The first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are in agreement that Jesus was conceived in Mary without the intervention of Joseph and that he was of the house of David. Otherwise there are considerable differences: Matthew describes the visit of the Magi, the journey into Egypt and temporary residence there, the slaughter by Herod the Great of the infants—all told from the point of view of Joseph. Luke has accounts of the birth of John the Baptist, an angelic message to Mary, the visit of the shepherds, Jesus' circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, and, finally, the record of Jesus' conversation in the Temple at the age of 12.
There are objections to treating these narratives as literal history. It is difficult to fit into a satisfactory time-scheme both the flight into Egypt (Matt.) and the return to the house at Nazareth (Luke): there are improbable features in the story of the travelling star and the journey to Egypt (Matt.) and uncertainty about the universal census under Augustus (Luke). As the son of an artisan carpenter it is unlikely that Jesus could have debated in the Temple at the age of 12. No other NT writer reveals any knowledge of the virginal conception. In the face of these difficulties about historicity (it is noted that there is no secular writing to corroborate the crime of Herod's massacre of the infants) many scholars prefer to see the narratives as Matthew's improvisation on the basis of OT texts, in accordance with accepted rabbinic principles of scriptural interpretation. It is significant that in Matthew the will of God is revealed in dreams, as it was to Joseph the OT patriarch; and just as the patriarch went to Egypt, so did the NT Joseph. Some scholars would recognize that as history these narratives are fragile, but would also hold that there is a core of fact on which the two evangelists have proceeded to proclaim their Christian faith about Jesus as Son of David and Son of God. This they did by showing that Jesus was the fulfilment of OT prophecy; the life, death, and resurrection were foreordained, not fortuitous. The narratives also answer the objections that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore an unlikely Messiah and that the circumstances of his birth were irregular.
Later Christian writings elaborate what they found in Matthew and Luke, much of which has become the stuff of popular piety and children's plays: the birth in a stable, Joseph the elderly widower with children from his former marriage, the three ‘kings’ and their names, and the belief that the birth miraculously took place not only through the conception by the Holy Spirit but also nine months later without damage to Mary's physical organs.
Modern theologians who maintain the truth of the virginal conception as literal fact believe it to be congruous with God's action in giving mankind a new beginning; Jesus' miraculous birth constitutes a decisive break with the old order. Other theologians suggest that without the masculine contribution there would be a defect in Jesus' humanity. They are therefore inclined to put the narratives into the genre of midrash, sparked off perhaps by the LXX translation of Isa. 7: 14 where the Hebrew ha'almah (‘young woman’) is translated, he parthenos (‘the virgin’). Isaiah was concerned with the troubles of the 8th cent. bce, not at that moment with a future Messianic age. The prophet declares that within nine months, and the birth of Emmanuel, the king's enemies would no longer be a threat, and soon there would be peace (Isa. 7: 15–16). See virgin birth.
Subjects: Biblical Studies.