Today’s Deseret News carried an intresting article about the Virgin Mary, and how some scholars view her. Of course there is a great deal of discussion about whether the story of the Virgin Birth, or Virgin Conception is literal or figurative. Appropriately, it is entitled “A Matter of Faith.
To the skeptical, it’s an oxymoron. To the faithful, it’s a miracle or, at the very least, a faith-promoting metaphor. Two thousand years after the fact — or the fiction, depending on where you come down on the virgin birth — the story continues to inspire and confound.
To the skeptic all matters of faith, that for which we have no perfect knowledge; but, rather a hope for things which are not seen, which are true–are by definition oxymoronic, folly and fable. Christ’s birth is no different–as it too must rest on faith.
Mary’s virginity is now central to the Nativity story and is a staple of various Christian credos affirmed by congregations as diverse as Greek Orthodox and liberal Protestant denominations. A 2004 poll by Newsweek magazine found that 67 percent of American adults think the Christmas narrative is historically accurate, and 79 percent believe the virgin birth is literal.
But all that unanimity masks a concept fraught with nuances. Even the word “literal” is problematic, says Tom McClenahan, academic dean of the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, who prefers the word “historical” when referring to the virgin birth (by which he means the account as interpreted by the gospel writers). And too, the term “virgin birth” itself is a point of contention. Except for the Catholic Church, Christians really mean the “virgin conception,” says McClenahan. (And that’s not to be confused with the “immaculate conception,” which is a Catholic term for the belief that Mary herself was conceived without sexual intercourse.)
Enter the theologians to engage in the religious equivalent of defining the word “is.” I think there is a good point here about the distinction between virign birth and virgin conception. I am probably more in the virgin conception camp, if I understand it properly.
Students at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary occasionally struggle with the notion of the virgin birth, says McClenahan. After all, they’ve grown up in a culture that gives priority to science over revelation — and a baby conceived by the Holy Ghost instead of a human father makes no sense, according to 21st century science.
Well, exactly how the conception actually occured may be one of those angels on a pin question–but there is no mistake that there was a Father–God The Father. James E. Talmage notes in Jesus the Christ:
His message delivered, Gabriel departed, leaving the chosen Virgin of Nazareth to ponder over her wondrous experience. Mary’s promised Son was to be “The Only Begotten” of the Father in the flesh; so it had been both positively and abundantly predicted. True, the event was unprecedented; true also it has never been paralleled; but that the virgin birth would be unique was as truly essential to the fulfillment of prophecy as that it should occur at all. That Child to be born of Mary was begotten of Elohim, the Eternal Father, not in violation of natural law but in accordance with a higher manifestation thereof; and, the offspring from that association of supreme sanctity, celestial Sireship, and pure though mortal maternity, was of right to be called the “Son of the Highest.” In His nature would be combined the powers of Godhood with the capacity and possibilities of mortality; and this through the ordinary operation of the fundamental law of heredity, declared of God, demonstrated by science, and admitted by philosophy, that living beings shall propagate—after their kind. The Child Jesus was to inherit the physical, mental, and spiritual traits, tendencies, and powers that characterized His parents—one immortal and glorified—God, the other human—woman.
Talmage, Jesus the Christ p. 77. (emphasis added).
Not content with what modern Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ taught, those who consider themselves educated in such matters claim the circumstances of Christ’s birth are metaphorical rather than actual.
Many modern Biblical scholars — most, in fact, says professor Robert J. Miller — view the story of Jesus’ birth as more metaphorical than actual. The exceptions to this more symbolic interpretation, he says, are fundamentalist Christian and LDS scholars.
Miller himself is a churchgoing Roman Catholic, a professor of religion at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., and author of “Born Divine: The Birth of Jesus and Other Sons of God.” He argues that “all Biblical scholars who practice the historical critical study of the Bible understand the Nativity story is a combination of legend and early Christian storytelling.”
Mary’s virginity at the time of conception was not a universal belief during the early Christian era, Miller says. Biblical scholars who question the literalness of the Nativity story point to the gospels of Mark and John, which do not mention Jesus’ paternity. If an angel had actually visited Mary to proclaim that “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee” to conceive a son (Luke 1:35), they argue, wouldn’t all the Gospels have written about it? (These same critics also point to other details that may be embellishments: There is no historical evidence, for example, that the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus conducted a census that would have propelled Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.)
Of course, this is the faith part of the equation. One either accepts as true and correct what the scriptures, ancient and modern prophets have taught. Or, one can place trust is biblical scholars and theologians who teach the philosophies of men–mingled with scripture. If though faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, whose Birth we now celebrate, we believe in the plethora of New Testament miracles He performed, crowned by the most significant achievement of all time, The Atonement and Resurrection–Virgin Birth seems a rather small feat.
The scriptures are clear and unambiguous.
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.
And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
Revealed Truth, in its most pure, plain and precious form.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born
Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth “