Conventional manger scenes don’t show it, but besides the ox, the ass, the sheep, and the camels, there was another animal in the room at Christmas: an elephant. And the elephant in the room was the idea that Jesus’ mother was a virgin when He was born. A Yuletide blog that didn’t talk about the elephant wouldn’t be doing its job.
It is not quite the most controversial verse in the Bible, but Luke 1:35 comes close. Mary has just replied to the angel Gabriel’s statement that she will be the mother of the Messiah with a question of her own: “How shall this be,” she says in the words of the King James Version, “seeing I know not a man?”
Don’t worry about that, says the angel. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
In other words, Jesus would be born of a virgin, a woman who had not, in the biblical sense, known a man.
I only say this is not the most controversial verse in the Bible because the Virgin Birth of Jesus is one of the points on which most Muslims and Christians agree. In verse 21 of Sura 19 in the Koran, the angel tells Mary that although she has not known a man (verse 18) yet God will give her a child. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that 31 percent of the world’s population is Christian and 24 percent is Muslim, so there are an awful lot of people who believe this—although of course not all Christians nor all Muslims accept the idea that their respective scriptures are literally true. Still, since both Christianity and Islam are strongest in developing countries where more literal views of scripture are widely accepted, close to one half of the world’s population probably believes that the mother of Jesus was a virgin at the time of she gave birth. There aren’t many more propositions that are more widely believed than this; more people believe that Jesus was born of a virgin than believe that free markets work, that life arose through a process of biological evolution, or that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
Even if both the Koran and the New Testament agree on this point, they emphatically disagree on the theological meaning of Mary’s virginity. The specifically Christian idea of the Virgin Birth is one of the most controversial and confusing theological concepts around. But it is central to the Christmas story, and there is no way of getting around it. So, what does this concept mean, and why do Christians care that it’s true?
Judging by the responses of some of my students to these ideas, the first point to clear up is this: the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are not the same thing. The Virgin Birth is the idea that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born and that Jesus had no earthly father. The Immaculate Conception is the idea that by a special blessing from God Mary herself was born without original sin. Until the past three more skeptical centuries, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth had been accepted by virtually all Christian churches and theologians going back to biblical times; the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, widely discussed and debated for many centuries, was officially proclaimed to be a doctrine of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Other major denominations do not accept this idea as official doctrine, although the Eastern Orthodox, Copts, other Eastern churches, and some Anglicans hold the Virgin Mary in such high regard that the difference is more theoretical than practical.
Some argue that the idea of the Virgin Birth reflects a lack of scientific awareness in ancient times. That seems unlikely. Although the ancient Roman world was ignorant of many scientific truths, the basic facts of life were already well known, and the claim that an actual historical personage (as opposed to legendary heroes in days gone by) had been conceived without a human father met with exactly the skepticism such claims would receive today. From the earliest times, people have raised the obvious questions about the Virgin Birth. A claim that Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier Pantherus has been making the rounds since at least AD 180; it has recently been revived by the film director Paul Verhoeven.
I’m not holding my breath for a “scientific” resolution of this question; I am not sure in any case how you would check for God’s DNA in a paternity test even if you could find some of Jesus’ fingernail clippings or beard trimmings to take to the lab. People have to make their own decisions about what to believe based on the evidence that already exists. I would only observe that if you believe (as I do) that God made the universe and everything in it, and if you believe that He upholds the universe and cares passionately about the well-being of each individual person on earth, then to reject the Virgin Birth as a physical impossibility seems a little forced. Swallowing camels and choking on gnats, as Jesus might put it. But that’s me: this is exactly the kind of question that everyone needs to face on his or her own.
In any case, for convinced Christians and curious non-Christians alike the question at hand isn’t really can we prove that the Virgin Birth did or did not occur; the question is what does the doctrine mean to those who hold it. Why do Christians think this is an important idea?
Some theorize that the early Christians made up the story as a cover-up. It would be scandalous to have a love child as the prophet of your religion; early Christians tried to cover up the scandal by concocting a story about the Holy Spirit.
