I was reading Romans 1 yesterday and noted this passage:
Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: (Romans 1:3-4)
Biblical scholars have pointed out that Paul never mentions the virgin birth of Jesus in his writings. I've done some looking, and it appears to me that every reference (with one possible exception: Alma 7:10) to the virgin birth in the LDS standard works can be traced back to this famous prophesy of Isaiah:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
Interestingly, the Hebrew word Isaiah uses here (translated “virgin” in the KJV) is almah, which means “young woman,” and may be a married or an unmarried woman. It essentially means “maiden” and has no necessary connotation of our modern sense of virginity: never having had sexual intercourse. But the KJV translators relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which mistranslated the Hebrew almah into the Greek parthenos, which does have the connotation of virginity as we understand it today.
And it is this same Septuagint that the author of the gospel of Matthew would have been familiar with as he gave the account of its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. Given his affinity for the words of Isaiah, I suspect Nephi would have used the same word or its equivalent in recording his vision of Mary, since he apparently understood this prophecy of Isaiah's also to refer to the Savior (he cites it in 2 Nephi 17:14). (And in the arguable exception in Alma, I suspect Alma is alluding back to Nephi's words, so his own account may have the same origin.) Joseph Smith, then, in keeping with his translation of the Book of Mormon in KJV language, followed the example of the KJV translators in rendering this word as “virgin” in English.
This teaching of the virgin birth of Christ has become very important for traditional Christianity. It allows Jesus Christ to be separated from the fallenness and ungodliness they associate with the natural process of conception. Catholicism takes this a step further with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which creates a further remove. Thus Christ does not participate in the fallenness of mankind, because his physical creation had nothing to do with sexual intercourse.
It is interesting to note that for Paul, this did not seem to be an issue at all. He was content to view Christ as physically descended from David (as in the Romans quote above), and declared to be the Son of God at the resurrection. Liberal Biblical scholars have noted that there are several different points in the New Testament at which Jesus is said to be (or to have become) the Son of God, including: prior to his birth, at his birth, at his baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration, and at his resurrection.
It seems that for early Christians, including the writers of the New Testament, the doctrine of the virgin birth was not central. Is it for Latter-day Saints? After all, our scriptures (the Book of Mormon) refer to his mother as a “virgin.” But in what sense is this term meant?
Doctrinally speaking, we have no need for a virgin birth of the Savior. We do not hold to the concept of original sin as understood in most of traditional Christianity. We do not view sexual intercourse as something ungodly; in fact, we teach that it is among the gifts that are the most godly. We have a clear doctrine of Jesus Christ's premortal status as God. We also have a clear doctrine of the embodied nature of the Father as an exalted Man. When we take these together, there is no doctrinal need for a virgin birth, as there is in traditional Christianity.
Linguistically speaking, we have no need for a virgin birth. All references to Mary as a virgin can be traced back to the mistranslation of Isaiah. And to further illustrate that it is a mistranslation, the prophecy has another fulfillment recorded in the next chapter of Isaiah: Isaiah goes in unto “the prophetess” (his wife), who conceives the prophesied son, in whose youth the promises of the Lord are to be fulfilled. Clearly, the term almah in this fulfillment is not understood as “virgin” in the sense that traditional Christians understand Jesus' “virgin birth.”
So is the virgin birth important at all for Latter-day Saints? Well, we do have prophetic statements affirming the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism cites Bruce R. McConkie's The Promised Messiah in this regard. But, as in other areas, there is ambiguity in this term. Elder McConkie specifically intends that Mary had never known (had intercourse with) mortal man.
When I was at BYU, I took a religion course from Elder McConkie's son, Joseph Fielding McConkie, who taught that the conception of Jesus Christ came about in the same way that you and I were conceived: by sexual intercourse. The father of Jesus Christ was God the Father, who was married to Mary for eternity, while Joseph was married to her for time. In support of this, he cited the following from Joseph F. Smith, who spoke as President of the Church at a conference in Box Elder in December of 1914. My quote is from Messages of the First Presidency, included in the GospeLink 2001 collection:
We are all sons and daughters of God, and I want the little folks to hear what I am going to tell you. I am going to tell you a simple truth, yet it is one of the greatest truths and one of the most simple facts ever revealed to the children of men. Yet it is one that has been mystified and philosophized by men, more perhaps, than any other truth ever uttered by the mouths of the prophets. If I talk to the little folks so they understand the parents and teachers will be able to understand.
