Thursday, December 22, 2005

Earthly Father: What if Mary wasn’t a virgin?

The above hyperlink of the title is to an article in Slate, by Chloe Breyer, posted today, 12/22/05. There are a large volume of comments about it on Slate, ranging from the reactionary and ignorant (mostly!) to the thoughtful and informed. I opened an account on Slate today and posted my comment below, under the name Kabloona.

Personally, I’m not ready to give up such a pillar of Christian doctrine as the virgin birth!

However, In the Bible, the usage of the term virginity always has a higher meaning of spiritual virginity, which is the only meaning that counts with God. Even if a person were to not believe in the virgin birth as traditionally understood, Mary was always a virgin spiritually.

If it was the case that Mary had relations prior to her betrothal to Joseph, then, if anything, that God chose the violated Mary to be the mother of Jesus would only serve to emphasize, even more, the God-given, irrevocable human dignity of all, no matter how low, humble, stigmatized, or degraded a person may feel or appear in the eyes of the world.

Note however, that even if Mary had relations with someone prior to her betrothal, it does not preclude Jesus having been conceived by the Holy Spirit. I can’t and won't give up that belief.

Without giving up the idea of the traditional virgin birth, there is much here that one can ruminate over, with profit. In terms of Jesus’ humanity and his sharing in the same troubles as we, imagine Him growing up and being aware of being looked at or spoken of as a child conceived out of wedlock. There is a message there for any person born out of wedlock. Moreover, how dare we look down on, scorn or stigmatize any child born out of wedlock! Imagine Mary, a teenage girl totally dedicated to God, and how she may have felt being looked upon or talked about by others, as having relations prior to marriage? How dare we look down upon any teenage girl in a similar situation! Imagine how Joseph may have felt being looked upon as a cuckold and a fool? The common denominator here is shame, stigma, and humiliation, and one need look no further than the Holy Family for empathy, a sense of dignity, and as an example for one’s own situation in life.


Blogger Talmida said...

I thought about this a great deal over the summer, after reading a biography of Mary, which I blogged about here.

I sometimes ask myself how anyone could have known what Joseph dreamed. Did Jesus sit around and talk about his birth and childhood? The guys who wrote the Gospels came after Jesus disappearance, and they were writing the Gospels with an agenda.

I found it very interesting that the goddess Isis gave birth to Osiris in a virgin birth -- and that Osiris was a god who cheated death. Parts o f their story are remarkably like that of Mary & Jesus.

It would not have been unusual for the Gospel writers to give Jesus a good backstory, one that supported his Godly nature. It makes sense that it would have resembled the backstory of other gods worshipped nearby. That's exactly the kind of question that converts to Christianity might have been asking about, and how could any of them have known the facts?

Although I do believe that Jesus was conceived by God, I don't find it hard to believe that a man could have been the instrument for that conception (although I'd rather not - I like miracles).

But when you look at the history of the Gospels, it's kind of a miracle that we know anytihng at all!

I believe the Gospel stories are true, but I do not think they are accurate. The versions we have were the maybe 3rd hand copies of reports from a previous generation. That's why the synoptics are so similar. To write a book "according to Matthew" was to write it in his style, or using his original as a template, I thihk. These documents were NOT written by witnesses or by people who knew Jesus personally.

10:20 AM  
Blogger kabloona said...

In response to Talmida’s comment:

I believe strongly in historical research, critical thinking, and the application of all fields of knowledge to the Bible. My concern about articles like this one is the negative impact it can have on people with weak faith or the inability to think critically.

As an aside, one must wonder, why does the pastor of a Christian church go to the effort of deconstructing one of the pillars of Christine belief? Shouldn’t she be trying to construct faith instead?

You may have heard of the late Joseph Cambell, professor and author on comparative religion and comparative mythology (and another fallen away Catholic intellectual). He is the author of a famous book called Hero with a Thousand Faces and a video tape series called The Power of Myth that was on PBS. When it comes to facts, Joseph Campbell seems to be an outstanding (and charismatic) historian. However, I disagree completely with his conclusions. In The Power of Myth, he talks about how so many elements of Christian belief, including the virgin birth, a God-man, a savior/hero, sacrifices, and others were present in hundreds of generations of the mythological stories of other religions and societies throughout all of history. Campbell’s conclusion is that therefore, Christianity is not authentic, that it is just the latest mutation of a long history of (false) myths.

