Could A Virgin Birth Ever Really Happen?

Photo taken shortly after the virgin birth.
Photo taken shortly after the virgin birth.
In an article Salon mistitled “About that ‘immaculate’ conception1—the immaculate conception speaks of St Mary’s entry into the world, not Jesus’s—Daniel Engber, a developmental neuroscientist at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, gives us a few facts on parthenogenesis, which is to say on “virgin” births, or at least births without assistance of the other sex. ‘Tis the season.

Not too common, “virgin” births, and not seen in any of the mammals with the possible exception (if I understand Engber) of the platypus, Australia’s whimsical contribution to cladistics. And with one notable exception, not seen in people-mammals, either.

Reasons against mammalian parthenogenesis are given (go and read these), with the gist that, conditioned on all this biological knowledge, the probability of an actual human virgin birth is astonishingly low; so low that it isn’t worth figuring a number. The closest quantification we have is “Next to impossible.”

A miracle, then, for our one observation. What’s a miracle? Excellent question, but one which will not be entirely answered in this short article.

First, note that God, Big Chief of miracles, and one-third of what happened on a Christmas day minus nine months some two thousand years ago, cannot do the impossible. What’s impossible? That which cannot happen. God cannot make a triangle of four sides, nor one with interior angles different than 180 degrees. I speak of Euclidean triangles, in which it is known beyond all doubt, that triangles are three-sided etc. I do not mean some odd measurement on curved surfaces, which might come to anything. God cannot make that which is true false. Therefore, that which God does is possible.

There is no sound, valid argument, leading from indisputable first principles through an unbreakable chain of reasoning which proves mammalian parthenogenesis is impossible. There are plenty of good arguments showing that it is unlikely. But unlikely is not impossible. Many have great difficulty with this point. Consider that embedded in these “it’s unlikely” arguments are something close to an argument proving that mammalian parthenogenesis is just plain possible (though improbable). That which is possible can happen and can be caused to happen.

A miracle, then, loosely defined, is that which God directly causes to happen, as in the virgin birth.

Proof of our example? Eye-witness reports and the like, all that business in the Bible (both testaments) and subsequent historical events.

“I don’t buy it,” some say. “Sure looks like Jesus the man existed, therefore he was born of a woman. But since mammalian parthenogenesis is practically impossible, Jesus must have been fathered the old-fashioned way. All the sources in the Bible lied, were mistaken, or engaged in wishful thinking.”

This reasoning convinces many, though curiously there is no direct evidence for this view—the case is entirely circumstantial, relying solely on potential, not actual, observations. There is, as said, plenty of direct evidence supporting Jesus’s virgin birth. But even the “pro” side accepts much that is implicit: the texts which announce the event were transmitted accurately, and so forth.

The real point to notice is that whichever side you take rests on faith. For neither group is there a conclusive argument, which begins with indubitable premises and marches forward to an unshakably true conclusion. Thus one result is that everybody must gave faith. If you say Jesus’s birth was miraculous, you ultimately rest this opinion of faith. And if you believe it was “normal”, again, you rely on faith, on that which was unseen.

There is a final position which we can dispense with easily, but which gives insight (this is close to Hume’s view). Goes like this: miracles are impossible, therefore any report of a miracle must be the result of deception, error, and the like. Jesus’s birth was reported as a miracle. Therefore this report is false: Jesus’s birth was not a miracle.

Now the conclusion follows from the premises, but the argument is circular and dogmatic. Miracles are impossible? Who said so? What proof is offered that God cannot do what is possible for Him to do? None is offered because none exists, and none can. Accepting God’s existence, then it follows He can do the possible. Accepting God’s non-existence, it follows miracles (as we defined them) are impossible.

Therefore, we are back to the age-old question, Does God exist? Plenty of arguments for that position, which have various disputes, it’s true. But there are no sound arguments against God’s existence, therefore it is possible (as even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges) God exists. Thus, miracles are also possible. So it was possible for Jesus’s birth to by miraculous. Merry Christmas.

Update I did not and do not mean to imply that Jesus’s birth was caused by parthenogenesis. My main point, which I see everybody so far agrees with, is that since there is no proof that God could not cause a virgin birth, that therefore virgins births (in human beings) is possible. Naturally, I agree that Jesus’s birth was this way. I hope all realize it is not an argument against this proposition that others claimed to be born similarly: each claim has to be separately assessed.

