The Virgin Birth

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (April, 2005)

Here are some apparently irreconcilable facts.

"The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.' ...And Mary said to the angel, 'How shall this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." (Luke 1:30-35)

"Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 1:18)

The above two quotations, from Luke and Matthew, present a virgin birth. The gospels of Mark and John, on the other hand, say nothing about a virgin birth, although they have plenty of miracles. There is no mention of it in Acts.

In his Epistle to Romans 1:3, Paul introduces Jesus as "descended from David according to the flesh." There is no virgin birth in any of the Epistles of the New Testament.

The same two gospels that present a virgin birth, implying that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, give long genealogies of Jesus, showing his descent from King David through Joseph (Luke 3:23-38, Matthew 1:1-17).

We have been seeing why clues from the Dead Sea Scrolls throw radical new light on the miracles of the gospels and Acts. They were not miracles, but natural events. The gospel-writers themselves did not believe in them. They were deliberately presenting them as miracles for the sake of the simple faith of the "babes in Christ", while at the same time wording them in such a way that the learned members of their ascetic schools would discover the actual history of Jesus and the foundations of Christianity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls give us another contribution, supplying the natural explanation of the "Virgin birth". While Christians have believed, following ecclesiastical tradition, that monasticism did not appear in Christianity until the third century, the natural explanation could not have been known. But the missing link has now been found. Christianity had its origins in a celibate movement, one that believed sexual intercourse to be defiling. The holiest men avoided sex altogether, while the men descended from great dynasties were obliged to leave the celibate life temporarily, have sex with their wives only in order to beget offspring, then return to the celibate life for long periods. The men lived the life of monks, the women the lives of nuns.

The Essene nucleus of the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls was perceived from the start, and has been battled over for the last 50 years. The motive for objecting to the evidence was the insight established in the 19th century, that Christianity was derived from Essenism, the distinctive Jewish ascetic movement. The great French scholar Ernst Renan had said Christianity was "an Essenism that had succeeded". For fundamentalist Christians and those allied with them, Christianity had not been derived from anything, but had been revealed straight from heaven through Christ.

Josephus gives us full descriptions of the Essenes, seeing them as one of the three Jewish philosophies of the period of Christian origins. After he has given a full account of the monastic Essenes, which agree at numerous points with the Scrolls, he goes on to "another order of Essenes", those who had to marry for dynastic reasons. He writes: "They give their wives a three years' probation, and only marry them after they have by three periods of purity given proof of fecundity. They have no intercourse with them during pregnancy, thus showing that their motive in marrying is not self-indulgence but the procreation of children." (JW 2, 161).

In Jewish thought, menstruation is "impurity". The Scrolls are even stricter on this inhibition than orthodox Judaism, treating a menstruating woman as the equal of a leper (Temple Scroll 48: 14-19). "Three periods of purity" meant, for them, three successive occasions when there was no menstruation. When a woman becomes pregnant, her menstrual periods cease. It is the main proof of her "fecundity". Josephus is saying that Essene dynasts marry, holding a first ceremony beginning a trial period of three years, during which they have sexual intercourse. When the woman is three months pregnant and the danger of miscarriage is past, they enter a binding marriage, for life. After this ceremony there is no further intercourse, as it can be a danger to a pregnant woman. The husband returns to the celibate community.

The Essene woman in such an arrangement had to be a literal virgin before the first ceremony beginning the trial marriage. The high value placed on chastity would make that obligatory. Both before and after her two wedding ceremonies she would be committed to a lifestyle that upheld celibacy as far as possible. She belonged to an ascetic order, "another order of Essenes", for which there were parallels in the hellenistic world, such as the Roman Vestal Virgins. She was and remained a Virgin, with an upper-case V, all her life.

The rules limiting sex would have included a long period of betrothal before the first ceremony. It would be a time when the couple met, but with no sex. It could be so long that "passions became strong." Such a situation, practiced by Christians, is implied in 1 Corinthians 7:36. "If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly towards his virgin (Greek: parthenos), if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let them marry -it is no sin."

Joseph was a descendant of King David, as the genealogies in Luke and Matthew show. (Their differences from one another are not a sign that they were invented, as critics have thought, but have a historical explanation that we'll come to later.) He was the biological father of Jesus. Mary, a young virgin, was betrothed to him for several years before their first ceremony. Six months before that ceremony, the passions became too strong, and Jesus was conceived. When her pregnancy was discovered, a strict view demanded that they separate, and the child should be brought up as an illegitimate. But more liberal views on sex were held by hellenised Essenes. Joseph was advised by the "angel" (a human priest, as all "angels" in the story are) to skip the first ceremony and hold the second, binding ceremony, the one when the woman was three months pregnant. After that ceremony he "knew her not", as Matthew says (Matthew 1:25), because intercourse during pregnancy was forbidden.

Joseph was the "Holy Spirit" (in the Greek form pneuma hagion). Like the term "angel", this was a title applied to Essene celibates. (Other Greek forms apply to other celibates.) It was a common belief in the hellenistic world that great leaders were incarnations of divine beings. The title "Son of God" for Jesus has a similar meaning.

Jesus was, therefore, a pre-nuptial son of Joseph. On a strict view, he was illegitimate, and his next brother James, conceived six years later, was the legitimate one who should be the heir of David, the Messiah of Israel, when the Kingdom came. This is the reason for the tension with James in the New Testament. But on a liberal view, that of the "seekers-of-smooth-things" his conception had taken place in the final, committed stage of betrothal, and he should be regarded as legitimate. The Magians who came to hail him at his birth, in Matthew's account, were Diaspora Essenes who held the liberal view.

The virgin birth story is one of the best examples of the pesher of the gospels. The main New Testament knows nothing of it because it did not happen. But Luke and Matthew have a double purpose. They were supplying a story that would be valued by the "babes in Christ", because it taught that celibacy was the highest human state. There could be no sexual origin of the divine man. At the same time, they were giving to experts in pesher the information that accounted for much of the party history. The question of sex was one of the issues that divided the "seekers-of-smooth-things" from conservatives. The question of Jesus' legitimacy affected every event of his life, including at his trial before the crucifixion.