The Virgin Birth is Sexist

The Virgin Birth is Sexist August 8, 2016

Mary

No, I’m not just trying to offend conservative Christians as much as possible in a single headline (but that is a bonus); I genuinely believe this.

One of the most fundamental Christian beliefs is that of the virgin birth; that is, that Jesus Christ was conceived by a virgin woman named Mary due to the miraculous power of God.  The first actual written mention of this belief is probably the Gospel of Matthew (or, theoretically, the Q document that both Matthew and Luke may have relied on, if such a document exists*).

The virgin birth is so familiar to (and taken for granted by) Christians that most of them do not understand how dubious the actual historical evidence for the tradition is, nor how foreign such an idea is to Judaism (Jesus and all the earliest Christians were Jews operating within a Jewish movement).

Matthew and Luke are not merely the earliest sources for the virginal conception; they are the only sources in the entire New Testament.  Whether or not this constitutes a plurality of independent attestation is debatable**, but in any case it is suspicious that a fact about Jesus so striking and significant was of no interest to either Paul or Mark.

Casting further doubt upon the historicity of the tradition is Matthew’s embarrassing use of Isaiah 7:14 to bolster his claim; Matthew probably knew the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) which translated the Hebrew word alma (a young woman) in the verse in question with the Greek parthenos, which sometimes means “virgin” but also sometimes means the same as alma, a young woman of marriageable age.  As NT scholar John Meier, who is Catholic and has no reason to deny the historicity of the virgin birth (indeed, he doesn’t) puts it:  “We have no clear evidence that the famous passage of Isa 7:14…was ever taken to refer to a virginal conception before NT authors used it (Meier, A Marginal Jew Vol. 1 p. 221).”

Okay, so we have good reason to doubt that Mary actually conceived Jesus as a virgin.  What’s that have to do with sexism?

Well, whether intended by the Evangelists or not, Mary has become so venerated among Christians and even Muslims that she has entered popular consciousness as the “ideal woman,” as the gold standard of purity and righteousness.

Take the Catholic Church’s teachings about her Immaculate Conception; they hold that Mary is the only person ever to have been born without ‘original sin,’ a ghastly idea invented by St. Augustine hundreds of years after Jesus was born.  That literally makes her the (only) perfect woman.

Catholics, as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church, take it even further, insisting not only that Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin, but that she remained a virgin throughout her entire life.  The fact that the gospels mention Jesus as having brothers and sisters (and Paul mentions Jesus’s brother James) has led them to engage in sad attempts to explain these contradictions away, such as saying that the children were Joseph’s from a previous marriage (literally no evidence to support that whatsoever) or that they were really cousins (which involves them actually changing the definitions of words).

Protestants are less concerned with Mary, but Martin Luther himself got in on the action, writing that Mary “is full of grace” and “without sin” and “devoid of all evil.”

If you can’t see why the idea of the “perfect woman” being a perpetual virgin is crazily misogynistic, there really is no helping you.

