Word of the Week
December 11, 2021
Parthenos: “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy”
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew 1:23 KJV
“The Virgin Mary had a baby boy.”
That calypso carol catches the central point of Christmas in rhythm with the ancient creeds that describe Jesus as “born of the virgin Mary.”
Manger scenes on church lawns portray the baby Jesus, and most people acknowledge that the infant in the feed trough grew up to be the founder of one of the world’s great religions. Sure, Mary had a baby boy!
But one word in that description sparks controversy: “Virgin.”
Muslims denounce it as blasphemy.
Skeptics ridicule it as superstitious mythology.
Even theologians try to explain it away.
People find it hard to accept the idea that a baby could be born to a woman who had never had physical relations with a man. Yet that is the historic teaching of Christianity, the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
As we approach Christmas, there is no better time to revisit this topic. Does the Bible really teach that Jesus was born to a virgin? Let’s take the first step in that investigation by examining the Greek word for virgin.
The Greek word for “virgin” is parthenos, which occurs 15 times in the New Testament.
Travelers to Greece will recognize the link to the Parthenon, the classic temple that overlooks the city of Athens. The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. In Greek religion, she was known as the virgin goddess, and that trait provided the name for the temple.
Ancient Greek originally used Parthenos to refer to a young woman of marriageable age. It was assumed that such girls would be sexually pure, and that soon became part of the word’s definition. Virgins were an important part of Greek and Roman religion, considered to have extra power to influence the deities or to serve in their worship.
Let’s take a tour of all the New Testament passages that mention Parthenos:
- Jesus told a parable about ten virgins waiting to join a wedding procession (Matthew 25:1, 7, 11). These would most naturally be single young women like the bride.
- Philip, after his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, settled in Caesarea and raised a family. He had four virgin daughters who exercised the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9).
- Paul devotes a chapter to instructions about marriage and singleness (1 Corinthians 7:25, 28, 34, 36, 37, 38). He explains that Christian virgins may certainly marry, even though the single life offers an opportunity for undistracted service to God.
In all these passages, the word refers most naturally to a young woman who has remained sexually pure, coming to marriage with no history of sexual relationships.
- Paul uses Parthenos figuratively to describe the church as the bride of Christ, proclaiming that he wants to present them to the Lord as a pure virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2).
- The book of Revelation describes the 144,000 witnesses during the great tribulation as parthenoi, male “virgins” who “have not been defiled with women” (Revelation 14:4).
Clearly, the word refers to a virgin, not merely an unmarried woman. In the Christmas story, both Matthew and Luke make it clear that this is the proper description of Mary.
Luke 1:27 – The angel Gabriel was sent “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.”
Mary knew this was impossible because she had never been with a man (verse 34), so the angel explained that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you. The power of the Most High will overshadow you” (verse 35). After all, nothing is impossible for God (verse 37)
Matthew 1:23 – Gabriel also came to Joseph to inform him that Mary was going to have a baby.
First century people knew how babies were made just as clearly as we do, and Joseph knew the angel was talking about the impossible. That’s why Gabriel explained that a miracle was going to happen in fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.
Parthenos clearly identifies Mary as a virgin in every sense of the word. She had never had sexual relations with a man, yet she became pregnant as the result of an act of God. Just as He created the universe from nothing, He created the first cells of an embryo in her womb.
Why does this matter?
If Jesus had been merely a human being, a natural birth would have made sense. But anyone who was merely a human could not have died for the sins of the whole race. Jesus was fully man, so that he could die for us. And he was fully God, so that his death would be sufficient to provide salvation for all of us.
Without the Virgin Birth, the life of Christ would be nothing more than an inspiring story of love and wisdom. With it, the rest of God’s plan of salvation unfolds.
We often say that God became man at Christmas, but it would be even more accurate to say that the Second Person of the Trinity took on humanity nine months earlier when those first cells started to multiply in Mary’s womb.
When you sing about the Virgin Mary, don’t hesitate! That’s the perfect description of what happened.
Matthew quotes the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 to describe Christ’s miraculous birth. Naturally, we might want to look at the original Old Testament verse to see if it throws any light on the New Testament passage that uses it. The verse in Isaiah is controversial, especially among Jewish scholars, and some have argued that the Hebrew word used there might mean either “virgin” or just “a young woman.”
The New Testament use of Parthenos makes it clear, however, that the mother of Jesus was indeed a virgin in the strictest sense of the word.
Q – Do the genealogies of Jesus give any hint about his supernatural conception and birth?
A – Yes, both Matthew and Luke make it very clear that there is something unusual about Joseph’s link to Jesus.
Matthew 1:17 – If Matthew had maintained the same pattern he used in the rest of his genealogy, he would have said, “To Jacob was born Joseph; and to Joseph, Jesus.” But that’s not what he said: “To Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, to whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” To nail it down, the word “whom” is feminine, referring to Mary, not Joseph.
Luke 3:23 – “And when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being supposedly the son of Joseph.” Luke adds this phrase to make it clear that Joseph merely took the role of father for the young Jesus.
Mary had a lot to think about after giving birth far from home and hosting a crowd of shepherds. No wonder she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Next week we will explore the Greek words that describe her experience – and provide guidance for us as we contemplate the events of Christmas.
©Ezra Project 2021