The Dogma of the Virgin Birth
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1912
“A certain woman lifted up her voice, and said unto Him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee. . . .
“But He said, Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.”
The trial of an American clergyman for views held heretical concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus is in all our memories. And it seems that this is the type of question which will serve as a rallying cry for all those who uphold the letter of the law; that the acceptance of such doctrines as the Virgin Birth will be a test of Orthodoxy for some time to come.
As a student of religion, especially in that vast Orient whence so much of religion has come, I am persuaded that the position of the prosecutors in the trial to which I have alluded rested on a misunderstanding, a materialization of a spiritual truth; that they have misapprehended the nature and meaning of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and, therefore, that the clergyman whom they condemned was the victim of a judicial error, based, shall we say, on a wrong construction of the statute.
I think the truth is, that the dogma of the Virgin Birth, far from being in any sense peculiar to Christian theology, is of universal extent and of vast antiquity. It is more than a supernatural event in the life of Jesus. It is really an integral part of a much wider doctrine, a doctrine fundamental to all religion: the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Divine Man.
The universality of this teaching is suggested by Rev. R. J. Campbell, when he writes:
“the idea of a divine Man, the emanation of the infinite, the soul of the universe, the source and goal of all humanity, is ages older than Christian theology. It can be traced in Babylonian religious literature, for instance, at a period older even than the Old Testament. . . . This aspect of the nature of God has been variously described in the course of its history. It has been called the Word (Logos), the Son, and, as we have seen, the second person of the Trinity. For various reasons I prefer to call it—or rather Him—the eternal Christ.”
It has long seemed certain to me that there is a connection between Babylonian religious literature and the hymns of the Rig Veda. Be this as it may, we find the doctrine of the divine Man very eloquently set forth in the Vedic hymns. Thus the Purusha Sukta declares:
“. . . Such is his greatness; the divine Man is yet greater—
“The universe of creatures is one part of his being,
“Three parts are immortal in the heavens.
“From him was born the Word. From the Word was born Spiritual Man.
“When the Powers, making the divine Man the offering, accomplished the sacrifice,
“Spring was the oil, Summer was the fuel, Autumn was the oblation.
“From this sacrifice, where he who is the world became the offering, all things were born. . . .
“The Powers, accomplishing the sacrifice, bound the divine Man as sacrificial victim.
“These were the first religious rites. . . .”
The thought is, that the Logos, through self-sacrifice, became manifest as the created universe, in every particle of which the Logos lives and moves. This Incarnation of the divine Man in the world must be distinguished from the pantheism which sees Deity immersed and absorbed in the universe. For “the universe of creatures is one part of his being; three parts are immortal in the heavens.” These three parts are the three divine Persons: Creator, Preserver, Regenerator, in the One Eternal.
THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF OSIRIS
The Incarnation of the divine Man through sacrifice was the religion of ancient Egypt. The central figure of the teaching was Osiris, in the ages before the dynastic kings. Osiris, or Hesiri, was the son of the goddess Nut, and a double paternity, human and divine, was attributed to him. At his birth, a divine voice rang out, proclaiming that “the Lord of all has come into the world.”
During the eight and twenty years of his life, Osiris brought civilization and culture to Egypt, teaching the people the use of corn and the vine, which thus came to be associated with his worship. He left Egypt to carry his message to other lands, and we find independent traces of his teaching in the oldest records of the Euphrates valley. On his return to Egypt, he was ensnared by Set, “the serpent,” slain, and enclosed in a coffin, which was set adrift on the Nile. After long search, his body was found by Isis, or Hes, his sister-wife. Isis opened the coffin, and laid her face on the face of Osiris, kissing him and shedding tears.
Set again seized the body of Osiris, and cutting it into twice seven fragments, cast it into the Nile. Isis found the fragments, bound them together with bandages, and fanned the cold form with her wings.
Osiris was restored to life, and reigned as king of the dead, and judge of souls.
The Egyptians saw in the resurrection of Osiris the evidence of life beyond the grave: “as surely as Osiris lives, shall we live also.” Osiris is at once the type of the divine Man incarnated primordially in the world, his body being cut up by the serpent of Matter, and scattered through the world; and also the divine Man definitely incarnated in Egypt for the good of mankind, offering his body as a sacrifice, and rising from the dead. He is an Avatar, a divine Incarnation, not only in the cosmic, but also in the human sense. And we find that every spiritual manifestation of religion rests on the same thought of a definite divine Incarnation in human form; the history of every religion is that of a slow decline from the pristine teaching of the incarnate divine Man.
The bas-reliefs of Dendera show Osiris lying swathed on the bier, then gradually raising himself till he stands upright. An ancient inscription declares that: “He gave his body to feed the people; he died that they might live.” We are told that Apis, the symbol of the life of Osiris, was born through a divine conception, the impregnation of a divine power. Apis was, therefore, in the symbolical sense, a Virgin Birth.
THE INCARNATION OF KRISHNA
The Purusha Sukta depicted the divine Man putting forth the power called the Word, and then causing himself to be born through the Word as spiritual Man. In other words, the Logos, through his own divine power, becomes manifest as the soul. This is the heart of the religion of ancient India.
In the long centuries before the birth of Buddha, when the Three Persons of the Trinity had come to be called Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—Creator, Preserver, Regenerator—the divine Man, who was considered as related in a special way to the Second Person of the Trinity, was called “the Lord.” The Lord manifested himself through the power of Maya, the feminine Word. This was his Virgin Birth. The Lord causes Maya to bring him forth, and is himself the child who is brought forth. Thus Maya comes to be symbolized as the Mother of the Lord.
As in Egypt, we have also the particular incarnation of the Logos in human form, the incarnation in India being Krishna, son of Devaki. Krishna is now recognized as a historical person, born several centuries before the Buddha, who was born six centuries before Christ. The incarnation of Krishna was twofold. First, there was the Virgin Birth of the Logos, the Lord, through Maya personified as a goddess. Then there was the human birth of the same Lord, as Krishna, son of Devaki, the wife of Vasudeva. This was a normal human birth, yet it was attended with signs and wonders, which are eloquently described by the Vishnu Purana: “on the day of his birth, the heavens were irradiated with joy. The winds were hushed. The seas made murmurous music, as the spirits of heaven sang.” The voice of an angel sounded in the father’s ears, warning him that the child must be taken away, to escape the wrath of the tyrant Kansa, who sought to slay him. The tyrant, enraged at the child’s escape, ordered a slaughter of all new-born children, of two years old and under. Krishna escaped this slaughter, and lived to become a great teacher, later revered as the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
THE BIRTH OF THE BUDDHA
Several centuries later, and some six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, was born Siddhartha the Compassionate, also esteemed a divine Incarnation. The Buddhist scriptures, Sanskrit and Pali, tell the story with great beauty. I shall try to summarize their narrative.
The Lord, who was to be born as the Buddha, “the Awakened,” is depicted as dwelling in heaven, and perceiving that the time had come for him to be born among men, for the salvation of the world, he chose the family of king Suddhodana, in the ancient city of the sage Kapila. “The mother of a Buddha is one who has kept the precepts unbroken from the day of her birth. Now this queen Maya is such a one; and she shall be my mother.” Maya the queen falls asleep and in a dream is caught up into Paradise. There she beholds the future Buddha miraculously entering her womb. She awakes and tells her dream. The wise men declare that she has divinely conceived, and that a son will be born to her “who will roll back the clouds of sin and folly from the world.” At the moment of her conception, a great light spread through all the world, the blind received their sight, the deaf heard, the dumb spoke, flowers bloomed everywhere, heavenly music was heard in the sky, and the fires of hell were quenched.
Angels guarded queen Maya with drawn swords, until her time was fulfilled. Then she desired to return to her father’s home. Between the two cities was a grove of sal trees, and at this time the grove was a mass of flowers, with birds singing among the branches. When queen Maya, passing on her way to her father’s house, beheld it, she desired to enter the grove to gather flowers. Going to the foot of a mighty sal tree, she stretched out her hands toward a branch. The branch bent down to her hand, and formed a canopy of leaves round her. Then the birth-pains came upon her. Four angels received the future Buddha as he was born, and bathed him with streams of miraculous water. Then placing him before his mother, the angels said: “Rejoice, O queen, a mighty son has been born to you!” The future Buddha strode forward seven paces, and said, with a noble voice: “The chief am I in all the world!” The aged saint Kaladevala came to see the new-born babe, and rejoiced over him, lamenting also that he would not live to see his full glory.
