Fully human and born of a virgin

A few days ago James McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix took a comment that I left at MetaCatholic and made it into his Quote of the Day. This has led to some discussion, partly because people took my comment in a rather more sexually explicit way than I had intended.

James has in fact made several recent posts on the seasonal topic of the virgin birth. I agree with his point that the child Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 is not Jesus and the mother is not stated to be a virgin.

James also quotes concerning the virgin birth from Arthur Peacocke, who I knew as Dean of my Cambridge college when I was an undergraduate. Peacocke wrote:

for Jesus to be fully human he had, for both biological and theological reasons, to have a human father as well as a human mother … it was probably Joseph.

Indeed. Peacocke, as a biologist, is right to point out that Jesus must have been biologically and genetically fully human. There is no biological way that he could have been conceived as a normal human man from a normal human woman without sperm from a man being involved. And if he was not conceived with human sperm as well as a human egg, it is very hard to believe, as all orthodox Christians do, that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine.

This brings me back to my original comment at MetaCatholic:

My own tentative suggestion would be that sperm, perhaps Joseph’s, found its way into Mary’s womb by some unusual but scientifically explicable way.

My idea sounds rather similar to Peacocke’s, although I don’t think I got the idea from him; indeed I wrote in a comment at Exploring Our Matrix:

I think I got it from a book I read many years ago (as part of my theology degree) by Bishop John Robinson (not Gene Robinson, but John was just as controversial in his day), not Honest to God but I think The Human Face of God.

In fact, according to this article by A.N.S. Lane, my teacher at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), what Robinson taught in this book was that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Joseph by normal intercourse, with the biblical infancy narratives written as a cover-up. But Robinson did prefigure Peacocke’s argument that the humanity of Jesus requires a biologically normal birth.

My point was that sperm find their way into women’s wombs by various methods, not only by sexual intercourse or the various kinds of “fooling around” suggested in other comments at Exploring Our Matrix. One possibility might be use of a contaminated cloth as a tampon. I don’t want to speculate further on how this might happen, nor do I want to suggest any inappropriate behaviour by Joseph and Mary.

But, if a human sperm made its way into Mary’s womb apart from normal intercourse, Jesus could have been born of a virgin although conceived by the normal fusion of a sperm with an egg. This implies that we can say both that Jesus was biologically fully human, as Peacocke rightly insists, and that his mother was a virgin who could say “I know not a man” (Luke 1:34, KJV).

As I see it, the alternative to accepting this kind of explanation is to deny the virgin birth altogether, as Doug Chaplin seems to do when he writes

it is difficult both because of the nature of the sources, and because of their relationship to one another, to treat them as historical sources on this point.

There are various problems with doing this. I could appeal to the Christian creeds, but these are secondary documents which I prefer not to rely on in this kind of discussion. I could appeal to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, but, as recent discussions show, that by no means implies that everything in Scripture is to be interpreted as a literal historical record. Judges 9:8-15 clearly should not, and in principle even a believer in biblical inerrancy might hold the same to be true of the gospel infancy narratives.

No, the real problem, as Doug realises, is to explain how, if there was not an actual virgin birth, the very different accounts in Matthew and Luke came to be written in the form they are, in agreement that there was a virgin birth. Doug’s suggestions on how this came about are by no means convincing, except perhaps to those who come to them with a presupposition that there was not a historical virgin birth.

I offer my own suggestion as a way to explain the documentary evidence for the virgin birth, and remain true to the orthodox Christian creeds, while upholding Robinson and Peacocke’s principle that a fully human Jesus had to have a biological human father as well as mother.

30 thoughts on “Fully human and born of a virgin

  1. Pingback: MetaCatholic » The virgin birth — Luke’s new creation story

  2. Peter,
    I really have to disagree with you completely on this. I have posted a response too long for a comment here, but in a nutshell, I think you are providing the same kind of rationale to defend the history of a mriacle as those who say that at the feeding of the 5,000 they were all so inspired by the boy’s generosity that they got out their picnic lunches to share with each other. I think that what you are arguing actually goes against what the gospels are teaching, though I know you wouldn’t intend or desire it to do so.

  3. Doug and ElShaddai, I utterly reject the comparison with William Barclay. (Metaphorically crossing myself and casting out this evil spirit!) See my long comment on Doug’s post.

  4. Peter, you have either taken to drink or recreational drugs (probably opium given the level of surreal fantasy involved) if you truly give any credence to this patently absurd nonsense.
    I am stunned that you seem to expect it to be taken seriously!!

    The quote from Peacock merely demonstrates his poor reasoning abilities and little else.

  5. Peter Kirk wrote:
    My point was that sperm find their way into women’s wombs by various methods, not only by sexual intercourse or the various kinds of “fooling around” suggested in other comments at Exploring Our Matrix. One possibility might be use of a contaminated cloth as a tampon.

