As the bumper stickers clamor at this time of year (and actually year-round) to keep the Christ in Christmas, I will do so by pondering a question that no doubt Christian theologians have explored and probably argued about, and, if other differences of arcane matters are any indication, such arguments might have been the basis for several years of righteous religious war. The question is about the baby Jesus. Is he to be considered half human because his mother was mortal, or was he a divine creature planted in Mary, who was merely a vessel, like a woman who has had the eggs of another woman fertilized extra-utero and then implanted in her. Both positions, and I can’t come up with any other options, lead to curious questions.
The first view that Mary was actually a mother, in the sense that she gave Jesus half of his genetic material, means that god impregnated her with god-sperm. A mortal woman visited by a god is of course very common in Greek mythology whether the woman was willing or raped. In those cases, the baby is clearly only half immortal –a very special human certainly but not an Olympian. Jesus is called the son of god, but Mary is also called his mother — but is he ever called the son of Mary? I have never heard that phrase. In favor of the position that Jesus was indeed Mary’s son and inherited half her genetic material is that Jesus appeared very mortal. Even though he is purported to have done a few miraculous things, still he is not godlike during his life. His non-godlike status is after all a large part of his appeal: he was one of us in a sense and could suffer; there is no question he suffered and gods do not suffer.
As for the second explanation –that Jesus was all god, nonhuman planted in Mary — the most obvious question is why go to all that trouble? Mary and Joseph could have found an infant alongside the path to Bethlehem and simply acted as his adoptive parents. One might counter that assertion though – since anything is possible, without regard to any biological reality — that god planted an entire organism in the earliest fetal stages to miraculously (yes that’s the operative word) grow to term inside the woman’s body in order to have a birth; a birth was necessary. A finding under a bush or elsewhere would not do because of the obvious symbolism of a birth: newness and the opportunity for redemption by that new life. We would have to celebrate the day Jesus was found by the side of the road and brought to live with Joseph and Mary, and that is just not as definitive and inspiring as the day of a birth. Odd in a way that this birth story wasn’t syncretized with the spring-time pagan rituals celebrating fertility and birth — someone wanted the celebration of birth near the advent of winter maybe as an archetypal-juxtaposition of birth with death, the latter of which is represented by the cold and dormant time of the year. To what end such an archetypal device might serve, god knows. Oh, I forgot, though, for springtime we have a sort of rebirth with the resurrection.
Of course, both story lines are unfettered by reality, and since one impossible story is no more or less impossible than another, we can feel free to pick one. I think that (for non-theologians at least), the choice is a matter of esthetics. I would be strongly in favor of the first version, but I can see it suggests a kind of sexual act (or at least fertilizing of a female egg) that the Greeks didn’t mind but seem inappropriate in the Christian context. Nonetheless, in favor of this view is the following: if Jesus acquired, naturally, half of his genetic makeup from Mary, then, given the new research on genetics, Jesus’s humanness means that much of humanity has some relationship to him, just as we also on the flip side might have some relation to Nero or Attila the Hun. (See Adam Rutherford and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.)
Either way, patriarchy is lurking here. Mary goes to the trouble of pregnancy, gives birth in the cold, puts up with strangers who drop in, bringing nothing of use for a newborn (incense and myrrh), but her baby is “the son of god.”