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Conceived by the Holy Spirit

Fra Angelico Annunciation

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Apostles Creed)
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit (Nicene Creed)

Jesus’ conception was miraculous

It is a perfectly acceptable Christian position to hold that Jesus’ conception was miraculous. The Bible is a mixture of history and metaphor, and if you study the mentions of Jesus’ conception (and there’s really only a couple of them) and you decide that this is history, you are in perfectly good company. It’s probably the majority Christian position historically. It doesn’t mean you are against science, just that God can break God’s laws of nature for God’s greater purpose.

Jesus’ conception happened normally

It is a perfectly acceptable Christian position to hold that Jesus’ conception happened in exactly the same way as every other conception. The Bible is a mixture of history and metaphor, and if you study the mentions of Jesus’ conception (and there’s really only a couple of them) and you decide that this is metaphor, you are in perfectly good company. The Bible has a meme for special people – they often have a miraculous conception and/or birth story, and so if you want to give a picture that Jesus’ is the most special of all – it makes sense to give him the most special conception story.

Matthew 1:22-23 has

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

Matthew is quoting the Greek Septuagint (LXX) not the Hebrew Bible (now there’s another discussion worth having!). Isaiah 7:14 (LXX) is:

δια τουτο δωσει κυριος αυτος υμιν σημειον ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον και καλεσεις το ονομα αυτου εμμανουηλ

παρθενος (parthenos) is “virgin”. The original Hebrew for Isaiah 7:14

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אֹות הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה
הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמֹו עִמָּנוּ אֵֽל׃

There, עַלְמָה (almah) means “young woman”. In the original Hebrew, Isaiah didn’t say that a virgin would conceive; he said a young woman would conceive. [Some point out that παρθενος is also used, for example, five times to translate three different Hebrew nouns for Rebekah in Genesis 24, one of those being עלמה. James Barr noted in Typology of Literalism (1979) that the LXX of Genesis simply used παρθενος to translate the rare word עלמה, but that παρθενος is a suitable word for “young woman” and does not necessarily imply virginity. Such points do not strengthen the case for the first option, above].

Accepting that Jesus’ conception happened in the ordinary way can still mean that the Holy Spirit was active – “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit”.

No opinion on Jesus’ conception

It is a perfectly acceptable Christian position to hold no opinion whether or not Jesus’ conception was miraculous. The Bible is a mixture of history and metaphor, and sometimes, no matter how hard you study it, it is just not possible, 2,000 years later, to agree whether a particular story is history or metaphor. For some people classifying the genre of this particular story of Jesus’ conception is intensely significant. It is perfectly fine if for you that is not a concern that keeps you up at night.

Jesus half God half human

It is not acceptable to think that half of Jesus’ chromosomes are human and half of Jesus’ chromosomes are something else – divine, goddy chromosomes. Nor is it acceptable to think of Jesus as having only 23 chromosomes – only half of what humans have. Christians and non-Christians agree Jesus is fully human. Jesus has 23 human chromosome pairs; 46 human chromosomes. While we might disagree about how Jesus got those chromosomes – whether you hold to the first, second, or third option given above – we all agree on this final point: however he got them, Jesus is fully human with 46 human chromosomes.

This is the ninth post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship
They eighth is Truly God truly human

Image: Fra Angelico The Annunciation

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38 Responses to Conceived by the Holy Spirit

  1. Thanks for this, Bosco. Just the other day a friend was saying to me that the Virgin Birth was for her an unacceptable obstacle to taking Christianity seriously, so this is a discussion that needs to be had, regardless of the conclusions one draws.

    As for me, I’m with Rowan Williams on this one:

    “The virginal conception looks less straightforward, if you are neither a fundamentalist nor someone committed to the principled denial of miracles. Is it possible to believe in the incarnation without this? Yes, I think so (I did for a few years). But I also have an uncomfortable feeling that the more you reflect on the incarnation, the less of a problem you may have. There is a rather haunting passage in John Neville Figgis about – as it were – waking up one day and finding you believe it after all. My sentiments exactly.”

    (From here, the whole of which is a very good read: http://anglicanecumenicalsociety.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/bishop-spong-and-archbishop-williamss-response/)

    I have been so far unsuccessful in my attempts to find the passage in John Neville Figgis to which he was referring.

  2. It’s different than LDS theology. The Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity, they believe in a tri-theism; three distinct personages, two with physical bodies (after the Resurrection and Ascension) and one without. And they believe that two of the personages were involved in the conception based on Lk 1:35;

    “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.”

