How Important Is Mary's Virginity?

The Annunciation by Pietro Cavallini (c. 1291)

As part of my work for SparkHouse, I’m writing short theological backgrounds for a product that we are developing.  One of them centers around the importance of the virginity of Mary to Christian belief.

The virgin conception of Jesus has been questioned since the beginning of the church.  As early as AD 177, the anti-Christian philosopher Celsus claimed that Jesus himself made up the story of the virgin conception to cover up his own illegitimacy.  Others, including more liberal biblical scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar, have noted that virgin conceptions are common in the birth narratives of pharaohs, emperors, and kings, which indeed they are.

So, here’s what I’ve written,

Miraculous births are an important part of the biblical narrative, most notably the birth of Isaac to the aged Sarah, and the birth of John (the Baptizer) to the aged Elizabeth.  This trajectory culminates with the birth of Jesus.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus, the conception being the result of impregnation by the Holy Spirit, and the church has held this as a core component of orthodoxy since.  (Some branches of the Christian church have added the beliefs that Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was born (Virgin Birth), that Mary remained a virgin her entire life (Perpetual Virginity), and that Mary herself was born without sin (Immaculate Conception), but none of these is mentioned in the Bible.)

In every miraculous birth in the Bible, and most significantly in the birth of Jesus, the theological point is that God’s Spirit has been involved in human affairs—actually in the biology of a woman—in order to precipitate the birth of a special, anointed, and holy person.  And the virginal conception of Jesus signals that his direct progenitor is God’s Spirit, and we have since worshipped him as the incarnation of Logos (i.e., the second person of the Trinity).

The question is, can one be an orthodox Christian and deny the virgin conception?  It is proclaimed as early as the Apostles’ Creed, thus it does seem to be a matter of orthodoxy.  But I know of many liberal Protestants and Catholics who reject Mary’s virginity and yet claim orthodoxy.

What you can see in my theological rationale above is that I do not consider Mary’s virginity to be important primarily to preserve the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness.  I unpacked this at length in a series on Original Sin that I wrote earlier in the year on Beliefnet (and I hope to import to this blog once they give me my posts back).  It was the early church’s belief that sin was passed biologically that informed the doctrine of Original Sin and ultimately led to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Suffice it to say, I think that God is capable of creating and maintaining Jesus and a sinless person without needing a lack of semen to do it.

So, for me, the virginity of Mary is not some forensic, mechanical doctrine that makes sinlessness possible, but is instead a testimony to the miraculous power of God’s Spirit and the anointing of Jesus that is confirmed at his baptism.

Your thoughts?

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  • Joe Hussung

    I agree that the immaculate conception and the perpetual virginity is not mentioned in scripture but in Matthew 1:25 it does mention Joseph not sleeping with her until after the birth. As far as orthodoxy of the virgin birth goes I would think that it is pretty straight forward in multiple Gospels that she was a virgin prior to having Christ and that the spirit was responsible for the impregnation. Regardless of your belief on whether original sin is passed down through the man’s semen, I think that we would all have to say that any rejection of a plane and straight forward teaching of scripture would be a departure of orthodoxy. And so I don’t think that you could be called wholly “orthodox” without the virgin birth.

  • James Gilmore

    I totally agree. Quite frankly, I find the whole theological concept of original sin a bit problematic… but aside from that, the notion that a virgin birth is somehow “purer” than a birth by normal means is part and parcel of this longstanding (and more Platonic or Gnostic than Hebrew) anti-sex tendency in the church. The notion that a virgin birth was required to bear a child without original sin goes right along with the idea that sex is a necessary evil to be feared and treated with great trepidation and self-loathing, rather than a positive good to be enjoyed, celebrated, and affirmed as one of the best things about being an embodied human being.

    I agree… it’s much better to look at it from the perspective of it being a sign from the Holy Spirit that “this guy is something special,” than it is some sort of biological/mechanical means by which a baby was born without original sin.

    Oh, and the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Utterly ridiculous. If that had been part of the deal, I doubt either Mary or Joseph would have gone along with it.

