On Sunday (Advent 4), I spoke about the Virgin Mary – or ‘young Miriam’ as I like to call her. Someone who heard the sermon emailed me after to tell me something that a doctor friend had said to her:
“If a teenage girl came to me claiming a ‘virgin birth’, I’d say, ‘pull the other one’!”
My email correspondent wondered if the church had any explanation.
I had to say that, no, I don’t think the Church has an explanation. There’s a video of Richard Dawkins interviewing (former Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams about creation and miracle. Williams says that to talk of the virgin birth is to use the language of poetry, rather than science. Dawkins challenges him on this, asking whether he believes that the virgin birth is ‘true’ (not merely poetry). Williams says that he does, and that, equally, he believes in the empty tomb, because of who he believes Jesus is. Dawkins describes argument as ‘circular’: you believe what the Gospels say about Jesus because you believe what the Gospels say… Williams replies that there is enough about the ‘circle’ of Christian belief and Christian experience that he was prepared to ‘jump in’. Williams says that miracle is not God breaking in to the universe, or breaking his own rules, but that God the Creator has brought everything into being in such a way that there is consistency (the cause and effect that science requires) but also the possibility of an openness to God breaking through in particular ways. He would say that the virgin birth and the empty tomb are moments of openness to God breaking through – not breaking the laws of nature (which are God’s laws) but breaking through, in a way that is consistent with God’s self.
The Virgin Conception of Jesus in Scripture
The virgin conception of Jesus is there in scripture, at least in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John don’t tell us anything about Jesus’s birth, neither does St Paul. You could argue that they were not aware of this tradition, or that they simply assumed it as an accepted part of Christian faith that did not need stating. Luke 1.26-38 records the annunciation to Mary, that she will conceive a child, and Mary’s very reasonable question about how this can be, since she is a virgin. There is no attempt at a scientific explanation. This is simply God at work. Matthew 1.18-23 ties this in to the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7.14. Matthew is particularly interested in the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy).
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’.
The tricky thing about this is that the Hebrew text of Isaiah refers to a young woman, and not to a virgin. (They are not mutually exclusive of course, but Isaiah doesn’t specifically say that the young woman was a virgin.) Matthew was using a Greek bible which renders this word as ‘virgin’. Which is not to say that the doctrine rests on a faulty translation: some would argue that Matthew used the Greek text precisely to make the point that Jesus was born of a virgin.
The Church’s creeds make it an article of faith that Jesus Christ was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary’, and the Church of England accepts scripture and the creeds as the basis of our faith. (Very early in the history of the Church there was the claim that Jesus was the result of some form of congress between Mary and a Roman soldier – whether consensual or not.)
A colleague of mine from a previous parish thought that the idea of Jesus being born of a virgin was a very bad doctrine: he felt that it was unhelpful that Jesus was different to the rest of us. Professor Ian Markham, who taught me for my MA in Ecumenical Theology, said that many church-goers had ‘grotesque’ views on how Mary got pregnant, more in common with pagan myths in which gods impregnate human women. (Zeus seems to have been at it all the time!)
The insistence of Mary remaining a virgin even after her marriage to Joseph does seem to me to betray a very unhealthy view of sex and gender, tied to an unhealthy view of sin.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their book, “The First Christmas” compare the gospel accounts of Jesus’s conception with those of divine conceptions in Jewish and Pagan stories. They argue that, while there are similarities, Matthew and Luke are making the point that the conception story of Jesus demonstrates how Jesus is greater than those from other sources. The Christian teaching (predating Matthew and Luke) that the Gospels are reflecting is the claim that “Mary remained a virgin before, during and after conception (not birth) – and that made her divine conception different from and greater than all others”. In particular, the conception and birth stories of Jesus are contrasted with those of Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be descended from God.
Borg and Crossan say “It is that divine conception that counts. It is the theology of the child and not the biology of the mother that is at stake.” They are very good on drawing out the consequences of the earliest declaration of Christian faith: ‘Jesus is Lord’. If Jesus is Lord, then it means that the emperor is not, even though he believes that he is. The gospel, then, presents us with a choice: who is Lord of my life? Caesar or Christ?
Parthenogenesis and Poetry
I’m aware that in the animal kingdom, parthenogenesis exists – ie asexual reproduction. But that can only produce female offspring. So, no, I’m not aware that there is an ‘explanation’ of the virgin conception of Jesus, certainly not from a scientific standpoint. Maybe Rowan Williams is right: that God has created the universe in such a way that occasionally things happen that do not conform to our understanding of scientific laws (but which are not contrary to those laws). Or maybe this is closer to poetry than to science. Whatever it is, it is about who Jesus is, the incarnate Son of God and invites us to choose where we put our faith. The gospel is an invitation to ‘jump in’ the story of the God who is made known to us in Jesus.
My correspondent’s doctor friend makes a good point, though!