The “Virgin Birth” and Global Justice: A New Perspective on a Core Christian Doctrine, By Will O’Brien
As we celebrate the holy season of Christmas, Christians recall the story of the miracle of Mary conceiving our Savior through the intercession of the Holy Spirit and not through the flesh.
Few beliefs in the Christian tradition are as controversial as that of the virgin birth. Among contemporary believers, it provokes a range of responses, ranging from being a bedrock of Christian faith on par with the divinity of Christ to a modernist dismissal as obviously untenable and at best a marginal notion in our biblical stories.
It is also a doctrine that has a messy and troubling history. The church’s promulgation of the virgin birth as an essential plank of orthodox faith became one of the toxic roots of centuries of very damaging teachings about human sexuality, particularly toward women. As the institutional church and ecclesiastical leadership increasingly enmeshed itself in worldly systems of power, Christian theology evolved toward a more other-worldly, highly spiritualized character, blunting the social and political dimensions of the prophetic tradition and the gospels – all of which was very self-serving for an increasingly corrupted and domesticated church.
The virgin birth was a helpful tool in this process. In the Middle Ages, male-dominated theology began to explicitly link human sexuality with sinfulness The Virgin Mary became highly elevated in church tradition, including the Roman Catholic midrash that, despite numerous New Testament references to Jesus’ siblings, Mary was a “perpetual virgin.” With the eventual elevation of the celibate male priest as the paragon of faith, the pernicious formula would take root in Christendom: Virginity equals holiness. Sex equals sin. That formula would, over centuries, claim no small share of casualties.
From that distortion was birthed the dichotomous paradigm of women as either virgins or whores, saints or sexual sinners, with little in-between – and surely no possibility that they could be church leaders. (The 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” is a harrowing depiction of the Irish Magdalene Asylums, where “fallen women” were sent to do life-long penitence for their assumed sexual promiscuity.)
I am not blaming the biblical accounts of Mary’s conception of Jesus for millennia of abuses and corruption. Rather, these texts were hermeneutically hijacked and put at the service of a patriarchal and misogynistic institution.
It’s tempting to want to jettison the entire virgin birth nonsense. And while Christians of conscience must deconstruct this dismal legacy, I am convinced that we have inherited a distorted interpretive lens on what the evangelists are trying to say through these narratives.
We need to take a fresh look at the texts themselves. In Matthew’s account, the evangelist gives the prophetic affirmation of this mysterious event: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (1:23-24).
There is one interesting linguistic issue here. The citation is Isaiah 7:14. Matthew uses the word “παρθένος” (parthenos, virgin). He is quoting the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, which was the standard version of that era. However, the original Hebrew text of the same verse has “עלמה” (almah), which means something like the English “maiden,” a young, unmarried or perhaps newly-wed woman. Isaiah specifically does not use the Hebrew word “בתולה” (bethulah), which has the specific focused meaning of “virgin,” just as the word does in English – someone who has not had sexual intercourse. No Jewish English translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word “virgin.” Consequently, no Jewish commentator, rabbi, or ordinary reader would assume Isaiah is referring to anything like a miraculous virgin birth.
Maybe Matthew was a bad translator – or maybe the Holy Spirit was guiding him. But the problem is how the word “virgin” led the church to reducing this story to a matter of sex – or, to be more precise, no sex. Which also caused us to miss a powerful prophetic challenge and power that the evangelist is communicating.
What I want to suggest is that instead, we try to understand the prophetic text in its context.
Isaiah preached in the later eighth century. This oracle is addressed to King Ahaz of the southern nation of Judah, likely around 734 BCE. Ahaz (whom 2 Kings roundly condemns as one of the most wicked kings of Judah) faces a serious political crisis. The superpower nation Assyria has been wreaking havoc in the region and forcing many nations into vassalage, including Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. Their two kings, Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel, are plotting a revolt against Assyria and are pressuring Ahaz to join their coalition. He has refused, and they are now embarking on a full-fledged invasion to force Judah’s compliance.
