Translation and the Virgin Birth

The doctrine of the virgin birth—that Mary conceived and bore Jesus without ever having had intercourse with a human male—is one of the oldest Christian doctrines. It dates all the way back to the early Church and has remained a part of many Christian orthodoxies even until modern times. It is also no revelation that the doctrine relies for its textual evidence upon a mistranslation.

I would like to examine two things. First, what exactly are the sources for this doctrine, and how did this mistranslation arise in the first place? And second, how and why did it continue to perpetuate itself through the years, even though its foundation has been known to be questionable for a very long time? (This has been cut for length: my answers to these questions can be found after the jump.)

Let’s attack the sources first. The original text is the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 (all translations are my own):

לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם א֑וֹת הִנֵּ֣ה הָֽעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמ֖וֹ עִמָּ֥נוּ אֵֽל׃

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the young woman (‘almah) shall become pregnant and bear a son, and name him Immanuel.

Note that the Hebrew word ‘almah means “young woman” and does not imply anything about the sexual status of the person in question. However, this all changed when the language moved out of Hebrew. In the third century and later, the Bible was translated into Greek for the benefit of most Jews, who no longer spoke Hebrew. This translation was called the Septuagint (LXX for short), and its version of Isaiah 7:14 runs like this:

δία τοῦτο δώσει Κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον· ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ λήψεται, καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ.

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin (parthenos) will conceive in the womb, and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.

The Greek word parthenos means “virgin” specifically, and does not lack the ambiguity of the Hebrew word ‘almah. It is interesting to note that other Greek texts besides the LXX use the word νεᾶνις neanis, meaning “young woman” without any sexual connotations, but the parthenos reading came to dominate the textual tradition. This is obvious from looking at later translations, such as Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the fourth century CE, which was translated directly out of the Hebrew but with a strong eye toward the previous textual tradition:

propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum: ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel.

Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin (virgo) will conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.

By the time of the writing of (at least) the Gospel of Matthew, the conceit that Mary was a virgin was already built in to the theology, and in fact was a necessary condition of that theology to make the prophecies of the Old Testament be brought to fulfilment by the events in the New Testament. The best example of this is Matthew 1:20–23:

ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ’ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαριὰμ τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου· τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός.

But when he had made up his mind to do this [i.e. not to marry Mary and send her away], a messenger from the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph son of David, do not fear taking Mary as your wife, for the child conceived within her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus for he will save the people from their sins.” This took place to fulfil the word of the Lord through His prophet: “Behold, the virgin will conceive in her womb and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

So there you have it. A seemingly innocuous substitution—parthenos for ‘almah, “virgin” for “young woman”—and we have, by the time of the codification of the New Testament, a doctrine that Jesus was conceived of Mary, a virgin, via the Holy Spirit. Errors of textual transmission have been supplemented by theology to create a chimera of a whole different sort.

(The astute reader will have noticed that I did not attempt to deal with all the other transmission problems in this text, notably the identity and number of those doing the naming, and the exact phrasing for “conceive”. I am content to leave the tracking of and wrangling over these things as an exercise for the reader.)

Let me turn now (briefly, I promise) to my second question: why is this doctrine still around, and how does it keep itself going? The answer, as I alluded to above, is that it is essentially indestructible. Like the alien in Alien or the myth about Eskimo words for snow, once the “virgin” mistranslation was loose in the wild, there was no stopping it. And indeed, slaying this chimera is now all but impossible, since there have been so many layers of theological edifice constructed on top of it in the two thousand or so years since it first got its start. Right or wrong, this doctrine is here to stay.

Also, I suspect that a long undercurrent of anti-translationism in many parts of the Western world, which regarded the Vulgate as the only authoritative Bible for centuries and were responsible for the burning at the stake of anyone who owned or produced a translated Bible is partially responsible as well. Currently, this belief seems to take the form of an antipathy toward textual criticism in general, which has as its root the assumption that the Bible is a human document, produced by humans, and susceptible to human error. This is especially evident in the King James Only movement, but more generally in those who argue that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. We simply cannot begin to understand these issues unless you accept that the text of the Bible has changed over the centuries, as it has been passed through different hands and been translated into different languages.

