Rebutting Dan Mcclellan’s Attempt at Debunking the Virgin Birth

You know it’s Christmas when you get your annual lump of coal with the whole ‘Matthew invented the virgin birth’ schtick. This time, it’s from TikTok’s favorite cynical biblical scholar, Dan McClellan:

The virgin birth is a tradition that seems to have developed decades after Jesus’s death, primarily because of a poor translation of a passage from the Hebrew Bible….

The earliest writings we have about Jesus, the writings of Paul and the gospel of Mark, say absolutely nothing at all about any virgin birth. Paul’s really only concerned with the resurrected Jesus, and Mark’s story starts with the beginning of his ministry and his baptism. It’s not until after that that people are starting to ask questions about where Jesus came from, and that’s when we get the development of the traditions we find in Matthew and Luke, which talk about Jesus’s ancestry and then attribute miraculous events to his birth. This suggests that his mission was assigned and he was set apart for it at his very birth.

Dan’s argument from silence

This is a whopper of an argument from silence. Omitting a fact doesn’t always mean denying it. Our idea about what a writer would mention isn’t always reliable.

So for example, in two long letters to the historian Tacitus, Pliny the Younger provides a detailed account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. However, strangely, the governor of Bithynia never mentions the destruction of either the wealthy town of Herculaneum or the more heavily populated Pompeii.

During a terrible plague in 1665-1666, Henry Oldenburg, who worked for the Royal Society in London, continued sending many letters. However, he barely talked about the plague, mentioning it only once to Spinoza, explaining a delayed book delivery. I could provide dozens of other examples like this, but you get the idea. Our intuitions about what a writer would definitely mention simply aren’t very good.

Also, Paul doesn’t mention John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ parables, or the Temple cleansing. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know about them or doesn’t care.

Dan, Mr. Scholarly Consensus, would probably say that Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation were written around Matthew and Luke’s time or even a decade or two later. None of these writings even wink at the virgin birth. Did they missed the memo or perhaps had a secret disagreement? Or maybe their silence just doesn’t mean much of anything. 

Why is John silent about the virgin birth?

Dan continues:

In John, we move it back even further to the beginning of creation, but in Matthew and Luke, we have these references to a virgin birth. While a lot of people think this is stolen from other Pagan ideologies, there are not really any traditions that are close enough to suggest any kind of genetic link.

For starters, I’m glad Dan realizes that the virgin birth is not plagiarizing pagan traditions. Say it louder for the parallel-o-maniacs and mythicists in the back! 

Agreements aside, how does Dan know that Matthew and Luke didn’t believe Jesus was pre-existent? Do they say that anywhere? He’s assuming this because Matthew and Luke are silent on the matter of Jesus’ pre-existence in the explicit way John is and assuming development. 

But does John have a different understanding of Jesus than everyone else? If Mark thinks Jesus was God, he would presumably understand that he was also pre-existent. And the first two verses of his Gospel seem to indicate that he is God. 

In Mark’s introduction, he plays around with verses from Malachi and Isaiah in his book. Malachi 3:1 talks about God coming, saying, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” But in Mark 1:2, he changes it to “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” This tweak suggests that someone else is coming in the place of God.

Mark confirms Jesus as a substitute for Yahweh through the second OT reference from Isaiah 40:3:

In Mark 1:3 (quoting Isaiah 40:3), it says, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Isaiah 40:3 reads, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

So in Isaiah 40:3, they were talking about getting things ready for the LORD, but then Mark comes in and connects it all to Jesus. He tweaks the verse from “making a highway for our God” to “making his paths straight.”

So, according to Mark, it seems as if Jesus is Yahweh, the one who existed before the worlds were formed. There are other indicators in Mark’s text that indicate this, too. Jesus forgives sins, calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath, calms the storms, says that his words will never pass away, and claims that he’s coming on the clouds. 

Was the virgin birth based on a mistranslation?

Here’s McClellan’s finish:

The most likely source of this tradition is Matthew’s appropriation of the Septuagint, which says that a young woman (almah) has conceived and will bring forth a son. The idea is that this son will deliver Israel, probably King Hezekiah. But when that is translated into Greek many centuries later, it’s no longer relevant if it’s talking about a woman who got pregnant way back when Isaiah was alive. So, the tense of the verb is changed. It’s no longer ‘a young woman has conceived’, it’s now ‘a parthenos, a virgin, will conceive in the future and will bring forth a son.’ Suddenly it’s a prophecy, and this is what Matthew picks up on. This is where the tradition likely develops that Jesus’s mother was a virgin. It’s something that developed decades after Jesus’s death, after Paul had already written his Epistles and lived and died, and even after the gospel of Mark had been written.”

So did Matthew get a bit too excited after reading the Septuagint? Nah. Matthew’s intentions are crystal clear in the early chapters of his Gospel. He repeatedly links events to fulfill Old Testament prophecies by saying, “…this happened to fulfill what the prophet said…” followed by quotes from the prophets. It’s as if he’s going out of his way to say, “Look, Jesus’ birth fulfills these ancient predictions!”

On the traditional Christian view, Matthew, aware of Jesus’ birth circumstances, looked into the ancient prophets to find passages that matched these events. Back in the first century, Jewish interpretation was complex and even a bit weird, not something we twenty-first-century folks easily relate to. Despite that, some scholars argue that Matthew’s approach—using these techniques—is mild compared to rabbinic standards of the time.

