Monday, November 13, 2006

Virgin Birth

Joseph found his betrothed to be pregnant, and initially presumed that she had behaved improperly. But he was warned by an angel against canceling the marriage.

Matthew 1 :20. . . . fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

In Hebrew, the name of Jesus' mother is Miriam (the name of Moses' sister). In Aramaic, the name became Mariam. In Latin, dropping the final letter made the name Maria, the feminine version of the popular Roman name Marius, and that is still the name used in most European languages (although it became Marie in French, and Mary in English). Christians consider Mary – based on Matthew’s writings – to have been a virgin, even while pregnant, so she is commonly called the "Virgin Mary" or simply "the Virgin."

The gospel of Matthew emphasizes the fact that her pregnancy was the result of action of the Holy Spirit, rather than of man. Interestingly, the tradition of the virgin birth is found only in the first chapter of Matthew (although there are two verses in Luke that might be used to support it, but not indisputably). No other references to it exist, anywhere else in the New Testament.

The Jews were, in those days, surrounded by a vast world of Gentiles who had traditions of their own. It was customary and usual in Gentile legend (necessary, in fact) that any great hero, any wonder-worker, be the son of a god. For example, the Roman historian Livy, who died just before the start of Jesus' ministry, had written an enormously popular history of Rome. It included the city’s founding by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were described by Livy as being of virgin birth. Their mother, Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin whose children were fathered by Mars.

A virgin impregnated by a god in magical fashion was particularly prevalent in the Greek tradition. And there were many Jews living in places such as Alexandria, where Greek influence was strong. Those Greek-speaking Jews naturally felt that if a virgin birth could be used to exalt the founders of a pagan city, then a virgin birth could much more rightly be used to exalt the founding of the kingdom of God!

Thus, Matthew was faced with two contemporary traditions concerning Jesus' birth, the strictly Jewish genealogy of Davidic descent, and the Greek-Jewish story of the virgin birth. So, although mutually exclusive, Matthew accepted both and intertwined them in his gospel. Note that Matthew first demonstrates that Joseph was a descendant of David, but then he carefully specifies that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

But the idea of “virgin birth” itself is completely outside the Jewish tradition. It is not demanded by any of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. In fact, conservative Palestinian Jews actively abhorred the idea that their coming Messiah might be "lumped in" with those ridiculous but extremely common gentile folktales. Yet Matthew felt bound to support his assertion of the virgin birth (or risk losing his Greek-speaking audience), and he did so by citing an Old Testament prophecy. He could find only one, a passage in Isaiah:

Isaiah 7:14. Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son ...

But that is not particularly useful, especially in this connection. The Hebrew language has a specific word ("bethulah") for "virgin" but that is not used here. The Hebrew word that Isaiah used ("almah") means nothing more than "young woman," and it has never had any connotation or hint of sexual activity (or lack of it).

When St Jerome later translated the Greek Septuagint into the Vulgate, he used a Latin word that contextually could (might or might not) denote a lack of sexual activity. It was that amorphous Latin word which was mistranslated by the clerics in King James’ dungeon into the narrowly strict English word “virgin,” which has extra meaning that the Hebrew word never originally intended. Thus none of the original Disciples or Apostles, or any of the people who were with her (including Peter, John, Joseph of Arimathea, etc) thought of Jesus’ mother in terms of virginity … and no Jew, Gentile, or Christian in the first thousand-plus years of Christianity’s existence considered her a “virgin mother.”

Matthew's assertion did lead some early translations of the Bible to – again mistakenly – use the word "virgin" in the Isaiah passage as well. In any case (whether "virgin" or "young woman"), that passage from Isaiah – which Matthew clearly took out of context – had no Messianic significance.

A bit of historical background about that passage …

Isaiah became a prophet in a turbulent historical period, when Israel and Syria were organizing a coalition against Assyria. King Jotham (who succeeded Uzziah to the throne of Judah) preferred to remain outside that coalition – judging, correctly, that it was doomed to disastrous failure. Israel and Syria angrily threatened to invade Judah because of its lack of support. In 735 BC, Jotham died and his son Ahaz took the throne.

Isaiah assured Ahaz that he need not fear Israel or Syria. Viewed secularly, Isaiah's point of view is understandable. The king of Assyria (Tiglath-Pileser) knew that Israel and Syria were preparing a coalition against him. It was certain that he would soon attack the fledgling coalition, and it was also certain that the powerful Assyrian army would smash the small western nations. Isaiah counseled that Judah need simply remain neutral and wait. But Ahaz (uncomfortable about doing nothing) felt it politically wise to declare himself on the Assyrian side and to accept Assyrian rule. Isaiah vehemently opposed this, feeling that Assyrian governance and religious practices would result in the persecution of nationalistic Yahvists (as in fact actually happened a half century later, in the reign of Manasseh). Isaiah argued hard for a go-it-alone policy, promising God's help.

