The doctrine of Jesus's "Virgin Birth" was not part of the missionary message of the early Church. As far as we know, Jesus did not mention it to His apostles. Certainly, Mark, Peter, Paul and John show no knowledge of such a miracle. And if it really had been a "Divine Conception", surely Mary would have told her Son? If she had, then He and His apostles would undoubtedly have regarded it as highly significant, and included it in their teachings.
However, in St. Matthew's Gospel we read that Joseph seemed shocked at Mary's pregnancy and was "minded to put her away privily", "not willing to make her a public example" [chapter 1, verses 18-19]. References elsewhere to his being "a righteous man" rule out premarital intimacy. Besides, if the child were his, Jewish law would have demanded his care for Mary and her unborn child. He would not have been allowed to "put her away". Indeed, it would not have entered his head to do so.
Whence then came Mary's pregnancy? Can we suppose that some village rascal was responsible for her condition? I hold that the beauty of the peerless story rules this out. Read again the first chapter of St. Luke's Gospel and imagine a village maiden of sixteen or so, after some mystical experience beyond the power of any pen to describe, saying quietly, "Behold the slave-girl of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word!" [Luke 1, verse 38].
One explanation of Mary's pregnancy has been put forward by Mr. C. A. Wainwright of Oxford. First, he refers to the "sacred marriage" ceremony which was an ancient and widespread custom in the Near and Middle East (including Egypt and India). The high priest played the part of a divine messenger. He was "married" to a virgin with whom he cohabited. The offspring of such a union was regarded as a son of god, or a divine personage.
Now Zacharias was the priest on duty in the temple at the relevant time. He “executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1, verse 8). We are told that, though old, Zacharias was not impotent, for he made his wife Elisabeth pregnant though she was past the normal time of child-bearing. John the Baptist was their son.
We are also told that after Mary's visitation from the angel who told her she was to bear Jesus, Mary replied: "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Mary was then reassured: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God" [Luke 1, verse 35].
We are then told that Mary entered the house of Zacharias [Luke 1, verses 39-40], stayed there three months, and then returned to her own house [Luke 1, verse 56].
In a "sacred marriage" of the sort described by Mr Wainwright, a stay of three months was required in the house of the priest, or in the sacred precincts, to make sure that pregnancy was established*. This would explain why Mary stayed in the home of Zacharias for that length of time before returning to her own home. Indeed, what an otherwise strange reaction to Gabriel's message was her hurried journey into Zacharias's house! "Mary arose, and went with haste and entered the house of Zacharias" [Luke 1, verse 39].
[*Jewish law insisted on a period of three months to certify the parentage of a child about to be born. A divorced woman could not remarry during that time so as to assure the origin of any child born to her].
It is impossible to associate the birth of Jesus with some sordid affair between Mary and an unknown man. The Magnificat breathes the spirit of complete dedication to God on the part of an unsullied worshipper proud to label herself as the "slave-girl of the Lord". Such a process, far from being considered immoral behaviour, would be regarded as the highest degree of spiritual dedication.
In ancient thought it would be an immense honour to a woman thus to bear a son. It is worth noting that that the expression used by the angel at the Annunciation, "Thou hast found favour with God" [Luke 1, verse 30], is almost identical with the very words Herodotus uses of the Divine Bride at Babylon, where she is called "a woman chosen by the god out of the whole nation".
We must allow that among the contemporary Scribes and Pharisees of the Temple in Jerusalem, and among the ecclesiastical authorities, the idea of the "sacred marriage" had disappeared and was disapproved of. But in the "hill country", to which we are specially told Mary went to seek out Zacharias and Elisabeth, earlier forms of religion did continue.
Scores of people, in their secret hearts, have doubts about the Virgin Birth, but they have no other explanation of the conception of Jesus to put in its place. Mr Wainwright’s suggestion is, of course, a speculation, but for those who reject the Virgin Birth and are asked what alternative is possible, it seems to be a solution which meets such evidence as we possess.
Link to main index
Link to History section
Link to History (and Religion) Correspondence file