Virgin Birth

One of my worst character traits is that I need to know more stuff than everyone else does.

In the classroom this meant that I needed to catch every reference to every obscure scholar dropped by a professor in a lecture. Nodding my head, I assumed my peers understood this cue to mean I was tracking. Even if they weren’t.

At home it means that I need to already-know-everything-there-is-to-know-about-that when my husband starts to tell me something he heard on NPR.

I could give you worse, more annoying proofs of my habit but I suspect you are already considering un-friending me so I won’t dispense further evidence.

Given my obsessive need to KNOW – imagine my HORROR when I stumbled across a Facebook conversation a few weeks ago involving a theological debate I had never heard of.

It was taking place in a clergy group I’m a part of and it revolved around the work of scholar Jane Schaberg, a feminist biblical scholar who wrote The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Schaberg’s work (published in 1987) contends that Jesus was not conceived of a virgin, but was the result of Mary’s rape by a Roman centurion.

I did not hear about this in seminary. Well … maybe I did. But, I did not know there were scholars who took such a theory seriously.

So, I ordered Schaberg’s book and I feverishly read every article she’d written on the illegitimacy of Jesus that I could find.  In the end, I was left with some cognitive dissonance. Schaberg was a good scholar. Her work is persuasive, compelling, and well supported. But the message of the Reconciler as a product of violence against women … that makes me squirm.

Some initial confessions:

I do not hold to the necessity of the virgin birth. Is it possible that Jesus was born of a virgin? Sure. I believe that humanity has not ever been able to understand God, nor conceive of the possibilities of God. I choose to believe that the Holy is capable of so much more than I can understand or conceptualize or rationalize. Also … I think Lewis Carroll was calling us all to convert from pessimism when he wrote, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” I am working on optimism. Still – I believe it’s more likely that Mary was not a virgin, and that Jesus entered the world in the normal way (which is still miraculous) and that the virgin birth narrative was a product of culture. Regardless, I affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – that he was the Christ, the son of God, the healer and reconciler of all things.

I am vehemently pro-choice. Terminating a pregnancy is never an ideal option. Sometimes, it is the best option. In a world that continues to marginalize women, devaluing their health, safety, and well-being, it is sometimes the only option.

So back to Jesus as the product of rape …

My initial squirming around Schaberg’s thesis has mostly to do with how I think certain people would manipulate that story to further perpetuate control of women’s bodies and amplify the culture of shame and guilt that some of the faith community create around abortion. I can just hear the manipulation … it’s the ultimate trump card – God makes ALL things goodeven the most horrific acts of violence are redeemed by God the Father. Having sat through my share of seminary classes listening to my peers (future pastors and scholars) tell stories of God redeeming this woman or that woman’s history of sexual abuse and violence, it’s not a long shot to imagine how the illegitimate birth of Jesus could become a tool of the sexism that already runs rampant in much of Christianity.

But as I continued to read Schaberg’s works I wondered about the potential of a positive narrative for women in this story.

Mary has long been regarded as an ambiguous figure for women. Christian history has tended to narrowly place women in either the “virgin” or “whore” category. Mary clearly falls into the better of those two categories, yet defies biology and fulfills the only honorable vocation available to her (reducing her identity to the ability to give birth)…a path no real woman can aspire to. She’s mythic – completely unattainable for real woman looking to see themselves reflected in the Scripture.

If Mary was read as a real woman, living so tangibly with the reality of violence against women (as all women have and do), how would she become more dimensional? If rape was a part of her story, how would her identity begin to push against what it has been collapsed into?

And isn’t the story of the social outcast partnering with God in healing the fabric of the broken world a familiar narrative? It’s the story used time and time again in both the First and Second Testaments to tell of God’s commitment to love and reconciliation. What if Mary occupies a larger role in that story than we have previously imagined?

You should read Schaberg’s work – she addresses the genealogy in Matthew brilliantly – asking thoughtful questions about the four women recorded there, all with a history of precarious sexual situations, all outside the structure of patriarchy. She incorporates the work of liberation theologians used to reading against the grain in order to retrieve hope from the biblical text. She works with the “begotten of the Holy Spirit” phrase where it appears in other biblical and Hellenistic texts, resulting in her assertion that the phrase does not always refer to the absence of a biological father. She suggests (as many do) that the virgin birth narrative was the product of the early Christian community – perhaps in response to the rumors of illegitimacy. And she reminds the reader that “oral transmission is controlled by the laws of social identification, with traditions being passed down by those whose existence the tradition verifies and whose social needs it meets.” (1)

If you’re uncomfortable sitting with the possibility of not just the denial of Mary’s virginity, but with the possibility that Jesus was the result of an act of violence, I would urge you to ask yourself why. Explore the resistance you feel around such an assertion – is it just about orthodoxy, or, is there something else there, too?

I asked myself the same question. I sat with the same discomfort. What does it mean if Schaberg’s thesis holds weight? What does it change?

As we enter the season of Christmas, I’m curious about how I’ll engage the narrative. It’s such a familiar story and I hear it the same way, year after year. If nothing else, the narrative will hold a new set of questions for me this year – new discomforts and even, perhaps, comforts.

Where the story of faith is concerned –  I think the real story is always the more beautiful and compelling.

Even if it’s also the more challenging, disruptive, and disconcerting one.


(1) Jane Schaberg, “Feminist Interpretations of the Infancy Narrative of Matthew” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 13 no 1 (Spring 1997), 56.


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