Virgin birth

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According to Christian mythology, Jesus was born to a Mary, a virgin. The first mention of the virgin birth in the Bible occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written over 70 years after the supposed birth.[1]


[edit] The original texts

[edit] Isaiah

Isaiah 7:14 contains the infamously disputed verse:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the עלמה shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

To this day, the question of what the term עלמה ('almah; "young woman") above refers to remains a divisive issue in Bible translations. Importantly, however, the text referred to the mother as 'almah, as opposed to bethulah ("virgin"). This suggests against a virgin birth hypothesis.

The word is rendered παρθενος (parthenos; "virgin") in the Septuagint. The Greek-speaking writers of the New Testament writers unknowingly wrote their stories to fall in line with the Septuagint, which was in error. Thus we have a myth built upon an error from a previous myth.

In reality, with the exception of the Young's Literal Translation version, the New King James Version, and the English Standard Version, many instances of "almah"[wp] are not translated as "virgin." Proverbs 30:18-19 (NIV) is translated:

There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.

It would seem problematic to substitute "virgin" in this case.

As Gerald Larue states:[2]

The prophet [Isaiah] referred to an unidentified young woman (Hebrew: 'almah) who was about to bear a child that would be named "Immanuel," signifying Yahweh's support of his people. By the time the child would be weaned, the prophet promised, the military threat from Syria and Israel would be past, the two nations destroyed, and Judah would enjoy great prosperity. This interpretation, which seems to fit the historical situation best, has been challenged.

The word 'almah refers to a young woman old enough to bear a child and does not in itself indicate whether a girl is a virgin or married. The LXX [Septuagint] translators employed the Greek word parthenos, which means "virgin," although the term neanis, which corresponds better to 'almah, was available. When the Christian Church began its mission in the Greek-speaking world and the Gospel of Matthew was written, predictions of Jesus' birth were sought in the LXX version of Jewish scripture; thus, in Matt. 1:18-23, the citation from Isaiah 7:14 is from the LXX, not the Hebrew text. It is argued by some Christian scholars that the sign was far more wondrous than the birth of any child and pointed ahead to the birth of a Messiah, a deliverers promise fulfilled in Jesus. Still others, recognizing that the announcement of a deliverer who would come 700 years later would be of little comfort to Ahaz in his crisis, find a double meaning in the sign Immanuel: an immediate significance relating to the young woman of Ahaz' day and a futuristic one foretelling the coming of Jesus. However, it should be pointed out that within the Hebrew text there is no indication that the child would perform messianic functions; the baby is a sign or signal of Yahweh's intention to save the nation if they would rely on their deity.

And as the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges states:[3]

(LXX. ἡ παρθένος, other Greek versions νεᾶνις.) The Hebrew word (‘almâh) means strictly “a young woman of marriageable age.” Both etymology and usage (cf. esp. Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 6:8) are adverse to the opinion, once prevalent among Christian interpreters and maintained by a few in recent times, that virginity is necessarily connoted (see Robertson Smith, Prophets, Revd. Ed. pp. 426 f.). To express that idea a different word (běthûlâh) must have been employed, although even it might not be wholly free from ambiguity (? Joel 1:8). It is, of course, not disputed that ‘almâh may be used of a virgin (as Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8); but even if this usage were more uniform than it is, it would still be far from proving that virginity was an essential of the notion. It would appear, therefore, that the idea of a miraculous conception was not present to Isaiah’s mind at this time, since a prediction of such astounding import must surely have been clothed in unambiguous language. Nor does the def. art., which is used in the original, necessarily denote a particular individual. (Cf. 2 Samuel 17:17, and see Davidson, Synt. § 21 e.) So far as grammar and context go, the expression may mean any young woman, fit to become a mother, whether as yet married or unmarried.

Finally, it's been noted that even if the word 'almah is to be translated as "virgin", it does not carry the connotation that said virgin would be a virgin at the time of birth or forever. It simply means that someone, who was then a virgin should conceive. As such, it might be a virgin conception, but not a virgin birth.