    So it was sort of Holy rape, the Holy Spirit immobilizes Mary and then the Father impregnates her. And BTW, the Son then did physically have 23 chromosomes from the Father and 23 from Mary.

  3. Thank you for raising a good issue. In the scientific age we live I have occasionally reflected on this question of the chromosomes of Jesus.
    Unfortunately, to simply take the annunciation as metaphorical, and consequently, meaning some other person than St. Joseph is Jesus’ biological father (it seems pretty clear from the biblical story of his decision to divorce he’s not the biological father.) To take it simply as metaphorical also would be to deny the Christian Tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary. A brief but clear summary of the perpetual virginity of Mary can be found here: http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/faq/faq18
    Peace and God bless,
    Fr. Jaspers

    • I’m struggling to see, Fr Jaspers, why you can envisage the annunciation as metaphorical, but would have Joseph’s “dismissing Mary quietly” (λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν) as historical – although I do notice you give this merely a “pretty clear” rather than even a “very clear”. For those who accept a human biological father for Jesus, your suggestion can easily lead distractingly down the highways and byways of Celsus’ contention. Blessings.

  4. It’s been a while since I’ve studied that passage in Isaiah, but I believe “The Inclusive Bible” has a footnote saying that the prophet was talking about “THIS young woman of the court of Ahaz — she, standing right over there in 725 BCE.”

    • Thanks, Mary. I think that would be a pretty common understanding of the text. It is not uncommon, of course, for texts to be “reused” in other contexts in the Bible in the tradition of typology, midrash, etc. Fairly obviously (since we are exploring the two birth stories in this post) Matthew is echoing the Hebrew Bible Joseph in the start of his gospel, Joseph is a man of dreams whose dad is called Jacob… Blessings.

      • You obviously set the cat amongst the pigeons with this post, Bosco. What fun!

        On Mary’s point about Isa. 7:14, I thought I might share the interesting discussion in Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, vol. 3 (Infancy Narratives), where he quotes Rudolph Kilian’s commentary on Isaiah, which summarizes four different scholarly theories about the interpretation of Isa. 7:14: “As a result of this overview it turns out that no single attempt at interpretation is entirely convincing. The mother and child remain a mystery, at least to the modern reader, but probably also to the contemporary audience, and perhaps even to the prophet himself.”

        Benedict concludes:

        “So what are we to say? The passage about the virgin who gives birth to Emmanuel, like the great Suffering Servant song in Is 53, is a word in waiting. There is nothing in its own historical context to correspond to it. So it remains an open question: it is addressed not merely to Ahaz. Nor is it addressed merely to Israel. It is addressed to humanity. The sign that God himself announces is given not for a specific political situation, but it concerns the whole history of humanity.”

        I quite like that phrase, “a word in waiting”. Certainly the first Christians saw *all* of the scriptures as a “word in waiting” for Christ.

        • Thanks, Jesse. As to the cat amongst the pigeons – the alternative was, in this series on the Creed, to skip over the difficult bits and hope no one would notice. I don’t think I’m that sort of person. Blessings.

  5. Miracles verses normal? Concieved of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, requires a reverting to a pre-scientific embryology that fails to consider the discovery the woman have eggs and therefore are equally involved in conception. Such a schemea allows Mary to become “the elect vessel” (Ineffabilis Deus) holy and spotless or vacuus. Or reminds me often of the apocrypha below, as we approach the memorial of Joachim and Ann on 26 July.

    Chapter IV of the Protoevangelium of James: And behold an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath hearkened unto thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive and bear, and thy seed shall be spoken of in the whole world. And Anna said: As the Lord my God liveth, if I bring forth either male or female, I will bring it for a gift unto the Lord my God, and it shall be ministering unto him all the days of its life.

    And behold there came two messengers saying unto her: Behold Ioacim thy husband cometh with his flocks: for an angel of the Lord came down unto him saying: Ioacim, Ioacim, the Lord God hath hearkened unto thy prayer. Get thee down hence, for behold thy wife Anna hath conceived.

    And Ioacim sat him down and called his herdsmen saying: Bring me hither ten lambs without blemish and without spot, and they shall be for the Lord my God; and bring me twelve tender calves, and they shall be for the priests and for the assembly of the elders; and an hundred kids for the whole people.

    And behold Ioacim came with his flocks, and Anna stood at the gate and saw Ioacim coming, and ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now know I that the Lord God hath greatly blessed me: for behold the widow is no more a widow, and she that was childless shall conceive. And Ioacim rested the first day in his house.

