Not-So-Virgin Birth: Why Stories of Jesus Became More Magical Over Time
Sometime toward the end of the first century, the writer of Luke told a story that would become one of the most treasured in all of Western Civilization, the birth of the baby Jesus. It opens with an announcement known as the Annunciation. A messenger angel named Gabriel appears to a young Jewish virgin, Mary, telling her that the spirit of God will enter her and she will give birth to a child who is both human and divine:
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:30-34 NRSV)
Two wonder-filled stories merge.
Our modern Christmas story is a composite drawn from two gospels, meaning devotional accounts of the life of Jesus, known as the books of Matthew and Luke. Both accounts underscore that Mary, a virgin, was impregnated by God alone. The writer of Matthew doesn’t repeat the Annunciation, but he does say that Mary’s fiancÃ© Joseph wants to end their betrothal when he discovers that Mary is pregnant. An angel tells Joseph in a dream that her pregnancy is “of the Holy Spirit,” and so he keeps her a virgin until she gives birth to Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Mary’s virginity is just one of several ways that the (now unknown) authors of the gospels signal to readers that this is no ordinary birth. Each accounts includes several supernatural wonders and pronouncements of God’s favor.
Because the gospels were aimed at different audiences, the auspicious events differ from story to story. Matthew: A rising star is seen by astrologers who bring gifts that foreshadow the baby’s future. Luke: A chorus of angels singing to shepherds on the hills. Matthew: A jealous king murders baby boys to protect his throne but the family of the holy child, having been warned in a dream, escapes. Luke: A prophet and prophetess recognize the infant’s divine spark.
Christmas pageants that merge these elements into a single story have delighted children and adults alike for centuries. The traditional manger scene or crÃ¨che merges them into a single panorama.
Grand Beginnings are Soon Forgotten
Many people might find it surprising that these auspicious infancy stories are never referenced elsewhere in the New Testament, for example in the letters of Paul or in the other two gospels that made their way into the Christian Bible. Even in the book of Luke itself, by the time Jesus is a boy, it is almost as if even his parents have forgotten the extraordinary circumstances of his birth. When he turns twelve, his family travels to Jerusalem, where his parents lose him. After three days, they find him in the temple:
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:48-50 NRSV).
Why would two authors describe a virgin birth announced by an angel and accompanied by natural wonders and then, not long after, have their characters behave as if it didn’t happen? That seems like an oddly wasted opportunity for writers who were seeking to establish both their own credibility and the credibility of their fledgling religion. Why don’t the dramatic astrological and biological signs of divinity surrounding the birth of Jesus get more play?
Christianity’s virgin birth narrative, both what it says and why it is poorly integrated into the rest of the Bible, is a fascinating study in cultural evolution. Specifically, it illustrates a process called “syncretism” whereby religions merge over time when cultures come into contact.
The New Testament Is Out of Order
Mainstream Bible scholarship tells us that the marvel-filled stories about the birth of Jesus don’t get referenced later in the New Testament because they were written after many of the books that follow them. When the books of the New Testament are arranged chronologically using the best information available, the gospels of Matthew and Luke are numbers 11 and 20 respectively. They come after letters that are believed to be authentic writings of Paul, for example, and after the gospel of Mark, which may have been a source for both authors but fails to mention an auspicious birth.
In addition, the birth narratives may have been late additions to the gospels themselves, which would explain why they seem forgotten later in the story. Evidence for this can be seen in how different versions of the gospels changed over time.
But the Catholic councils that decided which texts would go into the New Testament didn’t know that. They lacked the modern tools of linguistic analysis, archeology and anthropology and the mindset of antiquities scholarship. They believed that the books called Matthew and Luke were written by men named Matthew and Luke, one a disciple of Jesus and the other a companion of Paul, who had gotten some stories second hand and had been eye witnesses to others. The councils put the gospels first (and the book of Revelation last) because they were trying to assemble a coherent narrative.
Christianity Adapted to the Roman World
In 2012, Jesus scholar Marcus Borg published Evolution of the Word: Reading the Bible in the Order It was Written. Borg encourages readers to explore the 27 books of the New Testament in the order they were written to see how Christian thinking unfolded over time. Ordering the texts as they were written also allows scholars to put the evolution of Christianity in a historical context.
