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To the skeptical, it's an oxymoron. To the faithful, it's a miracle or, at the very least, a faith-promoting metaphor. Two thousand years after the fact — or the fiction, depending on where you come down on the virgin birth — the story continues to inspire and confound.

Mary's virginity is now central to the Nativity story and is a staple of various Christian credos affirmed by congregations as diverse as Greek Orthodox and liberal Protestant denominations. A 2004 poll by Newsweek magazine found that 67 percent of American adults think the Christmas narrative is historically accurate, and 79 percent believe the virgin birth is literal.

But all that unanimity masks a concept fraught with nuances. Even the word "literal" is problematic, says Tom McClenahan, academic dean of the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, who prefers the word "historical" when referring to the virgin birth (by which he means the account as interpreted by the gospel writers). And too, the term "virgin birth" itself is a point of contention. Except for the Catholic Church, Christians really mean the "virgin conception," says McClenahan. (And that's not to be confused with the "immaculate conception," which is a Catholic term for the belief that Mary herself was conceived without original sin.)

Students at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary occasionally struggle with the notion of the virgin birth, says McClenahan. After all, they've grown up in a culture that gives priority to science over revelation — and a baby conceived by the Holy Ghost instead of a human father makes no sense, according to 21st century science.

Like much of the Bible, he says, the Nativity story should be read not as literal word-for-word or as a newspaper account; instead it's "the story as a whole" that counts. "The acceptance of this as historical is a matter of faith. It's not something that can be proved, only revealed," he says, adding that "in the end it's a question of whether we're prepared to believe in the creative power of the Spirit of God intervening in this world for the sake of our salvation from sin and evil."

Many modern Biblical scholars — most, in fact, says professor Robert J. Miller — view the story of Jesus' birth as more metaphorical than actual. The exceptions to this more symbolic interpretation, he says, are fundamentalist Christian and LDS scholars.

Miller himself is a churchgoing Roman Catholic, a professor of religion at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., and author of "Born Divine: The Birth of Jesus and Other Sons of God." He argues that "all Biblical scholars who practice the historical critical study of the Bible understand the Nativity story is a combination of legend and early Christian storytelling."

Mary's virginity at the time of conception was not a universal belief during the early Christian era, Miller says. Biblical scholars who question the literalness of the Nativity story point to the gospels of Mark and John, which do not mention Jesus' paternity. If an angel had actually visited Mary to proclaim that "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee" to conceive a son (Luke 1:35), they argue, wouldn't all the Gospels have written about it? (These same critics also point to other details that may be embellishments: There is no historical evidence, for example, that the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus conducted a census that would have propelled Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.)

First century Christians, Miller says, were comfortable with Roman and Greek biographies of what he calls "the wonder boys," including Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus and Plato. The only way the ancients could explain the accomplishments of men like this, Miller says, was to create a mythology that made them part human, part divine. All were said to have human mothers but to have been sired by gods such as Apollo.

To convince their First century pagan and Jewish audiences to become Christians, did Matthew and Luke spin the story of Jesus' birth to mirror the Greek and Roman birth stories? Did they add the detail of Mary's virginity (one that sets it apart from other stories of divine fatherhood) as another layer of proof that Jesus was the son of God? Or maybe as a way to underscore Mary's purity?

In pagan birth stories, Miller says, "the gods assumed human form and slept with the women and impregnated them. Luke was trying to move away from that kind of crass connotation."

Mary's virginity also echoed the prophecy of Isaiah — "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel" — which underscored the Christian belief that Jesus was the predicted Messiah. Some Biblical scholars argue that the original Hebrew should have been more properly translated as "young girl" rather than virgin. McClenahan of the Salt Lake Theological Seminary counters that the word (almah) is best translated as "young woman who is unattached," and therefore, in the context of the times, "it would be assumed, if she were to be pregnant, it would either be immoral or a miracle." The meaning of the passage, therefore, requires it to mean "virgin," he says.

According to Catholic dogma, "by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary was invited to conceive the word of God in her womb," explains Susan Northway, director of the office of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "It's a mysterious working of God." And Catholics are comfortable with mystery — God being God, she says, anything is possible. Or, as Judge Memorial High School theology teacher Corethia Qualls says, "The limitations of our world — height, width, length, time — do not apply."

To Latter-day Saints, the virgin birth is "absolutely literal," says Thom Wayment, associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. "The Book of Mormon also mentions it, so it's confirmed in two different places," he says.

The Internet is full of complaints that the dogma of the LDS Church holds that Jesus was conceived through a literal physical relationship between God and Mary. Statements often cited include an entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which says that God is "the literal parent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," and "Jesus Christ is the Son of Elohim, both as spiritual and bodily offspring."

"Latter-day Saints simply don't talk about it," says Wayment about what statements like that might imply. As for critics who argue that the LDS position is that God had sexual intercourse with Mary, he notes that "some statements might seem to imply this to certain people, but those who delivered them didn't say it that way. If I were asked to describe what we think today, I would say that we believe that Mary conceived Jesus in a way that we do not fully understand and that Jesus was the Son of God or the Son of the Father. We also believe that Jesus is a literal son of his Father. How it happened is really immaterial to the discussion."

Jane Schaberg has yet a different take of the conception of Jesus. In her book "The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the New Testament Infancy Narratives," Schaberg argues that the scriptures point to a normal, human conception by a father other than Joseph. It was the baby, not the conception, that was holy, she says.

For Unitarians, says the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, Jesus was 100 percent human. "I don't think the virgin birth adds or detracts from the splendor of the story. Every faith has stories that may not be literally true. But it's so important for us to celebrate hope and light in whatever era we're living in."

Miller, the biblical scholar who says that most of his colleagues believe the virgin birth is a metaphor, argues that the challenge Luke gave his readers was "to not see God in the majesty and military might of Rome but in the quiet healing and compassion that Jesus enacted in his lifetime. That isn't affected in any way by whether one takes (the virgin birth) literally."

Miller is often asked to speak to church groups. "What I tell them," he says, "is, 'If you subtract the virgin birth, what are you left with? Everything.'"

On the other hand, to think of it as metaphor introduces a theological slippery slope of doubt about other biblical events, including the Resurrection. But as Miller points out, "We need some options other than that the Bible is all literally true or the Bible is a phony book."

Questions about the Bible "have to be asked earnestly and vigorously to have an adult faith," he says. "If we just repeat what we're told, then we're not adults."


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