Benediction Online

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Virgin Birth? Really?

Isaiah 7:10-16

People often feel a need to tell me why they don’t come to church. The most frequent excuse is that they just can’t manage Sunday mornings. The second most frequent is that they don’t believe in the virgin birth. Personally I have no more difficulty believing in the virgin birth than in believing that Jesus walked on water but for some reason it is a stumbling block to many people who live around here.

The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four, doesn’t even mention Jesus’ birth – that’s not important to Mark who jumps straight into Jesus’ ministry. Luke and Matthew, which were both written later, give us extensive birth narratives designed to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that they were keen should be seen to be applied to Jesus. That’s why Luke has Joseph and Mary trudging to Bethlehem for an imagined census – because Jesus is clearly from Nazareth but the Messiah must be in the line of David and from Bethlehem.

In this morning’s reading from Matthew, a prophecy which may have been intended just for King Ahaz who reigned in the 8th century BCE is used to show that Jesus must be the Messiah because he was born of a virgin. We heard it in the first reading. The Hebrew uses a word which can mean virgin but also just means young woman. Another, more specific, word for virgin was not used. Young woman makes more sense in the context of Ahaz who is being told that the two countries he is currently afraid of will soon no longer exist. So we could paraphrase the prophecy as “That young pregnant woman will have a son and before he’s old enough to know the difference between right and wrong he’ll be eating the rich milk of grazing cows.”

Some scholars think that the writer of Matthew made a mistake based on a poor translation. When the Hebrew scriptures were first translated into Greek, “young woman” was rendered as parthenos - “the virgin”. So when Matthew was scanning the scriptures looking for prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, he stumbled on this one and incorporated it into his story. However, this idea has been dispute for nineteen centuries. In the second century Irenaeus argued that the Greek translators knew exactly what they were doing when they chose to use the word parthenos -  the technical term for virgin, rather than choosing a more general word.

After nineteen centuries this isn’t an argument that will be resolved anytime soon. So you can decide for yourself – a true prophecy about a miraculous virgin birth or a misunderstanding based on a poor translation.

Translations aside, there were good reasons for declaring Jesus’ birth to be a miracle. The early church was operating within the Roman Empire where every important leader was declared to have had some kind of miraculous birth. According to the historian Suetonius, the birth of Caesar Augustus was divine. His mother Atia fell asleep in the Temple of Apollo and Apollo impregnated her - making Augustus a divine son of God. So, Caesar Augustus was called the Son of God, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Savior of the world. Sound familiar?[1]

In this cultural climate, the early church may have felt that Jesus needed to be elevated from just a Palestinian peasant who happened to be God to a clearly august person who happened to be a peasant. According to Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan, if Jesus was going to compete with Caesar, he was going to need an "upgrade" - and virgin birth was the most convenient route. So the church developed stories about his birth and tied them in to ancient texts which were immortalized in the stories of Luke and Matthew, and as a result we celebrate the ox and the ass and the drummer boy – all myths that we have more recently attached to Jesus’ birth.

Early theologians grappling with the question of what Jesus was all about,  found the virgin birth very important, because if Jesus was conceived through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit then he was truly God and human – both/and. This became extremely important in the debates of the first few centuries as the church sought to understand how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought salvation. If we throw out the virgin birth then we are left with a serious question, how did God get into Jesus? Was he the Son of God when he was born, and if so how? or did God adopt him later – perhaps at his baptism? Or maybe he wasn’t God, anymore than you and I are God.

These were not just academic arguments but issues of life and death because Christianity was the first religion to be based on faith rather than ritual. If we define faith as the ideas we believe then it’s really important that we get it right. If Jesus is not God as well as human than how can he have a unique mediating role between God and human? The idea of God incarnating, becoming flesh, in Jesus is foundational to our understanding. If God didn’t get into Jesus at the time of conception, when did he? When did God incarnate?

Thus for the early church it became very important to believe that, as both Matthew and Luke testify, Jesus was born of a virgin. Which is why we have it in our creeds. They were written to resolve the major issues of the day, and one of those was whether Jesus was both fully God and fully human. The virgin birth takes care of that.

Does it really matter? Is it important for us today to believe that Mary was a virgin? I don’t think so. It doesn’t make any difference to the presence of God in our lives. It doesn’t make any difference to our co-creating the reign of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. So if you have been crossing your fingers behind your back every time we say the Nicene Creed and mention the virgin birth, you can relax.

But I do think it’s important that we study scripture and grapple with these questions. Because it is as we use our God given minds to question and to debate, then the Holy Spirit fills and inspires them. To decide that you don’t believe in the virgin birth or in any other theological idea without exploring what it means and why Christians have thought it important is just the same as accepting everything on blind faith. We are formed into mature Christians as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds as well as our hearts.

Before I close, I want to raise a very important question. What does it do for us if we imagine Mary to have been a sweet gentle naïve virgin who just allowed God to have his way with her, and always said yes?

I think it does us a serious disservice. We have very few models of women in holy scriptures and most of them are only quickly mentioned. If the one archetype of femininity that we have is portrayed as a submissive rose petal, then it allows us to perpetuate the idea that women should be submissive to men and submissive to their lot in life and submissive to crap, because it is obviously God’s will.

There is another way of looking at virginity as metaphor. We can see the virgin as one who is complete in herself, who retains her own authority and does not give her power or herself away unless and until she chooses. This virgin is an equal with the men in her life and fights for the things that she and her loved ones need to survive and flourish.

So, let us replace those mental images of a timid virgin wrapped in blue and smiling sweetly with the picture of a feisty young woman who had the guts to argue with an angel, who agreed to be the mother of God with all the grief that that would surely bring and who was deeply loved by her fiancé, Joseph; so deeply loved that he risked social disgrace and, trusting in a dream, went ahead and married her. Mary was no shrinking violet but a powerful young woman and a force to be reckoned with.

Was she physically a virgin? Was Jesus God? Did God incarnate?

Luke says later, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Let us follow her example and ponder in our hearts the true meaning of Jesus’ birth even in these last few busy days before Christmas.


  • This is a very thought provoking. Is there a similar analysis about the evolution in the interpretation of Jesus' resurrection. Inquiring minds wish to know. Thanks.

    By Blogger Hope-Full, at 12:45 PM  

  • This is a very thought provoking. Is there a similar analysis about the evolution in the interpretation of Jesus' resurrection. Inquiring minds wish to know. Thanks.

    By Blogger Hope-Full, at 12:45 PM  

  • To some extent; Mark's gospel does not include a resurrection. Matthew and Luke both have quite different takes on it. Some argue that the post-resurrection stories were later myths.

    By Blogger Caroline Hall, at 10:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home