Read this way, one trend line is that the stories about Jesus become more magical over time. For example, John, the last gospel written, has Jesus making the boldest claims about his own deity. Another trend line is that over time, Jesus worship picks up bits of other cultures as Christianity spreads among the gentiles of the Roman Empire. Borg describes “an increasing accommodation within the cultural conventions of the time.” Some of those conventions came from Greek mythology and Roman civic religion.
The Earliest References to Jesus’ Birth Are More Mundane than Magical
The earliest mention of the birth of Jesus comes in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, likely written between 49 and 55 C.E, or about half a century before the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Paul’s description makes no mention of a virgin birth. He says simply that, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (Galatians 4:4).
In another letter, Paul seems to imply that Jesus came into the world in the usual way. In Romans 1:1-3 he refers to . . . the gospel of God...concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh." The phrase “seed of David” refers specifically to the genealogy of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
So Why Divine Insemination?
Symbologist and retired religion professor Dr. Tony Nugent, tells us that the miraculous elements of the Christmas story have their roots in ancient mythic traditions that predated and surrounded nascent Christianity. In Greek and Roman mythology, heroes and great men often were born from the union of a god and a human woman. For example, in the story of Hercules, Zeus impregnates his mother by taking the form of her husband. Helen of Troy is conceived when Zeus takes the form of a swan and either seduces or rapes her mother Leda. DanaÃ«, the mother of Perseus, is impregnated by a shower of gold. Mars, the Roman god of war fathers the twins Romulus and Remus through Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. Even Augustus, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great were reputed to have human mothers and divine fathers.
The idea of gods or demi-gods mating with human women was familiar throughout the Ancient Near East. It appears in the book of Genesis:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4, NRSV)
Early Christians disagreed over when, exactly Jesus became divine. Jewish converts promoted a theory called “adoptionism” in which Jesus is uniquely adopted as God’s son later in life. The Gospel of Mark for example, suggests that this happens at the time of his baptism. Paul suggests that it happens when he is resurrected. The authors of Matthew and Luke, clearly had a view in this debate—they believed that the sonship of Jesus began at birth, and they made their case in terms that would be both familiar and persuasive to people of their time.
An Ambiguous Prophecy Helps the Story Along
One key goal of the gospel writers was to show that the life of Jesus had been predicted by Hebrew prophesies and that the details of his life fulfilled these prophecies. Many Christians to this day take the fulfilled prophecies of the gospel stories as proof positive that stories are true. The naturalistic explanation, of course, is that the gospel writers (or the oral and written traditions they received) may have shaped their stories about Jesus to fit the Hebrew scriptures. And the careful documentation of Mary’s sexual history—or lack thereof—offers one bit of evidence that they did exactly that.
After telling readers that Jesus was fathered by God himself in spirit form, the writer of Matthew adds the following words:
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1: 22-23).
The quotation is taken from the book of Isaiah (7:14), and in the context of the time it is understood as predicting a hopeful future for the Kingdom of Hezekiah. But the Christian who first linked this passage to the person of Jesus must have been delighted.
Early Judaism was very focused on purity—pure foods, unblemished bodies, and female sexual abstinence that ensured pure bloodlines for God’s chosen people. The Apostle Paul made sexual purity central to mainstream Roman Christianity. To a believer steeped in Rome’s tradition of divine insemination and Judaism’s tradition of virtuous virginity, a divine virgin birth might seem like exactly how Jesus should be born.
The twist is this: The Hebrew word used by the writer of Isaiah is almah, which can mean either a young woman who hasn’t had sex or simply a young woman who hasn’t yet born a child. Anglican theologian John Shelby Spong tells us that a different Hebrew word betulah, is used 50 times in the Hebrew Bible when the writer wants to refer specifically and clearly to a woman who hasn’t had sex. (Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and the Treatment of Women by a Male Dominated Church.) But the gospel writers relied on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the word almah is translated as parthenos, which also can mean either young girl or virgin, but which is strongly associated with the virgin goddess Athena.
Would the writers of Matthew and Luke have emphasized Mary’s virginity if they had been privy to the original Hebrew? We will never know. What we do know is this. The story of a virginal young woman who is impregnated by a god and gives birth to a man who changes history appeals to the human imagination. It is a trope that has emerged in many mythic traditions and endured across centuries, cultures and continents. After it took root in Christianity, alternatives fell by the wayside, and the story of the baby Jesus, born to a virgin amidst signs and wonders, became the most celebrated and cherished story in the Bible.
Thank you to Dr. Tony Nugent, Presbyterian ordained symbologist and retired religion professor, for consultation on this article.