Virgin Birth and The Assumption of Mary

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da Vinci's Virgin
Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, holds a special place of honor for Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many Anglicans. Devotion to the Virgin Mary is a characteristic of Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches but is downplayed in Protestant churches which views worshiping Mary as taking away from the devotion to Jesus. For Catholics, Thomas Aquinas argued that God alone was to receive worship in the full sense (Greek, latreia), while the saints generally deserved veneration (douleia), with Mary worthy of something more than veneration and less than worship, which he termed hyperdouleia. In general this describes Mary's place within Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The two most common Catholic prayers may be the Our Father and the Hail Mary.[Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Mary is said to have been a virgin when Jesus was born. In his book “What the Gospels Meant”, the writer and thinker Gary Wills said it “is not gynecological or obstetric teaching, but a theological one.” The historical Jesus scholar Raymond Brown said, Matthew and Luke “regarded the virginal conception as historical, but the modern intensity about historicity was not theirs.”

According to the BBC: ““In the New Testament, many of the women characters are either so holy and pure that it's unrealistic, or they're prostitutes. And Mary falls into the category of being holy and pure and absolutely without sin; and she carries on in that trajectory right through the tradition so that she gets more and more holy and her virginity is stressed more and more and her holiness throughout her whole life is stressed, so that she too becomes sinless. She is assumed into heaven rather than having to die, she herself gets born of an immaculate conception; so you get a development in the idea of the perpetual virginity, because she's begun a journey to becoming ever more holy, ever more pure which in the end can only end up with those concepts of perpetual virginity. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“The virgin birth is a very powerful story which explains the theological truth that Jesus is the son of God - not just the son of God from his resurrection or from his baptism, as perhaps the gospel of Mark might suggest, but the son of God from the moment of his conception. |To what extent it's historical is much more difficult to analyse. One of the difficulties is that we hear nothing at all of a virgin birth tradition, until late in the first century. Only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were probably written in the 80s or 90s of the first century, is there a mention of the virgin birth. |::|

“Another difficulty with the virgin birth idea is that the texts in Matthew and Luke are clearly overlaid with references to the Old Testament. They're evocative of the typical Old Testament annunciation narrative: the angel going down to one or two of the parents; the insurmountable problem, which usually in the Old Testament is the fact that the parents are elderly or barren; the angel proclaiming that the problem is going to be surmounted; and the birth ensues. It's very similar to the stories about the birth of Isaac or the birth of Samson or Samuel. Matthew and Luke are indebted to the Old Testament and they're drawing on these Old Testament ideas. The story of the birth of Jesus has to be even better. Mary can't be an elderly barren woman: instead she's a young girl who's also a virgin. |::|


The conception of Jesus and the virgin birth is addressed the The Annunciation, which describes the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation holiday is celebrated nine months before Christmas on March 25. The Annunciation (“Announcement”) marks the announcement by an angel that Mary will become pregnant and give birth to Jesus. According to the Bible, Mary became mysteriously pregnant while a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who considered divorcing her.

The story is the Annunciation is told in Luke's Gospel, 1: 26-38: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you." [Source: Luke 1:26-38, NIV, International Bible Society]

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

“"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

Annunciation Story in the Bible

In Luke the angel Gabriel delivers the news to Mary, greeting her with the often recited, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” According to Luke 1:30-35, 38: "And the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall give the him name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.'"

"And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have no husband?' And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the son of God'...And Mary said, 'Behold, I am a handmaiden of the Lord, let it be me according to your word."

