Where the virgins are soft as the
roses they twine,
And all, save the spirit of man, is divine?
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824),
The Bride of Abydos
Virgin Birth is mentioned in New Testament passages, but there
are grounds for regarding these mentions as unreliable additions,
a fact well known to all theologians, but not generally passed
on to the faithful. Different Christian denominations have different
understandings of Mary's virginity. Orthodox Churches refer
to her as aeiparthenos (ever-virgin). Roman Catholics
and some others state specifically that she remained virgo
intacta throughout her life, even during the birth of Jesus*.
Others believe that she remained a virgin throughout her life
in the sense that she never engaged in sexual intercourse with
a man. Almost all accept that she was a virgin at the time of
Jesus" conception. For clarity we will look separately
at the claims to virginity after, during, and before the birth
We pick out a text here and there to make it serve our turn;
whereas if we take it all together, and consider what went
before and what followed after, we should find it meant no
John Selden (1584-1654), Table Talk, "Bible Scripture"
The claim that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus
is difficult to sustain. For one thing the gospels strongly
imply that sexual intercourse took place between Mary and Joseph.
The author of Matthew, for example, says "then Joseph ...
took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought
forth her firstborn son ..." (Matthew 1:24-25). Earlier
in his account, the same author refers to a time "before
they came together ..." (Matthew 1:18). (In modern translations
the euphemisms knew and came together are
sometimes replaced by other euphemisms such as came to live
together , having union, or by explicit references
More damaging still are the numerous references throughout
the New Testament to Jesus" brothers and sisters. One of
his brothers is called James*,
explicitly identified as the brother of Jesus in Galatians 1:19.
Jude (or Juda or Judas) is referred to as James's brother
in Jude 1:1. Both James and Jude, and others named Joses and
Simon along with unspecified sisters, are mentioned in the Matthew
gospel. Jesus" brothers are also mentioned in Matthew 12:46,
Mark 3:31, John 2:12, Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 9:5. Elsewhere
the historian Josephus mentions Jesus" brothers*.
Again, in the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews Jesus specifically
addresses James (James the Righteous) as "my brother".
Such facts are difficult to reconcile with the concept of Mary's eternal virginity. In an attempt to reconcile the contradictions,
it has been pointed out that Middle Eastern languages do not
always distinguish between close relations such as siblings
and cousins, and that Jesus" brothers and sisters could
really be cousins. Since the gospels were not written in a Semitic
language, but in Greek, and supposedly by people close to the
events, this argument is of doubtful value. Both Mark and Luke
use the word adelphoi, which means brothers,
rather than anepsioi or other alternatives, which might
have meant "close relations" (and similarly for adelphai,
Another difficulty for the close relation theory is that some
of the brothers are specifically identified as sons of Mary.
First, Matthew 13:55-6 introduces the family group:
Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called
Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
And his sisters, are they not with us? ...
A parallel passage in Mark 6:3 gives a similar list (with Juda
instead of Judas). Critically, the Mark author identifies Mary
as the mother of James, Joses, and perhaps one of the sisters
(Mark 15:40). Rather tenaciously, theologians have sought to
explain this away by suggesting that Mary had a sister who was
also called Mary or, when that theory became too difficult to
sustain, that she had two sisters, both of them also called
Mary*. Many consider these
theories to be contrived, and of little value against the straightforward
interpretation that the same Mary was the mother of Jesus, James,
Joses (or Joseph), Simon, Judas (or Juda, or Jude), and at least
Different Churches tried to explain away Jesus" siblings
in different ways, attributing weight to dubious early writings
according to whether they supported their favoured line. They
became Mary's nephews and nieces in the West, but another
explanation was favoured in the East. According to Eastern Churches
Mary's other children were step-children, Joseph's sons and daughters by an earlier marriage. There is not a scintilla
of evidence for either contention. The truth is that any straightforward
reading of the New Testament suggests nothing other than that,
after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary settled down to an
ordinary married life, and that Mary bore Joseph a number of
children. This is the interpretation given in Protestant versions
of the Bible, and also seems to have been the prevailing view
of the earliest Christians*.
It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have
imagined that virginity could be a virtue.
Voltaire (1694-1778), Notebooks
What exactly it can mean to remain a virgin during birth has
been the subject of much speculation. For present purposes we
shall adopt the meaning favoured by the Roman Catholic Church,
that the hymen remains intact during birth.
There is no evidence, not even a suggestion, in the canonical
gospels of Mary's hymen having remained intact during the
birth of Jesus. Early Christian writers accepted that Mary did
lose her virginity during the birth of Jesus*.
The earliest sources that suggest otherwise, dating from the
second century AD, are Gnostic*,
and would now be discounted as heretical if they had not been
the only straws to clutch at for those who liked the idea of
Mary remaining virgo intacta. Some later Church Fathers
had also clutched at those straws, and the Roman Church now
cites these Fathers as authorities on the matter. The earliest
and most respected Fathers either did not consider the question
or else rejected the idea of Mary remaining virgo intacta
during the birth. The same applied to other important figures
well into the fourth century, including the champions of orthodoxy*.
mechanisms by which Mary could have remained virgo intacta
have exercised the minds of theologians since the fourth century.
During the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that Mary had
conceived by being inseminated by the Holy Ghost through her
ear*, a belief that resulted
in female ears being treated with the utmost modesty for a time.
An ear would hardly serve for the delivery. One possibility
was that Jesus had exited Mary's womb through a sort of door
in her abdomen. Statues of Mary with the whole Trinity snuggled
behind an opening door in her belly were once popular objects
of devotion. Characterised in this way Mary was known as the
vierge ouvrante ("Opening Virgin")
Alternative posibilities were that he appeared through Mary's
side, or that he emerged as a ray of light from her intact vagina,
or that he dematerialised in the womb and then re-materialised
again outside of Mary's body. One Church Father claimed that
he came through Mary like water through a pipe*.
However it was done, traditional teaching has been that it involved
no labour pains and no afterbirth known to theologians
as sordes, or filth.
The tradition that Mary had retained her virginity arose at
the same time as, and is just as reliable as, a range of other
pious traditions that have now been abandoned: for example that
the baby was weightless, never cried, never needed cleaning,
and was born with adult intelligence. The canonical gospels
make no suggestion that the birth was carried out in any but
the usual way, and imply that parturition was perfectly normal.
After all, purification was required under Jewish Law for women
after childbirth primarily because of the blood involved; and
Mary undoubtedly underwent purification*.
Furthermore the gospels confirm in so many words that Jesus
was born in the conventional manner:
And when the days of her purification according to the law
of Moses were accomplished, they brought him [Jesus] to Jerusalem,
to present him to the Lord (As it is written in the law of
the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called
holy to the Lord;) Luke 2:22-23
"Openeth the womb" is as specific a term for conventional
childbirth as one could hope for. In the absence of any other
contemporary evidence it is difficult to reach any conclusion
other than that the mechanics of the birth of Jesus were perfectly
conventional. For an objective scholar there is no reason to
doubt that they involved not only the normal orifice, but also
normal labour and normal afterbirth.
Madonna Ouvrante with the Holy Trinity
Inside, French c. 1400
Now has come the last age according to the oracle at Cumæ…Now
too, the virgin goddess returns.
Virgil (70-19 BC), Eclogues, 4, 1.4
That Mary was a virgin before the birth of Jesus is at least
supported by the gospels. Luke for example reports that she
claimed to be a virgin at the time of the conception:
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing
I know not a man? Luke 1:34
Also she is referred to as a virgin on a number of occasions.
The case therefore looks reasonably good, until we look into
the matter a little more deeply. First it is notable that the
oldest New Testament writings refer to Jesus as being born of
a woman rather than of a virgin*.