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1Salon has subsequently changed the name of the article to “About that virgin birth.”

26 Comments

  1. “I don’t buy it,” some say. “Sure looks like Jesus the man existed, therefore he was born of a woman. But since mammalian parthenogenesis is practically impossible, Jesus must have been fathered the old-fashioned way. All the sources in the Bible lied, were mistaken, or engaged in wishful thinking.”

    This reasoning convinces many, though curiously there is no direct evidence for this view—the case is entirely circumstantial, relying solely on potential, not actual, observations.

    Except any knowledgeable non-liar scholar of the bible does already know that the “virgin” bit is a mistranslation from hebrew to greek to english. Its original meaning was “young woman” but I guess ideological fervor and distaste for any skepticism presented against the dogmatic hierarchical structure of the church impedes you of reaching the obvious conclusion.

    Which is ironic, given how libertarian and friend of freedom against opressive governments and “scientific elites” you also seem to be! I guess your skeptical senses just drop to zero when it comes to religion.

    Nobody’s perfect I guess.

  2. Luis,

    No, nobody’s perfect. Your passionate distaste of the Christian religion does you a disservice here. Let it be “young lady” as you will, which does not imply “not a virgin” (except, possibly and unfortunately, on college campuses). Then what? The rest of the Biblical account remains, that Jesus’s birth was caused by God.

  3. The New Testament, with the possible exception of Matthew, was written in Greek. I’d imagine any knowledgeable non-liar scholar of the Bible would know this. So I’m unsure how any Hebrew-Greek confusion could effect claims of direct evidence. Perhaps, however, you’re speaking of the supposed mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, quoted by Matthew, but I’m not sure how that makes your point at all.

  4. I don’t have a complete distate for christianity. What I find silly and dangerous is to take the bible literally and as “the word of god”, etc.

    Notice too that I haven’t discussed the divinity of Jesus. However, I enjoyed your “but what if you proved that my post above is entirely baseless and just wrong? aren’t there other things that prove religion right?” It’s the Gish Gallop defense to the rescue!

    Really I don’t mind the whole shenanigan. I even enjoy christmas!

  5. Luis,
    The blame falls squarely on the rabbis responsible for the Septuagint translation. I wonder what theological ax they had to grind.

    I’ve had enough atheist friends to know, at least in part, why miracles such as the virgin birth seem ridiculous. Atheists tear them out of their context and present them as an a priori impossibility. A non-miraculous mammalian virgin birth DOES sound ridiculous, now that you mention it.

  6. Given recent advances(?) with cloning, I suspect it won’t be too long before we have an example of human artificial parthenogenesis.

    Regarding the focus of this post, one might ask what would be the motivations of the gospel writers to include information about a virgin birth. Other than the miracles attributed to Jesus, the accounts of his time on earth read as very non-magical. If the point were to emphasize divinity, isn’t it more likely the authors would have laid on the supernatural more thickly than they did? And what of the story of Joseph’s dealing with the scandal of his betrothed wife’s pregnancy? Why include it? When the account was written he was long gone and beyond need of justification for his choices. My point is that with all circumstantial evidence, a wider context can inform, if not prove, a position.

  7. I don’t have your faith in the ability or motives of those who wrote the various bits of the new testament (or old for that matter), or those who translated them, or those who translated those translations. Or those who chose which bits of Christian scripture should be considered to be legitimate and included in official church doctrine.

    Woman gives birth to *male* child by parthenogenesis? Personally, I’ll go with Occam on this one…

  8. The Virgin Birth is not parthenogenesis (unless you do your thinking in Greek!). Parthenogenesis is the “activation” of an unfertilized egg (producing a female). This is not what allegedly happened in the case of Jesus.

    Even if parthenogenesis were impossible in humans (a proposition which is impossible to prove, as Briggs says), that wouldn’t have any impact on the Virgin Birth.

  9. I do not worry about anyone theology, but I do not accept that the stories of religious texts are accurate representations of what happened.

    Brian Dunning, of skeptoid.com, in the last year or two, posted a hoax article without telling anyone that it was a hoax. I listened to it. Thousands of devoted skeptics listened to it. Not a single skeptic called him on the hoax.

