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Matthew and Luke each open with an account of Jesus' miraculous virginal conception and birth. The virgin birth is widely seen as an essential belief in Christianity, being found for example in the Apostles' Creed.

Numerous passages in Paul's letters explicate what has been called wisdom Christology, which includes belief in a pre-existent and divine or semi-divine Christ, and he directly references Jesus' birth once. But he never mentions the virgin birth, leading some to claim that he knew of no virgin birth tradition. See for example pages 108–109 of Jesuit priest John McKenzie's book The New Testament Without Illusion:

If Matthew, chapter 1, and Luke, chapter 1, were missing from the New Testament, there would be no biblical mention of the virgin birth. ... Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, does not mention the virgin birth, in spite of an excellent opportunity to mention it in Galatians 4:4.

The argument from silence is generally regard as invalid when one deals with documents, unless it can be shown conclusively that the writer could not have omitted the item in question had he known it. This cannot be shown for the virgin birth. But the omission does raise speculations, as I said. The event is unusual enough for one to wonder why an author who knew of it would not mention it; and it seems that those who maintain that Mark, John and Paul knew of the virgin birth owe their readers some explanation why these authors thought it was not important enough to deserve mention.

On the other hand, those (like me) who solve the problem of the silence of all New Testament writers except Matthew and Luke by ay asserting that all the writers except these two never heard of the virgin birth also owe their readers some explanation of the supposed ignorance. This explanation I shall attempt.

How do those who hold that Jesus' mother literally gave birth to him without having had intercourse explain why Paul failed to mention it? What is an overview of their arguments?

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Advocates for the virgin birth make the following arguments for why Paul didn't mention it:

  1. It wasn't controversial and therefore not worth mentioning
  2. It didn't need to be mentioned in order to accomplish the goals of the epistles
  3. It was a matter of some privacy
  4. He didn't know about it

Points 1 & 2 overlap to some extent and thus are sometimes difficult to distinguish. Point 4 is held by some advocates of the virgin birth, but most reject it, as we'll see.

Not controversial

First, many suggest that the virgin birth was widely known in Christian circles, through the oral tradition. For example, James Orr:

It is to be remembered that Paul is not in the habit of alluding to, or recalling, the incidents in Christ's life—incidents which must have been perfectly familiar to him from the common preaching. (114)

J. Gresham Machen suggests that the virgin birth may well have been a topic of Paul's in-person teaching, in light of the uncharacteristic summary he gives in 1 Corinthians 15. John Frame writes:

The virgin birth was not part of Jesus’ preaching or that of the early church. It was not a controversial matter such as might have been addressed in the epistles (Christology in general was not a particularly controversial matter among the Christians, and even if it had been, the virgin birth most likely was not seen as a means of supporting Christological dogma).

This parenthetical remark by Frame may seem surprising to us, but there is little evidence of controversies like those associated with Docetism and Arianism in the time that Paul was writing. Major debates between Christians over Christ's nature came later. As Machen writes:

Paul does not argue in the Epistles about his conception of the person of Christ. About other things there was debate, but, at least during the period of the earlier Epistles, there was no debate whatever about this; apparently Paul assumes that his own stupendous view of Jesus as a supernatural Person, come voluntarily into the world for our redemption, now risen from the grave and living in glory, was the view of everyone in the Church.

Not pertinent

Besides being non-controversial, and probably in part because of that, many argue that Paul simply did not find the virgin birth worth mentioning in order to accomplish his purposes. Louis Matthews Sweet calls Paul a "practical theologian" who never had the chance to write systematically on the "historic and spiritual Christ" (236). Machen cites two important doctrines that Paul mentions only once as evidence for his different focus:

If things so very important to the Apostle as the institution of the Lord's Supper and the appearances of the risen Christ appear in the whole extent of the Epistles only once each—because of what from the human point of view was the mere chance of the emergence of certain errors—how can we draw from the non-appearance of other things the inference that Paul knew nothing about them? It does not follow at all, therefore, that because Paul says nothing about the virgin birth in his Epistles he knew nothing about it.

