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“How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time”


These essays are based on the Nov/Dec 2014 issue in Biblical Archaeology Review of an article titled “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” by Andrew Lincoln.







Q:  Based on your reading of the article, what are your views if Mary was NOT a virgin? Does her perpetual virginity matter for the Church (not just the Catholic Church and other traditions) at large?  How do you think the Church’s views of sexuality would change if it adopted a position that she was not a virgin?  How would it change views on the priesthood, or for monks and nuns?  What about views on celibacy?  Pre-marital sex?  Or even views on abortion?  Or is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary too embedded within Christian tradition to amend or discard?



Bethany: Mary was a virgin.


Rufus: Mary gave birth to CHRIST without having known a man’s touch, that’s true. But she did have a husband. And do you really think he’d have stayed married to her all those years if he wasn’t getting laid? The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.





No, I don’t think that Mary’s perpetual virginity really matters to the Church.  Having her remain a virgin adds to her mystique and an attribute of divinity herself as the Catholic Church believes, similar to the virgin Greek goddesses.  Jesus’s half-siblings were explained away as from an earlier marriage of Joseph who was significantly older than Mary.


I don’t think the Church’s views of sexuality would change much if it adopted a position that she wasn’t a virgin.   Even though it’s not a doctrine for the Protestant churches, Mary’s virginity is not really mentioned.  The Church’s view of sexuality seemed to have changed from something special and to be revered, into something shameful and have to be hidden.  The Song of Solomon is explained away to be a metaphorical love of God and church.  This was not always the case as, with early American Quakers, a man could be put in the docks for not performing his husbandly duties.


Sex is tied with many issues such as reproductive rights, women’s rights and gay rights.  Most churches viewed homosexuality as wrong and against God.   Times are changing and churches have begun to soften this view.  Ironically the institution of gay marriage may help to legitimize homosexuality in churches.


Sexual sin has seemed to fall in a category of almost unforgivable sin, perhaps as a recognition of the power behind it- the ability to create life.  Or it may be from the danger of becoming drunk on the pleasure.   The most churches talk about is how sex outside of marriage is wrong and shouldn’t be.  It’s better to be treated as just one issue out of many that Christians should be concerned for.







Q:  Prior to reading this article, have you always considered Jesus’ virgin birth to be a non-negotiable doctrine? Why or why not?  If so, why is Jesus’ virgin birth so important and critical?  Can you be a Christian and not believe in a virgin birth?  Why or why not?  Now that you have read this article, has your view changed or are you more resolved in your prior convictions?  Explain why. What are some of your disagreements with Lincoln, if any?



I don’t think I cared much about the doctrine till now.


In my more Conservative days in college, I blindly checked off that doctrinal box. This was only bolstered by hearing that Isaiah 7:14 translates as “maiden” and not “virgin” – and so to me, the doctrine didn’t seem substantiated by the supposed scriptural reference anyway.


Only in preparation for this essay did I look up its importance – for (1) Jesus to be conceived/born divine instead of adopted and (2) to qualify as a sinless and perfect ransom and/or sacrifice.


(1) Jesus’ intrinsic divinity has been a somewhat early part of orthodox Christian faith since the Apostles’ Creed, Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. in contrast to an “overshadowing” doctrine like Docetism, Adoptionism, etc. And so it seems to me that strictly speaking, you have to believe in the Virgin Birth to be an orthodox Christian, no matter how much it actually matters in practice for the average congregant.


And neither does it matter to me on a gut level. What I care for more is that God loves and cares for me – qualities that are more on the human side of Jesus.


(2) Jesus’ divinity qualifies him to be the perfect ransom and/or sacrifice, per Origen, Anselm and onwards.


For me, I’ve moved past caring. Already in college, I was the guy pushing back by asking about how Penal Substitutionary Atonement didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t now. And this article pushes further in that direction. Presently I’m more amenable to a Christus Victor atonement, effecting new creation somehow, though both this and PSA are both at odds with evolution in my opinion.


So what am I left with? I don’t know. The religious circles I inhabit these days are more Anabaptist, concentrating on what Jesus taught and enacted, which may not be unique. This is in conflict with the conservative religious intuition that I carry with me, that tells me that “Jesus must have actually effected some transaction on the Cross.” So I’m in an in-between place right now.


And so I welcome what others have to say over this.


