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The virgin birth (conception) of Jesus

Common beliefs of many liberal
theologians, skeptics, humanists, etc.

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Common beliefs:

Liberal Christian theologians, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, etc. tend to approach passages in the Bible differently than do conservative Christians. Liberal theologians do not generally view the Bible as inerrant; rather they view the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) as a historical document, written by creative authors whose main task was to promote the specific beliefs of their own faith group within the Christian movement. Liberals study verses in the light of non-Biblical Jewish and Christian writings, the culture of the time, the beliefs of nearby Pagan societies, the evolving beliefs of the various Jesus movements, etc. Most liberal theologians do not believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth.

Skepticism about the virgin birth is not a recent development, as evidenced by a 1823 quote by Thomas Jefferson:

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." 9

However, the membership of mainline and liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church, USA, etc. tend to be significantly more conservative than their ministers and theologians. Belief in the virgin birth is much higher among the laity than the clergy.

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Common beliefs among religious liberals and skeptics:

bulletSt. Paul seems to have been unaware of the virgin birth St. Paul apparently knew little about the life and teachings of Jesus. He does not mention the virgin birth anywhere in his writings. It would seem reasonable to assume that if Paul had known of the special conditions of Jesus' birth he would have certainly mentioned them in one of his epistles. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: he seems to have thought that Jesus birth was natural and conventional:

bulletBetween 49 and 55 CE, he recorded the first known written reference to Jesus' birth. In Galatians 4:4, he writes:

"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law."

If he knew that Jesus had been conceived by a virgin, the information would have been of momentous importance. He would have undoubtedly replaced "woman" with "virgin", or made some other change to show that the birth was miraculous. This passage was written some 45 years before the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, and 55 to 62 years after Jesus' birth.


bulletIn about 57 CE, he wrote his only other reference to Jesus' birth. In Romans 1:1-3 he writes:

"I Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and separated onto 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 "of the seed of David" strongly indicates that Paul believed Jesus to be the son of Joseph, because Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy from David to Joseph. The phrase "according to the flesh" seems to imply a natural, normal conception and birth.

Paul does not write anything about Jesus' family in any of his Epistles except for a single reference in Galatians 1 to James, the head of the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. Paul called James "the Lord's brother" -- an individual with whom he had many disagreements. 3

bulletThe virgin birth may have been copied from a Roman fable: Livy, a famous Roman historian, had written a very popular book on the history of Rome that was widely circulated in the first decades of the 1st century CE. In it, he explained that Mars, the Roman God of war, fathered twins Romulus and Remus, the original mythical founders of the city of Rome. Their mother was Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. 4 Some Christian groups may have slightly modified this fable and adopted it as their own, in an attempt to show that Jesus was a person of very great importance -- an individual at least as important as the founders of Rome.

bulletThe virgin birth may have been copied from another religion 5 History records that various religions claimed that:
bulletBuddha was born of the virgin Maya after the Holy Ghost descended upon her.

bulletThe Egyptian God Horus was born of the virgin Isis; as an infant, he was visited by three kings.

bulletIn Phrygia, Attis was born of the virgin Nama.

bulletA Roman savior Quirrnus was born of a virgin.

bulletIn Tibet, Indra was born of a virgin. He ascended into heaven after his death.

bulletThe Greek deity Adonis was born of the virgin Myrrha, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. He was born "at Bethlehem, in the same sacred cave that Christians later claimed as the birthplace of Jesus." 6

bulletIn Persia, the god Mithra was born of a virgin on DEC-25. An alternative myth is that he emerged from a rock.

bulletAlso in Persia, Zoroaster was born of a virgin.

bulletIn India, there are two main stories of the birth of Krishna, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, and the second person within the Hindu Trinity. In one story, Krishna was said to have been born to his mother Devaki while she was still a virgin. In the other, he had a normal conception and birth.

bulletWikipedia explains another Hindu reference to a virgin conception and :