    I got interested in the historical Jesus awhile back. A friend invited me to a book club that focussed on it. I didn’t go back to original text. I just visited my local library to find the references being used in the book being discussed. I am much more certain that there is a link between BPA and hormonal balances, than I am that any of the references to the historical Jesus have any meaning. (The link between BPA and hormonal disfunction is nonexistent, but not completely).

    My aunt fixed me though. I attempted to explain to her why she shouldn’t worry about anything epidemiologist warn of. 45 minutes I blathered on. She turned to me and said … “Brad, when god calls me home, it is time to go home” .

    “oh… yeah… That is exactly what I just said!”

    I suddenly appreciated a useful aspect of religion. That statement defines a path to happiness. It works.

  10. Oh come, virgin births were a dime-a-dozen back in the day:

    Buddha was born of the virgin Maya, who was considered the “Queen of Heaven.”

    Horus was born of the virgin Isis-Meri on December 25th in a cave/manger, with his birth being announced by a star in the East and attended by dignitaries or “wise men.”

    Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.

    Krishna was born in a stable of the “virgin” Devaki (“Divine One”)

  11. Luis,

    You lost me, brother. But I have jet lag. I’m assuming, though, that you concede my point in the first comment.

  12. Interesting, isn’t it, that almost nobody considers the prophecy that was supposed to be fulfilled — ‘A virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel’

    Emmanuel. The name comes up on some church songs, the prophecy…and…that’s about it.

    More to the point, a “virgin” birth essentially means ‘sired by God’ (which could be divinely guided parthenogenesis or something else…

    And THAT parentage is as old as history — there are numerous God-men, children of gods & so forth preceding Jesus’ arrival. Most people have heard of Hercules, son of Zeus, for example.

    So, the plot for Jesus rehashes a well-worn ancient script, and what follows is pretty much consistent with a re-packaging of such old mythic scripts.

    Even much of the symbolism we still use is derivative (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesica_piscis — reflects & embeds then [200 yrs ago] secret wisdom surrounding numbers). Pythagoras (6th century BC) has a famous story told about him counting instantly the exact number of fish caught in a net — 153. Same number that shows up in the New Testament in context with fish, and, with the Vesica piscis symbolism). Ain’t that a coincidence?

    Book: Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism, by David Fideler, summarizes a numerous such examples. Make of that what one will….

    Like it or not, or believe it or not, the plot patterns are entirely consistent with copying & editing & rehashing old stories & themes to a contemporary situation. To observe that one can get a copy of Holy Writ as Oral Lit, by Alan Dundes, and simply take one’s Bible and follow along, comparing internal passages as pointed out by Dundes.

  13. No wonder you’re a Bayesian. You’d have to start with a prior probability of 1 to look at the available evidence and conclude that God exists.

  14. Dave,

    Very well. We await your proof that God does not exist. If the comments are long enough for you, I’ll accept a guest post.

  15. “since there is no proof that God could not cause a virgin birth, that therefore virgins births (in human beings) is possible”

    It’s a good thing you’re a statistician and not a scientist. With that kind of reasoning, one could argue for the existence of smurfs and unicorns as well.

    The thrust of your argument is dismantled in this Youtube video, I suggest you watch it.

    Video link

  16. Ryan,

    It’s a good thing I am a scientist as well as a statistician. That’s what makes me so brilliant.

    Yes, one could argue for the existence of smurfs, unicorns, or even honest politicians because no negative argument exists. I assume you have no demonstrative sound logical argument that these contingent beings do not exist?

    Neither have I. But, like you, I’d not wait around until one shows up.

    You miss the point. As I have said there are many demonstrative sound logical arguments for the existence of God (the Christian God: omnipotent, omniscient, etc.; see my Classic Post page for “Feser” or look up Aquinas’s five ways). Yet there is no argument that He does not exist. He is therefore at least a possibility. And, yes, so are unicorns and so forth, despite there being no good arguments in their favor, except for contingency. That is all that is required for possible existence.

    You seem to take the view (many do) that once the probability (given some evidence you withhold from us, or at least do not articulate) for a being’s existence is reduced to some level, but is not zero, then that being could not exist. This is a fallacy (and a cherished one). Do not confuse decisions with probability, a common mistake. A non-zero probability is not a zero probability. We would both bet against unicorns, but only the brash (I say) bet against God’s existence glibly.

    And, of course, given the evidence we have, God’s existence is vastly more probable than unicorns’.

    Miracles, then, such as the virgin birth of Christ, are a possibility. That was the point which I set out to prove, and which I have proved.