  • At the end of our church services, I attend a moderate Presbyterian church, we say the apostles creed. In it, one says I believe in the virgin birth. Well, now the bible doesn’t say I have to believe that in order to be right with God. So, I must be un-orthodox. I do however, believe that the Holy Spirit was involved in the conception. Or, we don’t have a legitimate faith much less birth. The birth of Jesus is a great story, but as the Jews say in Midrash type teachings, it’s just a way to explain to us, how get from here to there. And the validity of a KING. Which back in the day had to be validated. God will read my heart not wheter I am orthodox enough to be accepted. I still bypass the virgin birth for resurrection.

  • Besides the issue of original sin (no pun intended) there is also the question of paternity. Perhaps “a virgin will conceive” is more about emphasizing the divinity of the Child than about sin. I also agree that the perpetual virginity of Mary is a ridiculous doctrine – and misogynistic as well. It keeps that horrific dualism in play – that a woman is either a virgin or a whore, and there’s no middle ground (married women count for little I guess, but then, they were just property). The immaculate conception of Mary is also a doctrine that is disturbing. To say that Mary herself was brought forth from a virgin birth is to say that God enters the world through extra “clean” and special people. Mary (and her mother) somehow had to be more special than anyone else. This proclaims the opposite of the Good News of the gospel which teaches that God comes to us, into us, just as we are, in all of our humanness and brokenness. It distorts the Story.
    I have no problem with anyone “venerating” Mary. I think she is a type for the Church (“be it done to me as you have said” is a good posture for us) and I love that God moved through the feminine to bring about the incarnation. But to make her “extra special” builds barriers between us and the miracle of God’s in-breaking into this world.

  • I don’t see how the virgin birth of Jesus could be important when considering the larger purpose of Christ on earth. What does the virgin birth have to do with loving God or caring for your neighbors (the poor, the sick, the oppressed). I know this is a ‘liberal’ theology but I can only speak from my own position. Furthermore, I don’t know how we can ignore the notion that ‘virgin birth’ is very much a Hellenistic idea and not at all Jewish, doesn’t the idea of God working out salvation through the illegitimate child of a poor family seem more in tune with the rest of the Bible than some miraculous virgin birth? I can’t help but wonder how much of the virgin birth story is Hellenistic re-imagining of the story.

  • Dan

    Orthodoxy is primarily concerned with the question of who God is. The creeds don’t get into much about ecclesiology or soteriology, they are about theology and Christology.

    The virgin birth is an “essential” primarily because it is related to Christ as “fully God and fully man”. Scripture clearly testifies that Christ is involved in the creation of the universe, that he is pre-existent, that he has power to forgive sins, all attributes of God. Yet it also clearly states that he took on flesh, was tempted as we are and suffered, bled and died, all human attributes.

    He could not be the redeemer were he not a ‘kinsman’ who was human, nor could he atoning sacrifice unless he was without sin, so the relationship of the virgin birth to sinlessness is also important.

    Bottom line, don’t take my word for it. The overwhelming consensus of the history of the church is that the virgin birth is essential, thought the later “Marian” dogmas are understandably disputed.

  • Tony,

    I’m glad to see that you uphold the Virgin Birth, not so much because it represents orthodox and historical Christianity, but because it’s Biblical!

    Our faith rides on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Years before, I had experienced such intense self-loathing and shame that these feelings initially made the words of Scripture seem like straw huts in a typhoon. It was only the growth in confidence that Scripture truly was God’s Word that enabled me to receive what it said – He forgave my sins and cleansed me from all the filth (1 John 1:9) – to silence my malaise.

  • The virgin birth has always been taught to me as an essential to the Christian faith. I even hear people relat it to salvation as saying if you dont hold the belief that jesus was born of a virgin then you are not truly “saved”. As Tony said, this belief does have a lot to do if not everything to do with the belief that the “sin nature” is passed down from generation to generation through conception.
    as for it being “biblical” and all… I dont think this is an issue of Biblical Authority. It is possible that Matthew is “borrowing” the word “virgin” from Isaiah, which could mean several different things including… “maid, young women, at marriagable age, or newly married”. So I think it is very possible to hold the belief that marry wasnt a virgin and not question the authority of the Bible, but rather look more into the context of which it was written.
    All that said, I do tend to believe that Jesus was born of a Virgin, however, if I found out tomorrow that he for sure was Joseph’s Biological son, i still believe he could live a sinless life and make all things new.

