The virgin conception of Jesus, commonly but mistakenly called the “virgin birth,” is narrated in the canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which explain that Mary conceived Jesus without having ever had sexual intercourse with a man. What can be properly described as the “virgin birth” of Jesus, on the other hand, is actually recounted only later, outside the New Testament—for example, in the extracanonical Protevangelium of James (also known as the Infancy Gospel of James), which emphasizes how Mary retains her virginity even after giving birth to Jesus. For New Testament readers throughout the ages, then, it is really Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus that has caused fascination and reflection. Whereas this notion signals the unique identity and status that the Gospel writers assign to Jesus, it also speaks to the significance of Jesus’ mother. It is as much about Mary as it is about her son.
To reflect on the meaning of the virgin conception of Jesus is to ponder the circumstances in which readers find Mary in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. In terms of social status, especially when compared to that of her kinswoman, Elizabeth (
These circumstances help illumine the meaning of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus. What readers commonly regard as miraculous—Mary’s remarkable pregnancy—is rendered as astonishing evidence of God’s regard for the lowly and largely forgotten. It is through the ordinary and faithful Mary that God works to achieve the divine vision for humankind. No wonder, then, that Mary’s Magnificat prefigures the later prophetic teachings of Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (