Friday essay: virgin mothers and miracle babiesMarguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle
At the centre of the annual Christian festival of Christmas, particularly among those of the Catholic faith, is the sacred narrative of the Virgin Birth. In the New Testament Gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-38), Mary, The Mother of God,
is described as a virgin who miraculously conceived her son by the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew’s rendering:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had
been betrothedto Joseph,before they came together she was foundto be with childfrom the Holy Spirit.
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceivedin her is from the Holy Spirit".
Thereforethe Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Biblical scholars and theologians have long discussed, debated and disputed the virgin birth of Jesus, with some arguing that there is no imperative to link it to the doctrine of the Incarnation. Another argument that contests the accounts in Matthew and Luke points to the silence on the topic in both Mark and
John, as well as in the writings of epistolary Christians such as Paul. Philosophers such as Michael Martin further stress that the Virgin Birth is not mentioned in either early Jewish or “pagan” sources. Of course, historians would not usually place undue emphasis on an account in one particular source that is absent from another.
Consider the various myths of ancient Greece that describe phenomenal inseminations. The Greek hero Perseus was born of a mortal mother, Danae, who
was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold.
Zeus assumed other guises to extend his paternity as illustrated by the stories of Europa and the Bull and Leda and the Swan.
The Romans told similar sacred narratives.
The mother of Romulus and Remus , Rhea Silvia , a Vestal Virgin, was impregnated by Mars. And, for an example of a gender inversion, Venus is said to have conceived her son Aeneas through intercourse with the Trojan prince, Anchises. While the latter myth has its origins in Greece, the account of the birth of Romulus and Remus is intrinsically Roman; thereby illustrating the continuation of Greek stories of miracle births in new cultural settings.
Such corresponding accounts from so-called “pagan” societies
are often rejected by Christians who adhere to biblical literalism. In this context, it is the differences rather than the similarities that are emphasized.
In that vein, it is important that Mary conceives her son without losing her virginity, whereas the Greek and Roman myths
are not concerned with intact hymens. But, like those who acknowledge the sacredness of the conception of Jesus by a virgin, the Greeks and Romans are also concerned with divine insemination of a pure body.
Therefore, for a hero such as Perseus or founding fathers such as Romulus and Remus, their
very worth and significance are intrinsically linked to the purity of their earthly mothers, as well as the divinity of their celestial fathers. Such important and sacred conceptions define these heroes as semi-divine and extraordinary. Not surprisingly, therefore, their births are often prophesied. And, like Jesus, they are marked as decidedly different and have spectacular lives. At times the accounts also include elements of miraculous after-death occurrences.
As Jesus was born in a lowly manger and Romulus and
Remus were raised by a she-wolf, the Hindu deity Krishna was born in a prison cell. But the similarities between Krishna and Jesus go further.
There is also a virgin conception by a mortal woman, Devaki, who was “impregnated” by Vishnu who descended into her womb and was “born” as her son, Krishna.
These few examples of miraculous conceptions, sometimes virgin births and the similarities surrounding the life events of the offspring are
clearly relevant to the Christmas story – as sacred narratives, myths and foundation stories they are confronting and inherently controversial in the very similarities they possess.
They remind us to consider the miracle of Christmas within the context of antiquity, particularly the ancient recourse to storytelling to express unfathomable concepts. When we consider the profound notion of divinity
– its phenomenological essence, its seeming defiance of logic and the inexplicable nature of its origin – sacred narratives such as the Virgin Birth of the New Testament may be interpreted as attempts to communicate a beautiful mystery to an ancient people. Whether such accounts continue to fortify the faith of modern peoples or provide the answers some seek is open to debate.
Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle
Commentary by Joseph Alexander
“Spiritual Enlightenment” is just one epithet of many referring to the mental transformation that is almost impossible to comprehend intellectually. This state of higher consciousness is so blissful and overwhelming that in one minute your whole life will change.
The concept of “Enlightenment” has a significant number of different names depending on the culture. It translates into several Buddhist terms and ideas, most notably bodhi,
There were whole libraries dedicated to the concept of spiritual enlightenment to study just what this state of consciousness is. From ancient Egypt and India to the Platonic Academies in Greece,
The only capable method of expressing this spiritual enlightenment was through mythology, folklore, and legend, which eventually morphed into religious narratives. At that ancient time, the experience was beyond the reach of the intellect and had to
The virgin birth isn’t the only metaphor alluding to the sexual–biological aspects underlying higher consciousness; there are other myths which use the metaphor of “Castration.” For example, Aphrodite was born when Uranus lost his manhood, (castrated by his son Cronus). The phallus fell into the ocean, and from the sea foam, Aphrodite was born. Botticelli, the Renaissance artist, depicted this scene in his famous painting “The Birth of Venus,”
Commentary added 3/21/2016