    Perhaps something similar happened to that which was recorded in The American Medical Weekly of November 1874. In that case, a bullet fired during the US Civil War was reported as travelling through a soldier’s scrotum, before lodging in a virgin’s abdominal cavity, thereby impregnating her. Obviously, we might be looking at an arrow in 4 BC, rather than a bullet. But otherwise, the possibility should not be so quickly overlooked.

  6. Peter,


    I am so disappointed to read this. I had begun the think more highly of you.

    You seem to want to look at the divine through a materialistic philosophy. Where is your faith? Do you have faith?

    On the materialistic side. I am a woman. I had a condition once known as an “ovarian dermoid cyst” (which had to be removed because it can become cancerous). My cyst was the size of an orange. They can grow to football size. The doctor explained to me that a dermoid cyst is “an egg that tries to become a baby without being fertilized”. He told me that they sometimes find teeth in them….

    So there you go materialistic Peter. A materialistic explanation.

  7. Forget Mary. We’ve got these earlier problem mothers to figure out first:

    Luke 1: “And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.”

    1 Samuel 1: “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”

    Genesis 18: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

    Thank God for absolutely un-miraculous infallible infertility science in the 21st century.

  8. Just a thought, weren’t Adam and Eve also not born of humans? Weren’t they considered human as well? So, I guess my question is, why would there necessarily have to be a sperm-egg traditional conception for Jesus to be fully human?

  9. This statement is worthy of late medieval philosophy, but is there some reason why Christianity can’t simply revert to an accommodationist explanation of the Virgin Birth? (i.e., people were not in a position to understand the complete truth of the event in question at the time that the Gospel was revealed)?

  10. Now now, Chris. Let’s not go implicating the Holy Spirit again.

    And, SB, Charles Darwin got us in the position to understand the complete truth of the origins of human life once and for all (for he writes this worthy non-medieval, highly-scientific statement reverting to the accommodationist explanation:

    “On any view of the nature of sexual reproduction, the protoplasm contained within the ovules and within the sperm-cells (or the ‘spermatic force’ of the latter, if so vague a term be preferred) must act on each other by some law of special affinity, either during or subsequently to impregnation, so that corresponding parts alone affect each other.”

  11. Peter, whatever the qualifications that Peacock managed to accrue what you present as his ‘reasoning’ starts from a premise that he asserts as a given, as in
    “for Jesus to be fully human he had, for both biological and theological reasons, to have a human father as well as a human mother…”

    Since when?

    The Bible makes it very clear that there was no earthly father involved at all and as such I fail to see what supposed “theological reasons” there are supposed to be.
    Also as far as I am aware God is more than capable of achieving what is described in His word.
    Peacock has assumed something and then treated his assumption as fact and preceded from there to the assertions that you report.

    This really does go to show that qualifications do not automatically equate with the ongoing ability to reason properly.

    You will no doubt continue to defend this patently ridiculous rubbish, but please do not insult me by trying to call it reasoning.

  12. Deane, I read somewhere that your story of Civil War impregnation is a hoax.

    Charis, I do have faith. I believe that God bodily raised Jesus from the dead. I believe that the food for the five thousand was literally multiplied. But I do not feel any obligation to believe in every miracle which any Bible interpreter postulates, when there is an alternative non-miraculous explanation. In this case I also have a clear theological argument for believing that this was not a miracle, at least not in the sense of special creation of DNA. I note that your ovarian dermoid cyst could never have been male because you have no Y-chromosome.

    Chris, you have a point about Adam and Eve, if you take the language about them literally (see the other thread on metaphorical language). The point about sperm is that it links all other male humans back to Adam, and so he is allowed to be an exception.

    SB, the people of Jesus’ time of course realised that virgins do not usually give birth. But they didn’t know much about sperm and so would not have understood my explanation. So you may be right.

    Glenn, it is clear that Arthur Peacocke (with an “e”) starts from very different presuppositions from you. But his reasoning from his own presuppositions is sound. If you want to attack him, you should concentrate on his presuppositions, not on his reasoning. But don’t you get the point that Jesus had to be fully human, not a demigod like Hercules, born of a divine father and a human mother?

  13. “But I do not feel any obligation to believe in every miracle which any Bible interpreter postulates, when there is an alternative non-miraculous explanation.”

    Why the obligation to the “non-miraculous”?
    Why not such explanations for how “God bodily raised Jesus from the dead” and “the food for the five thousand was literally multiplied”?
    Can you believe that Isaac, Samuel, and John were conceived miraculously?
    When is there ever “any obligation to believe”?

  14. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Jesus is not a demigod

  15. Kurk, my reason for preferring the non-miraculous or less miraculous explanation of the virgin birth is because of the humanity of Jesus. See more in my new post.

    As for Isaac, Samuel and John, I believe that they were conceived in the normal way and that their mothers, at least Sarah and Elizabeth, were able to produce fertile eggs despite their age – which is unusual but not necessarily miraculous.

