The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

i-fc0baa42c324cefa8495fdb0044234b2-dice.jpgI have a cousin in law who tells this story: Her youngest child found out about sex. Then he made the connection that if he existed, his parents must have had sex. So he confronted the parents with this, and mom was forced to admit, yes, of course, this is how babies get "made" and this is simply how things are. The child did not seem too concerned.

Moments later, the child noticed his sister playing in the other room. A thought occurred to him ... a light went on, as it were. He turned back to his mother with an expression somewhere between accusation and perplexity.

"You did it twice?!?!?"

It makes sense that Christians would believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. Christianity itself is all about child psychology, punishment and reward, the bogyman and nectar (candy) of heaven, and so on. A virgin birth would mean that Mary, mother of Jesus, could be a woman who never did it. Not once, certainly not twice.

It turns out that the idea of virgin birth is not clearly part of early Christian lore, and in fact there is a considerable amount of evidence that the contemporaries of Jesus, or those who came soon after, did not really consider the possibility. In fact, there were claims at the time that Jesus was a descendant of David. This would have been through Joseph, as this is how lineage was constructed by the Jews of the time (this business of inheriting Jewishness from the mother is a much, much later construction).

The other reason that it would be convenient if Mary, mother of Jesus was a virgin is the simple fact that all the women in the Bible are prostitutes. This, of course, leads us to consider the very nature of prostitution in relation to the early scriptures of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Let's have a look at that idea from an ethnographic perspective.

I want to ask you a question. Is Maria a prostitute? Wait, don't answer yet ... you don't know Maria. I'll tell you a little about her.

Maria is sexually active. Now and then, she will spend the night with a man she has only recently met, but only if he pays. He does not pay her, but rather, he pays another adult male, who gives Maria a cut. He will sleep with her several times, paying each time, until he tires of her or she tires of him or the man who takes the payment tires of them both. Later, Maria will find another man.

In some societies, a woman who had this sexual and economic arrangement would be considered a prostitute. Indeed, in the US, she could be charged with the crime of solicitation.

The Maria I know, however, is not from the US. She is just a teenager who is unmarried living in roughly the same region of the world where this Bible story played out. Eventually, one of the men will click with her and visa versa, and the man who takes the payment ... Maria's father ... will not object, or at least not object too much, and Maria and this man will be married. Thereafter, Maria will not have sex for money for the rest of her life, or until she becomes unmarried, or unless her marriage kinda goes on the rocks and her husband does not mind her becoming an actual prostitute.

In the society I'm describing, there are prostitutes. The difference between an unmarried woman and an actual prostitute is how many times you sleep with a man for a particular amount of money, and if there is any expectation of marriage.

This is a very common pattern in many areas of the world, and I suspect it applies to the times and places represented in much of both the so-called "Old" and "New" testaments of the Bible (wherever those tests refer to day to day life, anyway).

A virgin, in those times, would have been a woman not without sexual relations, but rather, without sexual uncertainties. She would have been a woman who would be married to a particular lineage, perhaps a semi-royal or chieftain's lineage, by arrangement. Such as a young girl married to a "son of David." Not a sexless female, just a female who is not available, for payment, on a trial basis or in any other way.

I do not mean to assert that anything at all related to the Christ story is true (or not true). There is only mixed evidence to assert that a story involving specific named individuals ... Mary, Joseph, Christ, the three wise men, etc. ... actually existed as stated in the stories, and did the things the stories tell us. I do suggest, however, that it is possible to understand this story in the ethnographic context we can loosely reconstruct for the times.

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Interesting concept but it has the odd possibility of pissing off christians by making their religion more sane.

Not sure how I feel about saner religion but with the enormously large number of backup insanities, I suppose I could let go of virgin birth.

Great series Greg, thanks.

The Bible pretty explicitly says that Mary brought forth her first-born son.

Not only child.

Nobody describes their only child as their "first-born son". They don't even describe their only boy that way.

Couple that with Matthew's saying Joseph "kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son", not to mention the references to Jesus' brothers and sisters, and you can see how deeply disturbed the insistence on Mary's perpetual virginity really is.

ps - it's a bit much to say that all the women in the bible are prostitutes. What about Deborah? What about Martha? What about Ruth and Naomi?

Virgin births occur in other stories around the world, associated with part of the aura of mystique and specialness of a hero. (Joseph Campbell writes about this, but I can't find a quick's t.v. date time with my h).

Greg, you say that "this business of inheriting Jewishness from the mother is a much, much later construction." There's actually a fair bit of debate when maternal descent came into play. However, it isn't relevant. Even when maternal descent was accepted internal issues of what type of Jew someone was (and still is) determined by the male line. Thus, for example, what tribe someone was was determined by the male line. Even today, whether a Jew is a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael is determined by the male line.

Joshua: Even fairly patriarchal patrilineal societies often have a "shadow" matrline at the same time, so I would not be surprised if something like this is quite old, but frankly, the question of whether or not someone is "jewish" was probably not really an issue in the Bronze age.