  6. If Jesus did not have a human father then where did the other 23 chromosomes come from? – Presumably directly from God. – But did God, then, choose specific characteristics for those chromosomes, specific genes for Jesus, in other words? – In this case, has Jesus truly incarnated our human condition, with the unpredictable randomness of its various weaknesses and vulnerabilities? – “The unassumed is the unhealed.”

      • It’s probably worth thinking in this context of Mary’s early patristic/liturgical title of “the new Eve” or the “second Eve”. The first Eve was taken out of the first Adam’s side (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh), with a similar lack of concern about chromosomal contributoins. The “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) is taken from the body of the new Eve, marking the creation of a new humanity in Christ.

        (I suppose that’s also the ultimate rationale for the disputed dogma of Mary’s spotless conception: she must already belong, in some mysterious, proleptic way, to the new creation inaugurated in her Son.)

        • Thanks, Jesse. Yes, the new Eve is a good image. I’m trying to remember (in my getting-up, pre-coffee state) if there is anywhere that does this flip Christ-taken-from-the-body-of-the-new-Eve in the scriptures? Also, re. the not being concerned about chromosomes in the first Adam/Eve story – that hardly becomes a concern for those who do not take that story to be history. Which is where it becomes a concern in this “new” version. Blessings.

  7. That Septuagint discussion is worth having. The understandable assumption of Renaissance scholars was that Hebrew OT trumps Greek OT. In fact, that assumption is partly there with Jerome too. The Septuagint was the Bible of the first Christians. Its oldest manuscripts are far older than the Masoretic text (even of the Dead Sea Scrolls). All that should give the παρθένος reading a little more weight than it normally gets in such debates. The Hebrew עלמה is just the feminine ending or a adjective youth. As you say, the two words have enough overlap to be used as translations of each other.

    I like the point that the biological stuff must all be of Jesus’ human nature. There’s no such field as theogenomics! If Jesus is the Word of God, he is the Let there be Light, and the impetus of creation, the big bang. In that light, it doesn’t seem wrong that his incarnation has something of the ex nihilo about it. And yet there is a labour, blood, family issues and bureaucracy: humanity.

    • Thanks, very helpful, Gareth.

      The Septuagint discussion really is another post, another thread. It is the Bible used by the early Christians, quoted in our New Testament, and rejected by protestants…

      Your ex nihilo point is worth pursuing further. Are you suggesting that Jesus’ fertilised egg was created ex nihilo? That would mean Mary was surrogate mother? Is the ex nihilo of the new creation not better associated with the resurrection?

      Blessings.

      • Even Jerome went for the assumption of MT priority. I believe that there is an unthinking denigration of the Septuagint texts, which were cherished by our forebears in the faith.

        I agree that all the biological nature of Jesus is of his human nature, of Mary. The ex nihilo comment is about the creative Word’s ability to bring life where there is none. The Elizabeth’s pregnancy is a miracle of life, just as Lazarus’ rising is a miracle of life. Yet Jesus is life: his conception and his resurrection are not miracles (in the sense they are divine actions in the world), but are intrinsic to his nature.

        • Thanks, Gareth. I think you have created more questions. If you see “all the biological nature of Jesus is of his human nature, of Mary” – we have known for quite a while now what was not known to Matthew or Luke: Jesus would be a girl! Blessings.

          • Yes, of course, but that is a presumption of human parthenogenesis, which is something that doesn’t happen ‘in the wild’. A biological explanation of the virgin birth is never going to get us anywhere. If the problem we are looking at is that there would be a missing Y sex chromosome, I think that is really a small matter. The point is that if God can create all life, a single human baby boy is not so much of a deal. If you prefer, the Y chromosome could be just another ram caught in a thicket.

          • Yes, Gareth. That makes sense. But having God create the Y chromosome ex nihilo is abandoning the sourcing of Jesus’ full humanity totally from Mary, which was your previous comment that I was reflecting from. Blessings.

      • As you say, Bosco, it’s for another thread. But I can’t resist quoting Dom Henry Wansbrough’s observation that our sniffy attitudes to the Septuagint have been with us “basically since St Jerome was bullied by the mockery of Jewish rabbis into preference for the Hebrew Bible”.

        A Hebraist friend of mine who greatly doubts the accuracy of the Masoretic Text advised me recently, “When you are next in court, swear on Lady Chatterley’s Lover rather than the Bible — probably more reliable.”