[edit] Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew 1:20-23 (KJV) reads;

But while he (Joseph) thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. 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.
—Isaiah 7:14-Deception In The Name Of Jesus[4]

Christians interpret this as fulfilling the prophecy laid out in Isaiah.

It's likely that Matthew has chosen to read almah as a virgin in order to support The Nativity. Mark did not refer to Isaiah, but then it appears that Mark didn't consider the virgin birth of Jesus to be worth a mention in his gospel.

There is also the problem that Jesus was not named Immanuel. The name Yeshua (Jesus) probably means[wp] "YHWH is a saving-cry" or comes from a root that means "to deliver, save, or rescue". The name Immanuel means "God with us".

[edit] Alternate fulfillments

Several other mother-son pairs have been proposed.

[edit] Mahershalalhashbaz

The first is Isaiah's wife and her son Mahershalalhashbaz. Isaiah 8:1-4:

Moreover the LORD said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man's pen concerning Mahershalalhashbaz. And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah. And I [Isaiah] went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.

Interestingly, the last line of Isaiah 8:1-4 lines up with Isaiah 7:10-16:

Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you [referring specifically to King Ahaz] a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest [Syria and Israel] shall be forsaken of both her kings.

Mahershalalhashbaz was born and shown as a sign of God to Ahaz; anyone who could not be shown to Ahaz could not possibly be a sign to him. Furthermore, Mahershalalhashbaz is said be going to refuse evil and to live while Syria and Israel are destroyed. (In this time, both Israel (the nothern area of the Jews) and Syria decided to attack Judah (the southern area of the Jews). Why? Because Judah wouldn't help Syria and Israel team up against Assyria, which was getting extremely powerful and scary.[5])

However, it's hard to call Mahershalalhashbaz the son of the 'almah -- his mother had already given birth, and the word 'almah, even though not strictly requiring virginity, does heavily emphasize sexual innocence.[6]

Strangely, Jesus does not fulfill these requirements. Were both Syria and Israel dethroned before Jesus learned ethics? Nope, because they'd been crushed and incorporated by the Romans before he was born.

[edit] Hezekiah

Another proposed fulfill-er is Abi and her son Hezekiah. 2 Kings 18:1-12:

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. For he clave to the LORD, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the LORD commanded Moses. And the LORD was with him; and he prospered whithersoever he went forth: and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not. He smote the Philistines, even unto Gaza, and the borders thereof, from the tower of the watchmen to the fenced city. And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria, and besieged it. And at the end of three years they took it: even in the sixth year of Hezekiah, that is in the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria, and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes: Because they obeyed not the voice of the LORD their God, but transgressed his covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them.

There is weak scriptural support for this. First, Hezekiah reigns while Syria and Israel are destroyed, as required. Second, Hezekiah is pious, as required.

This is problematic when squared with Isaiah 7:20-22:

In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep; And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.

Immanuel is supposed to "shave" the king of Assyria (gain true independence) and bring the honey and butter (have prosperity). Neither is true, because soon after Israel and Syria were conquered, Judah gets conquered[wp] (2 Kings 18:13).

[edit] Extraordinary claims

... require extraordinary evidence. To support the claim that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy it would be necessary to demonstrate that he was born of a virgin.

The only evidence that this occurred is in the statements of Matthew and Luke. The writers of the Gospel are not exactly the most unbiased authors, and have shown previous factual inaccuracy.

[edit] Contradictions

There may be a contradiction inherent in this myth, because the Bible also states that Jesus was a "direct" descendant of King David through the male line.[7] Obviously, if Jesus had no human father, he couldn't have been a biological descendant of King David through the male line. Ancient Hebrew culture did allow adopted sons to be counted as descendants (alongside other interesting cases of legal descent[8]), so Jesus could have been legally descended from King David. It's debatable to what extent this is in keeping with the original intent of the prophesy, however.

