At Christmastime, Christians set up nativity scenes, or act them out in pageants, that tell the story of Christ’s birth in a manger. Such scenes always feature Jesus and Mary and her husband, Joseph. In 2005, Chloe Breyer looked at the history of how Jesus’ birth, which came not long after Mary and Joseph were married, came to be described as a virgin conception. The article is reprinted below.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of God’s only son. Some believers, however, wonder if Jesus Christ is God’s son only. The ancient “illegitimacy tradition” and its modern proponents propose that Jesus may have had a human father. That idea upsets one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith—the virgin conception. But it’s entirely in keeping with more essential tenets: Jesus’ role as the Messiah, and God’s love for the poor and downtrodden. What’s more, the illegitimacy tradition responds to many strange utterances about Jesus’ birth in the Scriptures themselves.
Christians agree that Jesus was not conceived by Mary and Joseph while they were married. He was born so soon after Joseph took Mary into his home that it was clear she had conceived during her betrothal to Joseph. Beginning in the second century, most Christians explained the scandalously timed birth as evidence of the virgin conception. Christian leaders were still figuring out Jesus’ identity at the time, and the virgin conception offered evidence of the Messiah’s exceptionalism. It also made sense that if Jesus was both fully human and fully God, he should have one human parent and one divine one.
The illegitimacy tradition, by contrast, holds that the Holy Spirit supplemented, rather than replaced, Jesus’ human paternity. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian theologian, wrote of early Christians born as Jews who believed that Jesus was the natural son of Mary and Joseph. Origen, another early church father, referred to two branches of first-century Jewish Christians, collectively called the Ebionites, “the one confessing as we do that Jesus was born of a virgin, the other holding that he was not born in this way but like other men.” The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes an enigmatic saying that may well refer to Jesus: “He who knows the father and the mother will be called the son of a harlot.”
But by the fourth century, the author of Thomas and the other doubters of the virgin conception had been labeled heretics. The illegitimacy tradition was particularly unpopular with church leaders because non-Christians took the lead in articulating it—not just early rabbis, but pagan philosophers as well. (Click here for an example from True Doctrine, a pagan anti-Christian polemic written in 178.)
For centuries, the illegitimacy tradition was forgotten. But recently it has been resurrected, and not only by miracle-bashers. Its proponents include establishment theologians like Raymond Brown, author of the massive Birth of the Messiah and the commentary on John’s Gospel in the Anchor Bible Series, and feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Jane Schaberg. To be sure, the idea isn’t mainstream. In 1987, Schaberg, a biblical studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, published The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Her central argument was that Matthew and Luke’s Gospels originally told of an illegitimate conception rather than a miraculous virgin one. University of Detroit Mercy, which is Catholic, publicly distanced itself from Schaberg’s positions. She got hundreds of angry letters and a few death threats and one night awoke to discover that her car was in flames on the street outside her apartment.
Should Schaberg and other scholars who question the virgin birth be hurled into the outer darkness? The problem with dismissing them, as the fourth-century church authorities dismissed their forerunners, begins with Scripture. The biblical sources for the virgin conception are a few short passages in two of the four Gospels. In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph, who is perplexed about his fiancee’s pregnancy. Should he divorce Mary or have her stoned her to death, as the law of Deuteronomy requires? “Joseph, Son of David,” says the angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” The angel then goes on to quote the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (In fact, “virgin” comes from Matthew’s use of a Greek mistranslation; the Hebrew in Isaiah reads “young girl.”) The version in Luke is similar.
So far, the Scripture sounds pretty clear. But the infancy narratives from Matthew and Luke must be squared with some startling silences, alternative Greek translations, and a couple of snide comments from Jesus’ hometown critics. Paul never mentions the virgin conception and in Galatians describes Christ as “born of a woman.” John’s Gospel says nothing on the subject of Jesus’ conception. And Mark describes the shocked response of the synagogue-goers of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth when Jesus as an adult returns to preach and teach as God’s chosen one. The Nazareth Jews presumably would have known better than anyone about the irregular timing of Jesus’ birth. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” his parents’ neighbors ask one another. Since Jewish men of the time were identified in relationship to their father, Schaberg and other scholars take this remark as an insinuation about Jesus’ parentage—one that was so offensive that the later Evangelists Luke, Matthew, and John changed it.
And there’s more. When Mary responds to the angel’s good tidings in Luke, one translation of her speech is, “How can this be, I do not know a man?” But in the Greek, the word for man is anēr,which also means “husband.” Schaberg suggests that if this is the meaning Luke intended, the text could imply that Jesus had a human father who was not Joseph. * Finally, in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving to God, she says, “God has lifted up his humble maidservant.” The Greek word for “humble” is the same one that the Septuagint (the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) uses to describe the rape of Dinah in Genesis and other incidents of sexual violation. From this, Schaberg discerns the possibility that Mary’s “humility” could be “humiliation” from a sexual assault.
Admittedly, Schaberg’s conjecture that the Gospel writers were obliquely conveying an illegitimacy tradition—one in which Mary was the victim of rape or seduction—is just that: conjecture. It lacks positive corroboration within the Gospels or other Christian writings. Schaberg acknowledges that she cannot prove that early Christians read the infancy narratives in the way she proposes. Still, if the Gospel writers did assume that their readers knew of an illegitimacy tradition, their words could support a figurative, rather than literal, reading of the angel’s annunciation. It seems rash to rule out that historical possibility when theologically it works so well.
Can a loyal Christian believe that Christ was not born of a biological virgin? Perhaps it’s worth posing a different question: Why is church authority so intent upon Mary’s virginity as a historical fact? Would Jesus be any lessGod’s son if he had an earthly father? The central message of the Gospel is that God raised up and redeemed his servant from death by crucifixion—the Roman style of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. Why couldn’t God have sent the same message of divine solidarity with the world’s outcasts by making a Messiah out of a man whose conception was also taboo?
Correction, Jan. 4, 2009: This article originally and incorrectly used the Greek word anthropos instead of anēr. (Return to the corrected sentence.)