Ahaz’s Machiavellian geopolitical instincts are to respond by in fact going to Assyria and offering to make Judah a vassal. Isaiah, acting as a kind of theological secretary of state, urges Ahaz to do what the ancient covenant insisted: hold fast to Yahweh, who is Israel’s true and only security. As part of that assertion, this “sign” is given. At first Ahaz refused God’s urging to “ask for a sign,” perhaps fearful what he might hear – or because he has already made his foreign policy decision, which is the Assyrian connection. But God gives the sign anyhow. The sign is the young woman who is pregnant and is giving birth to a son. “And she will call his name ‘God is with us'” (7:14). A key element of this child is that he will choose between the good and the evil. Most commentaries suggest that the prophecy, in its context, is simply referring to the next Davidic prince, who, unlike the wicked Ahaz, would be faithful to Yahweh and would deliver Judah from its enemies; it might even be a specific reference to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, who was deemed by 2 Kings to be one of Judah’s most righteous kings.
But whatever specific historical details are involved, the Isaian declaration of “Immanuel” has a broader theme that touches on one of the central tensions within the entire Hebrew Bible narrative: As the people of Israel make their way in the world, where is their security to be found? In whom do they trust? As they adopt the worldly model of kingship, in contrast to their early covenantal tribalism, they likewise reject their covenantal God Yahweh and adopt worldly forms of security – “What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 31:1). “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God (Psalm 20:7).
Matthew’s evocation of the Immanuel prophecy is not so much to illuminate the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth as it is to assert a fundamental challenge from the Israelite tradition: God’s people must not to adopt worldly forms of security, but rather put their trust in God alone. Notice that Matthew follows the brief account of Jesus’ birth with the horror story of King Herod’s maniacal paranoia that results in the “slaughter of the innocents. In this gospel account, Herod plays the same role as Ahaz: an Israelite monarch who is drunk on worldly power and ferociously intent on maintaining it, immerses himself in geopolitical Realpolitik, trashes the Torah and sacred tradition – far from a righteous shepherd of the people rooted in Immanuel. As the prophets repeatedly warned the Israelite people and their rulers, if you choose to adopt the ways of the world, the results will be far from biblical shalom – as the grieving mothers like Rachel will agonizingly attest (Matt. 1:17-18, citing Jeremiah 31:15).
I believe the function of this story is to foreshadow critical themes of the person, ministry, and the of Jesus that will be unveiled throughout Matthew’s gospel. It creates a context for Jesus’ ministry and proclamation: The discipleship community is to hear anew the prophetic call to faithfulness and resist the ways of the world. Its radically different path will be charted by the Sermon on the Mount – the way of humble servanthood, radical nonviolence and reconciliation, economic freedom through trust in God’s providence not in the world’s materialism. Be whole, as God is whole (Matt. 5:48) – which is only possible because of Immanuel, God with us.
Tragically, the institutional church, in its Constantinian bargain, make the same option that King Ahaz and later Herod did – not trusting Immanuel, but instead conforming to the ways of the world: hierarchy, power, wealth, ultimately blessing worldly violence and injustice. And, in the process, it conveniently truncated the Isaian prophecy in Matthew 1 to a matter of asexual mystery.
I don’t mean to argue that Christians need to reject the doctrine of the virgin birth. Even those with very traditionally orthodox beliefs need not be excluded from the political-prophetic interpretation. Just a little more biblical attentiveness would go a long way: the same Virgin Mary, in Luke 1:48-55, speaks directly out of the same prophetic tradition in magnifying the God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the poor and oppressed. (Which might include women oppressed by patriarchal religious traditions?)
I believe we need to reclaim the virgin birth narrative in its prophetic roots – partly to undo the patriarchy and misogyny and body-shaming that has pervaded much of the church, but also to speak to today’s world and the deep need for liberation and justice. A Christian church which, like the young Jewish maiden, said yes to Immanuel would resist the Constantinian bargain of social legitimacy in exchange for allegiance to and acceptance of worldly systems of power. A people whose character is rooted in radical trust in the ways of God would see through the false ideologies of security provided by violence and domination. A church that understood the sign of the child who could discern good and evil would have its eyes wide open to the terror and oppression that plagues so many of God’s children, and would respond with loving, nonviolent, sacrificial compassion.
Two millennia since Matthew wrote his story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, power-hungry Herods are still massacring the innocent. Millions of Rachels are still weeping, refusing to be comforted. We have far more to offer such a world than an instruction manual for proper use of genitals. We have Good News of God with us, and a power that comes from such Good News. I deeply hope and pray we grasp that Good News and offer it to this hurting world.
AUTHOR BIO: Will O’Brien coordinates The Alternative Seminary, a grassroots program of biblical and theological study (www.alternativeseminary.net). He lives with his spouse Dee Dee Risher in the Vine & Fig Tree community in Philadelphia.