As inevitable as mistletoe and the Tannenbaum, the argument about Mary’s virginity has been brought up by news of theologian Kyle Roberts’ new book, A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters.
The author is a professor of public theology and church and economic life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, a school with essentially Calvinist affiliations near Minneapolis. His work attempts to be a new scholarly examination of the claims concerning Myriam of Nazareth, or what in some theological circles is known as Mariology. I have not read the book, so I have to rely on a Religion News Service interview of the author, a piece that is flippantly titled “Flunking Sainthood.”
What emerges is that Roberts is clearly wrestling with a literal belief in the asexual conception of Jesus. This is a problem that might bedevil evangelicals and fundamentalists, but need not and does not present a major problem for the majority of Christians. In fact, Roberts grapples with a bit of a straw man.
The gospels are trying to convey orthodox teaching of the Christian faith as held by non-evangelicals and non-literalists: Jesus of Nazareth was born divine, an unusual circumstance conveyed by way of a literary shortcut described as “born of a virgin.”
This is not meant to be a scientific statement.
Most of what science knows about birth today — which is not all that is knowable by a very long shot — was unknown to the authors of the gospels. Importantly, until the 1830s no one even knew about the existence of the ovum, let alone DNA. The prevailing understanding at the time of Jesus and all the way to the time of Presidents Jackson, Polk and Van Buren, was that the sperm was a “little man” that was implanted in the womb, which was merely a passive receptacle.
This understanding explains a lot about the thinking on a huge range of sexual topics — and the status of women — over that period and earlier.
It’s what the gospel writers “knew.”
Given such an understanding, the literal meaning of the gospels’ text in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John have no birth narratives) is that Jesus came from a divine “little man/sperm” that was placed in Myriam’s womb by God. The idea of a sperm and an ovum, let alone the resulting zygote, would never have occurred to any of the evangelists.
However, the gospels are not literal documents, not newspapers providing facts. They are literary texts aiming to convey to believers a theological message. Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives make use of the “science” of the day, appeal to a customary Greco-Roman literary device that accompanies the birth of an important figure with portents. Lastly, they draw on Isaiah 7:14, the prophecy of a virgin giving birth, which was probably meant to convey the unusual character of the Messiah.
The divine origin of Jesus the Christ is also put quite distinctly and poetically by the gospel of John (1:1,14a): “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” No conception, no birth mentioned. This is particularly odd since John reputedly took care of Mary after the crucifixion. Tradition has it that the widowed Mary lived with John in Ephesus.
All of this is distinct from the facts of Jesus’ birth as scholars know them, which follow.
Jesus was probably born around the year 6 BCE (an oddity resulting from a calendar miscalculation). According to some of the earliest sources, the birth occurred in the summer, possibly July or August. Arguably but not definitively, the evidence suggests his mother may have had several other children. There is no factual evidence concerning the conception of Jesus.
The notion of Mary ever virgin is not implicitly and indisputably a gospel message. The phrase “ever virgin” referred to Mary is first attested in the 4th century, far from any contemporaries of Mary or Jesus. Also, it is unrelated to the origin of Christian views concerning chastity and marriage.
I align with the view of Elaine Pagels, in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. She proposes, with some evidence, that the early Christian view of chastity as a virtue emerged as a proto-feminist attempt by Christian women to avoid marriage as prescribed by imperial Roman law, which in effect made the wife the property of her husband. This, in turn, has little to do with the apostle Paul’s statements on sex, which were heavily influenced by a combination of his rabbinical training and his personal shock at the common behavior in Greece, which was not entirely dissimilar to current sexual social mores in North America.
In sum, we know extremely little about Jesus’ actual birth as a matter of fact and nothing about his conception. For God, however, nothing is impossible; if God wanted to swell in a human born from a virgin, it could happen science notwithstanding because God is lord of science and the world. The teaching of the virgin birth is merely about the original divinity of Jesus: he was born God, of God directly, and did not become God in some way.
Finally, to bring it back to the topic of the day, Luke 1:34-38 provides a virginal conception that is consensual. In verse 34 Mary asks: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?” The angel replies in 35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee. Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God.” Then in 38, Mary says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.” Consent!