Why do the Gospels insist on the virgin birth of Jesus?

Fresco Dionysiou Monastery, Athos. Mid. XVI century.

Try to imagine not knowing who your father is. And then, imagine learning that your father is the one who condemned your life to bondage—not metaphorical servitude but real slavery. One need not read very deep into U.S. history before learning that Africans, brought to America as slaves, and their descendants were also sexually abused by their masters.

What happened to the children born of these illicit, abusive relations? According to the law of the time, any child born to a slave woman was a slave. But how could a man know that he had fathered a son or a daughter and leave that child in bondage? How could any man, even a master, look upon his own child as a slave?

Advertisement

When he was only 6 years old, Frederick Douglass watched as his 15-year-old Aunt Hestor was stripped naked and whipped by their master Aaron Anthony. The evil nature of the old wretch was self-evident. What did it do this young boy to learn, a few years later, that this man was, most likely, his own father?

It is time to look again at what the evangelists wanted, so desperately, for us to understand about the virgin birth.

In his acclaimed biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight speculates:

If indeed his twenty-year-old mother, still full of flowering beauty, youthful charm, and intelligence, had been raped by the power-besotted, sexually deranged fifty-year-old Anthony, Douglass had to find some story or analysis, in which to comprehend it as he grew to adulthood. By retrieving his story from memory he also had to try to dissolve it as he also created it. If he understood that he had not been conceived in love, then he could never know a father’s love, although he would seek alternative fathers for much of his life. “A man who will enslave his own blood,” he insisted, “may not be safely relied on for magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins—unless they have a mind to repent—and the mulatto child’s face is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to the child.”

For several centuries academics have tried to explain away the sheer significance of Christ’s birth from a virgin mother. They now recognize that the notion is not Hebraic nor can it be derived from sources in comparative religion. It is time to look again at what the evangelists wanted, so desperately, for us to understand about the virgin birth.

Scholars suspect that the infancy narratives were probably the last portions of the Gospels to be composed, but, from the very beginning, the birth of the child Jesus from a virgin mother is the core proclamation of both Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives.

One might say that the virgin birth is the resurrection, being read into human sexuality.

Matthew knows that his fellow Jews will find a virgin birth to be inconceivable, so he expends great effort in his genealogy of the patriarchs to suggest that the God of Israel has “drawn straight with crooked lines.” Among the forebears of the Messiah are Tamar, a woman who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce Judah, her father-in-law; Rahab, the kind-hearted prostitute who helped the Israelites to conquer Canaan; Ruth, who seduced her kinsman Boaz by hiding in his bed; and Bathsheba, the roof-bathing beauty, whose husband David murdered and who then bore the king his son, Solomon.

Luke details the dialogue of his annunciation scene to make it clear that the paternity of this child does not lie within our world. Mary speaks for all of us, for every reasonable person, when she asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (1:34). She is told, and we along with her: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). If, through its sin, humanity had made a stark mess of its own sexual impulse, then by an utterly new act, one only the creator could perform, a new beginning will be made, one ushering in an order of grace.

Micah prophesied:

Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne,
and the rest of his kindred shall return
to the children of Israel (5:2).

Here revelation is being read back from the resurrection. If Christ died as all men and women do, yet Christ lives triumphantly by the will of the Father and work of the Holy Spirit, then clearly a new humanity has been brought to birth in this new “Adam.” One might even say that the virgin birth is the resurrection, being read into human sexuality.

So from the very beginning of his existence, the evangelists recognize Christ to be the completely new, completely wonderful and utterly unimaginable work of God. A real woman gives birth because Jesus is truly a man. A virgin gives birth because his deepest identity is as God’s gift, God’s new initiative, God’s new creation.

Christ will continually call the God of Israel “Abba” (father). This is not to raise one sex over another into the divine. No, the Son identifies himself as the new beginning, the truly unimaginable work of God. He calls God father because in him God, through the cooperation of the virgin, has recreated, has fathered a new humanity.

Mr. Blight wrote of Douglass:

In his abolitionist writings and his oratory, Douglass seldom missed an opportunity to convert his story into defining slavery itself to his uninformed audiences. The orphan’s anguished story of his roots in Tuckahoe, the parents unknown or vanished, provide the perfect chance to tear out his reader’s heart as he bared his own. “There is not beneath the sky an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted my mother who bore me into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.”

At the center of the Christmas story a loving, faithful God creates anew. It is as if the Father, who sees and holds all time within himself, sees the malign fruit of sin in the life of the young slave, Frederick Douglass—sees all of human history as one long procession of decadence, decay and death, of hatred, fear and selfishness—and says: “Enough. We will not abandon our creation. We shall create anew by entering our own creation as man.”