  • Andrew

    How about this:
    it was prophesied that Jesus would be born by a virgin hundreds of years prior. It was written in the gospels in a way that the reasonable reader would have considered it to be historical and literal rather than allegorical. Which parts of the gospel which would be reasonably also read as history should we now consider to be allegorical, and on what basis do we make that judgement?

  • Dan Hauge

    I believe it’s pretty important–for the reasons that you give, Tony. Whether or not you *have* to believe it to be orthodox . . . well, isn’t part of the post-modern understanding of theology and culture the idea that orthodoxy is in the eye of the beholder? If enough people who identify as Christians say that their particular set of beliefs is orthodox, who is anyone else to tell them they’re wrong? In post-modern theology does it even make sense to talk about “orthodoxy”? (I’m being sort of cynical and sort of serious, not really sure which is stronger at the moment . . . )

  • John

    Orthodoxy = 60 votes

  • Dan Hauge

    Ha! Seriously. Especially since Christian internet filibuster makes Senate filibuster look like a cake walk.

  • “So, for me, the virginity of Mary is not some forensic, mechanical doctrine that makes sinlessness possible, but is instead a testimony to the miraculous power of God’s Spirit and the anointing of Jesus that is confirmed at his baptism.”

    Exactly. This reminds me of that story Phyllis Tickle likes to tell of a child telling her — after having been questioned by “progressives” about the historicity of such an event after a talk — that the virgin birth was too beautiful to not be true.

    For me, getting caught up in these arguments about historicity is just one more way of hugely missing the point. Great post.

  • You know, the thing that bothers me most about many of these responses is the way that people limit God by saying things like, “Jesus had to … because it was the only way …” I just can’t help but feel like that is somehow offensive and belittling to God. Does anything have to happen for God’s will to be done on Earth? I say no, God does what God wants to do…and God uses people how God wants to use people to accomplish God’s goals. Weather walking on the Earth with us sinners in the form of a sinless king born from a blessed virgin or as the illegitimate son of a poor young girl, it seems like God could decide to save the world however God wanted to. What really concerns me is how many people seem to hinge their faith on some detail of ‘historicity’ as many call it. If we found some definitive, concrete evidence that Jesus was indeed from a non-virgin Mary would that really unravel God’s plan of salvation for you?

  • Courtney

    Interesting that so many men “need” the virgin birth.

    Thank you, Ellen, for your wise words.

  • John Dao

    Everything I wanted to say has been said really. I will elaborate on where in the Old Testament the prophecy occurs: Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

    Much of the Gospel account of Jesus has the words “In fulfillment of”, as the Jews would need a context to understand who Jesus was and why He is the Messiah they have been looking for. I have no clue about whether or not it also served to purpose of removing original sin from Jesus, so I will not speak of it and will assume it irrelevant to know if it wasn’t important enough to be revealed to us through Scripture.

    I don’t think original sin is passed through birth either, but rather through generations of socialization. We learn the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of our parent, all the way back to Adam and Eve.

  • John

    If I found out tomorrow that Adam and Eve were actually the first people on our planet and Noah really did build an ark large enough to house many of the inhabitants on earth whom he floated around with for a few months and that Jonah really did spend 3 days living inside an actual fish and Jesus really was born of a virgin teenager, my Christian faith would not change one bit. Why would it?

  • Tony, I tend to take “orthodoxy” in a more simplistic manner. It is the beliefs articulated in the ecumenical creeds. If orthodoxy is the classic creeds, and one could add the solas if one is Protestant, then that Mary was a virgin when she conceived is part of orthodoxy. I don’t think orthodoxy can be changed — it’s the stuff of history.

    And I’m kind of a stickler that we learn to distinguish virgin “birth” (that Mary delivered Jesus with hymen in tact; 2d century idea) and virginal “conception” (became pregnant apart from intercourse). Protestants have believed the later but rarely the former.

  • The problem with Isaiah 7:14 is that the Greek and English translations do a poor job. Though the Hebrew word can refer to a woman who is a virgin (Gen 24:43), it does not carry this meaning inherently. The word is simply the feminine form of the corresponding masculine noun “young man” (1 Sam.17:56; 20:22).

    The Septuagint (Greek translation) was around before Christ and would have been the translation used by the Hellenize Jews. So you could say that the virgin giving birth would have been a fulfillment of Isaiah for those who used this interpretation, but is not a fulfillment of the original Hebrew.

