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Friday essay: virgin mothers and miracle babies

The virgin birth at the heart of Christianity has many corresponding versions in other ancient traditions. Detail from a panel by Conrad von Soest, 1403. Wikimedia Commons

Friday essay: virgin mothers and miracle babies

At the centre of the annual Christian festival of Christmas, particularly among those of the Catholic faith, is the sacred narrative of the Virgin Birth. In the New Testament Gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-38), Mary, The Mother of God, is described as a virgin who miraculously conceived her son by the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew’s rendering:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.

The event is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Parish church S. Benedetto, Limone sul Garda. Statue of Mary with Jesus. Wikimedia Commons

Biblical scholars and theologians have long discussed, debated and disputed the virgin birth of Jesus, with some arguing that there is no imperative to link it to the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Another argument that contests the accounts in Matthew and Luke points to the silence on the topic in both Mark and John, as well as in the writings of epistolary Christians such as Paul.

Philosophers such as Michael Martin further stress that the Virgin Birth is not mentioned in either early Jewish or “pagan” sources. Of course, historians would not usually place undue emphasis on an account in one particular source that is absent from another.

Additionally, written “evidence” from antiquity is particularly fragile and invariably subject to contrasting analyses and intense debates.

Of related interest to the Biblical hermeneutics of this most mysterious, sacred and profound Christian narrative are the many corresponding versions in other ancient traditions.

Why are these similar accounts relevant to Mary’s miraculous pregnancy? Do they extend biblical debates on the Virgin Birth by situating it in broader sacred traditions? Do they encourage us to question why such narratives originated in the first place?

Consider the various myths of ancient Greece that describe phenomenal inseminations. The Greek hero Perseus was born of a mortal mother, Danae, who was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold.

Danae and the Shower of Gold. Léon Comerre/Wikimedia Commons

Zeus assumed other guises to extend his paternity as illustrated by the stories of Europa and the Bull and Leda and the Swan.

Leda and the Swan. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Romans told similar sacred narratives. The mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin, was impregnated by Mars. And, for an example of a gender inversion, Venus is said to have conceived her son Aeneas through intercourse with the Trojan prince, Anchises.

While the latter myth has its origins in Greece, the account of the birth of Romulus and Remus is intrinsically Roman; thereby illustrating the continuation of Greek stories of miracle births in new cultural settings.

Such corresponding accounts from so-called “pagan” societies are often rejected by Christians who adhere to biblical literalism. In this context, it is the differences rather than the similarities that are emphasised.

In that vein, it is important that Mary conceives her son without losing her virginity, whereas the Greek and Roman myths are not concerned with intact hymens. But, like those who acknowledge the sacredness of the conception of Jesus by a virgin, the Greeks and Romans are also concerned with divine insemination of a pure body.

Therefore, for a hero such as Perseus or founding fathers such as Romulus and Remus, their very worth and significance are intrinsically linked to the purity of their earthly mothers, as well as the divinity of their celestial fathers.

Such important and sacred conceptions define these heroes as semi-divine and extraordinary. Not surprisingly, therefore, their births are often prophesied. And, like Jesus, they are marked as decidedly different and have spectacular lives. At times the accounts also include elements of miraculous after-death occurrences.

Perseus was sent on the seemingly impossible task of taking the head of Medusa, rescued the heroine Andromeda from a ferocious sea monster along the way and, after his death, was immortalised among the stars as a constellation in the northern sky.

According to the Roman historian Livy, Romulus did not die but rather disappeared. As he was reviewing his army one day, a storm came and during the thunder and thickening clouds, he experienced apotheosis and joined the gods.

Such stories – from predictions, to miraculous conceptions, to extraordinary lives, and finally apotheoses – extend beyond the Middle East and the Classical Mediterranean.

A 14th-century fresco of Krishna on the interior wall of City Palace, Udaipur. Pebble 101, Wikimedia Commons

As Jesus was born in a lowly manger and Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, the Hindu deity Krishna was born in a prison cell. But the similarities between Krishna and Jesus go further.

There is also a virgin conception by a mortal woman, Devaki, who was “impregnated” by Vishnu who descended into her womb and was “born” as her son, Krishna.

These few examples of miraculous conceptions, sometimes virgin births, and the similarities surrounding the life events of the offspring are clearly relevant to the Christmas story – as sacred narratives, myths and foundation stories they are confronting and inherently controversial in the very similarities they possess.

They remind us to consider the miracle of Christmas within the context of antiquity, particularly the ancient recourse to storytelling to express unfathomable concepts. When we consider the profound notion of divinity – its phenomenological essence, its seeming defiance of logic and the inexplicable nature of its origin – sacred narratives such as the Virgin Birth of the New Testament may be interpreted as attempts to communicate a beautiful mystery to an ancient people.

Whether such accounts continue to fortify the faith of modern peoples or provide the answers some seek is open to debate.