A virgin shall conceive

Tomorrow marks the celebration of the birth of the Nazarene. Although his actual, historical entry into the world cannot be known, December 25th is as good as any other date. We don’t know the actual date because there are no historical records, no contemporary writing or archeological evidence to clue us in, and while this isn’t the point of this particular missive, there is a bit of commonality as how we know the things we know will come into play.

As the tale goes, the arrival of the baby Jesus was no ordinary human birth. We are told that his mother, a woman named Mary, did not come about pregnancy in the manner in which all human women accomplish the feat. Recently engaged to be married, she found herself in the awkward position of already being pregnant. Reproduction is a well established biological fact, but the cultural sensitivities around the act that starts the ball rolling do not comply with cold, scientifically verifiable processes. A woman becoming pregnant while engaged to a man who has yet to have the pleasure of her carnal company doesn’t sit well with interested parties, most notably the groom-to-be. But Mary’s betrothed, a man named Joseph, proceeded with the planned nuptials despite finding her expecting her first child because an angel visited him in a dream and explained that Mary’s pregnancy was of divine origin. At least that’s one version of the story. A different author describes Mary receiving the angelic communication about her selection to host God’s fetus, rather than Joseph.

Before venturing into the plausibility of a woman spontaneously conceiving without the common method practiced so persistently by the human species, let’s consider how we’ve come to the knowledge we have at this stage. Two ancient parchments from the first century, written in Greek by anonymous sources, describe this immaculate conception in two distinctly different versions. That’s it. That’s all there is. A few pages of scrabble from the Bronze Age provide the only information to come to the conclusion, as billions of believers have, that the baby Jesus had no human father.

Faced with an assertion of a magical human conception, based solely on these two passages in obscure ancient pamphlets, how would a reasonable person proceed? Considering that there has never been a documented case of a human female conceiving without the necessary component provided by the human male, this one instance of immaculate conception would be truly extraordinary. In and of itself, the biological implausibility of the scenario should allow one to dismiss it as a fabrication, yet billions of people do not, so let’s go further. Let us at least be open to the possibility of an impromptu fertilization of a woman’s egg and move instead to the credibility of those who claim such knowledge.

The men who authored these tales are not known to us, so we know nothing of their education, their backgrounds and possible motivations. But let us set that aside and consider instead how they would know the facts they claim to know. Neither author claims to have been witness to any of what they describe, nor do they indicate that Mary or Joseph relayed the story to them. The fact that both tales differ in their account would seem to provide evidence that they at least didn’t hear it from the same party. In addition, the parchments upon which this unlikely pregnancy are described were written at the earliest, 100 years after the event! So how could they have come about this rather private, and certainly delicate accounting of a couple’s intimacy? As much of what comes to us from the ancient world, the tale started as oral tradition. Cultural information passed along by word of mouth is not unique to this instance of Mary’s pregnancy, but rather the way most human knowledge is passed along.

“Indeed, if these final decades of the millennium have taught us anything, it must be that oral tradition never was the other we accused it of being; it never was the primitive, preliminary technology of communication we thought it to be. Rather, if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality.”

— John Foley, Signs of Orality 

So we can reasonably conclude that these two men wrote their disparate accounts of the unique circumstances around Mary’s pregnancy based on stories they themselves had heard told. So we now have two pieces of information we can use to deduce the likelihood that this immaculate conception actually took place:

  1. The biological implausibility
  2. The questionable veracity of the origins of the story

Let’s take one last approach before we draw any definitive conclusions:

  • What other possibilities could there be?

The simplest, most direct and most likely solution to a problem is the one we should conclude until there’s sufficient reason to chose a more complicated solution. In order to accept the doctrine espoused by Christianity, that Mary was impregnated by the Israeli Tribal God Yahweh rather than any human male, we must create assumptions to resolve just the few issues I’ve brought up here. We have to create solutions to solve the problems created by the tale, from how the required DNA carried by male sperm managed to get into a waiting egg in Mary’s fallopian tubes, to how the story of this remarkable event was passed along accurately for a century until two men decided to write it down as the opening chapter to their tales of Jesus. A much simpler explanation is that Jesus was the product of the perfectly natural pairing of his parents, and the whole business of immaculate conception is folklore.

There’s quite a bit of precedent for this kind of story, which adds more credence to the idea that it was just made up. Human beings have been fabricating gods and supernatural events since the beginning of recorded history, including unusual stories of conception. Consider the traditional story of the legendary founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. Rhea Silvia, daughter of royalty, was forced into perpetual virginity by a rival king. Rhea became pregnant nonetheless, with the divine assistance of the god Mars, and she gave birth to twins, who were ultimately saved from certain death by a she-wolf, and raised by a family of shepherds.

The two men who wrote what would ultimately become the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel According to Luke, had a story to tell, and that story involved gods and the supernatural. They opened their record of events with an oft-told tale of the miraculous birth of a would be savior of men, not because it actually happened, but because the story works better that way.



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