Additionally, it is worth noting that Matthew and Luke's claim of the virgin birth is inconsistent with how, in the Book of Mark, Jesus' family called his ministry crazy [9]. You would think Mary and Joseph would remember something so significant as an angel telling them they were picked to raise God's kid.

[edit] Apologetic responses

Many Christians believe and want to believe that the virgin birth of Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophesy, and defend the flawed translation.

[edit] John Oakes


The virgin (literally young woman, almah) will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (literally God among us). It is true that the Hebrew here is alma which means young woman, and not necessarily a virgin. However, for a married woman to give birth to a son is certainly not a sign. The prophecy states that this birth will be a miracle. Given that a miracle is prophesied, the most reasonable interpretation of the Hebrew is a virgin, not simply a married young woman. Add to this the fact that when the Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek about 250 years before Christ, they used a Greek word which is definitely for a virgin. This proves that the Jews understood this to be a prophecy of a virgin birth before Jesus was born. Either way, in what way is this evidence that the Bible has an error? Even if the prophecy is not of a virgin birth, in any case, Jesus was born of a young woman. So, how does this prove that the Bible cannot be trusted? Why do these critics even mention this when in absolutely no way does this undermine biblical accuracy? Hmmm..... Note the logic here:
  1. Oakes agrees that the Hebrew actually refers to a(ny) "young woman", not necessarily a "virgin", and that
  2. A young woman giving birth is not an earth shattering miracle, but then that must mean that it can't just refer to such a mundane event, and that
  3. The authors of the Septuagint must have been divinely inspired to choose the Greek word "virgin", which means that
  4. The Jews realised that this really was a prophecy (but just forgot to tell anyone, apparently...), and anyway
  5. Even if the correct translation is "young woman", the bible isn't technically wrong. So there...

Furthermore, no Jews claimed that Isaiah 7:14-16 was a prophecy about anything else than Isaiah 8:3 prior to the advent of Christianity (and those who remained Jews have stuck to this straight forward interpretation). That Christians started claiming that Isaiah predicted the birth of Jesus is yet another example of the reinterpretation/retconning of Old Testament texts by Christians who suddenly found all kinds of prophecies post facto.

[edit] Additional theories

If any of these stories is true, it's pretty cool how Joseph took it all in stride.

[edit] Perpetual Virginity

One of the more remarkable aspects of the virgin birth is the belief in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary held by some Christian religions. The believers of this doctrine hold that Mary not only was a virgin when she conceived, but she continued to be a virgin after giving birth and for the rest of her life, even though Jesus had siblings.[11] They argue that those siblings were Joseph's children from a previous marriage, and Mary was their adoptive mother. As said by Rufus in the film Dogma: "The nature of God and the Virgin Mary, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that's just plain gullibility."

Interestingly, there is a 2nd century text known as the Infancy Gospel of James[12], which never made it into the Bible, but which is the source of many Catholic and Orthodox beliefs about Mary. In this text it is stated that Joseph was already very old at the time of his marriage with Mary (and that he had sons from a previous marriage). If so, he may not have been, shall we say, up to the task any more.

[edit] Pantera

Another theory is that a Roman soldier called Pantera was true the father of Jesus.

[edit] Special conception in other religions

Okay, let's go into a little more detail and try to figure out if a pattern is emerging here.[13]

