Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 17: The Verdict

Well, here we are. The end of the whole business. If you’re just tuning in, check out the last post for a recap of all the ground we’ve covered. The upshot of it all is that we need to reevaluate the virgin birth. It plays an outsize role in our churches and culture, yet Paul, Mark and John all leave it completely out of their writings. It simply isn’t necessary for the development of a robust christology or theology, and it’s possible we have overemphasized it to the extent that it’s actually weakening our view of who Jesus was and what God did through him.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to discard it completely. Two texts, Matthew and Luke, do in fact describe a virgin birth, though they do so in much different ways. And we should treat those differences seriously because they teach us something about what Matthew and Luke were doing when they told the Jesus story. Forcing them into the straightjacket of harmonized literalism does them a great disservice. Let’s accept the texts for what they are, not what we want them to be.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer two scenarios I think are equally plausible based on our studies thus far:

Scenario 1

Jesus is conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph. He is born perhaps in Bethlehem, more likely in Nazareth, but in either case, he grows up in Nazareth. Mary and Joseph become aware of this miracle through visions or dreams, but Joseph does not live long enough to see his stepson grow up, thus accounting for his absence from Mark’s description of Jesus. Luke and Matthew both are ahistorical on matters of the census and Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem-area toddlers, which means there was likely no stable, no manger and no Magi. In fact, Matthew and Luke are not really making any effort to hide what they’re doing – telling their stories in ways that place Jesus in the larger context of Israel’s story and subtly contrasting Jesus’ kingship with the alleged authority of Caesar. As a result, it’s probably best to view such vignettes, including the pronouncement to the shepherds, as the authors’ commentary on who Jesus was and why he was here, not as faithfully retold historical fact.

Scenario 2

Jesus is the son of a single mother named Mary, possibly the product of a coercive relationship or outright rape by a Roman soldier. God enters the boy at some time in his life – whether at conception, in utero, as a child, at his baptism, during the transfiguration or elsewhere – but his mother and siblings are unaware of this, resulting in the misunderstandings captured in Mark. The allegation of illegitimacy haunts Jesus throughout his life, and it’s reflected in his rejection in Nazareth and possibly in a conversation with the Pharisees told by John, as well as perhaps in the Gospel of Thomas and the anti-Christian accusations of pagans such as Celsus. Regardless, this fact is embarrassing to Christians, who feel pressure to have a miraculous, rather than scandalous, beginning to the life of the Savior. Knowing that, indeed, Jesus was a miraculous individual, and that the incarnation, whenever or however it happened, was a miracle of epic proportions, a legend begins to spread interpreting that miracle into a more literal story. Matthew and Luke, both writing in the same proximity, pick up on this legend – or Matthew writes first and Luke knows of and/or uses his text – and embellish it with their own additions to evangelize their Jewish and Roman readers.

Neither is likely to make conservatives too happy. But we’re confronted with too many inconsistencies in the biblical text, as well as between the text and the history as we know it to have actually happened, to simply take it as literal history. And it’s important to understand this: The concept of history is foreign to the writers of the Bible. When we demand historical or scientific accuracy from them, we are forcing 20th and 21st century concepts into ancient documents that know nothing of those concepts. The use of myth to tell truths was widespread and accepted, and the difference between myth and history – and the various ways in which those two can be combined – was much clearer to the original audiences than it is to us 2,000 years later.

Yet I understand the discomfort with simply dismissing outright a doctrine that has been accepted by the church for more than 1,500 years and has its basis in the plainly written and read text of two biblical books. Which is why I’ve offered the two scenarios here and not simply dismissed the virgin birth outright. Because it is indeed possible to engage the Bible honestly and rationally yet still believe in miracles, including the virgin birth.

In the end, the important thing is the incarnation. However it happened, God came into human flesh, and that miracle is of utmost importance.

