Don’t Go There

Virgin Mary, Career-Killer

Questioning the birth story central to Christianity has been taking down scholars and skeptics for just about 2,016 years.

12.18.16 5:01 AM ET

Of all of the miracles recorded in the New Testament, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ garners the most cynical attention. Upon learning that I teach at the University of Notre Dame, almost every atheist I meet will make a crack about Mary’s sexual history. It’s an interesting phenomenon: People rarely tell me that they think the disciples lied about the Resurrection. But when it comes to the doctrine that Mary conceived the Son of God without having sex , no teaching is as closely protected or as broadly scorned.

The idea that Jesus’ mother was named Mary is uncontroversial in scholarly circles. But whether or not she was a virgin has been questioned since the second century. The pagan writer Celsus, a well-known critic of Christianity, wrote that Jesus’ biological father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. He wasn’t alone in his opinion; writing in the Talmud, rabbinic authors describe Jesus as “Yeshu ben Pantera”—meaning Jesus son of Panther, which was a relatively common name for Roman soldiers. The implication here is that Mary was a collaborator who got knocked up by a hated occupier and decided to concoct a story in which Jesus was the product of a sexless encounter with God.

In 1859, excavations on a railroad in Bingerbrück, Germany, unearthed the tombstone of a Roman soldier called Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera. Pantera was a standard bearer in the Cohors I Sagittariorum, a unit that served in Judea before it move to Germany. Some romantic historians tried to hypothesize that this was the real father of Jesus. The gravestone is now on display in the Römerhalle museum in Germany, but it offers nothing other than circumstantial evidence.

The rumor that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier didn’t emerge for more than a century after his birth. Conspiracy theorists may love it, but here’s no historical evidence to suggest that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier. Given the strict moral guidelines governing women’s conduct, any pregnancy outside of wedlock would have been scandalous enough to destroy her. If you want to naturalize Jesus’ birth, there’s no need to bring the Romans into it. And there’s no reason to accuse Mary of lying. After all, we don’t have any statements from the woman herself.

By the second century, there were cynical non-Christians questioning the story of the virgin birth, but there were also fierce defenders of Mary’s honor. An apocryphal text written in the 140s and known as the Infancy Gospel of James contains a biography of the young Mary. In it, a young woman named Salome refuses to believe that Mary is a virgin (by which she means has her hymen intact) even after having given birth to Jesus. She says to the midwife that examined Mary, “unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” The scene is written to parallel the doubting Thomas story, in which Thomas states that he will not believe that Jesus was resurrected unless he places his hand in Jesus’ side.

We will never learn if Thomas touched the risen Jesus, but Salome is considerably bolder. She goes to Mary and physically examines her. This turns out to be a bad idea: Not only is Mary still a virgin, but for daring to probe the Virgin Mary, her hand begins to drop off as if it was being burned with fire. Fortunately for Salome, when she holds the baby Jesus she is cured, but the general thrust of the story is that Mary is above reproach.

Salome is a fictional character, but real human beings have also paid a price for questioning the details of the nativity story or the status of Mary. In the fifth century, Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople, argued that Mary should be called “mother of Christ” rather than “mother of God.” Nestorius’s argument was grounded in a combination of philosophical, biblical, and scientific arguments about how it was that Jesus was both God and Man. Nestorius didn’t intend to denigrate the Virgin Mary, but the slight against her perceived by his theological opponents helped contribute to his condemnation and excommunication from the church. But Nestorius did not go down without a fight: His followers continued to flourish in small numbers in Iraq until the beginning of the most recent Iraq War.

Controversy surrounding the nativity story persisted for centuries, to the extent that scholars were not allowed to question any of the details. In an article on the birth of Jesus, Prof. Stephen Carlson tells the story of Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas, a philologist who taught at Spain’s University of Salamanca in the 16th century. In 1586, El Brocense, as he was known, was reported to the Inquisition by his students because he argued that Jesus was not born in a stable and that his parents were not rejected by an innkeeper. El Brocense gave a cogent defense of his position and was exonerated, but in his own day the dissemination of his ideas was hindered by the experience.

All of which is to suggest that it comes to Christian theology, as it does with yo’ mamma, Mary is both the most criticized and the most defended.