The Encyclopedia Britannica says of the virgin birth, “it was universally accepted in the Christian church by the 2nd century (100AD).” A good friend, an atheist, pointed to this text as evidence that the virgin birth was added later. He added that only the gospels of Matthew and Luke have this story, and no other New Testament writers reference it.
I searched the web and early church writings for something a little more detailed. What do the earliest manuscripts say? How could I triangulate the origin of this story? Here is what I found.
The best supporting evidence for his assertion was the Ebionites of the first century. The most famous of these was Cerinthus. According to some sources, the Ebionites possessed a manuscript of Matthew, but did not accept the birth or resurrection and contested that God did not come upon Jesus until the baptism and left him at the crucifixion. When I told my friend about this observation, he acknowledged that the resurrection was included in his information, but he intentionally left that statement out because the resurrection might be too sacred for me to consider.
It is not surprising that these questions are so controversial. To accept the virgin birth or resurrection means that Jesus really was from God. To accept that God came in the flesh calls for a response from all peoples. To reject this statement, allows Jesus to be ignored or placed in some safe corner of life without any real consequence. The real question is not whether or not there was contention; the real question is, “Did it really happened?”
The unique thing about the first century church, compared to the start of other religions, is that it started under persecution and, yet, spread so rapidly. By the end of that first century, the church had spread from Spain to India and into the northern parts of Africa. There are many sources which corroborate the execution of the apostles and their disciples. They believed what they were teaching so strongly that they died for it. According to the gospels, they were a timid, confused group until they saw the resurrection. From that point on, they never stopped telling that story, even when it meant their own demise. What did they really teach? What had they experienced?
Several independent sources corroborate the stories of Jesus’ birth and/or resurrection. Because the church spread so quickly, manuscripts also dispersed quickly. Changes in one region would not have made it to other places unless those changes were done at least before the destruction of Jerusalem (70AD). In truth persecution of the church started shortly after Jesus’ death causing dispersion of the Christians, so it is unlikely that a change as early at 50AD would have propagated to all the extant scripts. When the King James Version was translated only 6 Greek manuscripts existed and they were from very late dates. Today over 5000 manuscripts have been uncovered and many are dated before 200AD. Despite the fact, that these manuscripts spread across 3 continients in the first century, there is no textual basis to believe that the manuscripts of Luke and Matthew were tampered with later on. Recent Bible translation, like the New International Version, include sub-notes for all the manuscript differences. Most of them are inconsequential; one exception is Mark 16:9-20. This makes it very easy to quickly see where manuscript inconsistencies have crept in. Because the King James Version relied on such late manuscripts, there are a few phrases that indeed crept in later. Nevertheless, the story is 99% consistent.
John was the only apostle to live a long life. He died an old man around 100AD. This means he was still alive when the virgin birth “was universally accepted in the Christian church”. He was the apostle who cared for Mary, the mother of Jesus; he would definitely know about the virgin birth. Polycarp and Ignatius were two of his disciples. We have their writings which corroborate the virgin birth and/or the resurrection. Both these disciples were also executed for their beliefs. We have a story from Irenaeus, one of Polycarp’s disciples, that John once fled a bathhouse where Cerinthus, the Ebionite, was. John said, “Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!” The gospel of John includes these words describing Jesus.
The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” (John 1:14-15)
I addition to the gospels of John, Matthew, and Luke, consider the apostle Thomas. This is the apostle who refused to believe the resurrection till he placed his fingers in the hands of Jesus and his hand in the side. (John 20:25) Yet, Thomas was himself killed, run through with a javelin, in India for preaching this gospel. Saint Thomas Christians, as they call themselves, trace their history to this first century encounter in India. In about 180AD, Pantaenus, an early church theologian, traveled to India to take the gospel message. When he arrived, he found that the church was already planted. Eusebius, Pantaenus’ disciple, relates this story and indicates that this group had a version of the Gospel of Matthew in Aramaic. This distinct group that was otherwise cut off from the western church, appears to be even more unified in orthodox views of the virgin birth and resurrection. Many texts, oral traditions, and sites corroborate that Thomas planted the church in India before he was killed there in about 70AD. It should be noted that Pantaenus reported that Bartholomew had brought the gospel to India. This was probably a misunderstanding as “Mar Thoma” (Aramaic for Bishop Thomas) sounds very close to “Bar Tolmay” (Aramaic for Bartholomew).
It should not surprise anyone that the virgin birth and resurrection are disputed. I have never seen one; however, something transformed the lives of the earliest apostles. No message traveled so fast under such persecution. It is a witness that suggests that miracles, such as reported in the book of Acts, followed the early church into these distant areas who had never seen Jesus. The eastern church in India cut off from other western influences have consistently taught and died for this view of Jesus’ origin and destiny. The records of the apostles deaths testifies that they were witnesses of something incredible. They clearly taught the resurrection. How can we explain this teaching, and their willingness to die for it. Only two answers seem logical…
- They really saw the resurrection; or
- They were all tricked.
If you choose the latter, the next question should be, “What group wanted to trick them?” Jews, Romans, and, even, the Ebionites who accepted most of Jesus’ teaching tried to shut them up.