    So it makes me wonder if this was the reason that the two writers who give the virgin birth a role in the New Testament do so. The real issue is: can our faith survive if we allow in the idea that the bible may not be literal as it applies to the virgin birth. I have heard the idea that the opening of the gospel accounts are like the overture and need not be read literally.

    The other thing that concerns me, is that if belief in the virgin birth is critical to our faith as some would suggest, why is it not mentioned by any other writer? Also, if the virgin birth is history, why wouldn’t all the writers mention it?

    So the virgin birth, in my opinion, has less to do with my faith in Jesus and more to do with my faith in a particular view of the scriptures.

  • Scott,

    What do you say to the Orthodox church that say that they are the only ones that hold to the beliefs articulated in the ecumenical creeds? That all other Churches have drifted away into heretical territory according to those ecumenical creeds?

  • neil


    good thoughts. i too think is wise not to add to the scriptures… that is, affirm what it says about the virgin birth, yet not insert any particula systematic reason why it must be so.

    one point of clarification: you say god “is capable of creating and maintaining Jesus…”

    god creating jesus would be arianism – is that what you meant to say? i know this is parsing you words tightly, just curious.

    thanks – neil

  • neil


    i feel i need to clarify the previous question since it is and almost embarrassing question. when i read the post i in no way thought you were advocating arianism, it appears clear to me you are referencing jesus’ physical body. yet, in a petty argument it was said you were advocating arinaism (the accusation being made by someone who did not bother to ask you) – so i thought i’d ask.

  • I think the virgin birth is an important part of the story of Jesus. It promotes Jesus to a higher level of importance on par with the grand Greek stories that have similar elements (supernatural birth, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of Zeus/God,).

    To answer your central question, Tony, I do think you can be a Christian and not assume a literal physical virgin birth. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you can be Christian and not even think Jesus existed as a historical figure that walked the earth. I’m agnostic about his historical existence, but I’m completely sold on the Jesus character and the themes of this wonderful sacred myth about a better way to live and a new vision for a transformed world.

    I firmly believe in these myths, and this belief has nothing to do with trying to claim the stories literally happened.

  • neil

    if it did not happen, then what is there to believe in?

  • Neil,

    We believe in the story. Christian faith means that we live out the ideals encapsulated in these mythical stories about community, forgiveness, sacrifice, non-violent protest, peace, and grace.

    I don’t think our “belief” has anything to do with making an intellectual assertion or claim about some event as either fact or fiction. I think the Christian faith is an allegiance to a way of living and a hope in this new vision that these myths point us toward. Only a modern mind would reduce these wonderful stories to mere facts about historical events. Only a modern mind would assume “myth” is a derogatory word or that the point of a myth is to tell us what actually happened. A living myth tells us what continues to happen again and again. These sacred stories are more than facts, they are truths about something bigger. Repeating a fact is not a belief.

    Who truly believes the story, the person who claims it as a historical fact yet ignores its truths, or the person who embraces the myth and lives in a way that manifests the truths found in the story?

  • “Who truly believes the story, the person who claims it as a historical fact yet ignores its truths, or the person who embraces the myth and lives in a way that manifests the truths found in the story?”

    Great point, Mike L.

  • Mike L. (and others who believe that it’s enough to regard the Bible as a collection of wise myths),

    You wrote, “These sacred stories are more than facts, they are truths about something bigger.”

    They are certainly more than facts, but they derive their normativity from the fact that they’re ALSO facts. Jesus clearly regarded the ancient Biblical accounts as historical and founded His teachings upon their historicity. For instance, when He taught against divorce, He based it upon the historical fact that God had molded Adam and Eve together as “one.” (Matthew 19:4-6). Because marriage is a sacred union historically consecrated by God, we have no right to undo it.

    Additionally, if Jesus’ dying on the Cross is a myth, then we are still in our sins, according to the NT (1 Cor. 15:12-19). While myths can be powerfully illuminating, they carry no authority or hope in themselves. Jesus’ parables derive their power from the fact that they draw upon solid historically verifiable truths that had already been uniformly accepted by the people.

