The importance of Mary's virginity
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In Christianity, Jesus is believed to have been born to a virgin woman, named Mary. The fact that Mary was a virgin means that Jesus was born without "original sin," which is the sin that all people automatically carry as descendants of Adam and Eve.
Because Jesus was a human being who nevertheless arose from supernatural origins (i.e. the Holy Spirit), instead of human origins, he is therefore the perfect human being, Christians believe.
He was a person, but unlike any other person, he is not genetically connected to Adam, and therefore does not suffer from original sin. Moreover, Jesus' perfection is related to his exclusive ability to save humanity from original sin--and all sin--and reach salvation. Thus Mary's virginity plays an essential role in the Christian religion, as essential as Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
The importance of female virginity
It is impossible to discuss Mary's virginity without discussing the context of female virginity in general. In the ancient Jewish culture that Mary and Jesus lived in, virginity was considered central to a woman's value as a person. This mentality, and vestiges of it, live on in modern society, and virginity is often considered to be an important part of a young woman's identity.
In the ancient world of Mary, if a woman was discovered to not be a virgin on her wedding day, there were severe consequences for her honor, and her life:
“If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate... Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.
“But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you. [Deuteronomy 22: 13-21, emphasis mine]
The fact that the man's worst possible punishment was a fine (payable not to the woman, but to her father), and the woman's was death, indicates the obsession with female virginity and sexuality, and the fact that cultural ideas (such as shame, honor or disgrace) trumped an individual's life.
Needless to say, if a woman only had value insofar as she was a virgin or a mother, then Mary's ability to retain virginity even after conceiving and giving birth would render her extra valuable. Like Jesus, she enjoys a special status in the human family as far as Christianity is concerned.
A search of the entire New King James Version of the Bible for the word "virgin" or "virginity" returns 71 results, using "virgin" or "virginity" in a number of different contexts, indicating how important the concept of virginity in general, and female virginity in particular, was to these ancient cultures. For comparison, the term "chaste" occurs 30 times, "young woman" appears 29 times, "marriage" occurs 28 times, and "girl" occurs 28 times.
The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
Jesus' virgin birth is fundamental to the Christian faith, but it is by no means unique among world religions. Dozens of mythical births, virginal or otherwise fantastic, have been documented among pre-Christian belief systems. One example is the Greco-Roman god Dionysus: in one piece of Roman literature written close to the time of Jesus, Dionysus is born to a virgin named Semele.
This precedence for miraculous births lends credence to the idea that the virgin birth of Jesus is simply another in a long line of myths. Moreover, there is a reasonable expectation for Mary and/ or her friends and family to lie if indeed she had had sex outside of marriage, given the severe and fatal consequences she would otherwise face.
Whatever the exact circumstances, a combination of ignorance, deceit, mythical precedence, exaggeration and fuzzy memories on the part of diehard Jesus followers and New Testament authors surely explains the generation of the virgin birth myth.
Nevertheless, science indicates that a human virgin birth is not totally impossible. Parthenogenesis (the technical term for virgin reproduction) is observed in a number of animal species, some of which normally reproduce sexually.
In addition, some have proposed that Mary may have suffered from extremely rare hormonal and genetic conditions that enabled her to give birth to a male child asexually, which normally would be impossible (in order to reproduce asexually, her child would have to be a girl).
The truth is hanging by a hymen
Perhaps in the upcoming holiday season, Christians should celebrate the fact that their religion has managed to survive for over 2,000 years on the say-so of a very imaginative horny young woman in ancient Palestine.
For non-Christians, late December offers a chance to ponder the fact that the fundamental beliefs of a third of humanity depend on the integrity of an obscure adolescent's pussy. Now there is a feminist triumph if I ever saw one.
Christopher Hitchens on virgin births
And a (flawed) Christian perspective
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