Virginal conception (was Re: [asa] Lawrence Krauss Defends New Atheism)

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sat Jun 27 2009 - 11:51:27 EDT

The issue here is whether or not Mary conceived the Word as a virgin, not whether or not she retained her virginity in giving birth. The latter view has been held by many Christians (not only Orthodox & RCs - Luther & I believe Calvin & Wesley held it) but there is no biblical warrant for it. "Virginal conception" rather than "virgin birth" is the term that should be used. (& while it may be a bit pedantic, it's not a bad idea to respond to a question "What about the virgin birth?" from someone like Krauss by first pointing this out. It's a slightly subtle way of saying "You don't really know what you're talking about.")

I think an appropriate answer might then proceed somewhat as follows. 1st, if - to use a quite crude model - God simply created a sperm ex nihilo in the womb of Mary, to be united with one of her ova, there's no way in which scientific observation after the fact (& certainly at a remove of 2000 years) could distinguish between that & the usual mode of conception for Jesus. 2d, there may be very rare natural processes which God could have used to bring about Jesus' conception from Mary alone - Edward Kessel suggested one in the Journal of the American Sscientific Affiliation (the old name of PSCF) 35 (1983), 129. (I am not competent to comment on the scientific plausibility of this mechanism. It would be good if an independent embryologist could look at it.)

Having said that, there are some reasons for Christians to wonder if the statements about virginal conception in Mt & Lk are to be understood as historical & scientifically accurate accounts. Briefly, these are:

1) Biblical questions. The only statements we have about virginal conception of Jesus in the Bible are in the infancy narratives of Mt & Lk. These narratives are quite different, something that tends to be obscured by centuries of harmonizing to form a unified "Christmas story." They do have in common the idea that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, indicating that by the last quarter of the 1st century (at least) there was such a tradition. But the differences in the two accounts gives reason to wonder if they are really historical, or perhaps whether other legends & myths of virginal conceptions from surrounding cultures may have influenced them.

2) Theological questions. The idea that Jesus didn't have a human father raises concerns about his full humanity. The rather crude "miraculous sperm" model that I suggested (& that I think C.S. Lewis referred to en passant) illustrates that. OTOH one has to ask what the real theological function of virginal conception is. While it raises questions about Jesus full humanity, it is not necessary for belief in his divinity.

I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable, & my own inclination is to say that Jesus was indeed conceived of a virgin. But those holding that view should understand that some Christians may have legitimate questions about the idea that don't stem from the naive claim that it's "scientifically impossible." For those who want to go into this more deeply, Raymond E. Brown's The virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (Paulist, 1973) and/or Appendix IV of his The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1993) are worth consulting.


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Received on Sat Jun 27 11:53:01 2009

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