Everyone is familiar with the story of the “virgin birth”, but what is not so familiar is the fact that only in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew is the virgin birth postulated. Neither Mark nor John makes any mention of it at all, nor is it referenced in the rest of the New Testament. In addition, apart from its mention at the start of Luke and Matthew, Jesus’ virgin birth plays no part in his subsequent life. It is never mentioned by anyone, even though one can imagine that it would have enhanced his image and added support to the theory that he was a Messiah. Indeed, the story of the virgin birth appears as an isolated entry in both Gospels, important unto itself, but then neglected and forgotten.
There are several issues related to Mary. Was Jesus’ birth a “virgin” birth? Or is it his conception that is virginal? Was Mary a “perpetual” virgin? Let’s look at all these issues.
The so-called “virgin birth” is best described as a “virginal conception”, for It’s the conception that supposedly occurs without sexual contact, not the actual birth . In any event, virgin conceptions or births are not common today, but in ancient times, especially among the famous, they were not unknown. Famous children born of a virgin include: Buddha (China), Krishna (India), Zoroaster (Persia), Adonis (Babylon), and Mithra (Syria). Among the Greeks it was even more common. For example, Alexander the Great was believed to have been conceived from a celestial thunderbolt, or to have been the result of a union between Philip’s wife Olympias and the God Jupiter who took the form of a serpent. Perseus, the Greek hero who decapitated Medusa, was born of a virgin named Danae, by the God Zeus who came to her in a golden shower . Even Plato was said to be born of the union of a virgin (Amphictione) and a God (Apollo), and only after his birth did Ariston, Amphictione’s husband, have sex with her. More relevant to Jesus’ time, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were born of a Vestal Virgin whose father was the God of War, Mars. The Roman emperor Octavian was born from the union of his mother, Atia, and the God Apollo. The Egyptian goddess Isis gave birth to Horus despite the fact that her husband, Osiris had his phallus cut off by his brother Seth. Thus, virgin conceptions were quite popular at the time, although this was only in “pagan” worlds, not in the Jewish world.
The choice to give Jesus a “virgin birth” like many of the rich and famous of his time appears to be more of a marketing ploy than a historical fact. Not only did it serve the purpose of competing with contemporaneous cults, but also the virgin birth was another in the line of prophesies (e.g., born in Bethlehem, descended from David) which Jesus was said to fulfill. In this case, the prophecy was from Isaiah (7:14) – “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.” Unfortunately there was a mis-translation here (as in so many other places) and the original Hebrew word almah ( young girl or young woman) had been mistakenly translated into the Greek parthenos (virgin) , so that the original prophesy did not, in fact, call for a virgin to conceive, but simply for a young woman to conceive . Moreover, Isaiah was talking about an Eighth Century B.C. sign that would appear to King Ahaz during his reign. Thus, the prophecy was not only the result of an error in translation, it was also 800 years too late.
Even if the translation were correct, which it wasn’t, the use of the word “virgin” within the context of Essene marriages had a different meaning than it does today. In those days, the elite of the Essene who were allowed to procreate (this included descendants of the King David and the High Priest Zadok) went through an elaborate procedure to insure that they kept to strict purity laws even while fulfilling their marital obligations. Gardner (2001) describes it as follows:
“Three months after a betrothal ceremony, a ‘First’ Marriage’ was formalized to begin in the espousal month of September. Physical relations were allowed after that, but only in the first half of December. This was to ensure that any resultant Messianic birth occurred in the Atonement month of September. If the bride did not conceive, intimate relations were suspended until the next December , and so on. Once a probationary wife had conceived, a ‘Second Marriage’ was performed to legalize the wedlock. However, the bride was still regarded as an almah (young woman) until the completion of the Second Marriage which, as qualified by Flavius Josephus, was never celebrated until she was three months pregnant.” (pp. 30-31)
The exact quote from Josephus (Wars 2), on which Gardner (and Theiring) base their assessment is:
"Moreover, there is another order of Essenes, who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; nay, rather, that if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would fail. However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not many out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity."
In the event that a woman became pregnant before the first marriage, it was said that “a Virgin had conceived”, meant as a play on words since the young woman was still legally (if not biologically) a virgin. This early pregnancy may account for the rumors, reflected in The Gospel of the Hebrews, that Jesus was in Mary’s womb for only seven months. In other words, instead of being born in September as would be expected (9 months after impregnation in December), Jesus was born around July, meaning that Joseph and Mary had sex in October, when she was technically a virgin .
