mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.
Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-17
The Wonder of it All
One of the great powers that human beings have is the power to question, to ask things like what if or how did that happen or why is that like it is. It is a power that has driven the foundations of culture and civilization from the time the first people began to coalesce and band together against the elements of the primitive world. That power, I believe, is born of something we might call wonder, that form of questioning that seeks to find an answer to the great mysteries of the natural and supernatural. This wonder has been the catalyst for some of the greatest achievements in science and culture that mankind has ever accomplished: the building of great cities and civilizations; discoveries in math and science that have produced medicine and technology; and advances in our understanding of individual and communal behavior have all been introduced into modern life because someone wondered about something and reacted to it.
Albert Einstein recognized that this also played a role in our understanding of religion and faith saying,
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” ― Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies
This knowledge and feeling that Einstein refers to is a tremendous mystery that we as seekers of God through the lens of Jesus have engaged. We have wondered in our own small way about the world beyond the visible world. We have glimpsed, as Paul said, through the glass darkly and found that we wanted more than a glimpse. We want to seek the mystery on the other side of the glass, to see as God as Moses sought to see though we too have trouble taking in the holiness when exposed to it. We seek to find meaning from the mundane in the mystery of life as God has made it in Creation. We seek to answer the questions that wonder offers to us in the hope that this will lead us to a greater understanding of the divine in God.
Young Woman or Virgin
For many people, the virgin birth, like the rest of biblical literature is an either-or proposition: either it is absolutely one hundred percent true or it is all a lie and not worth the paper it is printed on. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary writes, “If Jesus was not born of the virgin, then the Bible cannot be trusted when it comes to telling the story of Jesus, and that mistrust cannot be limited to how he came to us in terms of the incarnation.” This approach to the Bible is a relatively recent development and has its roots in the idea of inerrancy (the Bible is free all error as written). So, when many people read the bible in our native English and it says, “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel” they assume that each one of those words means exactly what they say in English. That makes the most sense, right?
I believe the truth requires a little more of us than taking things at face value. For one, the words that got to us in English were translated from Hebrew (Isaiah 7), into Greek (the original manuscript of Matthew), and into Elizabethan English (KJV) before making their way into a modern vernacular (RSV, ASV, and others and then CEB, NLT, etc.). The transition has the capacity for the meaning of words to get jumbled and even replaced in the translation process.
For instance, let’s look at the origin verse for Matthew 1:23 and compare it to the original verse, Isaiah 7:14.
“Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”
“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”
You notice that the wording from Isaiah to Matthew is considerably different. The Hebrew word describing the woman in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, a word translated as young woman or maiden in the other instances used in the Bible. The common Hebrew word for virgin is betulah, a word significantly different than the one used even considering potential Hebrew root words. The word that almah was translated into when the author of Matthew rewrote the verse (an apparent transliteration) was the parthenos, meaning virgin. This word, like many others in antiquity, also carries multiple meanings including a ‘young woman of marriable age’, ‘a virgin’, or even ‘a virgin male’.
Why say all of that? Why jump through all of those linguistic, literary hoops over a single word? Because when it comes to the faith, words matter. This word, virgin, and its meaning have been a source of both comfort and consternation to millions of people over the past two millennia. For some, their very belief in God is buttressed or shaken to the core over whether or not Jesus was born in a form of purity reserved for holiness. If he is not, questions arise of his divine status as God in the flesh, Immanuel. One writer said, “If his birth were like any other human birth–through the union of a human father and mother–we would question his full divinity.”
Finding Meaning versus Forcing Meaning
So, we now apply our definition of the word mystical that we will use throughout this series in order to help us understand the idea of a virgin birth. The definition I would use is “the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.” So how does the virgin birth and understanding of Jesus divinity through that lead us to the mystical, to that which has spiritual meaning or reality that is not apparent to our senses but leads us into communion with God?
I wonder if that word virgin carries too much meaning and is tainted by both our culture and the history of church doctrine. I wonder if we sometimes devote too much energy, spend too much time, living and dying on these hills of conscience. Maybe the issue should not be so much about Mary being or not being a virgin but what the idea of this type of birth signifies. I believe that the power of our faith lies in the deeper meaning behind these words more than the literal words themselves and all too often we fail to get at the deeper meaning in favor of a simple, literal explanation understood through our own context and not that of the biblical writer.
It is the wonder that drives us, but care must be taken to steer ourselves well. To force meaning into something that was never intended to have that meaning has been the bane of good theology and a bulwark to those seeking their own ends. I also believe that for many people, this doctrine of the virgin birth is a sacred expression of faith, a cherished understanding of who Jesus is and how he came to be a part of this world. I don’t want in any way to say that you have to believe in a virgin birth to be a Christian but similarly, I want to affirm that the doctrine of incarnation understood that way is a viable expression of belief. As a Methodist, I believe “the origin of doctrine and its goal is in the practice of the Christian faith.” So, the question becomes as we wonder about this idea of a virgin birth, how does it relate to our practice of the faith or more importantly in my opinion, how does this lead us to better love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves?
I believe that we need to move from literalism to pragmatism when it comes to our beliefs and how we practice them. Instead of being focused on the words as literal, factual, measurable, we need to see them as expressions of the divine intersecting with the profane. We need to see behind the words to the meaning, understanding that the writers of the gospels were writing a particular kind of literature–ancient biography–to make a point: God did something new in Jesus.
“Her virginity is not the point. Her sexuality is not the point. The point is that, through the agency of Mary, and through the birth of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, something new arrived – a new way of being, a new way of living, a new world colliding with the present one.”
The birth of Jesus was the means of heralding that new way of being and living and in that narrative, one that only occurs in two of the gospels. In these narratives, we see the true wonder of what it is to be children and followers of God by being able to view a life that is at the same time, inspiration and example.
“Jesus is not the fulfillment of miraculously specific predictions. Rather, he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in a much more comprehensive sense…. He is their crystallization, their expression in an embodied life. He decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets–the promise and hope for a very different world…”
That, I believe, is what is at the core of the virgin birth. Beyond the arguments over words, beyond the theological constructs and declarations of spiritual war and infighting, there is a promise from God that the world we live in is still malleable, still being created and recreated. That we, the children of God, the followers of the rabbi Jesus the Nazarene, can be a part of the creative process to bring about the Kingdom of God, a place where the love of God and love of neighbor are the true law of the land.
As an addendum, would like to add, Into the Darkest Hour, a poem by Madeleine L’Engle
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss —
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight —
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2007.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Danker, Frederick William, Walter Bauer, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wlliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Franke, John. “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality.” In Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by Stephen M. Garrett, & J. Merrick, KL: 4627-5101. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2013.
Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for praching and teaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.
Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
Partridge, Cameron. “Side Wound, Virgin Birth, Transfiguration.” Theology & Sexuality 18, no. 2 (2012): 127-132.
Roberts, Kyle. A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why it Matters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Schelkle, Karl Hermann. Theology of the New Testament: Salvation History-Revelation. Translated by William A. Jurgens. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976.
Wegner, Paul D. “How Many Virgin Births are in the Bible? (Isaiah 7:14): a Prophetic pattern approach.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 3 (Sep 2011): 467-484.
 (Franke 2013, Kindle Location 4673)
 (Roberts 2017, p. 126-127)
 (Danker, et al. 2000, p. 777)
 (Roberts 2017, p. 163)
 (Jones 2002, Kindle Location 1191)
 (Roberts 2017, 153)
 (Borg and Crossan 2007, pp. 224-225)