026 Jesus Virginally Conceived
This page is part of the Jesus Database project.
(1) Gos. Heb. 1
(2) Matt 1:18-25
(3) Luke 1:26-38
(4a) Ign. Eph. 7:2
(4b) Ign. Eph. 18:2a
(4c) Ign. Eph. 19:1
(4d) Ign. Smyrn. 1:1b
NB: see also counter traditions asserting Joseph's paternity:
(!5a) John 6:42
(!5b) John 7:40-44
(!5c) John 8:39-41
(!5d) John 8:56-58
(!6) Luke 2:27,33,41,48
Stratum: I (30-60 CE)
(1) Gospel of the Hebrews, ch 1
It is written in the Gospel of the Hebrews that /1/ when Christ wanted to come to earth, the Good Father summoned a mighty power in the heavens who was called Michael, and entrusted Christ to his care. /2/ The power came down into the world, and it was called Mary, and Christ was in her womb for seven months. /3/ She gave birth to him and he grew up and he chose the apostles who preached him everywhere. /4/ He fulfilled the appointed time that was decreed for him. /5/ The Jews grew envious of him and came to hate him. They changed the custom of their law and they rose up against him and laid a trap and caught him. /6/ They turned him over to the governor, who gave him back to them to crucify. /7/ And after they had raised him on the cross, the Father took him up into heaven to himself. [cited in Cyril of Jerusalem, Discourse on Mary the Mother of God.] [Complete Gospels]
(2) Matt 1:18-25
/18/ Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. /19/ Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. /20/ But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. /21/ She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." /22/ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: /23/ "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." /24/ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, /25/ but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. [NRSV]
(3) Luke 1:26-38
/26/ In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, /27/ to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. /28/ And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." /29/ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. /30/ The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. /31/ And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. /32/ He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. /33/ He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." /34/ Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" /35/ The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. /36/ And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. /37/ For nothing will be impossible with God." /38/ Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
(4a) IgnEph 7:2
We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,ï¿½ but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For "the Word was made flesh." [ANF]
(4b) IgnEph 18:2a
The cross of Christ is indeed a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to the believing it is salvation and life eternal. "Where is the wise man? where the disputer?" Where is the boasting of those who are called mighty? For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began, and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost. For says [the Scripture], "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and He shall be called Immanuel." He was born and was baptized by John, that He might ratify the institution committed to that prophet. [ANF]
(4c) IgnEph 19:1
Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. [ANF]
(4d) IgnSmyr 1:1b
I glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who by Him has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded, in very truth, with respect to our Lord Jesus Christ, that He was the Son of God, "the first-born of every creature," God the Word, the only-begotten Son, and was of the seed of David according to the flesh, by the Virgin Mary; was baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; that He lived a life of holiness without sin, and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. From whom we also derive our being, from His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for the ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church. [ANF]
/2/ Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
/3/ Does anyone harbor anger against another,
and expect healing from the Lord?
/4/ If one has no mercy toward another like himself,
can he then seek pardon for his own sins?
/5/ If a mere mortal harbors wrath,
who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins?
Note also the reflections on debt and creditors in Sirach 29, especially vv. 1-7
Counter-traditions re paternity of Jesus
The GJohn is well-known for its complex and highly-developed theology. Less recognized is the same Gospel's capacity to preserve historical nuggets that would otherwise be lost to us. One of those may be surfacing here in the reference to Jesus as the "son of Joseph" and the comfort with which the Johannine story-teller can describe Jesus' opponents as saying they know his "father and mother."
In chapters 6, 7 and 8 we find casual references to Jesus' parentage or birth place that are at odds with the later Christian tradition:
son of Joseph, we know his father and mother ...
6:42 They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"
not born in Bethlehem
7:40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, "This is really the prophet."7:41 Others said, "This is the Messiah." But some asked, "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?7:42 Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?"7:43 So there was a division in the crowd because of him.7:44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
at least we know our father!
8:39 They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing what Abraham did,8:40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.8:41 You are indeed doing what your father does." They said to him, "We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself."
not yet 50 years of age
8:56 Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad."8:57 Then the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?"8:58 Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am."
It is not clear just what the tradition behind GJohn knew about Jesus' family origins, but it is hard to imagine that a Christian author who was familiar with either Matthew or Luke could have written these words. It may simply be that we need to acknowledge that within the first 100 years there were Christians who had no trouble speaking of Joseph as Jesus' biological father, and did not know (or did not accept) the tradition of Jesus being born at Bethlehem. In GJohn the most complex Christology and the simplest biology stand side by side.
Even in Luke we find casual references to Joseph as Jesus' father, as at (6) above: Luke 2:27,33,41,48:
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,
And the childâs father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."
