Was Mary a Virgin When She Conceived Jesus?
Frankly, no one can prove Jesus was born of a virgin. Neither can anyone disprove it. Basic human biology and common sense dictates a virgin cannot naturally conceive – a miracle would be required. Believing whether Mary was a virgin who miraculously conceived Jesus, if not by faith, requires a conclusion based on the circumstantial evidence.
Jewish marriage was a two-stage process – the betrothal period, typically lasting for 12 months, followed by the wedding ceremony part of which included the bride’s virginity being forfeited in the Yihud room.
To begin the process, a proposal was offered to the prospective bride’s father. The negotiated details were eventually formally finalized in a sealed, binding contract called a ketubah. The legal marriage contract, ketubah, was enacted by Queen Salome (76-67 BC) and formalized by the Sanhedrin long before Joseph or Mary were born. During their life times, the marital ketubah was the law of the land in Judea.
Family intermediaries vetted the couple’s families, backgrounds and defined the terms of the contract. Financial details were negotiated including the bride price, the dowry, and any contributions from both families. Monetary values for virgins and non-virgins were predefined by the Sanhedrin. Two of the family intermediaries signed the ketubah as witnesses.
For the bride, the ketubah provided a trust fund in the event of the husband’s death or a divorce excepting for the disqualifying factor of adultery. For the groom, the ketubah factually and legally established his betrothal was a virgin. The contract found in the Jewish Encyclopedia twice makes specific reference to the prospective bride’s virginity:
…“We have followed the legal formality of symbolical delivery [“ḳinyan”] between _____ son of ______ , the bridegroom, and ______ daughter of ______ , this virgin, and have employed an instrument legally fit for the purpose to strengthen all that is stated above, and everything is valid and established.
During Mary’s betrothal, according to Luke, the angel Gabriel announced she would bear a son conceived by the Holy Spirit to which Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” In addition to the ketubah and its two witnesses, by her own account Mary was a virgin at this point.
Gabriel also informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. Excited by this news, she “went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah” to visit Elizabeth – Mary left almost immediately.
From Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home, the trip would have taken 3 to 7 days depending on the town’s exact location near Jerusalem. Elizabeth already knew that Mary was with child. At the moment of hearing Mary’s voice, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb, who would become John the Baptist, leapt with joy.
In the very short span of about a week, Mary became pregnant. No human under normal circumstances could have known she was pregnant at that point, not even Mary herself were it not for Gabriel’s message and Elizabeth’s exclamation. Today’s modern medical pregnancy tests are effective, at the earliest, 10 days after conception and most reliably not until after 3 weeks. At best, a modern medical blood test can detect pregnancy in as early as 6 days.
Joseph can be ruled out as the father based on his own reaction of wanting to divorce Mary when he unexpectedly learned months later she was pregnant. The possibility that Mary had a secret paramour is a realistic possibility if one does not accept Matthew’s account at face value.
Playing out that possibility, it would be most challenging for a sheltered girl in her early teens still living at home with her parents. To cheat on Joseph, Mary would have to overcome immense hurdles – mentally, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally as well as the fear factor.
Mentally, Gabriel’s visit had to be a most impactful, shocking and unforgettable experience. Mary was told she was pregnant and of her future son, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” Mary made a commitment to Gabriel and God saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Spiritually, to then lose her virginity would be breaking her commitment to Gabriel and God.
Psychologically and emotionally, infidelity would mean betrayal. Mary would have to be willing to betray her own reputation, family, friends, and Joseph bringing them all great shame and disgrace.
Forfeiture of her future financial security was at-risk by breaking the terms of her ketubah contract. Perhaps the greatest deterrent of all was the foreboding fear of death by stoning for adultery.
Physically she would have to circumvent several traditional safeguards. Betrothed girls subject to Judaic Law were under strict supervision of family and the watchful eye of the community. Unmarried girls were not allowed to be alone at any time with an adult male, not even a family member. If she went anywhere, a chaperone was required. While she hurriedly prepared for the spur-of-the-moment trip to visit her cousin, to cheat Mary would have had to slip away from these guardians of virtue.
If Mary didn’t have a tryst before leaving Nazareth, the only opportunity would be on the journey to visit Elizabeth. Mary would have been required to travel in a caravan with a family-chosen chaperone and her secret paramour would have had to be traveling, too. They would have had to find an opportunity to safely slip away into the wilderness without being caught. If she became pregnant during the trip, she would have only been pregnant for less than a week.
One other factor closes the short period of time for Mary’s conception after Gabriel’s announcement. It was Elizabeth’s own words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Would an illegitimate pregnancy have been divinely revealed to Elizabeth who exclaimed to Mary that the baby in her womb was blessed?
The circumstantial case against Mary becoming pregnant by another man is very strong – was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus?
Updated August 15, 2022.
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