This seems weak. Inventing a story about a virgin birth in order to hush up a scandal about a sexual escapade seems a little far-fetched. Mary wasn’t an ancient movie star whose private life was the subject of widespread gossip in the tabloid press. She hadn’t posted any selfies of her pregnant, unmarried self on Facebook. Nazareth was a small town in the boondocks, and the world at large knew little and cared less about what went on there. Mary wasn’t a single mother raising her child alone; her betrothed married her in the usual way and accepted the child as his. The early church wasn’t facing a sea of rumors about Mary’s prenuptial behavior, and if it had been, there are more convincing ways of scotching rumors than proclaiming a miraculous virgin birth. Saying that she and Joseph had been secretly married a few months earlier than the official date of the wedding, accelerating the wedding, or claiming that the baby was premature would have been much easier approaches than claiming a unique divine miracle. If sweeping aside inconvenient facts about Jesus’ birth was the goal, the story about a virgin birth was the worst method ever. It’s like a student saying that her term paper is late is because she was swallowed by a whale for three days and couldn’t get wireless reception for her laptop from inside its belly.
No, the story wasn’t concocted to squelch ugly rumors. The story caused the ugly rumors to circulate in the first place. The early church’s insistence on proclaiming the unique nature of Jesus’ birth more or less forced skeptics to suspect Mary’s virtue. The church proclaimed a stark impossibility as undeniable fact, and that naturally led people to ask the questions they still ask today and to develop alternative explanations for something that they well understood was, absent divine intervention, a biological impossibility.
Some see the idea of the Virgin Birth as part of a wider Christian discomfort with human sexuality. Believing that the baby Jesus didn’t get started in the usual way, in this view, is the result of wanting to keep the holy separated from the sexual. Self-consciously “enlightened” people who find it comforting to suppose that other people are much stupider than in fact they are often find this view a comforting one. Those silly Christians and their absurd sexual hang-ups!
No doubt there are and always have been people whose attachment to the doctrine is rooted in feelings of anxiety or guilt about sexuality, but historically the idea of the Virgin Birth hasn’t been seen this way. In fact, the opposite is the case. The Virgin Birth doesn’t separate the holy realm of divine things from the “unworthy” world of flesh and blood human beings with their messy lives. The Virgin Birth proclaims the union of human flesh and the divine; God is breaking the barriers between God’s heavenly existence and the ordinary world.
So, if the idea of the Virgin Birth isn’t a uniquely lame attempt to cover up Mary’s indiscretions or the manifestation of a sick Christian attitude about sex, what is it trying to tell us? The Virgin Birth has always been connected with two other ideas: one about Jesus as being both God and man, and one about Mary as an individual and more broadly about the place of women in the world. The early Christians thought these points were so important that they ignored the snickers and wisecracks of their unbelieving neighbors to insist on something that non-Christians thought was absurd.
In the first place, they were making a statement about Jesus. By making the outrageous and inherently doubtful claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin, the Gospels are stressing that this particular baby was unique. He wasn’t like all the other babies; He had a special relationship with God from the start.
At various points during His life, Jesus would talk about this unique relationship, and later theologians would make it a centerpiece of their reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life and career. But the Gospels go out of their way from the beginning to make the assertion that Jesus was not just another baby in just another manger. Jesus isn’t important just because He had a special message, the Gospels are telling us. He is important because He is a special person.
The Gospels say nothing about what Jesus looked like; we don’t know anything at all about how tall he was, what color His hair and His eyes were, whether he looked more like James Dean or Chris Farley or, for that matter, like Brad Pitt, Yasser Arafat, or Malcolm X. But the Gospel writers do tell us, in the strongest, most expressive way possible, that while Jesus was a human baby with a human mom, he was also something more, something else.
One of the most common mistakes people make about the role of Jesus in Christianity is to think that, for Christians, the most important thing about Jesus is His role as a teacher. Moses was the lawgiver of the ancient Hebrews; Confucius taught the ancient Chinese how to live; the Buddha taught his disciples how to walk a path toward enlightenment; Muhammad through revelation and example showed his followers how to submit to God’s will. Non-Christians often think that Christians think of Jesus along similar lines: as the Great Teacher who pointed out the True Way.
For Christians, Jesus’ role as a teacher—significant and inspiring as His teachings may be—is the least important thing about Him. Not to denigrate an important vocation, but moral teachers are anything but rare. Humanity has many inspiring teachers and prophets. As a species, we have a talent for giving good advice, and at our best the advice that we give is very good indeed. Love your neighbor as yourself. Put God first. Duty before pleasure. Don’t use people as things. Judge by realities, not superficial appearances. Be generous and merciful to the weak and the poor. Act like a parent to orphans. Treat strangers well. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Honor your parents.
It is all extremely good advice, and we would all be much better off if we took it. And the way that Jesus restated many of these eternal truths was astonishing; He has a way of coming at an old truth from a new angle that challenges His hearers to rethink some important ideas. But, and I hate to break this to you, very often people ignore the good advice and sound counsel that is echoing in their ears. And when we do the wrong thing, it usually isn’t because we didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Not many murderers, adulterers, and thieves are acting in ignorance of simple moral truths. Very few people abuse their elderly parents and steal their money only because nobody ever took the time to explain to them that such behavior was wrong. Very few kleptocratic politicians and international narco-traffickers don’t know that their behavior is shameful. The Hollywood producer pushing the starlet onto the casting couch knows that this is reprehensible. Even the nine-year-old bully stealing the eight-year old’s lunch money knows that this is the wrong thing to do.
Those who see Jesus as a moral teacher or even a prophet believe Him to be one, perhaps the greatest, perhaps one of many, in the long line of teachers and counselors who have tried to show humanity the right path and encouraged us to walk on it.
But for the Gospel writers, Jesus was something much more than this. Saying that Jesus was a moral teacher is like calling Winston Churchill a landscape painter; both statements are true (and Jesus was a much better moralist than Churchill was a painter), but in neither case does the description capture the true greatness of the person.
The Gospel writers believed that Jesus came here on another mission. He didn’t come here to be one more cosmic wise man telling us the right thing to do. He was a man of action who came to change the world through His deeds. He came here to do something about the real problem our species faces: our failure to take up the good advice we so readily dish out. He came to deal with the gap that opens up between a God who demands moral excellence and a human race that is simply incapable of living right.
Perhaps I should insert a trigger warning here: I am about to say something shocking. Moral lectures are good things, but they have very little to do with what the world really needs. After all, the world’s libraries are full of books giving sage and profound moral advice. They are also full of histories that document our failure as a species to follow it.
Jesus didn’t come because humans had somehow missed the point of moral teaching and needed to be set right on a few points and given some inspirational coaching. He didn’t come to do TED talks. He came, the Gospel writers believed, because history revealed the failure of the “moral approach” to the problem of evil, and God decided that something more and something different needed to be done.
The declaration that Jesus was born of a virgin wasn’t intended to enshrine Jesus as the greatest in a succession of moral teachers; it was to set Jesus off from the other prophets and teachers of the moral law. Something bigger was afoot; something new had come into the world. Jesus didn’t come to teach morality; He came to transcend it.
The Christian claim about the Virgin Birth is meant as a radical announcement that Christianity is different. Christianity is not another “how-to” manual telling people how to act vis-à-vis the Creator. It’s not about what kinds of foods are holy and what kinds are impure. It’s not about how to wash your hands or which way you should face when you pray. Jesus did not fulfill His mission by giving the Sermon on the Mount; He fulfilled it by dying on the cross and by rising from the dead.