His human ancestry on the male side is assumed in Galatians
3 (see particularly verse 16). St Paul makes no mention of the
Virgin Birth anywhere in his copious writings. Also, the earliest
gospel, Mark, offers no nativity story at all. In fact the nativity
story occurs only in two gospels, Matthew and Luke, and the
versions are different and often contradictory. The older of
the two, the Matthew gospel, makes little of Mary's virginity.
He mentions it only once and then indirectly:
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was
spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin
shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they
shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is,
God with us. Matthew 1:22-3
This is a reference to a passage in the Old Testament:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold
a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and shall call his
name Immanuel* Isaiah
A critical point is that in the original Hebrew the word translated
as virgin in Isaiah is "almah , and "almah
does not mean "virgin" but "nubile young woman",
which is a different concept altogether. Elsewhere in the Old
Testament the word "almah is applied to harem
girls and to young widows*.
If the Hebrew text had meant to convey the idea of virginity,
a more explicit word like bethulah could have been
used*. The confusion
apparently arose because the word "almah had been
inaccurately translated into Greek in the Septuagint as parthenos,
which does mean "virgin", rather than an alternative
word for a girl such as neanis. So parthenos
was the term that the Matthew author would have found in the
Septuagint. This, therefore was the term he used as well, apparently
unaware of the error in the original translation. Matthew's error has long been known. A Jew named Trypho pointed it out
in the second century AD*.
What all this seems to suggest is that some Greek speakers
invented the Virgin Birth in order to match a prophecy that
they had misunderstood. It begins to look as though the virginity
aspect was introduced to improve the match between a supposed
Old Testament prophecy and Jesus" life story. As we have
seen, a number of the details mentioned by the Matthew author
seem to have been invented to fit in with real or imagined prophecies.
Incidentally, the Orthodox Church, aware of this embarrassing
situation, has found an explanation. It claims that the mistranslation
in the Septuagint was made deliberately under the influence
of the Holy Spirit as part of God's continuing revelation*.
The only other canonical gospel to mention Mary's virginity
is the Luke gospel. The author of this gospel is universally
accepted as having drawn upon the Matthew gospel, and it is
more than possible that he took the virginity story from there.
Neither in the Matthew nor Luke gospels are the events of the
nativity referred to again after the initial story. Neither
is the nativity mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament.
Sometimes the nativity stories are plainly at variance with
the rest of the text. For example, after searching for three
days Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple:
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said
unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy
father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto
them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must
be about my Father's business? And they understood not
the saying which he spake unto them. Luke 2:48-50
Mary and Joseph's failure to understand would be relatively
unremarkable if they had thought Mary to be the ordinary mother
of an ordinary child with an ordinary father. It is not however
consistent with the knowledge with which the nativity stories
credit them. Even after 12 years, one might suppose that a mother
would not forget the words of angels, much less the fact that
her child's father was God himself. What can be the explanation
for this? Is the text reliable? The answer to this question
has to be "no". The two nativity stories are widely
acknowledged by Bible scholars to have been additions to the
texts of the Matthew and Luke gospels. Moreover, a number of
textual variants reveal the hands of interpolators. For example
the genealogy of the Matthew writer is altered in different
ways in different manuscripts, apparently to avoid naming Joseph
explicitly as the father of Jesus*.
Significantly, the earliest surviving Semitic version of Matthew,
the Old Syriac Gospel, retains Joseph as the father*.
Surviving manuscripts betray a range of amendments, not only
in the genealogies but also throughout the texts, clearly made
to avoid mentioning that Joseph was the real father. Indeed,
there are so many that they provide a good academic case study
in how "orthodox" Christians have deliberately corrupted
their own scripture*.
There is no suggestion of Jesus being born the son of God in
the Mark gospel. Instead he seems to have been adopted as a
son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:9-12). Echoes of this event
are still to be found in the other gospels, providing another
set of inconsistencies.
