The Virgin Birth and the Allegorical Sense of Scripture

Yesterday, we were discussing Richard Dawkins flat-footed reading of Isaiah 7:14 and the amazingly-common notion that the Church’s faith in the Virgin Birth came from some scribe reading it, rubbing his eyes in amazement, and suddenly deciding then and there that Jesus was born of a virgin, to the enthusiastic credulity of, well, everybody in the whole wide Church. It is an amazing thing to believe when put so baldly, but since so many atheists and skeptics do accept this Oral Tradition from each other without a hint of skepticism, I thought it might be helpful to discuss how early Christians, who were not 2000 years stupider than us, actually read their Bibles and make the case that they were considerably more sophisticated than the yokels Dawkins and reddit.atheism give them credit for being.

Here then is the beginning of Chapter 7 of Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, on how the early Church really read Isaiah 7:14:


The Allegorical Sense of Scripture

This means something. This is important. – Roy Neary (Contemplating his sculpted pile of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

As we mentioned in the last chapter, one of the standing temptations of the biblical student is to oversimplify by seizing on one truth and using it to discount other, equally important truths. One such oversimplification consists of the habit some modern people have of exalting the primacy of the literal sense of Scripture into a flat denial of the possibility of any other senses of Scripture at all. This posture of “liberal fundamentalism” says, in effect, “The human author said it. There’s nothing more to it. That settles it.” According to this notion, all attempts to seek any second meanings in Scripture are to be dismissed (in the words of one modern scholar[1]) as “a sort of weasel word” whereby the reader can make the biblical text mean anything he likes.

This denial of a second sense in Scripture can lead to curious results, as a friend of mine discovered one evening watching one of those “Mysteries of the Bible” shows on TV. On the show were a couple of theologians eager to get their fifteen minutes of fame. So rather than talk about the Faith, they obligingly told the camera that Jesus was not born of a virgin and based their claim on the allegation that Matthew misunderstood the prophet Isaiah.

It’s like this, said the scholars: A couple of centuries after Isaiah wrote (and a couple of centuries before Jesus was born), the Hebrew Bible (including the book of Isaiah) was translated into Greek (since most Jews were spread over the Greek-speaking ancient world and were forgetting their Hebrew just as European immigrants to the United States forgot their Yiddish in an English-speaking culture). This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (that is, the Old Testament) is called the Septuagint.

Now in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 we read the prophecy that an “‘almah’ shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel'” “Almah” means in Hebrew “young woman” and refers to any young woman, virgin or not. But when the Jewish translators of the Septuagint translated Isaiah into Greek (centuries before the birth of Christ), they did not translate the term as “young woman” but as “parthenos” which means “virgin.” Later on, after Christ comes, Matthew is reading this Greek translation, not the original Hebrew, when he declares of the Virgin Birth, “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'” (Matthew 1:22-23).  “But,” said the TV theologians, “we now know Matthew was mistaken to believe in the Virgin Birth since Isaiah did not say “virgin” but ‘young woman’.”

So my friend was wrestling with what seemed an inevitable set of conclusions: a) the Septuagint translation is flat wrong; b) Matthew was ignorant of the actual meaning of Isaiah; c) he therefore derived his belief in the Virgin Birth from a mistaken translation of Isaiah and d) the Church therefore erred in defining its dogma of the Virgin Birth of Christ by following Matthew’s lead.

This is however, to enter into a whole complex of mistakes, not clarifications. To find out what’s really going on, let’s look again at the New Testament use of Old Testament Scripture.

The first and most obvious point is this: when you want to know the circumstances of somebody’s birth, where do you go?  To the book of Isaiah?  No.  You ask their mother. The source of the story of the Virgin Birth is the Virgin Mary herself, not the book of Isaiah.  It is because of her word, not Isaiah’s, that the Church comes to believe Jesus was born of a Virgin.

The second is this: Why would you be asking about the circumstances of somebody’s birth?  It’s not a normal conversation starter (“Pardon me, Mrs. Smith, but are you a virgin?”).  Most of us don’t know the circumstances even of our friends’ births.  Usually there has to be something very unusual about a person to make us want to delve that deeply into such personal details.  And in the case of Jesus, there emphatically is.  However, the unusual attention-getter for the apostles is not the beginning of his life, but the end.  The apostles come to be interested in Jesus’ origins, not because they saw the Virgin Birth, but because they saw the risen Christ. This risen Christ, as we saw previously, is the one who did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). Moreover, after his resurrection, he tells his disciples that “Moses and all the prophets” had written “concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). This is where the apostles get the idea that the whole life and ministry of Christ “fulfilled the Scriptures.” So far so good.

What is not so good however is that it is easy for the modern reader to adopt a kind of “checklist” mentality about messianic prophecy, as though every first-century Jew had an agreed-upon set of “Messianic Verses” in the Old Testament against which all messianic claimants were measured. Indeed, many books of Christian apologetics today[2] layout precisely this sort of schema:

The Messiah must be …(OT)(NT)
born in BethlehemMic. 5:1Matt 2:1, Lk. 2:4-7
adored by great personsPs. 72:10-11Matt. 2:1-11
sold for 30 pieces of silverZech. 11:12Matt. 26:15

and so forth. One could easily get the impression that all a first-century Jew had to do was follow Jesus around, ticking off prophecy fulfillments on his Old Testament Messianic Prophecy Checklist and he ought to have known everything that Jesus was going to do before he ever did it.

But, as we have seen, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is precisely why Paul writes that the New Covenant was “veiled” until the gospel took away the veil (2 Corinthians 3:14)· It is also why he declares the gospel was “not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5). In short, Paul insists the deepest meaning of the Old Testament was seen only after the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

This is why nobody before these events says, “Why, it’s plain from Scripture that the Messiah will be born of a virgin, rejected by the chief priests, handed over to Gentiles, crucified with thieves, risen, ascended, and that he will abrogate the circumcision demand for Gentiles as he breaks down the barrier between man and woman, slave and free, Jew and Gentile.” Even the disciples themselves, close as they were to Jesus, make it clear they did not anticipate the crucifixion, much less the resurrection, one little bit—even when Jesus rubbed their noses in it (Mark 9:9-10). As John says, they did not understand from the Scripture that the Messiah had to rise from the dead, even while they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb gawking at his grave clothes (John 20:1-10).

