Few beliefs in the Christian tradition are as controversial as that of the virgin birth. The doctrine is derived from the “nativity narratives” in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which recount that the young Jewish maiden Mary conceives Jesus not through human agency but through the Holy Spirit. The teaching appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and even these two accounts have some divergent details. But both evangelists – and consequently official church teaching – agree on this divine miracle of Jesus’ birth.
It’s a right peculiar doctrine, with a long and complex history in the church, and it provokes a range of responses among contemporary believers. On the one hand, the virgin birth is deemed a “fundamental” of Christian faith (as defined in the early twentieth century manifestos of “fundamentalism”) – on par with the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, and the saving nature of the cross. At the other end of the belief spectrum, those in the flock who are more inclined toward a modern worldview have little problem discarding the teaching as obviously untenable and at best a marginal notion in our biblical stories. For many of us in the middle, the doctrine is a little odd, confusing, perhaps even embarrassing.
I take the gospels very seriously, and I don’t trust an arrogant enlightened intellectualism that dismisses anything which doesn’t fit into our rational model of the way the world works. So simply rejecting the stories of the virgin birth is not, for me, an option. I am not so much concerned with solving the historicity or factuality of this part of the Jesus story, or debating whether the evangelists were weaving fictions to validate prophetic fulfillment; nor do I worry about historians’ accusations that the early church developed the doctrine to compete with other religions (like Mithraism) that already had virgin birth mythologies. But I am deeply troubled by the role the doctrine of the virgin birth has played in church history and in the church’s witness to society at large. And I am increasingly convinced that we have inherited a distorted interpretive lens on what the evangelists are trying to say through these narratives.
First, there is the matter of the deleterious consequences of this doctrine: The church’s promulgation of the virgin birth as an essential plank of orthodox faith became one of the toxic roots of centuries of very damaging teachings about human sexuality, particularly toward women. As the institutional church gained social sanction from imperial Rome, its character increasingly aped the power dynamics of the dominant culture – including a regression from the revolutionary egalitarianism of the early Jesus movement to a reinvigorated male patriarchy with its subordination of women. As ecclesiastical leadership increasingly enmeshed itself in worldly systems of power, Christian theology evolved toward a more abstract, other-worldly, highly spiritualized character, blunting the social and political dimensions of the prophetic tradition and the gospels—all of which was very self-serving for an increasingly corrupted and domesticated church.
A greater emphasis on the spiritual meant a diminishing of the flesh. Greek philosophical paradigms, which tended toward an almost dualistic tension between the ideal and real, the spiritual and material, became the predominant framework for interpreting the biblical tradition. Which made the human body itself suspect. Then, along came Augustine in the fourth century, who, in working through some of his own neuroses around his youthful sexual naughtiness, began to explicitly link human sexuality with sinfulness—suggesting that original sin was literally passed on through the sex act, and stressing that sins of the flesh are among the most grievous possible.
Not surprisingly, by this time, the notion of the virgin birth had been highly elevated in church tradition, including the Christian midrash that, despite numerous New Testament references to Jesus’ siblings, Mary was a “perpetual virgin.” The staid and statuesque (and decidedly nonsensual) figure of the holy Virgin Mother garnered a cult of worship (mediated, one might sardonically suggest, by cross-dressing males!). With the eventual elevation of the celibate male priest as the paragon of faith, the pernicious formula would take root in Christendom: Virginity equals holiness; sex equals sin. That formula would, over centuries, claim no small share of casualties.
Illustrative of this corruption was the historical mangling of the story of Mary Magdalene. Gospel references plus ancient tradition make it clear that she was an important leader in the early church, no less than an apostle. But a 591 sermon by Pope Gregory the Great portrayed her as a prostitute, by conflating the Lukan text of the woman who anointed Jesus (7:36-50) with the reference to the seven demons being cast out of her (8:2) – his “logical” conclusion being that she engaged in sins of the flesh. Hence the traditional depictions of her in Western art, with her trademark fiery loose red hair, whose dignity can only be restored when she grovels at the feet of the superior (asexual) man. (The 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” is a harrowing depiction of the Irish Magdalene Asylums, where “fallen women” were sent to do life-long penitence for their assumed sexual promiscuity.)
From that distortion, blended with the Marian tradition, is birthed the dichotomous paradigm of women as either virgins or whores, saints or sexual sinners, with little in-between—and surely no possibility that they could be church leaders. (Meanwhile, in our contemporary political culture, Rush Limbaugh’s recent outburst accusing Susan Fluke of being a “slut” is cut from the same misogynist cloth.)
