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We Believe in the Virgin Birth:
The Catholic Understanding of the Virgin Birth

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The Apostle's Creed states that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. This concept is also found in the infancy stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which assert that the Blessed Virgin Mary, although pregnant with Jesus, was still a virgin before and after his birth. This doctrine has been termed the Virgin Birth. Above all, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth asserts that Jesus' conception and birth were miraculous and unlike any other: conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, Jesus had no earthly biological father. Even after Jesus' birth, Mary still remained a virgin. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not only about biology, but the Catholic understanding has always recognized that, whatever the symbolism applied to the Virgin Birth, it was first a biological miracle. The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ has been and remains today essential Catholic doctrine.

The Virgin Birth also points to the uniqueness of Christ. The Gospel writers were not ignorant: they knew that people were not normally born of virgins and they included the story of the Virgin Birth to express the uniqueness of Jesus as well as his miraculous origins. Christ's earthly life began in a miraculous way and ended in a miraculous way (the resurrection and ascension).

There is also symbolism of the Church in the Virgin Birth. Mary's virginity has been perceived as symbolic of the righteous remnant of Israel, the Church. Also, Mary's role as both virgin and Mother has been compared to the Church which creates new sons and daughters through baptism and who keeps the purity of the apostolic faith as pledged to Christ, her Spouse (1).

Many people today reject the Virgin Birth because they say it is impossible to believe in an age of modern science and think that the early Christians believed in it simply because they were ignorant. This attitude is quite unfair and even arrogant, because it assumes the early Christians were stupid. The early Christians may not have possessed all of our scientific knowledge, but, like us, they knew the Virgin Birth was not in the natural order of things. This is why it was a miracle. The eleventh council of Toledo (AD 675) wrote: "[The Virgin Birth is] neither grasped by reason nor illustrated by example. Were it grasped by reason it would not be wonderful; were it illustrated by example it would not be unique" (2). The Virgin Birth has never been recognized as a natural possibility, but as a miracle fitting the birth of God himself. We can never prove the Virgin Birth in a scientific or historical manner (modernist criteria), but we believe it through faith, and through the collective witness of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

There has been some recent debate over whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, a doctrine known as "the perpetual virginity of Mary." Historically speaking, belief in Mary's perpetual virginity is strongly and decisively supported by witness of the universal Church from its earliest days to the present (including the original Protestant Reformers). Those referred to as Jesus' "brothers" were either cousins, other relatives, or step brothers. It has only been questioned within Protestantism due to the influence of the Enlightenment on the Protestant churches. Catholics, the Orthodox, and many other Christians believe in the ancient witness of the Church, which trumps Western philosophical movements. Thus, the truth of Mary's perpetual virginity is, like the Virgin Birth, essential Catholic belief. As St. Augustine said: [Mary] remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin (Serm. 186).

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Here are some common questions related to the Virgin Birth:

1. What about Isaiah 7:14, which supposedly predicts the Virgin Birth? Doesn't this simply refer to a young woman?
True, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, almah, can be translated as "young woman." St. Irenaeus (AD 180) himself knew this, so the objection is not necessarily a new one. However, the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, finished over one hundred years before Christ, translated almah as "virgin" (and St. Matthew used the Septuagint). So, clearly virgin is a possible, and even accurate, translation, partly because an unmarried "young woman" at that time would likely have been a virgin. Keep in mind too that the prophecy could have had an original, local meaning, referring to a "young woman," possibly Isaiah's wife, giving birth. However, regardless of how the original Jews would have understood the prophecy, the Church believes Isaiah was also predicting the final and more complete fulfillment of his words in Jesus. Also, St. Luke's Gospel does not even mention the connection to Isaiah 7:14, so the Virgin Birth as a doctrine does not succeed or fail based on the translation of Isaiah 7:14. Rather, the stories of the Virgin Birth in inspired Scripture as well as its universal acceptance throughout Church history assure its place in catholic theology.

2. Since St. Paul doesn't mention the Virgin Birth, isn't it just an invention by later Christians, maybe Matthew or Luke?
St. Paul does not mention the Virgin Birth, but that doesn't mean he didn't know of it or believe it. Paul's letters are primarily occasional, meaning they were written for certain occasions or situations. If the church of Corinth had not experienced abuses during the Lord's Supper we would never have known Paul believed in the Lord's Supper. Thus, his letters are not systematic theologies. Also, regarding Christology, Paul is primarily concerned with Jesus' death, resurrection, and second coming. Other doctrines, even those he believes, generally take a backseat to these emphases. The argument from silence from Paul is inconclusive at best. Also, Matthew and Luke present two differing traditions of the Virgin Birth, indicating that the general concept of Jesus' Virgin Birth was circulating in oral tradition long before Matthew and Luke put it to paper.

3. What about the other pagan virgin births? Aren't the early Christians simply copying pagan myths?
Yes, there are pagan virgin births, but I wouldn't say the Christians copied them. First, pagans have believed in many things over many years, so some of their beliefs are bound to overlap with Christianity. Second, the main difference between Jesus' birth and most pagan virgin births is that the Church asserted ours was of a historical person from a historical mother and not a legendary figure (such as the sons of Zeus). C.S. Lewis makes some helpful comments regarding pagan myth and Christianity. Referring to the Incarnation Lewis writes:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where to a historical person under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle (3).

In the same way, the Virgin Birth still remains a powerful myth, but one that has become fact in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. We agree with Lewis when he asserts that we should not be afraid of pagan parallels to our Christian beliefs because "this is the marriage of Heaven: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact, claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar and the philosopher" (4).

For more on the Blessed Virgin Mary, visit our Brief Catechism on Mary

Footnotes
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 507, pg 142.
2. Quoted in Thomas Oden, Word of Life, Systematic Theology Volume 2, pg. 156.
3. C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, found in God in the Dock, pp. 66-67.
4. Ibid.

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