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Virgin Birth and What It Means

The virgin conception of Jesus speaks as much to God’s concern for the downtrodden and the depth of Mary’s faith as it does to the miraculous nature of her pregnancy.

Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico

The virgin conception of Jesus, commonly but mistakenly called the “virgin birth,” is narrated in the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which explain that Mary conceived Jesus without having ever had sexual intercourse with a man. What can be properly described as the “virgin birth” of Jesus, on the other hand, is actually recounted only later, outside the New Testament—for example, in the extracanonical Protevangelium of James (also known as the Infancy Gospel of James), which emphasizes how Mary retains her virginity even after giving birth to Jesus. For New Testament readers throughout the ages, then, it is really Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus that has caused fascination and reflection. Whereas this notion signals the unique identity and status that the Gospel writers assign to Jesus, it also speaks to the significance of Jesus’ mother. It is as much about Mary as it is about her son.

To reflect on the meaning of the virgin conception of Jesus is to ponder the circumstances in which readers find Mary in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. In terms of social status, especially when compared to that of her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7), Mary is unremarkable. Scholars debate whether Mary, a young and pious Jewish woman who became pregnant outside of marriage, belonged to the ancient equivalent of what we today would identify as the working-class or whether she should be counted among the truly destitute. In either case, we can be sure that Mary, along with the vast majority of people in the time and place in which she lived, knew economic and social hardship, and understood what it meant to live in a land occupied and dominated by Rome. Hers was not an easy life. Like millions of people throughout human history, Mary lived in socioeconomically and politically tense circumstances where people were familiar with both uprisings and crackdowns, and were well acquainted with poverty, illness, and injustice. Like millions of women, Mary also knew what it was like to live as a woman in a world where male privilege prevailed.

These circumstances help illumine the meaning of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus. What readers commonly regard as miraculous—Mary’s remarkable pregnancy—is rendered as astonishing evidence of God’s regard for the lowly and largely forgotten. It is through the ordinary and faithful Mary that God works to achieve the divine vision for humankind. No wonder, then, that Mary’s Magnificat prefigures the later prophetic teachings of Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46, Luke 1:51-53). The Spirit by which the virgin conceives the Messiah also empowers her to prophesy and proclaim the nearness and faithfulness of God. The virgin conception and Mary’s consent to the divine plan (Luke 1:38) speak as much to God’s concern for the downtrodden and the depth of Mary’s faith as they do to the miraculous nature of her pregnancy.

  • Mary Foskett

    Mary Foskett is Wake Forest Kahle Professor of Religious Studies at Wake Forest University. Her publications include A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity and Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation, co-edited with Jeffrey Kah-Jin Kuan.