Continued on next page…

~~~

*If the virgin birth originates with Q, which is a dubious, although not impossible, supposition, then the tradition would have to have been general enough for both Matthew and Luke to have expounded upon in their own ways; something as stupidly simple as “Jesus’s mother Mary conceived of Jesus, although she had not known man.”

**To count the virgin birth among doubly-attested traditions, one needs to accept 1.) that Matthew and Luke are independent of each other; 2.) that the tradition does not come from Q, which leads to; 3.) Matthew and Luke had access to the same tradition (whether oral or written) not found in Mark or Q.  All this is of course theoretically possible, but strikes me as highly unlikely.

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  • Frank

    I see no correlation between the miracle of Jesus’ birth and any proclamation that Mary is a role model for Christian women because of her virginity.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Well, Frank, I’m just gonna go out on a limb and say that you belong to a Protestant church.

      And no, as I mentioned, it might not have been what the gospel writers intended, but it’s certainly implied and also certainly made explicit in the teachings of several denominations.

      • Frank

        It’s not implied in the text. That’s not to say that humans don’t try.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Also, I wrote that it’s about more than just her virginity; it’s also about her passive acceptance of what the men in her life tell her in these stories, which I take as non-historical.

      • Frank

        When God tells you something you should listen no? Plus there is a cultural element involved that’s not prescriptive.

        It’s always problematic when we try and compare specific historical people who had very specific roles and purposes to the general population. Whether it’s Jesus or Mary or Paul or Moses, etc….

        • Christian Chiakulas

          That’s one of the most reasonable comments I’ve seen from you yet, Frank! 🙂

          • Frank

            🙂

  • scott stone

    I’d say adherence to the notion of perpetual virginity would be sexist but disagree that the virgin birth is sexist. By the way, your comment about it being a bonus if you offend conservative Christians is sophomoric. Makes you look rather small and petulant.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      The villainy you teach me, I will execute.

      • scott stone

        Well then you have someone to blame.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I’m with you on the dodgy “perpetual virginity” notion as being sexist, but what I was taught years ago was that the virgin birth was not about having had sex being bad but the opposite: the idea is to emphasise miraculous fecundity, with Mary blessed with a child before even knowing a man, and on parallel her cousin Elizabeth bearing a child (John the Baptist) when thought too old to do so.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Well the story of Elizabeth (which is a creation of Luke, by the way) is a pretty obvious allusion to Sarah in Genesis, but I take your point. Still, I don’t really see how “miraculous fecundity” is supposed to be the actual POINT of the story; if anything it’s there as subtext in Luke but never really explored or fleshed out.

      • lollardheretic

        Even if it IS the actual point of the story, it is qualifying ultimate femininity in the ability to be an incubator for another (male) person. What’s the ultimate thing a woman can be? A mother. What’s the thing a woman is most valued for? Being able to reproduce. So, what’s left for women who won’t or can’t? They aren’t “real” women. They don’t understand “womanhood” because they haven’t bonded with a child. They just don’t get “real” love b/c they haven’t breastfed. Yes, I have heard all of these. Most often they are in connection to women who decide not to have kids. Sometimes, though, they get dumped on adoptive moms or moms who don’t breastfeed, too.

        In short, the virgin birth–and the cult of the virgin that followed–is sexist b/c it doesn’t see her as a person, but as a vessel. (To be fair, it is also dehumanizing, but that is wrapped up in her gender).

        There are also lots of pairings of Eve with Mary–and thus you get the two women: one that screws up the world, one that fixes the world. This is often turned into a slut/virgin pairing, too. (Though it doesn’t have to be. Sin came in with a woman, and out with one, too)

  • pagansister

    Thanks for a totally different view of Mary. I enjoyed reading it. I happen to agree with you that she was a unique woman, who raised 7 kids! As to the virgin birth thing, I feel that it is a large myth to push the “faith”. It would have been physically impossible to get pregnant without the participation of Joseph (or some other male) in those days. No IVF etc. then—and that still needs both genders.

  • wakingdreaming

    The Greek word used for brother is also used for cousin, so you’re not redefining words by using it for either one.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      Wrong. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament for “brother” can also mean “cousin.”

      But the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The word is “adelphos” which just means brother.

      In the Septuagint “adelphos” sometimes means cousin, but only when it translates an ambiguous Hebrew word.

      Quoth John Meier (who, again, is Catholic): “It is simply not true that adelphos is used regularly in the Greek OT to mean cousin, and the equivalence cannot be taken for granted…Actually, the whole analogy between the Greek OT and the NT documents with regard to the use of adelphos for “cousin” is questionable because these two collections of writings are so different in origin.”

      Consider Paul, who was fluent in Greek and wrote in Greek. He refers to James the Just with the word adelphos. If he’d meant cousin, he would’ve written anepsios (which does appear in Colossians).

  • wakingdreaming

    Mary’s supposed sinlessness, according to the Catholic Church, has nothing to do with her virginity. The Catholic Church made up the Immaculate Conception to solve a problem they themselves created. Since Augustine made up the idea of Original Sin and the Catholic Church adopted it as truth, the church had to figure out how Mary could be “worthy enough” to give birth to Jesus. Their solution was to invent this idea that Mary somehow was without sin. The Bible does not support any of these ideas.

    Mary’s virginity follows in the tradition of many Biblical figures who are entirely dedicated to God and who give up various “worldly pleasures” in order to be focused on God. Mary doesn’t lack agency in the scriptures. She CHOOSES to be the Mother of Jesus. At the Annunciation, this is what is recorded: ‘I am the Lord’s slave,’ said Mary. ‘May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel left her.”

    Had Mary not been willing to go through with this plan, God would have had to find someone else to be Jesus’ mother. The agency is ENTIRELY hers.

    You might want to consider reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Christmas for some excellent explanations of the significance of the virginal conception and birth of Christ. Much of the story is intended specifically as a counter-narrative to what the empire taught about Caesar. Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the virgin birth, the story was never intended by its writers to sex-shame women. It was intended to point Jesus out as the unique and God-appointed alternative to the problem of empire.

    • Christian Chiakulas

      I have read that book, actually. It’s worth noting that Borg and Crossan both reject the historicity of the virgin birth.

      And I specifically said in the article that whatever the intentions of the original authors were, the story has been USED to sex-shame women.

  • Fallulah

    Wait…how was Mary a single parent??? Where did Joseph go???

  • Kathy Ruth

    Mary was NOT a single mom! She had a husband AND a father to the rest of her kids!
    All we really know is that Joseph died before Jesus began his ministry but we don’t know WHEN! (In fact, I would think it was VERY close, or even shortly after the time Jesus’ ministry began as he would have been expected to care for his mother otherwise, as the first-born son.

  • schellekensr

    “Okay, so we have good reason to doubt that Mary actually conceived Jesus as a virgin. What’s that have to do with sexism?”
    We? We who?
    I have no doubt about it. Seems others who commented have no doubt about it. O, I have plenty of doubts about the Catholic doctrines built around Mary, but that’s a different matter.
    What amazes me is how easily you toss out the virgin birth – but accept without ANY critical thinking the mention of his brothers and sisters. BTW, I do accept his brothers and sisters as being “real,” rather than step-siblings.
    If all Jesus did was establishing a rebellious movement, you might as well toss the Bible out the window. It’s not what the story is about, it’s not what Jesus was all about. Would love to see some of your sources for that, by the way…

  • Without Malice

    The virgin birth is nonsense. Even if the egg of a virgin could somehow spontaneously begin to divide without help from the father’s sperm, any child born from such a “miracle” would be nothing but a clone of its mother since only the mother’s DNA was involved. Neither the writer of Mark’s gospel (whoever he may have been, nor the writer of John’s gospel, nor Paul, nor the forger who wrote half of Paul’s letters, nor the forgers who wrote the epistles of James, or John, or Jude, or Peter know anything about a virgin birth. Stories of virgins women giving birth to god/man hybrids were common in that time period and the story of the virgin birth of Jesus is just one more added to the pile.