Many Christians hold to the belief that Jesus, the so-called son of god, was born from a virgin. Catholics continue to believe that Mary was so pure and sinless that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Have they actually read what the bible says about the matter?
In the Gospel of Matthew 1:18, it says “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Notice that Matthew says that Mary got pregnant before she ‘came together’ with Joseph, – taken at face value this simple statement means that eventually the holy couple did get it on.
The gospel of Luke is similar. Luke says that while the couple were in Bethlehem the time came for the baby to be born, “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2.7) Luke says that Jesus was her first son. This means that Mary had other children, but Jesus was the first. Had the author of Luke wanted to suggest that Mary had only one son, and was a virgin for life, he would have phrased this statement differently.
So, here we have two gospel statements suggesting that Mary had other children and so wasn’t a virgin all her life. And the gospels continue to provide insights into the siblings of Jesus: Matthew records an incident in Jesus’ hometown which reveals the names of Jesus’ three brothers. The people say, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?”
Of course Christians will claim that the term ‘brothers’ can actually mean ‘cousins.’ They will say that perhaps these brothers were actually spiritual brothers. But unfortunately, this premise simply does not stand up against historical scrutiny. We know that the apostle Paul actually encountered, and even squabbled with Jesus’ younger brother James; a man of great importance to the early church. Additionally we have the words of the ancient historian Eusebius, who in his work ‘Ecclesiastical History’ written c. 367 ce, mentions the “relatives of our Lord according to the flesh.” (HE 1.7.16)
Thus, we can say that Eusebius knows of Jesus’ relations, and he describes them not as spiritual brothers, but according to the flesh. Historically speaking it is likely that Joseph and Mary were an ordinary married couple who had at least three sons, and several other sisters (who are never mentioned by name). However, when Christianity came to spread beyond the confines of first century Palestine and into the Roman Empire the religion blended with pagan ritual and rites and emerged as something entirely alien.
There is a tradition of special births in the pagan sects. The legendary figures of Asclepius, Hercules and Dionysus all had human mothers and divine fathers. Even historical figures – mighty rulers and wise philosophers – were given miracle conceptions. An example is the famous philosopher Plato. There are several ancient accounts of his legendary birth which commonly have Apollo appearing in a vision to Plato’s mother who then becomes pregnant, despite the fact that she has yet to lay with her husband. Plato’s birth thus sounds similar to Jesus’.
Having a divine birth did help the ancients Greeks and Romans to explain why some men were greater than others, but the historical Jesus likely had a normal birth. His mother was a normal woman who conceived through the normal human route. But when Jesus evolved away from his human roots and became increasingly described as a divinity, the former pagans and non-Jewish Christians gave Jesus a miracle, virgin birth. Thus, in conclusion, the historical figure of Mary was not a virgin, and her human son was not born a god – but he did eventually evolve into one.