There is also a noteworthy passage: “A womb that has been occupied by a future Buddha is like the shrine of a temple, and can never be used again. Therefore the mother of the future Buddha died when he was seven days old, and was reborn in heaven.”
Here the two elements of the Incarnation are blended together. The divine Maya becomes queen Maya, and the divine birth is blended with the human birth. Yet we have the conception in Paradise, as well as the birth on earth.
Herodotus notes that the Greek story of Dionysus almost exactly repeats the Egyptian teaching of Osiris. In the same way Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to India, identifies an Indian hero, who seems to be Krishna, first with Dionysus and then with Hercules. Hercules in his turn finds his prototype in ancient Babylon. We thus see that all these divine Incarnations, “goddess-born,” who “bruise the head of the serpent,” are but different presentations of a single idea.
In western Asia, which was influenced both by Babylon and Egypt, we find several versions of the same primeval teaching, often materialized and overladen with sensuous details, yet recognizably the same in origin. In Syria, the doctrine of the divine Man attached itself to Adonis, whence the rites of Adonis reached Greece. In Phrygia the corresponding divine personage is the hero Attis, and circumstances decided that the worship of Attis should have a marked influence on the religious ideas of Rome.
THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF ATTIS
Dr. J. G. Frazer has learnedly set forth the history of Attis, in his recently published book: Adonis, Attis, Osiris. He shows that Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd, beloved of the mother of the gods. His birth was miraculous. His mother Nana was a virgin, who conceived through the power of a sacred tree. The priests of Attis “made themselves eunuchs” in honor of their divinity.
The worship of Attis was brought to Rome at the time of the great struggle with Carthage, two centuries before Christ. At the vernal equinox a pine-tree, cut in the woods, was brought to the sanctuary, and decked with violets. The effigy of Attis was tied to its stem.
On the next day, the “Day of Blood,” the effigy of Attis was buried. Late in the evening, “the tomb was opened; the god had risen from the dead; and, as the priest touched the lips of the mourners with balm, he softly whispered in their ears the glad tidings of salvation.” The next day, March 25, was a public festival in honor of the resurrection.
The sanctuary of Attis and his divine mother was on the Vatican hill, and St. Jerome tells us that the traditional birthplace of Jesus was a cave shaded by a grove sacred to Adonis. It is further noteworthy that in Phrygia and Gaul, and even for a time in Rome, Easter was celebrated on March 25, being thus a fixed solar feast, instead of a movable lunar feast, as Easter now is, in conformity with the Jewish Feast of the Passover. There is also an intimate connection between the celebration of December 25 and the Mithraic festival of the birth of the sun-god.
THE NATIVITY OF JESUS
This brings us to the nativity of Jesus, and the Virgin Birth as a Christian dogma. Let us first consider the negative side of the question.
To begin with, Jesus himself, though clearly affirming his divine incarnation and divine parentage, makes no mention of a miraculous human birth. On the contrary, when the woman cried out: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee!” we find Jesus replying: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.” In exactly the same way he says: “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? . . . whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” It cannot, therefore, be said that Jesus lays stress on the Virgin Birth, as a necessary article of belief, nor indeed does he ever suggest such a doctrine.
In like manner neither John nor Paul nor Peter have anything to say of the Virgin Birth, either as an article of faith or even as a tradition, though Paul had an admirable opportunity to do so, for example, when he wrote to the Galatians: “When the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” It is noteworthy that Paul does not write: “made of a virgin,” and we know that this epistle is an autograph. Peter also speaks of birth through “incorruptible seed,” through the Word of the living God, but refers to the regenerate in general, and not in any special way to the physical birth of Jesus. And John, though writing of “the Word made flesh,” says nothing of Virgin Birth in the material sense. The same is true of James, “the Lord’s brother,” and of Jude “the brother of James.”
The only references in the New Testament to the Virgin Birth, as a material fact in the history of Jesus, are in the passages, Matthew I, 18-25, and Luke I, 26-38. The verses in Matthew immediately follow the genealogy of Joseph, whose father is said to have been Jacob, and who was descended from King David through Solomon. We are told that: “the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. . . . Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”
The reference is to Isaiah VII, 14. Literally, the Hebrew reads: “Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and shall bear a son.” On this passage Prof. Toy writes: “The rendering ‘virgin’ is inadmissable. The Hebrew has a separate word for ‘virgin.’” He further points out that a definite historical event, in the eighth century before Christ, is referred to, and that there is no allusion in it to a future time of prosperity for Judah.