And yet, these same apostles speak of the resurrection (like the Virgin Birth) as a “fulfillment” of the prophecies. What then do they mean if they do not mean the prophecies were “predictions” upon which everybody based their understanding of Messiah?

They mean that Christ fulfilled, brought to fruition, and was the ultimate Case in Point toward which all the Old Testament was straining and pointing. They mean he was the One toward whom the law and prophets were being pointed by his Spirit even when the sacred writers themselves did not know quite what they were pointing toward (1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:20-21). This is why the early Church never had difficulty with an issue which often vexes modern minds: namely, why the New Testament often takes Old Testament texts out of their immediate context and sees them as applicable to Christ. For the early Church does not see the Old Testament as talking about something different from Christ, but rather sees it in relationship to him. What appear to us to be separate themes and events in the Old Testament, appear to the New Testament writers as so many spokes on a wheel all connected to the Hub who is Christ.

So, for instance, Hebrews 2:13 quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 8:18: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” In its literal sense, Isaiah is speaking about his own disciples. Yet the author of Hebrews sees Christ, far more than Isaiah, fulfilling the text. Why? Because Christ and his Church are, most fully, what Isaiah and his disciples were in a kind of foreshadow. Isaiah, the great prophet of the Messiah, prophesies him not only in the words he writes, but in the life he lives.  The words of the book of Isaiah, like all words, are signs signifying something, in this case Isaiah and his own disciples. But Isaiah and his own disciples are, in their turn, also signs signifying something even greater: Christ and his Church. For Christ and his Church are the ultimate Case in Point of what Isaiah and his disciples were: “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:18). Isaiah and his disciples do indeed fulfil the passage in an immediate and literal sense. But the early Church sees no particular reason why this forbids the God whom Isaiah worshipped from fulfilling it even more profoundly when he becomes incarnate and establishes his Church. Therefore the author of Hebrews, reading the Isaian passage with hindsight through the lens of the entire life and ministry of Christ, sees an allegory hidden in it by God of the Messiah Isaiah foretold. What was true of the prophet was truer still of the Messiah he prophesied.

Likewise, with Isaiah 7:14, we find that the passage has a much more immediate fulfillment than the birth of Christ. The Immanuel Prophecy comes in an hour of national crisis during the reign of Ahaz, one of the lousier kings of Judah and descendants of David. The northern kingdom of Israel has formed an alliance with Syria against Ahaz’ southern kingdom of Judah and as a result the Judeans are in a muck sweat about the future of their country. So Isaiah goes to Ahaz, tells him not to worry about the alliance since God will take care of the house of David, and offers Ahaz the chance to “ask a sign of the Lord your God” (Isaiah 7:10) to assure him that everything will be fine. Ahaz refuses, ostensibly because he is too pious to put God to the test, but really because he does not trust God. It is then that the Immanuel Prophecy is given: “Behold the almah shall conceive and bear [or ‘is with child and shall bear’] a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [which means ‘God with us’].” (Isaiah 7:14). What does Isaiah mean?

Most immediately and literally, Isaiah seems to have in mind the promise of a successor to Ahaz, namely Hezekiah, who will carry on the line of David so that, as Nathan had prophesied to David long ago “your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). In other words, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that “God is with” the Davidic throne just as he had promised David centuries before and that, for the sake of that promise, Ahaz’ kingdom will not be defeated by the menacing alliance to the north. And this prophecy is fulfilled. The alliance against Judah fails and Hezekiah is indeed born. The prophecy, in its most immediate sense, is fulfilled, not by a virgin birth, but by the pregnancy of the wife of Ahaz and the birth of a new “son of David” to carry on the Davidic line.

However, there remains in pre-Christian Jewish tradition a persistent belief in larger and second meanings in its Bible. As we have seen, there is, for instance, a growing sense that the prophecy of Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 7 (despite these immediate fulfillments) speaks not so much of an everlasting political rule, but of some higher and greater Throne. That is why, when the political rule of the house of David finally does fail, Israel continues to remember Nathan’s words and wonders what deeper meaning they might have. In the same way, Israel is told to await a Prophet by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) and, indeed, many prophets appear. Yet Israel, instead of seeing them as the final fulfillment of Moses’ promise, instead comes to believe that some Great and Ultimate Prophet is coming; an august Somebody of whom the Old Testament Prophets are just dim images or foreshadows. This is why the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was “The Prophet” (John 1:21). And so, as we have seen, the Jews slowly develop over time the strong belief that there is, in the Bible, a mysterious inner meaning as well as the slowly dawning awareness that Somebody is coming—some Anointed One or Servant or Prophet or Son of David or Son of Man (the titles are fuzzy in the Old Testament)—who will make clear the tantalizing hints and “utter things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). And so far from keeping his mind focused entirely in the political intrigues of his own time, Isaiah is one of the principal figures in the Old Testament who encourages exactly this kind of messianic anticipation, promising that “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1)—that is, an heir of the Davidic throne (Jesse was David’s father) will save Israel, even when the house of David’s political fortunes are destroyed by the Babylonian Exile and Captivity.

There is then, both clarity and obscurity concerning the messianic message of the Old Testament in the time of Christ. Certain texts (like the prophecy of Nathan concerning the covenant with David, or the promises in Isaiah of a coming “Anointed One” from the house of David) are clearly understood by most Jews to be messianic. Yet at the same time, other passages are never dreamed of as referring to a Messiah until after Jesus of Nazareth’s astounding career is over. Nobody understands Psalms 69 and 109 beforehand as a prophecy of the Election of Matthias to the office vacated by Judas, nor understands the unbroken bones of the Passover lamb as a prophetic image of Christ’s unbroken bones, nor sees in advance that Isaiah 53 bears witness to his crucifixion and resurrection. If they had, says Paul, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). All these things are only seen after the fact as eerily prophetic of Christ and his Church. They fill out the picture dimly sketched by the more widely acknowledged messianic prophecies, but only in hindsight.