Now in the first book in the Bible and the Bible has been the standard of the Christian faith for nineteen centuries, yet nearly all the Christian believers and advocates of the Bible throughout the world have seemed to ignore one of the great truths that is taken from this book we read: "In the beginning God created man in his own image, and in his own likeness male and female." Right on the face of this great and yet simple truth that is revealed in Genesis, the Christian world has formulated a God that is incomprehensible. One of the greatest syndicates of learned men known in history were once chosen to determine and define the Being called God, and after deliberating over it for months rendered the decision that "God was incomprehensible," and that "to comprehend God would be to destroy Him." Yet he said he created man in his own image and likeness, male and female. If God made man in the likeness of God then he is like God and God is like man. The Saviour, Jesus Christ, begotten of God, was in the likeness of his Father, resembling him so nearly that He said on one occasion that "He that hath seen me has seen the Father." I see a little boy. He has hair, he has eyes and he has a face which resembles his father's, and when he grows up we say that we cannot tell him from his father, so perfect is resemblance between the boy and his father. The boy looks like the father and the father looks like the boy; he looks a little older; of course you can tell the father from the boy because he is a little older than his son. Jesus Christ was created just like his Father; had the same features; same frame, same kind of body and was so like Him when you saw him you saw an exact likeness or similitude of His Father.
You all know that your fathers are indeed your fathers and that your mothers are indeed your mothers you all know that don't you? You cannot deny it. Now, we are told in scriptures that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of his father. The Christian denominations believe that Christ was begotten not of God but of the spirit that overshadowed his mother. This is nonsense. Why will not the world receive the truth? Why will they not believe the Father when he says that Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son? Why will they try to explain this truth away and make mystery of it?
Now if God is a man, a glorious perfected man-that is, perfect in all his glorious attributes, and infinite in power, there never will come a time when God the Father will not have power to extend His dominion and His Glory. He is the maker of Heaven and the Earth, on which we dwell, for He made this earth by his word and by his power. How did he make it? He called the elements that are invisible to our eyes. He formed the earth on which we dwell, and has formed millions of worlds, and they are peopled with his children, for there is no end to his dominions and the worlds he has created cannot be numbered unto man.
Now, little boys and girls, when you are confronted by infidels in the world who know nothing of how Christ was begotten, you can say he was born just as the infidel was begotten and born, so was Christ begotten by his Father, who is also our Father-the Father of our spirits-and he was born of his mother Mary.
The difference between Jesus Christ and other men is this: Our fathers in the flesh are mortal men, who are subject unto death; but the Father of Jesus Christ in the flesh is the God of Heaven. Therefore Jesus, as he declared, received the power of life from his Father and was never subject unto death but had life in himself as his father had life in himself. Because of this power he overcame death and the grave and became master of the resurrection and the means of salvation to us all.
Shall we as Latter-day Saints deny the truth and then claim that God made man in his likeness in the beginning? Shall we come under the impression that God possesses the power of creation, and yet did not literally create? He is not without his companion any more than I am without my companion, the mother of my children.
These are truths and I wish they could be instilled into the hearts of these little children so that they will not be tossed about by every wind of doctrine and be confused by the teachers of atheism. Now, by and by you will be able to understand this far better than you can today. Some of us grandparents find it difficult to conceive the truth we want to think of something marvelous. We want to try to make it appear that God does not do things in the right way, or that he has another way of doing things than what we know, we must come down to the simple fact that God Almighty was the Father of His Son Jesus Christ. Mary, the virgin girl, who had never known mortal man, was his mother. God by her begot His son Jesus Christ, and He was born into the world with power and intelligence like that of His Father.
Now, my little friends, I will repeat again in words as simple as I can, and you talk to your parents about it, that God, the Eternal Father is literally the father of Jesus Christ.
Mary was married to Joseph for time. No man could take her for eternity because she belonged to the Father of her divine Son. In the revelation that has come thru Joseph Smith, we learn that it is the eternal purpose of God that man and woman should be joined together by the power of God here on earth for time and eternity.
(Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4:329.)
Joseph F. Smith was not the only one to teach this. Brigham Young taught similarly. But today, we distance ourselves very much from these ideas. I the the primary reason for this is that critics of the Church have used this as a point against the Church, claiming that it denigrates God. And we have, strangely enough, been inclined to agree with them, despite our doctrines that physical embodiment and sexual intercourse are godly attributes, not negative ones.
I make no pretension to know for certain how the physical body of Jesus Christ was conceived. But it does seem strange to me that we feel uncomfortable with this teaching, given the contrast between the doctrinal context of the virgin birth as taught in traditional Christianity and our own doctrine regarding the nature of God. We have no reason that I can see to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.