The Spectator asked a select groupÂ including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Charles Moore, AC Grayling, Jonathan Aitken and Christopher Hitchens if they believed in the Virgin Birth.
Christmas is not just about shopping and flirting, eating and drinking, anger and remorse. It is also about the Incarnation. But how many people believe in the Christian story of Christmas, and how strong is their belief? To find out, The Spectator approached leading public figures in the Churches, in the arts and the media and in politics, and asked them: ‘Do you believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ?’ Here are their challenging â” and sometimes surprising â” answers.
The Most Reverend and Right Hon. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Yes; I believe that the conception of Jesus was a moment when the creative action of God produced a reality as new in its way as the first moment of creation itself. And I believe that what opened the way for this was the work of God through human history over centuries, coming to its fullest moment in Mary’s consent to God’s call. The recognition of the uniqueness and newness of Jesus is a recognition of the absolute freedom of God to break the chains of cause and effect that lock us into our sins and failures; the virginal conception is an outward sign of this divine freedom to make new beginnings.
His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster
Of course. All teaching about Mary the Mother of God points us to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The miracle of his birth shows us that he is God-with-us. Jesus has only God as Father and Mary as Mother and in his birth we are adopted as children of the Father in the Holy Spirit. We look to Mary as a Mother who loves us.
No, of course I don’t, and I imagine you’ll have some difficulty finding any educated person who believes in it, or any other Christian dogma. Of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, only the third survives.
Look, I’ve successfully survived 42 years as a member of the Church of England without ever having to give serious thought to the Virgin Birth and I jolly well don’t see why I should be put on the spot now just for the sake of a Speccie feature. I guess that makes me a ‘Don’t Know’, which is a terrible thing to admit given that I’m halfway towards being a pillar of my beloved Chelsea Old Church. But that’s the great thing about being C of E, isn’t it? If I were Catholic, I suppose I’d have to find the issue intensely important. Me, I care more about hymns having the right tunes, and the Prayer Book being 1662.
If Christ was also God, then he cannot have been born purely of humans, so his incarnation as a man must have been via a virgin. Thus I see no reason to doubt the testimony of scripture that Jesus was not the son of Joseph, but of God.
I gladly believe Jesus was born of a virgin. The teaching is clear. It was believed in the earliest times, and was no more likely then. What tended to repel ancient pagans was God-made-man humiliatingly spending months in the womb. But that too Christians believe: he assumes our humanity, which he derives from his mother. The same person is pre-existent God and an individual little foetus. That is the great mystery which reconciles us to God and destroys sin and death. We only know about it because we were told, and we were told because, after dying on the cross, Jesus rose again and people saw him and listened to him. That is a more impressive miracle than mere parthenogenesis.
Hmmm. I can see the logic which argues that if you believe in the Incarnation, you need to believe in the Virgin Birth, so I suppose I ought to say yes …but I wouldn’t say it is a constant source of inspiration when I reflect on the great questions of life.
The Revd Professor Keith Ward
I do not believe in the Virgin Birth. The point of the Biblical account is to see Jesus as the start of a new creation, fulfilling the hopes of the ‘virgin Israel’. I do not dogmatically deny it, but think it probably legendary.
The Revd Nicky Gumbel, Vicar, Holy Trinity, Brompton
I do believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. I believe Jesus is the unique Son of God. The Virgin Birth was a miracle. The real issue facing the world today is ‘Is there a God?’ If there is, then miracles become a real possibility. If God is God, then he created matter, reason, time, space and all scientific laws and therefore is at liberty to interfere. If there is no God, then miracles are a problem. But philosophy and science alone will not answer the crucial question. Scientific laws are not like the laws of pure mathematics that cannot be broken. Rather they are descriptive. Once I came to believe in the great miracle â” that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us â” I had no problem in believing in the Virgin Birth.
Father Michael Holman SJ, Provincial of the Society of Jesus, British Province
If we do not believe in the Virgin Birth, we deny the very divinity of Christ, relegating him to simply a great human being, but not the Son of God. But I believe that Jesus Christ is truly God, and truly man; that his Incarnation was through the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit; that God himself is his Father; and that his mother, Mary, was a woman. The Virgin Birth is, therefore, a core Christian belief, and is a doctrine in which I firmly believe.
The Rt Revd Dr Michael J. Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester
Yes. The story is reported by both Matthew and Luke, who rely on independent traditions for their material. It is also echoed in other parts of the New Testament. There is good reason to believe that there was something very unusual about the birth of Jesus, even his enemies and detractors acknowledged this and early anti-Christian polemic had to find ways of dealing with it. Finally, there is, of course, the testimony of the Koran which relies on yet another stream of tradition! Quite a lot of evidence for the birth of a child, don’t you think?
Jesus Christ was true God and true Man: the Virgin Birth is an obstetric statement of this fact.
