Friday, December 25, 2009

Hieros Gamos

The Problem of Virginal Conception[1]

In reaction to dogmatic online criticisms I've read against the LDS Church this week, I decided to post this short paper (with revisions) that I wrote several years ago.

[S]ince Celsus has introduced the Jew disputing with Jesus, and tearing in pieces, as he imagines, the fiction of His birth from a virgin, comparing the Greek fables about Danae, and Melanippe, and Auge, and Antiope, our answer is, that such language becomes a buffoon, and not one who is writing in serious tone.[2]
Many early Christians rejected the parallels non-believers drew between the Christian Nativity and paganism. While defending the event as unique and true, believers (like Origen quoted above) at times attacked the critics personally, declaring them unintelligent or insincere. Other Christians admitted that parallels indeed existed, but then asserted that the pagan similarities were the mere work of the devil. Justin the Martyr wrote, “when I hear… that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.”[3]

Although today’s Christian scholars may not assert that pagan similarities came by way of demonic influence, most (it would seem) maintain that their Gospel is unique and distinct from paganism. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown argues that one should not draw parallels between the virginal conception and pagan myths (whether Egyptian, Greek, or Roman), since unlike the conception of Jesus, sexual intercourse is presupposed in pagan mythology. “These ‘parallels’ consistently involve a type of hieros gamos where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration,” says Brown. “[T]here is no clear example of virginal conception in the world of pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus.”[4] Thomas Boslooper likewise insists that the “The Christian formula is unique. The idea which it contains—divine conception and human birth without anthropomorphism, sensuality, or suggestion of any moral irregularity—is to be found nowhere in the literature in the world outside the canonical biblical narratives.”[5] “The story is not depicted as pagan stories,” agrees Ben Witherington III, “where a god mates with a human woman, for there is no mating involved. Jesus is a gift given to Mary through a miracle [virginal conception].”[6]

The apologetic that Christian scholars like Brown, Boslooper, and Witherington make to disassociate Christianity from paganism, is grounded upon the same un-established premise. At risk of being called insincere, a buffoon, or an agent of Satan, I argue that it is not an established fact that the New Testament teaches virginal conception.[7]

Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke give an account of the conception and birth of Jesus. Matthew begins with angel Gabriel appearing to Joseph in a dream, after he had discovered that Mary (to whom he was betrothed) was pregnant. The angel tells Joseph, “[D]o not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”[8] The author of Matthew then explains, quoting LXX (Greek Septuagint) Isaiah 7:14, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’”[9]

Some scholars have argued that the idea of virginal conception came about due to this Septuagint [mis]translation of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew word almah, which simply refers to a “young woman of marriageable age,” is translated into the Greek as parthenos. And since (so it is assumed) parthenos, unlike the Hebrew almah, specifically refers to virginity, it is concluded that Greek-speaking Christians must’ve derived the concept of virginal conception from this inaccurate translation. This assertion, however, is problematic for two reasons. 1) If the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14 indeed spoke of virginity, then we should expect to find the interpretation among Greek-speaking Jews. Such an interpretation of this passage, however, cannot be found. Raymond Brown makes this point forcefully:

Many scholars, although they know that Isaiah did not speak of a virginal conception, think that his prophecy was thus interpreted by Greek-speaking Jews (LXX of Isa 7:14) and that this explains why Hellenistic Jewish Christians phrased their ideas about the origins of God’s Son in terms of a virginal conception. But… there is no reason to believe that the LXX of Isa 7:14 either referred to a virginal conception or was so interpreted by Jews.[10]
2) Parthenos does not exclusively refer to virgins, but rather is a term even applied to rape victims. We read in LXX Genesis 34:1-4 of Shechem raping Dinah, who later told his father that he wanted the parthenos for his wife. Biblical scholar Charles D. Isbell explains, “there is simply no single word [whether almah, bethulah, neanis, or parthenos] in the language of the ancient Near East which carries in and of itself the idea of virgo intacta.”[11] There is, however, a phrase that can carry the idea. This leads us to considering the Nativity as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke.

The young woman (parthenos) Mary is informed by the angel Gabriel, “[T]hou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.”[12] Mary, seemingly confused by the news, responds, “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?”[13] This phrase indicates virginity, since “know” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.[14] Mary’s response, “I know not a man,” therefore is “the exact semantic equivalent to our English word ‘virgin.’”[15] Charles Isbell believes that Luke uses this phrase specifically to present virginal conception. “Luke is at pains to present a virgin birth doctrine,” says Isbell. “Luke relies upon specific, technical legal terminology which no one could misunderstand and which writers in the ancient world had been using in the same way for hundreds of years before this time.”[16]

Here is where Isbell and I may slightly disagree. Although I concur that Luke intends to present Mary as a virgin prior to the conception, the narrative does not say whether she remained one during and after the conception. Mary’s virginal declaration (that she had not known a man) was made prior to the event ever taking place.