“You may ask,” Tevye the dairyman once noted, “how do these traditions get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Although Tevye didn’t believe in the virgin birth, and we do know how the tradition behind this doctrine got started, his larger point remains valid: it’s a tradition, and regardless of how unfounded or silly they are, traditions oftentimes take on lives all their own.

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46 comments for “Translation and the Virgin Birth

  1. Lisa
    August 6, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    thanks so much for doing this! it has really made my day!

  2. Aspasia
    August 6, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    The long-time lurker/Classics nerd comes out of her shell…

    Actually, parthenos doesn’t specifically have to mean “virgin,” it’s often the word used for unmarried women in general (being unmarried and all, they were assumed to be virgins of course).

    Thanks for this interesting post, Sam. This is one subject I studied quite a bit in undergrad. Well, more like seeing how much of the Christian religious tradition was borrowed from earlier “pagan” religions. The idea of the “virgin birth” was hardly new, let us not forget Danae impregnated by the “golden shower” of Zeus. And it wasn’t new with the Greeks either, I just remembered that one off the top of my head.

  3. August 6, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Very interesting post. Thanks! Speaking as someone raised on 13 years of Catholic school, my other “favorite” dogma was the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. Not to be disrespectful, but…. riiiiight.

    I was raised thinking that the bible was inspired by God, but not dictated word by word. My Catholic school taught, for instance, that some great flood probably happened, since you see flood myths in so many different cultures… but maybe the guy wasn’t named “Noah,” and maybe the whole “ark” thing was symbolic. “Hm,” I thought at some point, “Aren’t… aren’t there virgin birth myths in other cultures too? Hmmm…” Interesting to see the actual linguistics of the thing!

  4. Ismone
    August 6, 2008 at 6:26 pm


    Most Catholic priests I know are aware of the text, in fact, not all Christians believe Mary was a virgin for her whole life. I think most actually do not. But if an angel appeared to her before she married Joseph, I don’t think assuming virginity is unreasonable. In terms of Catholicism, you could find a Marian website, but I’m pretty sure the whole Mary/virgin thing is seen as coming from tradition, not the text.

    To be honest, the focus on her virginity probably had to do with the greek obsession with the grossness of human bodies.

  5. August 6, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    An interesting thing I’d heard was that, in many cultures (and maybe the culture of the day), “virgin” had nothing to do with not having had sex; it was about not having had babies.

    I’m nowhere near the linguist or historian I’d have to be to know this for sure. But I do recall hearing of a friend of a friend doing a definitive history of virginity. I may have to look for that book.

  6. Mikey
    August 6, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I think this post is generously supplemented by the gun-wielding, diamond-stealing, first five minutes of the Guy Ritchie film Snatch.

  7. August 6, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    A short note on the “perpetual virginity” of Mary:

    it’s explicit in the Biblical texts that she had other sons and daughters after Jesus, who were conceived naturally.

  8. Bitter Scribe
    August 6, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Aspasia and Cynical Nymph are correct: The virgin birth of a (or the) god is found in many mythologies. So is the bit about the first humans being made by God from mud (or “dust,” as Genesis has it).

  9. August 6, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    The Gospels are full of issues like this. I quite enjoy Jesus riding on the backs of two donkeys, which must have been quite a feat of horsemanship indeed, because a prophecy said that — except it didn’t say that at all, but the repetition inherent in that style of Hebrew poetry made a confused reader think there were two donkeys. Sigh.

    Of course, the doctrine around the Septuagint is fantastical in and of itself, so probably a devout Christian would say that parthenos wasn’t a mistranslation at all — it was an inspired correction of an earlier mistake.

  10. The14thOpossum
    August 6, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Anyone interested in this should watch the first scene in the movie snatch. The actors are dressed as rabbis (to rob a diamond shop), and they discuss the whole mistranslation of the word for young woman.