If we discount the nativity stories as later additions, many
anomalies are automatically removed from the New Testament.
The author of Matthew, for example, had taken great trouble
to trace Jesus" ancestry through Joseph to King David and
ultimately to Abraham*,
which would hardly be appropriate if Joseph was not his father.
Elsewhere Jesus claims to be descended from David (Revelation
22:16). He is referred to as "the seed of David according
to the flesh" (Romans 1:3-4) and as being descended from
the patriarchs (Romans 9:5 Jerusalem Bible). Mary and Joseph
are explicitly mentioned as Jesus" "parents"
(Luke 2:41), and as cited above Mary refers to Joseph as Jesus"
"father" after finding him in the Temple. Jesus is
also explicitly identified as the son of Joseph in John 1:45
and 6:42. The nearest any early writings come to attributing
divine fatherhood to Jesus is in a passage by Ignatius of Antioch.,
who died around AD 107. In a letter to the community at Ephesus
he introduced a divine influence into an otherwise conventional
human conception: "Jesus Christ our God was conceived by
Mary of the seed of David and of the spirit of God ..."*,
and in another letter he referred to Jesus as being "truly
of David's line in his manhood, yet Son of God by Divine
will and power"*.
If we look at the beliefs of others that were in a position
to know, such as the Jewish Christians known as Ebionites, we
find that they denied the Virgin Birth, regarding Jesus as "the
child of a normal union between a man and Mary"*.
So did other early sects (like the Carpocratians ), and so did
important early Church figures like Jovinian. According to early
non-believers, Jesus' real father was a Roman centurion named
Pantheras*, an accusation
that is supported by the Talmud and other Jewish documents.
If the two gospel nativity stories are unreliable, there is
no basis for the belief in the Virgin Birth. On the other hand
there are many reasons for doubting it. We know that the Jews
never expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin, and it is
clear enough that the Matthew author did only because of a mistranslation.
We know that the Matthew author liked to arrange matters to
match Old Testament prophecies. Elsewhere, Jesus" human
ancestry is assumed, and in some instances, which escaped the
attentions of editors, Joseph is named as the father. We even
have evidence of editors erasing mention of Jesus" human
father from the text. All in all, the case for doubting the
story of the Virgin Birth is a strong one.
It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is
no ground whatever for supposing it true.
Bertrand Russell , Sceptical Essays
On the evidence Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth
of Jesus. There is no reason at all to suppose that she remained
virgo intacta during the birth of Jesus, and the evidence
for her having been a virgin before the birth is questionable.
It is not difficult to see how the Virgin Birth story might
have arisen. Early Christians were embarrassed that their leader
was reputed to have been illegitimate. In the Hellenic world,
where gods often impregnated human women, an obvious solution
for any illegitimate putative leader was that a deity was the
father. This had the dual advantage of explaining the illegitimacy
and introducing an element of the divine. An Old Testament passage
about a birth to a virgin apparently provided the key to the
solution, or it would have done, had not the passage contained
a critical mistranslation.
Many modern theologians accept that the story of the Virgin
Birth is a myth designed to emphasise Mary's purity. It follows
an established pattern, and may well have been based on existing
stories. For example the mother of the Buddha was believed to
have conceived without the aid of her husband. The infant emerged
not by normal means but through his mother's side. She died
soon afterwards "because it is not fitting that she who
bears a Peerless One should afterwards indulge in love"
Theological positions that were once
absolutely certain can become questionable,
and even demonstrably false.
Despite all the evidence Mary still purports to retain her
virginity, at least for the time being. The trick is done by
tampering with the original texts, retaining known errors of
translation, inserting suitable confirmatory material into sacred
texts, rejecting the plain meaning of words in favour of contrived
meanings, and glossing over contradictions and inconsistencies.
All this is an open secret. No Church scholar of any standing
denies it. But then none openly advertises it either, so the
faithful masses remain in ignorance.