It’s quite common for the virginal conception and the resurrection to get lumped together. Well, they’re miracles, innit. And they nicely bookend the gospel narrative, to boot.
When it comes to discussing them as history, however, it seems to me they are significantly different. I acknowledge there are some who would simply say that discussing both of them as history is equally impossible. I beg to differ, at least in part, when it comes to the resurrection.
The modern understanding of history is one of tracing a narrative of cause and effect. There are variations within that, as to how much is attributed to mass social and economic movements, and even ineluctable geographical and environmental currents, and how much to the decisions and actions of individuals. It is a problem with the latter that many of those decisions and actions are hard to analyse, and the motivations and reasoning underlying them even more so. This has tended to push historians in the direction of undervaluing the individual. Not long ago it was decidedly fashionable to dismiss all concentration on individuals with a sniff as “great man” history. That helps emphasise how much the historical narration of cause and effect is about movements, society, class, economy: they are larger and more measurable than individual people, decisions and actions.
When it comes to the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus, even before any discussion of the resurrection, the concentration on an individual person and a specific event itself sits at odds with leading historiographical trends, without introducing what people have come to call the supernatural. (I see “supernatural” as a philosophical category which is, to say the least, open to theological critique, even if it is often a useful shorthand.)
But back to the resurrection and history. I see one clear difference between stories of the resurrection of Jesus and his virginal conception. I can think of no historical effect which is / would be different for a virginally conceived as opposed to a conventionally conceived Jesus. Mark, who seems not to know of such a conception, portrays a no less miraculous Jesus than Luke, who does. Indeed, it seems that Christian belief in sexual restraint and renunciation in the early centuries leads to greater emphasis on the virginity of Mary, rather than vice versa. By contrast, early Christian history is full of the effects of belief in the resurrection. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that belief in the resurrection is the proximate cause of early Christian history.
The resurrection (as conventionally narrated and believed within orthodoxy) in that sense, stands at an awkward half-way point between historicity and non-historicity. It has no historical cause, but generates historical effects. It comes from outside history, and erupts in history.
It is therefore – as an event and not simply as a belief – investigable at least in part by historians. It is possible to write, for example, a secular and secularising narrative which seeks to give an explanation for the belief early Christians proclaimed, that Jesus was risen. Plenty of people have tried it. It is also possible to write a narrative of Easter with an empty tomb. I can think of four early ones straightaway, but there are also contemporary critical narratives that include and empty tomb while sifting the evidence more sceptically than the evangelists and less sceptically than the secularists.
There are two main responses to these narratives, both sacred and secular. One is to say that any narrative which includes an empty tomb simply isn’t history as modern historiography understands it. It lacks academic rigour and methodological gravitas. End of. The other is to say that the historiographical value of the competing narratives is to be found in their ability to explain the existence and the shape of the earliest churches and the beliefs of their adherents. The better narrative will contain and explain the greatest amount of data most satisfactorily.
Of course, this latter preference presupposes faith seeking understanding at least as much as the former presupposes a closed cosmos. Nonetheless I can imagine (and some people would say they have found it to be so) situations in which a person starting with methodological atheism finds the theistic narrative has greater global explanatory power, and someone starting with a theistic narrative who finds the sociological narrative so persuasive it draws them towards atheism.
In that sense, the resurrection remains in part, at least, open to historiographical exploration in a way the virginal conception isn’t.