"... an example of a story where the woman's physical virginity is explicitly maintained by the god who impregnates her is found in a Hindu Purana. '"The sun-god said: O beautiful Pŗthā, your meeting with the demigods cannot be fruitless. Therefore, let me place my seed in your womb so that you may bear a son. I shall arrange to keep your virginity intact, since you are still an unmarried girl'." 12

bulletVirgin births were claimed for many Egyptian pharaohs, Greek emperors, and for Alexander the Great of Greece.

bulletOne source is quoted as saying that there were many mythological figures: Hercules, Osiris, Bacchus, Mithra, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus and Horus who share a number of factors. All were believed to have:

bulletbeen male.
bulletlived in pre-Christian times.
bullethad a god for a father.
bullethuman virgin for a mother.
bullethad their birth announced by a heavenly display.
bullethad their birth announced by celestial music.
bulletbeen born about DEC-25.
bullethad an attempt on their life by a tyrant while they were still an infant
bulletmet with a violent death.
bulletrose again from the dead.

Almost all were believed to have:

bulletbeen visited by "wise men" during infancy.
bulletfasted for 40 days as an adult. 7


bulletSome historians and liberal theologians believe that many of the elements of Jesus' life were derived from the beliefs that earlier Pagan religions taught about their own gods and saviors.

However, there are two types of virgin births found in the world's religions. One type, as in the conception and birth of Jesus and Buddha, involves the Holy Spirit inducing the pregnancy in a virgin without engaging in intercourse. The other type is more common and involves an actual physical God engaging in sexual intercourse or interacting with a virgin in some other way.

bulletThe Jewish Christians rejected the virgin birth. They were the original religious group formed by Jesus' followers who established a Jewish group in Jerusalem. They were led by James the Just. He was the brother of Jesus, and thus could have been expected to know of any miraculous circumstances of Jesus' birth.

bulletDelayed creation of the virgin birth story: ChristianAnswers.Net suggests that: "No respectable Jew would have ever condescended to buy into a Greek/Babylonian mythological base for an account dealing with the birth of his/her Messiah." 2 This may explain why the story of the virgin birth first appeared in the Gospel of Matthew. It was written circa 80 CE at a time when most Christians were converts from Paganism who had been taught about virgin births in their former religions.

bulletThe virgin birth story was inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures: Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of the very unusual births 6 of Ishmael, Isaac, Samson and Samuel. Usually prior to the birth, an angel appears to the parent-to-be; the latter is afraid; the message of an upcoming birth is given; objections are raised; and a sign is given. Matthew and Luke could have replicated the essence of these stories, and added a virgin birth as proof that Jesus' birth was beyond simply unusual; it was a miracle. This would establish Jesus at a much higher status than the four famous figures from the Hebrew Scriptures. Without a miraculous birth, Jesus might have been considered to be only equal in stature to those heroes.

bullet The virgin birth story was an honest mistake: Most liberal theologians and biblical historians believe that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke copied the belief in a virgin conception from a Greek mistranslation in Isaiah 7:14 The Hebrew word "almah" (young woman) was translated in error to the Greek word for virgin. This is perhaps the most commonly accepted explanation among skeptics, secularists, and religious liberals. More information.

bulletThe virgin birth story is an allegory: It is a metaphor and is not intended to be interpreted literally. Wikipedia states that according to author Uta Ranke-Heinemann:

"...  the virgin birth of Jesus was meant to and should be understood as an allegory of a special initiative of God and not biologically. It could be compared to the creation of Adam in the sense that both creations were by God. It suits to the legends and diction of the allegories of the antiquity according to which famous people originate from gods (like Augustus as the son of Apollo or Alexander the Great as the son of lightning." 13

In 1987, The Vatican responded to Ranke-Heinemann's assertion on the virgin birth by cancelling her ecclesiastical license to teach at any Roman Catholic institution.

