Scholars have long sought the origin of the concept of the virgin birth in comparative religions, where there is a wealth of material about miraculous births. Supernatural beginnings are claimed for Zarathustra, Buddha and Lao Tzu, all founders of religions. In the Mediterranean world it was said that the god Apollo begat men as varied as Plato, Pythagoras and Augustus. Zeus-Ammon was said to be the father of Alexander the Great. Such legends illustrate the tendency to explain the origins of heroic figures in supernatural terms, but they differ in important ways from the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. The parallels, for example, consistently involve some sort of sexual union in which a divine male, in human or animal form, impregnates a woman, while Mary’s conception through the Holy Spirit is nonsexual.

The attempt to explain the virginal conception in terms of the Jewish background of Christianity yields mixed results. In traditional Jewish thought God does not beget children. When the Old Testament speaks, infrequently, of Israel (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1) or of the king (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7, 89:27) as God’s son it is in terms of adoption rather than procreation. Nor did the Jews look for a messiah who would be born of a virgin. Contrary to traditional Christian belief, the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, translated in the King James Version as, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” has nothing to do with a virginal conception. A Greek translation of the Hebrew almah (young woman) as parthenos (virgin) led Matthew to regard the verse from Isaiah as predicting the virginal birth of Jesus.

However, Judaism does offer dramatic birth stories involving Israel’s religious heroes. Isaac, Jacob, Samson and Samuel were all born of previously barren women because of God’s intervention. In no case was the hero’s mother a virgin.

However, Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jew thoroughly steeped in Greek thought, suggests in several of his allegorical interpretations of the patriarchal stories that the mother was impregnated by God without the participation of a human father.a

Similarly, in Galatians Paul states that Isaac was born “according to the Spirit” (Galatians 4:29), unlike Ishmael who was born “according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23, 29), and he applies to Isaac’s mother Sarah the saying that “the desolate woman has more children than she who has a husband” (Galatians 4:27; compare Isaiah 54:1). The idea of a virginal conception caused by the creative power of God’s spirit seems to have been at home among Jews who lived with Jewish and Hellenistic culture.