  11. Phrone
    August 6, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    So, due to the fact that I learned the Bible in a semester-long course, I have kindda a sloppy understanding of the works as a whole. But was there a prophecy that specifically stated that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, not just a young woman? Because then the mistranslation might make sense, considering the rest of Matthew is emphasizing how Jesus fits the older prophecies.

    I think that and the whole perpetual virgin thing also have to do a lot with blood relatives of Jesus, because people tend to get a bit worked up about that (That was a big issue with the Da Vinci Code, wasn’t it? And how some people didn’t like it?) I think a lot of people are more comfortable with Christ as a divine figure without, like, blood relatives. (Or something…)

    It’d be interesting to see this within a larger context of how society/societies at the time treated virginity and women in general, not just ones who were supposedly born with original sin. (Or something, I get my theology confused very easily.)

  12. Sam
    August 6, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    @Phrone This prophecy, from Isaiah 7:14, quoted at Matthew 1:23, is the one. The prophecy was understood as referring to a virgin from at least the time of the writing of the Gospel of Matthew and the codification of the New Testament.

  13. Ismone
    August 6, 2008 at 8:34 pm


    I think the word used for Jesus’ relatives was a word that encompassed both cousins and brother.

  14. August 6, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Once you correct the mistranslation, it doesn’t sound like much of a prophecy — a young woman will have a child!

  15. Lisa
    August 6, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    “To be honest, the focus on her virginity probably had to do with the greek obsession with the grossness of human bodies.”

    I’ve always interpreted the Catholic obsession with Mary’s virginity (and, my Catholic education reinforces the existence of this preoccupation) as further evidence of the Church’s misogyny. Basically, in order to exalt a woman in the way that the Catholic Church has with Mary, they needed to portray her as extra pure – hence, she conceived the Christ child without having intercourse.

    And this is why I really love this post!

  16. August 6, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Really, Sam, your two posts today are worthy of nomination for one of those Koufax thingies. Classicists and amateur theologians and feminists can rejoice together in some good stuff.

    When’s your primer coming out?

  17. August 6, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Isn’t most Christian doctrine already questionable? The vast majority of the stories in the Bible are BS. The so-called virgin birth is just one of the many examples.

  18. Torri
    August 6, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    As well as Snatch the movie that comes to mind is Dogma. ‘you are the great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grand neice of Jesus christ’

  19. Dennis_Mahon
    August 7, 2008 at 1:58 am

    When you start looking to Hollywood for theological information (Dogmaand Snatch), you know you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.

    Seriously, folks–do you even read what you write?

  20. August 7, 2008 at 2:00 am

    Of course, this discussion is one of the odd side effects of reading ancient texts from a modern viewpoint. To us now, this appears to be merely an issue of mistranslation, therefore pulling the rug out from under an orthodox Christian doctrine. From the viewpoint of the ancient, however, no such thing was necessarily going on. There are a few steps we can take along with the ancients to demonstrate what is probably a more likely scenario than mistranslation limping its way into orthodoxy.

    (1) We have to recognize that at this point in Isaiah, the prophet was having a discussion with the king, not actively prophesying the coming of the Messiah. When he was speaking and later writing the text in question (7:14) it was in reference to an actual woman (probably his own wife), and, as Sam pointed out, was certainly not meant to refer to a virgin.

    (2) A few centuries later, as the Greek translation was being produced, the Hebrew term ‘almah was translated with the Greek term parthenos. While I don’t disagree with Sam’s discussion that this was a bit of a mistake, it may still be too strong to label it a mistranslation. Both terms can refer to virgins (see, e.g., Gen 24:43) and both terms generally refer to “young women of marriageable age.” The Greek term does, however, emphasize virginity, an emphasis not present for the original referent of Is 7:14, and therein lies the mistake. However, the Septuagint’s translation of Is 7:14 is actually of little importance because…

