BBC, Dec. 21, 2002
By BBC News Online’s Alex Kirby
Some Christian clergy court inevitable disaster at this time of year by telling children that Santa Claus does not exist.
Now the BBC is going one better, suggesting that Jesus’ mother Mary may not have been a virgin.
The programme has stirred protest from several church leaders even before it has been broadcast.
Yet many Christians today reject the traditional gospel account of Christ’s virgin birth.
Mary is not in any case a Christian monopoly. She is a figure of veneration as well to many Muslims, who normally call her Miriam.
Mary’s reputation in Christian terms is pretty well non-negotiable, because the creeds, the ancient formulas summing up the doctrine all believers are supposed to subscribe to, describe her as a virgin: the woman who gave birth to the saviour because God, not man, had made her pregnant.
The BBC programme, The Virgin Mary, to be shown on BBC One on 22 December. suggests other possible reasons for the birth of Jesus, widely acknowledged to have been a historical figure.
It says she could have conceived and borne her son in three other ways:
- by a secret lover, a possibility the programme dismisses as unlikely
- after being raped by a Roman soldier. One later writer suggested this, but it appears even less likely,
- having been made pregnant by Joseph, to whom she was engaged. This seems quite possible, as engaged couples often did live together at the time.
For the faithful, such attempts at interpreting the doctrine of the virgin birth are at best unnecessary, and probably hurtful as well.
But there are reasons – apart from the basic scientific improbability of the traditional account – for rejecting the versions of the evangelists who wrote the gospels.
The four gospels – by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were in any case not attempts at biography as we understand it today.
Each was written to advance a particular theological understanding of Jesus. The virgin birth tradition derives at least partly from a passage in the book attributed to the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son… “
Other belief systems current in the Middle East at the time of Christ’s birth also speak of a miraculous birth of a leader to a virgin.
And the word translated as “virgin” in our Bibles, scholars say, may well have meant no more in the original Aramaic than “young girl” or “maiden”.
Belief in the virgin birth is part of mainstream Christian doctrine, but veneration of Mary is much less common with Protestants than in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Even in Protestantism, though, questioning it can cause controversy.
In 1994 a leader of the Church of Scotland said in a sermon that the virgin birth was symbolic, and that the Bible need not be taken literally.
A Church spokesperson commented: “There is a diversity of opinion on the issue. But there remains a diversity of opinion over whether there should be a diversity of opinion.”
For Anglicans, it may be a little easier. The new archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, recently said: “It seems to me rather sad, and rather revealing, that… we suddenly become much less intelligent about our reading of the Bible.”
He was talking about attitudes to sex. But he did hold open the possibility that the Bible is there to be interpreted, not simply accepted without question.
The Virgin Mary is broadcast on BBC TV at 2000 GMT on Sunday 22 December