"The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee," explains Gabriel, "and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
Sure enough, Mary is soon "found to be with child of the Holy Ghost." Joseph has some doubts, though, about the paternity, and is about to divorce her, till things are divinely explained in a dream. Joseph doesn't "know" Mary until she has borne her son Jesus. According to Catholic belief, Joseph doesn't even know her after that. Immaculately conceived by Saint Anne (see the noncanonical book of James), Mary remains forever a virgin, Joseph's other children considered to be from some previous marriage.
The cult of Mary the perpetual Virgin reflects the rise in Christianity of an ascetic attitude, not found in biblical Hebrew religion, toward sexuality. The virgin birth of Christ is found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. And by denying Joseph a role in Christ's conception, the virgin birth contradicts Matthew's own contention, through a lengthy opening genealogy, that Jesus was "the son of David, the son of Abraham," by direct descent. The Apostle Paul (writing years before the gospels were written) also posits a Davidic human father of Christ in Rom. 1:3-4, stating that Jesus "was made of the seed of David according to the flesh," and "was declared to be the Son of God" (emphasis added) by virtue of the resurrection. It is strange indeed, if belief in the virgin birth of Christ was current among Christians of Paul's day, that Paul is silent on that belief even when discussing how Christ was "made" and became God's Son.
Matthew seems determined, though, to contradict himself, by appealing to the prophet Isaiah. But Matthew's effort to find a virginal conception foretold in the Old Testament--"Behold, a virgin shall be with child" (Matt. 1.23, based on Isa. 7:14)--takes some liberty with the original text. Isaiah's sign of Immanuel (7:14), which is non-Messianic, is a "young woman" (Hebrew almah) who conceives. The Hebrew word for virgin is bethulah, not almah. Yet almah was translated into Greek as parthenos, "virgin," which Matthew, working from a Greek text, found much to his liking.
A miraculous birth story about an important personage was nothing new in the ancient world. Plato and Alexander, among others, were said to be sons of deities by mortal women. Interestingly, the second-century writer Celsus claimed that Jesus was actually the illegitimate son of a Roman centurion named Panthera. (For what it's worth, the tombstone of a first-century centurion named Panthera of Sidon has been found in Germany. See Ian Wilson's Jesus: The Evidence.)
In sum, the importance of Jesus' virginal conception as an article of Christian faith is debatable. (See Jane Schaberg.) It was declared one of Christianity's "five fundamentals"--hence the term fundamentalism--by a conservative Bible conference in 1895. But it can also be argued that Jesus was divinely adopted--as Paul puts it in Rom. 1:4, "declared to be the Son of God." At Jesus' baptism, "the Holy Ghost descended" in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said, "Thou art my beloved Son" (Luke 3:21-22), with some of the ancient source texts adding, "Today I have begotten thee." (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-7) (On to HEROD AND THE DANCE OF SALOME)
Pinturicchio, Annunciation / Baglione Chapel, Perugia
A girl's non-virginity might not be suspected, of course, when a marriage was arranged. According to the law, unless her parents could produce "the tokens of the damsel's virginity" (i.e., a bloody sheet from the marriage bed), a new bride accused by her husband of having not been found a virgin was to be stoned to death by "the men of her city" (Deut. 22:13-21)--a double standard and then some, there being no requirement that the accuser be a virgin himself.
There were penalties, though, for a single man having sex with a virgin. It was the same as adultery (for which the penalty was death) if the virgin was betrothed to another man (Deut. 22:22-27); if she was not betrothed, the man had to pay a bride price and marry her (Deut. 22:28-29).
There are two noteworthy competitions involving virgins in the Bible. When the aged King David needs someone to warm him in bed, a search "throughout all the coasts of Israel" for a suitable virgin produces Abishag the Shunammite--though even she can't seem to warm him enough ("the king knew her not") (1 Kgs. 1:1-4). In the book of Esther, when King Ahasuerus of Persia needs a new queen, virgins from throughout the realm are brought to Ahasuerus for tryouts, with Esther winning the crown.
Hebrew priests were to marry only virgins (Lev. 21:13), though Ezekiel (44:22) allows them to marry also widows of priests. Hebrew warriors could keep captured virgins as war booty, either enslaving or (as mandated in Deuteronomy) marrying them (Num. 31:17-18,35; Deut. 21:10-14; Judg. 21:8-14). At times the Hebrews themselves are metaphorically depicted as a victimized virgin (Jer. 14:17; Lam. 1:15, 2:13; Amos 5:2).
Since Hebrew men and women were expected to get married and have children, and since the enjoyment of sex was encouraged within the confines of marriage (Deut. 24:5; Prov. 5:18-19), the idea of lifelong virginity as a virtue was foreign to the biblical Hebrews. This may be seen in the story of Jephthah's daughter. When the judge Jephthah, to keep an ill-advised vow, must execute his young virgin daughter, she is first given two months to "bewail (her) virginity," that is, to mourn the fact that she must die a childless woman (Judg. 11:30-40).
Radically different is the Christian view found in Rev. 14:4, in which 144,000 males, "redeemed from the earth" and in the company of Christ the Lamb, are praised for being virgins, "they which were not defiled by women." Such antisexual sentiments (and hence the glorification of virginity) in the New Testament reflect the influence of ascetic and misogynistic thought in the Greco-Roman world, as well as the early Christian view that the world is about to end and that virgins and everyone else should therefore remain as they are. In 2 Cor. 11:2, the Apostle Paul refers to the church itself as "a chaste virgin" presented by Paul to Christ. (See also GENDER; LOVEMAKING; PAUL; and VIRGIN BIRTH.)
Jephthah's Daughter Bewails Her Virginity