    In fact, the Cross and the Virgin Birth might be beautiful stories, but if Jesus didn’t die for my sins to reconcile me with Himself, then all of the beautiful stories of the Bible are no more than entertaining distractions, which offer me no more than a palliative for the howling anger, dread or self-righteousness that have taken us captive.

  • I’m kind of new to your stuff, but I must say that I am refreshed by it. Bottom line: I love how you do not approach the question of the virgin birth with a simple ‘Yes it’s true’ or ‘No, it’s not.’ It’s just not that simple. Thanks for wrestling with the idea. Thanks for pointing out other areas of potential fallacy (the idea that sin nature comes from sperm). Wouldn’t it just as likely come from an egg? After all, it was Eve who seduced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. I’ve heard people accuse you of denying the virgin birth, but apparently they have not read your own opinion on the matter.

    P.S. I just watched your YouTube 3-part interview with “PastorBoy”. Wow, I could pick that thing apart, but I will only say this: I love how you ended it. You said the very same thing I ask myself almost everyday: Is my life based on a hoax? And I choose daily to step out in faith, believing in things that cannot be scientifically proven as fact. Because I believe it is simply a better way to live.

  • neil

    Who truly believes the story, the person who claims it as a historical fact yet ignores its truths, or the person who embraces the myth and lives in a way that manifests the truths found in the story?

    this is a false dichotomy.

    that said, i agree with the dangers associated with reducing the story to a set of historical facts. i think it equally dangerous to deny said historical facts all-together.

    if it did not happen, if christ never lived-died-lived, then nothing changes except how may behave here and now. granted, this is important, and modernism over-emphasized the whole heaven in eternity thing at the expense of the now. yet, crossing over from death to life because of christ’s atonement is a significant part of the whole story.

  • Daniel,

    You said: “Jesus’ parables derive their power from the fact that they draw upon solid historically verifiable truths that had already been uniformly accepted by the people”

    Do you understand that you just connected the term “parable” with the concept of solid historical verification? Are you suggesting that the Prodigal son actually existed as a historical figure and you have the proof?

    I can understand Tony’s reluctance to look objectively at the stories that have been a part of his(our) own faith tradition. The Evangelical view has been the dominate for most of the last century in America. For many of us, that’s literally all we knew. We are often too close to the story to look at it critically. I can understand Tony’s reasons for trying to make claims or assertions about elements in the Gospel narrative to be more historical than the evidence suggests. However, I think you’ve taken it long way from any rational conversation. I hope I’ve misread your comments.

    On a side note (which you started)…What evidence do you have that Adam and Eve were married? Is that scene even “in the story”? I’ve read the story, and it looks to me like they were living in extra-marital sin all along 😉

  • Neil,

    You said: “yet, crossing over from death to life because of christ’s atonement is a significant part of the whole story”

    I agree. That is a central scene in the story. Now, how do we live out that story in reality? How can we manifest resurrection, forgiveness, atonement, and restoration in our lives, the lives of others, in our communities, and in the sick disparaged systems of injustice around the world?

    Let’s move the story into history! I believe we can. I believe this story about a world where the central elements of our sacred myth become incarnate in the world. I reject the idea of a pagan god “up there” who needs to be appeased with vengeance and sacrifice. I embrace the incarnation of these values into the world. That’s a whole lot of stuff that is “there to believe” in the absence of certainty about virgin births or bodily resurrections.

  • neil


    everything you advocate sounds great… is great! it is how we should live. but it is also based on nothing if jesus never lived-died-lived. now, if you do not mind a faith based on nothing – fine… but then we are still dead in our sins.

    if jesus did not live-die-live than our faith is in vain because it has no basis in reality and no relevance to eternity.

    again, i agree with all the her and now aspects – arguing that is not the point.

  • Mike L.

    I’m sorry that I wasn’t more clear about how the parables derive their power from historically established truths. I can understand your confusion.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that the Prodigal Son was an historical person. Instead, the forgiveness of God, on which this parable derives its force and meaning, has historically been etched into the consciousness of Israel in so many different ways – the lives of the Patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, the sacrificial system, Israel’s experience in the desert, etc. Jesus built upon this common historically-based understanding to elucidate the radical nature of God’s forgiveness regarding the Prodigal. He also graphically illuminated the fate of those who reject this Gospel-message through the “good” son who refused to enter into the celebration.

