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.