It is not quite the most controversial verse in the Bible, but Luke 1:35 comes close. Mary has just replied to the angel Gabriel’s statement that she will be the mother of the Messiah with a question of her own: “How shall this be,” she says in the words of the King James Version, “seeing I know not a man?”
Don’t worry about that, says the angel. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
In other words, Jesus would be born of a virgin, a woman who had not, in the biblical sense, known a man.
I only say this is not the most controversial verse in the Bible because the Virgin Birth of Jesus is one of the points on which most Muslims and Christians agree. In verse 21 of Sura 19 in the Quran, the angel tells Mary that although she has not known a man (verse 18) yet God will give her a child. A 2012 Pew Forum poll found that 32 percent of the world’s population is Christian and 23 percent is Muslim, so there are an awful lot of people who believe this — although of course not all Christians nor all Muslims accept the idea that their respective scriptures are literally true. Still, since both Christianity and Islam are strongest in developing countries where more literal views of scripture are widely accepted, half or more of the world’s population probably believes that the mother of Jesus was a virgin at the time of his birth.
Even if both the Quran and the New Testament agree on this point, they emphatically disagree on the theological meaning of Mary’s virginity. The specifically Christian idea of the Virgin Birth is one of the most controversial and confusing theological concepts around, and a Yuletide blog which didn’t take on the topic wouldn’t be doing its job. So: what does this concept mean, and why do Christians care that it’s true?
Judging by the responses of some of my students to these ideas, the first point to clear up is this: the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are not the same thing. The Virgin Birth is simply the idea that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born and that Jesus had no earthly father. The Immaculate Conception is the idea that by a special blessing from God Mary herself was born without original sin. Until the last three more skeptical centuries, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth had been accepted by virtually all Christian churches and theologians going back to Biblical times; the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, widely discussed and debated for many centuries, was officially proclaimed to be a doctrine of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Other major denominations do not accept this idea as official doctrine, although the Eastern Orthodox and some Anglicans hold the Virgin Mary in extremely high regard.
From the earliest times people have raised the obvious questions about the Virgin Birth. A claim that Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier Pantherus has been making the rounds since at least 180 AD; it has recently been revived by the film director Paul Verhoeven. I’m not holding my breath for a ‘scientific’ resolution of this question; I am not sure in any case how you would check for God’s DNA in a paternity test even if you could find some of Jesus’ fingernail clippings or beard trimmings to take to the lab. People have to make their own decisions about what to believe based on the evidence that already exists. I would only observe that if you believe (as I do) that God made the universe and everything in it, and if you believe that he upholds the universe and cares passionately about the well being of each individual person on earth, then to reject the Virgin Birth as a physical impossibility seems a little forced. Swallowing camels and choking on gnats, as Jesus might put it. But that’s me: this is exactly the kind of question that everyone needs to face on his or her own.
In any case, for convinced Christians and curious non-Christians alike the question at hand isn’t really can we prove that the Virgin Birth did or did not occur; the question is what does the doctrine mean to those who hold it? Why do Christians think this is an important idea?
Some see the idea as part of a wider Christian discomfort with human sexuality. Believing that the baby Jesus didn’t get started in the usual way, in this view, is the result of wanting to keep the holy separated from the sexual. No doubt there are and always have been people whose attachment to the doctrine is rooted in feelings of anxiety or guilt about sexuality, but historically the idea of the Virgin Birth has been connected with two other ideas: one about Jesus and one about Mary as an individual and more broadly about women.
About Jesus, the meaning of the doctrine seems pretty clear. The story is in the gospels not to cover up some current scandal about Mary’s pregnancy; if that were the case the gospel writers could have simply called Jesus the son of Joseph and pointed to the fact that Joseph accepted him as such. Son of Joseph, son of David, Messiah: that is all you would have needed. Inventing a story about a virgin birth in order to hush up a scandal about a sexual escapade seems a little far-fetched, especially since Mary’s husband acknowledged the child and took him in.
By making the outrageous and inherently doubtful claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin, the gospels are less interested in affirming Mary’s virtue than in stressing that this particular baby was unique. He wasn’t like all the other babies; he had a special relationship with God from the start.
At various points during his life, Jesus would talk about this unique relationship and later theologians would make it a centerpiece of their reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life and career. But the gospels go out of their way from the beginning to make the assertion that Jesus was not just another baby in a just another manger. Jesus isn’t important just because he had a special message, the gospels are telling us. He is important because he is a special person.
The gospels say nothing about what Jesus looked like; we don’t know anything at all about how tall he was, what color his hair and his eyes were, whether he looked more like James Dean or Chris Farley or, for that matter, like Yasser Arafat or Malcolm X. But the gospel writers do tell us, in the strongest, most expressive way possible, that while Jesus was a human baby with a human Mom, he was also something more, something else.
Although it burnishes Jesus’ credentials as a moral teacher if he really was the Son of God born of a virgin, the gospels are not trying to build him up as a philosopher by stressing this aspect of his background. Being a moral teacher, even a great one, was only a very small part of Jesus’ mission.
Moral teachers are anything but rare. Humanity has many inspiring teachers and prophets. As a species, we have a talent for giving good advice and at our best, the advice that we give is very good indeed. Love your neighbor as yourself. Put God first. Duty before pleasure. Don’t use people as things. Judge by realities, not superficial appearances. Be generous and merciful to the weak and the poor. Act like a parent to orphans. Treat strangers well. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Honor your parents.