In Luke, the essential part of the story is contained in verses 34-35 of the first chapter: “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
Only in the third chapter of Luke do we find the genealogy of Joseph. But here the father of Joseph is called Heli, and his descent is derived from David not through Solomon but through Nathan. The occurrence of the genealogy as late as the third chapter of Luke suggests that this gospel originally began with that chapter, thus starting at the mission of John the Baptist, as the second and fourth gospels do. Similarly, the verses 18-25 of the first chapter of Matthew might be omitted without in the least breaking the continuity of the narrative. This is exactly what we should find, if the passage were a later insertion.
THE BROTHERS OF THE LORD
It would seem, therefore, that, with the exception of these two short passages, which bear some evidence of being later additions, we find no allusion to the Virgin Birth, as a material fact in the life of Jesus, in the canon of the New Testament. The real home of that doctrine is in the apocryphal gospels.
There we find the doctrine set forth at great length, and with a multitude of details, to some of which we shall presently recur. It is very significant that, at the same time, we find the appearance of a cognate doctrine, that of the “perpetual virginity” of Mary, which presently becomes of primary importance. As the emergence of this latter doctrine sheds much light on the later insistence on the material Virgin Birth, we may briefly examine it here.
What have the canonical books of the New Testament to say as to Mary’s “perpetual virginity”? Bearing on this question, we have such passages as this, in Matthew: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” The parallel passage in Mark reads: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?” Luke also speaks of “the mother and brethren” of Jesus, though without citing the latter by name. John has a noteworthy passage, in which the brethren of Jesus rather ironically urge him to go up to Jerusalem, and show his works publicly. In the Acts, we have the mention of Mary the mother of Jesus and his brethren And finally we have Paul speaking of James “the Lord’s brother,” and also of “the brethren of the Lord.” I am inclined to think that the mother of Jesus is referred to by Luke, as “Mary the mother of James,” who was a witness of the crucifixion, and who is called “Mary the mother of James and Joses” by Matthew. At least it is certain that these passages were taken to refer to the mother of Jesus by writers of the apocryphal gospels who explain them away by telling how Mary had adopted James.
But leaving out these last references, we have nearly a dozen passages in the New Testament (in the four gospels, in the Acts, and in Paul’s Epistles) referring to “the brethren of Jesus,” and always in connection with Mary. The plain meaning of these passages is, that James and Joses, Jude and Simon were the children of Joseph and Mary, Jesus being the “first-born” son, their elder brother. It is noteworthy that Matthew and Luke both speak of Jesus as the “first-born” son of Mary, at least suggesting that there were later children. Dr. Alford, who examines these passages very fully, comes to the conclusion that the brethren of the Lord were the children of Mary the mother of Jesus, and of Joseph.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH IN THE APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS
When we come to the apocryphal gospels, we find the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus occupying a very important place. A whole cycle of narrative confronts us, in which every side of the doctrine is given ample scope. The question of “the brethren of the Lord” is covered by declaring that Joseph was a widower with four sons, James, Joses, Jude and Simon, and two daughters, Assia and Lydia, when he was espoused to Mary. The book called the “Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” makes Joseph say: “I am an old man, and have children; why do you hand over to me this infant (Mary), who is younger than my grandsons?”
The book called “The History of Joseph the Carpenter” goes even further, and makes Jesus himself narrate the circumstances of his miraculous birth: “Joseph, that righteous man, my father after the flesh, and the spouse of my mother Mary, went away with his sons to his trade, practicing the art of a carpenter. And I chose her (Mary) of my own will, with the concurrence of my Father, and the counsel of the Holy Spirit. And I was made flesh of her, by a mystery which transcends the grasp of created reason.” This choice of Mary by the future Savior strongly reminds us of the choice of Maya by the future Buddha.