As for the part of the article connecting Gospel birth narratives with Greco-Roman biographies having dual birth accounts, that seems to be a stretch for me, but I don’t have the expertise and background to make any qualified comments.





Q: Based on your reading of the article, what are your views if Mary was NOT a virgin? Does her perpetual virginity matter for the Church (not just the Catholic Church and other traditions) at large?  How do you think the Church’s views of sexuality would change if it adopted a position that she was not a virgin?  How would it change views on the priesthood, or for monks and nuns?  What about views on celibacy?  Pre-marital sex?  Or even views on abortion?  Or is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary too embedded within Christian tradition to amend or discard?


Interestingly, while the tenet of Mary as a virgin upon giving birth to Jesus was something that shaped much of my Christian upbringing, this is the first time I’ve heard of Mary’s perpetual virginity. I clicked on the Wikipedia link above and I’m still stunned to find out that this is a historically adopted position by the Church, as Jesus is clearly described in the Gospels as having had brothers and sisters.


Why is her perpetual virginity necessary? The logical conclusion of her perpetual virginity would be that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are equally divine. But no such notion exists in the written Gospels, nor has such a position ever been taken by the Church, to my knowledge. So I take this to be an unrealistic, self-righteous standard that the Church adopted that ignores clear scripture. Does it matter to the church? Greatly. It has influenced everything mentioned in the question, along with the reinforcement of a good/evil duality, where the body and its desires are evil and any aspirations away from it are good.


But the question remains: why would virginity be so important?


Most cultures would equate virginity with innocence. Human sacrifices probably all involved virgins. Many interpret the Genesis account of Adam and Eve “knowing the forbidden fruit” as the two discovering the act of sexual intercourse. Once that happened, they lost their innocence. It’s a generally accepted fact that loss of virginity largely comes with loss of innocence.


But fertility has also been greatly celebrated by most societies, in particular agricultural ones where offspring were needed to work the land. As far as I can tell, it is only Western Christian thought that has placed such a negative connotation on the act of sex. This can be easily linked to the Platonic thought that places physical existence at the bottom of the scale, and it’s not a great leap to assert that child abuse in the Catholic Church has its roots in the demands for celibacy from its clergy. While I do believe that some people are called to live ascetic lives, devoid of most regular human needs, the great majority of us are not, and strict demands that cannot be met lead easily to double-lives, self-righteousness, intolerance, and/or alienation from faith.


What I find promising is the current Pope’s courage to take on issues that have remained unchallenged by the Church for far too long. Issue by issue, he is reminding Christians that the tenets of Christianity start and end with love, and that “purity” is not nearly as important as compassion. I think a rethinking of stale theology is very much in order. Mary may remain a virgin in most Christians’ imagination, but if we can step away and think where our priorities lie, we have a chance to transcend harmful theology and rethink our attitudes on the things listed above and many others.







Q: Summarize the Aristotelian theory of conception that was dominant in ancient culture. What was the “larger understanding of sexuality…[that] prevailed until the eighteenth century”?  How were human bodily discharges viewed during this time?  Discuss how this scientific understanding of this time (especially of Galen and even that of Hippocrates) shaped the understanding of Jesus’ conception.  What was the Jewish understanding of conception during this period?  In light of this reading, does this change your view of the virgin conception narrative in Matthew and Luke?





Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)

In Andrew Lincoln’s fascinating article, he describes in detail the predominant understanding during ancient times of conception.  Much of it came from Aristotle’s work titled On the Generation of Animals.  According to Aristotle, the male’s semen or “seed” transmits his logos (rational cause) and pneuma (vital heat/animating spirit) into the female where her menstrual blood supplies matter for the fetus, and her womb becomes the medium where the semen is nurtured in.  The male is seen as being the “active, efficient cause of reproduction,” while the female is the “provider of the matter to which the male seed gives definition.”  To female womb was looked upon as a kind of oven in which the male’s seed is cooked in order for the “spark of life” to occur and shape the fetus’ physical attributes.  So in summary, the man provides the “life force” and the woman provides the physical substance for the fetus.  It is interesting to note that Galen and, to a certain extent, Hippocrates believed that women produced sperm but of inferior quality when compared to male sperm.  Also, Galen believed that if a baby came out female it was due to it being “undercooked” within the womb and therefore lacked the full potential it would have had if it had come out as a male.