    It would be interesting to see how this parable would play in a culture that lacked this radical understanding of forgiveness. I must admit though that even in such cultures, there might be a responsiveness to this parable. This is because the same truths that our Lord teaches through history, He also plants in our heart. Consequently, we respond to stories about seemingly defeated heroes who miraculously return to save their beloved but desperate friends.

    However, if this stirring truth ONLY exists in our subjective minds and hearts as an ungrounded yearning, it only succeeds in making us schizoid.

  • Amy

    Tony, you wrote
    “And the virginal conception of Jesus signals that his direct progenitor is God’s Spirit”

    Yet it’s very important to Luke and Matthew that Jesus have the appropriate heritage as the “son of David” which is established through Joseph’s lineage (and by being born in Bethlehem). So I’m not sure Mary’s virginity can be only about establishing “fatherhood.”

    I think the question is in order for the mystery of Christ’s two-natures to be accomplished, must the birth be miraculous? Obviously neither the writers of John or Mark thought so, because they didn’t bother to tell us anything about it.

    Also is a virginal conception somehow more miraculous than a barren old woman (Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth) giving birth? (obviously not an option for the story of the young Mary) Not sure the Bible shows how Jesus’ birth is so much more exceptional that other times God got involved in reproduction.

  • Daniel,

    Can you look more closely at your statement…

    You said: “Jesus built upon this common historically-based understanding to elucidate the radical nature of God’s forgiveness regarding the Prodigal. He also graphically illuminated the fate of those who reject this Gospel-message through the “good” son who refused to enter into the celebration.”

    Aren’t we at some point of agreement? Isn’t this the same thing I said (i.e. “It’s a myth/story/allegory/parable”). This is what one means with language like “graphically illuminated” and “historical-based” (i.e. admitting it is of non-historical and non-factual). Homer’s “The illiad” was “historically based” since he used historical places and historically verifiable cultural references. Most myths do contain some historically verifiable references, but those references do not make the story historical. It would be dishonest to then apply more weight to those references than the evidence actually justifies, and to then apply the label “history” to the entire scope of the story.

    More irony..
    Your last statement is even more ironic and illustrates my point perfectly…

    “However, if this stirring truth ONLY exists in our subjective minds and hearts as an ungrounded yearning, it only succeeds in making us schizoid.”

    Do you see the irony in bringing up schizophrenia while you are trying to build a case for the historically verifiable proof of parables and sacred myths?

    Having a concept ONLY exist in our mind is not a ground for schizophrenia. In fact, that is a very normal human experience of poetry, art, story, etc. A normal response by an adult is to manage the interplay between symbolism and the physical world. Healthy children develop this ability fairly early in the development of their brains. However, schizophrenia happens to a person when they project those mental conceptualizations (like myths, dreams, etc) into reality and lack the ability to emotionally manage the relationships between the two. I’d say your statement is very ironic indeed.

    I agree with you that these concepts must not be left to the arena of symbolic reference (art, poety, story). The stories are there to enable the manifestation (incarnation, making real) of the concepts highlighted by our sacred myths (forgiveness, mercy, justice, non-violent protest of imperialism, etc). If we don’t make that move from symbol to real, it is all a loss. That is precisely what I’ve suggested is the point of the Christian experience. To be Christian is to participate in the incarnation of our communal value system (i.e. our God/Spirit/Logos) into the world. At the same time we collectively reject the imperial value system of Caesar or in NT terminology “the World” (i.e. other Gods/Spirits/Truths).

    Can you agree this is a space for agreement and cooperation between liberals and conservatives? Can’t we agree on closing the gap between the vision of forgiveness and justice presented in our shared sacred stories and the injustice that we find around us in the present reality?

  • Mike L.

    I really appreciate your gentle and peaceful spirit which comes across as you wrote, “Can you agree this is a space for agreement and cooperation between liberals and conservatives? Can’t we agree on closing the gap between the vision of forgiveness and justice presented in our shared sacred stories and the injustice that we find around us in the present reality?”