In Matthew an unnamed angel brings news to Joseph. In Matthew 1:20-21: "an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'"

Meaning and Interpretations of Annunciation

“The Annunciation on March 25th marks the visit by the angel Gabriel's to Mary, who is told that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ. According to the BBC: “More importantly, since it occurs 9 months before the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, the Annunciation marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and that the Son of God became the son of the Virgin.The festival has been celebrated since the 5th century AD. The festival celebrates two things: 1) God's action in entering the human world as Jesus in order to save humanity; and 2) Humanity's willing acceptance of God's action in Mary's freely given acceptance of the task of being the Mother of God [Source: June 16, 2009 BBC |::|]

“The story of the Annunciation has produced three important liturgical texts, the Ave Maria, the Angelus, and the Magnificat. 1) The angel's greeting to Mary, which is traditionally translated as "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," (in Latin Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum) is the opening of the Ave Maria, and a part of the Rosary prayers. 2) The Angelus consists of three Ave Marias, together with some additional material. It is said three times a day in the Roman Catholic Church. 3) The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is the poem with which Mary responds to the Annunciation and celebrates the power of God. |::|

According to the BBC: “Some feminist theologians find the story of the Assumption portrays women as unacceptably submissive and as colluding with the idea that "women's only claim to fame is the capacity to have babies." They interpret Mary's behaviour as demonstrating passive subordination to male power. “Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “For the first time in human history the mother kneels before her son: she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin.” — Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1952 |::|

“Other writers have a different interpretation. They don't see Mary as powerless before God, but instead as a woman who makes a free choice to accept God's task for her — a task she could have refused. Mary's acceptance of the role of servant is not, they teach, demeaning, and they point out that Jesus also regarded himself as a servant. And taking up the example of the disciples, they see Mary, through her act of faith, exercising her right to believe what she wants and to cooperate with God in his plan of salvation — a plan that he cannot carry out without her. |::|

“Other writers suggest that the story of the Annunciation emphasises the status of women, since in the Incarnation God enlists the help of a woman to create a child of vast importance, and gives men no part to play in this important work. |And in the Magnificat itself, Mary becomes the herald of Salvation, and takes Christianity into the spheres of politics and justice as the first spokesperson for the marginalised people who were the focus of Jesus, and are now the focus of Christians and the Church.” |::|

Doubts and Defense of the Virgin Birth

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: When it comes to the doctrine that Mary conceived the Son of God without having sex , no teaching is as closely protected or as broadly scorned. The idea that Jesus’ mother was named Mary is uncontroversial in scholarly circles. But whether or not she was a virgin has been questioned since the second century.” At that time “there were cynical non-Christians questioning the story of the virgin birth, but there were also fierce defenders of Mary’s honor. An apocryphal text written in the 140s and known as the Infancy Gospel of James contains a biography of the young Mary. In it, a young woman named Salome refuses to believe that Mary is a virgin (by which she means has her hymen intact) even after having given birth to Jesus. She says to the midwife that examined Mary, “unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” The scene is written to parallel the doubting Thomas story, in which Thomas states that he will not believe that Jesus was resurrected unless he places his hand in Jesus’ side. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 18, 2016]

We will never learn if Thomas touched the risen Jesus, but Salome is considerably bolder. She goes to Mary and physically examines her. This turns out to be a bad idea: Not only is Mary still a virgin, but for daring to probe the Virgin Mary, her hand begins to drop off as if it was being burned with fire. Fortunately for Salome, when she holds the baby Jesus she is cured, but the general thrust of the story is that Mary is above reproach.

Salome is a fictional character, but real human beings have also paid a price for questioning the details of the nativity story or the status of Mary. In the fifth century, Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople, argued that Mary should be called “mother of Christ” rather than “mother of God.” Nestorius’s argument was grounded in a combination of philosophical, biblical, and scientific arguments about how it was that Jesus was both God and Man. Nestorius didn’t intend to denigrate the Virgin Mary, but the slight against her perceived by his theological opponents helped contribute to his condemnation and excommunication from the church. But Nestorius did not go down without a fight: His followers continued to flourish in small numbers in Iraq until the beginning of the most recent Iraq War.

