Christmas Advent, I’ve read and heard quite a few allusions to the virgin birth lately. Most use Mary and the fact that she got pregnant before marriage as a metaphor for the plight of people on the margins of society and talk about what a stand-up guy Joseph was to show how we should deal with these folks. But, while it’s a great teaching tool, things most likely didn’t occur that way.
Wait a damn minute, I can hear you exclaim. The Bible says that’s the way it happened and every word in the Bible is true. Sure, it’s true; but, it’s may not be historically accurate. Now, you’re probably wondering how can something be true, but not historically accurate. It can be because the Bible is a collection of stories about God and, as any decent storyteller knows, a good story doesn’t have to be accurate to be true. By extension, the birth narratives are stories about who Jesus was and they don’t have to be historically correct to show that. Besides, saying that he was just some kid born to redneck parents in cultural backwater like Nazareth would not convey the magnitude of who he truly was. So, the authors indulged in a little artistic license.
Why do I think this is the case? First of all, the whole story of the virgin birth is not exclusive to Jesus. Heck, it’s not even exclusive to Christianity, but that’s beside the point. Both Matthew and Luke say Jesus was born of a virgin because of something Isaiah said. In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz is in a bind when Isaiah promises him that God will destroy his enemies and as sign a son will be born to a young woman and that all this will occur before the young man comes of age. By tying Jesus to this passage, the authors of Matthew and Luke are attempting to portray Jesus as the deliver of humankind, the Messiah. The virgin bit comes from a slight misunderstanding. In some versions of the Bible, the word almah (rendered here as “young woman”) is translated as “virgin”. A more accurate translation of the word is “young woman of the age of puberty” or “girl of marriageable age”. Now, if you can’t give me any better reason to believe in the virgin birth than the Bible says so, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Because it really doesn’t say that.
The truth is, I don’t really care whether Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. In fact, I believe if you’re hung up on the virgin birth, you’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not, what matters is that Jesus was born at all. Because his birth meant that God loved creation enough to enter a broken world and show us a new way to live. Jesus would still be the Christ if his mother had been the biggest prostitute in all Palestine.
Look, if believing that Mary was a virgin helps you do the things that are important, like feed the hungry and house the homeless, great. But, it’s not required.