Jesus calls God father because in him God, through the cooperation of the virgin,has fathered a new humanity.

God takes the initiative in Jesus Christ. Yet this time, in God’s unconquerable grace, a humble, holy humanity responds.

Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy (Lk 1:42-44)

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
arthur mccaffrey
11 months 3 weeks ago

wow! how much eggnog were you sipping, Fr. Klein, before you penned this bizarre piece of non sequiturs and free association? Happy Holidays!

Nic Uranov
11 months 2 weeks ago

I was thinking the same thing. Good to see someone else does too.

Pancho Mulongeni
11 months 2 weeks ago

arthur, thank you for making my evning with this very sassy comment. Indeed, it could have been penned by a drag queen, though I doubt you are one.

Phillip Stone
11 months 3 weeks ago

It is taught as revealed truth because it is literally, objectively and factually true.

It is well established that there have been other virgin births - they have all been, without exception, female children.
The origin has been an ovum, an egg from the ovary, replicating the nucleus and not separating the DNA, therefore becoming diploid with two X chromosomes from being haploid with one - thus a new fully human totipotent genetically normal cell, just as any other fertilised egg consists of and goes on to become a child ready to be born about 40 weeks after being formed.

All that the Holy Spirit of God had to do was either make the second X chromosome into a Y chromosome or to simply disallow the full use of the DNA in the second X that did not function as Y, thus enabling the single cell to develop the human male baby born in the stable in Bethlehem.

I expect Almighty God to tell us the truth and nothing but the truth and believe He has done so. "She was with child by the Holy Spirit"

Pancho Mulongeni
11 months 2 weeks ago

CLose, but no cigar. Your claim that the one could simple "disallow the full use of DNA in the second X chromosome" will allow for male offspring is not going to work. There is no scientific explanation for the virgin birth of a male. Indeed, there are certain amphibians who can give birth to female offspring, without fertilization, and believe ants and bees do it. But no mammals. If you think your ideas will hold up, do try and sending them in for publication. Otherwise,please do not mix religion and science.

Julie Mitchell
11 months 3 weeks ago

There are Every one of the accounts was composed by an alternate creator. The creator of Luke was… Luke! In contrast to the writers of alternate accounts, Luke was a "Gentile" which means he wasn't a Jew and it is a direct result of this that Luke more likely that see not as a composition for a bigger gathering of people.

BARBARA LOFQUIST MRS
11 months 3 weeks ago

Virgin means young women in Greek. How about the power of metaphor and myth when interpreting scripture in the 21st century. "We don't know if it happened this way but we do know that it is true".

Rhett Segall
11 months 3 weeks ago

Douglas' situation is an iconic illustration of the messed up human situation. I think the virginal conception of Jesus does offer us a new covenant and invites each of us to offer our own fiat to this new creation. Further, the virginal conception of Jesus underscores the truth of Jesus' two fold nature, fully God and fully man. It also highlights God's initiative in establishing the covenant relationship with humanity while makeing clear that this covenant calls for a free, personal response, exemplified by Mary's fiat

Paul Hierholzer
11 months 3 weeks ago

"If, through its sin, humanity had made a stark mess of its own sexual impulse, then by an utterly new act, one only the creator could perform, a new beginning will be made, one ushering in an order of grace." Though I believe this was intended to help cradle Catholics better understand the Church's obsession with sexual morality, it didn't help this cradle Catholic better understand that obsession. The experience of Frederick Douglass not knowing his family members, except for his evil father, is indeed gut wrenching (beyond words), but to suggest that it explains the Church's position on birth control, divorce, and homosexuality is more than a stretch. Respectfully submitted.

Pancho Mulongeni
11 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you Paul. Indeed, as Mark Jordan writes, the Catholic Church has serious issues understanding sexuality. When two people with "incompatible parts" make love, not to conceive, but just for the sake of pleasure, this seems as wanton, lustful and of course immmoral. The fact Jesus was conceived without his mother or father sleeping together seems to further the notion that sex is something to be just done for the sake of reproduction, but is inherently sinful. I do not think the author of this piece intended that, however. He seems to just ask us to consider the impossible - the fact sexuality can be used for abuse and that Jesus was conceived in a manner free from any possible abuse. Indeed,one wonders whether first century sexuality meant that Jewish women were treated with dignity in the bedroom. Certainly, contemporary Judaic teachings, at least in Hasidisim, emphasize pleasure for the female partner in particular.

Rich Phillips
11 months 3 weeks ago

"Matthew knows that his fellow Jews will find a virgin birth to be inconceivable," Really? Nice turn of phrase.