Miraculous Greco-Roman Births and Jewish Virgins

Mary's Conception

The idea of a virgin birth was nothing new. The Romans used the idea in a story about birth of Caesar and his conception by the God Apollo. According to a prophecy in the “Book of Isaiah” the Messiah, would be born to a “virgin.” Some historians have suggested the idea of the miraculous birth may been constructed to hide accusations that Jesus was a bastard and that he father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. The notion of Immaculate Conception, that Mary was preserved from original sin by virtue of a special grace from God, is a Catholic concept made infallible dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

According to the BBC: “There were lots of stories of miraculous births in Greco-Roman society. Famous figures tended to attract these stories as people speculated on what it would have been like to be present at the birth of such a person. Astrology was also important, so it was felt that if a person was going to be very prominent their fate was already preordained, that in their horoscope one would see how wonderful they were going to be. It's not surprising they began to think that perhaps their birth was miraculous and wonderful. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“In the Greek and Roman system of gods and goddesses, the goddesses themselves could be said to be virgin mothers. Athene and Artemis were regarded as virgins. They gave birth and then dipped themselves into the rivers so their virginity was renewed. |::|

“The Greek and Roman stories are not quite the same as the virgin birth stories in the gospels. They differ in that there's a male god and a human mother and the male god comes down to earth and impregnates the mother in a very graphic way. In the gospel stories there's no mention of God or the Holy Spirit taking the form of a human being and actually coming down and impregnating Mary. |::|

“The word virgin developed in western culture has become a synonym for purity and good behaviour. But virginity in Jewish society at the time that we are talking about was about ensuring that the new husband wasn't getting second hand merchandise. Virginity was only important for the moment of the first marriage. The first marriage was more important; for example, in the Jewish marriage contract for a first marriage they paid twice as much as for a second marriage. Virgins went out on the wedding procession with their hair open and flowing so that everyone could see and it would then be remembered that she had been a virgin when she entered her husband's house at that event. In fact after a while, instead of being a prize, virginity became a burden. We know this from several Jewish burial inscriptions where women were buried and the messages of mourning on their tomb say how sad it was that she died a virgin.” |::|

Virgin Birth Stories

There are examples of virgin birth in the animal kingdom — namely female rays and sharks that gave birth in aquariums even they had no contact with males of their species. There have also been reports of virgin births among humans. For example, in January 2014, a nun in Italy gave birth to a baby boy she named Francesco, or Francis, after the Pope and told the Discovery Channel TV show — “I didn’t know I was pregnant.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 22, 2014]

Reports of virgin births are not as unusual as you’d think. According to a 2013 North Carolina study there 45 self-reported sexless pregnancies in the US alone over a period of just a few Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: It is clear that these cases contain a lot of biologically determined and socially perpetuated gender inequities. When it comes to scandalous sexual relations women are more readily exposed and eagerly shamed than their male counterparts.... So, even if (theologically speaking) the conception of Jesus is supposed to be unique, why not give the “Mary defense” a whirl?

20120507-Inmaculada Concepcion.jpg
Imaculate Concepcion
It seems utterly ridiculous. But some women have been able to pull it off. In 1637 in Grenoble, France, the aristocrat Madeleine d’Auvermont was put on trial for adultery. Despite the fact that her husband had left France four years earlier, Madeleine had recently given birth to a healthy baby boy. In the face of what seemed like damning evidence she protested her innocence, claiming that she had thought — ahem — intensely about her husband at night and had conceived through the power of imagination. Various physicians and theologians were consulted on the case and declared that this was theoretically possible. The child was named the legal offspring of her husband and heir to the de Montleon fortune.

The inspired Madeleine d’Auvermont is not the only one to use science to her advantage. According to legend, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, testified in the case of a woman accused of adultery. The woman had given birth to an infant described as “black as a Moor” despite the fact that both she and her husband were pale-skinned. She was absolved of the charge because a portrait of a Moor hung above her bed. Hippocrates testified that in the throes of passion the woman had looked at the portrait and the skin color and form of the man in the picture had been seared on her child at the moment of conception. Women can be very impressionable, you see.

Madeleine d’Auvermont’s case was grounded in assumptions about impressionable women’s bodies. Her miracle child was conceived through a twist on the wonders of telegony, the belief that a child could be influenced by an earlier conception. According to this theory a remarried woman might give birth to a child that was the biological offspring of his first husband. Famous advocates of telegony include Charles Darwin, who mentions it in his Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and the philosopher Schopenhauer. In fact some scientists today wonder — on a minute scale that would be utterly unpersuasive in couple’s therapy — if there isn’t something to it.