    (3) Matthew was certainly familiar with both the Septuagint and the Hebrew text of Isaiah. This is particularly where the disconnect between the ancient and modern comes in. We tend to think of the biblical writers (and the ancient population in general) as having been sitting around, waiting for someone to show up to fulfill all these prophecies. But it was actually the other way around. Matthew was a disciple of Christ, and then later, as he was putting together his gospel, made the connections from Jewish scripture to Christ (in order to make the case that Christ was the Messiah). His choice to use the term parthenos was not an “inspired correction” but a conscious decision to take what Isaiah originally said (likely about his own coming son) and mold it to fit the situation of Christ’s birth (as he understood that situation).

  21. Isabel
    August 7, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Well dang! That was super interesting; thank you!

  22. Kevin
    August 7, 2008 at 8:34 am

    – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon notes “there is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin.”

    I’m sort of new to this blog. I stumbled upon it about a week ago. Just some personal testimony: i’ve never regretted a moment of prayerfully deepening my relationship with the Blessed Mother of the Lord.

    When the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI visited the US a few months back he made an excellent analogy between church architecture and the Catholic Church. Looking at a Cathedral’s stained glass windows from the outside doesn’t make much sense, but from the inside, illuminated by the light (of faith), one can glimpse beauty and truth.

    The argument above does not disprove the Truth of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Virginity of the Blessed Mother. Nor does it disprove the value of seeking to emulate her holiness and obedience to the Lord God. Do you seek holiness and understanding, or do you seek self-aggrandizement and justification for your immoral choices?

    Any Catholic who has left the Church should immediately seek out God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and return to the Eucharist. Ask Mary to help you, your prayers will not go unaided.

  23. Cranky Catholic
    August 7, 2008 at 9:30 am

    You can argue that it’s a mistranslation. But to prove it’s a mistranslation? Can’t do it.

    When you say the Hebrew was translated into Greek in the third century, you forgot to mention ‘B.C.’ Your omission leaves the reader to believe the Septuagint was written after Christ’s birth.

    Unfortunately you’re applying a modern translation of a term from an ancient word that goes back over three-thousand years. In modern Hebrew ‘alma’ merely means ‘a young woman.’ Isaiah could have written that a ‘betula’ would conceive and bear a son because a ‘betula’ is indeed a virgin, more specifically, a virgin of ANY age. And in the Old Testament we see instances of miraculous births to older women.

    So why use ‘alma’ in the translation centuries later… and BEFORE Christ’s birth? Back then an ‘alma’ often described a woman too young to have children. That’s not to say she wasn’t physically capable of having children. It’s just that she was regarded as too young to marry, and thus, she would always be regarded as a virgin.

  24. SophiaPriskilla
    August 7, 2008 at 9:39 am

    A bit of a correction here – the basis of the doctrine is in Luke far more than Matthew. I don’t have a Greek font installed on this computer, so I’ll just quote from the English New Revised Standard Version – good for “wooden” accuracy if problematic anywhere else. (It’s Google-able freely available online, should anyone want to check.) The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will “conceive in [her] womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,” after which follows: “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a parthenos?'” (Luke 2.24-35). That is, although parthenos has a wide range of meanings and doesn’t necessarily imply “virgin” in our sense, the text of Luke presents Mary as being surprised at being a mother and a parthenos at the same time. In Matthew, the angel speaks to Joseph, not Mary. He’s surprised because Mary has had no marital relations with him, not because she’s a parthenos – the word doesn’t appear in Matthew.

    All that isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of historical, theological, and other issues swirling around the question – just that the textual basis is Luke, not Matthew, and Luke doesn’t quote Isaiah here in the same way Matthew does. /*Textual studies geekery.

  25. Sundown
    August 7, 2008 at 9:41 am


    Did you even read the original post? Sam was talking about actual scholarship; the references to Dogma and Snatch are just whimsical and funny. Of course, it’s questionable whether you even have a sense of humor.

  26. August 7, 2008 at 10:55 am

    One of Jill’s favorite fundamentrollists linked here encouraging her readers to leave comments, just as fair warning. I didn’t see a trackback here.

    I am loving Sam’s analysis, though I don’t really know enough about it to add anything to the discussion — but I don’t want to see an informative discussion get entirely sidetracked by INERRANT!

  27. Shae
    August 7, 2008 at 11:45 am

    It requires more study than I’ve done, but it seems to me that the virgin connotation would naturally follow if there are other reasons to believe that God was said to be the father of the child or that Emmanuel means Jesus or Savior.

    If the child is divine and/or is fathered by God, then obviously there is no reason to postulate a human father, regardless of what almah or other words mean.

  28. August 7, 2008 at 11:52 am

    My only problem with this post is that it hangs its intelletual hat on the notion that the Christian notion of the virgin birth of Jesus comes from Isaiah. This is not the only possible source.

  29. August 7, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    The issue I have with the Gospel accounts of the Virgin Birth is simply that I cannot imagine how the information came into the hands of the Gospel writers.

    Luke writes, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of te things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4 New International Version)

    Thing is, who told anyone about Mary’s conversations with angels, whether she was a virgin, or any of the material about Jesus’ younger life? There seems to be the implication that Jesus’ home town had no idea that he was in any way special (like, if Mary or Joseph had mentioned about his special status!) I can see how information about Christ’s ministry could have been transmitted as Luke describes, but adults at the time of Jesus’ birth would have been long dead by the time of the Gospels being written, and would likely have been old or dead by the time his ministry started, so why would they tell anyone about the circumstances of his birth, circumcision and presentation at the temple etc? What about Luke’s tale of the young Jesus being at the temple when his parents couldn’t find him – how could that particular story have been transmitted across at least 4 decades (the earliest dates for any of the Gospels being reckoned to be the early 50s CE)? So, I doubt the veracity of those earlier stories – and to be fair, they are not as important as the message of Christ’s ministry anyway.

  30. August 7, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Ismone: Mark 6:3 says, “‘Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” It quotes the reaction of the people of Nazareth when Jesus returned there as a preacher. The study notes in my NIV Bible say that some people try to suggest that they are brothers only by being sons of Joseph, but that this interpretation is more difficult to support than that his siblings were also sons and daughters of Mary.

  31. stonebiscuit
    August 7, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Phrone: That’s probably part of the controversy about “The DaVinci Code.”

    Personally, my big problem was that it was, to put it mildly, a God-awful dreadful book. There were other things, and lots of factors that made it so horrible, but that’s what it boiled down to for me (practicing Christian for most of my life).

  32. Q Grrl
    August 7, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Virgin? Not virgin? Eh, who cares?

    The biggest mistranslation of all time is that this was a consensual act. New god just rapin’ like the old gods did.

  33. kat
    August 7, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Is it possible that the emphasis on virginity came from Roman traditions? The Romans placed huge value on women’s virginity and fidelity, right?
    So if the Hebrew texts were being reinterpreted in a Roman world, would that society’s paradigms creep into the mix?

  34. August 7, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Great post! I wanted to add on another point to this — back then, geneology was important, which is why the first part of Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage as back to King David (and through him to Abraham and Adam). This is exemplified in the notion that the actions that your ancestors took would affect yours in the form of curses or blessings — i.e. original sin being passed down through Adam to his children, grandchildren, etc.

    The listing in Matthew is supposedly there to prove that Jesus is related to (and thus meant to become) a king. Considering that monarchs in those days were often designated by birth because of their fathers or other relatives, this detail becomes very important, though often looked over.

    However, given the virgin birth interpretation, the “king” lineage is broken since Joseph is not the true biological father of Jesus. I’d imagine that the early authors did not intend for that break in the chain to exist because they would want Jesus to be born of noble blood.

  35. Ismone
    August 7, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Snowdrop, my point is that the word for cousin and brother is the same. So he could be Mary’s son and the cousin of (list of mens names).

  36. Ivy
    August 7, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    It’s also important to keep in mind for the purposes of this discussion that Matthew and Luke were written around 80 CE — fifty years after the death (and resurrection, if you do) of Jesus, where Mark is the earliest account (60ish CE) and John the latest (120ish). As such, if one reads them in the order from earliest to latest, one sees more legendary properties in the record.

    Also, the Gospels were very likely written pseudonymously, particularly the latter three. It was common to write under the name of a great figure to lend one’s story credibility (for example, if I were to post under Karen Armstrong’s name).

    Also, the theme of virgin or chaste birth is a common theme (There is an infancy gospel of Mary, mother of Jesus, daughter of Anna, wherein she is conceived without help from her father, Joachim). It is important to keep in mind that metaphor was in common use (see Revelation to John) and taking things too literally can cause problems in understanding.

    /religious studies minor

  37. invisible_hand
    August 8, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    as a jewish studies professional, i gotta say that this meme comes out a lot in jewish circles. it is code for how christianity is an illegitimate offspring of our TRUE religion.
    the problem is this:
    the christian reading of almah as virgin may not be pshat (the plain sense) but it is a decent interpretation (midrash), and, as we all know in postmodern hermeneutical times, all reading is interpretation. indeed, the jewish style of reading has been lauded for its embrace of interpretation, so we must be utterly critical in examining why such things emerge.

  38. Sam
    August 8, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    @invisible_hand I’m not intending it as an expression of the meme about our one true religion, only as a cautionary tale about transmission and translation of texts and the vicissitudes of the manuscript tradition.

  39. Ismone
    August 8, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    But Sam, as I and others have pointed out upthread, it is a really bad example. And if you held yourself to the same standards about learning about another religion that we hold non-feminists to (it’s not my job to educate them, they can go read a book) you could have learned that what you are representing about my religion is incorrect.

  40. Brian
    August 8, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    Ivy (37) – it was not “common to write under the name of a great figure to lend one’s story credibility.” Those who tried it (and were not open about it) were exposed and ridiculed (which did not really happen to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

    As a religious studies minor, you should also recognize that your dates are speculative based on data that is open to other legitimate interpretations, and so should not be so authoritatively invoked.


  41. Joan
    August 10, 2008 at 1:40 am

    Just a brief word on Mary’s perpetual virginity.

    For ordinary people, sexual expression is a fundamental part of our relationships, and we have a hard time understanding the idea of a couple that decides to live chastely throughout their marriage.

    The idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity hinges on the fact that she is Jesus’ mother. If you believe that Jesus is God, then it’s no trouble at all to believe that she never had sex and never had another child: how could she? Bearing God, giving birth to God, would be the ultimate fulfillment. She would have no need or desire to have any other children; how could any other children compare to God? (In fact, it would be grossly unfair to those children, who could never measure up!)

    Of course if you don’t believe that Jesus is God, it makes no sense for Mary to have remained a virgin. But it makes perfect sense to those of us who believe — including Mary and Joseph.

    Shorter version? A tabernacle is not a bread box.

  42. mandy
    August 10, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Answering myriad points, abridged:

    First up: There is more than one way to translate and interpret a text. Saying it refers to an unmarried woman (who would be a virgin by default) is one interpretation, as is saying it was a virgin, etc. jews prefer to use one, but as seen from the translation of the Septuagint (written in 300bc) it was not the only valid translation/interpretation, even for jews, so yeah. Yes, any Bible passage can be interpreted in many ways. Move on.

    Secondly, and probably most importantly: Prophecies do NOT confirm events. Events confirm prophecies. We do not say an earthquake happened because Nostradamus prophecied. We say Nostradamus might have been talking about X earthquake once we see it happen. Matthew, Luke etc. are tying in this person early Christians know as Jesus with the rest of the bible, to show continuity. They are not prooftexting Mary’s virginity with Isaiah. Nobody does that because it is a meaningless action. Prophecies are not proofs. Thus, it doesn’t matter if the word in Isaiah is almah or virgin. Because Mary was a young unmarried woman, too, too at the time, and you can tie it back just as easily to that.