    Although it’s clear that we do share a number of common values, there are also some profound differences. When I wrote about the God’s historical forgiveness of Israel, which forms the foundation of the parable of the “Prodigal Son,” I was suggesting that its historicity depended upon more than simply “historical places and historically verifiable cultural references.” I need to know that our God actually and HISTORICALLY forgave Abraham and Isaac for pimping off their wives; that He actually forgave Jacob for all his conniving. I need to know that Jesus actually and HISTORICALLY died for my sins, because I need to know that He forgives me of my sins. I need to know that our Lord will not let me down, and I receive solid assurances of this based upon what He has said and also what He has accomplished historically.

    I need to know that He loves me and will never leave me. I’m often moved to tears at the movies, but no matter how artfully the movie was crafted, the experience was no more than a passing flutter if I’m not convinced of its reality.

    A friend had seen a particular sci-fi movie (ET) about aliens who came and rescued their marooned fellow-alien. She was so profoundly moved –it was reflective of her own longings – that she saw ET repeatedly. She had invested much in ET. It was more than just an experience. It spoke to her in such an intimate way that it became her hope, the substance of her dreams and also a flight from reality. Indeed, the spaceship would never come for her.

    This is what I mean by “schizoid.” Myths and movies are not bad if we use them properly. But once we make them into something they are not – reality – we enter into unhealthy mental terrain. It is not enough for Scripture to touch my heart. It must be the historical truth, and I need to be reassured of its truth if it is going to support the weight of this needy life. My fretful mind needs to be convinced that Jesus will actually come for me!

  • Daniel,

    You said: “This is what I mean by ‘schizoid.’ Myths and movies are not bad if we use them properly. But once we make them into something they are not – reality – we enter into unhealthy mental terrain.”

    I completely agree with that statement. However, I’m having trouble getting past the irony that you said it. Can you meditate on that and get back to me 😉

    I do think you’ve done a good job articulating the most common modern reaction to ancient stories like the virgin birth. In my opinion, there are 2 common reactions. Both fundamentalists and atheists make this same mistake. They are 2 sides of the same modern coin (that’s a metaphor in case you didn’t notice). If I understand you correctly, you’ve made the claim that art, story, poetry, metaphorical language, is only of the highest value if we can have certainty of its factual nature through a system of measurements, and if we can prove its characters and events are historically accurate. To me, that view represents the absence of faith or possibly even the opposite of faith.

    If I can work with your example of a movie, we can look at both reactions to modernity. One person, let’s call him Mr. Fundamentalist, leaves the theater and assumes Steven Spielberg was using his movie to prove the existence of aliens. They might even try to locate the characters later that night or call 911 to report a sighting in the theater. Another person, let’s call him Mr. Atheist, stands up at the end of the movie and screams at the top of his lungs, “BULL HOCKEY! That never happened!” In my view, both people made the same mistake, but they simply responded differently. The mistake was not the response, it was in misunderstanding the concept of storytelling. I’m suggesting another view the transcends both responses. This view embraces the story as a story and looks for ways to make its deeper meanings real, not ways to prove (or disprove) its events were already real. The reality of a story is what we do with the story after we hear it.

    It seems to me that you are the one who saw the “movie” and is now confusing it with reality. We can make this story real when we live it, not by trying to argue that its scenes and characters were historical.

    You frequently repeat the phrase “I need to know…I need to know…”. In fact, it almost seems like “knowing” is the whole ball of wax for you. Why is that? Would you consider yourself a gnostic?

  • Mike L.

    You wrote, “I’m having trouble getting past the irony that you said it. Can you meditate on that and get back to me ;)”

    Please help me to see what you are referring to as “irony” and I’d be glad to respond.

  • Annie

    Ellen, The immaculate conception does not mean that Mary was conceived by a virgin birth. The doctrine is that she was conceived without the stain of sin.

    I also think you’re creating a false dilemma with the virgin/whore idea. She is both virgin and mother–the latter being something associated with sex. Sure, the doctrine holds that she didn’t have sex–in fact never had sex. At the same time, the doctrine also sanctifies the physical process (birth) and the status that results (motherhood) that result when women are sexually active, which according to traditional Christian teaching should take place inside marriage and without birth control. Thus a woman is either a virgin who doesn’t engage in sex or a mother, which is to say a woman who engages in licit sexual activity–i.e. within marriage and without birth control. She is either a virgin, like Mary, or a mother, like Mary. Mary is not the unmarried childless virgin. She is a married woman with a child who is also a virgin. She is all things, not one thing.