Al Cannistraro
11 months 3 weeks ago

"For several centuries academics have tried to explain away the sheer significance of Christ’s birth from a virgin mother. They now recognize that the notion is not Hebraic nor can it be derived from sources in comparative religion."

It seems to me that the inclusion of "virgin birth to a royal mother" at the top of the list of "Rank-Raglan Mythotype" criteria for a particular mythic hero archetype, and current discussion among academics about the application of the criteria to Jesus as described in scripture, places a demand on Fr. Klein to justify the above-quoted statement.

For Rank-Raglan see
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rank%E2%80%93Raglan_mythotype

For a discussion re Jesus see
https://vridar.org/2015/03/06/richard-carrier-replies-mcgrath-on-the-rank-raglan-mythotype/

The picture of Jesus painted in scripture has more continuity with ancient Greek and various pagan mythologies than is generally acknowledged in faithful circles. This does not negate the controlling weight that faithful Christians may decide to ascribe to what is accepted as revelation, but there can be some conflict with those employing (hopefully) objective historical method. Faith aside, it is increasingly clear that Judeo-Christianity is built upon historical assertions that are less grounded (by objective evidence) than they traditionally have been assumed to be. It's better to be open about that, in my opinion.

Dutch Brewster
11 months 3 weeks ago

The reason the apostles and disciples of Christ taught the birth of Christ the way they did, not withstanding the detours taken by silly academics, is because that was the way it happened. Among other places in scripture, Hebrews affirms God's entrance into humanity in a special way and its salubrious, spiritual effects: "Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he (Jesus) likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subjected to slavery all their lives. ...Therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." - Hebrews 3, 14-15; 17-18.

Rachel Keeney
11 months 2 weeks ago

Tamar, not tabor. Tamar was a woman abused by a patriarch and a patriarchal system. A tabor is a small drum. This is not an unforgivable mistake, but it is an inexcusable one.

Bill Mazzella
11 months 2 weeks ago

The church hierarchy has made a total mess of sex. Period. The first three centuries are silent about Mary. Except for false stories inserted there. Especially the one that makes Mary more divine than human. The Birth of Jesus in the most important birth in History and Mary is an exceptional woman...We should spare the fantasies

Phil Lawless
11 months 2 weeks ago

It seems to me that the Immaculate Conception has a lot to bear on the concept of Virgin birth.. if Mary was conceived free from original sin, then her offspring would receive no trace of that from her. Original sin could only be received from her husband, unless the husband were himself free from original sin, that is God the Father. In this view, there are actually two Immaculate Conceptions, although the magnitude of difference is incomparable.

Phil Lawless
11 months 2 weeks ago

X

Phil Lawless
11 months 2 weeks ago

It seems to me that the Immaculate Conception has a lot to bear on the concept of Virgin birth.. if Mary was conceived free from original sin, the her offspring would receive no trace of that from her. Original sin could only be received from her husband, unless the husband were himself free from original sin, that is God the Father. In this view, there are actually two Immaculate Conceptions, although the magnitude of difference is incomparable.

John Chuchman
11 months 2 weeks ago

If so miraculous and if true, why does Paul, written before the gospels never mention it?

Frank Pray
11 months 2 weeks ago

It seems that we are willing to accept all the messy parts of Jesus’s humanity, but when it comes to the idea of coitus between one human and another human resulting in his conception, that’s just going too far for some reason. It seems that if you accept Jesus’s humanity, then you can also accept that he was physically brought into the world by two human beings having sex. Either way, the Son of Man remains the Son of God.

John Chuchman
11 months 2 weeks ago

Born in the time of the constellation Virgo and to cover up Jesus being born of unwed (bethrowed) parents.

Joseph Noll
11 months 1 week ago

Could the earthly Jesus stub his toe, or misspeak? With God as his father that wouldn't be possible. I would maintain that he then can't be a true human being.

Joseph Noll
11 months 1 week ago

Could the earthly Jesus stub his toe, or misspeak? With God as his father that wouldn't be possible. I would maintain that he then can't be a true human being.

Joseph Noll
11 months 1 week ago

Could the earthly Jesus stub his toe, or misspeak? With God as his father that wouldn't be possible. I would maintain that he then can't be a true human being.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Join us as we offer daily scripture reflections for the entire Advent season.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 08, 2019
The congregation's task has always been “the transmission and dissemination of the faith throughout the whole world.”
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 08, 2019
The new film from Terrence Malick tells the dramatic story of the Austrian farmer turned conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter.
Ryan Di CorpoDecember 07, 2019