2013-12-19

On the Virgin Conception of Christ

One of my favorite classical paintings of the Annunciation.

Tis the Season to bring up the perennial question of whether or not Jesus was in fact conceived by a literal, physical virgin upon his first Advent among us. Every year this question gets raised. And every year no decisive answer is given which will convince all sides, including atheists, skeptics, liberal Christians, conservative Christians, and religious others.

And, by the way: The miracle was not the Virgin BIRTH, which is merely the physical act of activating certain muscles and pushing the infant out. Rather, the miracle at stake is the Virgin CONCEPTION: Becoming pregnant without any male sperm present in the first place. This is the context of what we are actually talking about.

So, I will proffer my answer among the cacophony of voices, knowing it will probably only convince the convinced. If you are tired of this question, I will give you the spoiler: I think that the most probable explanatory hypothesis is that Mary was indeed a physical virgin when she conceived Jesus. My faith would not be shattered if this was not the case, and I think there are other ways we could affirm the Divinity of Jesus without virgin conception. But given the rather sparse evidence we have on the matter, in light of the rather large amount of data (proportionally) we can draw on to assert Jesus' Divinity, I am inclined to say Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary" as the Creed says.

Yet, I have often heard five criticisms of the Virgin Conception:

1. Virgin Conception is physically impossible, and we live in a closed system where miracles cannot happen, therefore Jesus could not have been born of a Virgin.

2. Virgin Conception is tied to a theory of "original sin" which is preposterous and states that we are literally guilty for what Adam did, and therefore Jesus had to be born free of "Adam's curse" in order to be sinless, without the stain of original sin.

3. Virgin Conception is tied to Jesus being the Incarnation of God, and since we know God cannot enter into human form (see #1 above), the whole idea of virgin conception is misguided from the start.

4. Virgin Conception is only mentioned in Matthew and Luke, based on a dubious read of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 7.14. Since other New Testament documents do not mention the Virgin Conception, it must be an invention of Matthew and Luke.

5. Virgin Conception is found prior to Jesus in Pagan , Hindu, and Buddhist myths. Since it seems like a derivative story, it must therefore be false.

Let's deal with them one by one.


First of all, I grant that miracles are highly improbable and completely unpredictable in empirical science. And, since past events cannot, by definition, be exactly reduplicated without reduplicating the entire universe and all the initial conditions for the occurrence, reports of miracles cannot be re-created in a lab setting. They must be investigated as a probability through forensic science, rather than as an ongoing actuality in operational science.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke states in his third law that "any technology, sufficiently advanced, will appear as magic [or miracle]". Miracles do not have to be conceived as events that violate or contradict physical laws. Rather, they can be infinitely improbable events that work with physical laws when directed by an intentional mind. For instance, food suddenly heating up on its own with no fire, no oven, and no discernible heat source is infinitely improbable if left to its own, with no involvement of intelligence. However, it is common place when 20th century humans develop microwave ovens. The same could be said for nuclear explosions, medical miracles in pill form, and cell phones.

When intentional intelligence is applied to physical laws, suddenly infinitely improbable events can happen which work with, not against, physical laws.

If God is something like an infinite Mind, who can intend consequences and communicate Godself, then it is not at all inconceivable that God may act within the Physical Laws (which themselves are an outward expression of the Divine Mind). To say that it is "impossible" that a Virgin should conceive is thus as enlightened as scientists 150 years ago saying it was impossible for vehicles to go faster than 100 mph, or it was impossible to build an aircraft. It is not impossible, merely infinitely improbable without an intentional Mind guiding physical processes. With our limited technology, it is conceivable how we might one day synthesize DNA and impregnate a woman who has never had a partner. Not only is this conceivable, it may be possible NOW as I write this.

Thus, the prima facie "anti-supernatural" case against miracles is revealed to be a case of thinking in a mechanistic mode reminiscent of the 19th century. This, of course, does not mean that this particular miracle of Virgin Conception is literal truth. It just means that it cannot be brushed away a priori by a mechanistically materialist opinion about how the laws of physics can and cannot work.

Second, there is the theological rationale that the Virgin birth is necessary because it is very closely tied to the Western-Augustinian theory of original sin and transmitted guilt. Is it possible that this is a tactical mistake? For instance, the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition eschews all that Augustinian theory for one in which sin is more like a virus or disease passed generationally, making each generation sick, rather than as guilt and shame for actions we may never have done. In Orthodoxy, you are not "born" with "original sin" in the sense that you are actually guilty for the sin of our first parents. Rather, you are born into a world infected with the disease of sin, and this seems to make every person sick eventually, and in need of healing.