It is all extremely good advice and we would be much better off if we took it. But fairly often, we don’t. And when we do the wrong thing, it usually isn’t because we didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Not many murderers, adulterers and thieves are acting in ignorance of simple moral truths. Very few people abuse their elderly parents and steal their money only because nobody ever took the time to explain to them that such behavior was wrong.
Those who see Jesus as a moral teacher or even a prophet see him as one, perhaps the greatest, perhaps one of many, in the long line of teachers and counselors who have tried to show humanity the right path and encouraged us to walk on it.
But for the gospel writers, Jesus was something much more than this. Saying that Jesus was a moral teacher is like calling Winston Churchill a landscape painter; both statements are true (and Jesus was a much better moralist than Churchill was a painter) but in neither case does the description capture the true greatness of the man.
Jesus came here on another mission. He didn’t come here to be one more cosmic wise man telling us the right thing to do. He came here to do something about the real problem our species faces: our failure to take up the good advice we so readily dish out. He came to deal with the gap that opens up between a God who demands moral excellence and a human race that is simply incapable of living right.
This is a shocking concept for many religious people, and perhaps even more shocking for idealistic secular intellectuals, but morally earnest lectures have almost nothing to do with what humanity really needs. After all, the world’s libraries are full of books giving sage and profound moral advice. They are also full of histories that document our failure as a species to follow it. Massacres, aggressions, oppressions, abuses, tyrannies, crimes and injustice: without these, the world’s history books would be much shorter than they are.
Jesus didn’t come because humans had somehow missed the point of moral teaching and needed to be set right on a few points and given inspirational coaching about how to do better. He came, the gospel writers believed, because history revealed the failure of the ‘moral approach’ to the problem of evil, and God decided that something more and something different needed to be done.
The declaration that Jesus was born of a Virgin was intended to set Jesus off from the other prophets and the teachers of the moral law. Something bigger was afoot; something new had come into the world. Jesus wasn’t the latest in a long line of Hebrew prophets; he wasn’t a figure in the procession of prophets from Adam to Mohammed as Muslims believe. He was the Son of God and the Savior, and he didn’t come so much to teach morality as to transcend it.
The Christian claim of the Virgin Birth is meant as a radical announcement that Christianity is different. Jesus came to save and not just to teach. He did not fulfill his mission by giving the Sermon on the Mount; he fulfilled it by dying on the cross and by rising from the dead.
But the story of the Virgin Birth isn’t just a story about Jesus. The gospels are also making a point about Mary and through her about women in general. Ancient Christian writers frequently referred to Mary as the Second Eve. The first Eve, as just about everyone knows even today, was Adam’s wife. According to the first book of the Bible (Genesis), she yielded to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden to disobey God and taste the forbidden fruit. Adam went on and tasted it for himself; ever since then men have been blaming women for all the trouble in the world. For millennia men have used the Biblical story and similar stories and folk tales to justify the second-class status to which women have been historically relegated in much of the world. (In some parts of the world, poorly behaved and uneducated young men call their vicious harassment of women “Eve-teasing.”)
The figure of the Virgin Mary marks a turning point. She is the Second Eve, the one who said ‘yes’ to God when he asked her to be the mother of his son. When God really needed help, the Bible teaches, he went to a woman, not to a man. And the woman said ‘yes,’ and out of her faith and obedience came the salvation of the world.
Seen from this angle, the biblical insistence on Mary’s virginity highlights her autonomy and underlines the vital role she played. If the gospels portrayed Mary as the partner of a man in bringing this new baby into the world, the human father would displace her at the center of the story. How the young hero surmounted the obstacles to be chosen worthy to father Jesus and win Mary’s love would be at the center of the Christmas story.
But the Bible gives us something different. Mary was the decider. Mary was the free agent whose choice opened the door for us all. At this critical moment in world history, she didn’t act with a man or through a man. She didn’t stand by her man; she wasn’t a ‘helpmeet.’ Joseph is the helpmeet in the gospel story; Joseph stands passively by and loyally supports Mary and her child.
The message is or ought to be clear. I will come back to the Virgin Mary later; she’s one of the great enigmas of the Christian religion for many contemporary Americans and it’s hard for many of us to see just what she means or can mean to people today. But for now, on this third day of Christmas, it’s enough to understand that when Christians say that Jesus was born of a virgin, there are two main points they are making: that Jesus is the son of God, connected to the author of the universe in a unique and special way with a mission that is fundamentally different from that of all the prophets and teachers who came before, and that the free choice of a strong and faithful woman opened the door to salvation for the whole human race. Jesus is unique, and women are free and equal in God’s sight: that is what we should take away from this story.
Christianity like many world religions has often been less than fair in its treatment of women. But at the heart of historic Christianity there has always been the idea that one young single woman’s faithful choice gave God the opening he used to save the whole human race. Christmas is a feminist holiday, a feast that celebrates the free choice of an autonomous woman. As Christianity has risen to become the largest and most widespread religion in the world, women are coming into their own. It cannot be otherwise; Christianity of all the world’s great religions owes its origin to the choice of a woman to cooperate with God.
God didn’t send Jesus into the world because he was satisfied with the status quo. God sent him here because things needed to change — and right at the top of the list of the things God wanted to change was the position of women. The change didn’t happen overnight, and even today we haven’t seen the full consequences of giving half the world its rightful due, but from the day that Mary answered Gabriel a new force has been at work in the world, and what we see today is the blossoming of a tree that was planted a very long time ago.