It is clear that for many early Christian authors, the Virgin Birth was unknown. Paul seems to know nothing about it, and neither does Mark. John has a pretty clear view that God is the Father of Jesus, but never gets into the biological relationship. Lot’s of people are called “Son of God” without it meaning that God is the biological father. In fact, the story of the Virgin Birth is only known to Matthew and Luke for certain (though both tell the story with some significant differences) since none of the other authors of the New Testament mention it explicitly. Even Luke seems to slip up on occasion. In Luke 2:43, for instance, the more reliable manuscripts read: “and his parents did not know.” Later editors caught the problem and changed it to say: “and Joseph and his mother did not know.” All this leads one to wonder whether the Virgin Birth matters all that much. If it didn’t matter to most early Christians, who didn’t seem to know about, should it matter so much to us?
In classical Christology, Christ is a God-man, fully human (having a human soul and body) and fully divine (the Logos remaining unchanged and unchanging in complete harmony with the human agent). This is the view that comes out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. It begins with the assumption that God and humanity are ontologically separate. If God cannot change, how can he come to dwell in a changing, human form? Further, if Jesus’s salvific action required that he become human, he must be a fully human, having both a human soul and a human body. Christology differs from anthropology (the view of the human being) insofar as Christ is the fullness of divinity plus the fullness of humanity.
In Mormonism, Christology and anthropology are the same. The human consists of a body and soul, and Christ consists of Christ’s soul and a human body (a Logos-Sarx christology). The soul of Christ, and all human beings, is eternal and pre-existent. At some point, the pre-existent soul enters the human body where it dwells until death. At death, the soul is separated from the body until it is reunited with a more substantive resurrected body. This process is the same for all humans, including Jesus Christ.
In the Book of Abraham chapter 3, we are privy to the drama which unfolded before the Creation that tells us how Jesus came to be our Savior. Abraham sees the following vision:
And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good….And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell….And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me.
Here, we learn a key Christological insight. Christ’s spirit does not have any ontological difference from other spirits. The Lord asks the question about whom he should send because he could have chosen others. We were all there and all eligible in terms of potentiality. Rather, Christ is like God in character, but also just like us in substance. If one goes even further with Joseph Smith, one learns in the King Follett discourse that not even God has any ontological difference from other humans. God is different from humanity in degree, not kind.
If we take these two principles, that Christ’s spirit is ontologically the same as ours, and that God is simply a more advanced human being, the classical understanding of the need for a Virgin Birth is called into question. While in classical Christology, the Virgin Birth was the miracle that mysteriously united two ontologically separate substances, in Mormonism, the line between divine and human is already blurred. We are all fully human and fully divine because the ontological gap between God and humanity doesn’t exist. Departing from classical Christology, there is no need for a separate human soul in addition to Christ’s soul.
It seems that as a logical consequence of Mormon theology, there is no reason that Joseph could not be the biological father of Jesus. In this view, Joseph and Mary would provide the body to Jesus, the body which his soul would inhabit just like any other body/soul relationship.
What do Restoration scriptures have to say on the subject? The D&C does not comment. The Book of Mormon, however, has two unique references to the virginity of Mary. The first is in 1 Nephi 11:13-20. Here, Nephi sees a vision that Mary, a virgin will conceive. In the first edition of the Book of Mormon, Mary is described as the “Mother of God, after the manner of the flesh” (18). This adopts the Chalcedonian formula that Mary is the theotokos, the bearer of God. In the 1837 edition, the same passage reads “Mother of the Son of God,” a more consistent view with LDS doctrine in the separate persons and substance of the Godhead. In this version, there is no language about miracle or divine implantation. Mary is a virgin, but is not necessarily a virgin when Christ is born. Nephi says that he “beheld the virgin again,” but this does not necessitate that she was still a virgin he saw her again, only that he saw the woman that was the virgin that he saw before. Further, if we imagine that the term used here is the same Hebrew term used in Isaiah 7:14, we are dealing with a “young woman,” which doesn’t speak to her sexual status.
The second reference to Mary’s virginity appears in Alma 7:10, which explains: “she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” This verse adopts the Lukan description of “overshadowing” by the “power” of the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:35). This text seems to mediate against a non-miraculous pregnancy, though the use of the Lukan language may point to a Joseph Smith “expansion” here.
There can be no doubt that the official LDS position affirms the Virgin Birth. There is, however, an early LDS tradition which questioned this view and hypothesized that God literally had intercourse with Mary. I repeat that this view is not official doctrine, but it raises a similar theological point that I am raising here. Why did Mary have to be a virgin? We accord no special status to the state of being a virgin. But I want to explore even further than our early leaders suggested, and ask why does God have the be the father of Jesus Christ at all?