For the Orthodox tradition, the Virgin birth is not usually hooked to any tradition regarding original sin, or perceived need for Mary to have been a sinless vessel conceived through an “immaculate conception” (which is also an invention of Western Catholicism). Rather, Jesus could be conceived as something like the "injection point" of the medicine that will eventually heal all of humanity. The life that is in him is more powerful than the disease in the world. And thus, his life could be born of any woman, no matter what her "state of sin" was, because his healing would be stronger than her sickness.

So, it doesn't require a woman kept pure of the stain of sin by an "immaculate conception" for Jesus to be God incarnate and the medicine for our disease of sin. Doubtless, Mary was a great woman, a fine mother, the foremost of Saints, and the living embodiment of how God's life can be manifest in anyone willing to give themselves fully to God's Love. But to be the Theotokos-- the bearer of God-- she did not have to be sinless.

Western theories of original sin are also often-- but not always-- tied to sex as a dirty, or inherently sinful activity. And this often ties in with the idea that Jesus had to be born without sin, therefore without sex. Sex, as practiced by those joined together in a lifelong covenant before God, is not sinful. Rather, it is one of many expressions of Divine Love. Sure, sex outside of such a covenant can be demeaning, manipulative, and destructive, reducing people to little more than sex toys. But within a lifetime covenant, not so.

Thus, from the standpoint of Jesus' mission and identity, it COULD be fully consistent for him to be born of sexual activity between Mary and her husband. That would in no way diminish his ability to be sinless, to live a life fully in harmony with God's Love from womb to tomb and beyond. And, of course it COULD also be fully consistent with Virgin Conception for Jesus to be a sinless redeemer too. So, on this second point of tying Virgin Conception to "original sin", it could go either way.

But the question is: Did Mary, in fact, have sex with her spouse (or anyone) to conceive Jesus?

That leads to the third theological rationale for insisting in Jesus’ virgin conception in Mary’s womb: The idea that he is the very incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. If he is indeed God in human flesh, then it does make sense to insist that his conception also comes directly from God in a special way. There are ways to understand Jesus as the full embodiment of God without the Virgin conception, but they are more difficult and less straightforward affirmations of his Divinity.

If, for instance, Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph in the normal way, by what theory could we attribute Jesus' full Divinity in such a way that he was unique when compared to other people? We would simply have to posit yet another miracle, that somehow in the conception and development of the embryo, God intervened and "inserted" the self-consciousness of the Son of God into the human life of Jesus. I suppose this could be worked out in a robustly Orthodox way, but on the surface is smacks of something like the ancient heresies of Adoptionism, Nestorianism, or perhaps Apollinarianism (if those names leave you scratching your head, here is a helpful summary).

However, if one accepts Jesus' Divinity, that is the major “miracle” to hurdle over. It is far less miraculous to affirm God could make someone pregnant than it is to affirm God became human (or even to affirm God created the universe!). I suppose you could oppose the idea of Incarnation on the grounds that such a miracle by definition cannot happen, since we live in a "closed universe". But I think I have already dealt with that objection.

Perhaps you might also posit a kind of Deist God who cannot or will not express Godself in the created order: A kind of God who sees matter as an evil prison for the soul, and who will not deign to deal with the messiness of it all. And one is free to posit that God if one wants. But such is not the God of the Bible, who is involved with the created order, and declares the material world "very good" from the moment of its first Creation in Genesis 1, to the time of its re-creation in Revelation 22.

So, if we posit a God who does want to be involved in the world, and who can communicate in the world, then there is absolutely no contradiction with this God becoming incarnate in the world. And thus, on this third point, I see a pretty clear rationale for positing that a miracle occurred in Mary's womb. And the easiest miracle to posit is that Jesus was God's life from the very moment of Virgin Conception, rather than being "implanted" later on after natural conception.

Now that we have a clear and compelling theological rationale for Virgin Conception, we are still faced with the question: Did it happen? Does the data we have bear it out, regardless of whether we think it "should" have happened that way due to theological reasons?

Thus, the fourth reason why people often disbelieve the Virgin Birth is that several early sources do not mention it. And those that do mention it (namely Matthew and Luke) seem to misquote Isaiah 7.14 by using the Greek version of it found in the ancient Septuagint Bible translation. In Isaiah 7.14, the prophet seems to be talking about an event that would happen in his lifetime, probably with his own children. He says:

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you [King Ahaz] a sign. Look, the young woman [Hebrew "almah"] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [which means "God with us"].