Jesus could not have fulfilled this mission if He was simply a heroic man. The human race has many heroes, and history is filled with examples of people who gave their lives for others. You can to go the Allied grave sites above the Normandy beaches and see row upon row of graves of people who gave their lives that others might live and be free. Jesus was not another great man; the Gospel writers and the Christians who accept their testimony believe that Jesus was also the Son of God. It was God who died upon that cross, God who took the responsibility for human sin, God who drank the cup of human suffering to the bottom.
The story of the Virgin Birth isn’t there to set up the Sermon on the Mount as the Greatest Moral Lecture in the History of Mankind. It is there because it communicates the deepest, most important truth about Jesus: He was a human being, but more than a human being as well. It is not an accidental detail or an embellishment; it is not an awkward defense against an embarrassing rumor. It is not the result of scientific ignorance about how babies are made; it is a statement about how this particular baby was different from all the rest.
That is the main theological point that Luke’s account makes. But He had another end in view, and this is also something to remember as we think Christmas through. The story of the Virgin Birth isn’t just a story about Jesus. The Gospels are also making a point about Mary and through her about women in general. Ancient Christian writers frequently referred to Mary as the Second Eve. The first Eve, as just about everyone knows even today, was Adam’s wife. According to the first book of the Bible (Genesis), she yielded to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden to disobey God and taste the forbidden fruit. Adam went on and tasted it for himself; ever since then men have been blaming women for all the trouble in the world. For millennia men have used the biblical story and similar stories and folk tales to justify the second-class status to which women have been historically relegated in much of the world. (In some parts of the world, poorly behaved and uneducated young men call their vicious harassment of women “Eve-teasing.”)
The figure of the Virgin Mary marks a turning point for the whole human race, but also for the role of women in the world. She is the Second Eve, the one who said “yes” to God when He asked her to be the mother of His son. When God really needed help, the Bible teaches, He went to a woman, not to a man. And the woman said “yes,” and out of her faith and obedience came the salvation of the world.
Seen from this angle, the biblical insistence on Mary’s virginity highlights her autonomy and underlines the vital role she played. If the Gospels portrayed Mary as the partner of a man in bringing this new baby into the world, the human father would displace her at the center of the story. How the young hero surmounted the obstacles to be chosen worthy to father Jesus and win Mary’s love would be at the center of the Christmas story.
But the Bible gives us something different. Mary was the decider. Mary was the independent individual whose choice opened the door for us all. At this critical moment in world history, she didn’t act with a man or through a man. She didn’t stand by her man; she wasn’t a “helpmeet.” Joseph is the helpmeet in the Gospel story; Joseph stands passively by and loyally supports Mary and her child.
The message is or ought to be clear. I will come back to the Virgin Mary later; she’s one of the great enigmas of the Christian religion for many contemporary Americans, and it’s hard for many of us to see just what she means or can mean to people today. But for now, on this the third day of Christmas, it’s enough to understand that when Christians say that Jesus was born of a virgin, they are making two points. Number one is that Jesus is the son of God, connected to the author of the universe in a unique and special way with a mission that is fundamentally different from that of all the prophets and teachers who came before. Number two is that the courageous choice of a strong and faithful woman opened the door to salvation for the whole human race. Jesus is unique, and women are free and equal in God’s sight. That is what we should take away from this story.
Christianity, like many world religions, has often been less than fair in its treatment of women. But at the heart of historical Christianity, there has always been the idea that Christmas is a feminist holiday, a feast that celebrates the choice of an autonomous woman. As Christianity has risen to become the largest and most widespread religion in the world, women are coming into their own. It cannot be otherwise.
God didn’t send Jesus into the world because He was satisfied with the status quo. God sent Him here because things needed to change—and right at the top of the list of the things God wanted to change was the position of women. The change didn’t happen overnight, and even today we haven’t seen the full consequences of giving half the world its rightful due; but from the day that Mary answered Gabriel, a new force has been at work in the world. The rise of women to new freedom and new dignity around the world, which is one of the primary developments of our time, is the blossoming of a tree that was planted a very long time ago.
Walter Russell Mead, a Providence contributing editor, is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of numerous books, including Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.