Growing up Catholic, I personally experienced and witnessed a plentitude of psychologically damaging guilt and shame around sexuality. When human sexuality is suffocated by religious teachings on sin, it inevitably breeds neurosis and harmful behaviors. It is not a stretch to say the current pedophile scandal involving Catholic priests is part of this same legacy. (Though I don’t want to suggest the Catholic tradition has cornered the market on sexual dysfunction or misogyny – examples abound in almost all the church traditions.)
I am hardly blaming the gospel stories of Jesus’ miraculous conception for millennia of abuses and corruption. Rather, the texts played a complex role in the emergence of a toxic theological moralism around human sexuality—both contributing to that culture and being themselves hermeneutically distorted and hijacked at the service of a patriarchal institution.
Clearly it’s tempting to want to simply jettison the entire virgin birth nonsense. While it is an important task for Christians of conscience to deconstruct this dismal legacy and the role these gospel texts have played, I want to suggest a very different approach: Maybe the primary “point” of the miracle of Jesus’ birth is not the matter of its non-sexuality but what it might be saying about the nature of the faith community and its source of meaning and security.
It’s worth taking a fresh look at the texts themselves—especially Matthew’s account, which predates Luke, so is presumably the first literary version of the tradition. After recounting the scandal of her premature pregnancy, Joseph’s compassionate effort to resolve it, and the angelic appearance to him to explain the matter (not named Gabriel, by the way—that is only in Luke), Matthew then resorts to a standard formula that punctuates his opening chapter, a prophetic interpretation: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (1:23-24).
The citation is Isaiah 7:14. And translation is an important matter in this verse. Matthew’s Greek uses the word “παρθένος” (parthenos, virgin). He is quoting the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, which, owing to the predominance of Greco-Roman culture, was the standard version of that era. However, the original Hebrew text of the same verse has “עלמה” (almah), which means something like the English “maiden,” a young, unmarried or perhaps newly wed woman. Isaiah specifically does not use the Hebrew word “בתולה” (bethulah), which has the specific focused meaning of “virgin,” just as the word does in English—someone who has not had sexual intercourse. No Jewish English translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word “virgin.” Consequently, no Jewish commentator, rabbi, or ordinary reader would assume Isaiah is referring to anything like a miraculous virgin birth.
The point is not to suggest that Matthew has made a linguistic error or an illegitimate interpretive reach. But I do think the ambiguity forces us to ask the question: What did Isaiah mean in that text? And here is an important lesson in biblical literacy: When the Gospels cite the Hebrew Bible, which they do countless times directly or indirectly, it is not simply recalling a single text (which is usually just a sentence), it is evoking a broader passage or story or tradition. For instance, Jesus’ riposte to the devil in the first of the desert temptations (“People do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” Matt. 4:4 and Luke 4:4) is part of a broader passage in Deuteronomy 8 recounting the manna story—which is critical to understanding the nature of that temptation and what it prefigures in terms of Jesus’ ministry. Or Jesus’ controversial statement to the disciples, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7), has a dramatically different meaning than the usual interpretation when we understand that the immediate citation of Deuteronomy 15:11a in fact evokes the broader economic stipulations of care for the poor in the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy.
So the obvious (but frequently neglected) task for the reader of Matthew is to go back to Isaiah 7—not just the immediate verse but the full oracle in its historical context.
Isaiah preached in the later eighth century. This oracle is addressed to King Ahaz of the southern nation of Judah, likely around 734 BCE. Ahaz (whom 2 Kings roundly condemns as one of the most wicked kings of Judah) faces a serious political crisis. The superpower nation Assyria has been wreaking havoc in the region and forcing many nations into vassalage, including Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. Their two kings, Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel, are plotting a revolt against Assyria and are pressuring Ahaz to join their coalition. He has refused, and they are now embarking on a full-fledged invasion to force Judah’s compliance. (The story is told in 2 Kings 16, complementing the Isaian texts.)