Was Mary Raped?

According to the BBC: “There was an ancient legend from the Jewish side that Mary was the victim of a rape. They even gave us the name of the Roman soldier who was supposed to have carried out this rape: a man called Panthera, which apparently was quite a common name for Roman soldiers. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Recently some scholars looked at this theory and decided it was simply an ancient slur, anti-Christian slander made up in the second century to try to prevent belief in Jesus. Some say that perhaps it isn't so impossible as previously we thought. There are certain clues in the New Testament to suggest that Mary was in quite a terrible state after the beginning of the pregnancy. The fact that she went in great haste to see Elizabeth. The fact that she talks about herself as a "lowly handmaid": why is she lowly? Some people believe the lowliness was because she was actually the victim of a crime. |::|

“The strength of the idea is that just as Jesus in his crucifixion identifies with those who suffer, Mary, as victim of rape, is somebody that women who suffer can identify with. |The problem of the theory is that Jesus could have been the son of a Roman soldier, which is even more unpalatable for people than the idea that Mary wasn't a virgin. The idea that Jesus was somehow genetically dependent upon a rapist is more difficult to swallow and it would take a tremendous radical leap of faith to accept that kind of theory. |::|

Mary Still a Virgin When Jesus Was Born

According to the BBC: “The book of James establishes that Mary was a virgin during the birth of Jesus - in other words she remained intact, physically, despite the birth, which is miraculous. It led to later speculation that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, before her pregnancy, during the birth of Jesus, and after. The book of James begins to speculate on the birth of Jesus in quite graphic detail. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“The idea that Mary is intact comes from the idea that she suffers no pain. This is theologically important to the early Christians because of the curse, mentioned in Genesis, of the two human beings who are responsible for the fall. Adam's curse is to work in sweat in the fields and Eve's curse is to bear children in pain. The idea that Mary and Jesus are free of sin, that they are immaculate, leads us to think that Mary wouldn't suffer the pain of Eve, that she would have a painless birth. |::|

“Some would argue that this makes her rather distant from the ordinary woman. The way that the tradition has dealt with that is to say she had a painless birth but she wasn't without pain because she saw her son die on the cross. |::|

“The great tradition of Mary as the "Mother of Sorrows" comes into being and there are often depictions of Mary as a woman in tears, of a woman laid low by grief. John's gospel refers to the crucifixion as a laborious birth, so if Mary does have a painful birth in the Christian tradition she has it at the crucifixion. |::|

Virgin Birth and Annunciation in Islam

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: The Quran supports the idea of a Virgin birth. In the Quran God declares, “[Mary is the one who] preserved her chastity. We breathed Our Spirit into her and made her, and her son, signs to the worlds” (Q 21.91) The description of the birth of Jesus sounds a great deal like the birth of Adam: God breathes life into something. Some people have seen this as anti-Christian polemic, but Gabriel Reynolds, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, notes in his book The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext that “when the Qur’an compares the birth of Christ with that of Adam… it is indeed making a polemical point, only not against Christians. On the contrary, it is arguing against the Jews who deny the Virgin Birth and Christ himself.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 21, 2019]

Interestingly, the Quran is completely silent about the role of Joseph. In this version of the Virgin Birth, an angel announces that Mary will give birth, Mary consents (as she does in the Gospel of Luke) but, later, feels forgotten and abandoned. As she is overcome by the burden of pregnancy, she cries out “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” (19:23). The angel shows her running water and a date tree to ease her suffering. The reference to eating dates is especially noteworthy as, even today, dates are thought to induce labor. After giving birth, Mary returns with her child to the Temple. There, Jesus miraculous speaks (as an infant) and proclaims his identity as a prophet. To this day March 25, the Day of the Annunciation, is a public holiday in Lebanon.

On the Annunciation, Qur'an 19:19 says: “(The angel) said: "I am only a Messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a righteous son."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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