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The Virgin Birth

Although there is no denial of Jesus's virgin birth, there seems to be an initial silence on it in the nascent Church. The first indirect mention of Mary, according to the dating which scholars give to the various New Testament scrolls (which is a constantly debated subject), is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (4:4). Paul, speaking of Christ, uses the phrase “having been born of a woman” (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός). The first reason for this short phrase is that Mary guarantees Christ’s humanity. Interestingly enough, motherhood, not fatherhood, is important here, reversing the usual thrust of Jewish emphasis on the father as life-giver. The virginity of Mary at her conception of Jesus then finds its most articulated form in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Secular scholars, as they are wont to do, speculate that this later addition points to a mythological narrative designed to vindicate the divinity of Jesus, just as one finds in the stories associated with the Pharaohs. Pope Benedict XVI, in his third volume of Jesus of Nazareth, on the infancy narratives, explains that “the narrative of the divine generation of the Pharaohs, which involves the deity physically approaching the mother, is ultimately about giving theological legitimacy to the cult of the ruler, it is a political theology that seeks to raise the king into the realm of the divine and thus to legitimize his divine claims.” [1]

The first thing to point out is that the early Christian movement was predicated on an astonishingly new distinction, one which went from the unity of the religious and the political as embodied in the Jewish temple and the Roman imperium, to a “kingdom of truth” that is “not of this world.” Pope Benedict explains that Jesus’s words to Pilate, when it comes to the nature of his kingship, reveal something essential about the early Christian movement and the theology of martyrdom which pervaded it. In Benedict’s words: “Through the message that he proclaimed, Jesus had actually achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world: this is what truly marks the essence of his true path.” [3] Hence the need that Christians felt in depicting Christ’s crucifixion as an enthronement (this regal language is in fact found in John’s recounting of the Passion narrative). Additionally, the Pauline and Johannine emphasis on Christ’s body being the new temple and the new “place of worship” that is performed “in spirit and in truth” points to the universalizing nature of Christian worship; one which is no longer tied to a particular political system or geographical area. This is why we can speak of a Christian theology of politics (which would basically be political ethics) and not of Christian political theology. As a priest, Ratzinger summarized this with the following pithy phrase: “The message of the Kingdom of God is significant for political life not by way of eschatology but by way of political ethics.” [3] But the differences do not end here.

Pope Benedict explains that “the difference between the concepts involved is so profound that one really cannot speak of true parallels. In the Gospel accounts, the oneness of the one God and the infinite distance between God and creature is fully preserved. There is no mixture, no demi-god. It is God's creative word alone that brings about something new. Jesus, born of Mary, is fully man and fully God, without confusion and without separation, as the creed of Chalcedon in the year 451 was to clarify.” [4] Thus, the theological claims of the New Testament find themselves embedded not within the mythological context of pagan religion, but squarely within the demythologizing trajectory of the Old testament Tradition (the demythologizing of political power’s claim to divine status). Additionally, the marriage between the Greek philosophical tradition and the Hebrew biblical tradition that ensues in the resolution of the Christological debates also becomes an anomaly. It is an anomaly for the secular “mythological narrative” of a "Christian political theology." Thus, Pope Benedict concludes as follows: “It seems natural to me that only after Mary’s death could the mystery be made public and pass into the shared patrimony of early Christianity. At that point it could find its way into the evolving complex of Christological doctrine and be linked to the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God—yet not in a manner of a story crafted from an idea, and idea reformulated as a fact, but vice versa: the event itself, a fact that was now in the public domain, became the object of reflection—understanding was sought.” [5] And so, in conclusion, like with the resurrection, the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts, alongside its theological claims, are at stake in the defense of Jesus's virgin birth.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part 3, The Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 51-52.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 169.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 59.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part 3, The Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 52-53.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Part 3, The Infancy Narratives (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 53.

Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.

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