Was Mary Really a Virgin? (Intermission)

The virgin birth needs better defenders. Or at least a better defense.

After more than two months of research into the viability of the virgin birth, I felt like there was a pretty good – though certainly not overwhelming or ironclad – case to be made for the virgin birth being the “winner” of two competing traditions about the physical origins of Jesus, with the more likely one, an illegitimate birth, being consigned to mere hints in the biblical text and the accusations of Christianity’s opponents.

Nevertheless, it’s not a terribly strong case, and if the virgin birth is theologically necessary for Christian belief, then I would feel comfortable supporting it. What last week’s Google search to find such theological justification showed me is that the popular reasons for supporting the virgin birth are pretty lousy.

They essentially amount to this: The virgin birth is necessary to believe in the divinity of Jesus.

If that’s truly the case, then that’s a very strong argument. But a peek behind the curtain finds an untenable series of connections: Jesus is God, therefore he must be sinless. All humans are born with a sin nature, therefore Jesus could not have been conceived by two human parents, or else he too would have a sin nature. Therefore, the virgin birth preserves the holiness, and therefore the divinity, of Christ.

Notice the problem there? The virgin birth can only be tied directly to the divinity of Christ through the doctrine of original sin – the notion that each human being is born with a sin nature. But the doctrine of original sin is not one of the essential doctrines of Christianity, at least not according to the same sources who argue the virgin birth is.

And the more we learn about the origins of the universe and humanity, the harder it is to believe in original sin. The Bible in fact doesn’t ever use the phrase, and using it to substantiate the doctrine is sketchy at best; the church itself for the first 1,000 years didn’t believe in original sin the way we do today. Whereas modern Christianity relies on the sin nature to support penal substitutionary atonement – which can be caricatured as “Jesus died to save us from God” – the earlier understanding is that Jesus died to give us victory (Christus Victor) over our enslavement to sin and death, the source of which is kind of irrelevant.

So the popular defense of the virgin birth insists that it is essential to the divinity of Christ. But the only way the virgin birth and Christ’s divinity can be connected is through an entirely nonessential doctrine. Which means the construct collapses.

(We won’t even get into the logical problem of how the sin nature is apparently only passed down through fathers and not mothers, as if Mary’s DNA was somehow perfect while Joseph’s would have been infected with sin. This logical problem is how the Catholic Church arrived at Mary’s own immaculate conception, sinless nature and perpetual virginity [because sex is bad, of course], but that just adds another generation before we get to the question of how someone with even just one parent’s DNA somehow manages to avoid the nature of sin that is supposed to exist in every single person since the Fall.)

In fact, the problem works in the opposite direction: Tying the virgin birth to the questionable notion of original sin not only weakens the defense for the former, it provides an argument against it. If original sin is falling out of favor thanks to the realization that Adam and Eve were not intended to be literal, historical human beings – and therefore Genesis 2:4b-3 was not intended to be a story about how humanity fell from perfection – then doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus, born of two human parents, could have broken free from the proclivity for sin that had thus far ensnared every human being to date? Wouldn’t that actually be just as miraculous, and just as much prove of his divinity, as the virgin birth?

So, it’s back to the drawing board. I am determined to give the virgin birth a good theological defense, if one can be made. But that means reading actual scholars because, surprising enough, the Internet ain’t cutting it. We’ll see where that takes us next week.

5 thoughts on “Was Mary Really a Virgin? (Intermission)”

  1. It is quite interesting, and quite telling of course, that you immediately conclude that the Catholic Church teaches that “sex is bad” from our doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. In fact, the Catholic Church has the highest esteem for sexuality and marriage of any religious institution on the face of the planet, seeing as how we are the only ones to deem Matrimony a Sacrament.

    Mary’s perpetual virginity is not only spoken of with frequency by the Church Fathers, but was a doctrine held by the major reformation leaders (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc…) and was not seriously questioned until more than a millennium after Christ, and even then was looked on as a false opinion with almost no serious supporters.

    The Catholic Church’s reverence for virginity and celibacy is not a condemnation of sexuality, but a raising up. We do not ask our priests and religious to give up marriage and sexuality because they are bad, or even because they are a lower good, but because of just how good they truly are. When we make sacrifices for Christ and the Kingdom, are we not to sacrifice that which is best? Is that not why Abel’s sacrifice was looked upon with favor instead of Cain’s?

    Celibacy is not saying, “i choose to reject something that is bad,” but instead says, “Lord, I choose to give up the highest good of all (sexual union in marriage) and offer myself to you.” As Jesus says in the Gospel, there are some who will make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom.

    p.s. I am a married man with a daughter on the way (and a convert to the Catholic church to boot!)

    1. Hi Joshua, thanks for the comment and the clarification. Regardless of the motives behind the doctrine of perpetual virginity (and I was wrong to just make that blanket assumption in my post), I do think the practical effects of such a doctrine have been to send a message about sex that has reverberated through the church over the millennia. After all, when Jesus and Paul already are celibate, adding Mary’s own celibacy ties holiness to abstinence in a way that is easily and often misconstrued.

      1. No problem; your blog is quite thought-provoking.

        I think the key phrase here is “practical effects.” There are plenty of things that “could” be practical effects of multiple doctrines and I will concede the point that many protestant/fundamentalist doctrines seem on the surface to be much cleaner, much neater than Catholic teachings.

        However, we don’t live in that kind of world, and we don’t serve that kind of God. The modus operandi of our God has never been clean and neat (exhibit A: the Incarnation, now that’s what I call messy!)

        When it really comes down to it, both (a) virginity and (b) sexual union within the covenant of marriage, can lead one to holiness and both point to the reality of God’s self-giving love, his “kenosis,” his outpouring. Our marriages aren’t the true marriages any more than our fatherhood is true Fatherhood. Our “marriages,” our spousal unions, are shadows of what our union with God in heaven will be. Our “fatherhood” is a shadow of God’s true Fatherhood.

        While I will agree that sometimes holiness and sainthood have been tied too strictly to the celibate life, I have two points to make. One, I personally think that it’s a matter of hard truth that when one is free from the duties of family, it makes it all the easier to devote one’s life to God, just like St. Paul says (1 Corinthians 7:7, 25-28). Second, I do believe that in an age that is seeing the breakdown of the family unit we will need both celibate and married heroes to stand up for the faith and truly be holy examples. Two of my favorite saints and personal heroes are Louis and Zelie Martin, a 19th century French couple who lived very holy lives as a married couple.

        In my opinion though, the priests and religious are the true romantics in this life. Holding out for the marriage feast of the Lamb (Revelation), when none of us will marry or be given in marriage.

    1. Hi Israel,

      Thanks for the reply. Don’t you think that if the answer were so obvious, perhaps someone might have brought that up by now and ended the discussion? Joseph is often referred to as Jesus’ father, and the context read into that fact is that of adoption. Joseph’s lineage, but not his nature, are inherited by Jesus.

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