Judaism does not have a problem with the concept of a person being born of a virgin. Further, there isn’t a problem with considering such a birth as miraculous. The reality is that if a woman were to conceive without a man such a conception is miraculous (even though there are modern methods for fertilizing the egg without a man directly being “involved” this does not contradict my intent here).
I do not think that there is anything inherently pagan about the notion of a virgin conceiving and having a child. Certainly it is possible that Hashem could cause such an event.
From a Jewish standpoint a virgin birth only becomes pagan when we start discussing a god or deity having relations with a woman and producing a child who is part god and part man or even 100% god and 100% man. When such a claim is made this raises Jewish eyebrows. Such a concept is beyond anything Judaism has to say. There is only one of two sources for such a claim:
- The non-Jewish pagan world
- The fertile imagination of an individual or group of people
There’s no way to legitimately say that Jesus was born of a virgin and is both god and man and still claim that these beliefs are attached to anything Jewish.
There is a concept, however, in Judaism that the mystics discuss of perpetual virginity. Such virginity is distinct from physical virginity. The matriarch Rebecca represents this concept of virgin. Rebecca (whom we know to have had two sons, Jacob and Esau) is considered a perpetual virgin. Rebecca’s status as perpetual virgin has little to do with the state of her physical being.
“But, virginity is not only a physical state—it is a state of mind.”
–Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, The Month of Elul: Running Red Lights. Galeinai Publication Society. p2.
Rabbi Ginsburgh’s comment is echoed by the words of Raymond E. Brown who says:
“The virginal conception under its creedal title of ‘virgin birth’ is not primarily a biological statement.” (see further information at simpletoremember.com)
–Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, New York: Paulist Press, 1973, p. 99.
It is possible that when the New Testament writers discuss Mary’s virginity this is what they are talking about. I only say this because to claim that Jesus is literally born of a virgin is fine (so long as we do not stray into the caveat mentioned above), but if Jesus is truly claiming to have a right to the throne of David then a virgin birth makes his claim of legitimacy impossible.
Therefore, in my opinion, the disciples were more likely talking about the virgin birth in a metaphorical manner. That is, if they truly believed that Jesus had the right to the throne of the Messiah (which given the genealogies in Mathew and Luke it would seem they were trying to make a claim that Jesus had a legitimate claim through genealogy to the throne of his father David) then they must have believed that Jesus was literally the son of King David through the line of his fathers through Joseph. Jesus could only claim Joseph’s genealogy as his genealogy if Jesus was really Joseph’s son.
I think there is additional support to my theory that the virgin birth is used metaphorically from the use of Isaiah 7:14 in Mathew. The use of Isaiah 7:14 is used metaphorically not as a literal fulfillment of a prophecy.
To use scripture non-literally is a common method of the sages of Israel. Using scripture in this way was not meant to mislead someone to believe that the text says something that it does not say. Instead, the purpose was to use the imagery of the text to help paint a picture in the mind of the hearer that would better aid them to understand whatever points the sage was trying to make. Such usage of scripture is not unknown to us today.
I think it is appropriate to give the author of Mathew the benefit of the doubt on his use of Isaiah 7:14. If we do not give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he used the verse literally instead of metaphorically then we are forced to draw the conclusion that the author of Mathew either:
- Did not know his Tanach or at least did not know how to understand it
- The author of Mathew was intentionally misleading people so they would accept his claims
This is because when we read Isaiah 7:14 literally it is clear that in the context of Isaiah 7 the verse has absolutely nothing to do with the Messiah or with any long term future prophecy. The prophecies in Isaiah 7 were meant for the immediate future and were consequently fulfilled in a short period of time. To claim anything else about Isaiah is either to do so out of error or out of an intentional desire to mislead people.
I see no reason to accept either of these scenarios when there is a way to say that the author of Mathew probably knew what he was doing and knew that to a Jewish audience his manner of writing would be understood.
Another point adding to a non-literal understanding of “virgin birth;” the word in Isaiah 7:14 that is often translated as “virgin” (almah) is in fact a more ambiguous word, it is literally translated as “young maiden.” Whether the “young maiden” is a virgin (betulah) or not depends on the young maiden. A “young maiden” might be a virgin or she might not be. The word “young maiden” merely refers to a woman at a certain age; it has nothing to do with the virginal state of the young maiden.
I’ve made two main points in this article that I believe is worth considering with a discussion of a Jewish Jesus:
- Judaism has nothing against the concept of a virgin birth so long as there is no claim of deity associated with such a birth
- There is a concept of a virgin state-of-mind within Judaism so depending on how this is understood Jesus’ association with a “virgin” may be legitimate from a Jewish standpoint.
- It is more likely than not that the author of Mathew did not mean for people to think that Jesus was literally born of a virgin but had some metaphorical concept he wished to impart to his readers this is because:
- If Jesus were literally born of a virgin he could not claim to have a right to the throne of King David as this right is passed from father to son
- The use of Isaiah 7:14 seems to be a metaphorical reading itself, how can one literally fulfill a metaphorical interpretation?
To keep a Jewish Jesus we have to look at the virgin birth to see if the words of the author of the book of Mathew can be understood from a Jewish perspective. I think we can see that Jewish perspective but to really see it and to really see Jesus for who he was and not for who some hope him to be we must let go of anything foreign to Judaism. We must understand the words of Jesus and his disciples within the context of Judaism. Otherwise, what does it matter that Jesus was Jewish?