Good Questions: Was Mary Really a Virgin?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

The creed we declare (or mutter) week by week states that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” Was it really so? Does it matter?

Giving mental assent to this, being quite sure that Yes, she was a virgin! was never a litmus test for whether you’re truly Christian until a bit more than a century ago. The New Testament expends a lot of time on Jesus crucified and risen, but precious little on his coming to be in his mother’s womb. I’m fond of Churchill’s humor: when asked about his parents only having been married 6 months when he was born, he replied, “Although being present on the occasion of my birth, I have no recollection of the events leading up to it.”

The texts in question aren’t definitive. Facing the pressure of fending off an Assyrian invasion, Ahaz asked Isaiah for a sign. He answered, “A virgin will conceive and bear a son called Emmanuel.” A crystal ball prediction of something 700+ years in the future would be zero help to Ahaz. The Hebrew ‘almah probably just means a young woman, without any implication of her experience with men. Matthew (alone in the New Testament) picked up that slim thread and wove it into his story, more obsessed with the nickname “Emmanuel” than anything else. Luke and Matthew have her engaged but not yet with Joseph; they don’t make a huge issue of it, but they would certainly have believed Mary came to be with child without the assistance of Joseph.

Alleged virgin births weren’t that unusual in ancient times. Alexander the Great (among others) claimed divine conception. Matthew and Luke would have been insistent on the truth about Jesus, even if they’d regard Alexander’s tale as a mere tale: Jesus is not merely the product of human actions.

John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal priest who for years made sport of ridiculing traditional beliefs, saw this doctrine as layered in with keeping women in their place, and how women were feared (or alluring!) as temptresses. No doubt! And, God would have been more than capable of transforming a child conceived pre-wedlock into the Savior of the world.

Here’s my simple-minded take. I believe Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, although I don’t have clarity on how that physically or mystically occurred. Why? I wrote a book on the creed 17 years ago; in it I offered 3 musings on my reasons. First, of the 40 or 50 people I’ve admired most in my life and in all of history, all or almost all of them would have felt quite sure Mary was a virgin. This doesn’t seal anything, of course – but if we believe, we believe in the good company of others. I might get too big for my britches some days and think I’m smarter than Mother Teresa or St. Francis or my grandparents. But on this and a great many other things, I’ll risk standing with them.

Secondly, as modern people armed with the powerful tool of science and reason, we see everything as cause and effect. Everything happens for a very earthly reason, and we can’t envision anything that is mysterious, transcendent, numinous. I hope and pray that everything can’t be reduced to cause and effect, that some things happen mystically, miraculously, divinely, that the world is enchanted. Why can’t Mary be a shimmering sample?

And thirdly: I believe holiness matters, and is possible – on many issues, not just intimacy. Mary would have been 14 or 15, and in a culture that attached grievous shame to premarital intimacy. We live in a culture that attaches little or no shame to intimacy. Strangers hook up on TV; David Brooks once spoke of the “McDonaldization” of physical intimacy. A while back, in pre-marital counseling, a couple revealed they both were virgins. They looked a tad embarrassed; I was embarrassingly shocked. The Bible isn’t anti-pleasure, but the Bible knows that covenant commitments matter for our own mental health. You don’t fritter away that most precious, secret part of your self. Could it be Mary simply was holy – not just in bodily relations, but in mind, heart and actions in all of life?

A reporter once asked Mother Teresa “Why are you so holy?” Her reply? “You speak as if holiness were abnormal. Holiness is normal. To be anything else is to be abnormal. Why don’t you ask unholy people why they are unholy?”

If a question mark pops up in your head when we say that part of the creed, don’t fret too much. God doesn’t mind questions, ever. On this one, just for me, admitting there are good questions, I’ll nod, and believe, hoping to be like my heroes, hoping for miracles, hoping myself to be holy.