In context, Isaiah goes on to tell King Ahaz that the nation would be saved before the child grows to maturity. And the child in question was probably Isaiah's own son, born from the young maiden, who was probably his wife or concubine. Now, as this passage was translated into the Greek Septuagint several centuries later, the translators used the Greek "parthenos" to translate the Hebrew "almah". Almah means "young woman of marriageable age", and often implies she may be a virgin if unmarried. Parthenos, on the other hand, usually means "virgin", and can metaphorically refer to a young woman without children, whether she is married or not. So, the dominant meaning of Almah is young woman, with the occasional meaning virgin. And the dominant meaning of Parthenos is virgin, with the occasional meaning of young woman.

Such are the issues of translating.

Now, the New Testament is fond of using the Old Testament for its patterns, but not necessarily for its literal, contextual, original meaning. So, when looking for patterns which fit the Advent of Jesus, both Matthew (writing primarily to Jews) and Luke (writing primarily to Gentiles) hit upon the same pattern in Isaiah: A parthenos will bear a son, who is "God with us", who will lead to our salvation. This is not the "original" meaning of the passage. But they were not looking for that. In fact hardly ANY ancient writer-- Greek or Jewish-- had a fascination for the literal contextual meaning of ancient passages. Rather, they were looking for "deep patterns" and "types" that made sense of the events in their day. And it was just such a "deep pattern" they found in Isaiah 7, lurking underneath and giving shape to the original narrative.

And so, they told the Jesus story with that pattern in mind.

And not only did they use the pattern, but they took great pains to point out that the pattern was super-fulfilled in the Advent of Jesus, because Mary was not just a parthenos in a metaphorical sense, but in a very literal physical sense: She was a physical virgin who had "not known a man" (cf. Greek of Luke 1.34]. And so, the only two first century sources that we have which speak about Jesus' conception and birth-- Matthew and Luke-- make it clear that part of the great drama of Jesus' birth was that his conception did not happen through sexual intercourse.

Now, people are fond of pointing out that Mark, John, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament outside of Matthew and Luke, do NOT speak of the Virgin conception. In fact, they don't speak of Jesus birth or childhood at all. And yet we do not assume he appeared out of nowhere. And likewise, those same people often fail to mention that the rest of the New Testament also does not mention his biological father AT ALL, and there is sparse reference to his mother Mary. Could it be that there is no mention of Jesus’ biological father because there was no biological father?

So it happens that, in the ONLY cases where Jesus' birth and childhood is mentioned at all, we have an affirmation of the Virgin Conception. And not only that, but in all other ancient extant Christian literature-- whether written by "orthodox" Church fathers or "heretics"-- when Mary is mentioned she is mentioned as a Virgin. Indeed, the early ecumenical councils 3-5 centuries after Christ's life declared her the "ever virgin". I'm not saying she was an ever-virgin. I tend to go with a minority of Church Fathers and a majority of Protestants and say that she and Joseph probably had a normal married life after Jesus was born. But, whatever controversies there may have been in the early Church-- and there were DOZENS-- one of them was not whether Mary was a Virgin prior to conceiving Jesus.

So, on this forth point, it seems that the only data we have by which to judge points to the fact of Jesus' Virgin Conception. The only way to doubt it thus far is to doubt whether miracles are possible, or whether God could or would enter into human form. And these doubts are strictly philosophical, and do not deal with the historical data.

Fifth and finally, there is the objection that, since other religions have prior myths about Virgin Births and gods entering human form, then Jesus' birth story is merely derivative, and therefore untrue. I have written at length on the possible connections between Jesus and Mythology, so if you want an in depth answer to this objection, I suggest reading that, or works like CS Lewis' "The Grand Miracle".

Suffice it to say that it is completely consistent to say that these mythic archetypes are "preparations for the Gospel" that point to a real historic fulfillment in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. In this view, signs and symbols ultimately point to something- or someone- rather than pointing at nothing. Imagine if someone was touring the country, and saw a series of road signs, some large, some small, some new, some beat up, in different languages and typefaces, all pointing in a similar direction and claiming there was a large city over the mountains. The most logical assumption would be that there was a city somewhere in that direction. Perhaps still vibrant and alive, or perhaps in ruins. But the assumption is that they point to something real.

In the same way, if there are a series of archetypical symbols planted across religions, cultures, and eras, it is as least as logical to assume that they point to some type of real fulfillment at some point in history, rather than to assume they point to nothing. The probability that this assumption is logical is raised dramatically if an event has multiple witnesses which are close in time to the event, and a basis in archaeology and the social currents of its day. And that is precisely what we have in the first century documents of Matthew and Luke.

Now, all of this does not raise the matter up to a level of certainty. I think there are other explanations for Christ's birth which exist on a sliding scale of probability. But, based on my read of the evidence, the most probable explanation is that Jesus "was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried, and on the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures".

That's the best explanation I can find. I guess we will not find out for sure until we meet God face to face, and ask.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.