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virgin birth

virgin birth — a woman giving birth without documented involvement of a male figure in the act of conception (attested e.g. by an intact hymen) — is a widespread and well-known religious and cultural motif. It belongs to the category of portents and magic signs that announce the extra-ordinary event of a divinity entering into a human body (theophany). For example, (mahayanic) versions of the life of Buddha recount that his mother conceived him when a white elephant touched her thigh; and the Persian divinity Zoroaster is said to have been born from a virgin. Stories of mythical conceptions, such as the goddess Aphrodite's from the foam of the sea, or that of the hero Perseus, who was conceived by a golden rain emanating from Zeus, are different: here, the act of conception is present, if only metaphorically.

In Christianity, virgin birth assumed a special centrality parallel to the role of virginity itself. Christ assumed human form, that is became incarnate, when the Word of God penetrated Mary, a virgin, and thus made her fertile. (Some early sources suggest that Mary herself had been conceived without intercourse on the part of her mother Anna; this is the Immaculate Conception and not virgin birth.) Paul mentions only that Jesus was born from a woman (Galatians 4: 4); but the Gospels of Matthew (1: 18–25) and Luke (1: 26–38) emphasize that no human was involved in his conception: God himself, through his Spirit, generated his Son. Interpretations of this phenomenon vary widely, and were subject of many debates throughout the first centuries of Christianity. At stake was, for example, whether or not Mary had been a virgin before, during, or again after her birth; this was relevant in order to ascertain whether Christ had just assumed the form of a human being temporarily, or had fully become human. Since the councils of Ephesos (431) and Chalcedon (451), Mary is seen as theotokos, as ‘God-bearer’, and therefore as having been a virgin at all stages. The great medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas, among many others, re-examined the pro and contra of this definition, and declared that Mary must have been a virgin because of the ‘honour of the Father, who sent Christ’, and the ‘nature of the Son’, that is their divinity — however, he did not think that Mary was a virgin while giving birth. Mary's virginity despite her motherhood remained a central and well-liked tenet of faith in Christianity. It was not challenged in the Reformation, though the reform principles considerably lessened its centrality, together with that of Mary herself. However, as a symbol of Christ's divinity, and as such a unique act, his virgin birth retains its theological power.

Susanna Elm


See also Christianity and the body; virginity.

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Virgin Birth of Christ

Virgin Birth of Christ. The Christian doctrine that Jesus was conceived by the Virgin Mary by the operation of the Holy Spirit and without sexual relations with a man (one should strictly speak of ‘virginal conception’; that Mary remained a virgin even in giving birth is a later idea).

Among modern Christians belief in the virgin birth is often taken as a touchstone of orthodoxy, both by Catholics, for whom it is involved with mariology, and Protestants. Some liberal theologians have criticized the doctrine as setting Christ's humanity apart from ours. They have also drawn attention to the widespread claim of virgin births in many religions (e.g. Mahāmāyā and the Buddha, Kuntī/Pṛtha and Karna, Zoroaster and the saviour, Saoshyant), and have suggested that this is a reverential theme introduced for apologetic reasons. Even stronger criticisms have been made by feminist writers and theologians, who point out that Mary is not even accorded the participation of parthenogenesis if perpetual virginity (see above) is affirmed.

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virgin birth

virgin birth Christian doctrine teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and without the involvement of a human male. That Jesus had no earthly father is a basic tenet of Roman Catholicism, all the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant Churches.

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