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bulletThe writer(s) of the Gospel of John imply a normal birth: Some liberals believe that the Gospel of John was written by a group of authors. The writer(s) did not mention the virgin birth. They almost certainly must have aware of the belief, since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke would have been widely circulated  for 5 to 15 years by the time that the Gospel of John was written. They seem to have rejected it as being a false teaching:

bulletIn John 1:45 they refer to Jesus specifically as "the son of Joseph."

bulletJohn 6:42 has the townspeople ask: "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?"

If the author(s) of John believed in the miracle of the virgin birth, he/they would undoubtedly have mentioned it somewhere in the gospel, and they would not have referred to Joseph as Jesus' father on two occasions.

bulletThere is only one independent account of the virgin birth in the New Testament: Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain references to the virgin birth. Many religious conservatives point to this double attestation as a strong indication that the story is valid. However, many liberal theologians believe that the account in Luke is a forgery. They suggest that the first part of Luke was a later addition by an unknown person, and not written by the same author who wrote the remainder of Luke. One good indication of this is that the section dealing with the virgin birth was written in a different style of Greek than the rest of the Gospel. Also, it can be severed from the rest of the Gospel and the latter's text would still flow well. That would leave Matthew as the sole reference to the virgin birth. A general rule of biblical interpretation is that a major Christian dogma requires more than one independent attestation.

bullet The writer(s) of the Gospel of Thomas is silent: Many theologians believe that this Gospel was originally written about the same time as Mark, about 70 CE. It was in wide use among various Christian communities at the time, but never made it into the official canon. It is also silent about any miracles associated with Jesus' birth. However, its silence is not proof that the virgin birth was unknown to the author(s). Thomas is a "sayings gospel" which deals primarily with the parables and conversations of Jesus. Its author might have not considered the details of Jesus' birth to be sufficiently important to write about.

bulletThe Writers of the Gospel of Q are silent on the virgin birth: The Gospel of Q was another early sayings gospel. It was written about 50 CE and later expanded. No copies have survived, but much of the original text was incorporated into both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The wording of Q has been pieced together through theological research. It says nothing about the virgin birth. This is a possible indicator that the early followers of Jesus did not hold that belief. If they knew of such an important miracle, they would probably have included some mention of it.

bullet The medical impossibility of a Virgin Birth: Some animal species can reproduce from an unfertilized ovum, in a process called parthenogenesis. The Webster's New World Dictionary mentions that this occurs in certain insects and algae. Although "it is the rule among rotifers and quite common in plants and insect, it does not appear above the plane of the amphibians." 1 A virgin birth is considered impossible for species as complex as the higher apes or humans. An additional complexity would be that if Jesus had been born of a virgin conception, he would have been female, since he would lack the Y chromosome as contributed by a human father.

However, there are at least two methods by which a virgin conception could have been produced. Researchers are currently experimenting with various medical cloning techniques. One involves taking the ovum from a mammal, removing its DNA, injecting the DNA from the cell of another animal of the same species and successfully inducing a pregnancy. Since God is normally conceived of as omnipotent, then he could have followed the same procedure with an ovum from Mary and a piece of DNA that he created or borrowed from a male human. Alternatively, God could have created a single human sperm inside Mary and caused the conception directly.

bulletThe possibility of conception without sexual intercourse: Joseph and Mary could have engaged in sexual activity short of actual sexual intercourse. Even without actual penetration, it is possible for a small amount of semen to be released and cause conception. We recall reading that in 1st century Galilee, it was commonly for couples to live together and engage in sexual activity and intercourse before marriage. When a child was born to the couple, they got married. This might have happened to Joseph and Mary. Unfortunately, we have been unable to relocate the reference about 1st century customs in that area.

bulletThe genealogy of Jesus is fictional: Matthew 1:1 states that King David was one of Yeshua of Nazareth's his ancestors. In fact, his genealogy is traced back to Abraham in subsequent verses. Luke 1:27 and 1:32 also identifies Yeshua as being descended from the House of David. Luke 3 contains a different, incompatible genealogy which also traces his ancestry back to David. However, a near consensus of liberal theologians believe that Jews in the first century BCE were unable to trace their lineage since the concept of tribal membership was lost during their exile in Babylon. 10

