The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

i-fc0baa42c324cefa8495fdb0044234b2-dice.jpgI have a cousin in law who tells this story: Her youngest child found out about sex. Then he made the connection that if he existed, his parents must have had sex. So he confronted the parents with this, and mom was forced to admit, yes, of course, this is how babies get “made” and this is simply how things are. The child did not seem too concerned.Moments later, the child noticed his sister playing in the other room. A thought occurred to him … a light went on, as it were. He turned back to his mother with an expression somewhere between accusation and perplexity.”You did it twice?!?!?”It makes sense that Christians would believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. Christianity itself is all about child psychology, punishment and reward, the bogyman and nectar (candy) of heaven, and so on. A virgin birth would mean that Mary, mother of Jesus, could be a woman who never did it. Not once, certainly not twice.It turns out that the idea of virgin birth is not clearly part of early Christian lore, and in fact there is a considerable amount of evidence that the contemporaries of Jesus, or those who came soon after, did not really consider the possibility. In fact, there were claims at the time that Jesus was a descendant of David. This would have been through Joseph, as this is how lineage was constructed by the Jews of the time (this business of inheriting Jewishness from the mother is a much, much later construction).The other reason that it would be convenient if Mary, mother of Jesus was a virgin is the simple fact that all the women in the Bible are prostitutes. This, of course, leads us to consider the very nature of prostitution in relation to the early scriptures of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Let’s have a look at that idea from an ethnographic perspective.I want to ask you a question. Is Maria a prostitute? Wait, don’t answer yet … you don’t know Maria. I’ll tell you a little about her.Maria is sexually active. Now and then, she will spend the night with a man she has only recently met, but only if he pays. He does not pay her, but rather, he pays another adult male, who gives Maria a cut. He will sleep with her several times, paying each time, until he tires of her or she tires of him or the man who takes the payment tires of them both. Later, Maria will find another man.In some societies, a woman who had this sexual and economic arrangement would be considered a prostitute. Indeed, in the US, she could be charged with the crime of solicitation.The Maria I know, however, is not from the US. She is just a teenager who is unmarried living in roughly the same region of the world where this Bible story played out. Eventually, one of the men will click with her and visa versa, and the man who takes the payment … Maria’s father … will not object, or at least not object too much, and Maria and this man will be married. Thereafter, Maria will not have sex for money for the rest of her life, or until she becomes unmarried, or unless her marriage kinda goes on the rocks and her husband does not mind her becoming an actual prostitute.In the society I’m describing, there are prostitutes. The difference between an unmarried woman and an actual prostitute is how many times you sleep with a man for a particular amount of money, and if there is any expectation of marriage.This is a very common pattern in many areas of the world, and I suspect it applies to the times and places represented in much of both the so-called “Old” and “New” testaments of the Bible (wherever those tests refer to day to day life, anyway).A virgin, in those times, would have been a woman not without sexual relations, but rather, without sexual uncertainties. She would have been a woman who would be married to a particular lineage, perhaps a semi-royal or chieftain’s lineage, by arrangement. Such as a young girl married to a “son of David.” Not a sexless female, just a female who is not available, for payment, on a trial basis or in any other way.I do not mean to assert that anything at all related to the Christ story is true (or not true). There is only mixed evidence to assert that a story involving specific named individuals … Mary, Joseph, Christ, the three wise men, etc. … actually existed as stated in the stories, and did the things the stories tell us. I do suggest, however, that it is possible to understand this story in the ethnographic context we can loosely reconstruct for the times.Other Bible as Ethnography Posts

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9 thoughts on “The Bible as Ethnography ~ 05 ~ The Virgin Birth

  1. “This is a very common pattern in many areas of the world, and I suspect it applies to the times and places represented in much of both the so-called “Old” and “New” testaments of the Bible”I find this interesting because I have never heard about this occurring and be accepted as custom. What is your source? I would like to research more on this.

  2. “In fact, there were claims at the time that Jesus was a descendant of David. “The gospels, of course, try to have it both ways–giving both the lineal connection to David (to satisfy the Hebrew prophecies) and the miraculous birth, to satisfy their deification of Jesus.”this business of inheriting Jewishness from the mother is a much, much later construction”I think that is very difficult to say with any certainty. The rule clearly changed from ancient times, but exactly when is not really known.

  3. Kevin: Off hand, I doubt there is a single overarching source for this. My assertion is based on my own research in combination with the reading of dozens of ethnographies. I ahve not written it up anywhere but here.

  4. “The Maria I know, however, is not from the US.”If she were, she would be getting roses, jewelry, etc., from the man instead of money.

  5. I should clarify. We’re talking about a non-cash economy in which there is some cash, but there is no distinction when making “payments” for anything (goods, services, sex) between money and goods. So my use of the term payment was accurate but I did not mean money, necessarily.

  6. The introduction of this particular detail into the Jesus story is, I think, almost entirely a result of the Romanization of the early christian church. In order for Jesus to be respected as something other than a minor Jewish teacher, he had to have some credentials that would be accepted on the streets where his following could grow – not the Jewish world but the Roman world. Thus the introduction of the story of the virgin birth. Only it wasn’t really a virgin birth. The father was god and his son was god-like, just like in Greek and Roman mythology.

  7. This is pretty interesting, and a nice way of subverting the modern expectation of ‘sure, she’s a prostitute’. But what happens if the woman becomes pregnant? Or was the ‘sleeping together’ non-intromissive?Could you provide at least one source for this? (What is the name or author of one of the ethnographies that shows this pattern existed in Palestine of 2000 years ago?) Not that I think you’re making it up, it’s just.. you know, where did you find this out?

  8. I think you would find, with just a little research, that the story of the virgin birth has been handed down through a few different religions. I can’t off the top of my head remember all the specifics but the virgin is just the constellation Virgo, the manger, Capricorn, the three wise men are whatever stars line up to point at the sun rising from the winter solstice etc. There is probably no historical fact involved in the virgin birth story at all.

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