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December 18, 2004
Column #1,216

                                           Was Mary A Virgin?
                        
     Last week TIME and Newsweek published similar cover stories raising doubts about the virgin birth of Jesus. "Secrets of the Nativity: Why the Story of Jesus Birth Inspires So Much Scholarly Interest and Faith" was the TIME headline.

     Secrets? What secrets? Surely Scripture is clear, I thought at first. Well, not really.

     The Gospels of Mark and John do not mention the birth of Jesus. And "Matthew and Luke diverge in conspicuous ways on the details of the event," writes TIME.

     "In Matthew's Nativity, the angelic Annunciation is made to Joseph, while Luke's is to Mary. Matthew's offers wise men and a star and puts the baby Jesus in a house. Luke's prefers shepherds and a manger. Both place the Birth in Bethlehem, but they disagree totally about how it came to be there."

     As a journalist, I never saw any conflict in these accounts.  Scholars agree that Matthew was written before Luke.  Luke was a companion of Paul from his second missionary journey to his imprisonment in Rome.  I assume he read Mark and Matthew, but had his own questions about the birth of Jesus. So he interviewed Mary, a unique source of the detailed Christmas story we know best.

     Luke's Gospel begins, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses... Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good to me to write an orderly account..."

     However, TIME's account while adorned with sacred hymns ("Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child/ Holy Infant so Tender and Mild"  raises doubts about the accuracy of the story as we have known it.

      Some Jewish sources allege Mary committed adultery with a Roman soldier, Panthera, which critics say is the reason Matthew has Joseph considering divorcing her "quietly," before his dream in which an angel says "what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."

     Jane Schaberg, a feminist critic at the University of Detroit, has theorized that when Mary was betrothed to Joseph, someone raped her. "The Holy Spirit, in Schaberg's version, transmutes a ritually taboo pregnancy into an occasion of glory and the birth of the Holy Child," says TIME.

     Stephen Patterson of Eden Theological Seminary "lists divinely irregular conceptions in stories about not only mythic heroes such as Perseus and Romulus and Remus but also flesh-and-blood figures like Plato, Alexander and Augustus, whose hagiographers reported he was fathered by the god Apollo while his mother slept.

     To put it plainly, such critics claim that the Gospel writers imagined the Holy Spirit and Mary engaged in the sort of physical divine-human interaction found in Greek and Roman myths.

     Raymond Brown, the deceased author of a landmark book, "The Birth of the Messiah," and a Sulpician priest, angrily retorts: "Every line of Matthew's infancy narrative echos Old Testament themes. Are we to think that he accepted all that background but then violated horrendously the stern Old Testament (rule) that God was not a male who mated with a woman?"

     Newsweek finds it odd that Jesus never referred to his virgin birth and that Mary herself "appears unaware of her son's provenance and destiny." Mark 3:21 reports that Jesus' family tried to stop Jesus' ministry, saying, "He is out of his mind." If Mary believed Gabriel, didn't she know he was not mad, but the Messiah? And wouldn't she have told his brothers?

     Good questions for which orthodox scholars I interviewed had no answers.

     Matthew explains the virgin birth as fulfilling "what the Lord said to the prophet, `The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.'" He quotes Isaiah 7:14.

     Critics note that Hebrew word, "almah" translated as "virgin" actually refers to a "young girl, who might be a virgin or not. Prof. Eugene Merrill of Dallas Theological Seminary, retorts "The Old Testament did not have a word for 'virgin,' but when it was translated into Greek, 200 years before the birth of Christ, the Greek word for virgin, `parthenos,' was used. (The Parthenon was a temple where virgins were set apart for worship of the gods.)"

     Prof. David Scholer, of Fuller Theological Seminary, argues, "God the creator entered human history. Events like the Resurrection, which stretches what we know as human beings, and the virgin birth, we can accept as supernatural events that show the power of God."

     Newsweek reports that eight out of ten Americans agree.

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