You may already be thinking that if this is to be a “historical” assessment, then it is likely that the entire concept of virginal conception (not “virgin birth”; that is something entirely different) will be dismissed as a mythical fable. But not so fast. History may mean one thing to us today and another thing to those of the ancient world.
For the purposes of this post, the ancient world is the Greco-Roman world from the time of Alexander the Great (4th c. BCE) to at least the early second century CE, the latest point by which the New Testament gospels were written. The ancients viewed history in a decidedly different way than we do due to their belief in the pervasive involvement of the supernatural in worldly affairs. The gods, or God, were involved in nearly every human activity and act of nature. They needed to be consulted, appeased, and feared constantly. If you were going on a trip, you consulted the gods and appealed to them for a successful journey. If you were birthing a child, you consulted and appeased the gods to ensure a non-life-threatening delivery. If you were about to begin a civic meeting you prayed to the gods for wisdom and guidance. If you feared a coming storm, you appealed to the gods for succor. Most ancient (non-Jewish) families had shrines in their homes out of respect for their familial or clannish gods. Cities built temples in honor of the major gods to maintain the gods’ protection.
Because of their ubiquitous reliance on the supernatural for worldly benefits, the ancients saw history not as an objective series of demonstrable “facts” but as unfolding human events guided by the gods. Wars, for example, were fought and won with the help of the gods. Rulers rose and fell based on the quality of their relationship with the gods. Ancient historians created narratives of supernatural encounters to illustrate this joint partnership. These narratives also described the births of important people.
The origins of important people, people deemed to be more successful, powerful, and intelligent than other people, were understood as having begun with divine intervention. Famous examples include the conception of Hercules, himself a mythical human figure, who was sired by Zeus in partnership with the human Alcmene. Alexander the Great was said to be fathered by Zeus and the human Olympias. The philosopher Pythagoras was supposedly the offspring of Apollo. Augustus claimed descent from Venus and became the adopted son of a god, the deified Julius Caesar. Pharaohs were sons of the gods and even gods themselves. The point is, the ancients considered it rather obvious that important people were important due to divine involvement from the womb.
It is in this context that modern historians consider the stories of the virginal conception of Jesus. Christians will say that the gospel stories are “true” whereas the non-Christian stories are “myths.” But this distinction would be lost on the ancients. All such stories were “true” in the sense that the gods, or God, were involved directly with certain people’s lives from inception. Their special roles in history could be understood in no other way. To say that Jesus was born of God’s holy spirit says something about Jesus beyond denying human sexual conception. It says that God’s holy spirit was working within Jesus from birth, that it infused Jesus’s life even in the womb. This claim, made only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is, in fact, a different claim than what is made in the Gospel of Mark where the infusion of God’s spirit within Jesus begins at his baptism. The authors of Matthew and Luke wanted to surpass Mark, a gospel they knew and read, in relating how early the spirit began working in Jesus: it was never not working within him. To Matthew and Luke and their readers, this was all “true.” If you were to go back in time and challenge them with scientific evidence that autogenesis does not happen in human beings, they would have no idea what you were talking about. God was involved in every human being’s life in one way or another, for good or ill, a view that modern Western people do not always agree with.