There are unlikely any two memes in Christianity that have done more to subordinate women than the issues of virginity and sexual desire. From the story of Eve’s bite of fruit in the Garden of Eden to the gospel stories of Jesus’ virgin birth, these two issues have been intertwined for 3,000 years to the detriment of women. Today, they manifest themselves in a fight against rational sex education in our schools, refusal to provide birth control under Obamacare (Hobby Lobby), an outright assault on access to abortion, and the abstinence only movement. Let’s see where it all started.
The virgin birth in the gospels
Mark, the earliest gospel (around 70 CE), makes no mention of a virgin birth, nor any narrative about the early life of Jesus. Paul’s letters, written earlier than Mark, also make no mention of a virgin birth. It is not until the gospel of Matthew, written between one and two decades after Mark, that the first reference to a virgin birth occurs. According to Christian doctrine, virginity allows the Holy Spirit to impregnate Mary with god’s seed without the intervention of a human father. However, this poses a problem as well. Matthew explains in Chapter 1:23 that Jesus’ birth fulfills the Old Testament prophesy—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” However, this citation is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek (the Septuagint) in the late second century BCE, the word almah used in Isaiah 7:14, which means young woman in Hebrew, was translated to the Greek word parthenos, which means virgin. Today, the Revised Standard Version corrects this mistake and uses young woman in this verse, thus obliterating Matthew’s rationale for Jesus’ virgin birth.
Other religions, other virgin births
There may be a more plausible explanation for Matthew’s positing a virgin birth. The author could have added a virgin birth to mimic the other religions that also had virgin mothers for their gods. By the time of the writing of this gospel, the early Christians had moved beyond the Jewish community and were seeking converts from the Gentiles, many of whom were participating in religions with a god born of a virgin. It is notable that the writer of the gospel John (around 100 CE) does not focus on a virgin birth. John even refers to Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (John 1:45, 6:42). According to Bishop John Shelby Spong, it was as if John “had little use for virgin birth tales, which he may well have regarded as pagan.” Rome’s foundation myth of Romulus and Remus contains a birth narrative that their mother, a vestal virgin, was impregnated by a god, possibly Mars. Mithraism, a popular mystery cult that vied with Christianity, posits that Mithra was born of a virgin. Other examples of virgin births include the Egyptian god Horus, born of Isis; the Persian god Zoroaster, born of Dughdova; Greek Perseus born of Danae; and Greek Dionysius born of Semele. Both the latter were impregnated by the god Zeus.
Virginity important in patriarchy
Virginity had been an important component of patriarchy for at least a thousand years before Jesus’ birth. The Old Testament is replete with references to this patriarchy: men were the only priests at the temple, men owned the property, men decided whom they married, men made the laws, etc. In order to assure that the women men married only bore their children, an obsession about the virginity of women arose that has continued to the present. Recently, a young bride gave her pastor father a “certificate of virginity.” She thus avoided the Old Testament death penalty: “But if the thing is true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.” (Deut. 22:20-21, RSV)
The virginity of brides is amplified in the story of Jesus’ birth because Mary is not only a virgin who has not known a man, she is a virgin who is not even impregnated by a man, but rather by god. As such, she cannot serve as a model for any other woman who must bear children the old fashioned way. This depiction of a male god impregnating a virgin human female also is in direct opposition to the veneration of the female as the life-giver found symbolized in clay figurines of pregnant females found as far back as the Paleolithic.
Virginity as highest goal for women
Abstinence from sex, which first appeared in the New Testament as a temporary measure because of an apocryphal prediction of the end times, became the ascetic ideal in the second century. Thecla, an aristocratic woman who renounced an arranged marriage, created “a new ideal of womanhood – that of the consecrated virgin.” While there is an acknowledgement that refusing to marry someone may indeed have been a liberating act during the time, what a shame that renouncing sex and becoming a chaste virgin was the only way to be free.
