Larry King was asked if he could interview anyone in history, who would it be? He said Jesus and followed up with this statement: "I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me."
While much effort has gone into providing an apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I cannot recall seeing much of an apologetic for the virgin birth of Jesus. It never really crossed my mind until I was faced with the criticism by some that the virgin birth was actually made up in the late first century to fulfill some of the Old Testament messianic prophesies. Even some self-professed believers thought of it as a "pious legend" rather than fact.
So what evidence is there to support the virgin birth?
Let's start with some background. First, God the Son existed before the birth of Jesus (John 1:1, 8:58; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-16). Second, because of original sin, for Jesus to have a sinless life required a miraculous entry. Third, and this one is a little more obscure, Joseph was a descendant of King Jeconiah (Matt. 1:12), God had said that none of his descendants would sit on the throne of David or rule Judah (Jeremiah 22:28-30).
Several things among Jesus' family support the virgin birth. We see in Luke 1:38-39 & 56 that the date of Mary and Joseph's marriage did not predate the conception. Before being instructed by God to take Mary as his wife, Joseph sought to put her away quietly (Matt. 1:19); the natural assumption would be that Mary had committed fornication/adultery and was worthy of death. In other words, Mary took a great risk in making this claim. We also see in Mark 6:3 that Jesus did in fact have brothers and sisters, and this fact was widely known. If any one of them were older than Jesus, it would discredit the virgin birth account. We know that the family of Jesus was prominent in the early church (1 Cor. 9:5), and the claim of a virgin birth was never silenced by them. Finally, we see that Zechariah (a priest) and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, celebrated Jesus as the Savior (Luke 1).
Despite claims that the virgin birth is an invention of the late first century, evidence points to it being known in the early to mid first century during the time of Jesus' family and of the apostles. They risked rejection of their entire message on account of this claim. Scripture records several instances where disputes arose and were resolved in the early church, but no record of a dispute of this issue exists.
The question of Jesus' parentage was out there, especially among his critics. His exchange with the Pharisees in John 8 has this question lurking just under the surface; "Where is Your Father?" v. 19, "We were not born of fornication;" v. 41, "You are a Samaritan" v. 49 (a stinging insult considering the Jews' low view of Samaritans; Samaria was near His hometown of Nazareth).
Jesus' relationship with his earthly parents, particularly Mary, was likely very unique. In John 2:4 and 19:26, Jesus refers to Mary as "woman." While in English this may seem very cold and even rude, the context doesn't point to such an interpretation, especially His statement from the cross. Why did Jesus say "woman" instead of "mother"? One thought is that He is pointing back to the messianic prophesy in Genesis 3:15:
"And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel."
Another criticism of the virgin birth is that Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, supposedly never refers to it. Some even claim that Paul had not heard of the virgin birth. This argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Galatians is almost universally regarded as an authentic writing of Paul and dates between AD 40-65. In chapter 4, the word Paul uses that is most commonly translated as "born" carries a much fuller meaning than the biological act of birth. Paul also only refers to the mother, not the father...unusual unless done intentionally. In Romans 1, Paul refers to Jesus as being born of a descendant of David. Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of David, but it is important to see that his bloodline was through Mary, not Joseph.
The evidence of the virgin birth is not limited to scripture. Even the Quran affirms the virgin birth of Jesus, which serves no good purpose for Islam.
While none of this constitutes a 'smoking gun' for the non-believer, it should be apparent that the claims of a virgin birth could have been easily put to rest in the first century if they were not true. The fact that the claim persists to this day is evidence in itself.
So must a person believe in the virgin birth to be a true follower of Jesus? Albert Mohler asks, “If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.”
In other words, to not believe undermines Christ's nature and nullifies the incarnation. Without the incarnation, the cross means nothing.
Online resources on this subject:
Reason to Believe the Virgin Birth
Was Jesus born of a virgin?
Which Virgin Birth?
Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?
The Virgin Birth of Christ: Evidence of Its Historicity