This is why, rather than viewing their Hebrew Bibles as a source of proof texts to be strung together into a checklist, the early Christians see the Old Testament bearing inspired witness to the extraordinary man who had dwelt among them. They did not, for instance, read “Zeal for your house will consume me” in the Septuagint version of Psalm 69:9 and then decide “The Messiah, whenever he shows up, will overturn the table of the moneychangers in order to fulfil this random passage from the Psalms.” On the contrary, Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers first (John 2:13-16) and then afterwards his disciples remember the verse and are struck by how it “fits” the event. This happens again and again in the New Testament. The disciples are as surprised as anybody else when Jesus heals the sick or raises the dead. They do not foresee the miracles of Christ by reading the Old Testament. Rather, the ministry of Christ happens and they then see an uncanny connection between what Jesus does and the weird way in which it fits the Old Testament. When Jesus is sold for thirty pieces of silver or his hands and feet are pierced on the cross, the apostles do not discover this by sticking their noses into the book of Zechariah or Psalm 22. Rather, after Jesus is raised, they remember that these things were written and, blinking their eyes in amazement, say “It was staring us in the face all along and we didn’t see it!” The Old Testament is not the basis of their belief in these things, it is the witness to these things.

And so, back to my friend and his worries about the Virgin Birth. First off, the translators of the Septuagint did not make a “wrong” translation of “almah” into “parthenos.” Recall that the translation was made just a little bit before the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Hence, it was commonly assumed in the culture of the translators that a young woman, assuming she was unmarried, would also be a virgin. The translators of the Septuagint, faced with a choice between the Greek word for “young woman” and Greek word for “virgin” opted, for whatever mysterious reasons, to use the latter. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, it was not the smartest move in the world. But neither was it wildly beyond the pale. Words seldom mean one thing and one thing only. Second, whatever may have been the mistaken (or was it providential?) motivations of the Septuagint translators, Matthew did not, in any event, derive his belief in Mary’s virginity from Isaiah 7:14. He did not sit down one day, read Isaiah, and say to himself, “Let’s see. Isaiah says something about a virgin here. So if I’m going to cook up a Christ figure, I’d better make him the son of a virgin so it’ll fit with this text.” On the contrary, the apostles encounter a man who does extraordinary things like rising from the dead and, when they inquire about his origins—which they could only have known if Mary volunteered them—find he was born of a virgin. They then look at their Septuagint Bibles, run across this weird passage in the Greek text of Isaiah and see him reflected in this verse (because Jesus had told them that the law and the prophets are, in their deepest sense, about him). They realize that the birth of the little “son of David” Hezekiah foreshadows the birth of the Ultimate Son of David Jesus. So they point to the passage as another instance of Jesus being the Messianic fulfillment of the promised made to house of David.  It was so that he could be born of a virgin that Hezekiah, his ancestor, was born of the almah. The Church’s faith in the virginity of Mary originates not in a textual misunderstanding, but in the historical fact of the Virgin Birth of Christ to which the Septuagint translation bears curiously providential witness. The basis of the Church’s Faith, then as now, is Jesus Christ himself.

[1] J. A. Fitzmyer, S.J., quoted in Scott Hahn: “Coming to Our Senses: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Spiritual Exegesis”, Lay Witness, September 1998, p. 6.

[2] I take this example from The Jewish New Testament, tr. David H. Stern (Clarksville: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1989), pp. xxvi-xxix. One can also find the same sort of checklist in some of the works of Josh McDowell.


51 Responses

  1. The question, I suppose, is what Jewish thinkers thought would be the case about the Messiah prior to Jesus. Dud they think that the “a virgin will conceive” passage meant that the Messiah when he came would be born from a virgin? If so, one could see early Christians presuming this to be the case and stories growing up around it; if not, then this adds credibility to the idea that the story has its origins in Mary herself, as you say.

      1. No, Does Almah Mean Young Woman or Virgin? Cyrus Gordon, a leading Jewish scholar who was formerly Professor of Assyriology and Egyptology, Dropsie College, wrote:

        The commonly held view that “virgin” is Christian, whereas “young woman” is Jewish is not quite true. The fact is that the Septuagint, which is the Jewish translation made in pre-Christian Alexandria, takes ‘almah to mean “virgin” here. Accordingly the New Testament follows Jewish interpretation in Isaiah 7:14.

        From Ugarit of around 1400 B.C. comes a text celebrating the marriage of the male and female lunar deities. It is there predicted that the goddess will bear a son…. The terminology is remarkably close to that in Isaiah 7:14. However, the Ugaritic statement that the bride will bear a son is fortunately given in parallelistic form; in 77:7 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew ‘almah – “young woman”; in 77:5 she is called by the exact etymological counterpart of Hebrew betulah “virgin.” Therefore, the New Testament rendering of ‘almah as “virgin” for Isaiah 7:14 rests on the older Jewish interpretation, which in turn is now borne out for precisely this annunciation formula by a text that is not only pre-Isaianic but is pre-Mosaic in the form that we now have it on a clay tablet.

        – “‘Almah in Isaiah 7:14,” Journal of Bible and Religion 21 (1953), p. 106.

