve left a Gospel. To His Apostles, Our Lord said:

“Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Mt 28:19, 20). And again He said: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you” (Jn 20:21). The Apostles were the nucleus of the Church, the new Israel, the first visible manifestation of Christ’s Mystical Body. That is why on Pentecost they chose one out of the community of 120 to take the place of Judas. The successor had to be an eyewitness of the Gospel events; that was the absolute condition of being an Apostle. The Church was an organic body of cohesion, the source of unity and authority, with Peter presiding because he was Divinely appointed. It would still be almost twenty-five years before the first of the Gospels would be written; hence those who isolate a single text from the Bible from this Apostolic tradition, or study it apart from it, are living and thinking in a vacuum. The Gospels need tradition as the lungs need air, and as the eyes light, and as the plants the earth! The Good Book was second, and not first. When finally the Gospels were written, they were the mere secretarial reports of what was already believed.

Pick up the Gospel of Luke, which was written sometime before the year 67, and read the opening lines: “For as much as many have taken hand to set forth in order, a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us: According as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed” (Lk 1:1-4). Luke did not write to Theophilus to tell him something brand new about someone who died over thirty-four years before. Theophilus, like every other member of the Apostolic Church in the Roman Empire, already knew about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, about the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. It is similar to this. If we pick up a history book that tells us that in 1914 World War I began, it does not create that belief in us, it just confirms what we already know. So, too, the Gospels set down in a more systematic way what was already believed. If we had lived in the first twenty-five years of the Church, how would we have answered this question: “How can I know what I am to believe?” We could not have said, “I will look in the Bible.” For there was no New Testament Bible then. We would have believed what the Apostolic Church was teaching, and, until the invention of printing, it would have been difficult for any of us to have made ourselves so-called infallible private interpreters of the book.

Never once did Our Lord tell these witnesses of His to write. He Himself wrote only once in His life, and that was on the sand. But He did tell them to preach in His name and to be witnesses to Him to the end of the earth, until the consummation of time.

Hence those who take this or that text out of the Bible to prove something are isolating it from the historical atmosphere in which it arose and from the word of mouth that passed Christ’s truth. If there are three persons in a room, there are also in it six legs and six arms—but they never create a problem because they are related to the physical organism. But if we found one arm outside the door, it would be a tremendous problem, because it is isolated from the organic whole. So it is with certain Christian truths that are isolated from the whole—for example, the doctrine of penance if it is isolated from Original Sin. It is only in the light of the circle of truth that the segments of the circle have a meaning.

When finally the Gospels were written, they recorded a tradition; they did not create it. It was already there. After a while men had decided to put in writing this living tradition and voice, which explains the beginning of the Gospel of Luke: “That thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed.” The Gospels did not start the Church; the Church started the Gospels. The Church did not come out of the Gospels; the Gospels came out of the Church.

The Church preceded the New Testament, not the New Testament the Church. First there was not a Constitution of the United States, and then Americans, who in the light of that Constitution decided to form a government and a nation. The Founding Fathers preceded the Foundation; so the Mystical Body of Christ preceded the reports written later by inspired secretaries. And incidentally, how do we know the Bible is inspired? It does not say so! Matthew does not conclude his Gospel saying: “Be sure to read Mark; he is inspired, too.” Furthermore, the Bible is not a book. It is a collection of seventy-two books in all. It is worth opening a Bible to see if we have them all and have not been cheated. These widely scattered books cannot bear witness to their own inspiration. It is only by something outside the Bible that we know it is inspired. We will not go into that point now, but it is worth looking into.

When finally the Gospels were written, they did not prove what Christians believed, nor did they initiate that belief; they merely recorded in a systematic manner what they already knew. Men did not believe in the Crucifixion because the Gospels said there was a Crucifixion; they wrote down the story of the Crucifixion, because they already believed in it. The Church did not come to believe in the Virgin Birth because the Gospels tell us there is a Virgin Birth; it was because the living word of God in His Mystical Body already believed it that they set it down in the Gospels.

A second fact to be remembered is that this Mystical Body of Christ has a memory, as we have a memory. If our physical life extends back forty-five years, we can remember two world wars. We speak of them as a living witness, not from the books written but from having lived through them, and maybe through having fought in them. We may later on have read the books about these two world wars. Yet they are not the beginning of our knowledge but only a recalling or a deepening of what we already knew. In like manner, Our Lord is the Head of the new humanity, the new fellowship, or the spiritual organism that St. Paul calls His Mystical Body. To this Mystical Body Christ is associated, first in His Apostles, and then in all who believed in Him throughout the centuries. This Body, too, has a memory, reaching back to Christ. It knows that the Resurrection is true because she, the Church, was there. The cells of our body change every seven years, but we are the same personality. The cells of the Mystical Body, which we are, too, may change every fifty or sixty years; yet it is still Christ that lives in that Body.