Paul's focus is clearly on the dead and risen Christ, and not a historical recounting, says Richard Joseph Cooke:

We should not expect him to mention the virgin birth unless the logical implications or relation of the particular thought he is unfolding necessarily led him for illustration or proof to historical details of Christ's early life. [...] His preaching had for its theme the moral or spiritual significance of the Christ, and not the events of his earth-life. (119–20)

James Orr pushes the argument from silence further:

It might as well be argued that Paul did not believe in the existence of Mary, since he never once mentions her. (114; emphasis in original)

Privacy

On the question of discretion, John Frame writes:

We must also assume that the early church main­tained a certain reserve about public discussion of these matters out of respect for the privacy of Jesus’ family, especially Mary.

Orr calls the virgin birth "essentially private" in nature, and Richard John Knowling points us to discussions on why this may have been important:

"If there was never a doubt," says Dr. Weiss, "among the people that Jesus was the actual son of the man in whose house He grew up, if the reproach of illegitimate birth is not employed by the enemies of Jesus till a much later date, and is obviously based upon our Gospel narratives, this is an evident proof that the honour of the house was not exposed by affording a pretext for each unbeliever to designate Jesus as one born in sin and shame." And in this consideration he finds an ample reason for the comparatively late dissemination of the facts concerning the Virgin birth. (70–71)

Did Paul actually believe it?

All the authors cited thus far make the case that Paul did indeed know and believe in the virgin birth, but that's not quite the entire story. Some advocates of the virgin birth offer the possibility that Paul didn't know, such as George Barker Stevens:

It is improbable that Paul was acquainted with the traditions respecting the supernatural conception and miraculous birth of Jesus; but even in that case there is nothing in his language which is inconsistent with them. (212)

On the other hand, Machen, among others, defends Paul's "failure" to mention the virgin birth in Galatians 4 and Romans 1, and writes:

Paul clearly regarded Jesus Christ as no mere product of what had gone before Him, but as an entirely new beginning in humanity, the second Adam, the Founder of a new race. Could such a Person have been derived by ordinary generation from the men who had existed before Him upon the earth; could He, in the ordinary sense, have had a human father? [...] To think of the Christ of the Pauline Epistles as the son of Joseph and Mary involves an incongruity from which the mind naturally shrinks. The virgin birth is not explicitly mentioned in the Epistles, but it does seem to be implied in the profoundest way in the entire view which Paul holds of the Lord Jesus Christ.


References:

  • One item of additional bibliography: Andrew Lincoln's 2013 monograph, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans). At pp. 21-22 he argues that the "virgin birth" is unknown to Paul (your #4). Googling (Duckduckgoing?) the book should find some relevant discussion on this matter. FWIW! – Dɑvïd Aug 2 '17 at 14:19
  • @Dɑvïd I get the initial impression that Lincoln would not affirm a literal virgin birth, so technically his views are outside the scope of the question posed here. But, they are still relevant to the broader issue, and helpful in that respect; thanks. – Nathaniel Aug 2 '17 at 14:25
  • Your initial impression is surely correct, and I see that "scoping" thing now ;) ("According to those..."). Perhaps still worthwhile as bibliography, though, as Lincoln (in common with most academics) would want to give a fair account of Paul's views, regardless of his personal position. – Dɑvïd Aug 2 '17 at 20:03
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The target audience of the writers of the gospels was to people who did not know about or did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah and Risen Lord. They included the virgin birth story because it was an important part of the narrative. Paul's target audiences, on the other hand, were already Christians and so, presumably, were already aware of the narrative of Christ. There are many other life events Paul did not mention as well.

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    Plus Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, who wouldn't know/care about Isaiah 7:14. "Remember that thing from before? It was talking about THIS!" is irrelevant if you've never heard of "that thing". If nobody had heard of Batman, "Batman Begins" wouldn't need to give the batsignal a mob boss origin story. – SteveCav Apr 26 '17 at 0:50
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    This answer should cite sources to show that this is a commonly cited reason and recount more explanations than just this one (if there are any) or demonstrate that this is the only major explanation given, in order to fit the requirement of an overview. – Mr. Bultitude Apr 26 '17 at 12:09
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I much prefer Nathaniel's answer to mine (the accepted answer), as it is considerably more thorough and answers more questions. I still believe the Paul's mission to the gentiles is a piece of the puzzle, but only a small part. I do not have the time to flesh this out, but I will leave it for completeness.