    Incidentally, far from “dismantling” this view, the (molasses-slow) video you recommend admits the point immediately.

  17. There are two things:

    1) Pregnancy without fertilization has never been observed and is highly improbable.

    2) Pregnancy with fertilization but without penetration is rare but there have been birth where the girl was found to be a virgin that have been documented. It is only required that there is an ejaculation near the pubic area.

  18. What is the meaning of a ‘virgin birth’? Is it a birth without the mother having had sexual intercourse? Or is it perhaps a birth without the mother having sexual intercourse consciously? See LuK.1:34: Mary does not say to the angel that she will not have intercourse. She says that she will not know a man, which is not the same thing. Of course, having sexual intercourse without being conscious of it seems improbable, but it is not nearly as improbable as becoming pregnant with no sexual intercourse at all. Moreover, both Matthew and Luke give the list of the forebears of Joseph, indicating that this was considered relevant information. Also, the existence of brothers and sisters of Jesus is confirmed in the New Testament.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brothers_of_Jesus
    If one wants to accord autority to the New Testament, strange as it may sound, the most reasonable interpretation seems to be that Mary was a virgin in the sense that see had no sexual intercourse consciously.

  19. Andyd:

    “Buddha was born of the virgin Maya, who was considered the “Queen of Heaven.”

    Horus was born of the virgin Isis-Meri on December 25th in a cave/manger, with his birth being announced by a star in the East and attended by dignitaries or “wise men.”

    Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.

    Krishna was born in a stable of the “virgin” Devaki (“Divine One”)”

    Mithras wasn’t born from a virgin, he sprung fully-grown from a rock. Horus’ father was the god Osiris; his mother Isis wasn’t a virgin. Not familiar with your other examples, but these two mistakes don’t really fill me with confidence.

  20. ‘Virgin birth’ in mammals is not impossible, because of the phenomenon of chimeras. When the fertilized ova of male and female twins fuse into a single embryo, they produce a single adult with a mixture of male and female cells in different parts of the body.

    (I will leave it to the theologists here to discuss whether such a person has two souls, since there were two conceptions.)

    With a lot of luck with the plumbing, the individual could then self-fertilize.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/discoblog/2010/10/04/ncbi-rofl-self-fertilization-in-human-having-a-male-embryo-without-a-father/

    “Yet there is no argument that He does not exist.”

    There is no argument to show that a Deity who does nothing and has no observable consequences does not exist. As soon as you posit any observable consequence that differs from a purely naturalistic metaphysics, it becomes testable in principle.

    For example, we could just ask him to appear before us as a pillar of flame, or similar historical manifestation. Or we could test the power of prayer to alter events, or to answer questions. (There are some maths problems we could ask about that would make a very convincing case.) We could check to see if atheists got struck by lightning more than would be expected. Or we could look for stars more than about 7000 light years away (the dates vary). It depends on what God you’re talking about.

    So if you want to propose the existence of, and base a religion around a Deity who never does anything and has no observable effect, you’d be quite right. Nobody could prove that such a God didn’t exist. But does anyone seriously worship a Deity like that?

    Proving the existence of God would be very easy for an actual Deity – all you have to do is exhibit some miracles on demand. According to the stories, he, she or it certainly used to. Gods as described in the stories were rarely of the shy and modest type. So why did the miracles stop? Or at least, suddenly get so ambiguous? It’s almost as if he didn’t want us to believe any more, and if so, who are we to resist his will?

    I don’t mind what anyone believes, and if it makes people happy then why not? But it would help if there was a different term for disbelief in a ‘brimstone and lightning’ sort of deity and the sort of ‘stealth deity’ that the Deists believe in. Then people could say they were against the former without offending believers in the latter.

    If Theist and Deist makes that distinction (not quite, but close) then would the correct antonyms be Atheist and Adeist? How about Agnostics? Can you be Atheist and Deist-Agnostic at the same time? Can anyone think of a better word than ‘Deist-Agnostic’?

    “Mithras wasn’t born from a virgin, he sprung fully-grown from a rock.”

    Depends whether you’re talking about the Roman cult or the early strands of the near-East religion. Religions mutate and schism over time.

  21. “Horus’ father was the god Osiris; his mother Isis wasn’t a virgin”

    Oh, yes, and Osiris had an important bit missing, didn’t he?

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