Born of a virgin?

I came across an article in a feminist theology journal the other day (Frank Reilly, ‘Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown and the problem of the illegitimacy of Jesus’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21 (2005) 57-80) that was arguing that Jesus was probably the result of Mary’s seduction or rape rather than a virgin birth. The article re-evaluated the work of Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Harper & Row, 1987) and argued that it was plausible. What interested me was that Schaberg and Reilly were arguing that the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke both implied an illegitimate conception which was then marvellously sanctified by the power of God. In other words, this is a view based on taking Scripture seriously, rather than simply a belief that virgin births don’t happen.

I’m hampered analysing their evidence by the fact that I don’t know New Testament Greek: a lot of the debate centres around exactly how certain terms are best translated. (I can summarise the points if anyone wants details). Overall, there are some good points made, particularly the fact that one phrase of the Magnificat (Luke 1:48, the ‘lowliness of his handmaiden’) uses a term which in the Greek translation of the Old Testament means ‘humiliation’ and is usually used in the context of rape. But I don’t think the evidence for conception via rape is in any way conclusive.

What interests me more is the suggestion made in the article that belief in a conception by rape would lead to a very different and ‘more hopeful Mariology and Christology’. I’m not at all convinced about that and I want to explain why.

Schaberg is quoted as seeing the virginal conception as ‘a deeply antisexual notion’, but I’m not at sure that a conception by rape is any more of a positive basis for sexuality. In particular, it seems to me to put a gendered sin at the heart of Jesus’s story (male rapist versus female innocent) and I think that would be as unhelpful in the opposite way as the continuing emphasis in some exegesis on Eve’s sin as preceding Adam’s.

The notion of rape also doesn’t seem to me to add much to Christian solidarity with the oppressed. There is already a strong Gospel tradition of Jesus’ and God’s friendliness/warmth towards the marginal in society, including outcast women (the woman at the well, prostitutes etc). Similarly, even if Mary wasn’t raped, it’s still clear that she suffered suspicions of immorality about Jesus’ birth, she had to become a refugee to escape his being killed and she then saw him executed as a criminal.

What I presume Schaberg and Reilly object to is the whole idea of the Virgin Mary as sinless and perpetually virgin, but that is not a Scriptural notion. The natural implication of the reference to Jesus’ brothers is that Mary and Joseph had children subsequently. The idea specifically of the Virgin Birth (i.e. that Mary remained virgo intacta after the birth) appears first in the apocryphal Book of James. (Maria Warner, Alone of all her sex: the myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) has a lot on the development of the myths). Meanwhile Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988) discuss the development of the exaltation of celibacy and virginity and shows incidentally that it was far more dependent on the assumed virginity of Christ than that of Mary. In other words, you don’t actually need a rape-conception to demolish the dodgier bits of Mariology or the idea that virginity is superior to marriage.

Similarly, I’m not sure how it advances your ideas about Jesus. I personally don’t see the suggestion that Jesus was born of rape as blasphemous, but then I don’t think Jesus’ conception is the key to who he is. The importance of the virgin conception is as a symbol that Jesus is both God and Man. The mechanics of it are secondary: my God is equally capable of a virgin conception or of filling a human-born Jesus with divinity. The problem with a rape-conception is if it used to imply either that God can’t carry out miracles (there was no Virgin conception, because it’s impossible) or that Jesus wasn’t divine. Both of these do strike at the heart of the Christian message: that God came to Earth and that he has power over life and death.


One thought on “Born of a virgin?

  1. Wouldn’t The Illegitimacy of Jesus (!) make a nonsense of the conversation between the Angel Gabriel and Mary? But why discredit miracles anyway? I can understand the Catholic Church being wary of new claims (inexplicable healings and statues weeping blood) – that way anarchy lies, but explaining away OT stories (such as the parting of the Red Sea really being the Reed Sea) and NT miracles such as loaves and fishes (everybody shared) – is to miss the point. It seems on a par with complaining that pre-Renaissance paintings lack perspective.


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