Paul was the Apostle to the gentiles. The virgin birth was something that had been prophesied by Isaiah and of great importance to a Jewish Christian. The gentile had no concern for, or history regarding this theology. It would have been totally out of context to tell the churches that Paul wrote to that Christ was born of a virgin. They would have said, "Why are you telling me this? What does this have to do with anything!"

For the Jew it was considerably more important since through their histories they could have understood that sin comes through the father, and that all are conceived in sin (Psalm 51).

So Paul does not mention this because it was not at all important for his readers to hear.

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    In Isaiah, Hebrew "almah" means only 'young woman'. Greek 'parthenos" and (classical) Latin 'virgo' have the same basic meaning, but can also imply 'virgin'. – user24000 Apr 26 '17 at 11:54
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    This answer should cite sources to show that this is a commonly cited reason and recount more explanations than just this one (if there are any) or demonstrate that this is the only major explanation given, in order to fit the requirement of an overview. Also, I find the explanation dubious since 1) Paul cites many OT prophecies about Christ, and 2) Luke, whose target audience was Gentile, is one of our sources for the virgin birth. – Mr. Bultitude Apr 26 '17 at 12:08
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    @Mr.Bultitude I will get some sources and append this. Also respond to your comment about Luke. In brief on Luke. A gospel is a very different thing than letters to churches. In the context of Christ's life his birth is of significant issue to anyone reading. So let me find some time to lengthen my answer. – Nate Bunney Apr 27 '17 at 19:17
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The question comes down to whether Paul, Mark and John failed to mention the virgin birth because:

  1. They never heard of it or
  2. They did not think it was necessary to include in their writings.

Each of these are different cases, so I will take them one by one.

Paul

Galatians, as John McKenzie mentioned, is as good a place for Paul to have mentioned the virgin birth as any. He explained his purpose for writing early in the letter:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.—Galatians 1:6-8 (ESV)

We know from the Talmud that Jesus' parentage was a common line of criticism of Christian gospels. So one might very well assume that since Paul didn't defend Mary's virginity, he didn't believe it or didn't think it an important part of the gospel. However, Paul's letters predated any of the works we call "the Gospels". In Galatians, it might be better to translate εὐαγγέλιον literally as "good news". Specifically, Paul is talking about the good news of the "grace of Christ" and spends nearly the entire letter fleshing out the reason Jewish Christians are no longer held to the Mosaic law.

We don't know exactly how the good news was originally communicated to the Galatians (and other early Christian communities), but the written gospels show clear evidence they began as oral traditions. This isn't surprising given the importance of the oral Torah at the time. As a rabbi, Jesus was expected to teach on the law and his disciples were expected to remember both the teachings and the context of individual lessons. As with the two major schools of Jewish tradition, followers of Jesus would have taught their own disciples the teachings of their rabbi. Of particular importance to the question, the circumstances Jesus' birth would not have been part of the oral tradition since Jesus didn't take that opportunity to teach (understandably).

So one possibility is that Paul didn't include the virgin birth information because it wasn't part of Jesus' oral tradition. But that doesn't mean the virgin birth wasn't taught in other contexts. Luke 1:1-4 mentions specifically "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (ESV) as sources. It's entirely possible Paul didn't know about the virgin birth because he was more concerned with the oral tradition than with eyewitness accounts of Jesus' early life.

Mark

Regarded by most scholars as the earliest gospel account, Mark seems to follow a similar approach to Jesus as his contemporary Plutarch did in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. In particular, Mark's gospel attempts to paint a portrait of Jesus through his actions. Like many of Plutarch's Lives, the first gospel drops us in medias res with a description of John's baptism of Jesus. His mother and brothers are mentioned briefly, but mostly serve as a motivation for a teaching about community.

The core message of this gospel can be found in Mark 8 when Peter identifies Jesus as the messiah. Then Jesus subverts expectations by predicting his suffering and death rather than a triumphant victory over the Romans. The author then tells of how this prediction came true. Importantly, Jesus also predicted his own resurrection, which is not described in the gospel. It's possible this section of manuscript was lost, but it could also be the author's intent. If so, it's not really surprising the virgin birth narrative was skipped too.