There is an alternative way for translating this passage, which may shed further light on Mary’s question. Biblical scholar Jane Schaberg has translated it as, “How will [estai] this be, since I have not had sexual relations with my husband [andra]?”[17] Shcaberg prefers this translation because “it does not prejudice the reader to think immediately of an event that is considered physically impossible.” She further translates andra to “husband” (instead of “any man”) to alert the reader “to the possibility that the conception will be by someone other than Mary’s husband.”[18] Although Schaberg contends that the conception occurred through rape or seduction by another (mortal) man, the translation she gives could likewise be used to substantiate the possible scenario of Mary being impregnated sexually by deity (hieros gamos).

The angel responds to Mary’s question, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”[19] Raymond Brown believes this passage—and others like it in Matthew—compellingly present virginal conception. “[T]he human difficulty of the virginity of Mary must be overcome by divine power in the conception of Jesus. It was creatively overcome without loss of virginity through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.”[20] “The Holy Spirit,” he says, “is the agency of God’s creative power, not a male partner in a marriage between a deity and a woman (hieros gamos).”[21] Brown remarks again, “[T]he begetting is not quasi-sexual as if God takes the place of a male principle in mating with Mary.”[22]

With these statements Brown undermines a minority view held by some, that the angel’s declaration (the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that she’d be overshadowed by the power of the Most High[23]) carries sexual connotation.[24] Such a view was promoted by the Spanish Post-Reformation Cardinal Toletus, and the modern scholar D. Daube, who believed the phrases allude to “a rabbinic debate over Ruth 3:9 where Ruth presents herself at night to Boaz as his handmaid (cf. Luke 1:38) and asks him to spread (periballein) his mantle over her.”[25] But even if Brown is indeed correct in his judgment for rejecting this minority view (which I am convinced remains unsettled),[26] his contention that the mere involvement of the Holy Spirit indicates non-sexual conception is weak. David T. Landry explains:

The angel’s response to Mary’s objection does not provide clear guidance in this matter [of virginity], since it contains its own ambiguity…. Thus the angel’s words mention divine agency, but certainly they do not rule out the possibility that Mary will subsequently conceive a child in the normal human fashion (i.e. with a male partner [or even God himself]) with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The combination of the oddity of Mary’s words and ambiguity of the angel’s response seem to place the virginal conception in some jeopardy.[27]
The doctrine of virginal conception remains an open question in the New Testament. Since the narratives do not rule out the possibility for sexual conception, there is little (or no) scriptural basis for distinguishing the Nativity from pagan mythology.[28]


[1] Virgin birth is a phrase that is often used by Catholics and Protestants in different ways. While most Protestants use it in reference to Mary’s virginal status from the conception of Jesus to his birth, Catholics additionally use it to include their belief of Mary’s perpetual virginity after birth. I am instead using the phrase virginal conception to only refer to the common Christian view that Jesus was conceived through non-sexual and entirely supernatural means.
[2] Origen Against Celsus, Ch 37; as found in software The Complete Christian Collection (Packard Technologies, 1999).
[3] Dialogue of Justin, ch. 70; as found in software The Complete Christian Collection.
[4] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1979), 523 fn 17.
[5] Thomas Boslooper, “Jesus’ Virgin Birth and Non-Christian ‘Parallels,’” Religion and Life (Winter, 1956-57) Vol. XXVI:1, p. 96.
[6] Ben Witherington III, The New Testament Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 189.
[7] Much like Origen’s insult to Celsus, Boslooper gives the jabbing remark: “None of these ideas are at all comparable to the biblical formula. No one who is interested in scientific objectivity would call them similar.” Thomas Boslooper, 95.
[8] Matt 1:21.
[9] v. 22-23.
[10] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of The Messiah, 523-24; See also 145-49. Justin the Martyr makes note of the seemingly common Jewish interpretation of the passage, “But you [Jews] and our teachers venture to claim that in the prophecy of Isaiah it is not said, ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive,’ but, ‘Behold, the young woman will conceive, and bear a son.’” Ireneas similarly records, “The Lord Himself did save us, giving us the token of the virgin. But this was not as some allege—who presume to expound the Scripture as: ‘Behold, a young woman will conceive, and bring forth a son.’ For this as Theodotion the Ephesian has translated it, and Aquila of Pontus—both of whom are Jewish proselytes.” Tertullian notes the same: “You [the Jews] have the audacity to lie, as if the Scriptures actually said ‘a young female’ was to conceive and bring forth, rather than ‘a virgin.’”
[11] Charles D. Isbell, “Does the Gospel of Matthew Proclaim Mary’s Virginity?” Biblical Archeological Review (1977), 3:2.
[12] Luke 1:31-32.
[13] Luke 1:34.
[14] We likewise read in Matt 1:25 that Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.” Such a statement, however, is not a denial that deity “knew her.”
[15] Charles Isbell, 30:2.
[16] Ibid.
[17] David T. Landry, Narrative Logic in the Annunciation of Mary (Luke 1:26-38), (accessed 25 December 2009).
[18] Ibid.
[19] Luke 1:35.
[20] Raymond Brown, 301.
[21] Ibid., 137.
[22] Ibid, 314.
[23] As well as Mary’s statement that the Lord had “done great things unto [her].” Luke 1:49.
[24] Barbara G. Walker writes, “Mary’s impregnation was similar to Persephone’s. In her Virgin guise, Persephone sat in a holy cave and began to weave the great tapestry of the universe, when Zeus appeared as a phallic serpent, to beget the savior Dionsus on her. Mary sat in the temple and began to spin a blood-red thread, representing Life in the tapestry of fate, when the angel Gabriel ‘came in unto her’ (Luke 1:28), the biblical phrase for sexual intercourse. Gabriel’s name means literally ‘divine husband.’” Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 1049.
[25] Raymond Brown, 290 fn 35.
[26] Joseph Fitzmyer uses rather strong language, supporting the view that both he and Brown share: “There is not the slightest evidence that either of the verbs involved has ever been used in relation to sexual activity or even more broadly in connection with the conception of a child.” As quoted by David T. Landry.
[27] Ibid. Bracketed words added by me.
[28] Bart D. Ehrman wrote, “It may be that he [Luke in particular] has modeled his portrayal of Jesus for these converts from other Greco-Roman religions. He presents the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that would make sense to a pagan reader who was conversant with tales of other divine beings who walked the face of the earth, other heroes and demigods who were born of the union of a mortal with a god.” A Brief Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 104.