Isaiah 7:14. ... Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel ... before the child shall know to refuse evil, and choose good, the lands thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

In other words, in a couple of years (before a child, born in the near future, becomes old enough to exercise even the simplest judgment), the attacking kings will be defeated. And indeed, three years later (732 BC) Tiglath-Pileser permanently destroyed the Syrian kingdom and rendered Israel powerless.

Christians generally interpret this verse as a reference to the virgin birth of Jesus, but the verse must have had a more immediate meaning. Isaiah could not offer to Ahaz (as a sign for his then-current predicament) the birth of a child more than seven centuries later. The name Immanuel means "God is with us," which had symbolic meaning in connection with the immediate problem. Isaiah's message was that God is with Judah and will not allow it to be destroyed by Syria and Israel.

Isaiah's mention of “a young woman” is a reference to his own wife. Isaiah was only twenty five at the time, and his wife was less than twenty. Immediately after the description of the meeting with Ahaz, Isaiah records the birth of his own (second) son:

Isaiah 8:3 ... his name is Mahershalal-hash-baz ... before the child shall have knowledge to cry, "father," and "mother," the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.

The name "Maher-shalal-hash-baz" means "spoil and booty." The reference is to Syria and Israel, which are to become spoil and booty for the Assyrians. And before the child was old enough to say "mama," the end indeed came for the two northern kingdoms.

Although no child named Immanuel is recorded as having been born in that period of history (or anywhere in the Bible, for that matter), Isaiah said precisely the same things for the predicted child Immanuel and for the actual child Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Immanuel refers to Judah's good fortune and Maher-shalal-hash-baz refers to Syria's (and to Israel's) bad fortune, but the symbolism is exactly the same.

I don’t have any problem with the concept of the "Virgin Birth," its etymology or its inclusion in the Catholic and Anglican traditions. Most modern churches actively support it, and I applaud anyone who intelligently includes the concept as a tenet of personal faith. But bear in mind that it is clearly a traditional belief, not (as fundamentalists claim) an “absolute, undeniable fact” … and it really is comparatively recent (barely 450 years old). It did not originate 2,000 years ago. In fact, the very concept is only about one-quarter as old as Christianity itself. Mary was historically venerated (even adored) as the Mother of the Messiah, but she was referred to – in ALL ancient writings – only as “young” (specifically under age 16 at the time of Jesus’ birth).

Interestingly, the concept of the “Virgin Mary” took two historically divergent paths in religious organizations.

The Anglican Church (and subsequent Protestant churches) accepted the literal meaning of the English word “virgin” exactly as it was – erroneously – translated from St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, but stopped there. Since the New Testament includes English references to Jesus’ brothers (and at least one sister), the Protestant presumption was that Mary and Joseph later had and raised a normal family. While the English language does have multiple words that differentiate and specifically identify “brothers,” “sisters,” “first cousins,” “step-brothers,” etc … the original (Aramaic) language had only one word that applied to all close relatives (which was understandable in a primarily tribal society). So the translation of that one old generic word (from multiple locations) into specific English words like “brother” (rather than “cousin,” for instance) was clearly only a “judgment call” by the 16th Century clerics.

The Catholic Church also accepted the literal meaning of the English word “virgin,” but didn’t stop there. Although the Church steadfastly refused to canonize the Gnostic Gospels, it nonetheless used passages from several of those Gospels to alter and complicate the story of Mary’s virginity. The Gospel of James the Lesser (the “Protonomicon”), for instance, indicates that before their marriage, Joseph was already a widower with grown children, and that he was much older than Mary. The combination of Joseph’s advanced age and the likelihood (at least, according to the “Protonomicon”) that Jesus’ brothers were in reality His half-brothers by marriage, led Catholic leaders to conclude that Mary was perpetually a virgin throughout her life ... a conclusion that most Protestant churches do not currently accept.

The term “born of the Holy Spirit” is a New Testament restatement of the prophesy that the Messiah would be spiritually “One with God.” Even the Q’Ran describes Jesus exactly that way (spiritually “One” with God). In fact, the Q’Ran has the exact same story of the Angel’s visit to Mary (informing her that she was “chosen” to bear God’s Messiah to the Jews) that we now read in the bible's New Testament. Islam still to this day venerates Mary, the only woman specifically mentioned by name in the entire Q'Ran, as the perfect “vessel” who carried God’s “Chosen One.” But they don't consider her a "virgin mother," either.


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