Joseph was an elite member of the Essene and Mary, chosen as his wife, was similarly highly esteemed and had been the equivalent of a nun within the Essene circles . These women were referred to as “virgins” in much the same way as the Greeks and Romans referred to “vestal virgins”. Thus, for Mary to conceive during this engagement period would mean that, Mary, a virgin (aka a nun) had conceived which she was still a virgin (aka during the engagement period). There was nothing supernatural about this at all. But there was a danger that the future husband could avoid the marriage, and the child, as a result, would be considered illegitimate. For a future king of the New Israel, the status as an illegitimate child could be problematic, hence the advice to Joseph from a senior member of the Essene (hence an “angel” which along with “saint” was a synonym) to go through with the first marriage as if it were the second marriage (the second marriage being one in which the woman was already pregnant) . Years later, after Jesus’ death, the ascension of Jacob (aka James), Jesus’ brother and the unquestionably legitimate son of Joseph and Mary, was unchallenged.
The fact that the “virgin” birth as described above was not supernatural at all explains why there is no mention of Jesus’ birth throughout the Gospels (except the start of Luke and Matthew). Had it been supernatural or divine, the story would have followed Jesus around and been repeated. The fact that we don’t find it in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament confirms that we are not dealing with anything out of the ordinary.
As indicated earlier, only Matthew and Luke postulated a virgin conception. The Gospel of John has the disciple Philip say that Jesus is the “son of Joseph” (1:45). Paul, describing Jesus’ birth, says that “God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4), using the word gune (woman) rather than parthenos (virgin). In Romans, Paul specifically states that Jesus came “from the seed of David, according to the flesh.” (1:3) Surely Paul, the Christian master of marketing, writing before even Mark, would have promoted Jesus’ virgin birth if it had been the case.
Jesus’ natural conception is not only supported by the Gospel of John and Paul’s letters, but also the works of Cerinthus (c 100 A.D.) and Marcion (c 160 A.D.). In addition, Jesus’ natural conception is a basic tenet of the Ebionites (“poor ones”), who were the Jerusalem based Jewish sect that emerged following Jesus’ death. James the Just, Jesus’ brother, was the head of this sect until his death, and leadership was then passed on to his brothers and then nephews. If anyone should know the true story of Jesus’ conception and birth, it would be these people. Though little survives of their texts, since they valued the oral tradition over the written one, we have extensive quotations from early Christian leaders (Irenaeus of Lyon, Eusebius of Caesarea) who complained about the Ebionites failure to believe in the virgin birth:
“Their interpretation is false, who dare to explain the Scripture thus: Behold a girl (instead of a virgin) shall conceive and bear a son. This is how the Ebionites say that Jesus is Joseph’s natural son. In saying this they destroy God’s tremendous plan for salvation…” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III 21.1)
“Those who belong to the heresy of the Ebionites affirm that Christ was born of Joseph and Mary and suppose him to be a mere man.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, XI, 17)
Thus, the sect that was founded by and led by Jesus and his family specifically argued against the virgin conception.
There is another problem with the idea of a virginal conception, and this problem occupied tens of thousands of hours of debate among Christian theologians, even to this date. If the Messiah was to be of the line of David – and Joseph was said to be of David’s line – but if Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, ipso facto, Jesus would not be of the line of David, and hence, not a true Messiah. Proponents of the orthodox view claim that by marrying Mary, Joseph “adopted” Jesus and thus the child was entitled, by law, to be considered Joseph’s son. While this is true in the strict sense, It’s obvious that for the purposes of the Old Testament, the kinship was meant to be biological, not legal.
A final problem with the idea of the virgin birth/conception is that following the birth, as described in Luke (2:22), Mary undergoes the ritual purification ceremony. Had Jesus’ birth been virginal, there would be no need for Mary to be purified. Indeed, as the virgin bride of God, the thought of purification would be anathema.
In summary, the original idea of the “virgin birth” came from a mistranslation of an Old Testament prophecy, and all the supporting evidence (e.g., Mary’s ritual purification following the birth, Jesus’ descent from David through Joseph, the testimony of the Ebionites, etc.) point to a normal birth. Lest the extremely orthodox take offence at this conclusion, we can note the following comment by Pope Benedict XVI:
“According to the faith of the Church, the Sonship of Jesus does not rest on the fact that Jesus had no human father: the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage…” (1969, 274-275)