    To say that married women are mere property and all other non-virgins are whores is a gross reduction of the actual facts. Whether or not married women are somehow undervalued in traditional Christianity is an open question but honestly, I don’t think it has anything to do with Mary.

    Now, there is an issue when you figure in women who are sexually active and do not have children, either because they cannot conceive or they have chosen not to conceive. Of course, the latter situation would be regarded as immoral by some traditionally minded Christians.

  • Andrew

    Laying my cards on the table: I’m a protestant (5 point calvinist to be specific), and don’t buy into the perpetual virginity of Mary. Whether the persons described as His brothers were cousins or brothers can be debated.

    Matthew 1:25 (re Joseph). and did not know her UNTIL she had brought forward her first-born son. And he called His name Jesus.

    I think the word until is the key. It clearly infers that after she had brought forward her first born son, he knew her. If he had never known her, this would have been where it would have been expressed.

    What point of doctrine is established in Mary’s perpetual virginity? Where is the perpetual virginity outlined in scripture, or prophesied as required? My impression (having gone through schooling at a Catholic school) is that Mary’s perpetual virginity is a construct of catholic tradition rather than out of clear scripture.

  • PC

    Just so I’m clear, do most people commenting on this blog believe the Scriptures actually mean what they say? Or are we completely dismissing what the Bible says about the issue. I mean if you don’t believe it means what it says in Matthew I just want to be clear about it. Much of this sounds like what people think might have happened or how we are supposed to re-interpret what the Scriptures say about those things we think couldn’t possibly have happened. Curious.

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  • JoanieD

    I just wanted to reinforce what Scot McKnight says in #19.

    Some of you are referring to the Virgin Birth when what you really mean is the Virginal Conception of Jesus by Mary. If you say you believed in the Virgin Birth, you are saying that you think that Jesus was born in a way that left Mary’s hymen intact when Jesus came out of her body. I think many of us (including those of us who are Catholic) believe that Jesus came out of Mary’s womb in the normal way a woman gives birth (unless she has a C-section). But to have an orthodox belief within Christianity, we would believe that Jesus was conceived without the help of a male human being, but was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit of God upon Mary. I know this can be a real sticking point for people. It is easier for many of us to believe in the resurrection of Jesus than it is to believe that Jesus was conceived with no sperm. I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ DNA would be like, as all humans have so much chromosomes contributed by the female and so much from the male. We say that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so I have sometimes wondered if we can say he was fully human if his DNA was…different. But I have decided that if God can make all we see out of nothing, I guess he would whip up the needed chromosomes too. I can’t say I understand this, though, and sometimes I have wondered if it was really necessary to even believe it. But, somehow, I have chosen to believe it anyway, if “chosen” is the correct word.

  • Franco

    Frist, scripture tells us we all fall short of the glory of God. Scriptues also tell us we need Christ to make up for our short comings with God because it is not possable for us to do it on our own.

    Second, scripture tells us Christ was the very fullness of the glory of God. God chose Him as first born over all creation.

    Third, and most important. No where in scriptures dose it say that our salvation is predicated on whether we belive in the virginiaty of Mary. However Christ himself said that a man must be born again of “the spirt” in order to enter the kingdom of heavn. Wwhat I find interesting is that Christ is speaking of the exact same “sprit” that scripture tells us concived the Christ child in Mary?

    It is under the acknowlagement that this is the exact same “spirt” that I find myself (or anyone else) not qualified to dismiss the power of the spirt in either the virgin birth or in our own second birth by the same spirt. For only by this act of the spirt do we become real brothers and sisters of Christ. Is not our second birth Christ speaks of not a virgian bith just like His? Yes it is!

  • One of the best commentators on the ‘virgin birth’ was Sojourner Truth. When she confronted ‘the men’ who were denying the vote to women… and even the women didn’t want to include Sojourner and people of color… she spoke her famous mantra: AIN’T I A WOMAN? And she went on to say to ‘the men’ . . . something like: “You talk about your Jesus as coming from God… but just remember, that was all between God and Mary and NO MAN had anything to do with it!”

  • And it submitted before I wanted to add…

    What that ‘radical metaphor’ of a virgin birth story might tell us is that with God’s transcending power… ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE! And that might even lead us to recognize the possibilities of confronting the ‘imperialisms’ of our time just as Mary and her son did….

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