However, I come to the opposite conclusion. Have you ever heard the expression grace builds on nature? God works through our human nature. (And what is human nature but our historical memory, the structure of our mind, cultural beliefs, and how we think and feel, etc.). It only makes sense that God would work through, and make himself manifest by using existing templates or forms of mythology that already exist in the historical and cultural memory of man. God manifested himself to us in the form of the Christian myth precisely so that we would more easily be able to understand and accept it as truth.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Talmida said...

I don't disagree with you, kabloona, I think your conclusion is very likely.

The thing about Campbell's conclusion is that it doesn't matter, IMO.

Religion is about FAITH. If you know the facts, if they are all proven, you don't need faith. If all the details of JEsus life and miracles are proven, where is the need for faith there? We would know. We would not require faith.

I really dislike feeling stupid and gullible. I WANT to know the facts, what really happened from a scientific and historical perspective. I have faith that the Truth revealed in Scripture can survive and flourish when confronted with factual evidence. If it can't, then it would not have survived as long as it has.

I appreciate your concern for those with weak faith or the inability to think critically, but is it better avoid the evidence?

Should you teach creationism, for example, because it might shake people's faith to learn about evolution?

I personally have never liked the whole fascination with Mary as a virgin. It's insulting to women and demeans our sexuality. I have had to grit my teeth and bear it all my life. But since reading more about the metaphor of virginity, I have come to embrace the idea of Mary as Virgin. It makes sense to me now, and is a powerful symbol.

It makes NO sense to many women as a fact. It is beautiful as a symbol.

Maybe the author feels that faith should be built on stronger bricks -- symbolic ones that are not so easily torn down?

Thanks for your reply - I keep meaning to read/watch Campbell and I never do. MAybe I'll get to it over the holiday.

Merry Christmas!

10:48 AM  
Blogger kabloona said...

I don't disagree with anything you say either.

I think the fascination with Mary's virginity is understandable in light of the fact that chastity has been the primary form of Christian ascetics from the time that the Roman persecutions ended, right up until modern times. Too many people look at these questions in isolation and not in their broader social-historical, let alone religious, context. Consider also, that at least to us Catholics, Mary was always upheld to us as the perfect disciple and Christian. Therefore her virginity, including the belief that she remained a virgin for her whole life, becomes of utmost important.

Emphasizing her virginity also highlights that Jesus was divinely conceived. I think this was necessary for most people to be able accept the divinity of Christ.

In general, I think the attitude of all Christians in the time of the late Roman Empire was anti-sex, that it was dirty, fallen, and less than holy. This is an unfortunate legacy of Christianity. Let us be glad for the modern understanding of sexuality and personhood, as well as a more enlightened (I hope!) attitude by men towards women. In my opinion, the church is only just starting to reconcile and adapt its theology and catechesis to a modern understanding of sexuality. And I can only hope that humankind's understanding of sexuality continues to increase. But also looking at it from another perspective, I think the church itself, in its views and understanding of personhood, has some very important contributions to make to the modern understanding of sexuality.

12:39 PM  
Blogger kabloona said...

For more discussion of the Breyer article on Slate, see:

In particular, read Caroline's comment on the entry.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous SteveR said...

Remember that all the virgin martyrs of Roman persecution days were probably not physically virgin at the time of their deaths. Romans thought it was bad luck to execute a virgin, so most were probably raped before being executed.

There were plenty of God-woman births in Greco-Roman mythology; some of the early Church fathers used some of these to try to explain how the early Christians thought about Jesus.

For me, whether Mary was a virgin or not doesn't make a bit of difference, although if she were not, it would explain 2 things better to me. Right after Jesus exorcizes a demon, his family pulls him away, fearing He's beside Himself, maybe losing control. I doubt that would have happened if Jesus's birth had been special. The other is that if Jesus's birth were that much miraculous, I would suspect His humanity. And Jesus's humanity is very important to me, since that is the way that I must approach Him.

12:50 PM  

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