Afterwards, the prevailing model for sexuality that lasted until the 18th century was that a woman’s sexual organs were the same as men’s but since women lacked “vital heat,” their reproductive organs had to be retained within her body.  This led to the belief that women were essentially like men but who lacked “anatomical perfection.”  In regards to bodily fluids, blood, semen and milk were all considered to be interchangeable discharges.  Also, all bodily fluids were seen as forms of blood and their differing functions due to variations of heat.  Furthermore, “male heat, dryness and hardness were superior to female coldness, moistness and softness.”  However, the only place in a woman’s body that contained the most heat was her womb, in similarity with Aristotle’s view.


Jewish thought during ancient times also aligned with this understanding as well where the male’s “seed is implanted into the womb and gives life to the blood, the substance contributed by the mother.”  Later rabbinic tradition, the patristic fathers, and even Thomas Aquinas all held on to this view as well.


So with all of this in mind, Lincoln states that in terms of ancient biology, Jesus would have been seen as fully human even without a human father.  Mary would have provided Jesus his human substance, and his father, God, through the Holy Spirit’s agency, would have provided the “animating principle.”  In Matthew 1:18 and 20 it states that, “she [provider of Jesus’ human substance] was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit [the provider of his animating spirit and logos]” and “for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” respectively.  In Luke 1:35 states: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  It is interesting to note that in Boring and Craddock’s New Testament Commentary, concerning Matthew 1:18, they state: “Matthew and Luke (and only they in the New Testament) view that great leaders were often supernaturally conceived (Hercules, Augustus, and many others).  Different from the Hellenistic stories, however, here God does not assume the male sexual role in procreation, but the Holy Spirit, the power of God, works in Mary to conceive a child without a human father[1].”  Furthermore, they state that by Joseph naming Jesus, he thereby adopts and legally incorporates Jesus into the line of David.  So here, going by their interpretation, the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke see Jesus as being both fully divine and fully human in many respects.  And going along with the Greco-Roman view, the original audience (be it Gentile or Jewish) would have no problems seeing Jesus as being fully 100% human even if he had no biological father.


However, as most scholars are aware of, Paul’s letters predated the gospels by at least several decades and in Galatians 4:4 (almost universally held as being one of Paul’s authentic epistles) he writes, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman.”  Boring and Craddock state of the phrase “born of a woman” in this verse: “There is no reference to the miraculous birth of Jesus as portrayed in [the gospels of Matthew and Luke][2].”  Paul, who must have known the ancient Aristotelian view of conception, makes little to no reference to Jesus’ virgin birth in his writings.  Unless I am proven otherwise, I do not see any evidence where, in order to put your place and trust in Christ, you must believe in the virgin birth.  So in Paul, we see that Jesus’ supernatural birth may not have been an issue or big concern for the early church.  The gospel writers of Matthew and Luke might have placed those narratives there later on as a response to those who may have questioned or wondered about Jesus’ origins.


After reading this article by Andrew Lincoln, I am more inclined now than I was before to see Jesus as being a fully human being with no divine origin.  (It might be equally astonishing or more disturbing to most Christians to come to realize that Paul might have believed this as well.)  As Lincoln states, “Early Christians believed that the mission and death of Jesus had been vindicated through God’s raising him from the dead and establishing him as Son of God.”  For Christians, it wasn’t his birth or his birthright for that matter that was most important in Jesus’ life, but more so that God had raised him from the dead in Jesus’ Resurrection and thereby vindicating Jesus’ life, work, and mission.  Paul in Romans 1:4 states that God had “designated” Jesus as “Son of God” through his resurrection.  As some know, the title “Son of God” was a political-religious title and name given to emperors during ancient times.  Furthermore, Lincoln writes that “Luke’s annunciation story retrojects this future greatness of Jesus, son of Joseph, to his conception and depicts him as Son of God from the very beginning of his early life.”  So in this respect, I am inclined to believe that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke had a political-religious agenda in mind when writing not only the conception narratives but the entire gospels as well to show that Jesus was the true emperor of all the world, not Caesar (i.e the gospels being a form of political-religious propaganda).  They rework and reinterpret Greco-Roman myths about demigods being conceived and born into a Jewish context, just as the ancient authors of the Torah reworked and reinterpreted Ancient Near Eastern and Babylonian myths to fit into Hebrew or Jewish theology or political-religious agendas.



[1] Boring, M. Eugene and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 14-15.

[2] Boring, M. Eugene and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 588.






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