  16. An interesting idea, Peter, but along with others I cannot seriously consider the possibility that Joseph was fooling around with Mary and thereby conceived Jesus. The infancy narratives clearly indicate a miraculous birth (or at least they do to me). I always thought there was a theological necessity for the virgin birth, along the lines of Christ being second Adam (as others point out – he was fully human and not conceived), and also the fact that Jesus didn’t have Adam’s fallen nature. Jesus was fully human, but the Adamic nature is not part of true humanity. If he was Joseph’s natural offspring, he would be a fallen sinner like the rest of us, surely?

  17. Congrats on shaking things up on the quietest of blogging weeks. I’ve never given this much thought but I appreciate the attempt to consider Jesus’ full humanity and its implications. I’m happy with the “poof – God did it” explanation.

  18. Alastair, thanks for bringing up the idea that Jesus didn’t have Adam’s fallen nature. Charis, thanks for linking to Cheryl’s post which explores this in more detail.

    Alastair, your presentation of this makes it sound as if sexual intercourse (even within marriage) is the source or cause of original sin. Now some theologians such as Augustine may have believed this, but it is a thoroughly unbiblical idea. The Bible presents sexual intercourse within marriage as good and holy, indeed ordained by God before the fall so that humans could increase in number (Genesis 1:28).

    But, Alastair, your idea can be understood in another way which is more like Cheryl’s presentation – which is that original sin is passed on through the male line.

    The problem with this idea is not so much that it implies that women are sinless (although we men know that is not true!) as that it ignores the fact that women (other than Eve herself) as well as men have male human fathers. Thus, in Cheryl’s little pictures, there are innumerable cross-links between the male and female lines which implies that thousands (or millions) of years after Adam and Eve the female line is just as affected by sin as the male one. It was for reasons like this that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary was developed, but this simply puts back by one generation a problem which can only be solved by arguing for the virgin birth of all of Mary’s female line of ancestors back to Eve. So there is no argument here for Jesus being sinless.

    Another problem of course is that this idea treats Adam as the only sinner, whereas, if I dare quote 1 Timothy 2:14, the Bible puts the blame at least equally on Eve.

    So I don’t think we can make any real link between the virgin birth and original sin. There may be a symbolic one, virginity as a symbol of sinlessness, but nothing real.

    Lingamish, I have to liven things up before a dead Christmas week!

  19. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Three Cheers for Rowan Williams!

  20. Peter, I didn’t mean to imply that sex was somehow sinful – thanks for letting me clarify this. As indeed Charis has pointed out (I read the long post on strivetoenter), its not the sexual act that induces the sinful nature but something about the male line.

    I don’t think this is a biological or genetic thing, but more a spiritual thing.

    You rightly point out a flaw in this line of thinking, and I can’t think of any way to explain it better right now. But its my best way of understanding this…thanks for bringing up this topic!

  21. Pingback: Snickerdoodles: Lingaminimalist « Lingamish

  22. Peter I start from the Bible whilst it is obvious that “Peacocke (with an “e”)” does not which go a long way to explaining his ridiculous assertions.
    How you manage to persist with this ridiculous nonsense is a wonder in it self.
    You will be glad to hear that I will not be wasting anymore time on this pathetic nonsense.

  23. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Rev Sam on the Virgin Birth

  24. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Rowan Williams, 9/11, and the women in his life

  25. This is an extremely old thread, but I found it and I thought I’d add my two cents.

    Just wanted y’all to consider the fact that our souls are eternal. Thus, we are alive and well before being sucked down to earth at the point of conception. Our souls are then snugly placed into human bodies. Is it not possible then, that God could have fashioned a sperm cell and inserted it into Mary’s womb? Jesus’ father is God, so wether He took human form to place the sperm or not, wouldn’t the same principle that holds true with our spirit selves hold true with Christ’s? Our souls do not rely on specific DNA (wether they do or don’t -doesn’t matter), so God could have fashioned a male cell suitable for His purpose and embedded Christ’s soul into the new life form, as He does with ours. Christ would, in this case, be fully human. As for His divinity, He seemed to have administrator access to control things in this world, e.g. the sea, but He also needed to be baptized like a human.

  26. Grant, I’m sorry to be slow replying. I am on vacation.

    I would start by disputing “the fact that our souls are eternal”. I know this is an aspect of some Christian teaching. But its origin is not in the Bible, but in Platonic philosophy. A more biblical take on this is that eternity and immortality are attributes only of God and of those persons or souls to whom he chooses to grant immortality and eternal life. Read John 3:16, Romans 6:23 etc.

    But I won’t dispute that the Son of God was eternal and pre-existent. And I agree that God could and indeed did perform some kind of miracle to form a perfect human male genome for the human body in which he was incarnate. There is indeed also some kind of miracle in the link between any human soul and body, but the case of Jesus was clearly special in some way.

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