  1. Thanks for posting this Mike. This was very interesting.


  2. A thought provoking essay, thank you.

    Cheers, Danna

  3. With all of the scientific advancements in recent times why can't we see that it is very possible that Mary might have conceived and remained a virgin perhaps by artificial insemination of some type? There are many humans living now who were not created by natural male/female sexual intercourse so why do we limit the power of the Most High to have dealt with Mary in this way?

  4. That is quite possible, Anonymous. I hope you understand, however, that my point in posting this thread was to simply show that the Bible isn't explicit enough to settle the matter. Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff's dogmatic criticism--which I linked to above--of Kevin Barney (and various early leaders in the LDS Church) is entirely baseless.

    For what it is worth... Bonaventure (1221-1274) believed that angels could artificially inseminate humans. Writes scholar David Keck in his "Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages" (Oxford, 1998):

    "Bonaventure argues... that spirits are unable to create humans biologically. Demons beget children by assuming the form of a woman, having sexual intercourse with a man, preserving his semen, as assuming the form of a man, and depositing the now-demonic semen into a woman. (Thus the demons were the first to perform artificial insemination)." (p. 33)

  5. Glad you both found this post worth the read, David and Danna.

  6. I have to disagree that the Bible leaves the virginity open. Luke, as a physician, is explicit about her not having been with a man. Then in Matthew 1:24, 25 it says "... Joseph...did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son." The root is the same word; there is no doubt that Joseph, as her husband, did not father Jesus. Since God is a spirit, he could not father the child, and if a human father had been the father, he would not have been without sin, as we all are sinful from conception.

  7. Thanks for your reply, JO. How exactly does Luke's gospel rule out heiros gammos (sexual conception with Deity)? I don't see what Luke being a physician has to do with anything. Certainly, Mary's comment was made before the conception occurred. Do you believe that Mary was making a vow of chastity, ie. that she would never "know" a man? How would you justify such an interpretation? I don't see how Matthew 1:24-25 rules out heiros gammos either. Surely the verse states that Joseph didn’t have sex with her until the birth of Jesus... but where does the verse rule out God? Perhaps you can explain this in better detail too. Regarding your last comment, "Since God is a spirit, he could not father the child, and if a human father had been the father, he would not have been without sin, as we all are sinful from conception." Although there are passages in the Bible that clearly state that God is a "spirit," there are many other passages (particularly in the Old Testament) that portray him anthropomorphically. A Mormon apologist could also rebut your statement by pointing out that the New Testament also asserts that "God is Love." Does this mean that God is ONLY love? No. Of course not. Then why should verses stating that God is Spirit be interpreted in such an exclusive way? Spirits can be clothed in a physical body, can they not? You may also want to reconsider your remark about what God cannot do? Isn’t he all-powerful?

  8. Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff's dogmatic criticism--which I linked to above--of Kevin Barney (and various early leaders in the LDS Church) is entirely baseless.


    As a sidenote, I particularly enjoyed this part of mrm's effort:

    We call upon the Mormon Church to publicly and unequivocally renounce the past teachings of Mormon leaders concerning this issue,

    I'm certain "the Mormon Church" knows precisely nothing of McKeever's and Shafavoloff's "call" to denounce anything. (Specifically, it makes little sense to appeal to a "Church" to denounce anything in this way, let alone something so peripheral and unimportant to your everyday Mormon. Your post would have been better if you said something like "I call upon the Mormonism Research Ministry to publicly and unequivocally renounce the biblical birth narratives, or at the least, to find something better to do with its time." :D

  9. Oh, and Shaf's video is pretty funny too. The bit at the end where he's like "hey, guys, I just wanna celebrate Christmas with you! The holiday spirit and whatnot! By holding up some obscure teachings to contempt, trying to trap you in your words and cajole you into the same sort of fundamentalist biblical understanding that I embrace!"

  10. My youngest son was having a birthday party, but since he thinks he came from the stork, I decided not to go.