      2. Namely, for some reasons it can be assumed that the prophet Isaiah, who wrote his words from Isaiah 7:14 in the eighth century BC10, understood the word ‘almah’ in the sense of ‘virgin’ rather than just ‘young woman’, as it is trying today to accentuate among the opponents of the Catholic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. This is indicated by several circumstances. The first is the archaic meaning of the word ‘almah, which evidently in Isaiah’s day had a much stronger emphasis on the essence of virginity than perhaps later, when the word meant primarily a young woman. The fact that the word ‘almah in Isaiah’s day had a much stronger emphasis on the essence of virginity is confirmed by the discoveries in Zenjirla, where in one of the 9th century BC inscriptions dedicated to a certain king of Kilam, the word’ almah is indisputably referred to a woman who has not yet given birth, and also to a virgin11. This is also confirmed by the findings of C.H. Gordon, who in his Ugaritic dictionary titled The Ugaritic Handbook12 has shown that the Ugaritic glmt corresponding to the Hebrew word ‘almah’ is repeatedly identified with the Ugaritic btlt, which corresponds to the Hebrew betulah – “virgin” 13. An example of such a synonymous use of the two words mentioned in the previous sentence can be an ancient Ugaritic inscription which reads: hl glmt tld b (n), which translates as: a young girl (glmt, to whom ‘almah – J.L.’s note) will give birth to a son. It seems that this glmt is earlier in this text referred to as btlt – “virgin” 14. Perhaps the existence of the same synonym is also evidenced by the Phoenician inscription from Ras Shamra, published in 1933 by Virolleand in the journal “Syria” 15. The inscription reads: ast tq hbtk glmt ts rb, which translates: you will take a woman to your house, you will bring a virgin (glmt) to your courtyard. It is also worth adding that Jerome17 drew our attention to the fact that in the Punic word alma meant virgin18.
        Then, as mentioned above, in Gen. 24:16, Rebekah was called betulah (“virgin”) and in Gen. 24:43, she was called ‘almah. It can be seen that the words’ almah and betulah were unquestionably used interchangeably as synonyms in chapter 24 of the Book of Genesis, which, according to critics, belongs to the J class of the Pentateuch and which dates back to the 10th century BC19. The same conclusion follows from the above-mentioned Ugaritic texts, in which the word ‘almah is used interchangeably with btlt, which corresponds to the Hebrew betulah – “virgin”. Thus, we have the three oldest Semitic testimonies mentioned above and discussed in detail, in which the word ‘almah is always unquestionably used to denote a virgin. These are: 1) the Ugaritic texts mentioned in the dictionary of C.H. Gordon; 2) a text from Zendżirli which was dedicated to a certain king of Kilam; 3) a very old text considered by biblical scholars to belong to the Yahistic strata of the Pentateuch, which dates back to no later than the 10th century BC. The later OT texts do not contradict the interpretation of ‘almah in which it denotes a virgin. These data authorize us to accept the conclusion that the authors of the LXX had valid reasons and every right to have the word ‘almah from the very old (in relation to the rest of the OT texts) the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 translated into the Greek parthenos, meaning virgin, which was in line with the oldest meaning of the word ‘almah.

        Moreover, another reason why the translators of the LXX decided to translate ‘almah into the virginity-stressing word parthenos in Isaiah 7:14, is that we know that Emmanuel’s father was not mentioned in Isaiah 7. It is also not mentioned that it was he who would give Emmanuel a name, although this was the custom in ancient patriarchal Israel20 (cf. also Gen 16:15; Judg 8:31; Tob 1: 9; Hos 1: 4,6; Mt 1:21:25; Lk 1.13). From the Masoretic text it appears that Emmanuel is named after his mother: weqara’t – “and she will name it” (Is 7:14). The Vulgate and the Peshitta show that others will call him that. Only a few LXX codes mention that Ahaz will name the child, however their lesson is not considered credible. The lesson in the Qumran text is considered to be the most credible, where we encounter the male form of the third person, which in Hebrew has a non-personal meaning21. The lesson from Qumran is therefore in agreement with the Vulgate and Peshitta, and it cannot be inferred from it that it is the father who will give the child a name, which implies its absence (and thus the virginal conception in Isaiah 7:14).,74.htm

  2. Cf the English word “maid”, which originally meant a virgin (“Maid Marian”, “maidenhead”, “only a maiden may approach a unicorn”), or any young(ish) woman (“milkmaid”, “pretty maids all in a row”)… or a female house-cleaner. You can say “My maid is a 60-year-old grandmother” without contradicting yourself in English. The meaning has shifted over time.
    The problem with arguing that the Christian interpretation of OT prophecies is correct is that, while initially you’re smacking down clueless dons like Dawkins – which wins praise from all quarters – sooner or later it brings Christians into conflict with Jews, who will argue for a similar interpretation to what the atheists do; debating theology with Jews is a hot potato that most post-Vatican-II Catholics understandably don’t want to touch.

  3. One should at least mention the very long list of virgin births attested by pre-Christian religions and mythologies. Everyone from the ancient Greeks to the Buddhists to the Iroquois had such stories.

    1. @joel

      In my comment below, I didn’t get into the virgin birth stories. Or the born in a manger stories. Or the lowly origins stories. Or the similarities of all of the solar myths stories.

      I’m already going to get yelled at.

    2. Really? While there are plenty of stories of miraculous births, I am not aware of any stories of “virgin births” in the same sense as the Christian story: I’d love it if you could provide details.

      1. @ Iain: you can download the book in question for free from the Internet. Unfortunately, it’s a Google Books scan, and not always a good one.

        You can also Google “virgin births gods and “for 57 million hits.

      2. Can’t seem to reply to the actual responses to this for some reason, so I am adding an addendum here.
        “Examples” given were:
        – Perseus and Helen in Greek mythology, both of whom were gods fathering children on mortal women, who may have been virgins before but certainly weren’t when the relevant god had finished with them.
        – Quetzacoatal, who according to Wikipedia at least was fathered in a perfectly ordinary way, and
        – the Vipassi Buddha, who has lots of miraculous features, but a virgin birth was not one of them; and, I am sorry to say
        – the classic “do your own research on Google” response, which isn’t terribly helpful.
        This seems to me to be the equivalent of an urban legend, unless someone can find me some actual examples.

