The story was not about Mary and the baby Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem, Judea; it was England! And not just one mother, but two — ‘Flora’ in Chester and ‘Sungai’ in London.
Nor was it the birth of one male offspring, but, in the case of Flora, seven, and in the case of Sungai, four. Both of the mothers were komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizards and native to Indonesia. In both cases, the birth was asexual, or, to employ the jargon, examples of parthenogenesis.
Parthenogenesis or ‘virginal birth’ is not an unknown event in the animal kingdom, though these were the first documented cases for the komodo dragon.
Is such a thing possible in humans as well? Parthenogenesis in humans has been difficult in the laboratory, because human embryos (unlike amphibians and insects) depend on genes in the sperm for the development of the placenta. Human embryonic parthenotes usually die after a few divisions and do not form blastocysts.
The motivation for research into human parthenogenesis is easy enough to discern: the production of stem cells which can be regarded as ‘non-human’, thus obviating the ethical dilemma of aborting human life. For Christian ethicists, the reasoning is entirely flawed. Such an ethic would justify the abortion of Jesus from the womb of Mary!
Whether the science of human parthenogenesis is viable under laboratory conditions remains to be seen. In theory at least, there is little to suggest that it is impossible. What seems likely, however, is that the result would be a female offspring, lacking the Y chromosome.
Sceptical scientists like to ask the question when confronting the Christian claim to the virginal birth of Jesus, where did the Y chromosome from? In humans, females have two X chromosomes and males one X and one Y chromosome.
Komodo dragons have W and Z chromosomes instead; and dissimilar chromosomes always produce a female. When komodo parthenogenesis takes place, the egg originally carries just one chromosome, either W or Z, which is duplicated. This means that all offspring are male, and able then to breed with their mothers.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph had no union with Mary ‘until she gave birth to a son’ (Matthew 1:18-25). What explanation, then, does Matthew offer for the pregnancy? This — ‘what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.
This angelic pronouncement was given to Joseph as he considered ending the relationship and all thoughts of future marriage.
Based on the biblical testimony, the church has confessed that ‘we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ … begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer…’ (Council of Chalcedon, AD 451).
Lest it be misunderstood, the birth of Jesus was an ordinary event; it was the conception that was extra-ordinary. Nor is the virgin birth meant to confess that Mary remained a virgin. The most natural reading of the biblical references to Jesus’ ‘mother and brothers’ (Luke 8:19; Matthew 12:46) must surely be that they were sons of Joseph and Mary, younger half-brothers of Jesus.
Even some theologians have fallen over themselves in the rush to explain away the doctrine of the virgin birth. Based in part on the correct observation that neither Matthew nor Luke (nor for that matter, Paul) make any apologetic use of the doctrine, they suggest that claims to a virgin birth were made late in the first century to bolster evidence for Jesus’ deity. A virgin birth, after all, adds a layer of mystery to an otherwise bland story about a child born into an obscure family in Palestine.
Sceptics begin with the hypothesis that ‘miracles do not happen’ (think of Hume’s adage, ‘Only a miracle would make me believe in a miracle!’). Having stated this premise, they must then offer some alternative explanation. Why did Bible writers such as Matthew and Luke record the birth of a child to a virgin?
Some dismiss the story as an example of the church’s confusion over the propriety of sex. Others complicate the issue by claiming that Mary herself was ‘immaculately conceived’. This safeguards the sinlessness of Jesus, they argue — the virgin birth means that none of Joseph’s chromosomes were passed on to Jesus. But Mary’s chromosomes were present. So that theory means Mary has to be sinless too!
Others have gone on to insist that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life — despite the fact that the Bible records Jesus had siblings (Matthew 12:46-48). Needless to say, there is nothing in the Bible to support any of these theories.
We are left then with the miraculous as the explanation of Jesus’ human origin. At either end of Jesus’ life stands a miracle! The virgin birth signals that Mary’s child is unique in human history. No one else has been born this way before or since.
The ‘scientific method’ will be found wanting as a means to comprehend Jesus. There are aspects of his person that transcend the limitations of human thought. He defies identification and classification. The power of God lies behind his human genesis.
The theistic evolutionist and Roman Catholic Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist and skilled platform debater for Darwinism, writes in his book Finding Darwin’s God that ‘a key doctrine in my own faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin, even though it makes no scientific sense — there is the matter of Jesus’ Y-chromosome to account for’.
Phillip E. Johnson has pointed out the inconsistency of Miller ‘claiming to believe in an event while saying that it makes no scientific sense, especially since he is vigorous in judging all other claims of supernatural influence on the natural world by the standards of science: miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense. They are specific acts of God, designed in most cases to get a message across. Their very rarity is what makes them remarkable’.
If he makes this one exception then why not others, and how does he decide where to draw the line?
They may also wonder what Miller could possibly mean by his quest to ‘find Darwin’s God’, when it is so widely known in the scholarly world (and even to Miller himself) that Darwin in his later years was an agnostic (Phillip E. Johnson, The wedge of truth: Splitting the foundations of naturalism, Intervarsity Press, 2000, pp.90-91).
The virgin birth (like the empty tomb) solicits faith. It says, ‘You must believe this even though it goes beyond anything you have ever witnessed in your life’. The virgin birth reminds us that salvation comes from outside of ourselves.
Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). No one within the family of mankind could be found to serve as an adequate Saviour. This is a reflection on the extent of our fallen condition.
Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ Mary (Luke 1:35). The same word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament story of the Exodus. There it describes the cloud of glory that descended on the tabernacle, signifying the presence of God among his people (cf. Exodus 40:35).
This is the essence of the matter. Another name for Jesus is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. Jesus Christ was God in human flesh. No wonder his birth was unique!
There is no escaping the supernatural in any ‘explanation’ of the birth of Jesus. There is more at stake in this issue than the well-being of komodo lizards like Flora and Sungai!
The author is Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi.