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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Virgin Mothers and Miracle Babies

Sandro Botticelli

Friday essay: virgin mothers and miracle babies

Marguerite 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 betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from 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 conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit".
The event is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

                                                  Parish church S. Benedetto, Limone sul Garda. 
                                                               Statue of Mary with Jesus.
                                                                   Wikimedia Commons

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.

Additionally, written “evidence” from antiquity is particularly fragile and invariably subject to contrasting analyses and intense debates. Of related interest to the Biblical hermeneutics of this most mysterious, sacred and profound Christian narrative are the many corresponding versions in other ancient traditions. Why are these similar accounts relevant to Mary’s miraculous pregnancy? Do they extend biblical debates on the Virgin Birth by situating it in broader sacred traditions? Do they encourage us to question why such narratives originated in the first place?

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.

Danae and the Shower of Gold. Léon Comerre/Wikimedia Commons

Zeus assumed other guises to extend his paternity as illustrated by the stories of Europa and the Bull and Leda and the Swan.

Leda and the Swan. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Romans told similar sacred narratives. The mother of Romulus and RemusRhea 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.

Perseus was sent on the seemingly impossible task of taking the head of Medusa, rescued the heroine Andromeda from a ferocious sea monster along the way and, after his death, was immortalized among the stars as a constellation in the northern sky. According to the Roman historian Livy, Romulus did not die but rather disappeared. As he was reviewing his army one day, a storm came and during the thunder and thickening clouds, he experienced apotheosis and joined the gods. Such stories – from predictions to miraculous conceptions, to extraordinary lives, and finally apotheoses – extend beyond the Middle East and the Classical Mediterranean.

A 14th-century fresco of Krishna on the interior wall of City Palace, Udaipur. Pebble 101, Wikimedia Commons

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.
The Conversation

Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Commentary by Joseph Alexander

These “unfathomable mysteries,” mentioned by Marguerite Johnson, are easily decoded by taking into account religion uses the same metaphors, and symbols found in mythology. Thus, the "virgin born'' gods, are universal metaphors, the ancient created to allude to the necessity of transmuting ones sexual energy for spiritual enlightenment.

“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 individual soul is said to merge with the universal mind or god, which results in the realization of one's immortal self, just words unless one undergoes the experience).

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, kensho, or satori. Related words from Asian religions are moksha (liberation) in Hinduism, Kevala Jnana in Jainism, and ushta in Zoroastrianism. In yogic words, it may be called Samadhi, defined as when the mind becomes still, a state of being aware of the present moment or experiencing one-pointedness of mind.

Dr. Richard Bucke, a Canadian philosopher, and psychologist called the experience "Cosmic Consciousness, He defined it as "a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary man." Despite all the different names, in all the various civilizations, the final experience is similar, as it is based on biology, not on cultural mores.

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, mythology is interpreted allegorically as a unique form of knowledge. In fact, the ancients thought mythology was, in fact, closer to the truth than literal history.

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 be explained by symbols and parable.

The symbols in myth and religion are similar because they refer to the same thing. In the case of the “virgin birth,” it refers to the sublimation of sexual energy, that is part of the transformation to higher consciousness. Another part of the process is the regeneration of the nervous system and brain. These biological and psychological changes in total were called "born again" or "reborn."

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,”(the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite). We can see the loss of sexuality, because of castration, leads to the birth of a god, in the same way as the loss of sexuality from chastity/virginity also results in a birth of a god. In both cases, the metaphors refer to the ancient’s belief sexual transmutation was vitally important to the spiritual experience.

These examples are just a small part of world literature which dates back thousands of years. For more details about the "Virgin Birth" see the two articles, “The Hidden Meaning of the Virgin Birth” and “Sex and Enlightenment.”

Commentary added 3/21/2016
Edited 12/23/2017

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