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Conclusions:

The most likely scenario, as interpreted by many liberal Christian theologians, skeptics, etc. is:

bulletThe writer(s) of the Gospel of Q, circa 50 CE, were unaware of the virgin birth because Christians had not invented the concept at the time.

bullet The Jewish Christians, centered in Jerusalem under the leadership of James were the first followers of Christ. They were led by James the Good -- called the brother of Jesus. They rejected the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus.

bulletPaul (who was executed about 64 CE) was similarly unaware.

bulletThe writer of the Gospel of Mark, circa 70 CE hadn't heard of it either.

bullet If any of the above writers knew of a virgin birth, they would almost certainly have considered it a miraculous event and would have incorporated it into their writings.

bulletSometime after 70 and CE, a myth of the virgin birth was invented, probably to strengthen the authority of Jesus' teachings by claiming that his birth was miraculous. This was a time of great change, as the Roman Army had demolished Jerusalem and its temples and scattered many of the Jews throughout the Roman empire. There, they would come into contact with many stories of virgin births of various politicians and deities from Pagan religions. In fact, it would have been unusual if the developing story of Jesus' birth did not include many of the features found in mythical figures of other religions.

bulletBy the 90's, the belief was widespread. The author of the Gospel of Matthew incorporated it into their Gospels.

bulletAt some unknown time, an unknown forger added the virgin birth story to the Gospel of Luke.

bulletCirca 100 CE, the writer(s) of the Gospel of John likely knew of the story, but rejected it as being a false teaching that was not accepted by their Christian faith group.

As J.S. Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, wrote:

"In time, the virgin birth account will join Adam and Eve and the story of the cosmic ascension as clearly recognized mythological elements in our faith tradition whose purpose was not to describe a literal event but to capture the transcendent dimensions of God in the earthbound words and concepts of first-century human beings." 11

A religion/science conflict now exists between:

bulletThe teaching of most denominations that Jesus' conception occurred while Mary was a virgin, and

bulletBiological research which finds the concept to be impossible in humans.

As Christians increasingly accept the findings of science, this conflict will probably increase in importance, and lead to greater skepticism about the virginal conception. Thomas Jefferson's prediction may well eventually come true. In 1823 he prophesized that:

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."  15

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References:

  1. Kenneth E. Nahigian, "A Virgin-Birth Prophecy?" at: http://www.mantis.co.uk/
  2. "Isn't the virgin birth of Jesus Christ mythological and scientifically impossible?," ChristianAnswers.Net, at: http://www.christiananswers.net/
  3. J.S. Spong, "A religious Santa Claus tale: The birth narrative of Jesus shouldn't be taken literally," Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  4. Isaac Asimov, "Asimov's Guide to the Bible", Wing's Books, New York NY, (Reprinted) P. 780-782 Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus", Harper San Francisco, CA, (1992), Pages 56-57. Read reviews or order this book
  6. B.B. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Page 10. Read reviews or order this book
  7. Patrick Campbell, "The Mythical Jesus," Waverley, (1965), Page 41. Out of print.
  8. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman", Page 58
  9. L.M. Graham, "Deceptions and Myths of the Bible", Citadel Press, New York, NY, (1991), P. 304. Out of print. However, a used copy may be obtainable from Amazon.com online book store
  10. David Klinghoffer, "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The turning point in western history," Doubleday, (2005).  Read reviews or order this book.
  11. J.S. Spong, "Born of a Woman," P. 74-79.
  12. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, Trans., "Bhāgavata Purāņa, at: http://srimadbhagavatam.com/
  13. "Virgin birth of Jesus," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  14. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: women, sexuality and the Catholic Church," Doubleday, Penguin, (1991). Read reviews or order this book
  15. L.M. Graham, "Deceptions and Myths of the Bible", Citadel Press, New York, NY, (1991), P. 304. Out of print. However, a used copy may be obtainable from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2010-DEC-06
Written by. B.A. Robinson
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