Few beliefs in the Christian tradition are as controversial as that of the virgin birth. The doctrine is derived from the “nativity narratives” in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which recount that the young Jewish maiden Mary conceives Jesus not through human agency but through the Holy Spirit. The teaching appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and even these two accounts have some divergent details. But both evangelists—and consequently official church teaching—agree on this divine miracle of Jesus’s birth.
It’s a right peculiar doctrine with a long and complex history in the church, and it provokes a range of responses among contemporary believers. On the one hand, the virgin birth is deemed a fundamental of Christian faith (as defined in the early twentieth-century manifestos of “fundamentalism”)—on par with the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, and the saving nature of the cross. At the other end of the belief spectrum, those in the flock who are more inclined toward a modern worldview have little problem discarding the teaching as obviously untenable and at best a marginal notion in our biblical stories. For many of us in the middle, the doctrine is a little odd, confusing, perhaps even embarrassing.
I take the gospels very seriously, and I don’t trust an arrogant, enlightened intellectualism that dismisses anything that doesn’t fit into our rational model of the way the world works. Simply rejecting the stories of the virgin birth is not, for me, an option. I am not so much concerned with solving the historicity or factuality of this part of the Jesus story or debating whether the evangelists were weaving fictions to validate prophetic fulfillment. Nor do I worry about historians’ accusations that the early church developed the doctrine to compete with other religions (like Mithraism) that already had virgin birth mythologies. But I am deeply troubled by the role the doctrine of the virgin birth has played in church history and in the church’s witness to society at large. And I am convinced that we have inherited a distorted interpretive lens on what the evangelists are trying to say through these narratives.
The Shaming of Sex
First, there is the matter of the deleterious consequences of this doctrine: the church’s promulgation of the virgin birth as an essential plank of orthodox faith became one of the toxic roots of centuries of very damaging teachings about human sexuality, particularly regarding women. As the institutional church gained social sanction from imperial Rome, its character increasingly aped the power dynamics of the dominant culture—including a regression from the revolutionary egalitarianism of the early Jesus movement to a reinvigorated male patriarchy with its subordination of women. As ecclesiastical leadership increasingly enmeshed itself in worldly systems of power, Christian theology evolved toward a more abstract, otherworldly, highly spiritualized character, blunting the social and political dimensions of the prophetic tradition and the gospels—all of which was rather self-serving for an increasingly corrupted and domesticated church.
A greater emphasis on the spiritual meant a diminishing of the flesh. Greek philosophical paradigms, which tended toward an almost dualistic tension between the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the material, aggravated the growing distance of the early Christian community from its Jewish roots and became the predominant framework for interpreting the biblical tradition—which made the human body itself suspect. Then along came Augustine in the fourth century, who, in working through some of his own neuroses around his youthful sexual naughtiness, began explicitly to link human sexuality with sinfulness, suggesting that original sin was literally passed on through the sex act, and stressing that sins of the flesh are among the most grievous possible.
Not surprisingly, by this time, the notion of the virgin birth had been highly elevated in church tradition, including the Christian midrash that, despite numerous New Testament references to Jesus’s siblings, Mary was a “perpetual virgin.” The staid and statuesque (and decidedly nonsensual) figure of the holy Virgin Mother garnered a cult of worship (mediated, one might sardonically suggest, by cross-dressing males).
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