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The virgin birth of Jesus

Beliefs of Christian clergy & public.
Alternate explanations of Jesus birth.

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Beliefs of Christian clergy:

We have found three polls of Christian ministers, pastors, and priests. For some reason, data is more easily obtained from the UK than from the U.S.:

bullet1998: A poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy in the U.S. showed a wide variation in belief. The following ministers did not believe in the virgin birth:
bulletAmerican Lutherans 19%
bulletAmerican Baptists 34%
bulletEpiscopalians 44%
bulletPresbyterians 49%
bulletMethodists 60% 1
bullet1999: A poll of 103 Roman Catholic priests, Anglican priests, and Protestant ministers/pastors in the UK found that about 25% did not believe in the virgin birth. Yet, 97% of the same group do not believe the world was created in six days, and 80% do not believe in the literal existence of Adam and Eve. 3
bullet2002: Another poll of 140 Church of England (Anglican) clergy found that 27% do not believe in the virgin birth. The pollsters reported:

"...one Hampshire vicar was typical: 'There was nothing special about his birth or his childhood - it was his adult life that was extraordinary....I have a very traditional bishop and this is one of those topics I do not go public on. I need to keep the job I have got.' John Roberts, spokesperson for the Lord's Day Observance Society, said: 'If you take away the virgin birth you might as well take away the entire Christian message. The miracle of the Christian faith is that God came down to us. If you lose that miracle you lose the resurrection and everything else'." 6

bullet2004: A poll of ministers of the Church of Scotland found that 37% do not believe in the virgin birth. Many believe that the virgin birth should be interpreted metaphorically rather than as a description of an actual event." Times Online reported that:  

"There was a geographical split with most ministers in the Highlands and islands favouring a literal interpretation while those in the central belt were more sceptical." 8

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Beliefs of the general U.S. public:

There is a massive gap between the beliefs of mainline and liberal clergy and their congregations:

bullet1994 to 2003: The Harris Poll® has conducted many opinion polls to determine the religious beliefs of American adults. The following do believe in the virgin birth:
 
Date of poll All adults Christians Non-Christians Men Women Republicans Democrats Independents
1994 78%              
1998-JUL 83% 91% 47%          
2000-SEP 2 82% 91% 43%          
2003-JAN 77% 93% 27% 70% 83% 86% 73% 72%

Notes:

bulletThe 43% of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christians and who believe in the virgin birth in the year 2000 is a puzzle. Some of these would be Muslims who constitute 1 to 2% of the American population and who generally believe in the virgin birth but not the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The identity of the rest is unknown.
bullet Belief in the virgin birth drops markedly with increasing education. In the 2003 survey:
bullet 84% of high school or less
bullet 78% of adults with some college education
bullet 65% of college graduates and
bullet 60% of post-graduates believe in the virgin birth.
bullet2003-DEC: The Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University polled 1,054 American adults and found that:
bullet60% said they "absolutely believe" in the virgin birth.
bullet16% mostly believe.
bullet19% do not believe.
bullet5% are uncertain. 7

The pollsters reported that:

"Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s historical emphasis on the theological importance of Mary, Catholics in the poll were somewhat less likely than Protestants to believe in the virgin birth. Theologians attributed this to the doctrine in many Protestant churches that the Bible must be accepted as literal truth."

bullet2004-DEC: Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted a poll for Newsweek. They found that:
bullet79% of American adults believe in the virgin birth
bullet67% believe that the biblical story of Jesus' birth, involving the virgin birth, angels, shepherds, star, wise men, is historically accurate.
bullet24% believe that the biblical story "is a theological invention written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ." 5
bullet2007-DEC: The Barna Group sampled 1,005 adults and found that 75% believed that Jesus was born to a virgin. 53% of the unchurched, and 15% of Agnostics and Atheists believe as well. Even among those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues, 60% believe in the virgin birth.

The Harris Poll warns the public that the statistically computed margin of error may be exceeded in practice. They write:

"Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include refusals to be interviewed (non-response), question wording and question order, interviewer bias, weighting by demographic control data and screening (e.g., for likely voters). It is difficult or impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors."

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Alternative explanations for Jesus' conception:

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired a program "The Virgin Mary" on 2002-DEC-22. It suggested three mechanisms for the conception of Jesus, if the virgin birth is rejected. Jesus could have been conceived as a result of:

bulletA sexual relationship with a secret lover. The program rejects this as being very unlikely. There were strong prohibitions in 1st century CE Palestine for women who had sexual activity with a man other than her fiancée or husband.
bulletA rape by a Roman soldier. There was one ancient writer who suggested this. However, it appears even less likely.
bulletSexual relationships to her fiancée, Joseph. The program considers this a distinct possibility, since engaged couples often did live together in Palestine during the 1st century CE. 4

Not mentioned in the review of the program is a fourth possibility:

bulletJesus was conceived as a result of normal sexual relations between Mary and Joseph after they were married. This would imply that the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke were simple fables, invented decades after Jesus' conception, without any grounding in fact.

The program review mentioned an unnamed a leader of the Church of Scotland who said in a 1994 sermon that the virgin birth was symbolic, and that the Bible need not be taken literally. They quoted an unnamed Church spokesperson who commented: "There is a diversity of opinion on the issue. But there remains a diversity of opinion over whether there should be a diversity of opinion." 4

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References:

  1. Jeffrey Hadden, results of a survey of 7,441 Protestant ministers published in PrayerNet Newsletter, 1998-NOV-13, Page 1. Cited in Current Thoughts & Trends, 1999-MAR, Page 19.
  2. "No significant changes in the large majorities who believe in God, heaven, the resurrection, survival of soul, miracles and virgin birth," The Harris Poll, 2000-SEP-13, at: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/ Number of adults sampled in 2000: 1,010. Margin of error is about 3.1%. Data for other years can be found on the Harris search function of their web site by using the search string "virgin birth"
  3. News item originally reported by the Conservative News Service and later posted by ReligionToday on 1999-DEC-29. Original source of the data is unknown.
  4. Alex Kirby, "BBC film inflames faithful," at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  5. "The Christmas Miracle. Most Americans believe the virgin birth is literally true, a NEWSWEEK poll finds," Newsweek, 2004-DEC-10, at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/
  6. "British clergy have doubts about virgin birth," Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, 2002-DEC-23, at: http://www.smh.com.au/ Originally published by The Telegraph, London.
  7. Thomas Hargrove & Guido Stempel III, "Many American still wonder about nature of Jesus," In The Faith, 2003-DEC-18, at: http://www.inthefaith.com/
  8. Victoria Cleary & Holly Marney, "Virgin birth not taken as gospel," The Sunday Times - Scotland, 2004-DEC-26, at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/
  9. Hans Küng, "On being a Christian," Image, (Reprinted 1984). Page 453 -4. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  10. "Virgin Birth of Christ," Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  11. "Americans Express Their Views of the Virgin Birth of Christ," he Barna Group, 2007-DEC-17, at: http://www.barna.org/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2007-DEC-23
Written by. B.A. Robinson

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