John

Like Mark, John skips the nativity. Matthew and Luke added nativity stories to the start of their accounts, but otherwise accept the Marcan chronology. As (most likely) the final gospel, John's author would (probably) have been aware of the those narratives. But he uses his own chronology and borrows almost nothing from the synoptic tradition. Instead, he begins with a philosophical essay equating of Jesus to the concept of Logos reminiscent of Philo of Alexandria.

Like Paul, John had an opportune moment to mention the virgin birth in the Bread of Life discourse:

So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”—John 6:41-42 (ESV)

Like in Galatians, this is a fine opportunity for the author to point out Joseph was not the biological father. (The author parenthetically points out later in the chapter that Jesus was talking about Judas.) Also like Galatians, the virgin birth is not critical to the purpose of the text:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.—John 1:9-13 (ESV)

Notice that this passage asserts that not just Jesus but all who believe in his name haee the right to be born of God. While the virgin birth is unique in history, John asserts that spiritual rebirth is available to all who recognize Jesus' true nature. So discussing the details of the nativity would have been a distraction from the main thesis.

Conclusion

This is certainly an argument from silence that hardly seems justified. The virgin birth doctrine must have been ridiculed early and would have been a distraction for Paul and John. Mark's biography probably left out Jesus' parentage for stylistic reasons. Matthew and especially Luke add details of Jesus' birth to Mark because they were interested in preserving those traditions.

As an aside, it's easier to see that the argument from silence is tenuous when you read modern documents with a critical eye. For instance there's an article in the LA Times this morning today about the possiblity of race riots. It's a complicated issue with many contributing factors. While the article does highlight some new factors, it assumes people know or can easily discover details that were relevant 25 years ago. There's no doubt the acquittal of Rodney King's attackers was a pivotal event, but it's not mentioned in the article at all. It's just part of the background knowledge the reporter assumes everyone will have. I suspect Paul, Mark and John felt the same way about the virgin birth.

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    The question was intended to focus on Paul; the mention of Mark and John was secondary, and has its own question (though I didn't notice it until after posting the question). I was also hoping for more of an overview of views that published authors have given, rather than a personal view of a particular answerer. – Mr. Bultitude Apr 27 '17 at 2:33
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Paul does mention the virgin birth. He knew the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that a virgin will conceive and bear a son and call Him Immanuel; that is, God-with-us. So where does Paul mention the virgin conceiving and bearing to term and calling Him God-with-us?

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, …” Galatians 4:4

God sent forth His Son. Paul uses the same term ἐξαποστέλλω exapostellō translated “sent forth” two verses later to describe God sending forth the Holy Spirit ἐξαποστέλλω exapostellō . This wasn’t a man’s spirit, just like it wasn’t a man’s seed. God was the active origin; He sent forth His Son.

God made Him of a woman, from her flesh. Not of a man and woman, but of a woman.

Further, Son of God was a term Paul used for Christ at Romans 1:4, 2 Corinthians 1:19, Galatians 2:20, and Ephesians 4:13. Obviously Paul knew Christ was not a son of Joseph. Christ was Son of God.

So, if you know God sent forth His Spirit, you also know God sent forth His Son who was made of a woman and who is called Immanuel. Paul wrote about the virgin conceiving and bearing.

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    Slight correction: You can say with a high degree of certainty that "Paul ALLUDES to the virgin birth by describing Jesus as 'made of a woman.'" In a male-dominated age and culture, the exclusion of a male personage in a writing which had no mention of the father of a child was unthinkable. See John 6:42 as an example of how the Jews of Jesus' day, in typical knee-jerk fashion, speak of Joseph being the father of Jesus. Mary, of course, gets second billing! (And yes, I know that the Jews to whom I refer didn't believe--nor did it even enter their thinking--that Jesus was virgin-conceived.) – rhetorician May 4 '17 at 15:47
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    Probably the shortest genealogy record in Scripture. God sent His Son, born of a woman, Emmanuel. – SLM May 5 '17 at 0:19

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