In the early church, married Christians were seen as less valuable compared to those who kept themselves pure. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century CE, wrote that “virginity is as much superior to marriage as heaven is to earth and as the angels are to people.” The celibacy imposed on priests and nuns is in line with virginity as an ascetic ideal. According to Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in the late fourth century CE, virginity is “a purity that cannot be otherwise achieved fully, unless one alienates himself entirely from the passions of the flesh.”
Bishop Spong sums up the feat of the church in holding up the Virgin Mary as an impossible model for women. “Women were made to feel guilty because they were women, guilty if they menstruated, guilty if they loved a man, guilty if they married, guilty if they had children. There was only one virtuous woman, and she was a virgin mother.”
Virginity of Mary serves as a contrast to Eve
One of the first to contrast Eve and the Virgin Mary was Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho in the second century CE. “For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the spirit of the Lord would come upon her and the power of the Highest would overshadow her.”
In the late fourth century CE, church leader St. Augustine, called the Father of the Western Church, spent his life focusing on the cause of original sin. His journey led him to postulate that it was “concupiscence” or lust at the core of original sin. Since Eve was seen as the temptress of man, she was the origin of the church’s negative portrayal of women.
When the Council of Ephesus convened in 431 CE, it approved the title of Theotokos (God-bearer) for Mary, she was portrayed as the antithesis to Eve. This antithesis serves to show that sexual desire on the part of women is evil and virginity is the highest ideal. Of course this is more than a bit hypocritical because men still want to have sex with women.
Virgin Mary – Images and elevation in status
The second commandment outlaws graven images. However, the early Christian church discovered that it was difficult to instruct people who were illiterate without the use of images. One of the first and most prolific images created was the depiction of the Virgin Mary and child, which remains a staple in the Roman Catholic Church today. There are even some scholars who believe that women were receptive to this particular image because they identified Mary with the Great Goddess of previous pagan religions.
What is interesting is the elevation in status that the Virgin Mary received over time from the Catholic Church. The first concept was that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. The second concept was that Mary was conceived without original sin. This doctrine of the church, called the Immaculate Conception, is still taught today. This concept came fairly late in the history of Christianity and was declared by the Vatican in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. In 1950, after receiving eight million signatures on petitions, Pope Pius XII declared that Mary, “when her earthly life was finished,” was “taken up body and soul into the glories of heaven.” Today this doctrine is known as the Assumption.
The Protestants did not carry over this veneration of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, there are some Protestant denominations today that reject the notion of the virgin birth entirely. A poll taken in 1998 asked over 7,000 Protestant clergy if they believed in the virgin birth. The highest percentage of non-believers was 60% among the Methodist preachers polled.
Some will say that Mary, who was indeed venerated almost as a goddess in the early years of the church, and later through Christian iconography and church sanctioned veneration, serves as a positive image of women. But in examining this further, this is only a truncated view of women. A virgin, who is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, only serves as a vessel for god’s work. She is not a full woman and she is only venerated for this one act. She intercedes between people and god. However, “she has no power for herself, and the very sources of her power to intercede separate her irrevocably from women. The goddess Ishtar and other goddesses like her had power in their own right.”
Yet women today are the mainstay of many churches. They are the ones who organize the teams to provide food for events, who teach Sunday school, who fold the church bulletins, who serve on the church councils where permitted. One has to ask why? Why do women accept a religion that has historically subordinated them, denigrated their sex, raped them at will in battle, and murdered them as witches? My only wish is that women would see religion, not as a divine message from god, but as a way for people to control others. As such, religion should also be rejected by men who see women as their equal and do not want to be part of a legacy where they are not.
October 30, 2015
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 John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1998), 80-81.
 Karen Jo Torjeson, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1995), 210.
 Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 11.
 Ibid., p. 95.
 Spong, 90-91.
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 100. Find at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01287.htm.
 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1973), 92.
 Cullen Murphy, The World According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 156.
 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 143