Ahaz’s Machiavellian geopolitical instincts are to respond by in fact going to Assyria and offering to make Judah a vassal. Isaiah, acting as a kind of theological secretary of state, urges Ahaz to do what the ancient covenant insisted: hold fast to Yahweh, who is Israel’s true and only security. As part of that assertion, this “sign” is given. (At first Ahaz refused God’s urging to “ask for a sign,” perhaps fearful what he might hear—or because he has already made his foreign policy decision, which is the Assyrian connection. But God gives the sign anyhow.) The sign is the young woman who is pregnant, and is giving birth to a son. “And she will call his name ‘God is with us’” (7:14). A key element of this child is that he will choose between the good and the evil. Most commentaries suggest that the prophecy, in its context, is simply referring to the next Davidic prince, who, unlike the wicked Ahaz, would be faithful to Yahweh and would deliver Judah from its enemies; it might even be a specific reference to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, who was deemed by 2 Kings to be one of Judah’s most righteous kings.
But whatever specific historical details are involved, the Isaian declaration of “Immanuel” (Hebrew for “God with us”) has a broader theme that touches on one of the central tensions within the entire Hebrew Bible narrative: As the people of Israel make their way in the world, where is their security to be found? In whom do they trust? As they adopt the worldly model of kingship, in contrast to their early covenantal tribalism, do they likewise reject their covenantal God Yahweh and adopt worldly forms of security—“What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 31:1). “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God (Psalm 20:7).
So, to return to the Matthew text: I suggest that the Immanuel prophecy is not simply (or solely) to illuminate the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, but also to evoke a fundamental challenge from the Israelite tradition about the need for God’s people not to adopt worldly forms of security, but rather put their trust in God alone. It is certainly relevant that the subsequent episode after Jesus’ birth is the horror story of King Herod’s maniacal paranoia that results in the “slaughter of the innocents—a story which cannot be historically corroborated, but which rings true, given the well documented nature of the half-Jewish, publicly loathed Roman puppet ruler. In this gospel account, Herod plays the same role as Ahaz: an Israelite monarch who is drunk on worldly power and paranoically intent on maintaining it, immerses himself in geopolitical Realpolitik, trashes the Torah and sacred tradition—far from a righteous shepherd of the people rooted in Immanuel. As the prophets repeatedly warned the Israelite people and their rulers, if you choose to adopt the ways of the world, the results will be far from biblical shalom—as the grieving mothers like Rachel will agonizingly attest (Matt. 1:17-18, citing Jeremiah 31:15).
As I say, I can’t speak to the historicity of either of the New Testament nativity stories. But I am certain that their function in both Matthew and Luke is to foreshadow critical themes of the person, the ministry, and the life of Jesus that will be unveiled in the respective gospels. In Matthew, I would argue, this theme creates a context for Jesus’ ministry and proclamation: The discipleship community is to hear anew the prophetic call to faithfulness and resist the ways of the world. Its radically different path will be charted by the Sermon on the Mount—the way of humble servanthood, radical nonviolence and reconciliation, economic freedom through trust in God’s providence not in the world’s materialism. Be whole, as God is whole (Matt. 5:48)—which is only possible because of Immanuel, God with us.
Tragically, the institutional church, in its Constantinian bargain, make the same option that King Ahaz and later Herod did—not trusting Immanuel, but instead conforming to the ways of the world: hierarchy, power, wealth, ultimately blessing worldly violence and injustice. And it conveniently truncated the Isaian prophecy in Matthew 1 to a matter of asexual mystery.
I agree that the “virgin birth” accounts have as one of their functions to stress the unique divine origin of Jesus. But I also believe, particularly with Matthew, that Jesus is calling his people, as did the prophets before him, to a radical trust in God. And I yearn for Jesus’ followers to hear this prophetic challenge: What would it mean for the church’s witness and work in society if we rooted ourselves in Immanuel,
The implications of this trust in God are profound for the church. A Christian community firmly rooted in Immanuel would resist the Constantinian bargain of social legitimacy in exchange for allegiance and acceptance of worldly systems of power. A people whose character is formed by Immanuel would see through the false ideologies of security provided by violence and domination. A church that understood the sign of the child who could discern good and evil would have its eyes wide open to the terror and oppression that plagues so many of God’s children, and would respond with loving, nonviolent, sacrificial compassion. Christians who grasped the true miracle of Jesus’ origins would not accept a “foreign policy” rooted in Realpolitik, but would witness to and work for justice, peace, and true liberation for all God’s precious children.
Two millennia since Matthew wrote his story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, power-hungry Herods are still massacring the innocent. Millions of Rachels are still weeping, refusing to be comforted. We have far more to offer such a world than an instruction manual for proper use of genitals. We have Good News of God with us, and a power that comes from such Good News. I deeply hope and pray we grasp that Good News and offer it to this hurting world.