Sunday 18 December 2022

Born of a Virgin

The New Testament begins with the genealogy of Saint Joseph, Our Lord’s stepfather. Why include that? It has always been recognised as clearly stylised. Three kings are omitted, and Jechoniah is counted twice, in order to give fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian Captivity, and fourteen from Babylon to the Nativity of Our Lord, fourteen being the numerical value of the three Hebrew consonants for David. Truly, the Messiah promised to and from the House of David is here, says the most Jewish of the Four Evangelists.

Sacred Tradition has of course always affirmed that Mary was also of Davidic descent, as indeed do her Talmudic defamers in their denunciations of her. Be that as it may, it is notable that only four other women are mentioned in these sixteen verses, and all produced sons who then took their place in the line despite not being the progeny of their mothers’ husbands. Either illegitimate, or legitimised by the levirate law, they become sons of Abraham and, in the last case, a prince of the House of David, his natural father whom he succeeds and arguably even surpasses.

Our Lady is the new Tamar, preventing the extinction of her people. Our Lady is the new Rahab, rescuing her people by her faith in the limitless power of God. Our Lady is the new Ruth, her Magnificat echoing Ruth’s expression of gratitude to Boaz. Our Lady is the new Bathsheba, bringing forth the new Solomon, Whose wisdom is as infinite as His judgement is universal. And in order to be so, she and her Child are placed under the protection of, as Saint Matthew calls him in the concluding verses, the “just man” who stands at the conclusion of those forty-two generations of personally imperfect, but nevertheless continuous and strictly legal, patriarchy and monarchy.

Long before anyone knew anything about X and Y chromosomes, the Church Fathers held that God had made up whatever had been lacking in order to make it possible for a woman to bear a male child without any male human involvement. The view that miracles are absolutely impossible is not compatible with agnosticism. Nor with science, which is purely descriptive. What if a miracle did occur?

Forget the assertion that until the nineteenth century, people thought that heredity was purely on the paternal side. The Greek urban, homosocial leisure class thought that. But the Hebrew writers seem to have been unaware that any such fantasy even existed. Well, of course they were. They were working farmers who spent their time with their wives and children. Accordingly, their purity and incest laws presuppose a biological relationship with both parents. I employ the present tense because those laws are still in daily use, and may be read in the best-selling book in the world.

There is an old standby of middlebrow, pub bore professional atheism, that the Virginal Conception has numerous mythological parallels. Nothing could be further from the case. What occurs over and over again in mythology is the impregnation, by otherwise normal sexual means, of a woman by a god; a god, therefore, with a physical body. Exactly that does not happen in the Gospels.

However, it is held in Mormonism that this was how Jesus was conceived, one among many reasons why the enormous popularity of the Mormons within American religion – numerically third only to the Catholics and to the Southern Baptists, and the clear direct or indirect originators of numerous ideas such as “Manifest Destiny” – raises very serious questions about whether the American Republic, as such, is any sort of bulwark of Christianity. Not unanswerable questions. But very serious ones.

Both Jews and pagans made all sorts of contrary claims, but one was completely unknown to either, namely that Jesus had been the natural child of Mary and Joseph. No such suggestion was ever made by anyone in the first eighteen centuries of Christianity’s existence. Even the Qur’an has the “Prophet Isa” born of the “Virgin Mariam”. Apart from that partial retelling in the Qur’an, the Biblical account is unique, and could not be less like any of the parallels that are routinely alleged. 

That Islam – a Semitic reaction against the recapitulation in Christ and His Church of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism, and the Roman Empire – depicts Jesus as both virgin-born, and the Messiah foretold by the Hebrew prophets, is an important insight into the debate as to whether or not the circumstances of His conception described in the New Testament really are the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

Of course, had there been no expectation that the Messiah would be virgin-born, then there would have been no reason for the Evangelists to have invented it. And that would have been just as strong an argument in the doctrine’s favour. But the Islamic view, staunchly Semitic and anti-Hellenistic as it is, adds considerable weight to the belief that the Virgin Birth is, as the New Testament writers maintain entirely matter-of-factly that it is, the fulfilment of the words of the Old Testament prophets.

It is often contended that it is not clear that the prophecy in Isaiah actually refers to a virgin. Well, it certainly does in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and, contrary to what used to be asserted, first century Palestine is now acknowledged to have been profoundly Hellenised. So either the Septuagint prophecy is indeed being fulfilled explicitly, or else there was no expectation that the Messiah would be virgin-born, and thus no reason to make up that Jesus had been. The doctrine works either way.