In the first two chapters of Matthew, we see Matthew doing this kind of thing again and again. Take Hosea 11:1, for example: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Or check out Jeremiah 31:15: “Thus says the LORD, “A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.””

Back in Jeremiah’s era, Rachel had long passed away; her mourning was more of a symbolic tale. But when Matthew thought about the tragic Bethlehem massacre, he saw a connection. To him, Jeremiah’s depiction of Rachel’s grief seemed fitting, like history repeating itself in the events of his time.

All this brings us to the controversial words in Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

According to Dan, Matthew, knowing those Old Testament prophecies and dead set on Jesus being the Messiah, might’ve cooked up these stories to match the predictions. It’s not like events reminded Matthew of the prophecies; instead, the stories might’ve popped up from remembering those prophecies.

The skeptical view has a certain appeal. Anything Matthew mentions, which we can’t double-check, gets this explanation. Why did he send Jesus to Egypt, unlike Luke? Oh, to tick off that prophecy in Hosea.

And when it comes to Isaiah 7:14, the skeptical explanation seems like it’s tailor-made. Did Isaiah predict a virgin birth for the Messiah? Well, if Jesus is the Messiah, then a virgin birth he must have, right?

There’s a problem, however. Before Christianity, there’s no trace in Jewish writings of Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 31:15, or Hosea 11:1 being seen as prophecies about the Messiah.

The Jewish interpreters obviously had plenty to say about what they thought were messianic predictions. Alfred Edersheim’s huge book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, lists 456 passages from the Targums or Talmud marked as messianic. Surprisingly, not a single one of those passages matches the ones we’re talking about.

To be clear, I’m not saying these passages couldn’t match events in Jesus’ life if those events truly happened. But, based on what we have, there’s zero evidence that a zealous first-century Jew, eager to make up a story about the Messiah’s birth, would even think to use these specific passages. They had plenty of other material to work with. But for this made-up Jewish-Christian storyteller, these three passages just weren’t on their radar.

Now, the fact that these passages weren’t considered Messianic by the Jews themselves is a big problem for the theory that Matthew crafted his birth story to fit those Messianic expectations. If anything, it’s tricky to explain why Matthew included this material in a made-up story about Jesus’ birth. Why did he pick just these strands from the prophetic writings, unless the events themselves hinted at those parallels?

For what it’s worth, this isn’t just some pop apologist talking point that I’m making here. Marc Goodacre from Duke University shares a similar view. In one of the episodes of “The NT Pod,” he highlights how Matthew tends to take tradition and give it a scriptural spin, rather than turning prophecy into history. For instance, in Matthew 2:23, it mentions Jesus being called a Nazarene. Surprisingly, there’s no clear scriptural reference for this idea. Despite that, most scholars trust the sources that talk about Jesus growing up in Nazareth. (I’m not saying Goodacre affirms the virgin birth but he thinks that Matthew is working with some kind of tradition that he finds a scriptural interpretation for.)

That tricky word ‘almah’

Okay, so what about that tricky word ‘almah’? It only pops up a few times in the Old Testament. Let’s break it down and see what it really means.

In Genesis 24:43, Genesis 24:43. Rebekah was Isaac’s bride-to-be. In the same chapter, she is a “girl” (na’arah). (Gen 24:14). She’s also called a virgin (betulah) in verse 16 and a maiden (almah) in 24:43. All three words describe a virginal young woman.

In Exodus 2:8, Moses’ sister Miriam is called an “almah.” She’s still living with her parents, so it’s pretty safe to say she’s likely a virgin too.

Song of Solomon 1:3 refers to the alamot for Solomon. These are not married women but maidens who wanted husbands. The term implies virginity.

Then later, in Song of Solomon 6:8, it mentions “alamot” alongside queens and concubines. These “alamot” are candidates for marriage or being concubines, so they’re also likely virgins set aside for the king.

Finally, Proverbs 30:19 describes the way of a man with an ‘almah’. The context in Prov. 30:18-20 refers to four incomprehensible things:

  1. An eagle in the sky
  2. A serpent on a rock
  3. A ship at sea
  4. And a man with an ‘almah’.

What do all four things have in common? They are all things that disappear quickly. The eagle flies away from sight. The serpent slithers off the rock. A ship disappears. And well, a virgin can lose her virginity in a heartbeat.

In this blog post, Dr. Michael Heiser, an expert in Old Testament studies and Semitic languages, dives into the meaning of the word “almah.” He explores its usage and finds that while it doesn’t strictly mean “virgin,” it isn’t at all far-fetched to associate virginity with it in certain contexts. But he concludes that diving into word studies isn’t really necessary to his case.

In ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age,” like Mary, was a female who had at least reached puberty and so was capable of bearing children. Daughters in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even in today’s sex-saturated culture, a significant number of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew was raised in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should not surprise us that he saw no incongruity in understanding almah (עלמה) to mean “virgin.”

The Almah of Isaiah 7:14,, Dec 15, 2009, accessed 12/5/23

You ain’t go no legs, lieutenant Dan.

So overall, Dan’s not hitting the mark here. McClellan might claim that most agree with his cynical interpretation, but that just shows how weak consensus really is. Matthew didn’t concoct a prophecy from a mistranslation. He actually linked what he knew about Jesus’ unusual birth to the Old Testament, and that was his typical approach—connecting the dots between the old and the new.

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