V is for Virgin. A word with volatile overtones of sexuality, judgement, and purity codes. In the western world at least, there is no time of year we hear that word more often than the season leading up to Christmas.
“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
round yon virgin mother and child.”
Did you know that Jesus’ virgin birth is a tenet of Islam? The Quran consistently refers to Jesus as “Son of Mary”.
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, without having sexual intercourse with Joseph. Mark’s Gospel does not contain information about Jesus’ birth or early years before his public ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, John’s Gospel has the famous “in the beginning was the word” passage, a poetic description of the presence of “the word” with God when the world was being created.
The oldest parts of the New Testament, predating the Gospels by at least a generation, are letters from Saint Paul. They don’t discuss Jesus’ life before his public ministry, and offer no hint of anything unusual about his birth.
By the 2nd century after the death of Jesus, his virgin birth was accepted and taught by the Christian church. It went largely unchallenged until the scientific enlightenment of the 18th century.
In Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, the Virgin Birth means Mary a virgin when she conceived, and she remained a virgin when she gave birth. The later doctrine of Immaculate Conception expanded on this, to say Mary herself was conceived in the normal way, but from her conception she was free from the “stain of original sin”. Protestant denominations such as the one I serve do not accept this doctrine.
Modern commentators point out the Virgin Birth story reflects a pre-scientific (and misogynist) view of reproduction, in which the “male seed” is planted in the “fertile ground” of the woman. It was believed in the ancient world a male child carried only the genetic inheritance of his father, while a female child was a male seed “corrupted” by the “vessel” into which it had been implanted.
Scholars suggest Matthew and Luke included the Virgin Birth for one or more of these reasons:
- They accepted the tradition as passed on to them.
- They gave Jesus an origin story to rival that of Caesar, said to be the son of the god Apollo.
- They told a story meant to be taken as allegory, rather than literally true.
- They were answering slanderous charges made against Jesus by Jewish detractors (and others) that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
- They were doing theology, presenting Jesus as fulfilling the prophesy in the book of Isaiah that a Saviour would arise from Bethlehem, and that he would be the son of a virgin.
Some scholars dispute the accuracy of the translation of Isaiah available to Matthew and Luke. It was called the Septuagint, and it was in Greek. (Matthew and Luke seem not to have known Hebrew.)
The passage Matthew quotes (Isaiah 7:14-16) uses the Greek word “Parthenos”. The original Hebrew text used the word “almah”, which translates as either “young woman” or “virgin”. In another letter I asked whether Isaiah’s words were meant to be taken as predicting the future. (The Old Testament tends to discourage people from listening to the words of anyone who claims to know the future- that was considered the work of soothsayers and necromancers, and other generally disreputable people.)
Personally, my faith in God does not depend on whether Matthew and Luke got it right, and Jesus actually was conceived without sexual intercourse. I believe every person who is born, and every life is holy, and miraculous, and an amazing gift from God. Jesus taught us we are all God’s beloved children.
The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, minister of Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.