The Church knows that Christ rose from the dead and that the Spirit descended on the Apostles on Pentecost because the Church was there from the beginning. The Church has a memory of over nineteen hundred years, and this memory is called tradition. The Apostles’ Creed, which was an accepted formula in the Church around the year 100 and which summed up the Apostles’ teaching, is as follows:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, sitteth at the right Hand of God, the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come 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 the life everlasting. Amen.

Note the words “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The truths expressed in the Creed were essential for entrance into the Church. Everyone who was baptized early into Christ’s Mystical Body believed in each of these truths. The Virgin Birth was as much an accepted Truth as the Resurrection in the first Christian centuries.

There is not one single quotation of the Gospels in the Creed. The early members of the Church were recording the early Christian tradition, of which the Gospels were only the literary expression. There are also several volumes of writings from within the first hundred years of the life of Our Lord; for example, the writing of St. Clement, one of the successors of St. Peter, who wrote in the year 92; and also Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, one of the successors of John the Evangelist; and Irenaeus, who names the twelve bishops of Rome; and Ignatius of Antioch, who said that he wanted to be “ground like wheat between the jaws of lions to be a living bread for His Savior.”

Many of these writers do not quote the Gospels. We have fifteen hundred lines from Clement, and yet only two texts of his are from the New Testament; he was recording the Christian beliefs, accepted by the witnesses of Christ. Polycarp quotes the Gospel only three times, for he lived on familiar terms with many who had seen Our Lord, and he wrote what he knew and had learned from the Apostles. Ignatius of Antioch (who lived within seventy years of the life of Our Lord) wrote: “Our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived of the Holy Spirit… and was truly born of a virgin.”

There is a double evidence from which we can draw, to learn true Christian teaching: one is the revealed Word of God in the Scriptures—the other is the continuous teaching of the Church from the very beginning, that is, her living memory. Just as lawyers, in proving a point, use not only the bare statement of law but also the way the courts have understood and interpreted that law, so too, the Scriptures are not a dead letter but are living and breathing in the beautiful context of a spiritual fellowship.

In the year 108, there were still many living who had been boys when Our Lord was crucified—who as young men saw and conversed with the Apostles before they were martyred—and who, in scattered parts of the Roman Empire, were already familiar with the Christian tradition passed on through the Church. Some of the other Apostles were not martyred until later—John did not die until the year 100. Some of these early writers were closer to John and other Apostles than we are to World War I. And this much is certain: if the Apostles, who lived with Our Lord and who heard Him speak on the open hills and in the temple—who listened to Him preach on the Kingdom of God forty days after His Resurrection—did not teach the Virgin Birth, no one else would have taught it. It was too unusual an idea for men to make up; it would have been ordinarily too difficult for acceptance if it had not come from Christ Himself!

The one man who might be most inclined to doubt the historical fact of the Virgin Birth on natural grounds (because he was a physician) was the second Evangelist, St. Luke. And yet he tells us the most about it. From the beginning Our Lord had many enemies. Certain aspects of His teaching were denied by heretics, but there was one teaching that no early heretic denied, and that was that He was born of a virgin. One would think that this should have been the doctrine first attacked, but the Virgin Birth was accepted by believers and early heretics alike. It would have been silly to try to convince anyone of the Virgin Birth if he did not already believe in the Divinity of Christ; that is why, probably, it would have been unwise for Mary to speak of it until after the Resurrection, although Joseph, Elizabeth, and probably John the Baptist already knew of it—and, need we say, the Son of God Himself, Who brought it all to pass.

“One-texters” say that the Bible speaks of Our Lord as having brethren; therefore, they conclude, He was not born of a virgin. But this claim can be answered. When a preacher in a pulpit addresses his congregation, “My dear brethren,” it does not mean that everyone in the Church has the same mother. Secondly, the word “brother” is used in Sacred Scripture in the wide sense, to cover not only one’s relatives but also one’s friends; for example, Abraham calls Lot his brother: “Pray let us have no strife between us two, between my shepherds and thine; are