The Virgin Birth is Sexist

The Virgin Birth is Sexist August 8, 2016

Mary 2

Not only is what the virgin birth implies about female sexuality disturbing, but it strips Mary both of all agency and of any identity other than the “Mother of the Lord.”  Re-read the first two chapters of Luke (Matthew is strangely unconcerned with Mary’s point of view) and notice that even as Mary is showered with praise, she has no more agency than in Matthew’s version, which is told entirely from Joseph’s point of view and has Mary as basically nothing more than a MacGuffin to move the plot forward.

Gabriel tells her she will conceive the child by the Holy Spirit, then tells her what to name him.  She goes to Bethlehem only because Joseph must travel there to be registered for a census (a proposition that makes any real historian want to get blackout drunk).  Considering the deeply patriarchal world Luke was writing in, it’s astonishing that he even gives Mary as much characterization as “She [Mary] treasured all these this in her heart” (2:51).

This is all very sad, because if you ask me, Mary does deserve to be lauded and venerated.

The theologians, apologists, and clergy who have for centuries all but deified Mary while holding up her perpetual virginity and devout submissiveness as virtues are actually right, in my opinion, but for the wrong reasons.

See, I think Mary probably was someone that all women, and especially mothers, should look up to.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m a single parent (like Mary was), but the strength, wisdom, and courage it must’ve taken this dirt-poor Galilean woman to raise at least seven children (see Mark 6:3 parr. Matt. 13:55-56) in a po-dunk town like Nazareth all on her own is something I can only imagine.

But beyond that, she raised Jesus of Nazareth.  Despite the story about Mary and her other children seeking to restrain Jesus, and Jesus rebuking them (Mark 3:33), we know from later in the Gospels, as well as Acts, that Mary was active in the early Christian mission.  So whatever disagreement they might have had, by the time of the crucifixion, Mary was completely on board with the Kingdom of God, as were some of Jesus’s brothers (James the Just actually led the Jerusalem commune after his big brother’s death).

What I’m saying is, Mary not only raised seven (or more!) children all alone, she raised them to be woke.  She possibly got knocked up as a teenager and then was forced to marry and pop out more children until Joseph died, all in a world where women were barely a step above property.

And what do her children do?  One of them founds a radical religio-political revolutionary movement that evolves into the greatest religion the world has ever known, and the other invents communism.

I’m only half-joking, by the way.  This post isn’t about the possible communist overtones of the Kingdom movement, or the exact political nature of the Kingdom of God.

This is about Mary, a role model to millions of people all over the world but for all the wrong reasons.

How about instead of glorifying her for things that a bunch of men made up about her, we glorify her for being the badass single mother to a bunch of rebellious, activist children who changed the course of human history that she actually was?

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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.