[edit] Greek mythology

  • Leda: Leda's father was the Aetolian king Thestius. The story goes that Zeus, the dude with the lightening bolts and thunder clouds, admired Leda very much. So, like any randy god, he took the form of a swan and seduced her. Ew. Anyway, the result of this celestial gettin' down were two eggs. From these eggs hatched Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, and Castor and Pollux. Technically, this isn't virgin birth since Zeus physically did the deed, but the sentiment is more or less the same, although termed 'miraculous birth.'
  • Perseus: Son of Danae, who was locked away in a room while a child and impregnated by Zeus (busy fella, that Zeus) in the form of a shower of gold (no, really).
  • Zeus would later impregnate Alcmene by disguising himself as her husband Amphitryon (grandson of Perseus. Seriously, Zeus had no sense of shame). The child, Heracles, would later perform many great deeds including bringing one person back from the dead. Heracles eventually died painfully as a result of treachery and ascended to godhood. Nope, never heard about anyone like that.
  • Hephaestus: According to some accounts, the goddess Hera was so annoyed at how Athena had sprung forth from Zeus' head that she conceived Hephaestus without the aid of a man, by force of will alone. Apparently, it didn't go so well, as she threw him off Mount Olympus after seeing his ugly face. Hephaestus is the only Greek god who is lame.

[edit] Hinduism

The idea of a miraculous conception is common in Hindu scripture.

  • Krishna descended directly into the womb of his mother, Devaki.
  • Avatars of the god, living in the Human realm descend into human women's wombs, i.e., without intercourse.
  • Karna: Was the result of Queen Kunti asking the god Surya for a child, without taking Kunti's virginity, just before she married King Pandu.
  • The Pandavas: Brahmin laid a curse upon King Pandu, telling him not to touch either of his two wives sexually or he'd die. Queen Kunti, ever resourceful, simply asked the other gods to give her and her co-wife children. The gods gave them the Pandavas.

[edit] Egyptian mythology

  • The popular idea that Horus was born of a virgin Isis is confounded by the fact that Herodotus records that the Egyptians believed that Isis was impregnated by having intercourse with the spirit of the dead Osiris. However Herodotus also stated this:[14]
The relation between the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Io was probably this, that Phoenicians in early times had carried to Argos the worship of the moon, under the symbol of a heifer, or a woman with heifer's horns. The symbol itself and the name of lo, which is Coptic for the moon…the origin of it was forgotten, and the invention of the Greek mythologists supplied its place by the legend of an Argive princess, beloved by Jupiter, turned by him into a heifer, and driven through Phoenicia into Egypt, where she became the goddess Isis.
  • A century earlier Aeschylus in his Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound stated "Again and again in the night, visions would appear to me (Io) in my room and entice me with seductive words: "O blessed maiden, why do you remain a virgin for so long when it is possible for you to achieve the greatest of marriages?" It is important here to remember that Ancient Greek did not have a separate word for virginity, the concept was intrinsically connected with the unmarried woman, the parthenos.
  • "my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, for the Phrygians call me the mother of the Gods: the Athenians, Minerva: the Cyprians, Venus: the Candians, Diana: the Sicilians, Proserpina: the Eleusians, Ceres: some Juno, others Bellona, other Hecate: and principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustom to worship me, do call me Queen Isis." (Apuleius (2nd century CE) The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses)
  • Hestia, Athena, Artemis and Hecate were all virgin goddesses in Greek mythology.
  • "In the most remote age it appears that Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Set were all independent and unconnected deities, belonging probably to different tribes. Isis was a virgin goddess at Buto in the Delta, Horus came to be worshiped with her,..."[15]

So in reality, depending on the group, Isis was worshiped as a virgin goddess before the time of Christ.

[edit] Finnish and Karelian mythology

  • Marjatta: while herding, she eats a lingonberry and becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a boy who will grow up to be the king of Karelia.

[edit] Immaculate conception

Virginal Conception should not be confused with Immaculate Conception (or the Immaculate Reception for that matter). The doctrine of Immaculate Conception arose because the question was asked how Christ could be born of a woman who would inevitably be tainted with original sin. In order to get round the problem the church decreed that Mary herself was immaculately conceived - without original sin - and this allowed Christ to be born without original sin. (It is not clear how Mary's parents avoided original sin or why an omnipotent God did not make more exceptions, though.)

[edit] Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction where growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization. This phenomenon is not naturally observed in mammals (although it has been artificially induced in rabbits). In animals using the XY chromosome system, parthenogenesis always results in female offspring.

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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