When we come to the conception of Jesus, the apocryphal gospels offer us a richly colored narrative. The dogma of the Virgin Birth is safeguarded by the declaration that, immediately after the formal betrothal in the temple, Joseph departed to the seaside, leaving Mary in his house. Then we have the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, in passages resembling the narrative in Luke, but very much more elaborate. Then, six months after the conception, Joseph returns, and witnesses, human and divine, appear to testify to the virginity of Mary. Joseph and Mary later go up to Jerusalem, and on the way the babe is born, in a cave to which Mary had retired. The cave is filled with miraculous light. The voices of angels are heard. And the babe is born without pain. Several of these ancient books tell us, further, that the virginity of Mary, even after the birth of Jesus, was established by a midwife, or, in some narratives, two midwives, who had been brought by Joseph. All these works at the same time insist on the “perpetual virginity” of Mary, and affirm that “the brethren of Jesus” were children of Joseph by a former wife.
We may complete this part of the story by saying that the Virgin Birth of Jesus, in the material sense, is taught in the Koran, which tells us that Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing the birth of her son; that he breathed on her, and at that moment she conceived. This breath of the angel is evidently the distorted form of the teaching of conception through “the holy Spirit,” which in Greek would be “the holy Breath.”
Mirkhond, the Persian historian of the fifteenth century, tells us that Mary brought forth her son while leaning against a palm-tree, and that angels attended her, and produced a shower of miraculous water to wash the babe. These details, like the choice of Mary by the future Savior, and the doctrine of the “perpetual virginity,” strongly suggest that the story of the Nativity was influenced by Buddhism in the early centuries, during which the apocryphal gospels were crystallizing out of popular legend. I am inclined to think that these works reacted on the canonical gospels, and that from them the narratives of the Virgin Birth overflowed into Matthew and Luke.
We are justified, therefore, in saying that Jesus himself has nothing to say of the Virgin Birth, as an abnormal event in his own life. On the contrary, he brushes aside an attempt to glorify the physical circumstances of his birth.
John and Paul, Peter and Mark, James and Jude are equally silent as to the material Virgin Birth of Jesus, though many occasions for referring to this presented themselves.
On the other hand, Jesus himself, and also John and Paul, Peter and James, have very much to say of the real Virgin Birth, in the spiritual sense, the “birth from above” through the Holy Spirit, the birth of “the new man, the Lord from heaven.” Peter speaks of all the regenerate as thus “begotten of God, of incorruptible seed;” and James speaks of “the Father of Lights,” who “of his own will begat us with the Word of truth.” In this spiritual rebirth, the Virgin Birth from above, Jesus is, as Paul says, “the first-born among many brethren.”
When we come to the apocryphal gospels, we find this idea of the spiritual Virgin Birth materialized into an abnormal physiological event, which is described with abundance of realistic detail, and elaborately developed. We find it in intimate association with two other doctrines, that of the Virgin Birth of Mary, and that of Mary’s “perpetual virginity.” It is evident that this ascetic view of the events of life dates from the period of the hermits and celibates, during which the celibacy of the clergy was also formulated, though we know from the New Testament that Peter and the other apostles, as well as “the brethren of the Lord” were married, and Paul especially recommends the choice of married men as bishops. There is every likelihood that the material doctrine of the Virgin Birth flowed back from the apocryphal gospels into the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, which are not closely attached to the rest of the New Testament.
This is the conclusion as to the purely Christian side of the dogma. But it is in no sense a peculiarly Christian doctrine. On the contrary, it is already in existence in the oldest records of mankind. We find it as a twofold doctrine, cosmic and particular. As a cosmic doctrine, it gives an account of the formation of the world, by the manifestation of the Logos, the divine Man “immortal in the heavens.” As a particular doctrine, we find it applied to divine Incarnations, who are held to be manifestations of the Logos in human form, for the salvation of mankind. These incarnations are always associated with the idea of the Virgin Birth, a “birth without sin.”
When Jesus came to be recognized as a divine Incarnation, it was both natural and right that all the characteristics of such Incarnation should be applied to him; that he should be endowed with all the insignia of royalty, including the Virgin Birth, as a spiritual teaching. This was as natural and right as that John should apply to him Philo’s doctrine of the Logos, which was but the restatement of the oldest spiritual teaching in the world. It was equally natural that pious but unlearned devotees should materialize this teaching, and turn it into an abnormal physiological event, as we find in the apocryphal gospels.
If these conclusions are just, then we are in no sense called on to accept the Virgin Birth of Jesus as a physiological fact; but on the other hand, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, as of all the regenerate, in the true spiritual sense, is not only true, but is an integral part of religion.