Myths about Christmas – that Mary was a ‘young woman’

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Sunday 21 December 2008

Probably one of the most controversial aspects of the biblical story of Christmas is the conception of Jesus. The story goes that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and that it was in fact a miraculous conception with God as the father. This has been the cause of endless jokes about God and Mary and Joseph and sex, some of which are quite funny, some of them not so funny.

But a myth has come about that somehow Mary wasn’t a ‘virgin’ and that she was in fact just a ‘young woman’. Despite knowing very little about Hebrew and Ancient Greek (the languages of the Old and New Testament) I am informed that in both of these languages the word for ‘virgin’ is the same or very similar to the word for ‘young women’. Some therefore say that a simple mistranslation explains away the idea of a virgin birth. But even if this translation of ‘young woman’ is correct it does not explain a lot of the surrounding commentary in the rest of the story. The gospel of Matthew Chapter 1 verse 18 reads:

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

And later in the same chapter referring to Joseph it states:

“But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

Neither verse actually deals with the virgin / young woman translation problem: the texts simply state that before Mary and Joseph ‘came together’ or had ‘union’ she was pregnant.

But even where the translation swap could be used it is hard to reconcile, such as in Luke Chapter 1 verse 34 where Mary is told by an angel that she is pregnant and she replies:

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

It does not make sense for someone to doubt their pregnancy on the basis of being a young woman; it does however on the basis of being a virgin.

I am happy for people to ridicule the whole story of the birth of Jesus, or to suggest that the biblical story is not true or completely false, or that Jesus, whoever he was, had one mother/father, many mothers/fathers or no mother/father at all. However on a purely textual level we get four (if not more) bits of information: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; to a woman; who had the name Mary; and was a virgin. Again from a purely textual level, to accept one of these would mean to accept all of them. The fact that many people reject the last of these, in my opinion, reveals more than anything the preconceptions (pardon the pun) that people have about whether virgin births are or are not possible. Again while the entire text may be wrong, the text itself does not allow anything other than a virgin birth and the idea that Mary was simply and only a ‘young woman’ from the text is a myth.


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