      3. @ Iain
        From the Wiki article on Quetzalcoatl:
        “In a version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl was born by a virgin named Chimalman, to whom the god Onteol appeared in a dream.[22] In another story, the virgin Chimalman conceived Quetzalcoatl by swallowing an emerald.[23] A third story narrates that Chimalman was hit in the womb by an arrow shot by Mixcoatl and nine months later she gave birth to a child which was called Quetzalcoatl.”
        Your selective reading of this article is noted.

        Also, you wrote: “Perseus and Helen in Greek mythology, both of whom were gods fathering children on mortal women, who may have been virgins before but certainly weren’t when the relevant god had finished with them.” And? The belief in Mary’s *perpetual* virginity is strictly a Catholic thing. Most Protestants acknowledge the similarity in these stories.

        Finally, from the article on Alexander the Great: “on the eve of the consummation of her marriage to Philip, Olympias dreamed that her womb was struck by a thunderbolt that caused a flame to spread.” Granted, this legend is only known to have been told by Alexander himself, but it is nonetheless an example of a virgin birth story being used to burnish someone’s status.

      4. You badly need to learn about the rest of apostolic Christianity if you think the perpetual virginity of Mary is “strictly a Catholic thing”. Americans are shockingly ignorant of anything outside of their immediate religious experience. All they know is Catholic and Protestant, and they forget the entire Eastern and African Church.

      5. I think you are failing to consider the writing style of the stories. The Matthew and Luke Gospels lack many of the mythological stylistic elements that are in the other stories.

      6. @ iain

        The book i mentioned documents a great deal of this. None of it is new.

        You can look up “miraculous births” on wikipedia for a fairly easy perusal.

        You can google “adonis virgin birth” and not only find out about Adonis, but see a number of other references to other deities.

        It gets a little bit trickier in the virgin birth category when you were talking about helen, Leda and the Swan. Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, but we don’t know whether we stayed in the form of a swan, or whether he had a cloaca, and how that works with human anatomy. Was she technically still a virgin?

        The same question could be asked about Mary. I am in no way trying to be snarky here when I say this. But this is the thing about these ancient religions and the stories that they tell. There are an awful lot of similarities. What I mentioned in the earlier posting about Odin is a good example. When did these stories that are so similar to the Christian story become current? When Odin was first being worshiped around the time of Christ, for which we have no written records?We face of similar problem and religions when there are not necessarily a canonical scripture. Some stories of the birth of the Buddha talk about a virgin birth in humble circumstances. Other stories do not. Which are authentic? which are official?

      7. @ Mark wrote (quoting me) “strictly a Catholic thing” and then Mark opined “Americans are shockingly ignorant of anything outside of their immediate religious experience. All they know is Catholic and Protestant, and they forget the entire Eastern and African Church.”

        I was using shorthand. I actually attended a Greek Orthodox church for a few months, a decade or so ago. It was my last stop before heading out the door of Christianity entirely. If I was feeling snarky I might point out to you that Orthodox authorities insist that the full, official name of their body is “Orthodox Catholic Church”, but since I’ve already acknowledged I was just using shorthand I won’t do that.

      8. @ workb

        With all respect – and I’m really trying not to be snarky— they are only mythological to you because 1) they are not your religion, and 2) you are reading a summation of what an ancient people believed in modern English, and not in the Scriptures that they may have had or the language that they spoke.

        A few years ago, I took the Chronicle to task on this very issue. I think they published my letter, but I can’t be sure. They were writing a story about something to do with Hinduism, and mentioned Vishnu, “the mythical hindu god who is the Preserver.” I pointed out that Vishnu is not a myth to 1 billion Hindus, but a real personage. I also pointed out that Christians would be outraged if an Indian newspaper referred to “Jesus, the mythical risen man-God of the Christians”. Except that, generally speaking, they wouldn’t, because they (generally) have no problems with their gods not being the only gods.

      9. No, you actually don’t know me or my background or the spiritual path my life has taken me.

        There are vast differences, conflicts, and incompatibilities between the belief system in the Abrahamic God and the belief systems in the various pantheons in the ancient world. Was one right and one wrong? Were they both right or both wrong? Were some parts right and some parts wrong? Are there interpretations yet to discover that are beneficial to human relationship and life? Are there *any* areas for ecumenism? I submit that there must be some way to evaluate.

        I get that people must be treated with respect with regard to their beliefs. The ancient myths did have a purpose. At their best, they pointed to the joy and beauty of this world, and yet a world outside our own, to the hopes and dreams across humanity, to transcendence.

      10. Another “example” has now been given of Adonis, yet in no version given of his origins is he a virgin birth as far as I have been able to establish.
        On Quetzalcoatl it’s worth saying that in his Wikipedia entry it gives the misleading impression that two stories of his conception are virgin births (by an arrow being shot at Chimalman his mother by Mixcoatl his father, or by her swallowing a gem) but in both cases if one looks at the more detailed entry for his mother, the first story has the arrow being shot first by Mixcoatl and him them lying with her in the usual way, and the “gem” story is that Mixcoatl and Chimalman are unable to conceive despite repeated attempts until she swallows the gem. So no dice there either.
        For a repeated common story in mythology, it’s surprising how no actual examples seem forthcoming.

      11. @ work

        I assume your comment was directed at me. It helps if you indicate that.

        You are quite correct. I don’t know your beliefs or your spiritual path. I do know that you use the word “mythological” to refer to someone else’s religious beliefs. That was my point. Mark and I have had this conversation several times about whether and whose beliefs are true.

        As an atheist, I don’t have any reason to believe that any of them are “true“, whatever’s true may mean in this context. They are all stated without evidence. For me, and for most thoughtful atheists that I know, atheism is not really a statement about God, or gods, or the mythical/mystical structure of the universe, but a statement about religion. Or, putting it another way, they all have an equal amount of evidence of the same value. I don’t find any of that evidence compelling, or one set of evidence more compelling than another.

        But as you note, we are actually in agreement. What I just said it doesn’t mean that these myths have no value.

      12. The Mahāvastu, a Buddhist text dated anywhere from 200 BCE to 400 CE, describes Queen Māyā, the mother of the Buddha, as having given birth to Siddhartha Gautama without sexual intercourse with her husband, King Suddhōdana. There are several things to note, in terms of similarities and differences.

        Because of their moral purity, both Māyā and Mary (in the Ancient Churches) are said to have had only one child. Likewise, the birth (not to be confused with the conception) of both Siddhartha and Jesus (in the Ancient Churches) was not a normal birth, possibly not involving the birth canal.

        One difference to note is that the Mahāvastu is not considered part of the canon for all (or even most) Buddhists; for instance, the canon of scripture in Theravada Buddhism does not include the Mahāvastu, and the Theravada canon doesn’t mention exactly how Siddhartha was conceived. Another difference is that–even among Buddhists who might believe in the Mahāvastu narrative–Buddhists don’t place the same amount of emphasis upon the idea of the “virginal conception” of Siddhartha that Christians place upon that of Jesus; for instance, the process of becoming a Buddhist does not involve confessing one’s acceptance of the virginal conception of Siddhartha Gautama.

        See Jones, The Mahāvastu, vol. 3, pp. 5-18 ( )

    3. and so the world could see through a glass darkly, but go back and consider the point Mark made, back away from the stock answer in your filing cabinet for just a moment. The understanding of the Scriptures comes about as a result of an encounter with the risen Jesus. Isaiah didn’t come first Jesus did; He is. Before Abraham was He is. The encounter with the Crucified One clarified the full reality of what the prophets said; it also clarifies the long list of Virgin Birth stories. Have you never wondered at the Magi. They had their own mythical framework with which to understand this Adam’s Lament, they had their own virgin birth story if you will, and because of the Divine pedagogy, they had it so that, as persons of good will, seekers of the truth, they had these stories so that when they came into contact w/the actual thing to which those stories pointed they would know it and be able to receive it. But i digress. Consider St Paul, as Saul, a good and holy Jew he knew the words of the Scriptures, but he didn’t understand them, consider here also the Ethiopian Eunuch, it was only after the encounter with the risen Jesus, directly or through the Apostle Philip, that they come to understand the Scriptures. Again, Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Moses, Abraham, Adam don’t come first, Jesus comes first and is that which is necessary to understand fully what revelation means. in some sense you are right, the prophets share a similarity with the other ancient virgin birth stories and like those other authors they didn’t understand the greater significance of what they wrote, but the scandal of particularity means that the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, turned out to be the ones writing inspired revelation, so again, the long list of virgin birth stories would be exactly what you would expect to find if He was true. For the world, groaning in anticipation, thirsting and hungering for righteousness, was given in various times and places the impression of truth as best they could understand it and transmit it. The writings weren’t inspired but pointed to the truth. For the One Who Is holds all things in existence, no person is bereft of His generosity, to all essences He provides existence in every single instance, and so these ancients were not, in that sense, separated from God, and He always responds to good will. In the end i would say this: you would ask us to consider the implications of these stories, to which i would say yes i will, you will do the same, no?

      1. @ mysh. that argument is older than Methuselah’s gay uncle. All of those similarities among the world religions are just the devils snare, and the one true faith is the christian faith.

        You know who taught that? The people with a vested interest in their own religion. The christian missionaries who, when they finally got out lf their little bubble, learned that other people had other faiths. How could that be?there was only one true faith. The other ones that had exactly the same stuff going on were just cheap imitations of the real thing.

        It’s circular reasoning.

  4. Get involved in this, or not get involved in this? To be or not to be, that is the question. Oh well, I’ll be for a little bit, with the understanding that apart from a scholarly interest in it, I don’t care. But I’ll get yelled at anyway.

    There is a very interesting book, very well researched, about 130 years old, by T. W. Doane, entitled “Bible myths and their parallels in other religions.“ The author makes the point that word appears in the New Testament about Christianity has also appeared in a number of other religions, dead and alive, all over the planet. The dying god, who sacrifices himself for mankind, who will return again.

    The short answer is, “Madman, liar, or king” are not the only options.

    From a scholarly treatise on the Eddas…

    “Our source for the above tale is the Hávamál, an Old Norse poem that comprises part of the Poetic Edda. In the first of the two verses that describe Odin’s shamanic initiatory ordeal itself (written from Odin’s perspective), the god says that he was “given to Odin, myself to myself.” The Old Norse phrase that translates to English as “given to Odin” is gefinn Óðni, a phrase that occurs many times throughout the Eddas and sagas in the context of human sacrifices to Odin. And, in fact, the form these sacrifices take mirrors Odin’s ordeal in the Hávamál; the victim, invariably of noble birth, was stabbed, hung, or, more commonly, both at the same time.

    Odin’s ordeal is therefore a sacrifice of himself to himself, and is the ultimate Odinnic sacrifice – for who could be a nobler offering to the god than the god himself?

    So, it seems that a statement above is in need of qualification. Part of Odin survived the sacrifice in order to be the recipient of the sacrifice – in addition to the runes themselves – and another part of him did indeed die. This is suggested, not just by the imagery of death in these verses, but also by the imagery of rebirth and fecundity in the following verses that speak of his being “fertilized,” and, like a seedling, “growing,” and “thriving.”

    Now this sounds like what Christian story? Noble birth, “thou son of David?” New born KING? Hung? Stabbed? Tree? wood? Sacrifice of god to himself? Oh, yes, the central story of Christianity itself.

    And for the record, Odin occasionally raised the dead.

    I’ll be quiet now.

    1. The Havamal post-dates the Christian story by at least a thousand years. In the absence of time travel, they either completely unrelated or the Odin story is derived from the Christian one.

  5. @iain

    That is absolutely true. The havamal dates from around the ninth century. But the worship of Odin is far more ancient.

    From Wikipedia: Odin appears as a prominent god throughout the recorded history of Northern Europe, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania (from c.  2 BCE) through movement of peoples during the Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries CE) and the Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries CE). In the modern period the rural folklore of Germanic Europe continued to acknowledge Odin. References to him appear in place names throughout regions historically inhabited by the ancient Germanic peoples, and the day of the week Wednesday bears his name in many Germanic languages, including in English.

    On the other hand, from Wikipedia, andto your point: In Old English texts, Odin holds a particular place as a euhemerized ancestral figure among royalty, and he is frequently referred to as a founding figure among various other Germanic peoples, such as the Langobards. Forms of his name appear frequently throughout the Germanic record, though narratives regarding Odin are mainly found in Old Norse works recorded in Iceland, primarily around the 13th century. These texts make up the bulk of modern understanding of Norse mythology.

  6. Anybody who has taken a creative writing course –ever –realizes at some point, that every. single. story. has already been told. The truth about our lives is accessible to everyone. In a different life I’d be writing my thesis on the subject.

    Why do humans consider the same things shocking, tragic, amazing, hopeful? Why do we see the same story arc, over and over again? The story has to end a certain way. I would imagine that for an atheist, they have to learn to live with stories ending in a wrong way. That must suck.

    I like how the French and Spanish have this talent for making sort of watchable movies that involve the quotidian–but they are really just snapshots–thumbnail pictures. I like to get out of dodge by observing their cultures–my husband used to yell at the screen in the theater because it left him hanging.

    Last year I binge watched every season of the Ted Bundy series on Netflix. The next day, by happenstance, I happened to run into a friend who is a seasoned psychiatrist in the psych ward at our hospital. After confessing my 3 am Netflix sin, she got this funny little smile on her face and said something like “1 in 70!” brightly. Ah sociopaths–but that’s not the end of the story.

    I’m convinced that atheists know the story–maybe not with mainstream terminology– but for now we just need to leave them alone a bit. Anybody who is committed to leading a moral life as an active participant in contributing to a morally ordered society, is already 99% there. They certainly are more Christian than some Doofus displaying his gun, protesting masks/vaccines and waving an American flag in the name of MAGA.

    1. “I would imagine that for an atheist, they have to learn to live with stories ending in a wrong way. That must suck.”

      Not so much. Years ago an anthropology professor taught me that religion is a “pan-human characteristic”. Every society, in every part of the world, in every era of history, has had some form of religion. From this we can conclude that organized religions have real sociological benefit. But the vast variety of those religions makes equally clear that the actual beliefs of said religions are irrelevant.

      I’m totally happy to acknowledge that religion can, part of the time, make people happy and contribute to a well-ordered society. I just draw the line at saying religion is true.

      1. @Joel
        I can really empathize with anybody who is repelled, triggered, tired, …amused by religion.

        As a former Protestant you only got the tip of the iceberg. We got the doves and old men with white beards, fat cherub-baby angels medieval artworks portraying tlots of naked people getting their just deserts at the last judgement. It actually delights me. All of it. The Protestants were right to be up to their eyebrows in impatience for the carnival-like atmosphere juxtapositioned with flagellation, Gregorian chant and tonsured monks (brewing up the best booze this world has seen). God, I wouldn’t trade it for pilgrim hats or everything all buttoned up like a hijab. What a turn off.

        When I went to Europe for the first time, I came back to the U.S. after months, and was deflated to feel like I was living in one big strip mall. Even the Santa Barbara mission looked young and quaint in comparison.

        Anyway, I understand how inadequate symbolism is at the end of the day–or why people reject cheap substitutes. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for him.” This makes perfect sense to me. We are all like a bunch of intense toddlers seriously laboring over our artwork–or babies in utero that don’t understand what a mother is.

        Last night I stepped out into the yard, and looked up. (all the houses are on an acre and there are no street lights) It was one of those vivid night skies. “Oh my God, you should see the stars out there” I remarked to my husband. I can’t even fathom how I could be seeing the light from the star of a distant galaxy that might have burned out thousands of years ago.

      2. @tacoanybody,

        At the risk of maybe offending some, I agree with your “tip of the iceberg” analogy. Whenever I have experienced Protestantism, it always seemed like a partial picture. The group I usually haven’t felt this way about is Episcopalians, but only because in my neck of the woods they are historically so anglo-Catholic. That’s just my personal impression, but I’ve always found Catholicism engagingly deep and endlessly interesting to the point that were I to ever lose all faith I would probably still attend Mass sometimes or keep some of my statues and religious pictures around.

        I should note that I know a number of atheists who find a religion-like comfort in knowing there isn’t anything out there and no life after death. To them, it’s the most appealing ending to the story.

      3. It must be very convenient to make this distinction between ”religious” and ”non-religious” myth. Why does that matter? Wouldn’t it be much simpler to say that nothing is true?

  7. “One day, young Sigmund woke up to the sweet song of his canary Oedipus. He lay there in bed, happy as the rising sun warmed his blankets. His mother’s maid, Clarisse brought him his breakfast sausages with fried eggs and cold milk on a tray.

    An expletive rang out. Violating the quiet morning. Interrupting Oedipus abruptly. Sigmund threw the tray to the ground. Clarisse scurried in wondering what had troubled her young master. Freud snarled angrily at Clarisse and gestured towards the masticated sausages sprayed across the coverlet.

    “They’re bad” he declared accusingly. Clarisse, red in the face begged, forgiveness while the coverlet was bundled up in seconds, and she departed, tripping over the tray.

    Little Siggy, not to be overly troubled in his mind over bad maids and worse sausages, turned over, musing about the metal box his friend Hans the blacksmith made to keep tobacco fresh. He nodded to himself considering how well it worked and if cans of tomacco could be kept indefinitely that way. Drifting off into sleep he imagined a tool that might be made to open those little boxes when tobacco was scarce or the price was too high.”


      1. I cleaned up the wurst part:

        “Clarisse, whose bodice could barely contain her heaving bosom, was an object of fascination for young Sigmund. It was then that he realized that the lovely Clarisse bore a striking resemblance to his dear mother.”

      2. @ taco

        OMG. You went there! You did your wurst. You know, even Sigmund admitted that sometimes a sausage is just a sausage.

        You really went there. And i laughed really hard. And i had my response at the ready.

  8. @Lucky,

    Yeah, it’s just not my thing–so much Americana and ugly buildings.

    My fifth kid is head over heels in love with a nice Protestant girl. He adores her. Every Sunday he dutifully accompanies her to Protestant (outdoor) service which he describes as a “Jesus-rock ‘n -roll-jam-session with a nice dude who gets up and talks scripture” as the climax. From time to time there is the dreaded grape juice and cracker thing. My son has literally told me with *anguish* that there is no “mystery” or “union with Jesus”. I swear I’m not exaggerating. He’s the last person I thought would say such things. He was the most “free-range” of all of our kids.

    Last night her told me he was writing her some (love) letter in which he quotes Polycarp, and proves that the book of Tobit was included in the earliest accepted books of the bible. I laughed and told him he was a weirdo. I also told him he doesn’t have to be right all the time and to stop being a bible bully.

    I hope it works out for them. She’s adorable. All of this is proof to me that I have almost nothing to do with the faith of my children. He didn’t get a shred of Catholic schooling and grew up in *Marin County* . Good God.

    1. What’s funny is you can even find rock music in Catholicism if you know where to look. I have friends who would try to get me to go to praise and worship events, some of which included adoration. There was also a Catholic group that would get together and rock out in an old warehouse space. It was fun the few times I went, but not really for me. I’m more the quiet mystical spiritual type, I suppose.

      It could work out for your son and his girlfriend. My wife isn’t Catholic (or Christian) and we’ve been best friends for 17 years and married for eight. Also, I bet you have more to do with the faith of your children than you think. You obviously made Catholicism appealing to your son through your example. I’m thankful to my parents that they never used religion to scare me or punish me. How they presented God and the Church was relentlessly positive and loving even though I didn’t have a perfect Catholic boy upbringing.

      1. @Lucky
        I subscribe to Bishop Barron’s daily mass commentary. A couple of days ago his commentary on the genealogy of Jesus had to do with the fact that Jesus was descended from parents that are questionable. I’m always glad when someone points out that we are all flawed, and that we basically suck at our job at being the parent of anybody.

        Thank you God for parents that are positive. *Thanks be to God*.

    2. Rock and roll concerts? There is U2.
      There are nice priests who preach well.
      The climax isn’t the preaching, the climax is being one with God (Jesus). There is also some beautiful reflective music to be played after communion. e.g. “I Will Lift My Eyes” by Alonso. Do they play that at your church?
      That all being said – if she and the protestant church bring him closer to God, it’s all good.

      1. The Irish do Punk, Rock and Catholicism well.

        I wouldn’t recommend this in the liturgy, but I always considered this a very Catholic track.

      2. Thanks Artevelde! This is a great song! The lyrics are very though provoking and inspiring. I agree with you – it is very much a Catholic track.

        I may have to go ahead and buy an old fashioned CD 🙂

  9. @Artevelde, I feel like I’ve heard that song before…
    I’m not sure if your comment above was directed at me…but if it was, I wasn’t saying that the story doesn’t matter. Of course it does! I just think humans intuited what would be the ultimate of all ultimate stories –even before it happened. It doesn’t get more extreme than the Jesus story. As shocking as it is–it had to be that story. Humans usually associate “the ultimate” with a dazzling show of might and beauty, but we already got that with creation. The ultimate is the God of creation shivering on hay in a cave, born of a humble virgin.–Of course it had to be that way.

    @workbeastie,for me, the singer is much more important than the song. I get distracted by the old ladies who screech like cats, but even they are fading in my memory. At our church in the Bay area we have Emmanuel who sings and plays the grand piano. The man is kissed by God– he could make anything sound gorgeous. He’s one of those prodigies that can play all of the instruments. Here in So Cal we have been going to outside mass. Right now we are under a stay at home order, so we watch the mass from wherever You Tube leads us and also listen to Bishop Barron’s Sunday homily as well. The sound system outside leaves much to be desired, but under regular circumstances the choir at the Santa Barbara Mission is absolutely classic and lovely. I’m not the biggest fan of opera but the woman who does the solos has an exceptional and unique voice. She is so gifted.

    *Also, –Do you ever wonder about that feeling of de ja vu? –Maybe we have already seen every aspect of the beginning, middle and end of everything because we are connected to God.

    1. @ taco

      It was a question meant for Joel. I would tend to agree with what you and Myshkin wrote on his subject. As for your ideas regarding déjà vu, it rhymes well with De Chardin, Conway Morris’ defense of biological convergent evolution, or, indeed with the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, or with Paul’s ”Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”.

      While Christian eschatology tends to be mostly linear, there is and was always room for things circular (or if you wish, recurring, or persistent).

      May the sun of Southern California always be with you and may our Lord jesus Christ hold you in the palm of his hand.

  10. Thanks Artevelde 🙂 I really love what Myshkin wrote!

    Yeah, it’s sunny. it never looks very Christmasy here, but now it feels like Baja CA. As I type this my daughter is at the beach sunbathing. –Okay she just walked in and told me she swam in the ocean too. Good Lord! The air is so dry from the lack of rain that we all give each other an electrical shock if we touch each other. It feels like a summer that won’t end–roses and bougainvillea in full bloom, citrus on the trees. I think I would trade our sun for your snow for at least the next couple of weeks.

    May God bless you and your household with joy and peace! The last few years I’ve been asking God to allow me to enter more fully into the mystery of the incarnation. It is bittersweet to read the news and to be somewhat locked down, but we have been spending more time together as a family, and I’m relieved that the commercial aspect of Christmas–the hustle and bustle –isn’t crowding out what is most important.

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