2 thoughts on “Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 17: The Verdict”

  1. You write, in your “Scenario 2”: “God enters the boy at some time in his life – whether at conception, in utero, as a child, at his baptism, during the transfiguration or elsewhere – but his mother and siblings are unaware of this …”. Then, you write: “Knowing that, indeed, Jesus was a miraculous individual, and that the incarnation, whenever or however it happened, was a miracle of epic proportions, a legend begins to spread interpreting that miracle into a more literal story.”
    It is evident that you misuse the notion of miracle (that can only apply to a literal virgin conception) and confuse it with the notion of mystery (which the incarnation certainly is, even apart from the miracle of the virgin conception).

  2. I landed on your site through an unrelated search, and decided to read your blog about the virgin birth, parts 1 -17, simply because the title piqued my interest. I happen to disagree with your scenarios and still choose a possible 3rd scenario which lends some legitimacy to the near nativity accounts.

    First, I would like to state that I’ve never had any doubt concerning the immaculate conception or virgin birth. Of all the biblical accounts of miracles, it seems to be one of the most trivial and easily believed. The architect of the universe, physics, and DNA should have no problem impregnating a virgin.

    I would also like to state that, all scenarios, mentioned or not, can at most be merely believed without witnessing the events in person. This applies to all historical accounts of oral and written delivery, and even today, we know that photographic, audio, and visual recordings can be misleading. This fact leads us down a path which you have endeavored, the path to substantiate what we have heard, read, or seen. In doing so, we begin to apply certain methods to either build or breakdown doubt, the most notable is the desire for additional accounts of the same event and to apply logical plausibility. At most, the conclusion we arrive at to validate an event is derived from a preponderance of evidence which coincides with a plausible probability – in the end, we still merely believe what we have not witnessed. But there is yet another form of logic and reasoning that we generally, and must, apply to any account of an event which is conveyed to us. This third test is psychology and how it relates to the witnesses, the messenger, and the audience(ourselves). I feel you have applied the first two (additional evidence & plausibility), but did not explore the psychology in-depth.

    The test of logical probability we must toss out, since we are dealing with a “miraculous” event.

    What we are left with is the written accounts that we have (Luke & Matthew), a possible lack of evidence (your references to Mark, John & Paul), and the psychology that affects the messengers and their culture/s, the psychology of their intended audience, and finally, the audience who reads their information today (you & me). I will begin to touch on the topics of the individual sociological and psychological characteristics of the events, but first let’s talk a bit about history itself.

    Just because something was recorded to have happened, doesn’t mean it happened. Likewise, just because something was not recorded, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Many events in my personal life will go unrecorded, but they still did indeed happen, just not in a historical sense. I think it safe to assume that we have an unfathomably finite and miniscule record of events that have transpired throughout human history. Suffice it to say that, we not only must acknowledge the probability of recorded events, we must also acknowledge the probability of events that were never recorded. The mere fact that we have recorded accounts of a virgin birth yield some credence to a possible event or scenario.

    We also must acknowledge that neither of the accounts provided are autobiographies. They are relayed by two individuals who were not present for the events of Jesus’ conception and birth. This fact, at most, puts both Matthew and Luke within the role of a reporter, much the same way the author of any biography must report on events that they did not witness themselves. Just like every other biography, though the author is reporting on an actual event, the exact details of the event are hardly ever precise as they are subject to the process of recollection and interpretation of the events. It is also human nature to fill the voids, connect the dots, and read between the lines in an attempt to provide context and a more complete picture of the event. We even witness all of this phenomena in modern biographical accounts which relate to the same subject. Generally, when we find discrepancies within this context, we realize that the truth resides somewhere in between.

    Oftentimes, the individual authors reliability vary depending on the accuracy of their sources. One author may be more precise writing about one event while another author is less accurate on the former event, but more precise on a latter event. If we do not know which author is more precise, we generally agree the event did take place, but the details are hazy. If we were to toss out historical events based on conflicting details, we would lose most all of what we deem as real historical events. Whether there were wise men, shepherds, wise shepherds, or this happened before that or after, is not as important as the event itself.

