Virginia Hughes — that bright, lovely and suddenly quite aptly named minion of our Seed Overlords — has asked me to write something about parthenogenesis. (That’s virgin birth, for you non-Greeks.) Now, I don’t know anything about biological parthenogenesis. I just suspect that my wife may have that capability, since our daughter looks like a small copy of her with Rundkvist hair. But I can tell you the story behind the Dogma of Virgin Birth.
To a scientifically minded atheist like myself, the whole idea of religious dogmata appears absurd. I have various factual beliefs about the world, not all of them well-founded, some of them almost certainly incorrect. But none of these beliefs has come to me as a dogma: something I must believe, something I cannot question, in order to be accepted by other people and count myself as a good person. All of my factual beliefs are open to revision if better evidence comes along. (My values, that’s something else. My idea that I should treat people with empathy and solidarity doesn’t say anything about how the world actually is, and no evidence can prove to me in the logical sense that this value judgement is wrong.)
So dogmata are strange things. And one of the strangest I’ve come across is the Dogma of the Virgin Birth of Christ, central to Catholic Christianity. Sacred parthenogenesis! Explains the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The virginity of our Blessed Lady was defined under anathema in the third canon of the Lateran Council held in the time of Pope Martin I, A.D. 649. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, as recited in the Mass, expresses belief in Christ ‘incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary’; the Apostles’ Creed professes that Jesus Christ ‘was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’; the older form of the same creed uses the expression: ‘born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary’. These professions show:
- That the body of Jesus Christ was not sent down from Heaven, nor taken from earth as was that of Adam, but that its matter was supplied by Mary;
- that Mary co-operated in the formation of Christ’s body as every other mother co-operates in the formation of the body of her child, since otherwise Christ could not be said to be born of Mary just as Eve cannot be said to be born of Adam;
- that the germ in whose development and growth into the Infant Jesus, Mary co-operated, was fecundated not by any human action, but by the Divine power attributed to the Holy Ghost;
- that the supernatural influence of the Holy Ghost extended to the birth of Jesus Christ, not merely preserving Mary’s integrity [that is, her hymen], but also causing Christ’s birth or external generation to reflect his eternal birth from the Father in this, that ‘the Light from Light’ proceeded from his mother’s womb as a light shed on the world; that the ‘power of the Most High’ passed through the barriers of nature without injuring them; that ‘the body of the Word’ formed by the Holy Ghost penetrated another body after the manner of spirits.”
(I like that final clarification. A reader may wonder just how the Holy Ghost penetrated another body, and the Encyclopedia helpfully explains that it did this “after the manner of spirits”. Lovely!)
Virgin Birth is an old dogma, implicit already in the Nicene creed of AD 381. That means that overturning this article of faith would undermine a lot of other important material. However, theologians quietly agree that the whole idea actually stems from a mistranslation. Wikipedia has all the details.
Evangelists Matthew and Luke state explicitly that Jesus was born to Mary despite her never having had sex. Matthew, basing his gospel on Mark’s, introduces the motif and links it to something Isaiah had written in the 8th century BC, asserting that the Virgin Birth was the fulfilment of an old prophecy.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the ‘almah will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
Hebrew has a word for a girl or woman who has never had sex: betulah. But Isaiah doesn’t say that the person giving birth is going to be a betulah. He calls her an ‘almah, that is, just generally a girl or young woman. Nothing in Isaiah suggests that he envisioned any supernatural baby-making.
Here’s where the mistranslation comes in. You see, Matthew isn’t using the original Hebrew text of Isaiah. Writing his gospel in Greek, he quotes the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament. And for ‘almah, the Septuagint has parthenos, a word implying sexual virginity. Thus the supernatural birth-story of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus the dogma of sacred parthenogenesis.