  8. Wow. I was smacked in the forehead by the Rowen Williams quote. For many years I took a firm position that miracles DO NOT really happen. But of late I began to recognize that my position was a different kind of fundamentalism (gulp!). And I was really unhappy with the mental exercises of trying to rationalize the Holy Texts. The problem is that such rationalizing succeeds only in explaining the texts away. But here’s the thing: my heart believes. It has always believed. Submitting to that fact was kind of like what I heard Rowen state. And I am much happier now than I was before as a “progressive Christian.”

    Lou

    • Thanks, Lou, for these thoughtful points which enable further exploration. The position that “the virginal conception of Jesus story is not history because miracles do not happen” is, as IMO you rightly point out, not a helpful way to approach this. As you point out those foundations are worth exploring.

      I do not like categorising people. That includes the box “progressive Christian”. I continue to hold that people and issues are more complex than that. And I would explore things issue by issue, person by person.

      Also, might I suggest caution about holding to a belief because it makes one “happier”. Happiness is very much an idol in contemporary culture, and I think, as Christians, we should underscore that God is our goal – not happiness.

      Blessings.

      • Thanks, Bosco. I think my point is that acknowledging my heart makes me happier — truer to my core self. My comments about Progressive Christian are a self-reflection of where I was at one time. I accept the reality that there in lies a value judgment. Proving that I am human, and fall (way) short of the glory of God! I’ll work on the categorizing — and judgments!
        Thanks again,
        Lou

  9. perhaps the problem is still with the Greek… “Miracle” being a σημειον =”sign” as Isaiah said, rather than the nature’s-law breaking meaning of today.

  10. Wondering digitally, is theologic logic? I just read a paper (presented in St Andrews last week at the ISBL) on circularity and paradox in John and other parts of the NT including the Cretan liar paradox. The author attempted to relate these statements to Russel and Whitehead. Not very successful IMO. (I prefer Charles Williams’ co-inherence). These paradoxes are the ether in which we live (and there is no ether either). In another session, the direction of prayer in Islam was teased out using NT, TNK, and the Talmud as a reflection of the Shema. This presentation, ending with an animated fractal, was brilliant. The author, Abdulla Galadari, was like Wisdom at play before the foundation of the world – and we delighted with the intertextual games of this servant of Allah. He did demonstrate that the Qibbala is equivalent to Kaballah and reflects the KBL (כבל fetters) of Joseph (Psalms 105, 149). This is ‘the assumption of the burden of Torah’ exhibited in Deuteronomy 6 – love with all thy heart and all thy soul – exceedingly. Loving that much might just make its own logic.

  11. I’m off to re-read “Miracles” by C.S. Lewis. He takes a whole chapter on the Incarnation. From memory, he views every conception as a miracle of God’s creative power, and just once, he did it without needing a human father.

  12. Francis has just added Mary’s Blessed Spouse Joseph to Eucharistic Prayers II – IV. Concieved? Joseph’s role is surely not that of a eunich?

    • Thanks, Phillip. I had missed that piece of liturgical news. So I guess the English-speaking bishops of the world will now begin the process of consultation and consensus, after which they agree to appropriate English translations for those three additions and then apply to the Vatican for permission to alter the English missals. As surely stickies or writing in the printed books would be unacceptable, I’m presuming that the recently printed volumes will need to be burned and new books printed? Blessings.

  13. One more thing. We should all re-read Fr. John Behr’s “The Mystery of Christ”, which shows how all the Gospel accounts are best read as the Church’s interpretation of the significance of the Cross and Resurrection. On this view, Christ’s Virginal Conception is an image of his risen body’s passing through the rock of the tomb and the locked door of the upper room. The Virginal Conception is similarly an image of the mysterious indwelling of the risen Christ in the baptized and also in the outwardly unchanged elements of the Eucharist.

    The obvious Old Testament locus for reflection was Ezekiel 44:2: “The LORD said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.” (And compare the “garden locked” and “fountain sealed” of Song of Songs 4:12.)

    As an Orthodox priest, Behr seems entirely content to view the Virgin Birth as historical. But for him the historicity of the event, which is incapable of verification, is its least interesting dimension. (A point affirmed in all patristic and medieval exegesis, and more recently in Jeffery John’s “The Meaning in the Miracles”.)

  14. “But for him the historicity of the event, which is incapable of verification, is its least interesting dimension”

    Maybe for him – but you never think about the foundation of your house until the cracks appear. What “interests” a person may reveal his personality but not the actual importance of a matter. Despite what Bosco asserts at the beginning on this post, it is *not and *never has been acceptable in catholic Christianity to assert that Jesus had a human father. All the councils, creeds and Church Fathers have excluded this notion.