The anecdote at the start of this article is hilarious :D

I am not a theologian. I thought the theory of Mary remaining a virgin was a Roman Catholic dogma, not one that Protestants like myself subscribe to. What do the Eastern Orthodox and Copts believe?

When I was in my church's elementary school, we were taught the bit about Joseph not having sex with Mary until after Christ was born. By the time I got to college (same church), they were saying that Christ's "brothers and sisters" were actually Joseph's children from a prior marriage. They weren't quite coming out and saying Joseph never touched her, but neither were they saying he ever did....

"kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son"
In the original Greek, the "state" of virginity was merely the legal technicality of being formally wedded versus 'living in sin'. It had little to do with the act of coitus, or virginity as 'hymen piercing fetish' that the Christians have taken it to mean.

That hymen-fetish conflation with virginity comes more from Germanic tribal dictates, or the insistence of slave buyers that females from the slavic regions are 'worth the price' paid if they were 'intact' more than anything else.

By the real Yeshu… (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

Joshua: "this business of inheriting Jewishness from the mother is a much, much later construction." There's actually a fair bit of debate when maternal descent came into play. However, it isn't relevant."

Hey Joshua when did that come into play? Would you say that it is actually a form of ethnic classism?

Isn't relevant? It is to us common German/Russian "tillermans"versus the is almost like a disconnect within the culture--sort of the Jewish version of the black issues of octoroons, quadroons, etc. It fuels the whole "Hitler/Lenin was a quarter Jewish" fires, and causes rifts where there should be peace.

Greg: "ven fairly patriarchal patrilineal societies often have a "shadow" matrline at the same time"
Would you also go so far as to say that there is also a shadow matriarchy as well?

By the real Yeshu… (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

The Real Yeshua, it isn't clear where it came into play. By 500 c.e. or so it is pretty established as you can see by it being accepted in the Talmud. There's some speculation that it was picked up from the Romans. It likely dates from some time in the Second Temple period in which case it was likely operative prior to the time Greg is talking about. As to ethnic classism, I really have no idea.

Greg, yes but the question of whether someone was an Israelite was quite old. Look at for example Ezra where marriage to non-Israelites is discussed. In any event, by the time of Jesus this was probably already around which was my point in regard to your statement that the maternal construction occurred later.

In view of your post, you may find these articles on virgin birth of interest and coming from an unusual angle…

and, similarly TheologyWeb:

Forum â General Theistics 101
Thread â Does the Bible teach that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived?

Best to click on arrow on the right which will take you to the last post.

I agree it's a bit much to say all women were prostitute's. I do agree that women were bought and sold thru out history. Prostitution vs marriage, is more like no responsibility for another vs responsibility for another. Prostitution and women have a negative association not because of money as you showed how both wives and prostitute's where sold......Sex with wives was seen as being positive because a male could assume the resulting children were his, but not feel sure of this with children of prostitute's.
More interesting would be if we had DNA then would there be the issues with prostitution?
As far as a virgin birth..... Whether Mary remained a virgin or thru a blanket down in a market place and had sex with every man she could (after Jesus' birth) really isn't a factor. The only reason her virginity is important is Isaiah 7:14 holds a prophecy of the virgin birth being a sign. For Jesus to be this sign, his birth had to be different in nature from other babies. A young woman giving birth is certainly not different or a sign of anything. A virgin who never had sex was incredibly different and could definitely be a sign.
After the sign was given, the retention of the virginity isn't necessary to the prophecy. Mary could go on and bare as many children as she and Joseph could make.
An interesting thought, we now know that sex isn't needed to produce a child. I think the conception of Jesus is interesting as the Holy Spirit or the Word of God ( having its own presence,when it goes out from God, but being part of God as our words are a form of us) is the part of God involved in the making of Jesus. I think its a thought for each to consider , how the things of earth are imperfect copies of what is in heaven. On earth a mother and father produce a child. Jesus is called the son of God and man/ mankind.
Although Christians got wrapped in proving this virgin birth, there's a lack of questions about the copy in heaven Mary represents. I've not made any great theory about this but I do find much to ponder on this subject. An example would be the other name that the Spirits known by , the Comforter. As comforting is a typical female role.
I consider myself a Christian who believes Jesus is strong enough to withstand questions. The Bible tells me to investigate, to search out to

By Tawnya Bartlett (not verified) on 15 Feb 2017 #permalink

make it stand and give proof it's true. So I do and hope someday other Christians will use their mind instead of rushing to defend the Bible and making mistakes that the Bible doesn't back up.

By Tawnya Bartlett (not verified) on 15 Feb 2017 #permalink

"A virgin who never had sex was incredibly different and could definitely be a sign."

A virgin birth was the genesis of many religions messiahs.

Like ever other mythology, this one took from other myths before it and pretended it was theirs alone.

And slaughtered anyone who disagreed. Ask the midianites.