Sacred Parthenogenesis

i-816aa89f6dff4fd10a8f0480105166ae-dice.jpgVirginia 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.

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Bike Crash Glamour Shot

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My Bulgarian ICQ buddy Tatyana Mircheva is studying design in Birmingham, UK. Recently, she published this photograph on her blog. It’s really good, and I assumed it was some professional advertising shot she’d lifted from the net. Turns out it’s a self-portrait, shot at home with the aid of a bedroom lamp and a blanket from Ikea! Tatyana chose her gear, posed the shot and lit it, and her roomie snapped it. I’m impressed!

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Blog Carnival Call for Submissions

Wednesday 5 December will see the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival appear in all its archaeo/anthro glory at Remote Centrral. If you have read or blogged anything good on those themes lately, then make sure to submit it to Tim ASAP. (You are encouraged to submit stuff you’ve found on other people’s blogs.)

The first open hosting slot is currently on 13 February. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me.

Swedish Skeptics 25 years

i-83b37cc0e6ae5e44726a14026c0aed6f-logga.gifToday, the Swedish Skeptics Society celebrated its 25th anniversary with an afternoon seminar in Stockholm. I’ve been a member since 1997, a co-editor of the society’s journal Folkvett since 2002 and a board member since 2004. The >2000-member society is Sweden’s nearest equivalent of CSI (formerly CSICOP), but it has certain unusual traits. For one thing, its Swedish name, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning, says nothing about either skepticism nor the paranormal. It simply means “The Society for Science and Popular Enlightenment”. (Folkbildning, a word first documented in 1805, is strongly associated with the early-20th century Labour movement’s ambition to make education freely available to all citizens.) And the first paragraph of the society’s statutes reads as follows (and I translate):

¶1 The purpose of the Society for Science and Popular Enlightenment is to support popular enlightenment about the methods and results of science. In particular, the society takes upon itself to combat, in the context of free speech, erroneous beliefs on issues that can be resolved by scientific means. An important part of popular science enlightenment is to make it clear what questions can be resolved by scientific means, and which cannot.

The society endorses the principles of political democracy. It is politically neutral as to political parties and unaffiliated in questions of religious faith.

So, what we have here is an organisation that doesn’t really accept “paranormal” as a valid classification: all registerable traits of the universe are open to scientific inquiry, and the interesting aspect of any truth claim is simply whether it’s on the turf of science or not. Though very few members appear to be particularly religious and many are atheists, the society doesn’t deal in theology. Vetenskap och Folkbildning isn’t primarily against anything: it’s pro-science and pro-communication.

At today’s seminar, we had four good lectures looking back at the past quarter century, and finally a presentation by stage magician Tom Stone where he explained the perceptual psychology behind a number of tricks as he performed them. Good stuff! And afterwards, a dinner of Lebanese meze in excellent company.

I encourage all Dear Readers who understand any Scandinavian language to check out the society’s web site (with a huge text archive), lively on-line forum, quarterly print journal and regular public lectures.

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