The Virgin Birth is a doctrine of the Church that many Christians today find hard to believe, and one entirely unnecessary for the belief in the divinity of Mary’s son Jesus. I would not regard my faith as shaken by its disproof. However there are many ways in which women can become pregnant while remaining virgins, and as for the Holy Ghost â” this can hardly be the only time that he has had a part in it. The annunciation is enough for me, along with all else that is implied in the ‘Hail Mary’: Mary earned the status attributed to her by that prayer through her motherly devotion, her innocent suffering and her obedience to God.
No, of course not. But I’m interested in the idea’s (so to speak) logic. Many mythological heroes were fathered by gods on mortal women. Not all these latter were any better than they should have been, unless god-attracting youthfulness made them so. But in the combination of ambiguous etymology (does Isaiah vii 14 specify the Messiah’s dam as a ‘young woman’ or a ‘virgin’?), St Paul (Christianity’s proto-Jesuitical inventor), and the early Church’s orthodoxy squabbles over sex and original sin, the Mother of God (weird idea) had to be pure. And therefore not just a virgin but herself ‘immaculately’ conceived. We await the next step, relating to her mother Anne. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was declared by Pius IX in 1854; we can expect the Nonpeccavistic Zygotisation of Anne herself, by this timeline, around 3708 ad.
Piers Paul Read
ssed generation feels affronted by the idea of the Virgin Birth, yet virtually everything we know about Jesus comes from the four Gospels, two of which (Matthew and Luke) explicitly state that Mary became pregnant without sexual intercourse. Why should they have falsified the record? Some theologians suggest that it was because Isaiah (vii 14) had prophesied that the promised Messiah would be born of a virgin. But the other two Evangelists, Mark and John, did not think it necessary to make this connection; and there was certainly no need for Luke’s psychological elaborations â” Mary’s surprise, Joseph’s jealousy. As any journalist should recognise, Luke must have had a primary source, and that source can only have been Joseph or, more probably, Mary herself.
I no more believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary than I believe that Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka, Horus was born of the virgin Isis, Mercury was born of the virgin Maia or Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. As the preceding examples help to demonstrate, parthenogenesis would in any case not be proof either of divine paternity or of the truth of any subsequent preachings. The authors of St Matthew â” whose account cannot be squared with the one offered by Luke â” in any case seem to have mistranslated the Hebrew word almah, meaning ‘young woman’, from the original legend in the book of Isaiah. Christianity insults our intelligence as well as our innate morality by insisting that we believe absurdities that are drawn from the mythology of paganism and barbarism.
The Incarnation is the most delightful, human, visually beautiful and delicate of all Christian beliefs. The idea of God’s son coming to earth in the womb of a virgin, and being born in a manger, is beyond the power of any mortal imagination to invent and is so obviously true that anyone who denies it must have the feelings of a brute.
I believe the Virgin Birth because it is the story of a radical new beginning in God’s relationship with the human race. Mary’s joy and obedience (astounding in an age when unmarried mothers were stoned to death in Judaean villages) testify to the power of the Holy Spirit. The incarnation, together with the creation and the resurrection, are the cornerstones of my faith. When I hear the Gospel reading for Christmas day as it reaches John i 13-14 ‘born not of the will of man but of God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ a tingle runs down my spine, for this is the good news of the ultimate miracle.
Yes. For any practising Christian the Virgin Birth is one of the tenets of faith. I find it odd when people chip away at particular miracles. I’ve never seen much point in claiming that, for instance, Christ couldn’t feed the five thousand. If he couldn’t do that, then what are the odds on Resurrection? And if he didn’t do that, then there’s no faith. Christmas only seems meaningful as a religious celebration. Its demotion to a binge makes it ordinary, not miraculous. I have dabbled in atheism, but always had doubts.
Iain Duncan Smith
This secular society prides itself that all its decisions will be based on logic, tempered by experience and underscored by scientific evidence. On that basis the Virgin Birth is physiologically impossible. And yet, the whole point about a deity is that logic has nothing to do with it and if you believe in God, as I do, the impossible becomes possible. As Jesus was the Son of God his birth was special. And as the Son of God sired by the deity, then the Virgin Birth is not only possible but unique and credible.
This is a complex issue but luckily I have been able to draw on a formidable body of knowledge. My daughter, who is studying theology at university, informs me that modern liberal Biblical scholarship views the whole thing as a myth. She points out that two of the four gospels don’t even mention the birth narrative, and adds that the two that do offer contradictory accounts. There is no question that the early Church was obsessed with the virginity of Mary. But this may have been based less on the historical record than a determination to make Jesus fit into Biblical prophecy. I think that it is impossible to be a Christian without a literal belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. Everything falls down without it. The same is not true of the Virgin Birth.
The basis of Christianity is that Jesus was the Son of God, not the son of Joseph â” his DNA was a mix between that of Our Lady and the Almighty. If you don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception, then The Life of Brian starts to look more like a documentary.
Three bishops were too busy to help The Spectator with its inquiries: The Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford; the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London; and the Most Revd Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The following politicians did not respond to approaches made through their offices: the Prime Minister (who may have been too busy), Liam Fox, David Cameron, George Galloway and Tony Blair.