    The fact that some details (the place, time, and setting) conflict slightly is entirely expected. Two reporters having reported an event based on gathered evidence from sources available to them, then having slightly varying accounts is more normal than not. In fact, details which are too close and exactly similar tend to raise suspicion.

    Assuming an immaculate conception did indeed happen, it does not negate the social stigmas that it will be subject to. From the standpoint of an individual living at that time who chose not to believe a real event occurred, the remaining details surrounding it automatically lead to negative connotation. The entire story of the event would have all the evidence of a cover up. A child out of wedlock, a rape, a cheating mother, a bastard child etc. Just because the stigma exists, doesn’t mean the event did not happen, a virginal immaculate conception could not have occurred without the stigma of a negative perception for those who chose not to believe it. These were stigmas that we will indeed see evidence of regardless of the event being true or not. This stigma was real, and what I see, is evidence of how the authors who reported the events had to delicately handle the negative perception of a real event.

    Another possible cultural stigma may also have been present due to the extent of Hellenization that had already taken over the area. Many Jews and residents of the area had been Hellenized for two centuries or more prior to Jesus and had accepted the Greek gods. Also, nearly all of the territories where Paul and other apostles witnessed were almost 100% Hellenized and had absorbed Greek culture. This is a very important detail to how the culture at that time would view an immaculate conception. Greek gods were notorious for raping and having sex with mortals out of sheer lust and passion, producing half bred offspring with supernatural abilities and deep seeded flaws. This concept was ingrained within the culture. Not only would the concept of immaculate conception be nearly “run-of-the-mill” for a majority of their audience, but would also carry a stark misrepresentation of the sheer holy, pure, and righteous conception of Jesus, thus undermining any significance the event would have had for that culture. It could easily have been acknowledged as a detail of little importance that would have been best left unmentioned.

    Let’s address the lack of mention in Mark, John, & Paul’s letters. Though I do not doubt the virgin birth, I also do not put much weight in the importance of that event. Actually, I do not think it important at all. In personal retrospection, out of the many, many, many hours I’ve discussed, witnessed, and written about Jesus and biblical events, I do not recall ever discussing or pondering the virgin birth scenario. It’s a subject I’ve read but never written about. I’ve heard about, but never discussed. I’ve seen pictures that attempt to portray it, but never drawn a picture of it myself. Historically, if I were Paul, and you had a handful of my writings (which denote only about .01% of the communication of my belief structure), you would never know that I ever acknowledged a virgin birth. It’s simply not important to salvation and not discussed. Most of history works the same way. Consider your computer that you are using to view this post. You know that it works to serve its purpose and you know some details about how to use it – history will also document these details. That’s what’s important. Do you know where the gold was mined for the fabrication of the circuitry inside it? You may never find a record of it, or, if you dig deep enough, you may find two similar but slightly conflicting reports about the source of the gold. In either case, you cannot negate that gold was sourced for it’s fabrication.

    Concerning my personal belief, I tend to place a bit more authority with Luke over Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew, in my opinion, is either written with too much of a noticeable agenda, or has been tampered with to a great extent. The gospel of Luke “seems” as though it is written with more historical accuracy, or at least, an assertive attempt was made to compose it accurately with little bias. If the Gospel of Luke was truly written by Luke as most assert and I believe, he most probably interacted directly with disciples and individuals who were first hand witnesses to many events. Luke was well traveled, and the core apostleship at that time was small. They were living in a small world and many knew and interacted with each other. It’s quite possible that Luke knew Mary, had spoken with her, maybe on numerous occasions, years before composing his gospel.

    There’s an interesting verse in Luke’s version of the events that leads me to believe that he received a first-hand account from Mary herself. I’ll leave you with it to ponder it yourself.

    Luke 2:19 “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

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