    Thirdly: Pagan Myths don’t copy from Christianity neither does Christianity copy from pagan myths, as a general rule (Excepting many purely aesthetic details like wedding rings, christmas trees, etc)–But both copy from HUMAN experience. The default mode of humans coming to life is to have a mother give birth to them. Thus, when humans are explaining how Gods came to have human form, they put it in those terms. Because it is what makes sense to humans–pagan or Christian. If anything, it is striking how different those stories are. In one, Athena comes out from the head of a man, instead of a vagina of a woman, in another a god takes material form and has sex with women, in another He sends his Holy Spirit to conceive in her, in another god is born from an egg in a cave, fully adult. They are not the same, they just share the common human experience of birth–if even that much. They are only similar in ways most of humanity is similar. Which is not shocking.

    Fourth: Rape requires, in common parlance, both sex and lack of consent. Given Mary said “yes” quite clearly–in fact, that is one of the main point of the story, saying yes to God– and God did not have sex with her (thus the emphasis on virgin, before and after) I fail to see how under any definition of rape that is true.

    Fifth: Perpetual virginity is not emphasized out of a fetish for virginity. It is emphasized because of the idea of consecration. Virginity, though nice, is not a requirement for sainthood, in the Catholic Church. Widows, wives, mothers, repentant men and women, husbands, all are saints in the Catholic Church, so it is nonsense to say that virginity is required for purity in the sense of saintliness for a later married woman. But just like a priest cannot have a glass of milk and a sandwich with the Eucharistic vessels, even though there is nothing wrong with sandwiches or milk (both, truly, gifts of God… mmm sandwiches), because they were “consecrated”, i.e. set aside for sacred use. So was Mary consecrated, she was set apart to be the Mother of God, and queen of Heaven. So even though children and sex are blessings of marriage, they were not available to her.

    Sixth: Jesus brothers. Can be translated as cousins. Also, Jesus gives Mary to St. John at the foot of the cross to take care of. If she had younger children, this would not be done according to Jewish custom at the time, since she had other caretakers, and john was by no means especially wealthy.

    Seventh: Luke and Matthew knew about the events because Mary, now living with St. John, knew them and talked to them. These aren’t strangers. They are people working and living together, with no television. They know all their stories. And passed them on to their disciples. Even if Luke and Matthew are not “the” luke and Matthew, they were still disciples, all learning and hearing the stories from the body of the Church, and writing them down.

  43. Colin Gormley
    August 10, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    A number of errors in thinking are taking place here.

    1. As pointed out above almah has a variety of meanings in ancient Hebrew. “Virgin” is just one of them. To say the the Greek translation is a mistake is a stetch at best.

    2. Referring to Jesus’ “brothers” as proof that Mary was not a perpetual virgin are mistaken. Ancient Hebrew has no words for cousin. They would use a round-about approach. “This is the son of my father’s brother.” That being wordy, they would simplify and say “He is my brother.” The Bible at worst doesn’t give any indication one way or another.

    3. Recent scholarship is pushing back the authorship of the Gospels to the traditional dates. Roughly 50-70 AD and are providing more evidence to authenticate the authors are in fact who they claim they are.

    4. Joseph being the foster father of Jesus makes Jesus de facto a part of the Davidic line according to Jewish laws and customs. “Bloodline only lineage” is more of a European convention.

    In agape,
    Colin Gormley

  44. Colin Gormley
    August 11, 2008 at 12:04 am

    One more point I had forgotten,

    I find it odd that those who hold the perpetual virgintiy of Mary as “proof” of the mysoginy of the Catholic Church to be “setting the stage” as it were so that the Church cannot possibly win. If Mary is the perfect human being, then the Church is creating an impossible standard. If they hold up Mary Magdalane as a disciple of Christ, they point to the Church’s history of her (historically dubious) past. Nevermind the numerous women saints the Church has cannonized (including a Doctor).

    In agape,

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