And the day will come,
when the mystical generation of Jesus,
by the Supreme Being as His Father,
in the womb of a virgin,
will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva
in the brain of Jupiter.
-- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.
In Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circumstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural paternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-identity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.
John Dominic Crossan
In Historical Jesus [p. 371] Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.
In Birth of Christianity [pp. 26-29] Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:
I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus.
Mary was the name of Jesus' mother.
Joseph was the name of Jesus' father.
Jesus was conceived while Mary and Joseph were betrothed.
Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived.
Mary conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse with a man.
The statement "Jesus was conceived of the holy spirit" is a theological and not a historical statement.
Mary conceived of some unnamed man by rape or seduction.
Mary conceived of Joseph.
The Seminar reported its findings on the "Birth & Infancy Stories" in The Acts of Jesus (1998) and in a thematic issue of Forum (NS 2,1. Spring 1999).
The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:
- Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
- Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
- Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
- Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]
The commentary relevant to the conception of Jesus reads as follows:
The Seminar doubted, without denying, the possibilities that Jesus was conceived while Mary and Joseph were betrothed and that she was a virgin at the time she conceived. The account in Matthew seems to reflect the marriage customs of first-century Palestine where marriage took place in two stages: first, the engagement, or betrothal, during which time sexual intercourse and conception might occur; and secondly, the marriage proper, which involved the transfer of the bride to her husband's home.
With regard to the manner of Jesus' conception, the Fellows were unequivocal. With a virtually unanimous vote, the Fellows declared that the statement "Jesus was conceived by the holy spirit" is a theological and not a biological statement. They accordingly rejected the notion that Mary conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse with a man. That Jesus was generated by God without human male involvement goes beyond what historical, or scientific, reason allows. Jesus certainly made no such claim about his origin; and there exists no first-person testimony by Mary his mother. Furthermore, not even the theological confession of Jesus as "son of God" requires a virginal conception: Paul, Mark, and John affirm Jesus' divine status without recourse to a miraculous conception. The confession of Jesus as "God's son," in association with Old Testament stories of God's control of the womb, may have been influential in the development of the belief that Jesus was miraculously conceived, in tandem with pagan stories in which one divine parent unites with a human counterpart. The New Testament birth stories appear to walk a fine line between the crass pagan versions, such as Plato's conception by Apollo, and the Hebrew accounts in which an infertile womb is somehow made fertile by divine decree, such as Sarah's conception of Isaac. In any case, the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar consider Jesus to have had a human father.The Fellows of the Seminar were divided on who that father was. Roughly half of the Fellow think it probable that Mary conceived by the agency of Joseph, in spite of the explicit denial in the stories themselves. The logic of the genealogies supports the paternity of Joseph. The other half held the view that Mary conceived by some unnamed man through rape or seduction. The latter possibility is suggested by some evidence that the birth stories were designed to cover up some scandal regarding Jesus' paternity. The stories themselves insist that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus and there is the strange inclusion, in the genealogy of Matthew, of the four disreputable women: Tamar, who conceived twins of her father-in-law after seducing him (Gen 38); Ruth, the Moabite woman who claimed Boaz as her husband under dubious circumstances (Ruth 4); Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who aided the Israelite spies when prospecting for the invasion across the Jordan (Josh 2); and Bathsheba, who was raped by King David (2 Sam 11). There is also the old Greco-Roman and Jewish tradition that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. [Acts of Jesus, 504-506]
Lüdemann [Jesus, 122-24] presents four (4) reasons for regarding the miraculous conception of Jesus as unhistorical: (1) Numerous parallels in the history of religion; (2) it represents a rare and late NT tradition; (3) Synoptic descriptions of Jesus' relations with his family are inconsistent with such an event; and (4) scientific considerations.
More positively, LÃ¼demann concludes that we can extract as a historical fact behind Matt 1.18-25 the existence of a hostile rumor about the illegitimacy of Jesus. Lüdemann suggests that rape by an unnamed man, possibly even a Roman soldier, is the most likely explanation. He notes that while such an event would have disqualified Mary from marriage to a priest, it would not have prevented from marrying and have other children.
Lüdemann [Jesus, 261-63] discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception.
Meier [Marginal Jew I,220-22] discusses the virginal conception as part of his larger chapter on Jesus' origins. He earlier notes that both infancy narratives "seem to be largely the product of Christian reflection on the salvific meaning of Jesus Christ in the light of OT prophecies (p. 213). At the end of his examination, Meier concludes:
The ends result of this survey must remain meager and disappointing to both defenders and opponents of the doctrine of the virginal conception. Taken by itself, historical-critical research simply does not have the sources and tools available to reach a final decision on the historicity of the virginal conception as narrated by Matthew and Luke. One's acceptance or rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one's own philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one gives to Church teaching.