  15. Let me develop my claim a little further. If I asserted that ‘the least interesting thing about Christ’s miracles in the NT is their historical character’, most people would rightly consider me a fool who hadn’t grasped the significance of the reports. Bultmann, like most liberals in the line of the Enlightenment, denied the Gospel miracles had happened and reinterpreted them existentially – which really means psychologically and allegorically in this context (‘a poetic way of saying what Jesus “meant” to them’). But that is clearly *not what the miracle reports mean in context or historical theology, where they are evidentiary of the messianic and divine identity of this man. If the Gospel miracles of Christ never happened, then we have a tissue of lies and legends – beautiful, perhaps, in some eyes, but no more true than the stories they told about Apollonius of Tyana, and no use in getting at the truth. Anyone who has read Herodotus and Lucian of Samosata gets this point (as these ancients did).
    I repeat that it is not ‘perfectly acceptable’ for a catholic Christian to believe that Jesus had a human father (any more than it is ‘acceptable’ to believe that the Reurrection accounts are symbolic or metaphorical). This was indeed the belief of the Ebionites, but their adoptionist teaching was rejected by the catholic church.

    • I was not quoting Fr. Behr directly, so he mustn’t be held responsible for the adjective “interesting”. His language is of “Mary as a symbol of the Church” (The Mystery of Christ, pp. 127 ff.). That whole discussion repays careful reading.

      When John 21:25 says that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”, we must necessarily conclude that the signs recorded in the Gospels were chosen on some principle of selection. Why this miracle, and not another? What does this recorded episode tell us about Jesus?

      Jesus of Nazareth was not the only miracle worker known to the ancient world. Why were his miracles different from others? The Gospels make pretty clear that the miracles persuaded no one of Jesus’ divinity. (As Fr. Behr points out, the only ones in the Gospels who recognized Jesus’ true nature were the demons.) The miracles only made sense to his disciples when viewed from the perspective of the Resurrection.

      In other words, I would not consider you a fool if you wished to move beyond a mere assertion of the historicity of the miracles. On the contrary: if that’s the end-point of our reflection on the miracles, then we really haven’t grasped their significance.

      That said, when it comes to the Virgin Birth I think that Benedict XVI’s study of the infancy narratives shows that we need not be embarrassed to take these stories seriously as rooted in historical events.

      And I agree that it ill becomes anyone claiming to be a “catholic” Christian to posit it as necessary (still less “de fide”) that Christ had a human father.

  16. “And I agree that it ill becomes anyone claiming to be a “catholic” Christian to posit it as necessary (still less “de fide”) that Christ had a human father.”

    That wasn’t what I was saying at all. I was denying and rejecting Bosco’s assertion above that it “is a perfectly acceptable Christian position to hold that Jesus’ conception happened in exactly the same way as every other conception”, which can only mean that he had a human father. The Catholic Creeds are perfectly clear on this, and *no one* argued differently until the latter part of the 19th century and still claimed to be a Trinitarian Christian who believed in the Incarnation. There were plenty of Socinians, Unitarians and followers of Reimarus and Strauss before that time who denied the Virgin Birth before that time. I haven’t checked Schleiermacher on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in that company.
    I stated that the miracles were understood as “evidentiary of the messianic and divine identity of this man”. That the miracles were seen as pointing to the messiahship of Jesus is evident throughout the Synoptics, while John’s Gospel goes one step further and links the miracles with his divinity – which is another way of saying that for John, the Messiah is divine. It wasn’t just the demons who believed.

    • Thanks, Michael. I think what you may be saying is that no one argued differently prior to the abandonment of the Aristotelian understanding of conception as being the male planting the seed and the woman merely providing the soil. Blessings.

  17. Being born of a “virgin” is a common theme in many traditions. Some of the religious figures alleged to have been born of a virgin are Hercules, Mithras, Buddha,Lao Tsze and Horus. Nowhere in the gospels that Jesus say he does not have a human father. As a matter of fact, in Judaism, a man whose father was unknown is considered a bastard, and could not attend the Temple nor marry a Jewish woman legally, much less be recognized as Messiah.

    • Thanks, Carmen. Do you (or anyone else) have references for your fascinating points “Judaism, a man whose father was unknown is considered a bastard, and could not attend the Temple nor marry a Jewish woman legally, much less be recognized as Messiah”? Blessings.

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