This Saturday, August 15, is the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. What does the Episcopal Church think about the “virgin” birth? Was Jesus really born without a biological father?
As with many theological issues in the Episcopal Church the complete answer is complicated, and this assertion is not meant to be cheeky. The issue of the “virgin birth” is a statement of faith and a dogmatic assertion. Therefore, every Sunday morning when we proclaim either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed we make faith statements about Mary, Jesus, and God. In both creeds we state that Jesus was born in a way that is different than the rest of us—miraculously. We also state that Jesus was like us—born of a woman. This is how the statements are made in those creedal affirmations:
“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” (BCP Page 358)Nicene Creed: BCP Page 358
“He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”Apostles’ Creed: BCP Page 96
The framing our dogma of Jesus’ coming into the world as a virgin birth may be a popular misnomer. Both creeds seem to be implying virgin conception. To which the reader might say, well of course. But there is a strain of theology, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition which concerns not only the conception but the birthing as well and extends to Mary’s perpetual virginity. The extensions beyond conception are not part of Anglican, and henceforth, Episcopal dogma. Although, in fine Anglican fashion, we may believe in these dogmas. Why do we not insist on the perpetual virginity of Mary? Well, it is not clear from the Bible that Mary remained virgin after Jesus’s conception (see Matthew 1:24-25, and see John 2:12; John 7:3-5; Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21; Acts 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:18-19; Acts 12:17, 15:13; regarding Jesus’, presumably half siblings).
Where, would we go in the Bible to find about this issue and the Episcopal Church’s theological stance on this story? Well, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and nowhere else. That is right. The stories that give us this view of Mary are found in Matthew 1:18-25 (supported in the genealogy of Matthew 1:16) and Luke 1:26-38 (supported by the genealogy of Luke 3:23). In both stories regarding the conception of Jesus, Mary is called a virgin, drawing on verse 7:14 from Isaiah. Many, especially modern critics of this dogma, focus on the fact that the Hebrew of Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” All this sounds very familiar and was proclaimed by the prophet about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. When this book was translated into Greek for all the Greek speaking Jews who were not living in Palestine and speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew in the first century, the translators chose the word virgin to express young woman.
Because of this difference between Hebrew and Greek versions of Isaiah, modern skeptics of this dogma say that the Gospel writers confused a description, “young woman,” for a miracle, “virgin birth.” In defense of the Gospel writers, let it be said that a young woman of the eighth century BCE would likely have been chaste, even if she had not been a virgin, and, as in the case of Mary, she was probably also a chaste young woman.
The issue of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception were challenged in the period of the early church, even as the dogma of Mary’s virginity, supported by Matthew and Mark, developed into a theology. There were slurs of first century materialists directed at Mary and Jesus suggesting that he was a bastard and possibly the son of Roman soldier. There were Gnostic Christians, whose view of the world was even more spiritually focused than that of the early Christians, who also denied the virgin birth because of their discomfort with the Christ being incarnate.
There is a two-fold aspect to the theology of Jesus’ virgin conception and Mary’s willing participation—the spiritual and the physical. Three of the Gospel writers deal specifically with Jesus’ origins—Matthew, Luke, and John. John’s Gospel does not deal with Jesus’ conception or birth directly. Instead, in the Logos Hymn (John 1:1-18) both appended to the beginning of the narrative and integral to framing it, John delves further back in the chronology of Jesus and determines that as the Word of God, he was in the beginning. According to the fourth Gospel, the Word (Jesus) was God (John 1:1c) and came into the world. The spiritual reality of Jesus was his connection to God. The physical reality is that the Word came into the world through Jesus.
Matthew and Luke get at this same concept in a more narrative way and are making a similar point, though not precisely the same point. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was Son of God differently than Moses, or David, or the anyone else before him, and he was Song of God from conception. The spiritual reality is that he is God’s son by the Holy Spirit. The physical reality is that he came into the world through Mary’s choice to do what God asked of her. For humans, especially women, this active cooperating with God is powerful affirmation of agency on the part of a young Palestinian woman. God works through us. God’s spirit worked with Mary. God was present in Jesus.
One of the finest summaries of the circumstances around this Saturday’s feast day is the work of Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. For the issues concerning Mary see especially “The Conception of Jesus,” pages 122-164, “The Virginal Conception,” pages 298-303, and “Appendix IV: Virginal Conception,” pages 517-531. Below is a quote, which in the end, emphasizes the specialness of Jesus, the courage of Mary, and the centrality of God working on behalf of his creation through his creation:
Yes, Episcopalians believe in the Virgin birth and honor Mary for her part in bringing Jesus into the world.