Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 1

For a long time now (well, a couple of months, anyway), I’ve wanted to take a hard look at the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth and whether they can withstand the scrutiny.

I think there’s a resistance to doing so among most Christians, even ones who would not argue for a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, because the virgin birth is such a central part of our belief about who Jesus was. Some of this is theological – his being conceived by the Holy Spirit gives us a peg on which to claim that Christ was fully divine – but some of it is cultural, as well. The Christmas story is the first story we’re taught as children, and it’s the ostensible purpose for our biggest holiday of the year. Finally, some of it is convenient. Jesus was the Son of God, and it just makes a lot more sense for him to have been conceived miraculously.

So a lot of people get defensive when someone comes along and says, “Yeah, not so sure about that.” I totally understand that. So in that spirit, let’s try to start with some points on which I think everyone would agree:

1. If the accounts of Matthew and Luke are true, the virgin birth is miraculous and unprovable.

The only human being who ever knew with 100 percent certainty how the embryo named Jesus came to be in Mary’s uterus was Mary herself, and she died quite a while ago. Which means we can’t really prove the virgin birth happened – nor can we really prove it didn’t happen (but then we never can prove the negative, can we?). Further, although I know of some efforts to try to argue for a way that conception could have happened without the act of intercourse, that seems like quite the stretch. If we determine the virgin birth happened, it’s because God broke into the world and upended the laws of nature to make it happen; in other words, he did a miracle. And if that’s what he chose to do, I certainly have no problem with that, and I doubt you would either.

2. Belief in the virgin birth is not essential to being a Christian.

This is less obvious, given the weight we place on it, but I think it’s important to recognize that Paul never, ever mentions the virgin birth. This is important in a couple of different ways, but today we’ll just focus on the fact that for all of the work Paul did to define, teach and preserve the gospel, he never once attached the virginity of Mary to it. Jesus’ crucifixion was very important to Paul, and the resurrection was of the utmost importance (1 Corinthians 15). Paul sometimes quotes and paraphrases the teachings of Jesus, other times quotes the Old Testament to help his readers better understand Jesus, but never discusses Jesus’ origins. So we are not dealing with a core issue here, at least not on the surface.

3. Matthew and Luke do not tell the same story; Mark and John don’t tell it at all.

Not to get into too much detail, as I think this warrants a post all its own, but we’ve grown so used to the harmonized story, it’s easy to forget that Matthew and Luke’s narratives are completely different. The details don’t agree at all. Some themes are similar – angelic appearances, visitors from strangers – but even the details within these common themes are widely divergent. Meanwhile, Mark and John don’t tell a virgin-birth story at all. Whether this is important or not is a different question, but I think we can all agree that the story of Christ’s origins is told in a significantly different way by all four gospels.

4. The virgin birth is a Big Deal.

I want to reiterate that, despite points 2 and 3 above, I certainly recognize the centrality of the virgin birth to the story we as Christians tell today. Regardless of its relative importance to Paul or Mark, it’s important to us. I’ll probably also look on why that is and whether it should be, but the reality is still the same, and I approach this understanding that fact, which is to say I approach this sincerely and seriously, not casually or flippantly.

5. Your answer depends a lot on how you view the Bible.

I’m sure – at least, I hope – some of my readers believe in a literal six-day creation, in a literal exodus story exactly as it’s described, in a conquest narrative faithfully told in Joshua. If you do, the question that this series tries to answer will be a little easier for you. I don’t believe in those things; I don’t believe the Bible was trying to give us a strictly accurate history lesson the way we understand history in the 21st century. We’ve had plenty of discussions about this before. But it occurs to me that some people might object to the very premise of my introduction, in which I talk about whether the virgin-birth stories can “withstand the scrutiny.”

In the end, you’re just going to have to understand, if not accept, the approach I take to scripture, in which the stories it contains may or may not have occurred just as they are described – but that their existence indicates they have something valuable to teach us. If you cannot understand it, you’re going to have a hard time following along, I think. As a history nerd, I have a lot of interest in trying to determine the historicity of these stories, but let me be clear: Even if I decide they didn’t actually happen, that doesn’t mean the Bible should be thrown out, or that these stories are worthless. I understand the concerns others have about slippery slopes, especially since this particular belief has become such a central part of our christology, and if necessary I’ll try to assuage those concerns later in the series.

6. At this moment, I don’t have an answer to the question.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, but I go into this unsure of where I will end up. That probably means this series will ramble on for longer than it should, but it also means I’m pretty excited about doing it. If I end up affirming the traditional view of Christ’s birth, that’s great. If I end up rejecting it, that’s fine, too. I simply haven’t given the subject a lot of thought, except to note some of the points I’ve made above, and that means you and I will be exploring this together. I hope you’ll feel free to contribute your own thoughts, comments, even research, as a conversation is much more interesting than a monologue.

We’ll start the series in earnest next week.

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